No matter where you live and how well you handle the change of seasons and weather, cold feet will at best make you grumpy and irritable, at worst you could lose a toe or two. You might think that an extra pair of socks in your regular shoes will get the job done, but that might actually make things worse. What you really need is insulated boots.
For all outdoor activities, some research and information is necessary before making good gear selections. Define where you're going, what you're doing, and if you've done it before. If the adventure involves a lot of trail time or walking, a boot with laces will fit better and be more comfortable. If most of your outdoor time will be brief and low-activity, a slip-on or zip style will reduce the time you need to get ready and still keep your toes toasty.
Pack boots are the default footwear for ice fishers, snowmobilers, and life in places where snowfall is measured in feet and days. The defining feature is a removable insulating liner of wool felt or quilted synthetic batting. The shell is usually waterproof, and the overall boot is very big. Pack boots are the roomiest and warmest winter footwear available, but because of their outer dimensions, can make some tasks (like driving) a bit tricky.
Casual boots and shoes are the wide category of slip-on and zippered styles with many options in materials and finishes. Be careful when choosing a 'fashionable' boot to confirm that they are waterproof and have actual insulation. Sheepskin is wool, and can provide a cozy feeling, but cannot compare to synthetic insulation for actually keeping your feet warm.
Hiking/Field boots will be the most fitted and have the best waterproof systems like Gore-Tex. Field boots are 8 to 12 inches tall, very much like combat boots, are are intended primarily for hunters, but because they are insulated all the way up can be the warmest option for more active walking activities. Insulated hikers offer a good fit and warmth with less restriction on ankle movement.
Duck boots are a generic version of the Maine Hunting Shoe introduced by L.L.Bean in 1912. They feature a leather shank stitched to a rubber foot, providing waterproof where you really need it and breathability to keep the moisture under control.
As mentioned above, a sheepskin lining is very cozy, and is warmer than an unlined shoe, but should not be confused with actual insulation. Look for tags indicating a branded insulation like Primaloft, Thinsulate, or something similar from the footwear manufacturer. The tag will also provide the 'weight' in grams, which will indicate the warmth potential. 200g Thinsulate is warmer than 100g, anything beyond 300g is getting into extreme conditions gear and may be too warm.
Moisture management is a key factor with insulated footwear, and is why lined 'rain' boots are rare. Your feet sweat all the time anyway, and that moisture must be moved away to reduce the chance of blisters but also to allow the insulation to work. A waterproof-breathable system like Gore-Tex will prove its value in winter boots.
Not all winter boots will be completely waterproof, and that can be fine, provided they don't allow the slush and puddle water to penetrate the upper, so a 'duck' style shoe without a full-waterproof upper can still get the job done.
How do you know they fit? It doesn't take long for the wrong boots to cause problems, so it's worth taking some time to get the right ones. Remeber that in order for any body part to stay warm, blood must circulate. If your shoes are too tight from lacing or additional socks, your toes will never be warm. The fit shouldn't be sloppy, but not too snug either.
Note: An appropriate hiking-weight sock is absolutely necessary for your boots to really work. Moisture management and insulation at the skin level mean the shoe will be that much warmer.
On most insulated footwear, the toe box construction is too stiff for the traditional 'feel for the toe' measurement. To quickly determine length and overall size and compare several boots, we'll do the 'Toe Room Dance.'
-Slip on both boots and leave them very loose- not laced up or zipped at all.
-Stand up and tap the toe of your longer foot on the floor, moving your foot forward until your big toe touches the front of the boot, then set your foot flat on the floor, keeping your toe in the front of the boot.
-Sit back down and slide your index and middle fingers down your Achilles' tendon to the sock liner at the bottom of the boot. You should have just enough room for your finger, maintaining contact with both boot and sock. When you move your foot back into the heel cup, this is how much toe room you have. Doing the same with the other foot can be very informative.
With some practice you can accomplish all this sitting down, but the stand-and-tap is still the best way to get the toes all the way down there.
Of course, no two people's fingers are the same dimensions, but this is an excellent way to establish for yourself a gauge of how well a model or size fits, and to quickly compare several shoes to a standard. The process of sliding your foot forward will also show you the difference in volumes among several boots of the same listed size.
Once you've found the right size, you need to lace the boots up and walk around in them. You should get the laces pretty tight the first time to see how much effort it will take, and compare the volume match of your foot and the boot.
The basic fit of a boot should be that your toes do not touch the front or top of the toe box as you walk, and the width of the footbed and volume of the upper are such that the shape of the shoe is holding your foot firmly in place without painful tension on the laces.
- If the lacing placket is bunched up or spread very far apart, you have mismatched the volume of the last to the shape of your foot.
- If you feel heel movement, several things could be happening:
A stiffer upper and midsole won't flex with your foot when new, so your heel will lever up out of the heel cup. This will settle down with wearing as you establish a 'toe crease.' Keep in mind that the rubber-foot construction of some winter boots means you wil never set a toe-crease, so expect to live with heel movement.
Your sock may be a bit thin to take up the right amount of space in the boot, which can be remedied with a liner sock or different weight of main sock.
There will be other things you note with different boots such as where the tongue meets the front of your ankle, how much side-to-side movement you have in the toe, and differences in stitching and design. The larger your 'sample set,' the more familiar you will be with how boots fit versus what you want in a boot.