While shopping for winter boots may seem like it should be easy, the fact is there is a surprising amount of variety between the hundreds of potential choices. Narrowing down the selection as much as possible will help make the decision much easier and quicker. This article aims to further explain the different styles of winter boots and their best uses, highlight design components for consideration, and help you narrow it all down in order to pick the perfect boot for your needs. If you want to see which are our favorite boots, including our recommendations for different purposes, check out our complete Best Winter Boots for 2020 review.
Types of Winter Boots
The winter boots that we have tested and reviewed broadly fit into three different types based on their design, features, and intent: Insulated Winter Hiking Boots, Pac-Boots, and Slip-On Boots. Below we detail the ins and outs of each type.
Insulated Winter Hiking Boots
This category is made up of any boot that is single-layer, (no removable liner), is insulated against the cold, and has a means of lacing that allows for a secure fit. Winter hiking boots are meant for walking over longer distances, so they need to have a good fit without any side-to-side slip. What makes these boots different from their summertime hiking boot counterparts is that the materials used for the outer need to be more impervious to wetness as they will be under constant exposure on wintry hikes. They also need to be better insulated than summer boots, when daytime temperatures are much warmer.
Because of the application, many people intend to use these boots for, namely, walking in deep snow. As such, they need to have a higher than usual cuff height to keep snow and slush from getting over the top and inside the boot. This type of boot is great for hiking day trips, especially snowshoeing, but may prove inadequate for overnight missions due to the difficulty of drying them out quickly in the field should they become wet. If you're looking for something for multi-day winter camping or hiking trips, you can read our Mountaineering Boot Review for more options on double-layer boots.
Most of the boots tested for this review are Insulated Winter Hiking Boots. Even though they are made of a variety of different fabrics and materials, by and large, we found this selection of boots to be waterproof, or at least highly water resistant, up to the top of the tongue. What sets them apart the most is the comfort and fit, as well as their warmth. While their primary purpose is for hiking, these boots are more than capable of doing everything you could ask of them in the winter, from chores to errands, as long as you don't mind lacing them up each time you put them on.Purposes: Winter hiking, snowshoeing, winter chores, running errands, wearing around town
Examples: Oboz Bridger 10, Vasque Snowburban II UltraDry, Salomon Toundra Pro CSWP, Columbia Bugaboot Plus IV Omni-heat, Keen Targhee Lace High, Timberland Chillberg Insulated, The North Face Chilkat III, Keen Summit County, Merrill Thermo Chill Mid WP
Pac boots are a modern-day incarnation of the mukluk and kamik boots developed by the Inuit to survive the harsh conditions of the Arctic. A Pac boot, by definition, is comprised of a soft and flexible inner boot liner that slips inside of an outer waterproof boot, much like a ski or snowboard boot. Pac boots are notoriously warm thanks to the thick insulation used in the inner boot and are quite waterproof as a result of the leather or rubber exterior used for the outer boot. Sorel is the brand that catapulted the Pac boot into the modern lexicon when they introduced their now famous Caribou model in 1962. Two years later, they released the Sorel 1964 Premium T. Since then, many manufacturers have begun producing similar styles.
Pac boots are warm, comfortable, and well protected from water and snow. The inner boot design does make for a less secure fit, and they are typically clumsier to walk in than your normal single-layered insulated hiking boot. We like this type of boot for short excursions to the grocery store, shoveling the walk, heading out to the sledding hill, or for more sedentary outdoor activities like snowmobiling and sleigh rides.Purposes: Winter chores, snow machining, playing with kids
Slip-on boots do not use a lacing system. They often have large handles or pull tabs to help get them on, or a loose enough cuff that sliding a foot right in is an easy task. Slip-on boots are made out of many materials, including rubber, neoprene, leather, textile, or sheepskin. They may or may not be insulated depending on the application the boot is designed for and may have varying degrees of water resistance and walking comfort. The main advantage of slip-on boots is convenience.
While this genre of boots performs lower than either Pac boots or insulated winter hiking boots in our tests, we still find ourselves reaching for them often due to their incredible simplicity and convenience. We tested these boots in high, cold mountain towns in the winter, where little outside chores such as running to the post office, getting firewood from the pile, and shoveling snow are frequent occurrences. In this world, a convenient boot is very much appreciated.
Purposes: Quick and repeated trips outside in winter, before and after skiing, winter chores and errands
Examples: Bogs Classic Ultra Mid, Blundstone Thermal 566, Kamik Greenbay 4
Factors in Choosing Winter Boots
With many models to choose from that are all insulated, water-resistant, and cozy, consumers will find that most of the models we reviewed will get them through winter comfortably. Here are some helpful things to look at when considering new winter footwear.
Sizing and Fit
When sizing your boots, consider how you will use them. A loose-fitting model will offer exceptional warmth and comfort but will not have excellent long-distance comfort for walking. Tight boots will lead to circulation issues and colder feeling toes. Size your boots appropriately using the socks you intend to use and make sure you have enough room in the toe box to wiggle your toes around. Warm feet are happy feet, and a pair of properly fitting winter boots will make you a happier person.
We rated each boot for fit and comfort, and while this may be a subjective metric, we discuss how each boot fit on its individual product page. Some boots are available specifically in wide sizes, while others are generally wide and spacious by design, like many Pac Boots.
To keep your feet warm in cold temperatures, your boots need to have some insulating material to trap heat inside. Insulation combined with an exterior waterproofing material will result in a quality piece of footwear that will excel in both wet and cold environments.
The boots we reviewed have two types of insulation: synthetic fiber insulation and neoprene. Neoprene, which is used only in the Bogs Classic, is the same textile used in cold weather fishing gloves and wetsuits. Neoprene is warm, very durable, and will not pack out and lose its insulating properties over time. In tight-fitting neoprene garments, there is often a clammy feeling as it does not breathe well. When used in the looser fitting Bogs boots, we did not have those issues. It is not the warmest material though, so it's most appropriate for moderate climates and wet weather.
Synthetic insulation consists of spun plasticized fibers that are integrated into the lining. Much like the synthetic insulation used in puffy jackets and sleeping bags, the insulation is most effective at trapping heat when allowed to expand and "loft." This loft gives Pac boots like the Kamik NationPlus a soft and cushiony feel, as the room between the outer boot and liner allows the Thinsulate insulation to fully loft. However, this leads to a looser fit. The amount of insulation used and how it is sewn into the inside of the boot will also have a bearing on fit and warmth. If the insulation is tightly packed, it might feel as warm as a boot that uses much less insulation but allows it to loft up. Synthetic insulation feels softer and provides more cushion than neoprene.
A unique insulation method used in the Columbia Bugaboot is a reflective metallic lining that reflects more body heat into the boot. While uncommon, this lining allows the Bugaboot to insulate relatively well, even with a less dense 200g synthetic insulation.
Most of the synthetically insulated boots in our review disclosed the amount of insulation used (check the specs column under each boot for that number). Most boots use between 200g and 400g/m2 densities of synthetic insulation. This number doesn't refer to the actual amount of insulation used, or the corresponding weight of that insulation, but rather to how densely packed the fibers are. In one square meter of insulation, 400g will have double the weight than 200g, so is obviously thicker and has more fibers. The top-performing boots for warmth, like the Vasque Snowburban and the Oboz Bridger 10, use 400g — and the difference is noticeable. In our ice bucket test, we could quickly tell how much warmer these two boots were than the rest, and they ended up with the highest scores for warmth. As one might expect, higher quality insulation often comes at an elevated price tag.
Water conducts temperature much faster than air, and in the wintertime, whatever water you may encounter is likely to be very cold. Bootmakers protect the foot from outside moisture in two ways. The boot can be made using inherently waterproof materials like treated leather or rubber, or it can be constructed using a thin waterproof membrane, not unlike a rain jacket sewn into the interior lining of the boot. Using fully waterproof materials like neoprene and rubber will keep water out, but often at the cost of breathability. Depending on the material used, the outer shell may need to be periodically treated to keep them shedding water as well as when they were brand new, especially if they use an animal leather to exclude water.
Boots that incorporate a waterproof/breathable membrane ensure that water coming in from the outside will never reach the wearer's foot. While this may be true, attention must still be given to the outer materials, since waterlogged fabrics will inhibit the transference of sweat from the inside of the boot, resulting in a feeling of coldness and dampness — akin to the model having let in water.
All of the insulated winter hiking boots that we tested claim to be waterproof, and many of them proved to be just that — up to the top of the tongue, of course. However, our submersion testing has revealed that not all boots are created equal in this regard — some have leaks where there are seams between materials, while others simply have low gussets on the tongues that can let in water in shallower puddles. While we're confident that all of these boots will keep your feet dry in cold, dry snow, spending hours in slushy wet snow will put them to test. Our testing revealed that the Bridger 10, Caribou, and Bogs Ultra are the most waterproof of the bunch, and we encourage you to read our individual product reviews before settling on a certain product to make sure it lives up to the waterproofing claims made by the manufacturer.
The type of laces used will have an impact on the fit of the boot and are also a pretty large consideration when assessing Ease of Use scores. Pac boots with many lacing eyelets allow for a comfortable fit but are difficult to lace over the top of the foot tightly. They tend to be easy to pull once and tighten all the way but leave a looser fit overall.
On the other hand, insulated winter hiking models often use speed lacing eyelets over the top of the foot for a quick and secure fit. Then lacing hooks at the top allow you to customize security around the ankle. While these systems are the most customizable for foot security and a tight fit, they are also the most labor-intensive to use.
Also, consider the weight of the boot. All winter boots will be heavier than a pair of running shoes, but there is some variability in the weights of the models we tested. The Blundstone Thermal is the lightest boot in this review, weighing in at only 2 lbs. 14 ounces per pair. At the other end of the spectrum is the Caribou, weighing about 5.5 lbs per pair. That couple pounds of difference might not matter very much when shoveling the driveway for 20 minutes, but if you spend the whole day out in your boots, you'll certainly appreciate having a lighter pair. Keep weight in mind, particularly when choosing a pair of boots for winter hiking.
Choosing a Boot Based on Intended Use
What do you need to accomplish while wearing your boots? If you only need to don a pair of waterproofed and insulated kicks to make brief trips into the winter wonderland to shovel the driveway, pick something up from the market, or get to work in, then your options are broad. You will likely be happy wearing any winter boot.
That said, it's also nice to keep your options open so that when you think to yourself, "You know, I wouldn't mind trying out snowshoeing this weekend," you have a pair of boots that work for that too. Below is a list of winter activities and our winter boot recommendations for each one.
Almost any boot in this review will work just fine for shoveling snow, or for quick trips outside for any other purpose, like heading to the grocery store or grabbing more wood off the pile. For outdoor chores, we find that we like convenient boots that are super easy to slide on and off again, many times a day. For this purpose, we have highlighted the Kamik Greenbay 4 as our Top Pick for Ease of Use. Other slip-on models, such as the Bogs Ultra, also make a good choice, as do Pac Boots. While insulated winter hiking boots will work great for these tasks, we find that we get annoyed lacing them up and then untying them repeatedly all winter. With that level of usage it is not uncommon to damage or tear one of the laces, which can be a pain to replace.
If you are a lift operator or work guest services at a ski resort, you probably spend all your time outside in the winter. Likewise, if you work construction in a ski town, then building season doesn't stop just because it's numbingly cold outside. For standing around or working hard in the cold all day, we want the most comfortable and warmest boots we can find. Pac boots are a logical choice, as they are easy to dry out around the fire or in front of the heater each night, and are both comfortable and warm. Some of the high end insulated winter hiking boots will also be great for working outdoors, as they are the warmest choices, and also lightweight for walking around all day. They are harder to dry out quickly though, so be sure to keep up on their waterproofing.
For winter hiking, you want a boot that is waterproof, lightweight, and comfortable for walking around in all day. The genre you need to focus on is the insulated winter hiking boots. We reviewed a number of these models, and they all have unique advantages and disadvantages. We found the Bridger 10 to be our favorite for serious winter hiking. Many other options also work well, and the deciding factor for you would likely be the fit and comfort relative to your own foot. We avoid slip-on and Pac boots for actual hiking, as both tend to be too loose to be comfortable and precise for all-day use.
For snowshoeing, your needs are much the same as for winter hiking. Snowshoeing comes with one added implication — deep snow. Although it's not uncommon to see people wearing snowshoes on packed down trails in winter, we find it is only worth dealing with their oversized clunkiness when they are truly needed — for venturing out off-trail through the deep snow. All of the insulated winter hiking boots will work for this purpose; however, be aware that unless you are wearing a boot with a very high ankle cuff, you are going to want gaiters to prevent snow from entering the tops of your boots.
For Before and After Sking
Everyone likes to ski on a powder day, but that powder doesn't only fall on the slopes, it falls everywhere else as well. To get outside, load up the car or jump on the bus, and then trudge to the lodge, you need a pair of winter boots. Likewise, once those clunky, tight, uncomfortable ski boots come off at the end of the day, you want something convenient, loose, and comfortable (not to mention warm and waterproof!) to slide your foot into. While technically any winter boot will work, our years of living in cold, high altitude ski towns has taught us that convenience is king for this purpose and that Bogs have an incredible following amongst those who ski daily.
Don't try to use any of the winter boots in this review for winter mountaineering. In general, they are not stiff or protective enough, and also are not compatible with crampons. Check out our Best Mountaineering Boot Review if you need some mountaineering boots.
Same, same. Even though these are winter boots, they most certainly cannot handle climbing ice. Again, refer to the Mountaineering Boot Review for information about what you need for climbing ice.
Sledding, Building Snowmen, Being a Kid
When we were kids, we called our winter boots "snow boots" and lived in them for about five straight months. Our favorites were cheap slip-on models, sometimes with a Velcro strap, which looked identical to those favored by Napolean Dynamite. However, we can remember many days of frozen, wet feet after spending all afternoon after school playing outside, because our slip-on snow boots had wide openings around the leg that invariably got stuffed full of snow. To allow a whole foot to slip into them, they have to have substantial leg openings, but that makes them less than ideal for playing in the snow. Kids love these kinds of boots because they don't have to tie any laces, and they can shove them on lickety-split and be out the door, but for an adult who wants to play with their kids, but not deal with little kid problems, we recommend Pac boots instead.
Despite all their waterproofing and breathability efforts, sometimes your feet, and boots, get wet. It's easier to dry boots with removable liners. But we find that, although they are straightforward to extract, the inner liners of the Sorel and Kamik models are difficult to shove back in the boot. For these reasons, we recommend a boot dryer like the DryGuy Force Dry DX to aid in the drying process. When coming home from a day on the slopes, it's nice to throw the boots and gloves on the drying stand and know they'll be ready to go in the morning.
If you're going out on winter hikes, you may want extra flotation to keep you from sinking into the snow. Our Snowshoe Review highlights the models we like the most and explains why. If icy conditions are a concern, then check out products like YakTrax and Kahtoola MICROspikes to aid in traction.
A good pair of winter boots is a critical piece of gear for enjoying the coldest time of the year. With a wide selection of styles and models to choose from, it is useful to ask yourself what activities you will most likely use your boots for, and then nail down some options from there. We hope that this article and review have introduced you to your new boots.