Thursday, October 10, 2013

Winter Footwear by Paul van Horn

I am going to share another article by Paul van Horn, author of the importance of traditional woodcraft I shared earlier. This time it is, as said, about winter footwear and it also has a traditional background. Given the season that is approaching I thought it might be appropriate.

This painting is from Jean Taylor and it's called;
Snowshoes Mitts and Mukluks 

Principals of Winter Footwear Design

One of the most important (if not the most important!) items of winter clothing is footwear.  Inadequate or poorly selected footwear will, at best, dramatically decrease your comfort level, and at worst, threaten your health.  When selecting winter footwear for snowshoeing or camping, consider the following information:

The warmth of winter footwear will be heavily influenced by the following factors:

  1. Effective moisture management (both from internal and external sources)
  2. Appropriate materials used in insulation
  3. Adequate thickness of insulation
  4. Flexibility
  5. Conductive insulation from the ground
  6. Roominess
The usability of winter footwear in the backcountry will be influenced by the following factors:
  1. Weight/Size
  2. Removable components (i.e. foot beds and liners) to facilitate both drying and versatility
  3. Support adequate for your foot type, and anticipated activity
  4. Durability, and a design that allows field repair
  5. Sole and tread design
  6. Suitability for dry or wet cold environments  
A:  Moisture Management:
Managing personal and environmental moisture constitutes the single biggest challenge for a footwear system.  You must ensure that the insulation in your footwear stays dry!  Managing environmental moisture means learning how to deal with the fact that most winter climates in the United States vary wildly in temperature and snow conditions.  One day may produce cold temperatures and dry snow while the next will be warmer and wetter.  In “dry cold” (generally, temperatures less than 15 degrees Fahrenheit) this equates to one word: breathability.  Your footwear (both the shell and the insulation) must strike a perfect balance between heat retention, and heat loss to facilitate the elimination of moisture from the insulation.  If your system allows adequate transfer, you will experience little moisture buildup, even under strenuous work, but will stay warm in all but the coldest temperatures once activity ceases.  Footwear designed for dry cold will have a shell made of non-waterproof material such as uncoated nylon, soft-tanned leather, or cotton canvas.  For dry cold, even the sole of the shoe may be of such material (such as a traditional native mukluk), although it may be slippery depending on the material… buckskin works very well, but nylon is dangerously slippery).  This type of construction prevents moisture buildup underneath the foot by allowing the dry, subzero snow to “wick” moisture away from the boot. 
In “wet cold” (generally, temperatures above 15 degrees Fahrenheit), your challenge increases because you now must also contend with environmental moisture such as snow, ice, water, and slush.  In this case, the best option is a waterproof boot that will keep you dry, even if you happen to step into a puddle of water and stand around for a few minutes.  The problem with this solution is that now your foot’s perspiration is trapped inside the boot, where it will eventually dampen your insulation and lead to cold feet.  To contend with this solution, you have three basic choices:  Ignore the problem, and attempt to dry your liners each night; choose  a “vapor barrier” boot, such as the military bunny-boots; or create your own vapor barrier system.
source; rockymountainsurvivalinstitute traditional mukluks
Because wet cold conditions are, by definition, relatively warm, ignoring the problem is an option if the following conditions can (without a doubt) be met:  You will always have a spare set of liners with you, and you can dry them out (ideally with a carefully-monitored heat source such as a stove or fire) each night.  If these conditions cannot be met with any degree of certainty, you should opt for the second or third option.
Vapor barrier boots, such as the military bunny boots, or climbing double boots are designed so that wetting the insulation is virtually impossible due to the fact that it is completely sealed, both inside and out, inside a water and vapor proof barrier.  The only part of your system that can get wet, even under a situation of total submersion, is your sock.  Multiple spare pairs can be carried, and they typically dry easily in the sun, or in your sleeping bag.  The downfall of such systems is weight (especially the military boots), and cost (climbing boots are expensive!).  Additionally, climbing boots are very stiff, and confining (see notes below under “flexibility”).
The third option is to design your own vapor barrier system.  First, begin with a pair of wool socks.  Over these socks goes a plastic bag, or waterproof neoprene socks (check the hunting section of a department store for these).  This confines your sweat to the sock layer which is easily changed and dried.  The boot itself will have a waterproof outer layer, and adequate insulation inside.   The only real problems with this system are that your foot will get damp, but that’s a small price to pay for dry insulation!  In addition, if you choose to use plastic bags, some people find them to be uncomfortably slippery inside the boot.  With any vapor barrier system the foot mustbe dried completely at night and dry socks put on for sleeping.  Failure to provide nighttime dryness for the foot can result in painful and debilitating immersion foot! 
The above system can be created with commonly available “pac” boots, or (my favorite) by using the inexpensive, lightweight rubber overshoes made by the Tingley Company.  Inside of these thin, flexible overshoes goes a foam insole, a felt or handmade blanket liner, and the plastic bag-encased foot and wool socks.  This results in a fantastically lightweight, flexible, warm boot.  Alternatively, the Neos Overshoe can be used.  These are more durable, but wider, more “clunky”, and much more expensive than the Tingleys.
B, C: Insulation type and amount
The rule for insulation is to choose a material that absorbs little water.  Wool, or synthetic polyesters, such as fleece, or fiberfill will work fine.  Such materials are either felted (most common), woven (such as a blanket-type fabric), or enclosed in a thin outer fabric, similar in construction to a sleeping bag.  Whatever insulation you choose, avoid any system that relies on cotton or open-cell foam (which is becoming very common in winter footwear).  These materials readily absorb water, and are difficult to dry out.  For dry cold conditions, anticipating a mix of active and inactive pursuits, 2 inches of insulation should be more than adequate.  Avoid any type of vapor or waterproof barrier built into the insulation, or enclosing it (i.e. Gore-tex), as it will only serve to retain moisture in the footwear.  ** Forget advertising to the contrary… if you wear any so-called “waterproof/breathable” barrier on your feet, your insulation will get wet!
D: Flexibility
Flexible footwear encourages proper blood circulation in the foot.  Traditional native footwear was always very flexible (think slippers or moccasins!).  The trend in modern footwear has been to increase “support” (as though the human foot is incapable of walking without “support”!).  Unless you have some type of medical foot issue (i.e. abnormally high arches, or a previously damaged foot) that would make extremely flexible footwear untenable, go for maximum flexibility!  If your feet do get cold, warming them in a mukluk is quite easy simply by walking around.  Warming cold feet in stiff pac boots or hiking boots, on the other hand, is nearly impossible!  The only other situation that might mandate more rigid footwear is your anticipated activity:  If you plan on ice climbing, mountaineering, or telemark skiing in your footgear, you will of course need a specialized boot that will inevitably be stiffer.  For snowshoeing, or general winter camp wear though, flexible footwear will be warmer.
E: Conductive Insulation
A thick Ensolite-type (closed cell) foam or felt pad underfoot is also critical, especially in subzero temperatures.  Without this insulation, the sole of your shoe will conduct warmth away from your foot at a tremendous rate.  This insole should be removable to facilitate drying.  An old camping pad will yield enough insoles to last a lifetime.
F. Roominess
Warm winter footwear must allow your foot to move, as well as allow for more insulation if needed.  Tight, form-fitting boots are a recipe for disaster!  On the other hand, boots that are too big will be uncomfortable, and may lead to blisters.  The ideal shoe (i.e. a mukluk) allows the user to add or subtract volume from the shoe simply by loosening or tightening the laces.  Some boots do not allow this, but at the very least, you should have a comfortable amount of space around your foot when wearing a heavy winter sock.

Warmth is important, but if your footwear is of a design not suitable for the task at hand, you will have problems.
A.  Weight/Size
the infamous bunny boot
or Mickey Mouse boot
Extremely heavy footwear equals exhaustion in the winter backcountry.  Although some designs are common (such as the “pac-boot” with the rubberized bottom, and the leather or nylon upper), or extremely warm (such as the military “bunny boot”), they can often be very heavy.  An old adage (backed up by a bit of research) is that “a pound on the foot is worth 5 on the back”.  Bottom line?  Avoid excessively heavy footwear like the plague.  If you will not be active, then go ahead and wear those 10 lb. super-whammy–arctic-heavy-equipment-operator boots. 
In addition, if your boot’s dimensions are too large, they may not fit in your snowshoe binding, or may get hung up in the boot hole on the snowshoe.  This will usually only be a problem with very large, arctic-quality boots.
B.  Removable components
Despite your best efforts, you will experience some moisture buildup in your footwear.  Liners and foot beds should be removable to facilitate drying.  This feature also allows you to add or subtract insulation, experiment with different liners or foot beds, etc…
C.  Support… or Not??
Some people need support in their footwear, some don’t.  I don’t believe the majority of the population needs overly supportive footwear, but if you need it, then by all means select your boots accordingly.  You’ll be spending lots of time in them, so make sure they are comfortable.  Mukluks take some getting used to, but once your brain (and possibly your feet) get used to idea, you’ll never go back to foot prisons!
D.  Durability
In general, manufacturer’s warranties are utterly meaningless in the backcountry.  Look for boots that can answer to one fundamental question:  “if this thing falls apart in the backcountry, can I mend it with a needle, thread, and some duct tape?”  Also look at the quality of construction, simplicity of design, stitching, etc. 
E.  Sole and Tread Design
If you are on snowshoes, this is not as critical, but once you start walking around camp, you’ll appreciate something with a little grip on the sole.  Smooth nylon, or leather soles will have you falling on a constant basis.  Some kind of grippy-thingies on your soles are good.  Surprisingly, smoke-tanned buckskin soles are not bad, especially on the dry-cold snow they will be worn on.  Anyway…. ‘nuff said about soles.

Schnee pac boots
If you can’t afford a two-piece system to cover both wet and dry cold, then go for a pac-boot, or Tingley overshoe-based system with a vapor barrier liner, and manage it well in the field.  Remember that maintaining dry feet at night is absolutely critical, so carry three or four pairs of extra socks, and dry your barriers out each night.  If I had to choose one boot for all temperatures, this would be the one.  It'll function well in subzero temperatures, but keep out environmental moisture during warmer spells.  Use of the Tingley overshoe yields a feather-light, ultra flexible shoe that lends itself well to snowshoeing and camp wear.
For completely specialized versatility, my personal system usually consists of buckskin mukluks for dry cold, and a pair of Tingley rubber overshoes for wet cold (with neoprene socks of course).  The liners I use interchange between the two, so I avoid carrying the weight of two complete boot systems.  
I’ve avoided mentioning lots of specific brands for a reason:  I want to encourage you to largely ignore advertising and instead use good, informed judgment to make your purchases.  Feel free to ask about specific boots, but rely on your own evaluation first and foremost.

wilderness survival arts


  1. Good info Ron. The right boots can make all the difference from a great trip to a miserable one.

    1. Ho OE,
      I thought it was a very good article, indeed. Since I struggled so much with this issue last winter I am taking steps in order to avoid that, using the basics explained here.