I love playing outside in winter. My fingers and toes, on the other hand, do not. And I’ve struggled mightily over the years trying to figure out how to keep my feet warm.
Like a sizable chunk of adults, I have Raynaud’s syndrome, which limits blood flow to the extremities and causes excessive cold and numbness. Even on days in the 30s or 40s, cold hands and feet are enough to ruin a day outside. I’ve learned to manage chilly fingers with quality mittens and hand warmers. Toes, on the other hand, are harder to keep warm, especially when locked in a ski boot all day.
Sure, cold feet are a part of winter, but you don’t have to suffer through winter activities. Over years of screaming barfies (that burning, nauseating feeling of blood returning to a frozen body part), lots of breaks in the ski lodge, and near misses with frostbite, I’ve tried just about everything to keep my feet warm and take back winter fun. Here’s what’s worked for me and what hasn’t.
Adhesive Toe Warmers
Most of us have tried these, and they certainly have their merits—they’re near weightless, cheap, and ready to go at any moment. They come in handy on long trips when you can’t recharge battery-operated heaters (more on that in a second). But I’ve also found them to be one of the least effective tools to keep my feet warm. Shake-and-stick foot warmers rarely last as long as their packages advertise, they’re less than comfortable in most boots, and they produce a lot of plastic waste over time. Plus, stick-on foot warmers won’t do much to bring already-cold toes back from the freezer. That said, I always keep a pair in my touring pack for emergencies; just beware—they expire.
Neoprene Boot Covers
Sure, these look super goofy, but they do help in trapping some heat that escapes through the shell of your ski boots or your hiking boots. Caveat: they block access to laces and boot buckles. If you’re like me, you unbuckle your ski boots between runs or on the uphills, both for comfort and to maximize precious circulation to the feet. Futzing with a boot cover to do so is a pain, and is difficult to do in gloves or mittens, which only causes more cold troubles for your hands. I reserve these for exceedingly cold days as an extra line of defense paired with a second heating element.
My first revelation into the world of heated apparel, these have made the difference between excruciating pain in my toes on the coldest days and moderately cold—but bearable—piggies. Many pairs use wires underfoot to apply heat from the heel to the ball of your foot without direct heat on the toes where you really need it. These work well enough to allow me to stay out all day in reasonable comfort, but in no way keep my feet warm. The benefit of heated socks is they can be worn with any boots or shoes and are often Bluetooth-controlled from a companion app—no need to bend over and pull up your pant leg to adjust the settings. Downsides: The good models are pricey, and you’ll have to recharge the battery packs after every use, making them inconvenient for longer backcountry trips.
Note: Newer versions wrap the heating element around the toes instead of relegating them to underneath the foot. I haven’t tried these yet, but have high hopes for their effectiveness.
New to me this ski season, boot heaters have been a game changer. Of this list, I’ve found them the most effective for maintaining comfort all day long, but they have some issues. If you prioritize a light touring setup, the battery packs are heavy—mine clock in at 13 ounces for the pair (not a huge deal, but they make by lightweight touring boots feel a little less so). Without additional accessories, they easily slip off boot shells (I’ve already lost one while skiing, and they ain’t cheap to replace). The cords on the popular Hotronic model aren’t durable and you have to baby them a little to avoid fraying. You install them into one pair of boots, so you can’t move them between pairs as with heated socks. However, the heating elements themselves don’t cost much and the battery packs can be shared between any boots with heating elements. I’ve installed heaters (about $30 a pair) in my two pairs of ski boots and use the batteries interchangeably. The initial cost of the whole system can feel exorbitant, but these are the only heaters that keep my feet warm throughout long 15°F ski days.
Heavily Insulated Boots
Since I mostly ski in winter, I have less insight on the best boots for snowshoeing and other snow activities. That said, I tried out a pair of fat biking boots while hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park earlier this winter and was thoroughly impressed. These aren’t meant for hiking, so I’d keep them on mellow terrain. I wore mine with microspikes and my heated socks and stayed comfy for a day of light hiking and standing around during a windy and cold avalanche education course. If you spend time spectating from the sledding hill or walking the dog in frigid conditions, these might be right for you.
Keep Your Feet Warm
None of these methods work if I don’t start the day with dry and warm feet. It’s much harder to warm up a cold foot and boot than to maintain warmth. I always blast the heat and change into fresh socks before getting out of the car at the trailhead or resort lot—even a little foot sweat from an hour in the car can steal heat fast. I also turn on my sock or boot heaters right away. Don’t bother trying to save the battery for the way down. Without them, I’ve gone numb just in the time in takes me to slap on my skins, turn on my beacon, and adjust my layers.
If you’re like me, it requires work (and some extra cash) to keep your feet warm and comfortable in winter. Gear alone won’t solve your circulation problems; pay attention to your body, and stay on top of keeping warm. Taking breaks to warm up sucks, but it sucks less than screaming barfies (trust me). It’ll take some time to find a system that works best for you, but it’s worth it to truly enjoy all the snowy season has to offer.