Choosing Winter Boots

Last year my Vasque boots finally gave in to the abuse I'd hurled at them over the years, and when winter suddenly arrived last week, bringing 10cm of snow, I quickly remembered it was time to buy a new pair for my daily hiking adventures.

First of all, this isn't a review – it isn't even a first look. It's more of a look at the process of finding the right boot for the right conditions. When choosing a winter boot, you have to look carefully at the kind of weather and trail conditions you are regularly encounter. Here in Lapland, the demands of this shoulder season are quite specific, and a little different from the dry permanent snow cover snow of "proper" winter. I was looking for a boot that could handle:

  • potentially icy / frosty rocks
  • several inches of potentially wet snow
  • treacherously slippery duckboards
  • temps between +5ºC and -10ºC

To meet those challenges, my ideal boot would need:

  • sticky rubber soles
  • good grip pattern
  • improved grip on ice
  • a waterproof layer in the material
  • a decent rubber rand around the perimeter, for very wet conditions (i.e. wet snow)
  • a mid-height (to help keep snow out)
  • some insulation (but not too much)
  • decent laces
  • ample room for my forefoot, but a sturdy grip on my heel

Additional, bonus features for me that would extend the use of the boots were an eye-loop for gaiters

and a heel wedge that allows a stronger fitting for microspikes / snow shoes / ski shoes. Both of those would allow me to use the boots when there is deeper, loose snow for more active pursuits.

I should note, before anyone starts shouting "Sorel Caribou", that I have a pair of Sorel Caribou boots, but I find they're way too overkill for early winter, and not without their problems: they're far too warm for the season, very big (hard to fit trousers over them) and heavy and clumsy for driving. The grip pattern, while great for snow, is not so good on rough, rocky terrain. Hence my quest for seasonal boot perfection.

Although there are a few sports shops in Rovaniemi, the selection of boots suitable for this transitional period between autumn and deep winter were disappointingly limited. A quick look around the stores and supermarkets gave me several options.

Prisma had a lot of Salomon boots, and while many of them looked suitable, they were all far too narrow for my feet.

Intersport had a nice pair of Merrel Norsehund mids, but I found them also to be a bit tight around the forefoot.

Many shops stock IceBugs, but to me they seem a bit too much like a city shoe, and while the studs in the sole are great for icy streets, when you head inside they can be very slippery.

And so, I was left with searching online, with all the attendant risks that entails (mainly ordering shoes that don't fit).

I turned to twitter for advice from the online community. After the initial bout of "Sorel Caribou" exclamations, I got a bunch of other suggestions:


, made in Rovaniemi (I think), but not quite what I was looking for as they are not really a walking boot – more a snow slipper. (Thanks @mtakanen)

Merrell Moab Polar

(which I'd seen online, but thanks @korpikaakko)

Merrell Norsehund Omegas

 (also courtesy @korpijaakko)

Varusteleka Mids

, not quite my cup of tea (but thanks @eeallo)

Patagonia Snow Drifter

, nice grip, bit too warm, could use a better rubber perimeter (thanks @panuj)

Merrell Norsehund Alpha

, a bit too 'ardcore, and there are no Goth clubs up here (but at least we know what @thunder_night gets up to at the weekend now)

Add to those a few more I saw:

Merrell Iceclaw

, looks good, but I couldn't find it in other stores where I could pay less

Ecco Biom Hike

, which I saw in our local Ecco shop, and remembered that


likes, and they look nice (though a bit over my budget)

Vasque Snow Junkie

, which looked right up my alley, but I couldn't find a dealer in Europe.

After a couple of days mulling it over, I narrowed it down to either the Merrell Iceclaws or Moab Polars. In the end, I left it to fate and a good deal on a pair of

Moab Polars


Photo: Merrell

They arrived yesterday, and seem to be pretty good. There was still that tight fit on my forefoot, but after loosening up the laces a bit more, and trying the other shoe, I decided that this was probably caused by my right foot being larger, and the new shoes needing some wearing in.

What I like about them is that they are a bit like Sorel Caribou's in that they have the thick rubber rand around the perimeter. This is great for when it gets wet, or trudging through wet snow/undergrowth. Usually, leather or synthetic materials eventually wet out here, which is a pain as they take forever to dry. The rubber is like a wellington boot - you know nothing is getting through, but you have the advantage of breathability on the upper. Unlike the Sorels, though, the boot is much lighter, and much less bulky.

As a bonus, they have the D-loop for gaiters, so if the snow get's deeper, or if it's chucking it down, you can keep nearly all of the wetness away from the more absorbant materials. And just look at that wedge for snow-shoes and ski-shoes.

They have 400g of insulation, and feel comfortably warm – certainly warm enough to cope down to -10ºC. They weigh 698g per shoe; reasonable enough for boots.

Potential problems? The lace eyelets are only material, and some of the stitching is a bit rough around the edges. Only time will tell...

After a few circuits of the apartment, I felt comfortable, and declared them "a good fit", which was a huge relief as I really didn't want the hassle of sending them back, and I desperately needed proper boots.

It was time to take them out for a spin along the Ounasvaara Nature Trail, which has a nice mix of rugged, rocky terrain, with plenty of roots, and sections of duckboard. The snow had melted and turned to splodgy sections of ice which would test the grip nicely too.

The sole is pretty good: sticky rubber on the black parts, and something Merrell calls M-Select IceGrip on the yellow. Grip on the duckboards was astounding: it even made a sound like when you walk into the liquor store and walk over the part where the alcoholic has dropped the six-pack of IPA. Super-grippy. Similarly, I had no slipping on roots, which often happens with more rigid rubber soles.

My usual "ultimate test" for grippiness is lichen-covered rock, and grip on this surface was good. I felt about 85% confident. There was some sliding if I forced it.

On ice, it was hard to say. The melting was such that most of the ice was covered in a thin layer of water, which in my experience only studs can handle. So on that I slipped, and then tried to avoid it as much as possible. It remains to be seen how they handle on drier ice.

Waterproofing? There was only one place to test that: the mires...

As you can see, it was pretty wet. The rubber rand performed as you would expect. I felt a cold spot on one of the seams on the left foot. My feet remained dry though, so it's hard to tell if that was insulation or a tiny leak. In all fairness though, I don't plan to walk through swamps in these, as they are intended for the time of year when the mires start to freeze, and you can happily walk over them.  A time which I look forward to with fervour.

For now, though, I'm just happy to have a pair of boots that are warm, dry, grippy, and will keep me outdoors in the early winter.

We'll see if they can handle what I throw at them this year.

You can buy Merrell Moab Polar boots from