Wearing the proper footwear during winter is essential for keeping your feet both warm and dry. Cold and/or wet feet can seriously increase the risk associated with winter hiking – in addition to reading what I use below, please do additional research before making your final decision, as everyone has different needs (and feet!).
Hiking boots are usually divided into two main categories when it comes to warmth – insulated vs. non-insulated. Insulated boots will always be warmer than non-insulated boots, but is not always needed. Remember – your feet can also be too warm causing them to sweat excessively – and leading to wet feet. Wet feet, on top of becoming cold more easily, also become more prone to blisters. Not a fun thing to deal with at any time of year, let alone in the cold.
For this reason, and for the type of hiking that I do in the Northeast, I actually use a non-insulated boot. I have found that with the proper sock (see below), the non-insulated boot provides plenty of warmth. However, if you know that your feet run cold and/or have poor circulation, you may want to opt for the insulated options.
For my winter hiking, I wear the Oboz Mens Bridger Mid Waterproof boot. This differs from my summer boot (the Sawtooth Mid Waterproof) in that it does not have the vents on the side, and is a bit more waterproof. I prefer the mid-ankle support as it provides a good amount of ankle support and snow protection, without the bulk of a 10-inch style. You might prefer the taller boot, so try on several different types before deciding on what works best for you.
Socks play an important part in making sure your feet stay warm and dry inside of your boots, and are often an overlooked aspect for those new to hiking in the winter cold. When I first started hiking in the cold, I made the mistake of wearing cotton socks, which don’t wick moisture well, and thus become wet quickly.
For that reason, it is important to use a synthetic or wool-blend sock for your winter hiking adventures. I have been wearing the Columbia Fleece lined synthetic blend socks, which I was able to snag in a 2-pack from Marshalls for $6.99. Here is the link to buy on Amazon if you’re in a pinch, but buying in store will save you a lot in the long run (or rather, long hike).
These have been sufficiently warm and dry for me. You may prefer a merino wool, which some claim is more comfortable, but more expensive and less durable. I recommend trying several until you find what is right for you – just remember – no cotton!
As with all of my essential gear, I always carry a backup pair of socks in the event my first pair becomes wet or torn. At just an ounce or two, an extra pair of socks is never something you want to leave behind.
Some prefer to use a thinner inner sock, and then a thicker, insulating sock outside of that, but I have not used this 2-sock system yet – if you are curious, there are a lot of other blogs/YouTube videos floating around on the topic.
Gaiters (not to be confused with a garter, which has no use in this context) offer an additional level of protection against snow/sleet/rain/water getting into your boots and pants. Some even add another level of warmth through insulation. Make sure to note if the pair that you are looking for is water resistant or waterproof – as you will want ones that are fully waterproof for the most protection during winter hiking.
I have yet to purchase and test out a pair of gaiters, so as of now cannot make a product recommendation – but again, there are tons of articles out there that can help you choose a pair that works best for your needs.