Winter Hiking Tips: What to Do About Cold Feet and Toes
Are you a hiker, snowshoer, skier, or mountaineer who suffers all winter from cold toes and feet? If so, I totally feel your pain. It’s 68 degrees F in my condo, and my feet are chilly under the desk right now!
However, these high-maintenance tootsies just survived two snow climbs to 19,000 ft. in Ecuador. So if there’s hope for my little freeze-baby toes, there’s probably hope for yours. You just need to dial in the right gear, socks, boots, nutrition, and hiking strategy. (Yes, easier said than done.)
In today’s post, I’ll share my best winter hiking tips for keeping toes and feet warm and happy while you play in the snow. Let’s dive in.
Remember, warm toes start with a warm core
Your toes may be the first things to get cold, but keeping them warm depends on insulating your entire body.
The best way to keep toes warm is to maximize the amount of blood that circulates to them. But as soon as your core body temperature drops, your brain reduces circulation to your arms and legs in order to protect your vital organs. You can slow or prevent this process by keeping your whole body warm, nourished, fit, and energized with the following tips:
- Remember that body warmth ultimately starts with your metabolism. Give your internal engine the fuel it needs to run hot. Eat regularly and stay well hydrated. Consume about 30 percent more calories than you would on a summer hike. For more info, check out my post on the best hiking foods.
- Stay fit through the winter. Good aerobic fitness increases circulation to your muscles. For more info, check out my posts on aerobic threshold training and finding your target heart rate.
- Carry a thermos of hot drink. Drinking warm liquids is great for morale. It also saves energy, because your body doesn’t have to heat up the fluids you consume. Electrolyte tabs and powders like this one from Nuun make hot water taste better.
- Dress in a three-layer system. For detailed advice on what to wear hiking in the winter, check out my post on winter hiking clothes.
- Be sure to insulate your head and neck. These are danger zones for heat loss. When possible, wear an insulated jacket with a hood.
- Most people, self included, tend to overheat if they wear insulated pants. A good compromise is to bring an insulated skirt or insulated shorts to slip on if your bum is getting cold.
Wear the right winter hiking socks
Your winter hiking socks are arguably more important than your boots when it comes to staying warm. Pay lots of attention to your sock system and find the combination that works for you.
- Consider picking up a mountaineering-weight sock for extra insulation. I highly recommend Darn Tough mountaineering socks for quality, comfort and durability. (Women’s here.) They even come with a lifetime guarantee. Choose from crew and over-the-calf lengths.
- Another option is to wear two pairs of lightweight socks. It’s probably worth a try before you invest in something more expensive.
- I find that wearing a compression sock liner like this anti-blister sock from ArmaSkin improves my circulation and helps my feet stay warmer. They also help to prevent soreness and blisters.
- In very wet and cold conditions, consider a waterproof vapor barrier sock liner. You can buy them, or you can improvise one by sliding a large plastic oven bag under your sock. For more details, check out this insulated holder.
- Battery heated socks? I haven’t tried them, but they might be worth some investigation — especially for shorter hikes and winter camping.
Choose the right winter hiking boots
Most people with chronically cold toes blame their winter hiking boots. But boots are the most expensive part of your clothing system, so try other fixes before you make a big investment.
- With the right socks, many people can hike and snowshoe comfortably in their summer hiking boots. But if your toes are chronically frozen, consider picking up an insulated hiking boot just for winter. Shop between the holidays (Thanksgiving and Christmas) for the best deals.
- Buy winter boots that are larger than your summer boots to accommodate heavier socks and chemical warmers. Take along your heavy winter socks when you try on boots, and be alert for tight spots. These invariably turn into cold spots once you get outside. In general, it is better for your winter hiking boots to be too big than too small.
- Use chemical toe warmers only if they fit comfortably inside your boots. If the warmer compresses your foot and reduces your circulation, it will actually make your foot colder. Place the warmer outside your sock on top of your toes. Never wear it against your skin.
- Avoid tying your boots too tightly, especially across the top of your foot. It can reduce circulation to your toes.
- Put a good after-market insole in your boot to promote comfort and blood flow. I especially like this women’s Berry model by Superfeet; it cushions my foot and holds my narrow heel in place.
- Use gaiters to keep snow from falling in the tops of your boots. I really love these Verglas Gaiters from Mountain Hardware. (Men’s here.) In a pinch, you can also duct tap your pant legs to your boots.
- Every few hikes, treat your boots to a spa day. Clean them and reapply a waterproofing product. (Nikwax has many options you can choose from.)
Hiking hacks for cold feet
The way you hike makes a difference in keeping you warm. Some strategy tips to try:
- Move slowly but steadily. Exert hard enough to keep warm, but slow down if you start to sweat.
- Keep rest breaks short (no more than 2–3 minutes when it’s really cold).
- Avoid stopping to take off your pack. Carry food, chapstick, and sunscreen in your pockets for quick access.
- Carry your water bottle in an insulated holder attached to your shoulder strap. Avoid hydration systems, which can freeze up and cause trouble.
- If you must stop for more than a few minutes, get your feet off the snow. Stand on a rock or log, or foam sleeping pad.
- Never let yourself cool down. Remember, it’s easier to stay warm than to get warm! If you start to feel chilled, pick up the pace, add layers, or do some butt kicks or jumping jacks.
So there you have em’. My best winter hiking tips for curing cold toes and feet.
Do you have any tips to add? Jump in the comments and share!
Originally published Nov. 29, 2018.