Never let fashion get in between you and toasty toes.
A headline in the Guardian had me jumping up and down for joy this morning. "How to survive this bleak winter? Stomp about in chunky boots," written by Hadley Freeman, is an ode to the warm winter boots that make life so much easier at this time of year. The annoying thing is, it took me years to figure this out.
As a child, I clomped around in the high, wide Sorels that my parents always bought me. They had removable felt liners that had to be taken out and dried by the wood stove at night. At least, this is what my parents told me to do; I never really noticed a difference. But I do know that I loved winter and spent hours outside every day playing in the snow. Little did I know it had everything to do with the boots...When I grew up and moved to the big city, I succumbed to the bizarre notion that boots had to be stylish. I bought a pair of black suede ankle boots with white embroidered patterns and fake fur trim and my mom asked if they were slippers the first time she saw them. Those didn't last long. They weren't built for Toronto winters, where the snow turns to slush and you have to walk through puddles of icy water every time you cross a street.
Next came a pair of high black leather boots that zipped up the back, with a pathetically thin layer of insulation inside. They were a slight improvement over the slippers, but my feet were still always wet and cold. I had to dry the boots on a vent, which turned the leather brittle.
It wasn't until I left the city and moved up north where the wind whips off Lake Huron and blows snow horizontally for days on end that I thought, "Enough is enough. I need some real winter boots." I bought a pair of Baffin boots, big chunky things that made me feel like an elephant, but kept me warm for the first time in a decade. It was life-changing, empowering, and deeply satisfying. I felt like I could go anywhere, stay outside indefinitely, climb mountains.
Freeman gets it. She describes finding the perfect pair of chunky boots over Christmas:
"Part-ski boot, part-hiking boot, they are so chunky and stompy I gain at least three jolts of testosterone every time I put them on, and I love it. I wear them with shorts and tights, with miniskirts, with party dresses. I would wear them to bed but I would probably end up accidentally assaulting myself."
Since then, I've become obsessed with keeping my feet warm all winter long. I wore out the Baffins and replaced them with a pair of Sorels, but those were a poor choice. My feet were chronically cold. I swapped them for some Merrills from MEC, which I now wear every day and have never felt toastier (and happier!), even when the temperature dipped to -20C/-4F this past week.
So, here's some advice when choosing good winter boots:
Boots come in many different styles, but there are two main ones. As Outdoor Gear Lab explains, Pac boots have an outer water-resistant boot with an inner removable liner. Slip-on boots are the all-in-one style that have become more popular of late. OGL concludes that, while the slip-ons "performed lower than either Pac boots or insulated winter hiking boots in our tests, we still found ourselves reaching for them often due to their incredible simplicity." They are incredibly easy to use, and you cannot underestimate practicality when it comes to making a good choice.
Get ones that insulate your feet from the ground. The Sorels that I hated had nothing between my feet and the ground except a thin felt liner and a rubber sole, whereas the Merrills and the Baffins have at least an inch of insulated sole, plus the liner. It makes all the difference in the world. A good tread helps, too, to prevent slipping on ice.
Choose boots that you can move easily in. Freeman may love her clunky boots, but I still need something that I can walk around town in without feeling like I'm stomping every step of the way. The Merrills come to just above my ankle, but I find them more comfortable and walkable than mid-calf boots.
Make sure your boots err slightly on the larger side because you want warm air to be able to circulate inside. If your boot is too tight, your feet will be cold, even if you do everything else right.
Dry your boots every night, even if you don't think they're damp. Your feet sweat and it gets absorbed into the boot, which prevents your feet from warming up. Dry your socks, too, or change them frequently. I always put a fresh pair on before heading outside. Wool is the warmest by far; cotton doesn't do the job.
Finally, be picky, if you can afford to be. Having warm feet means the difference between enjoying winter and despising it. I promise you, it's a worthwhile investment.