I’m a bowhunter who hunts in western Pennsylvania, so one of the problems that I face in the late season is keeping warm when it’s cold out. Much of this is pretty easy, and is the same answer as anywhere else—layers. The only difference is that the outer layer is camouflage. That said, this does not apply as much to the feet, since most people out in the cold are doing different things than hunters are. In particular, hunters need to walk to their hunting spot, then they sit or stand still in the cold for hours on end. That last part is particularly important, because they don’t generate as much bodyheat as someone moving does.
Before I get to that, I should mention that it also doesn’t apply as much to the hands, and I’ve found some very good hunting mittens made by Hot Shot Gear. They’re called pop top hunting mittens, and they’re both warm mittens but also allow you to slide your fingers out of the mittens in thin gloves, which is essentially for your string hand. I shoot with a trigger release, so I only need one finger, though a thumb release or traditional finger guard would require more fingers and this allows that. They’re warm and very functional for archery. As a bonus, the index finger has a tab on it that can work with capacitive touchscreens, which is very helpful for texting someone to complain about the deer not coming by.
Anyway, there are two main solutions I’ve been able to find to the problem of keeping one’s feet warm. The first are enormous boots which are both heavy and cumbersome. They’re tiring to walk in and they clomp noisily as one can only really step with one’s full foot in them; the best one can do to not clomp is a mild heel-to-toe motion. On the plus side, they’re warm and waterproof.
The other main solution are thinks like mukluks. Mukluks were designed for seriously cold conditions but they are also lightweight and flexible. The only downside is that they’re not waterproof. In the places where they were developed this isn’t really a problem, since below about 15F (-9.4C) water can be relied upon to be hard and stay hard (that is, to be ice and not melt) and so being waterproof is irrelevant because the only liquid water you will be exposed to is in your water bottle. My understanding of places like North Dakota, Canada, Alaska, etc.—where people really love mukluks—15F is spring weather and people tend to wear tennis shoes and light jackets in it. I may be exaggerating slightly, but they’re concerned with whether the boots are good below -30F, not 15F. (Moreover, if the weather is frequently colder than 15F, a warm day that gets up to there or even into the 20s isn’t going to melt any ice.)
In western Pennsylvania, though, winter frequently oscillates between being a bit below freezing and just above it. Even on fairly cold days it’s not uncommon to find mud in places where the sun hits for a few hours or leaves provide some insulation, unless it’s been well below freezing every day for a few days. We need waterproof footgear, but I really don’t want to pay the penalty of clomping around in massive, inflexible boots. So I got a good idea from this post: making a winter boot out of galoshes and a thick felt bootliner plus insoles. I tried it out and it worked extremely well. The results were light, flexible, comfortable, waterproof, and warm.
I’m a size (men’s US) 11 wide and ordered the boot liner true to size and the overboot sized to 11-13 shoes. The result had plenty of room inside without being too big, and comfortable fit me wearing a thick winter socket plus a second, even thicker winter sock. I absolutely loved their performance and feel.
To give a list of the particulars that I used:
- Overboot: Tingley PVC 10″ Workbrutes (note: at the time of writing they’re cheaper on Amazon)
- Felt liner: Steger Mukluks 9mm Felt Boot Liners
- Insole: Steger Mukluks Wool Felt Insole
- Thick sock: Darn Tough Heavyweight Tactical Sock
- Super Thick Sock: J.B. Felds Icelandic Socks
Something to note about this approach is that the total cost for the parts that weren’t the socks (which you’d have to buy separately with any boot) was $67.46 (not including tax or shipping) which is extremely cheap for a pair of insulated boots. With the socks it came to $113.36 (the Darn Tough socks were expensive, but in my experience Darn Tough socks are worth it, especially because they honor their no-questions-asked lifetime guarantee). For a comfortable way to avoid pain and possibly frostbite, I found it well worth it.
One thing I need to note is that this approach gives no “support” of any kind. I hate “support” in shoes because it mostly means some sort of uncomfortable rigid thing that prevents the foot from bending naturally and makes a natural gait extremely difficult. That said, I spent a year or two wearing vibram five-fingers, so I developed strong feet whose arch comes from the muscles and tendons in the foot, as it’s supposed to, and not from resting on top of something that pushes the middle of the foot up. If you haven’t developed the muscles and tendons in your foot to be able to walk naturally, you will probably not find this approach nearly as comfortable. If you haven’t, I recommend trying to do so. (If you can get them to fit your foot, or make do with ones that are too large as I had to, vibram five fingers are a great way to do this. Just take it slowly. You don’t want to walk through a large box store your first time out—concrete is very tiring to walk on naturally. After a few weeks, your feet will be strong enough that it’s not tiring anymore, but you have to walk a little before you can walk a lot. Once you’ve done this, though, walking is a lot more pleasurable to do, and it pays dividends for hunting where you can more easily use the ball-first walking style that allows you to feel if you’re stepping on a branch and pick your foot up, so you don’t announce to everything with ears in the forest that you’re coming.)