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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Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Spring footwear on 02/19/2009 15:01:03 MST Print View

Hi Joe

> you just wear a shoe that drains well, and count on your sock to dry fast and keep you warm when wet?

What else can you do when you spend the day criss-crossing a river?
Crossing Coxs River
It works just fine.

Cheers

Joe Clement
(skinewmexico) - MLife

Locale: Southwest
Spring footwear on 02/19/2009 15:08:42 MST Print View

Beats me, I've never spent a day criss-crossing a river. Why I asked.

Mark Verber
(verber) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: Re: Re: Spring Footwear... What's about WP/"B" socks on 02/19/2009 16:05:50 MST Print View

>> 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.

I am trying to understand the reasoning here. Given shoes that have modest water retention and a waterproof sock between the inner sock and shoe, what are the significant issues with the shoe being wet?

> Also the neoprene overboot system is really nice when temps really go south unexpectedly.

Understood. In those sort of conditions I typically would have a pair of rbh VaprThrm socks that would normally be used for sleeping which I would press into service if needed.... but I have found that trail runners + rocky gore-tex oversocks + coolmax liner keeps my feet happy all day down to around 20F and up to 40F which seems to be in the general conditions you are describing. I will admit that when my feet are submerged in a cold stream the feet chill pretty quickly... but the warm up once I am out.

I agree the 390 GTX is a nice light weight boot though I tend to use them in colder temps rbh socks.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Spring footwear on 02/19/2009 17:23:53 MST Print View

Hi Joe

OK, OK. :-)
We normally wear shoes without WP/B membranes with thick wool-blend socks - either Thorlos or Darn Tough Vermont boot socks.

We never worry about getting our feet wet. When we have to cross a river we just keep walking. If it is really hot we may even step into the river and out just to cool our feet.

And you know what? Our wet feet NEVER give us blisters. NEVER. But that is because our shoes are light and fit properly, not too tight.

OOPS! I had better point out that this is for 3-season stuff, NOT for the snow. In the snow we are fairly close to the article.

Cheers

Edited by rcaffin on 02/19/2009 17:24:55 MST.

Brian UL
(MAYNARD76)

Locale: New England
Re: Re: Spring footwear on 02/19/2009 17:32:09 MST Print View

Does anyone have experience using these:
http://www.overshoe.com/recreational/products/detail.php?s=ANN

I was thinking about them more for winter. They are waterproof and in real cold conditions you could leave out your trail runners and fill the shoe with thick boot liners and insoles. Seems like it could be pretty versatile.

Steven Evans
(Steve_Evans) - MLife

Locale: Canada
Re: Spring footwear on 02/19/2009 21:52:39 MST Print View

Brian, I know some people here have used them. Maybe do a search. I'm not sure if it was the same model you linked to but I recall people discussing them. 2.2 lbs is killer though...

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Re: Spring footwear on 02/19/2009 22:56:21 MST Print View

Joe, I'm not sure I'd actually count on the sock to dry fast. My spring socks for wet junk are thick, gushy, mountaineering socks. They don't dry fast, if at all. This is my system for "hopelessly wet" conditions where temps are cold (and I thus want the thick sock insulation) - packrafting, river wading, and other sloppy snowmelt conditions.

In the fall, as it starts to get cold (and it's drier), I prefer a GTX boot (see forum post above) because it's just plain warmer (and I'm not dealing with a lot of snowmelt water conditions - dry trails, etc.), and 0 to 15 degree mornings are a lot more common than in the spring.

Joe Clement
(skinewmexico) - MLife

Locale: Southwest
Spring footwear on 02/19/2009 23:04:57 MST Print View

Wet is OK, cold is not.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Spring footwear on 02/20/2009 00:15:05 MST Print View

Hi Joe

> Wet is OK, cold is not.

Cheating! Summarising a whole article and extended discussion in six words.

But six correct words.

Cheers

Chris Townsend
(Christownsend) - MLife

Locale: Cairngorms National Park
Spring footwear on 02/20/2009 08:16:31 MST Print View

Brian, I have an old pair of NEOS overshoes similar to the Adventurers. My Large size weighs 38oz. I've been wearing them recently in knee deep snow and slush. They're not particularly warm so I've worn the Inov8 Roclite 390 GTX boots inside with medium weight merino wool socks. In warmer weather I've used them with non-waterproof trail shoes. I like them.

Daniel Fluri
(dani) - F
Wet is OK, cold is not. on 02/24/2009 10:01:11 MST Print View

anyone else wearing ankle high neo-prene socks in cold wet conditions?

inside a pair of inov-8 terrocs this is the simplest and probably lightest solution.

and should it really be getting hot, I replace the neo-prene socks with a pair of thin merino socks.

no need for gaiters, overboots and all that.

Steven Evans
(Steve_Evans) - MLife

Locale: Canada
Re: Wet is OK, cold is not. on 02/24/2009 10:23:00 MST Print View

Daniel,
Situation dependent, that probably is the lightest solution, and as long as it stays wet, your good to go. Problem is when temps drop, your shoes will freeze. Overboots will excel in winter conditions.

Liner Sock, VB Sock, Hardrocks, 40 Below Overboot. Keeps my feet warm and dry all day and night - so far so good!

OB

christian gagas
(chummysaladbar) - F
Overboots on 02/24/2009 17:18:13 MST Print View

Steve, it's funny to see this picture posted, it could have been taken of my own feet this past weekend in the White Mtns of NH. I used RBH insulated socks, Montrail Streaks, Simple Slippers (when really cold), and the LE overboots with a pair of Elites under them. 40Below synthetic booties completed the package in camp. Far and away the best winter footwear system I have tried, having been thru plastic boots, bunny boots and Steger mukluks. This system combined the best of all of the others and provided a level of convenience I have never experienced. I went into further detail about my experience with the LE's under the Reader Review section...

Christian

Dondo .
(Dondo) - F

Locale: Colorado Rockies
Re: Re: Re: Spring footwear on 02/24/2009 17:57:18 MST Print View

Does anyone have experience using these:
http://www.overshoe.com/recreational/products/detail.php?s=ANN


Brian, I have a couple of pairs of older NEOS, one comparable to the Villager and an insulated version similar to the Explorer. They're a versatile solution but I no longer use them because they're a bit heavy and cumbersome for my taste. The insulated neoprene booties linked in my post above work a lot better for me because they feel more nimble. But the insulated NEOS are warmer for standing around camp.

Huzefa Siamwala
(huzefa)
Crescent Moon Booties on 02/25/2009 02:54:21 MST Print View

Check it out! They seem to be warmer! AND lighter! AND cheaper! then forty below LE.

Edited by huzefa on 02/25/2009 03:05:06 MST.

christian gagas
(chummysaladbar) - F
Crescent Moon Booties on 02/25/2009 04:42:23 MST Print View

I own a pair of these as well Huzefa, they are comparable to the Simple Slippers, but even then don't offer the same level of protection or ease of use. They are in no way however, in the same league as LE's, nor are they meant to be. LE's are meant to keep your footwear dry in snowy conditions, my experience with CMs is that they work like a neoprene wetsuit. My wife has a pair that she will use INSIDE her LE's to help boost temp ratings...but like the Simple Slippers they really don't have any kind of durable outsole and so will not last long on anything but snow (and mayble even still) unless protected by a snowshoe or other traction device.

Steven Evans
(Steve_Evans) - MLife

Locale: Canada
Re: Crescent Moon Booties on 02/25/2009 06:24:18 MST Print View

Huzefa,
The crescent moon bootie is in no way comparable to the LE Overboot - if you told Joel at 40 below that you were doing a head to head between his LE Overboot and the CM bootie, he'd probably be less then amused. I only want to clarify so that readers do not get confused here.

The LE Overboot is a fully enclosed knee high overboot weighing 14.4 oz in my size 11. The sole is a dotted rubber of some sort, the lower section is neoprene and the upper is a breathable integrated gaiter. A velcro strip up the middle allows installation and removal.

The Cresent moon bootie is a neoprene sock designed to fit over your footwear weighing 9.5 oz (from the web). It has a partial sole and no integrated gaiter. I actually like the design of it, but it really isn't fair to say it is a replacement for the LE Overboot.

Edited by Steve_Evans on 02/25/2009 06:36:26 MST.