Jan 18 2011

The Real Bottom Line: Keeping Your Feet Warm on Winter Trails

I like to spend time in the winter woods. The snow records every footfall made by every creature, and I treasure this glimpse into the unseen world of wild places. But nothing comes easily in winter. Even a short walk off the beaten track entails careful preparation, with especial attention to clothing. Feet are a particular problem. When temperatures plummet well below freezing, keeping your pedal extremities warm is an exercise in ingenuity.

The answer? Layering. Yet though it’s long been an article of faith among cross-country skiers and other winter sports enthusiasts, most emphasis gets placed on the body core, from nape of neck to groin. Hands and feet get short shrift. But layering makes sense everywhere. Aboriginal peoples understood this very well. The mainstay of their winter footwear, and their lower extremities’ outermost line of defense against frigid temperatures, was the mukluk. It’s mine, too. That said, any defense against the cold is necessarily a defense in depth, and my innermost defensive line is a warm pair of generic merino wool socks. They’re nothing special, and they don’t sport a heavily advertised brand name. As a consequence, they cost very little—around USD5 per pair. Yet they tick all the right boxes. They’re soft to the touch, they’re comfortably loose, and they boast a thick, cushioned sole. This loose-but-not-sloppy fit is essential. Warm feet require lots of fresh, warm blood, but our feet are located at the end of the circulatory pipeline, so to speak. The upshot? Anything that restricts circulation—tight shoes, tight socks, even tight laces—is doubleplus ungood. If you can’t wiggle your toes freely and easily, you soon won’t be able to feel them.

But good socks are only part of the story. What I wear over them depends on how cold it is. When the temperature falls in the wet-cold range (from above freezing to around 14 degrees Fahrenheit, say) , I wear a pair of shoes designed for trail running. And over them? Modern-day mukluks: NEOS Trekker overboots. That’s them in the photo at the top of the article. Now here’s a closer view:

NEOS Trekkers on the Trail

Trekkers are waterproof, but not insulated. They’re high, so they protect the lower leg as well as the foot. Of course, waterproof means that sweat has nowhere to go, so my feet get wet as I trudge along. But it’s a warm wet. I also carry one or more changes of socks on longer treks, and I’ve found that I can vent some of the steamy foot-fug to the outside by the simple expedient of loosening my Trekkers at the knee. These measures insure that wet and warm never becomes wet and cold. The fact that I wear polyester fleece pants adds to my comfort, too. And once back at base, my Trekkers dry out quickly—provided that I remember to open them up and leave them in a warm room, that is.

Colder temperatures—the so-called dry-cold zone below 14 degrees Fahrenheit—pose greater challenges. Wool socks remain my final line of defense, but now I wear Servus polyester/acrylic liners over them, rather than running shoes. I also exchange the Trekkers for insulated NEOS Explorer overboots with 10 mm EVA foam insoles. Here’s what the Explorers look like:

NEOS Explorers on the Trail

Note that I’m wearing wool pants in the photos, rather than fleece. The combination of wool socks, pile liners, and overboots has kept me warm down to -25 degrees Fahrenheit, even when I’ve had to stand motionless in deep snow for long stretches. The colder it gets, though, the more care I take not to compromise the flow of blood to my feet. The instep strap on NEOS boots, while invaluable in preventing slop, is all too easy to overtighten. Luckily, it’s a mistake you’ll only make once.

Footprints

OK. What’s the bottom line on toasty feet? Easy. The best defense is defense in depth, and a layered approach works well in temperatures ranging from the merely chilly to the downright arctic. That’s good enough for me. And my feet seem happy with it, too. Now that really is the bottom line, isn’t it?

The Winter Trail

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