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Don't Put Your Boots Away (Boots made for winter hiking) by Barbara Brotman


Hey, you there, tossing your hiking boots into the basement until spring. What do you think you're doing?

You're not thinking of spending the winter indoors wallowing in self-pity, are you? Sure, it's easy to do -- I speak from personal experience last winter. But let's not go there, people. This year, particularly, we need to stay active outdoors. It's all about stress reduction now. Also enjoyment as you walk through a quiet, snowy wonderland

So let's talk about winter hiking. Specifically, winter hiking boots.

Buying winter boots is not simply about finding something with the maximum amount of insulation. When you choose a boot, you have to consider how you will be using it. If you are going to be standing around, like at a bus stop, you need maximum warmth, which for my money means Uggs.

But if you are going to be hiking briskly, you don't need that much insulation. Your body will generate its own heat. And you do need support. For most of us, that eliminates snow boots, which are fine for shoveling the sidewalk but not for a 5-mile trek.

Winter hiking boots are a small sub-set of footwear made for hardy hikers who want to keep walking through ice, snow and frigid temperatures. Not all winter hikers buy insulated boots. Plenty of them simply use regular hiking boots, as long as they are waterproof and breathable.

But for those of us who are particularly cold-footed, here's what to look for:

*Insulation. Winter hiking boots are lined with Thinsulate, PrimaLoft or equivalents. Manufacturers recommend 200 to 400 grams of insulation.

*Impermeability to water. Wet feet are cold feet. You need boots that are waterproof, not just water-resistant. Waterproof boots can be made of treated leather or can incorporate a waterproof, breathable membrane like Gore-Tex or eVent. Seams should be sealed. For extra protection, Bill Watson, a sales specialist at REI in Oakbrook Terrace, advisescustomers to treat seams with waterproofing spray.

*An important element of keeping feet dry is getting sweat away from your feet. Breathable membranes like Gore-Tex allow moisture to escape. Treated leather, Watson said, is also breathable.

*The right socks will also help keep feet dry. Wool/synthetic blend hiking socks will wick moisture away from your feet. An added plus: One pair of heavy wool socks provides the equivalent of 200 grams of insulation, said Marty Gruber, a footwear fitter at Cabela's in Hoffman Estates. But don't get socks that are too thick; if you impede your circulation, you defeat the purpose.

*A caution about temperature comfort ratings: They come with caveats about individual feet having different perceptions. Take the caveats seriously, and know yourself.

*No boot will give you traction on ice. For that, you need over-shoe traction devices such as Yaktrax. Traction devices are not just for hiking; they will help protect you from falls on city sidewalks.

Some specific suggestions, all put to the test of a 20-minute dog walk in 25 degrees F.:

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Merrell Winterlude 6

For women, $110, available at REI. www.rei.com

This women's boot has a molded thermoplastic urethane shell around the bottom to keep moisture out, and waterproof liners to keep seams impermeable. Insulation comes from 200 grams of PrimaLoft, and to keep from losing heat to the ground, there are reflective silver film insoles. The nylon shank gave it a hiking boot's support, but I found it a bit too stiff.

Comfort rating: To 25 degrees below zero during active use.

Verdict: At the end of my dog-walk test, my toes were not cold, but they weren't warm, either. People with tougher toes would probably be fine.

Salomon Deemax Dry

$130, at REI.

Impressively lightweight for the 200 grams of Thinsulate insulation, and accordingly comfortable, but noticeably less warm. The one-pull stretch shoelaces have a little webbed pocket on the tongue to store the cord lock. The boots are waterproof -- the seams are welded, not stitched -- and breathable.

Comfort rating: To 20 degrees.

Verdict: Nice if your feet don't get very cold.

Keen Blackcomb

Women's $119, men's $120, available at REI.

Waterproof, 200 grams of PrimaLoft, thermal foot bed with silver film beneath the forefoot -- this boot has a lot in common with the Merrell. The difference I felt was that the Keen's shank was less stiff.

Comfort rating: To 25 degrees below zero during active use.

Verdict: In the dog-walk test, it performed identically to the Merrell. But because it was so comfortable, I subjected it to a further, more rigorous test -- a 45-minute hilly hike over, and sometimes through, snow. And though I was exerting so much energy that I was sweating, I was dismayed to find that my toes got cold.

Cabela Avalanche 400-Gram Winter Boot

For men and women, $59.99, at Cabela's in Hoffman Estates. www.cabelas.com

It is not a true hiking boot, so those who need strong arch and ankle support won't like it. But it has an impressive 400 grams of Thinsulate insulation and is waterproof and breathable.

Comfort rating: Cabela's does not provide a temperature comfort rating.

Verdict: I felt the extra insulation on my dog-walk test. For a budget alternative, consider this.

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* On trails that are also used by cross-country skiers, let your conscience be your guide. It's easier to walk on the tamped-down ski tracks, but skiers are not fond of that. Sorry about that, friends.

* If you're walking through several inches of snow, wear gaiters over your boots.

* Don't forget to keep your hands warm. My favorite strategy: snow sport mittens with gauntlet sleeves over either a bare hand clutching a chemical hand warmer or a stretchy liner-weight glove (my current favorite: The Manzella Silkweight Windstopper, $30).

* Don't leave your thumb cold and lonely; let it join the fingers in your fist in the mitten. You don't need opposable thumbs to take a walk.