Help me narrow down boots for snowshoeing
January 7, 2020 2:32 AM   Subscribe

I have snowshoes, but finding the right footwear is proving difficult. I've tried on 10 pairs last weekend at 3 different stores, and I've just gotten more confused. Help me stay active during the winter months!

My feet
Women's size 6 in regular shoes
Typically wear regular, sometimes narrow width (I suspect my heels are narrow but ball of feet is regular width)
One of the store clerks described them as "low volume" - not sure what this means
My ankles are hypermobile, and yes I wobble a lot. But I also rely on my ankle flexibility a lot, instead of bending at the knees/hips. So a tight ankle lacing providing "support" often feels weird (but maybe I need it, who knows?)
My toes are generally cold, even while wearing socks in our home heated to 21C.

Use Case for Boots
The primary usage would be for snowshoeing in the winter. We expect to stick to marked and groomed trails in the local mountains (Vancouver, BC) that have inclines/declines. Outings would last 2-3 hours max.

Bonus if boots can also be used for hiking in the summer, and/or as beefier rainy day shoes, but these are not required. Truth be told, I kind of hate hiking, but hoping to grow to love it one day since I live in Beautiful British Columbia.

At the first store (MEC for any Vancouverites out there), I described how on previous snowshoeing trips (8+ yrs ago) my feet would always get cold. They recommended insulated winter boots rated to -10C or lower to solve this issue. All of the boots had thick insulation which made them kind of fat and bulky. I found them hard to lace tight due to the bulk. I also hit the front of the boots with my toes when tested on the store ramp. I tried some size 6.5 but I felt like I was sliding forward when on the ramp, and I still hit the front with my toes, anyway. North Face Chilkat is one of the boots I tried, to give an idea of the styles they recommended.

Next store (Valhalla Pure) didn't have any insulated boots. They said socks can make a huge difference in temperature. Thinking back to 8+ years ago, I don't know what socks I wore. Could have been thin Smartwool or even (eek!) cotton?! My old pair were Vasque leather boots. Tried on a pair of Merrells size 6.5 that were not insulated, while wearing Bombas wool socks. I didn't hit the front of the boot, but their ramp was half as steep as MEC's so...

Last store (Alpine Outfitters) - they said there should be a whole finger's width of space between my toes and the front of the shoe. They said I don't need heavily insulated boots as that would make my feet overheat, sweat, and get cold from the sweat. Instead, all I need are good heavy socks. They fitted me with Meindl Vakuum boots size 5.5 UK; tried it on the ramp (about as steep as MEC's) and sure enough, no contact with toes! But... the boots are $400 compared to $180-$220 for other brands, plus I'm not sure if I will really be warm enough with just "good socks."

My Question
It's not necessarily about which of the three shoes to buy, but rather, how do I know when boots fit right? When it comes to warmth, is it really all about the socks?

I have a gift card for MEC so ideally the boots would come from there, but the priority is to be comfortable and not lose any toenails. I'm willing to drop $400+ if they are my Cinderella boots!

Please help me have happy feet. Thank you!
posted by tinydancer to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (8 answers total)
I suspect insulated boots may be a good idea for you. I live in a place with cold winters and I take my dog on a long walk on trails or back roads every day (using snowshoes if necessary, but most days I don't need them.) I normally wear insulated boots. Sometimes my feet do get too hot, but usually they don't. And even if I sweat in my boots, the boots still keep my feet warm. I don't have the problem of my feet getting cold from the sweat. When you snowshoe, do you typically get warm enough that you wear only a light fleece jacket or end up taking off your jacket? If that's the case, non-insulated boots might be better. But since you've gotten cold feet on past snowshoeing trips, I think insulated boots will probably help. Ideally, you'd have two pairs, one insulated and one not.

I personally would not pay $400 for a pair of boots unless I had tried on literally every other possible pair and found that none of them fit or were comfortable. You definitely don't want your toes to hit the front of the boot and you also don't want your feet sliding around in your boots or your heel loose enough that it lifts up inside the boot as you walk. You want your foot held firmly in place inside the boot, but not being squeezed or rubbed anywhere. You can adjust the fit somewhat by how tightly you lace the boots. You may need to try on a lot of pairs of boots to find something that fits your particular feet. I had to try a lot before I found the ones I own now.
posted by Redstart at 6:18 AM on January 7, 2020

I snowshoe in winter hiking boots which are higher than regular hiking boots and have 200g of thinsulite. They are rated to -40 but having worn them in those temps I'm not convinced. Sized to double sock with heavy wool socks. Mine are made by Vasque and are several years old. I wear them for cold weather hiking as well. I don't have an issue with my feet sweating and good wool socks would wick that regardless. I would definitely go with insulated boots - cold feet can ruin your fun.

Getting the fit right is really important - too tight means both blisters and cold feet, too loose is not enough support. A warm insole can help with both fit and warmth. And like Redstart I tried on a lot before getting these. I think I spent $200 US about 3 years ago and they came from REI's outlet.

Low-volume means that your feet are not thick from top to bottom and gives you more options in fit since you aren't needing to accommodate essentially "puffy" feet. It can also make things harder to fit and this is where a good salesperson can help - think about insoles and the like.
posted by leslies at 6:53 AM on January 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

I live in Minnesota and it gets plenty cold here. I snowshoe in the same boot I wear hiking in the summer with a thicker wool sock, either Smartwool Mountaineering series or Darn Tough's Mountaineering Extra Cushion. If it's not that cold, I wear Darn Tough Full Cushion socks.

All that said, if you tend to get cold feet, get insulated boots. No amount of sock games has made as much of a difference for my wife than getting insulated boots. For her, that's a Keen insulated boot that apparently is no longer made. Pair that with one of those luxury socks and you are set to pretty much any temp you should really go out in.

You definitely need a little room at the toe for swelling, but if going up a half size means the shoe slips, that's no good either. Some people find success in alternate lacing or adding insoles to keep from slipping. I just keep trying other boots until I find one that works.
posted by advicepig at 6:59 AM on January 7, 2020

I have my insulated cold-weather boots (Sorels) but I can't snowshoe in them because they are too large. They're too large to fit in my snowshoes AND they're really heavy and cumbersome. Sure, my feet would be nice and toasty, but I'd be lugging around extra pounds.

My snowshoeing shoes are my backpacking boots, which are Saloman GTX. I'm the opposite of advicepig's wife ^^^, given the choice of "waterproof" vs "winter rated" I would go for "waterproof" any day. But, I have narrow feet with a high instep, so I'm able to layer a couple pairs of socks and not feel any discomfort. In the summer I use a boot liner cushioned insert. My toes definitely do NOT touch the toe of the boot! There needs to be space for the foot to shift forward when going downhill so that one doesn't lose toenails.

I wear Smartwool or Darn Tough socks for hiking/snowshoeing, and will usually put a thinner sock layer on underneath. I have a pair of silk dress socks (I have no idea why I have them or where I got them) and they're a perfect underlayer for the heavier, cushioned, insulated socks.
posted by Gray Duck at 8:27 AM on January 7, 2020

I have low volume feet that get cold a lot, and I mostly snowshoe in my regular day hiking boots (i.e., they don't cover my ankles) with medium weight wool socks. As long as I keep moving, I'm plenty warm, and if you're going on trips that are a 3-hour max, that should be fine. I carry chemical toe-warmers but haven't used them (OTOH, I use the handwarmers often). Don't wear socks so thick they make the shoes feel tight - that limits your circulation. Do skip lacing through the little loop in the tongue, this can make it possible to cinch your boots tight enough. FWIW, my current pair are Oboz Sawtooths, and previously I really liked a pair of Vasques, but I don't find brand to be a good predictor of fit. If you're having a hard time finding boots, trail runners with good socks are probably an ok option for your uses, too.

If I'm expecting a lot of powder (such that snow will get in my boots, gaiters would also work for this) or it's extra cold, I wear my BOGS boots (molded plastic food with neoprene shaft) with a pair of "expedition weight" wool socks that are too thick to wear under any other shoes. I usually wind up getting sweaty feet/calves, they're super warm but less supportive than actual hiking boots.

FWIW, I've also had friends wear plastic bags inside their sneakers for snowshoeing, it's not ideal but it works if you're only going out a few times a year for shorter trips. Might be worth trying a time or two to get a sense for how cold you get while snowshoeing.
posted by momus_window at 8:47 AM on January 7, 2020

Just for day trips correct? Get insulated Keens or whatever fits and thin wool socks and you'll be good to go. Keens fit women the best, imho. Also invest in a boot drier to dry the sweat out of the insulation, they are about $30 and well worth it, they also keep your running and gym shoes stink free.

If you're overnighting you need boots with liners you can dry out more easily but for day trips a regular insulated boot is fine.
posted by fshgrl at 11:08 AM on January 7, 2020

To elaborate a little on how to decide if insulated boots are better: How hard do you work and how warm does the rest of your body get when snowshoeing? Are you breathing hard and sweating a bit (or wearing light clothing to prevent sweating) most of the time you're out, so it feels like almost as much of a workout as jogging? Are you usually wearing the equivalent of fleece pants, a long underwear top, lightweight fleece jacket, thin gloves and a lightweight hat you take off part of the time? In that case, I would lean towards non-insulated boots, especially if outside temperatures are typically above freezing.

Or do you walk fairly slowly on mostly level trails or gentle hills, slowing way down or stopping to rest whenever you start to get too out of breath or hot? Are you typically wearing the equivalent of insulated ski pants, an insulated jacket, a hat and warm mittens? In that case, I'd lean towards insulated boots, especially if the temperature is typically minus 4 C or lower.

If you're somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, it's hard to say which would be more comfortable, but I'd be guided by the fact that in the past, with non-insulated boots, your feet got cold. Wearing appropriate socks certainly helps (as long as they're not too thick for your boots so they restrict your circulation) but it isn't always going to be enough.
posted by Redstart at 11:47 AM on January 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

You’ve gotten a lot of good advice here, so just a few words from me. When I have snowshoed (occasionally) I have used a slightly heavier hiking boot than I use in the summer, with a focus on water rather than insulation. I also use gaiters. For me, wet feet equals cold feet and I’ve found over the years I get more warmth through my sock game than I do from the boot.

Regarding fit— I have a foot type similar to yours, but maybe more extreme. I call them duck feet. I have a narrow heel and a wide ball of my foot. I just can’t wear some hiking boots because they aren’t a good fit for my foot. I’ve had luck with Hanwag, Meindl, and Salomon. Just keep trying boots— I’ll try tens of them. You won’t learn to love hiking unless you have good footwear. When I try on boots I bring a thick pair of smart wool socks and a thinner Falke sock to try with the boot before I buy.

If I wear my regular shoe size in a hiking boot, then I lose all my toenails after a long hike. I prefer lots of room in the toe and use lacing/insoles to handle slipping to the front. However! If the boot slips at the heel (too wide) then this is the road to blisterville.

I’m jealous of you. No snowshoeing for me in Indonesia.
posted by frumiousb at 4:43 PM on January 7, 2020

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