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In what conditions will I hike in “waterproof” footwear?

High in the Colorado Rockies, my winter footwear system is usually warranted sometime in October. The temperatures become regularly sub-freezing, and snow starts to pile up.

High in the Colorado Rockies, my winter footwear system is usually warranted sometime in October. The temperatures become regularly sub-freezing, and snow starts to pile up.

For extended wear in 3-season conditions, I strongly discourage the use of “waterproof” footwear. When it’s dry, they trap excessive heat and perspiration. When it’s wet, the waterproofing will eventually fail. And after getting wet, the shoes will dry very slowly. For a more in-depth analysis of waterproof footwear performance, read this post.

The paragraph above has a key qualifier: “in 3-season conditions.” During the fourth season (i.e. wintertime), I hold a different opinion about waterproof footwear: I generally recommend it.

Defining the fourth season

Conditions vary by location and time of year. I usually transition into my winter footwear system when at least one of the following conditions are met:

  • Temperatures are below freezing; and/or,
  • The ground is covered by at least 3 to 4 inches of “dry” snow, with no or little liquid water content.

In the highest elevations of the Colorado Rockies, such conditions normally take hold in October and fade by May. Elsewhere, the winter season is usually shorter.

Selection rationale

In cold temperatures, wet shoes and wet feet are a liability, due to extreme loss of body heat through conduction. Dry feet are more comfortable and safer.

Thankfully, waterproof/breathable fabrics like Gore-Tex and NeoShell — which give waterproof footwear their namesake attribute — perform relatively well in winter conditions:

  • The exterior face fabric is less likely to “wet out,” because the snowpack has little liquid water content; and,
  • Fabric breathability can better match perspiration rates, which are generally lower in the colder temperatures.

Waterproof footwear is also windproof, which minimizes convective heat loss. In comparison, breathable shoes feel extremely drafty in cold temperatures.

Waterproof footwear works well when snowshoeing in "dry" Colorado snowpack.

Waterproof footwear works well when snowshoeing in “dry” Colorado snowpack.

Limitations

For winter conditions, waterproof footwear is generally the best solution available. But it can still fail:

1. Liquid water from melting snowpack will cause wet-out (which halts breathability) and seep through the waterproof fabric via failed seams or directly through the membrane.

2. Water may enter the shoe from the top while crossing open creeks and deep overflow, or during a rare winter rain event.

Specific recommendations

For big game hunting in October and for snowshoeing in the winter, I currently use the Salomon X Ultra Mid GTX. It’s a well built and solidly fitting hiking shoe with a mid-top cuff. To keep out snow, I pair them with the OR Flex-Tex II Gaiters, which are stretchier and more breathable than most other models, while still being durable and water-resistant.

My only complaint about the X Ultras is that the exterior materials will retain liquid water from snowpack that has melted due to ambient temperatures or to my body heat. This accelerates conductive heat loss, and makes it more difficult to keep my feet warm. I wonder if a waterproof boot with a water-resistant full-grain leather upper like the Vasque Sundowner GTX would absorb less water, and therefore keep my foot warmer.

My leather 3-pin telemark ski boots, the Crispi Antarctics, are also waterproof. Read more about my backcountry Nordic ski system. Their failure in the Alaska Range in April created one of the most famous photographs in my archives:

My waterproof telemark ski boots were overwhelmed by the melting snowpack and open creek crossings in the Alaska Range in April. Cold and macerated feet ensued. Photo by Michael C Brown.

My waterproof telemark ski boots were overwhelmed by the melting snowpack and open creek crossings in the Alaska Range in April. Cold and macerated feet ensued. Photo by Michael C Brown.

In very cold and very dry conditions, another viable option is the combination of a trail running or hiking shoe inside of a Forty Below Light Energy Overboot. This was the system that I used during the winter portion of my Sea-to-Sea Route hike. It’s not as versatile of a system (because the overboot outsole is not suitable for hiking directly on the ground) and it’s not recommended for wet snowpacks (because the neoprene will absorb water and it’s not taped), but it works very well in cold and dry conditions.

Seasonal transitions

When conditions are in transition between 3-season and winter (e.g. due to normal freeze/thaw cycles, or a temporary mid-winter thaw), my go-to footwear systems struggle. Basically, my shoes and socks get wet and are unable to dry. And my feet get cold and macerated.

I’ve learned how to manage maceration. And to cope with the cold, I wear a thicker wool sock like the DeFeet Woolie Boolie, or perhaps even a neoprene sock like the NRS Hydroskin — and I keep moving!

When my feet are guaranteed to be cold and wet, I use a thick wool sock like the DeFeet Woolie Boolie, or a neoprene sock like the NRS Hydroskin.

When my feet are guaranteed to be cold and wet, I use a thick wool sock like the DeFeet Woolie Boolie, or a neoprene sock like the NRS Hydroskin.


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22 Responses to In what conditions will I hike in “waterproof” footwear?

  1. Juha Ranta August 27, 2016 at 1:10 am #

    We get similar conditions with dry snow in Finland, with temperatures ranging from freezing up to -4 F (0 to -20 C) or more. So far I’ve only done shorter day hikes and trail running in these conditions, but I’m looking to spend more time in this type of conditions. During the three other seasons I usually wear trail running shoes with very breathable mesh. In the winter I’ve used shoes without mesh, with more solid material, but also without GTX or other membrane.

    For instance, last winter I used Inov-8 Arctic Claw (with gaiters) that are made of material that is wind proof and more water resistant than mesh, it’s the same material they have in popular X-Talon 212 trail running shoes. I was happy with them on day trips I did. I wonder if there are clear benefits or disadvantages in having a waterproof/GTX/membrane shoe instead. In theory, a GTX shoe might better kind of trap the warm air inside while on move, like I’ve noticed GTX jackets can do when compared to more breathable jackets. What about if the shoe does get a bit wet in those conditions?

  2. Maeglin August 27, 2016 at 1:34 am #

    Why pick the gaiters over the Overboots that you’ve used in the past? Is it a weight choice or durability concern?

    I tried the Forty Below Light Energy Overboot TR last year for snowshoeing and loved them. It didn’t get terribly cold, but they kept my light hiking boots warm and dry.

    • Andrew Skurka August 27, 2016 at 5:43 am #

      It needs to be very cold to use the LE over boots, because they are so warm and because they will wet through in a wet snowpack. I probably should have mentioned them, but did not because WP footwear will serve most people best.

      • Justin LaFrance August 27, 2016 at 10:01 am #

        The LE over boots and non-WPB trail runners are my preferred winter footwear system for snowshoeing, but it’s consistently below 0F with dry snow where I live during the winter. I agree, the over boots might be too warm for more mild conditions.

        I was glad to have WPB trail runners on one occasion: Kilimanjaro. I didn’t want to bring mountaineering or hiking boots (the most commonly used footwear) as the terrain is quite manageable in trail runners but much too cold for runners with lots of mesh. Conditions were much as you describe here: cold with dry snow. WPB was the right way to go.

  3. Bill August 27, 2016 at 6:15 am #

    NRS Hydroskins keep coming up in various blog posts. I am curious as to how you use them.

    • Andrew Skurka August 27, 2016 at 6:26 am #

      It’s a limited application. Really nasty conditions: wet snowpack, open creeks and deep overflow, temperatures back and forth between freezing and not.

      If I can get away with them, I’d rather the wool socks, because they are much quicker to dry out. The Hydroskin socks are also pretty thick, so you need a shoe that is at least a half-size bigger.

      • dogwood September 9, 2016 at 10:03 am #

        Seems you’ve made the choice of either the NRS Hydroskins or Woolie Boolies. How about carrying and using both? Or, carrying a WP sock such as the HANZ Crew Length WP sock AND a non WP sock such as Woolie Boolies in mixed intermittent conditions paired with a non WP trail runner in 5′ or less snow depths going at a moderate non run away freight train pace at the times you struggle with footwear? Still get the quicker dry times in the non WP shoe and the HANZ WP sock’s Lycra outer layer dries out just as fast as the non WP shoe in my experiences. Keep the wool socks for drier condition days and sleeping always attempting to have one dry pr of socks. Combine that with your addressing wet feet article especially noting the pre wet foot idea of keeping moisture in?

        The HANZ sock has a micro inner wicking layer, has OK MVTR stats, doesn’t bunch up or slip down and has a seamless stretchy WP membrane layer. In all day rain and sleet with shallow iced up stream crossings on multi day LD hikes this has worked quite well for me.

    • Chuck August 27, 2016 at 1:47 pm #

      I like using the NRS Hydroskins for hiking Aravaipa Creek in Arizona during the winter. It is a hike where you spend about 70% of the time in shin-deep water. The Hydroskins still allow my feet to get wet, but the neoprene keeps them relatively warm in water that is quite chilly. In warmer weather, wool wins out for sure – less fit issues, dries quicker and is generally more comfortable

  4. MarkL August 27, 2016 at 9:55 am #

    When I had leather hiking, tele, or light mountaineering boots I often wore super-gaitors. I rarely hike in the snow anymore because I backcountry ski, so footwear is determined for me, and is largely plastic.

    The Pacific NW is that transitional condition for a large part of the year (unless you are on the bigger peaks), so it is more about staying warm, because staying dry is generally a losing battle. Dry socks are critical. I wear an insulated winter boot if I’m not skiing because at least if I’m wet I’m still warm.

  5. Ed Benton August 27, 2016 at 9:55 am #

    Very interesting and informative article Andrew, thanks for taking the time to share this.
    You’re right about the waterpoof boots keeping the water in, often a quick draining shoe is better for sure.

    I pair up a quick draining shoe with a pair of knee high sealskinz sometimes and I find that to work quite well for me, but they don’t drain as quickly as a fine liner and a wool sock.

    Glad I came across this, will sign up to your newsletter.

    Cheers,
    Ed

  6. Patrick Podenski August 27, 2016 at 9:57 am #

    In the Pacific Northwest winters where we mostly have wet snow conditions, for snowshoeing in winter the Vasque SnowBurbans work very well.

    http://www.vasque.com/USD/product/mens-footwear/winter-hiking/snowburban-udry-400g-bel-gold-07804

  7. Shawn K. August 28, 2016 at 11:58 am #

    Andrew, thanks for the timely article. Since dumping more traditional boots in favour of trail runners, I’ve been thinking about how I’ll approach winter trips.

  8. Neil S. September 1, 2016 at 1:30 am #

    Hi Andrew, I’ve seen your footwear recommendations on other blog posts of yours, and I have a variant on the normal question. I’ve fallen in love with Lone Peaks for everything I do on my feet, but I’m uncomfortable scrambling in them on anything that’s real class 3 and higher (and god forbid I encounter any wet surfaces). I’m intrigued by the LS ultra raptors, are there other shoes that come to mind for maximizing grip and stability in the light and breathable form factor? This is particularly on my mind since I’ve been on lots of crumbly volcanics recently and I’m heading to the Chicago basin in a week.

    • Andrew Skurka September 1, 2016 at 6:44 am #

      The Ultra Raptors are a good place to start, but you might find them too controlling. So I would also look at the LS Brushido and the Salewa Ultra Train. Neither shoe has the cush of the Lone Peaks or the super wide toe box, but you need to get away from both of those features anyway for what you’re doing.

  9. Dogwood September 9, 2016 at 10:49 am #

    While important some make shoe dry times the be all end all of a shoe. I don’t think it’s always all that a tipping point under some scenarios even on LD hikes. How about pairing a non WP trail runner with a WP sock that has some breathability such as the HANZ Crew Length WP sock that has demonstrated some OK MVTR stats. This effectively makes a non WP shoe WP while not being locked into a WP shoe effectively allowing one to remove the WP membrane. Pare this approach with the knowledge of preventing and addressing foot maceration. Now you’re just drying the removed WP “membrane.”

    I would like to hear accounts of comparing dry times of a thick wool sock like Woolie Boolies compared to say an ALTRA Lone Peak with NeoShell w/ the WPing on the “outside.” under the same scenario. Taking the footbeds out of the ALTRAS, opening up the tongue, loosening the laces and drying the ALTRAS HAS actually been resulting in FASTER WP SHOE DRY TIMES than drying thick wool socks such as Smartwool Mid Crew.

    In my experiences in freezing rain, shallow snow depth, and intermittent conditions of snow/ice and shallow stream crossings the HANZ socks have kept my feet dry with internal moisture from perspiration hardly being noticed with its micro wicking layer while paired with non WP trail runners. This way I still get the faster dry time of a non WP shoe and now am only concerned with drying out, IF NEED BE AT ALL, a light weight WP sock. HANZ has the same sock in a more insulating version but haven’t demoed them.

    Let’s hear about comparisons of different WP technologies as used in footwear dry times other than just the hyped GoreTex since that is certainly not the only WP game in town anymore.

  10. Daniel September 28, 2016 at 7:08 pm #

    I always appreciate how much your articles are grounded in ample experience Andrew. Party based on this and other articles you have written, I recently made the transition to non-waterproof burly trail runners (Ultra Raptors). I don’t regret it at all, but I’ve found that, for me, there are a class of trips outside of winter conditions where I still like the waterproofness. Namely, where it rains for the whole trip (I live in New Zealand; it rains a lot here) but where there are no river crossings or puddles that would allow water in over the top of the shoe. In these situations, I find I prefer waterproof shoes simply because my feet will only get slightly damp, as opposed to soaking. In these conditions I find no shoe, weather waterproof or not, will ever dry, so I prefer to keep my feet warm and only a little bit damp.

  11. Mathieu January 19, 2017 at 10:04 pm #

    .Hi there!

    Thanks again for your article and advice. I have a dilemma, I would love some advice 🙂

    Destination: Vancouver Island
    when: February (25 days)
    I have gaiters ( it doesn’t fit on my running shoes) and wool socks.
    temperatures expected : 30-45 F
    Rain every day
    windy too
    only sleeping under a tarp (no chance to dry my stuff )
    no snow expected, only low altitude

    Only tow choice for footwear:
    gore tex hiking boots ( http://www.auvieuxcampeur.fr/bouthan-gtx-13.html)
    or
    summer running shoes ( https://www.thenorthface.com/shop/shoes-mens-running-training/mens-ultra-cardiac?variationId=EMB ).

    I have gaiters ( it doesn’t fit on my running shoes) and wool socks.

    Thanks again for all your advices and your amazing blog!

    • Andrew Skurka January 20, 2017 at 10:33 am #

      Hmm, brr.

      Both pairs of shoes are going to get soaking wet. The boots will get wet and heavy, and take longer to dry. But since they are “waterproof” and made of more material, they will trap more heat.

      I think the best solution would be neoprene socks and a running shoe, or perhaps even better Sealskinz socks and a running shoe. The problem, though, is that these socks are much thicker than regular socks, so your shoes may not fit when wearing them. At that point, your only option is the boot.

      If you go with the boot, still go with a wool sock, the thicker the better, but not so thick that it’s reducing circulation, because that will make your foot cold.

  12. Nicolas January 29, 2017 at 3:39 pm #

    Hello Andrew,

    I would be interested to know if you have had any experience with the combination of trail runners and overboots such as the 40below Light Energy TR model for winter hiking/snowshoeing?

    I get very hot feet, so GTX liners feel no better than very expensive plastic bags even in dry snow below freezing. A light and “breathable” GTX mid fairs a bit better while on the move, but as soon as I stop, my feet get very cold for the inevitable perspiration. It’s quite the struggle!

    Cheers,
    N

    • Andrew Skurka January 30, 2017 at 7:21 am #

      I wore trail runners with the 40 Below Light Energy Overboot during my Sea-to-Sea Route trip, 1400 miles of snowshoeing through MI, WI, and MN.

      It must be very cold to warrant neoprene overboots, with temps regularly in the 10’s and below. Otherwise you will overheat. There are only so many upper layers you can strip off to remain comfortable if your feet are in a furnace.

      Overboots will not help your cause, unfortunately. You may want to look into vapor barrier liners, in order to prevent perspiration from wetting your boot and outer sock. Or, get better at managing perspiration.

  13. Shawn April 19, 2017 at 11:04 am #

    When do you recommend hiking boots? I’ve tried the stiffest lightweight trail running shoes and ended up with an injured foot after several hikes, specifically mt Elbert in Colorado. After two years of ridding myself of plantar fasciitis, I’m hiking again and plan to do the 6 day Kilimanjaro route in December. Scree rock killed me on the Elbert hike – my feet weren’t ready

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