Footwear for the northern woods

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get out to the woods lately due to family obligations and mild illness. It really is a shame, because the daytime temperatures sporadically touch +10*C/+50*F and some days have been really sunny (by the way, this might still sound cold to some of you, but I can assure you that after many months of northern winter, it feels almost like a hot summer day). Most of the snow cover is gone now, and what’s left is melting very quickly. Thanks to the much longer spring days, it is now feasible for me to take afternoon/evening trips to the forest after work, which I just don’t do in the winter because it gets dark so early.

So I thought I’d talk to you today about a very important aspect of outdoor clothing: Footwear. The more you travel on foot, the more important boots/shoes become. Anyone who has done a significant amount of hiking or walking in uncomfortable boots or shoes is likely to still curse them to this day. I go to the forest pretty frequently, all year round, so my footwear has to be capable of handling terrain ranging from ice and snow in winter, rocks and underbrush in summer and slush and mud in the spring and autumn. Obviously, no single item is going to cover all these conditions, so I have settled on three pair of boots which I alternate between as the seasons change. I will also wear camp shoes, gaiters and snowshoes as appropriate. Let me say at this point that these are just my personal preferences, and not the way that it “should” or “must” be done. I have my own reasons for doing things my way (personal experience and preference), which probably differs from plenty of other people out there.

(Linked image, not my photo)

I’ll start with the boots I wear roughly from May through September, i.e. my “summer boots”. For the past 3 years or so, I have been wearing a pair of Swedish military surplus combat boots on my regular trips to the forest. I realize that this might make some of you scratch your heads, but believe me, they work (and work well). I wore them while covering some pretty rocky and uneven terrain on my trip to Lapland last year, and they worked flawlessly, so they have more than proven themselves to me. I got them from a military-surplus store which was just giving them away for free. The old-school leather boots are marked 1968 and were not previously used, as far as I can tell. They are very rugged and provide great heel support and toe protection. After fitting them with insoles and breaking them in, I was surprised to find that they are as comfortable and effective as “modern” hiking boots. Being leather, they breathe and flex well, and are quite water-resistant if regularly shined or waterproofed. In my experience, they are more than enough for traversing rocky, shrubby, sandy etc. ground in the drier summer months.

(Linked image, not my photo)

When I’m taking a break during a longer hiking trip or just hanging around camp, I will usually take off my boots to give both them and my feet a chance to rest and air out. This is when I will slip on a pair of lightweight, breathable camp shoes similar to those shown above. After a day of hiking, these things feel great. 🙂 I believe they were under 5 Euros.

(Linked image, not my photo)

In the spring and autumn, my boot of choice is a waterproof fabric-lined rubber boot with a high top (my “wet-weather boots”). Mine also happen to be Swedish military surplus (fireman’s boots in this case), but were made in Canada. I bought them from the same military surplus shop for 35 Euros. They provide protection against the mud, slush and generally wetter conditions of these seasons, which is critical for keeping feet dry and comfortable. There is enough room inside to wear several pair of socks, depending on how cold it is, and they are also fitted with removable insoles which provide insulation on the bottom (the linked picture above shows felt liners, which I did not get when I purchased my boots). Another nice feature of these boots is that they feature laces which allow the top of the boot to be closed off snugly against my leg, preventing snow and other stuff from falling inside. With the right combination of socks, they can be comfortably worn down to about freezing or a little below.

I have recently also taken to wearing Swiss military surplus gaiters over these boots (as well as over my winter boots discussed below), because they provide me with extra water-resistance almost up to my knees and help to keep my pants legs from coming out. These gaiters cost 5 Euros here in Finland.

(Linked image, not my photo)

From roughly November to March (basically, in below-freezing temperatures), I like to wear a good solid pair of Nokian winter boots made in Finland (no, it’s not the same company that made your telephone 😉 ). They cost about 45 – 50 Euros and were purchased from a department store. I have worn these thickly lined boots down to -30*C/-22*F with two pair of socks. So far, this is the coldest temperature I have experienced when doing outdoor activities (though I have taken hour-long walks around the neighborhood at -40*C/-40*F). The boots were warm enough while being active and only slightly cool while stationary for a longer period at -30*C/-22*F. For use in snowy and icy environments, they’re great. I don’t anticipate needing boots capable of handling temperatures lower than this, as they aren’t all that frequent here (maybe only a week or two in February). If I do ever feel possessed to head out to Siberia or northern Canada, however, I’ll probably pick up a pair of boot liners. 🙂

(Linked image, not my photo)

The last, but definitely not least, type of footwear I use here in the north woods is the snowshoe. Mine happen to be US military surplus, made in Canada in 1979. I bought them for about 70 Euros. They have a painted magnesium frame with plastic-coated steel wire webbing and are styled after Native American snowshoes (Michigan pattern?). These shoes are tremendously important for mobility in deep snow, especially in dense forests. Regardless of the depth of the snow, I only sink in about 15 cm/6 inches. Skis might be faster, but in my opinion snowshoes are more versatile.

Keep in mind that there are plenty of alternatives to my choices and way of doing things. My methods have evolved organically over time as I gained experience in different seasons and conditions.

Stay tuned to The Weekend Woodsman! Coming up: more thoughts on bushcraft, trip reports, gear lists and a little teaser on my upcoming trip to Lapland.

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7 comments on “Footwear for the northern woods

  1. Finnman says:

    Your preference don´t differ much what I use generally. I just don´t make it so clear that I have dedicated one and only boot for each season. They overlap as you can see here:

    summer: German combat boots or Zamberlan hiking boots (sandals on camp or short summer trips)
    autumn: German combat boots or Zamberlan hiking boots or Nokia winter rubber boots with felt liners
    winter: German combat boots with thicker sock, Nokia winter rubber boots with thick wool sock or new Hanwag cold weather boots with thick felt liners.
    spring: German combat boots, Zamberlan hiking boots, Nokia winter rubber boots, later spring when no more snow German combat boots, Zamberlan hiking boots

    On winter I also use snowshoes, but skis aswell. at beginning of winter when snow is very soft but a lot there´s very difficult to walk with snowshoes there good wide and long winterskis beat snowshoes 10 to 0.

    – Finnman

    • Sure, there’s no reason to limit oneself to just one pair of boots per season. I do it just because I don’t have any desire or need to have multiple pairs of the same type of boots. I’m happy with one pair per season.

      I’ve never had problems with those snowshoes in powdery snow, but I imagine skis would be better in that case.

  2. Ron says:

    Thanks for the run down!
    I’ve been interested in those Swedish lower boots for some time now and I hope I can find some in my size soon. So far I am wearing either high Dutch combat boots or high Jahti hunting boots, but in summer the latter are quickly becoming too warm. They perform great in spring and autumn, though.
    Those Swiss gaiters are great! Have them myself for a few years now and I love them; rain or snow makes no difference.
    Winterboots I have none so far. Rubberboots are a no-go for me, because my feet start to sweat quit a bit and then get real cold fast. What do people in northern countries use as an alternative?
    For campfootwear I have my homemade mocassins.

    • Thanks for the comments, Ron. There are certainly non-rubber options available for winter boots, such as mukluks, insulated leather boots etc. You can even “make” winter boots by choosing a non-winter boot that you like (leather, synthetic etc.) a few sizes too large and then inserting a warm boot liner inside and also wearing several pair of thick wool socks as well.

  3. Akiri says:

    I m wearing Swiss military surplus gaiters also. Those are very good, I really like em 🙂

  4. HenLan says:

    I have tried the swedish army boots a couple of years ago but they just don´t agree with my feet. I got blisters and pain. Now I have the german army Kampfstiefel both modell 2000 and the newer one. These are perfect for my feet. They are also more water proof and more padded so I am very happy with them.

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