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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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