All recreational winter boots are sturdier and more insulated than boots designed for fashion, and any true snow boots are also waterproof or highly water-resistant. Also, while virtually all winter boots are made to spend time in wet, snowy winter conditions, some are specifically designed for more active outdoor enthusiasts.
"P-A-C" spells warmth. Well, not really - but it should! The dictionary defines pac as "a moccasin or soft shoe designed to be worn inside a boot." So pac boots are essentially any winter boots with a soft inner "shoe" - in the form of a thick, insulative, removable liner. Pac boots have been the warmest winter boots out there for decades, but they've come a long way from the original crude, oversized boots that were insulated well but hard to maneuver in.
Now many pac boots are designed to keep feet comfortable over many miles. These boots are great for snowshoeing or shoveling the driveway - and they are still the best choice for motionless activities like ice fishing, or any activity involving trudging around in deep snow. If you have naturally cold feet, you'll really appreciate the warmth of this type of boot. Plus, their liners can be removed to dry quickly, so you'll never have to put cold feet back into wet boots.
Winter Hunting Boots
Generally speaking, cold-weather hunting boots are more rugged, lighter and less insulated than pac boots. These boots often offer Gore-Tex® waterproof protection in case you must walk through shallow water. Insulation, fit, weight and traction are all equally important in a winter hunting boot. These boots may be designed for hiking over rugged terrain if they have Vibram® hiking-style outsoles, and often are insulated with lightweight Thinsulate® insulation instead of having a thick, removable felt liner.
Quick Tip: For motionless hunting in very cold weather, consider switching to a pac boot.
Fashion Snow Boots
You don't have to sacrifice style for function. Many fashionable winter boots have style features that also serve to keep you warm, like faux fur cuffs, shearling insulation or a wide slip-on design that creates extra airspace for warmth. Remember that your boots need to get you safely and comfortably through a ski town, so avoid overly high heels, a lower ankle height and smooth, non-gripping outsoles.
Insulated Work Boots
Winter work boots are similar to winter hunting boots, but are almost always constructed of thick leather for durability, and may come with a steel toe. Buy the steel-toed version only if it's really necessary, as this feature can make your toes uncomfortably cold. Expect a lugged, heavy-duty outsole and a shock-absorbing midsole.
Snow boot uppers are usually made from leather or heavy-duty nylon, both of which are resistant to abrasion, punctures and wind. Snow boot uppers also generally feature sealed or "taped" seams to block out melting snow.
The upper on any winter boot must extend at least above the hem of your pants, but will need to reach well above your ankles for extra warmth and protection from deeper snow and colder conditions. The upper must be at least water-resistant, but will ideally be fully waterproof for extended use in wet, melting snow or mud-and-slush conditions.
Many heavy pac boots have a waterproof, injection-molded rubber shell (i.e. the "cupsole") welded to the upper to form the lower part of the boot. This shell's main function is to keep moisture from seeping in. Boots designed for lots of hiking, on the other hand, have a tighter fit around your ankle to reduce sliding or twisted ankles - which may mean sacrificing this rubber shell.
A rubber lower shell is great for blocking moisture out - but it also traps moisture in. The best way to deal with this is to wear moisture-wicking sock linings against your feet, with a pair of thicker wool or synthetic socks over the liners. Never wear cotton socks with winter boots.
The removable felt liners found in pac boots are usually made of polypropylene, wool, acrylic, Zylex® or a blend of these materials. They offer exceptional warmth but a loose fit. These liners sometimes come in a stated thickness, around 8 or 9 mm.
Thinsulate® insulation gives non-bulky, lightweight warmth that's best for active winter recreation. Here are a few rough guidelines to follow so you pick the best amount of Thinsulate® insulation for your needs:
• Uninsulated to 200 grams: Not good for cold weather - these are spring-to-fall boots.
• 400 - 800 grams: Best weight for high activity in cold weather or less activity in semi-cold weather.
• 1000 - 2000 grams: The best for frigid, mid-winter weather or many hours sitting motionless.
Finally, fashion boots often use natural shearling for insulation. The warmth comes from the thick underwool of sheepskin, which has been turned inside-out so it cradles your foot. This form of insulation is surprisingly effective, but usually these boots are poor at repelling water and are best for snow-covered sidewalks or nights on the town.
Many pac/ winter boot manufacturers provide temperature ratings for their boots, such as "Rated to -50° F." These ratings are determined based on varying scientific measures, and will not apply to everyone the same way. Use these ratings as a general guide to figuring out which boots are the warmest, but don't expect the boots to perform to that exact temperature rating. Your health, activity levels, clothing, perspiration, exposure time and other factors can all alter the effective temperature rating.
Many pac boots have a fleece, wool or acrylic collar or "cuff" appearing above the upper, which is actually attached to the boot's inner liner. Sometimes called a "gaiter," it's designed to fit snug against your leg to block out snow. Some boots go one step further and offer a pull-up gaiter with a drawstring closure at the top to keep snow out. Regardless of whether your boots have a cuff, gaiter or neither, always pull your pant legs down over your boots to keep snow out in the backcountry.
You'll want a full lacing system - not just several sets of D-rings - for most active winter sports or outdoor work. Full lacing will provide a tighter fit and prevent foot or sock slippage, but is not offered on many pac boots.
So should you sacrifice the warmth of a crudely laced pac boot for the better fit found with full lacing? Pick your boot by deciding if fit is more important (go with full lacing) or if extra warmth and deep-snow protection is required (a good idea to forego full lacing and grab a pair of pac boots).
There are multiple types of lacing systems; here are the main ones:
• Eyelets are essentially reinforced holes.
• D-Rings are hinged metal rings that swing free of the upper.
• Hooks are metal catches that only keep laces in place when tension is applied.
• Webbing is when sleeves (usually made of nylon) are sewn onto the upper; the laces run between the nylon and the boot upper.
• Combination lacing is when more than one of these styles have been used in one boot; the hook-and-eyelet variety is very common on winter boots.
Common Boot Lacing Systems
The bottom of your winter boots, or "outsole", should always be made of waterproof, durable rubber or a similar material. This 100% waterproof barrier will extend upward if the boot has a rubber "cupsole"-style bottom. Keep in mind that for activities that involve a lot of walking, great traction in the outsole may be more important than a fully waterproof cupsole that extends over your foot and ankle. Virtually all winter boots should offer decent traction on the snow, though.
• Choose winter boots based on the activities you’ll be doing and the weather conditions you’ll be spending time in. How a pair of boots look is much less important than choosing winter boots with the right features.
• Heavy-duty pac boots with thick insulation are best for sub-freezing conditions and short walks through deeper snow. Pac boots provide excellent weather protection but are less ideal for walking longer distances. Gaiters usually aren’t necessary when wearing pac boots.
• Lighter winter boots and insulated hiking boots are best for longer walks in cold weather and shallower snow. These boots provide moderate weather protection. For trekking in deeper snow and snowshoeing, consider using gaiters for additional protection.
• Test to see if your new winter boots have a DWR (durable water repellent) finish on the upper. If your boots have this finish, water will bead up and roll off the surface of the upper. If water doesn’t bead up, it’s a good idea to treat your boots with a DWR spray before wearing them out in the snow. Also, consider replenishing the DWR finish on your snow boots every autumn to keep them protected during the winter. Even boots with a waterproof breathable membrane should also have a DWR finish to prevent moisture from saturating the exterior fabric or leather. This will keep your waterproof footwear feeling lighter and much more breathable.