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Winter Hiking Tips 2 - Its All About the Feet

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

Last week we outlined the general principles of dressing for winter hiking. The principles we covered provide important background to today's discussion of winter footwear so, if you haven't already, please check out last week's post before reading ahead.

I know shoes and socks might not be the world’s most exciting topic, but keeping your feet warm is crucial to safe and enjoyable winter hiking.

Today's post will cover the four components of winter hiking footwear: (i) socks, (ii) hiking boots, (iii) gaiters, and (iv) traction-aids.

Winter Hiking Socks

Winter hiking socks have two goals: (i) provide insulation to maintain a layer of warm dead air around your feet, and (ii) wick moisture (aka sweat) away from your feet so that your feet stay dry.

How do your socks achieve these goals? There are two approaches.

  • The all in one approach, relies on one thick sock that provides both insulation and moisture wicking. These socks are made of fast drying materials, typically either synthetic or wool. (See the discussion of Base Layers/Wicking Layers, from last week's post for more information on wicking materials).

  • The second approach, the “two sock approach” uses a thin liner as the first base layer of sock and a thicker insulating sock on top of that.

Proponents of the two sock approach argue that it keeps your feet drier. Since your waterproof boots may inhibit the sweat-moisture from fully escaping your shoe, having an extra wicking layer may at least keep the moisture away from your feet, even if it doesn't escape the boot entirely. They also argue the extra sock helps prevent blisters.

One sockers argue that the two-sock approach is bulky and uncomfortable, and that if you have the right sock and the right boot, your feet can stay just as dry and blister-free without adding an extra, bunched up layer.

Whether you take the one or two sock approach, the one thing all parties agree on is to NEVER WEAR COTTON SOCKS while hiking in the cold. Cotton absorbs moisture, is slow to dry, and is a sure recipe for cold feet!

Winter Hiking Boots

Winter hiking boots have five primary goals. The first three, are the same as any other hiking boot:

  • provide solid tread/grip

  • provide sufficient ankle support

  • be light and comfortable enough to walk in for extended periods of time, on uneven terrain, potentially with weight on your back.

These first three goals make your regular snow boots, with the rubber soles and removable liners, unfit for the trail. The last two goals of the winter hiking boot are the same as the goals of the winter sock mentioned above:

  • keep your feet warm (insulate)

  • keep your feet dry (unlike socks, which protect you from internal moisture, boots protect you from outside moisture in the form of snow, slush and rain).

Winter hiking boots keep your feet warm by including built in insulation and keep your feet dry through the use of synthetic, typically proprietary, waterproof materials (we'd advise against leather which tends to be bulky and heavier to hike in). They should also be high enough to prevent snow from easily seeping into your shoes (for more on that, see the section on gaiters below).

If your existing hiking boots are already waterproof and sufficiently insulated, you may not need a separate pair of winter hiking boots. That said, we suggest you make sure your regular boots aren’t too tight when paired with your thick winter socks. Tight boots will cut off circulation and leave you with cold feet.


Gaiters are designed to prevent snow, rain pebbles and mud from seeping into your boots at the top opening where your boots meet your pant leg.

Gaiters come in a variety of heights and materials, depending on their intended use. For winter hiking, you'll want fully waterproof gaiters that are effective at keeping snow out, and reach at least your mid-calf.

Traction Aids

Our last topic for today is traction aids.Traction aids are pieces of equipment that attach to your shoes to enable you to gain better traction and walk more efficiently and safely on snow and ice. The type of traction aid you need depends on trail conditions.

Ice and Packed Snow

For trails with ice or tightly packed snow, there are two kinds of traction aids that can help your foot grip the snow/ice and prevent slipping:

  • Nanospikes & Microspikes are small 1/12 - 1/2 inch long spikes that can be easily strapped to your shoes. They are typically small, not too expensive and easily portable so you can throw them in your pack for any winter hike in case the trail gets slippery. Microspikes work best on flat or low angle terrain.

Nanospikes vs. Microspikes

  • Crampons are larger than microspikes, typically with 1/2 inch to 1 inch spikes that go around the perimeter of your shoes. While traditionally used for ice-climbing and mountaineering, there are lighter versions of crampons designed for hiking on steep and icy terrain.

Deep and/or Powdery Snow

Snowshoes, are designed to distribute a hiker's weight over a large surface area so you can walk on deep, powdery snow without sinking. The deeper the snow and the greater the amount of weight (including both the hiker and his/her pack), the longer and wider a frame you'll need for your snowshoes.

That wraps up our post on winter hiking footwear! Stay tuned for next week's Winter-Hiking-Tips Post on Winter Fuel: Eating and Drinking on the Trail.

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