How many times have you been out riding in the winter and had your toes get so cold they hurt? Let me tell you a couple of tidbits that won’t make you feel like you’re in Hawaii, but will help you keep your “tootsies” a little warmer in the winter.
Most people simply add socks until their feet just barely fit into their favorite riding boots. While that may seem like the logical thing, in practice, it is counterproductive.
Let’s first start with the part that gets cold – your toes. Make sure your feet are dry. You might consider using foot powder around your toes before you put your socks on.
Believe it or not, your feet sweat, even when they are cold. Keeping them dry is key to keeping them warm.
Moving on to socks. Until a few years ago, I thought the best arrangement for the cold, was a pair of cotton athletic socks, or even two pairs, under a pair of thick wool socks. Nice, huh? Thick, comfortable. I always ran into the problem, though, like I mentioned above, of fitting into my boots. My feet were usually so cramped in my boots, that my feet likely got cold from lack of circulation!
What I didn’t know then, was that cotton socks, while comfortable, absorb and hold moisture next to your feet, right where you don’t want it. A few years ago, I invited my wife to go with me on a deer hunt. We were going to horse pack into the Blue Wilderness Area in eastern Arizona, set up a base camp, and stay several days. I wanted to make everything just right for her, so that in the future, I might get her out to do it again. Linda gets cold feet. So, I did some research on how to keep your feet warm. What I found out surprised me.
The recommendation was, and I have found it to be true, to wear a thin pair of polypropylene socks next to your skin. The poly socks provide little warmth, but neither do they absorb moisture. They actually act as a moisture barrier of sorts. Moisture from your feet passes through the poly material and gets trapped in the outer layer of sock. In recent years I have found it hard to find polypropylene socks. You have to get them at a specialty shop. Often even well-stocked outdoor sports stores don’t have them. As an alternative, I have found that mens’ nylon dress socks do almost as well. You can still find them in the “old mens’” section at clothing stores.
The next layer of your sock combination depends a little on your shoes or boots and the weather. If the weather is such that you are going to wear your regular riding boots or shoes, then a thick pair of wool socks might not fit. In that case, you can go with your cotton athletic socks. In extreme cold, however, cotton socks always come off second-best to wool. A good, thick pair of wool, or wool-blend socks over your thin poly socks will hold warmth around your feet, while wicking away moisture, from your feet, as it passes through the poly socks. It works much the same way as plastic diapers do on a baby. Wool has special properties, as well, that allow it to stay bulky and full, and therefore hold warmth, even when damp or wet. While other materials, such as synthetics, or cottons, may feel soft and comfortable, neither has both the ability to absorb moisture and stay bulky as well as wool products. Cotton absorbs water and compacts, synthetics remain bulky, but do not absorb moisture well.
Which leads us to our next topic: Insulation. One of the problems with wearing a bunch of bulky socks, is that when you stuff your feet into your boots, all that bulkiness gets compacted, losing most of its insulation value. Wearing a thin pair of “liner” socks, such as the poly socks described above, under your bulky wool socks, helps with this, as opposed to wearing two pairs of bulky socks. Buy a pair of riding boots for winter wear that are at least a half-size larger than what you normally wear, so you can wear a pair of bulky woolen socks without making the boot fit tight. You might consider buying boots with an insulating liner in them, such as “Thinsulate” which is one brand name of footwear insulation used by Cabelas.
Personally, I prefer boots with no insulation. I recently bought a pair of Hathorne Explorer packer boots, in preparation for my Great Western Trail trip (I figured I had better buy them early and have them well-broken in before the trip). These boots are made of very heavy leather (they are made by White, which is well-known for making high quality Logger and Fire-fighter boots), but they are not insulated. This allows me to decide how warm my feet need to be and to choose my sock combination accordingly.
Additionally, I purposely bought boots that were a half-size too large for me. At the same time, I bought a pair of high-quality insoles for them. The insoles make it so I can wear the boots all year round. I wear them with a pair of regular boot socks in warm weather, with the insoles in place, and I remove the insoles to wear them with my cold-weather combination of socks in the winter. The extra room, without the insole, makes it so my socks do not get compacted, while still allowing my boots to fit comfortably snug. The main point with boot fit for cold weather is this: Leave room for your “dogies to breathe!” If your feet are tight in your boots, they will be as cold as if you wore regular warm weather socks.
A little about moisture control. We’ve discussed moisture from inside the boot…from your foot. The rest of the moisture comes from outside the boot. There are a lot of theories about waterproofing footwear, and the best I have found is called “Gore-tex.” Of course that is a brand name and there are other names for very similar materials, but I like Gore-tex. Gore-tex is a revolutionary synthetic material that is breathable, yet waterproof. Almost as good as wool! You can now buy everything from footwear to hats that are lined or made of Gore-tex. It is good stuff. However, if you are like me, and your champagne taste is tempered by a root-beer budget, Leather is the way to go for most situations. Leather boots cannot be made absolutely waterproof without a Gore-tex lining. But, you can make them very water-resistant.
For those who want water-resistance and to keep their leather in top condition, there are oils, such as mink oil, manufactured under various brands, as well as other kinds of “shoe grease” that will soak into the leather and make it very near impervious to water. However, these types of leather treatments are essentially liquids themselves, and tend to get cold in cold weather. They are not the best choice for damp winter weather, in my opinion.
I recommend a good quality boot or shoe waterproofing wax treatment. I have used a waterproofing wax made by Kiwi with satisfactory results. I have found that the wax application must be repeated several times each winter, as the wax does not soak into the leather like the oils do, but rather fills the pores of the leather on the surface, and therefore gets scraped off with wear. As it is not a liquid itself, and therefore is not wet to begin with, it does not seem to get cold like the oils do, and my feet stay dry and warmer.
For winter riding in which one is expected to encounter extreme wet conditions for an extended period, I recommend boots with a rubber foot, such as the ones in the picture, from the Cabela’s catalog.
No leather boot will stay dry for an extended period in wet conditions, unless it is lined with Gore-tex, in my experience. I find leather boots to be more comfortable than rubber-footed boots, so I will elect to go with leather in most circumstances.
One last tidbit has to do with boot soles. I always prefer to ride with smooth, leather-soled western riding boots. Not only do they make me feel and look like John Wayne (as long as you’re looking at my feet only), but they are actually safer to ride in than rubber-soled boots or riding shoes. They easily slip into and out of the stirrup, which greatly eases getting on…and unloading in a hurry, when necessary. Leather soles, however, get wet and slick when used on wet surfaces. The moisture will eventually get through to your socks and your feet. Rubber soles are completely waterproof, so I recommend them for winter riding. Rubber-soled riding boots tend to grab the leather tread most stirrups are made with, and keep the boot from slipping in or out. A rubber lugged sole, such as you see on some western-style boots, can actually be unsafe for riding. The lugged sole can become locked in place in the stirrup if the foot is placed at any angle other than normal. When deciding on a winter riding boot, consider the type and size of your stirrups. Your riding boot should slip easily into and out of the stirrup. You may find you need to invest in a pair of winter riding stirrups, for comfort and safety, along with your winter riding boots.
So there you have it, the gospel according to Tony, for keeping your tootsies warm during winter riding.