So last year somebody gave me the bright idea that a pair of GoreTex-lined trail runners with gaiters would keep one’s tootsies toasty while snowshoeing. I tested the theory for the first time last week, and discovered the weaknesses when I got home from my snowshoe outing and noticed my socks felt like they’d been left out in the rain all night.
The the flaws in this tactic (appealing because trail runners are so light) are two-fold:
1) Gaiters won’t keep all the snow out of your shoes, and every flake that gets past them will melt on contact with your socks. Even with the high-tech fibers of modern socks, it’s a bad idea to let your socks get soaked because if something goes wrong (like, getting lost because you’re hiking in snow and there’s no trail to follow) there’s almost no way to get them dry in a winter environment. Without dry socks your feet eventually will freeze, and the aftermath will suck very badly.
2) If your footwear isn’t insulated, the warmth of your feet is apt to melt all the snow on the outside of your shoes, which ensures that the part of your shoe that touches the snow will stay soggy, uncomfortable and heavy from acquired water weight. None of these traits is beneficial to the non-masochists among us.
The primo pain in the ass of snowshoeing is the weight of the shoes. I have some Neos insulated overshoes that work wonders in the keeping-feet-dry department, but they weigh a ton when combined with a light pair of running shoes. Buying a pair of dedicated snow boots means taking on roughly the same weight, minus the flexibility of peeling off the overshoes and having a regular pair of shoes to drive home in. As with lightweight backpacking, shaving ounces when snowshoeing can increase comfort, but it also increases risk. The light-shoes-and-gaiters route is fine if you know exactly where you’re going and what you’re doing, but if you’re a rookie like me you’re probably better off taking on the extra weight and saving your feet to hike another day.
Another route I haven’t tried is vapor-barriers — typically a plastic liner that prevents sweat from soaking insulating layers. Andrew Skurka used them in his trek across Minnesota earlier this month. As he described it in a podcast, he’d just peel off his vapor barriers (pants, shirts, socks) and let winter do its work: all the accumulated moisture on the barriers would freeze, and he could brush off the accumulated frost as easy as dusting snow off your car’s windshield. Here’s a nice article from Field and Stream on how vapor barriers work.