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Thread: My advice on winter camping footwear and cold feet (part 1 of 2) [Long].

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    Senior Member PineMartyn's Avatar
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    Default My advice on winter camping footwear and cold feet (part 1 of 2) [Long].

    Recently a couple of people (from a related forum) wrote to ask me how I prevent cold feet when winter camping and I devoted a long post on what, in my experience, works best for keeping feet warm in deep cold conditions. I'm re-posting it here (in 2 parts) for those who might be interested in winter camping and have suffered from cold feet or worry about it.

    Avoid high-tech winter boots:
    Modern, high tech winter boots are fully waterproof on the outside and have multiple absorbing layers on the inside to wick water away from your foot. These work superbly until they are saturated or until you stop moving around. At that point, they become moisture traps, turn freezing cold, and you lose heat by conduction through water in your boots; a very rapid way of losing heat. You will absolutely get cold feet very soon after you stop moving from moisture build-up inside your boots, and moisture will have built up just from the normal activity of snowshoe travel and making camp. These boots are great for day trips where you can remove them and let them dry out at night in a dry, heated house, but when you're camping, they will freeze solid overnight. They are miserable to put on in the morning, and if you forget to open up the lacings before you go to sleep, it can be a struggle to just get into them in the morning. They thaw out only by virtue of your feet bleeding heat into them. In effect, they cease being insulators and become heat-loss enhancers.

    Drying winter boots over a fire is much harder than people imagine. It takes a very long time, uses a lot of wood, and they never dry thoroughly so you never have truly dry boots for the rest of the trip. They'll warm up alright and feel great when you put them on after they've been over a fire, but will cool down in short order and you'll have the same problem you started with. And that's assuming the weather is conducive to building a large warming fire. In bad weather (rain, high winds, blizzards, etc) you may be unable to start or sustain a warming fire long enough to significantly reduce the wetness of your boots Save these types of boots for day hikes, snowshoeing, or one-nighters. They are unsuitable for winter camping in sub-freezing temperatures.

    Socks:
    Wool socks are best. They insulate well, retain some of their insulating properties when very damp, vent moisture away from your foot (but not out of your boot) and, because they breathe, can be night-dried in your sleeping bag while you sleep; either worn, or just resting on you inside your bag. I like to wear two pairs of wool socks in deep cold. When it's less cold, I wear a thin synthetic sock that wicks moisture away and a heavy wool sock over that. Avoid cotton socks or cotton blend socks as cotton does not wick moisture away from your skin and they won't dry out overnight. I would have liked to have said something about the vapour barrier sock method as some people swear by it, but I've never tried it.

    Wear pac boots.
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    They are rubber on the lower part with nylon or leather uppers that can breathe a bit. Leather uppers are reputed to breathe better, but I've never owned a pair and can't confirm that. What makes pac boots so suitable for winter camping is that they have removable felt liners which can be dried out while wearing a second dry pair. Spare liners are sold separately. Get the liners made of felted wool, if you can, but synthetic liners work. Without dry liners to change into, they are no better than any other boot. Your damp liners will night-dry in your sleeping bag while you sleep and be warm and dry by morning so that you never have to put a foot into an icy boot. Pac boots vary greatly in price, but there are many types to choose from. They are bulky and ugly, don't appeal to the urban outdoor fashion market, and so typically sell for less than modern high-tech winter boots. Some boot companies won't sell spare liners, but they are quite interchangeable between brands. Pac boots are commonly available in secondhand and discount stores such as Good Will, the Salvation Army stores and Value Village. You can often find a good pair there for less than the price of a spare liner. You can also realistically dry your liners over a fire because they are just felted material and aren't encased in rubber or some other waterproof material. I should add that I'm a cold-camper and I have never needed to dry my liners over a fire; night-drying has always worked for me.

    The logic of the pac boot (as well as felt-lined mukluks, or felt-lined rubber boots) is that the felt liner absorbs moisture readily and wicks it away from your sock. Good liners wick so well that your liners can sometimes be very wet on the outside, mildly damp inside, and your wool socks (and feet) almost completely dry. At day's end you just remove the soaked liner and replace it with a warm dry liner the following morning. The wet pair can be dried over a fire or night-dried inside your sleeping bag. The lower part of a pack boot is made of rubber, making it suitable for wet snow, slush, or rainy conditions, while the nylon or leather upper allows some (not much) of the moisture in the liner to evaporate during the day.

    On the down side, pac boots are ugly, heavy, bulky, and because one needs to get them in sizes larger than one would normally buy for one's foot size to accommodate heavy socks and still have toe-wiggling room, they feel particularly heavy. But, they are cheap compared to high-tech boots. High-tech boots are much, much smaller, lighter, but they are costly and eventually, the permanent inner absorbent liner gets compressed, losing it's absorbent capacity, and once the lining's absorbency is compromised, the boots are not even warm enough for long day hikes. With pac boots or felt-lined mukluks, old liners are just discarded and replaced for a fraction of the cost of a new pair of boots, making them even more economical because you don't need to replace them often.


    Sizing of pac boots:
    Pac boots need to be much bigger than what you'd normally wear. They have to be able to accommodate your foot, plus two heavy wool socks and have room left for wiggling your toes. I'm a size 10.5 and I wear an 11.5 or 12. A constricted foot or immobile toes will lead to poor circulation and cold feet. If you can find pac boots that have a very high toe box, get them. With this sort of boot, there is room enough inside to add another layer of insulation below your foot by buying or cutting out a felt insole that you put underneath the felt liner. This extra insole significantly reduces heat loss through conduction when you're standing or sitting.

    Smoke-tanned mukluks
    Smoke-tanned mukluks (such as those sold by Steger) with felt liners, in conjunction with rubber boots and liners is another good option. Smoke-tanned mukluks are very expensive to make or to buy, however, they are lighter, more comfortable, they breathe and vent foot moisture directly to the outside, so moisture is not trapped inside. They are also flexible soled and this means your feet and toes are free to move, bend, twist and this increases circulation to the feet. As with pac boots, they are used with felt liners, but they don't get nearly as wet by the end of the day. Mukluks are not waterproof, so you also need to bring along a pair of cheap, regular rubber boots (with felt liners) for those mild days when the snow is wet, it's rainy, or when you need to cross slush-covered frozen lakes. I have never camped in mukluks myself, but I know people who have, and I have worn them in winter as daily footwear as a teen so can attest to their comfort and breathability firsthand.

    Regular rubber boots with felt liners
    This is the poor man's pac boot. It works. It's what I used as a kid when I began winter camping. They are not the most comfortable thing to walk in, and you will wet your liners much sooner because there's no nylon or leather upper to permit some moisture venting, but bring 2 spare pairs of liners and you will manage just fine.

    Down booties
    These are your camp slippers to be worn outside around camp or inside your shelter. They breath and are flexible. These are not cheap and vary in quality. They will keep your feet warm and it's a good idea to get out of your boots and into these whenever possible so your felt liners don't absorb more moisture than necessary. You can even sleep in them. They are lightweight and they pack well. They also make good little pillows at night.

    I know this was a bit of a long and tedious read and will be old hat to many here, but for those who are contemplating winter camping or beginner winter campers, it can make the difference between a miserable trip and one that leaves you wanting to go out again.

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    The second post will address some suggestions that have worked for me for keeping feet warm during the day when camping in the cold.

    Hope this helps,
    - Martin
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    Senior Member PineMartyn's Avatar
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    Default My advice on winter camping footwear and cold feet (part 2 of 2)

    This second post offers some suggestions that have worked for me for keeping feet warm, during the day, when camping in the cold.

    If your feet get cold, you have to do something about it right away. It never just goes away. If you don't act, it will worsen. Cold feet will not only make a winter camping trip miserable, it is dangerous, as it can rapidly compromise both your ability and even your willingness to walk. Below are suggestions based on my own experiences on how to keep feet warm when you feel cold creeping into them:

    Increase blood flow to your feet
    Get moving. Get into your snowshoes and trudge up a steep hill for 5 minutes or until your heart rate is elevated. Jog in your snowshoes for 5 minutes. Go collect firewood briskly. Grab your snow shovel and start building snow furniture such as a sitting bench, wind wall, waist-high cooking surface, etc. Keep going until your feet warm up and then very gradually slow down. Paradoxically, you will want to shed layers of clothing as soon as you feel yourself warming up. You want to increase blood flow, not work up a sweat.

    Keeping feet warm when not moving
    When doing a chore that requires sitting or when sitting down to eat, your feet can often get cold from contact with the cold ground or snow (conduction), inactivity (lessened blood flow to the feet), and wind blowing against your feet (convection).

    - To counter heat loss by conduction, put some insulation between your boots and the cold ground or frozen/packed snow. A small square of closed-cell foam padding to rest your feet on is ideal to reduce heat loss through the bottom of your feet by conduction.

    - To counter heat loss by convection and radiation when seated, stick your feet in deep snow. It sounds crazy, but it works. Snow is an insulator and will greatly reduce convection and radiation. To appreciate how effective an insulator snow is, consider the method for keeping your water bottles from turning into ice overnight is to drop them into snow and cover them with snow. [Edit: Bottles must be dropped upside down!]

    - If your socks or liners have become too damp, change into your dry socks and liners.

    - If you have chemical heating packs, you can slip one into each boot for temporary relief, but you mustn't rely on these.

    The keys to warm feet are lots of food for your metabolic furnace, good quality sleep, activity, blood circulation, good insulation against heat loss, and minimizing moisture in your footwear.

    Hope this helps.
    -Martin
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    I wear a double boot and sleep with the liners on my feet. That way, they don't freeze at night. Pac boots don't cut it for me when doing steep climbs or descents. My feet move around too much in them.

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    Senior Member PineMartyn's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Power Giant View Post
    I wear a double boot and sleep with the liners on my feet. That way, they don't freeze at night. Pac boots don't cut it for me when doing steep climbs or descents. My feet move around too much in them.
    You're right about pac boots being ill-suited to climbs and descents. They have a very sloppy feel and they aren't designed with treads for climbs. What are the boots you use for your climbs?

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    Koflach, I don't remember the model of them. I have to wear a gaiter with them or snow goes down into them.

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    Excellent points PM. I hope you don't mind if I add a little experience in to support what you are saying.

    A couple weeks ago, I took some Boy Scouts camping. We went to a frozen reservoir. It had been really cold for a couple weeks prior, so the ice was pretty thick, but it had warmed up to around freezing the few days we were there. As a result, the ice around the bank wasn't all that stable. A couple of my scouts fell in, up to their calfs. Of course, this soaked their footwear. One was wearing pac boots without removable liners. We took them off and rung out the socks and they dried fairly fast for being cotton. But, the inside of the boots were just too wet. He ended up wearing my extra pair of boots with my thick wool socks the rest of the day, until we got him home. I wonder if his boots are dry yet.

    One thing I want to try is NEOS overboots. I have a set of wool liners that fit over another thick liner, that fits over thick wool socks, plus two sets of felt insoles. I plan to put all that inside a set of NEOS to act as a light pac boot.
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    Quote Originally Posted by PineMartyn View Post

    Regular rubber boots with felt liners
    This is the poor man's pac boot. It works. It's what I used as a kid when I began winter camping. They are not the most comfortable thing to walk in, and you will wet your liners much sooner because there's no nylon or leather upper to permit some moisture venting, but bring 2 spare pairs of liners and you will manage just fine.
    I think this is closest on your list what I use, though my rubber boots are made especially for winter use. I have ended up to this choice for few reasons:

    - Great all around boots, it does not matter if conditions are wet or cold or both like at lakes when skiing there or doing ice fishing
    - If keep changing socks regularly or have extra pair of liners, moisture has not been a real problem yet
    - My boots are also designed to be used with forest ski's so no need extra shoes for those
    - Easy to get on and take off


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    You're absolutely correct about Pac boots not being ideal for climbs and descents. When it comes to my climbing adventures, I rely on specialized mountaineering boots. These boots are designed to provide excellent traction on various terrains, including rocky surfaces, ice, and snow. They offer better ankle support and a more precise fit to ensure stability and reduce the risk of injuries.

    Mountaineering boots typically have stiff soles, which help in distributing the weight and providing a solid platform for crampons. They also come with a high-cut design to protect the ankles and keep them stable during demanding ascents and descents.

    There are several reputable brands that produce high-quality mountaineering boots, such as La Sportiva, Scarpa, Mammut, and Salewa. I personally prioritize comfort, durability, and proper fit when choosing my climbing boots to ensure a safe and enjoyable climbing experience. Remember that the right footwear is crucial in mountaineering and can significantly impact your performance and safety on the mountain. Always make sure to select the appropriate boots for the specific terrain and conditions you'll be facing during your climbs.

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    Quote Originally Posted by kimkorton7575 View Post
    You're absolutely correct about Pac boots not being ideal for climbs and descents. When it comes to my climbing adventures, I rely on specialized mountaineering boots. These boots are designed to provide excellent traction on various terrains, including rocky surfaces, ice, and snow. They offer better ankle support and a more precise fit to ensure stability and reduce the risk of injuries.

    Mountaineering boots typically have stiff soles, which help in distributing the weight and providing a solid platform for crampons. They also come with a high-cut design to protect the ankles and keep them stable during demanding ascents and descents.

    There are several reputable brands that produce high-quality mountaineering boots, such as La Sportiva, Scarpa, Mammut, and Salewa. I personally prioritize comfort, durability, and proper fit when choosing my climbing boots to ensure a safe and enjoyable climbing experience. Remember that the right footwear is crucial in mountaineering and can significantly impact your performance and safety on the mountain. Always make sure to select the appropriate boots for the specific terrain and conditions you'll be facing during your climbs.
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    Gee, what a surprise.
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    They were in the very process of spamming when BAM they got the hammer whooped on 'em. For them that's like being in the middle of ... well, let's just say a bucket of cold water would interrupt it. Of course, only one IT would be upset since...well...you know what I mean.
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    Many years ago (1978 to be exact), I wintered in the Uwharrie National Forest in NC and used Herman Survivor boots for the cold and we weren't moving. They worked so well that I didn't/couldn't keep them on when we moved without regard to time of day or temperature.
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    If only the ban hammer actually hurt and would raise a knotÖ.


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    Quote Originally Posted by Alan R McDaniel Jr View Post
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    There must still be a few bugs to work out of "Spam Monkey".


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    It was beta. We laugh about it now. Well, Crash does. I still have nightmares. I ain't sure if that monkey was after me or my coffee. Every noise in the dead of night could be that dang monkey coming after me. I don't even keep bananas in the house anymore. Can't afford to take chances.
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    Wow, wintering in Uwharrie back in '78 sounds like quite the experience! I've done some chilly expeditions myself, but never anything that hardcore. Herman Survivors, huh? They donít make them like they used to, I guess. I've had my fair share of boot-related dilemmas when the terrain gets tough or the weather decides not to cooperate.

    Any memorable stories from your time out there in Uwharrie? I bet the forest was a whole different world back then. And, out of curiosity, have you found any other boots that live up to the Herman Survivors since?
    Last edited by crashdive123; 10-15-2023 at 01:35 PM. Reason: removed link

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