How to Choose Insulated Boots

Some winter boots are tall and bulky like those made by Sorel. Others look just like a regular hiking boot. What is best for you? It depends on the activity. Are you using them mostly to ice fish or shovel the driveway? Or maybe you like to snowshoe. The following information will help you keep your feet warm and dry in winter.

Note that this article does not discuss plastic or leather boots used for ice climbing or winter mountaineering. Click here for more information on How to Choose Mountaineering Boots.


Insulated snow boots often stand 11 or 12 inches high. The taller the boot, the warmer it will keep your ankles. They will also let in less snow as you hike or snowshoe. However, the taller and bulkier the boot, the heavier it is. 12 inch boots are fine for short walks, but a five mile hike will be extremely fatiguing. Your best option in this case may be an insulated hiking boot, maybe 7 or 8 inches tall.

Removable Linings:

Some of the taller boots, like some of the Sorel models, have an insulated lining. At the end of the day, if the boot is wet, you can pull the lining out to speed up the drying process. If you are winter camping, you might even wear just the insulated liners inside the tent like you would a pair of slippers. The greatest drawback to an insulated liner is the slightly loose fit that it creates which might cause blisters on long hikes.

Temperature Ratings

There are several boot manufacturers that offer warmth ratings for their products. For example, Sorel's rates their Caribou winter boots as being capable of maintaining warmth in temperatures as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit. This information, however, should be taken with the understanding that not all boots will perform to the exact specifications of their ratings. Things like health, activity, even clothing and how much a person perspires will be important factors in determining overall warmth. Note that not all manufacturers provide a temperature rating.

Water Resistance

Keeping your feet dry is crucial in cold conditions. Boots achieve this through a number of methods:

Leather uppers: Most winter boots are made with a leather upper that has either been pre-treated to repel water, or that is easy to treat once you bring them home.
Rubber shells: Used in combination with a leather upper, a rubber shell protects the lower portion of the boot. Boots with rubber shells will keep you dry even if you remain standing in a puddle.
Waterproof/breathable linings: A waterproof/breathable lining such as Gore-Tex keeps your feet dry while allowing sweat vapor to escape.

Insulation types

Thinsulate: Provides plenty of warmth without the weight and bulk of traditional insulating materials. Thinsulate, which is found in many around-the-town boots from companies such as Sorel, has established itself as a leader in synthetic insulation.

Primaloft: Offering a microfiber polyester material typically cased in a protective nylon layer, the tiny short-strand fibers make the material highly compressible and surprisingly water resistant – probably why the insulation is so prominently featured in The North Face boots. However, the snuggly, embracing comfort of Primaloft comes at the cost of durability. The microfibers make the insulation prone to bunching. Still, though, the material has an excellent warmth to weight ratio, meaning a relatively small amount of the insulation can keep you warm.

Heatseaker: A proprietary insulation from The North Face, Heatseeker is a long fiber insulation very similar to Thinsulate.

Zylex: Normally found in pac boots, Zylex insulation typically comes in the form of a removable liner. Found on popular boots like Kamik's Kids Coaster winter boots, the insulation's ability to wick moisture and trap warm air make it a perfect option for enjoying the icy bounty of a freshly fallen snow. They additionally feature an advanced thermal foil that helps further deflect cold temperatures.

Wool felt: The original insulator, wool has held up as a quality means of warmth for centuries. The insulation manages moisture well and keeps temperatures reasonable by creating a seal around your foot. The thick materials maintains its shape fairly well, but generally comes at an additional cost.

Opti-Warm: A synthetic insulation from Merrell, Opti-Warm sheds much of the bulkiness its insulated counterparts boast, but does so without sacrificing warmth. Merrell's well-balanced insulation traps body heat and provides impressive loft retention.

Gusseted tongue: Nobody wants water seeping through their lacings – it would make walking through the snow a nightmare. That's why top shelf snow boots, like Sorel's Kitchener Frost winter boots, offer what's known as a gusseted tongue. Similar to typical shoe tongues, but with one major difference: a gusseted tongue is attached to the boot via two triangle pieces on either side. The extra pieces of material keep snow and wetness out where other boots would extend a warm welcome.

Cuff: A particularly intense trudge through the elements might threaten your mid-calf with prospects of dampness and discomfort, but a cuff works to quell those fears. Almost like a snug collar, a cuff forms a thick ring around the top of a boot, working to catch and dispel the moist snow that might otherwise greet your dry feet. (Add in picture of a cuff)

Hiking Boots: Are you looking to hike moderate to long distances (3+ miles) in the winter? You will want insulated hiking boots. Lighter in weight than the larger snow boots that have removable linings, hiking boots offer a more precise fit, which is essential if you want to avoid blisters as you rack up the miles. Hiking boots also provide ample foot and ankle support to keep you comfortable on rough trails, even if you're hauling a decent-sized pack

Winter Hiking Boot

Fashion Footwear: If you can gather anything from the labeling of "fashion," it's probably that these boots or shoes are not going to be your first pick if you're hoping to retrace Shackleton's steps through the Antarctic. Fashion winter boots do, however, provide mild protection from the cold, sometimes featuring cuffs of faux fur and shearling insulation. Almost no protection for wetness, though. These boots are great for a nice jaunt about town, but they're not something you should count on when you're knee deep in a snow bank.

Fashionable Boots can be practical too!


When deciding what type of traction device is best for you, it's first important to consider what types of activities you're hoping to do in them. For instance, if you're hoping to do some heavy duty mountaineering or ice climbing, you'll want to stick with semi-rigid to rigid crampons made from either steel or stainless steel – aluminum crampons tend to wear out quickly in rocky terrain. However, if you're looking for something to simply carry you over a slick surface without fear of bumbling around like a Benny Hill character, then you should look for a lighter device, like Yaktrax or Microspikes from Kahtoola.

There are three types of traction devices: crampons, coiled devices and spiked devices. As mentioned earlier, crampons are mostly for intense outdoor activities. Coiled devices are the most basic and inexpensive option, working with nearly any sort of boot. Spike devices are similarly basic, but provide a slight step up in quality from the coiled option, featuring half-inch long metal spikes for increased traction.

Traction devices are popular complements to both pac and hiking boots. When you're choosing device, remember to compare the flexibility with that of your boot – rigid devices are for mountaineering! Additionally, if your boot is particularly bulky, like an insulated snow boot, you may want to try on a larger size.


Snowshoeing is one of the easiest-to-learn and versatile pieces of outdoor winter equipment. Virtually any boot can work with a pair of snowshoes, but if you're looking for extra warmth and comfort, it's important you select the best complementary boot. For instance, let's say you're geared up for a pretty extensive hike through a few miles of fresh snow. Your best option is going to be an insulated hiking boot. It's fairly light weight, durable and, most importantly, hiking boots can hold in warmth while keeping your foot dry.

Return to Top >