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Spring Footwear: Lightweight Footwear Systems Built Around Thin Neoprene Overboots and High Gaiters

Foremost among the challenges that spring hikers face is the presence of melting snow and the prospect of continuously wet feet. Ryan Jordan presents his two favorite footwear systems for cold or warm spring conditions.

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by Ryan Jordan | 2009-02-17 00:05:00-07

Spring Footwear: Lightweight Footwear Systems Built Around Thin Neoprene Overboots and High Gaiters - 1
Ryan Jordan with wet feet on a November circumnavigation of Mt. Rainier's Wonderland Trail.

My Challenge

Spring - the "season" that we who live and play in the mountains generally refer to as Thank-God-winter's-over - offers unique challenges as we hang up our skis and begin again to fantasize about walking long distances. In my trekking home - that high swath of mountainous land in Southwest Montana and Northwest Wyoming known as Greater Yellowstone, "spring for trekkers" comes to our foothills sometime in March and lasts into the high country well into June. Foremost among the challenges that spring hikers face is the presence of melting snow and the prospect of continuously wet feet. As such, finding hiking partners to join me in these conditions - and help me test my theories about ultralight footwear - is challenging!

Unlike during the winter, when insulated, waterproof footwear is a must, spring offers some latitude in your footwear choices.

In the spring of 2006, I evaluated many different footwear systems while I trained for a trek in the Western Arctic (see companion piece, "Roadless", in Issue 7 of Backpacking Light Print Magazine). Temperatures, which were generally above freezing, meant that keeping my feet warm on dry trail and hardpack snow was not a great challenge. But the presence of moisture-heavy snow, the prospect of postholing, and the need to wade cold creeks flush with melt water meant that having footwear that managed moisture was important. Waterproof footwear systems keep external moisture at bay but result in hot feet in drier, milder conditions. And, the well-draining footwear common among summer hikers fails to keep feet warm at colder temperatures. Selecting trekking footwear for spring walking can be a great challenge!

My Options

After trying out a variety of sock-shoe-gaiter combinations, including those incorporating vapor barrier and waterproof socks, shoes with waterproof-breathable liners, and even full-coverage (down to the sole) "super-gaiters" that I made specifically for trail running shoes, I finally settled on two systems that I found to be versatile, effective, and lightweight:

  • A neoprene-overboot system for snowshoeing and colder conditions.
  • A mesh-shoe system with high gaiter for warmer spring conditions.

The Overboot System

The overboot system was borne from a similar system that I use for snowshoeing in the winter. It is built around an ultralight neoprene overboot (ultralight, yes, but not unlike the overboots that high altitude climbers use), and was designed to be integrated with snowshoes in the deeper snows of the high country in early spring.

The prototype overboot was custom-made for me by Joel Attaway at Forty Below in Graham, Washington. Joel used 2-mm thick neoprene for the foot shell and 3-layer eVENT for the upper gaiter, resulting in a construction that weighed a remarkable 14 oz for the pair. When worn over a waterproof-breathable running shoe (Montrail Susitna GTX) and combined with a boot sock (Darn Tough Full Cushion), I had a footwear combination that weighed well less than two pounds per foot but could keep me warm below freezing and remain sufficiently waterproof throughout the day (so that my feet wouldn't get cold as I continued to hike into the night, or when my activity level dropped in camp). What I really liked about this system was the ability to decouple the overboot (and snowshoe) from the sock-shoe combination, so that I had sufficiently waterproof footwear for lower elevation approaches and forays into the valleys as I trekked my traverse routes through Montana's mountains.

However, this system did suffer limitations. As the temperatures rose into the 40s, the neoprene overboot sealed in warmth and my feet became uncomfortably hot. In addition, having waterproof shoes meant that slogging through lower elevation mud and slush - without a gaiter - left my feet macerated and feeling ... icky. I eventually mitigated the former problem by making some overboots that used 1mm neoprene (10 oz/pair!), and I mitigated the latter problem by including a short, waterproof gaiter as part of my kit. The addition of a gaiter was agonizing, for obvious reasons related to ultralight principle: the short gaiter and the gaiter built into the overboot serve repetitive functions and cannot be used in concert with each other.

The High Gaiter System

As spring evolved, temperatures warmed, lower elevation trails dried, and the spring snowline eked higher, I switched from an overboot to a full length gaiter made of eVENT, sewn directly to the cuff of my shoe (to eliminate the complexity and failure of a gaiter strap).

I found that the Susitna GTX waterproof shoe became too warm for snow-free trails, and too water retentive for the soppier conditions, so I fought maceration often (see sidebar for tips on mitigating maceration). I eventually replaced the Susitna with the Montrail Vitesse (a drainable mesh trail running shoe). I found the mesh shoe to offer great benefits (drier feet!) in late spring, since I was wading more creeks (the snow bridges had by now disintegrated), postholing in softer snow, and battling more mud, in addition to enjoying longer mileage days by hiking more dry trail. The high gaiter kept snow out of my shoe and pant while postholing and mudslogging and preserved warm bloodflow to my feet when temperatures dropped (if you don't believe that this is important, spend some time snow hiking in ankle high socks and low cut shoes in the absence of gaiters!).

The Warm Sock

During the summer, I'm an advocate of thin socks. In fact, my summer sock for hot, dry conditions is a simple merino wool liner sock (Smartwool) that I usually trim and resew to ankle height. It weighs about an ounce per pair.

But during the spring, I find that not only do my socks suffer more abuse (primarily from increased friction resulting from poor footing, sidehilling, and snowslogging), but they are my primary defense (especially in the absence of the neoprene overboot) against cold feet.

So, somewhat ironically (since ultralight hikers seem rather fond of ultrathin socks), I prefer a warm, high, boot sock with my spring trail running shoes. The luxury of having my foot encased in a nice thick layer of merino wool far outweighs any calorie expenditure of carrying the extra weight on my feet! My spring sock of choice is the very durable, well-fitting, and warm Darn Tough Full Cushion Boot Sock.

Conclusion

When spring snows finally melt away and the sun bakes the trails dry, making decisions about socks, shoes, or gaiters becomes more influenced by personal preferences and hiking style. In the spring, however, I find them to be choices that are worth spending time on, so that your feet remain as dry as possible, as warm as reasonable, and as maceration-free as practical for the duration of a long spring trek.

(This article originally appeared in Backpacking Light Magazine, Issue 7, pp. 32 & 81-83. Click here to order back issues.)

Citation

"Spring Footwear: Lightweight Footwear Systems Built Around Thin Neoprene Overboots and High Gaiters," by Ryan Jordan. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/spring_footwear.html, 2009-02-17 00:05:00-07.

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Spring Footwear: Lightweight Footwear Systems Built Around Thin Neoprene Overboots and High Gaiters
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Spring Footwear: Lightweight Footwear Systems Built Around Thin Neoprene Overboots and High Gaiters on 02/17/2009 20:46:58 MST Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Spring Footwear: Lightweight Footwear Systems Built Around Thin Neoprene Overboots and High Gaiters

Sean Nordeen
(Miner) - F - M

Locale: SoCAL
Re: Spring Footwear:Thin Neoprene Overboots on 02/17/2009 22:30:55 MST Print View

Talk about timely. I've been planning a trip into the Sierra Neveda for the 3rd week of March to snowshoe and snow camp for 3 days. I've been thinking about my foot wear options.

I was going to go with my usual mesh running shoes with the MLD light snow gaitors. Though I normally wear thin synthetic socks, I was thinking of taking a lightweight Merino Wool sock instead since I may have cold and wet feet for hours and they'd be warmer. In addition, I was thinking of a gortex sock or somekind of overboot or maybe both and experiment on the trail to see which I preferred.

I had wondered about Neoprene overboots but wanted something thin and light. Where can I get a pair of your custom overboots and how much? :D

I also thought about booties made from other fabrics that might be water resistant. I remember reading an artical (from here?)about trying out some overboots made Tyvek that had mixed results. I had also been wondering what those Semiconductor Clean Room shoe booties were made of and whether they'd work for snow travel on snowshoes. I know they are thin and wouldn't last long, but how water resistant are they and would they hold any heat?

Edited by Miner on 02/17/2009 22:32:43 MST.

Craig W.
(xnomanx) - F - M
Re: Re: Spring Footwear:Thin Neoprene Overboots on 02/17/2009 22:38:21 MST Print View

Very timely indeed- I'm looking into similar footwear systems right now as well.

Sean- check out 40 Below:
http://www.40below.com/product_detail_public.php?ProductID=4400

I'll probably get some of these soon...

Mark Verber
(verber) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: Spring Footwear... What's about WP/"B" socks on 02/17/2009 23:53:20 MST Print View

Ryan... I am curious why not waterproof socks or oversocks. In the colder conditions you have mentioned (around freezing) I have had good luck with thin liners, gore-tex oversocks, and breathable trail runners. In even colder conditions I have become very fond of vapor barrier socks. I used to use them only when the temp dropped below around 0F... but have experimented with them up to 30F and found them acceptable.

--mark

Edited by verber on 02/18/2009 13:31:31 MST.

Jonathan Ryan
(Jkrew81) - F - M

Locale: White Mtns
Re: Re: Spring Footwear... What's about WP/"B" socks on 02/18/2009 05:33:06 MST Print View

I agree Mark, I have been using Inov8 Flyroc's with a GTX socks for the last two years on most of my snowshoeing trips and it has worked wonderfully. Just need to make sure I carry down booties to sleep in if I am spending the night out.

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Spring Footwear: Lightweight Footwear Systems Built Around Thin Neoprene Overboots and High Gaiters on 02/18/2009 07:35:26 MST Print View

Is that an old pic? OMG he is using collapsible aluminum poles?...ah..see it's 2006.

Edited by jshann on 02/18/2009 07:36:28 MST.

Steven Evans
(Steve_Evans) - MLife

Locale: Canada
Re: Spring Footwear:Thin Neoprene Overboots on 02/18/2009 08:28:19 MST Print View

Guys, I have a pair of the 40 Below TR Overboots. Weight is 14.4 oz for a size 11 (L) to fit my hardrocks. They are custom built, so I had to wait a couple of months for them. They are quite a beautiful piece of gear, but I would not recommend using them in temps above freezing (like mentioned in the article) as I believe these perform much better in cold climates.
I use a vapor barrier sock, thin sock, Montrail Hardrock, and then the Overboot. The logic is to create a system which moisture cannot enter, either from the outside elements or from the foot. This would, theoretically, always keep you feet dry...and dry feet are warm. :)
Only a few day hikes so far with great performance, but I'm heading out this weekend with them so it will give me a much better idea of how they perform.
I should mention that these cannot be used without a snowshoe or crampon as the sole is not durable enough to handle abrasive ice, ground, or rocks.

christian gagas
(chummysaladbar) - F
TR Overboots on 02/18/2009 08:41:42 MST Print View

I recently received TR's for my wife and I as well, and am hoping to finally get out into the White Mountains tomorrow for a couple of nights as I owe Joel some field testing time! Initial impressions at home are great however, these look very well made and fit my shoes very well with or without the Simple slipper inside. They also happen to be a great fit over my Keen Growlers due to their inherent stretchiness. I hope to test them this weekend with RBH socks, Montrail Streaks and the Simple Slippers in a bunch of fresh snow. I can say that the combo tried on at home is light light light, like wearing my Steger Mukluks...which I love but is isn't often cold enough for them around here to be effective. Can't wait to get out, and to hear your impressions as well,Steve.

Jonathan Ryan
(Jkrew81) - F - M

Locale: White Mtns
Re: TR Overboots on 02/18/2009 09:20:55 MST Print View

I have had off and on success with the TR's. Both my wife and I have them as well but for New England conditons it is a crap shoot depending on conditions. They work great when just snowshoeing, but when you need to change to crampons (which for many NE peaks is pretty standard) I found the durability of the bottom to be poor. That being said they are very easy to repair. In the end we enjoy the low fiddle factor of not needing to change in and out of different footwear solutions for a given trip. A liner sock, exp weight sock, GTX mid calf sock and a breathable trail runner are pretty awesome in cold temps depending on your cold tolerance/circulation. But if it is crazy insane cold outside the TR's will def keep your feet and lower legs very warm.

Brett Peugh
(brettpeugh) - F

Locale: Midwest
What I use on 02/18/2009 13:27:52 MST Print View

I use something similar in my system with Goretex socks, a liner or wool socks and a pair of Chacos except that still have the traction of the beefed-up retred on the sandals. Takes me less than a minute to pop the Microspikes on. I just used this system a few weeks ago down to 5F outside in snow 6-8" deep and used it a month earlier with the temps about 0F and with a windchill of -20F and was fine walking on packed snow.

I can see the point of the whole overboots and that but the prices on these things are too much for me to deal with anymore. I would have to have one pair or regular trail runners, one pair a size up that are waterproof, the overboots, etc. that end up being what, $350 or more? Heck with it. My Chacos cost me $80 plus $30 for the Goretex socks. Yeah, I can't post hole but again I really don't want to either.

Lynn Tramper
(retropump) - F

Locale: The Antipodes of La Coruna
Re: Goretex and VBL ??? on 02/18/2009 15:21:21 MST Print View

What do you Goretex sock-wearers do if water comes over the top of the 'sock'? Seems to me it would create more of a problem than it solves (just like a goretex lined boot does). I also don't see how a VBL sock would help. Feet sweat so much that it seems better to allow moisture to be able to escape (and wouldn't they also act as a funnel when water comes over the top). I would love to hear more detail about both systems since I don't understand the conditions that would favour them.

Edited by retropump on 02/18/2009 15:22:05 MST.

David Olsen
(oware)

Locale: Steptoe Butte
Re: Re: Goretex and VBL ??? on 02/18/2009 16:41:14 MST Print View

Over the top time-I wear Neoprene only.

Very wet snow etc.
Liner
then Neoprene
then wool
then bread sack over the wool AND insole with duct tape
on the top of the ankle to keep the sack from sliding down
or up
then boot
then gaiter.

Works for days at a time and the wool sock stays pretty dry.
Enough so my feet stay warm and the little bit of moisture
can be dried out in the sleeping bag at night.

Sleep with the boots outside my bag but on top of the pad
just under my knees.

If sub zero, I put small bottles of boiling water in the
boots just prior to putting them on.

cary bertoncini
(cbert) - F

Locale: N. California
w/p socks on 02/18/2009 16:46:34 MST Print View

i wear my salomon water shoes with seal skin socks if walking in rainy/wet conditions & it's worked well

usually have: redledge thunderlight pants, OR zealot (paclite) jacket & the sealskins

they aren't good if you will be wading, but for squishy trails & walking on trails in rain, they are my new go-to arrangement

also been perfect when i work timing a (running) event on a rainy day

Dondo .
(Dondo) - F

Locale: Colorado Rockies
Re: What I use on 02/18/2009 18:07:31 MST Print View

A low priced alternative.

Size way up. Size 13 fits over my 9.5 running shoes.
Weight is 16.1 oz. for the pair. Add high gaiters.

Craig W.
(xnomanx) - F - M
Re: Re: What I use on 02/18/2009 18:12:45 MST Print View

Great idea Dondo...I'm a cyclist, yet those never occured to me. As I'm already a size 13 I wonder if 14's will fit. There's a Performance Bike shop near me I'll check out.
I was actually thinking of sewing something similar myself, but if those fit, it's not worth the trouble.

Dondo .
(Dondo) - F

Locale: Colorado Rockies
Re: Re: Re: What I use on 02/18/2009 18:55:14 MST Print View

Thanks, Craig. I actually stole the idea from Tom Sobal, a local snowshoe racer.

You may be out of luck with this particular model. I also have a size 14 which just fits over my size 10 trail runners. When checking out other cyclists' overbooties, skip the ones with openings for cleats. They let in too much snow.

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Re: Re: Spring Footwear... What's about WP/"B" socks on 02/19/2009 13:25:29 MST Print View

Mark wrote:

>> I am curious why not waterproof socks or oversocks.

Because I want my shoe to remain dry. In consistently cold conditions, keeping your shoe dry is important to me.

Also the neoprene overboot system is really nice when temps really go south unexpectedly. Even in Yellowstone in February or early March, below zero temperatures are common.

As conditions get warmer, then I move to a Gore-Tex boot (Inov8 390 GTX) and thick, warm socks, with a high gaiter. This is our recommended system for Wilderness Trekking III.

Ryan

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Re: Re: Spring Footwear: Lightweight Footwear Systems Built Around Thin Neoprene Overboots and High Gaiters on 02/19/2009 13:27:45 MST Print View

John wrote:

>> OMG he is using collapsible aluminum poles?

Yes, and still do when I travel - 3 piece Leki aluminums, or Komperdell C3's, that get stowed in my pack while traveling. I've broken a few C3 sets already, so am not a huge fan of multipiece carbon poles.

Joe Clement
(skinewmexico) - MLife

Locale: Southwest
Spring footwear on 02/19/2009 13:42:57 MST Print View

Since I live somewhere with no snow and relatively little rain, I have to ask a stupid question about the spring footwear. Am I understanding you right when you say you just wear a shoe that drains well, and count on your sock to dry fast and keep you warm when wet?

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Re: Re: Spring Footwear: Lightweight Footwear Systems Built Around Thin Neoprene Overboots and High Gaiters on 02/19/2009 14:08:24 MST Print View

I hear ya. I wonder how the Komperdell C2 would compare to the C3 in durability. Doug seems to love them.