Cover image: Bring on winter with these 5 cold weather essentials: Oboz Bridger Insulated Waterproof boots, Oboz thermal O FIT insoles with wool topping and a mylar reflective layer, midweight wool hiking socks and lightweight wool liner socks, winter hat, and chemical heat packs (get the “toe warmer” ones for use inside your boots). All images: Jesse Cunningham
In order to understand why feet get cold, we first need to know a few things about physiology. There are many variables that govern our individual bodies and metabolism, but I'm going to simplify the subject with a few rules of cold feet physiology and thermodynamics:
- Feet sweat a lot. Think of it like pouring a cup of water into each of your boots every day.
- Wet feet lose more heat than dry feet. Water conducts heat away from your feet better than air; that is why we use sweat to cool our bodies.
- Heat moves from a warmer system (your body) to a cooler system (the air and the ground).
- When our bodies lose too much heat they reduce blood flow to the extremities in order to maintain our core body temperature and protect our critical organs.
Now that we're armed with some basic rules to help explain what can cause cold feet, some solutions should be simpler to identify. The following are 5 basic tips for keeping your feet warm.
When you have the right equipment and manage your warmth effectively, you can play for hours in the snow.
- Boots. Get a pair of waterproof/breathable boots. Keeping moisture out of your boots and away from your skin will help your feet stay warmer. Waterproof boots will keep your feet from getting wet from the outside. The breathable membrane will help to move perspiration from the inside to the outside of your boots. If you buy an insulated boot, you will increase your foot’s ability to retain heat within the boot. Bonus tip: In deep snow, wearing gaiters will help to keep snow from entering over the top of your boots.
- Socks. You have probably heard the dramatic warning to outdoor users: “Cotton Kills!” Not everyone who wears cotton is subject to immediate death by hypothermia, but wet cotton is a horrible insulator. When cotton gets wet it holds moisture close to the skin. A good quality wool or synthetic sock will not only trap a pocket of warm air around your feet, but the fibers also wick moisture away from your feet. Layering a lightweight wicking liner sock under your main insulating sock can further speed the movement of moisture away from your feet and can especially be helpful for people who sweat a lot or are doing high output activities. Bonus tip: Be careful about layering too many socks or wearing extra thick socks in the hopes of providing better insulation. If the layers constrict your feet in the boots you will reduce blood flow and can actually cause your feet to be colder than if you had just stuck with a lighter sock. Bring extra socks if you'll be out for a while and tend to sweat a lot.
- Insoles. You can purchase insoles that are insulated with wool, foam, or other insulating materials; and often use a reflective radiative barrier, such as mylar (the material used to make space blankets), to further reduce heat loss to the ground. Quality winter boots, such as the Oboz Bridger Insulated, come supplied with insulating insoles.
- Stay warm. This may seem obvious but it is worth pointing out. Nothing will help your feet stay warm better than keeping your body warm. Eat and drink to keep your internal furnace stoked. If you're cold, put on a hat; you lose a tremendous amount of heat through your head. In cold weather take shorter rest breaks and put on extra layers when you stop to retain the heat that your body is generating. It is easier to stay warm than it is to rewarm cold extremities.
- Toe warmers. If all else fails, carry some chemical toe warmers with you to stick in your boots.
You could just stay inside and you'd never have to worry about cold feet. However, with a little bit of knowledge and a few changes to your footwear setup you could go from fearing the cold, or retreating after a short period outside, to spending the day charging through snowdrifts and playing like a kid. I'd rather be outside.
Jesse Cunningham lives in Ellensburg, WA and is an Oboz ambassador, photographer, and father to two young adventurers. He enjoys motivating his children and others to get outside and chase their own adventures almost as much as he does plotting and pursuing his next big trip. Follow his adventures on Instagram.