Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Bushcraft – Sadly, the Next Logical Step

So, I was reading through Twitter yesterday, and came across a tweet by Ray Mears/Woodlore. It proudly read: “Ray found inspiration in Clark Gable’s ensemble in the 1953 safari film “Mogambo” for this new Woodlore product.” I thought it was probably some sort of marketing gimmick or joke, so I followed the link. To my great sadness, Ray Mears is indeed now selling “bushcraft” gear based on 1950s Hollywood’s interpretation of “the great white hunter”.


The “bushcraft” item being sold to us, for the bargain basement price of $118.00 (based on today’s exchange rate), is a belt designed after the one worn by Clark Gable in the movie Mogambo. If the price seems steep, don’t worry; it has Ray Mears’ name stamped on it, so it’s worth it!


As if completely oblivious of the absurdity of the product, the description on Ray’s website reads: “The Woodlore Mogambo Belt is a unique cotton canvas accessory hand-crafted by Woodlore's resident leather worker Becky Brewster. Trimmed with leather in the traditional Woodlore colour, the belt sports an embossed Ray Mears Bushcraft logo alongside a solid brass, military-style buckle. Ray Mears found inspiration for its design in the distinctive hunting gear worn by Clark Gable's character Victor Marswell, from the classic 1953 safari film Mogambo.”

For some time now you have seen me complain about how bushcraft has stopped having any connection to the outdoors. In some ways it has become just a sport in which we compete in our back yards. In other ways it has become a fashion show. We claim it is all about skills and living in the woods, yet we neither go into the woods, nor are willing to be seen without the latest bushcraft approved gear. I think this is the pinnacle, and logical conclusion to that trend. Why even bother trying to pretend that this is not all a big fashion show. We gather at these meetings, declare a champion in the “who can light a fire in the most absurd and impractical way” competition, and then we spend the rest of the meet eating bacon and showing off our latest retro (VERY IMPORTANT) gear. Few months from now, look for this latest “bushcraft” essential item. After all, it is all about using the resources nature provides…and a $118 belt that was worn by Clark Gable, brought to us by Ray Mears after many years of studying the traditions and native practices of the Hollywood Tribe of North America. Ah, selling out seems to be an essential part of being a woodsman these days. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Sawyer Squeeze Filter Field Cleaner Modification

I’ve been using the Sawyer Squeeze Filter now for close to a year, and I have been very happy with it. As you may remember, prior to making the switch to Sawyer, I used to use a MSR Miniworks EX filter. The reason why I was so hesitant to change over to a different filter was that the Miniworks had a ceramic filter element that was very easy to field clean. On the other hand, the only way to clean the Sawyer Squeeze Filter is to backflush it. For that, Sawyer provides a large ciringe. You fill it up with clean water, put it to the exit hole of the filter, and press. That pushes the water through, backflushing the filter. Of course, having to carry such a large ciringe in the field is not practical.

One I first got the filter, the first course of business was to figure out how to backflush the filter in the field (the reality is that I have not had to do it yet for purposes other than experimentation). I came up with a solution where I took a small piece of rubber tubing that would connect to the exit home of the filter, and connected the other end to a cap that would screw on a Platypus bladder. By squeezing the bladder, I would backflush the filter. You can see the modification here. The mechanism has worked well, but now there is a better option available. Sawyer has released a kit which allows you to splice the filter into the line of your hydration bladder. The kit consists of two parts that screw into either side of the filter.


The line then connects to these adaptors.


Now, I don’t use a hydration bladder, so this wasn’t much use to me from that stand point, but I though it would be great for a backflush mechanism. It works in the exact same way as the old modification. I simply took a piece of rubber tubing and connected it to the blue part of the adaptor, the one that can screw onto a Platypus bottle.


For it to work, just screw the adaptor onto a collapsible bottle with clean water like a Platypus bladder. Take the other end of the tube and connect it to the exit opening of the Sawyer filter. Then squeeze the bottle to backflush the filter. The mechanism is exactly the same as the old adaptor, it is just much more durable and secure. This can also be used as a great way to fill up a Platypus bottle in the filed. Instead of backflusing, just connect the adaptor in the way described above,, put the regular bladder with dirty water on the filter, and start filtering. Because the Platypus bottle is connected to the filter with the adaptor, there will be no spilling of water.

The adaptor kit costs $5 and is available at REI.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Essential Wilderness Survival Gear and Skills for Imaginary Survival Situations

So… this is going to be another rant. If they annoy you, please ignore it. If you decide to stick around, I’ll gripe about how most of the information we see today on survival is designed for situations that only exist on TV and books.


I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed this phenomenon. You open a blog, and you see a post about “How to build an emergency survival shelter”. Sounds like a great skill to have, so you keep reading. “All you’ll need for the shelter is an axe, a buck saw, 50 feet of rope, and four to six hours”. What?! In what contrived, staged survival scenario did you just find yourself, where you are stranded in the woods without your gear, but you have an axe, saw and 50 feet of rope, let alone the luxury of four to six hours? First, if we look at this realistically, why are you in the woods without proper gear? Second, why are you in the woods without proper gear, but are for some bizarre reason carrying several pounds of cutting tools and rope? Third, if the answer to the above two questions is that you lost your gear in the woods, then what miracle of nature allowed you to lose all your other gear, but let you keep the exact tools you will need for the shelter?

And let me be clear that I am not trying to pick on bloggers. After all I am one. Of course we do things that are sometimes wrong with the knowledge and resources we have. Here I am talking about respected bushcraft and survival experts and instructors.

Last night I was re-watching an episode of Ray Mears’ Extreme Survival; the one on Arctic Survival. When I first watched it about fifteen years ago, I thought it was brilliant. In many ways it still is. Something struck me as odd however. The episode starts with him showing us how to survive a night in a northern forest. He gets off his snowmobile (presumably a survival situation where his snowmobile broke down), and starts making shelter and fire. He takes out an axe, a knife, a snow shovel, an old sleeping bag, a cup, a fire steel, and then proceeds to make a shelter that will let him survive the night. Which aspect of this survival scenario is realistic, and which of the skills that are then demonstrated is in any way practical for a real survival situation? The same questions as above apply here. How did you end up in a survival situation deep in the woods with an “old” sleeping bag rather than your properly rated sleeping bag, which would let you spend the night out without relying on a fire? How did you end up without shelter, stove, proper sleeping gear, but at the same time end up with an axe, knife, snow shovel, etc?

Similarly, in the episode on survival in the Rocky Mountains, he proceeds to build an emergency lean-to together with a long fire. All he needed was an axe and his knife… and matches to start the fire. Under what conditions did you go hiking in the woods without proper gear, but with a 3/4 axe? What happened to the contents of the backpack to which this axe is strapped? Which part of building an “emergency survival shelter” with an axe is useful to someone who is in a realistic survival situation? Presumably in a real survival situation the person has lost their whole pack, not just the select pieces that would require them to build a shelter, but not the ones needed for its construction. Also presumably a person in a real survival situation did not stage it as such, so there is no reason why they would be in the middle of the forest with just an axe.

Let’s move on to another well known survival and bushcraft instructor, Mors Kochanski. Recently he has started to release videos on YouTube. One of them, which I linked to here in a prior post, was on building a survival kit. While his recommendations were all very good, he ended up with a survival kit that weighs several pounds and required a backpack to carry. Nothing wrong with it in and of itself, but under what imaginary conditions are you in any way likely to end up without your regular (presumably sufficient for the climate) gear, but you will still have this huge survival kit? Since the kit is so large, the only logical, or even possible place to carry it is your backpack. If you have lost your gear, presumably you have done it by losing your pack. In that case the survival kit is gone as well.

Similarly, in his videos on selection of survival axes, he recommends an axe that has a 27 inch handle and weighs 3.5 lb. Other than in a class or on YouTube, how can you realistically end up in a survival situation where you have no gear, but as if to shoot an instructional video, a 3.5 lb axe appears to save the day? After all, he himself states that whenever his canoe flips over, the axe is usually the piece of gear that gets lost first.

And in case I have not torn down all of your heroes, have you seen the required items for the Dave Canterbury’s Wilderness Outfitters Survival Course? Let’s start with the bag of steel wool. Looks like you will learn to light survival fires with steel wool and batteries. After all, I know that when I find myself stranded in the woods and have lost my lighter and matches, I always have a bag of steel wool and a pack of nine volt batteries handy. I’m being sarcastic of course. How would you possible end up in the woods with steel wool and batteries, but not proper fire lighting equipment? It’s absurd, and only occurs in staged survival situations where party tricks like these are presented for entertainment. The next required item… a queen or two twin size wool blankets. They will actually teach you how to survive with two wool blankets. Again, how is it possible that you would end up in the woods without proper shelter and sleep gear, but carrying two wool blankets?! What, did you get your packs confused and brought your backpack full of blankets instead of the one with you backpacking gear? It’s right down absurd and 100% unrealistic.

The wool blanket survival issue is not unique to Dave Canterbury either. Similar examples can be seen all over. How about posts about surviving a night in the woods with just a blanket? If you are carrying 3 lb worth of blanket into the woods, why on Earth are you not carrying a 3lb sleeping bag so that it wouldn’t be a survival situation to begin with? Why would you have a blanket with you but not a sleeping bag, or for that matter, your regular gear? This is a contrived survival situation that has been created on purpose. There is nothing wrong with testing yourself if you so wish, but this does not translate into a genuine survival situation, nor are the skills subsequently demonstrated directly relevant to a real survival scenario.  

All of the above examples present situations where interesting survival skills and gear can be presented, but it bothers me that none of them have any connection to the reality of a likely survival scenario. They are created for television or books, and allow us to daydream about surviving in the woods when we are stranded there with no gear except for an axe, a knife, etc.

I’ve noticed similar things with my own gear selection. For a long time I carried tools for making cups and water storage devices, just in case I lost my pot, bottle, and cup. Where did I keep the carving tool? You guessed it, in my pack with my pot, cup and bottle. Eventually it struck me that if I somehow lost all that gear, the tool I kept for that survival situation would be lost as well. Now, I could go in the woods with just that carving tool and shoot a video on how to make a “survival” container, but I would not be showing you anything related to real survival because in a real survival situation I would have lost that tool along with the rest of my gear.

The only practical aspect of the survival skills and gear that I have been discussing above are to demonstrate how to use good woods skills to make up for the fact that you are a horrible woodsman. After all, one of the most important things about being a good woodsman is knowing the proper gear to bring for the weather and conditions you are likely to encounter. If you find yourself stranded in the woods with just an axe and 50 feet of rope, you have made some horrible decisions that should be revisited and corrected way before you have to start worrying about how to build a shelter with an axe. The first step to correcting those errors is to stop watching survival tutorials so you don’t get the idea of going in the woods with an axe and a bag of steel wool, instead of proper gear.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against staged survival scenarios as a teaching tool. What bothers me is that so much of those staged survival scenarios are not staged to show any realistic survival or skills. They are staged to make the host or writer look good and make the activity look exciting and fun, but as a result, they deviate significantly from the skills needed in a real survival situation or the tools you may be likely to have. Of course, there are others like Les Stroud who strive for realism. However the reality of his survival is not nearly as dramatic, spectacular or inspirational.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Trip Report: 1/19/13 – 1/20/13

I had some free time this past weekend, so I decided to plan out a trip into the woods. My goal for the weekend was to pick out a route that would be challenging, and would allow me to use a wide range of gear and techniques. I selected a piece of terrain that I thought would let me do that.


I would start out at the road, at an elevation of about 1200 ft. From there I would take a bearing to a mountain in the distance. It would not be visible from the road, so I would have to navigate based on the bearing taken from the map, and bushwhack from my location to the top of the mountain. The route is marked by a long red line on the picture above. This approach would present a number of different challenges, which would require me to use different techniques and tools. For example, the sections marked as “1” and “3” are very steep with the contour lines of the map almost next to each other. This would require some crampon use and travel over steep terrain. On the other hand, the section marked as “2” is more gradual, allowing for some snowshoeing. The plan was that once I reached the top of the mountain at about 3500 ft, “4”, I would connect with a trail that passed through the area and follow it down “5”, and leave it at the very end for some more bushwhacking “6” until I make it back to the road “7”.

So, I started out in the morning. The whether was good, about 25F (-4C). As expected the initial section was steep, although, I was able to find good approaches all the way up.



The snow was frozen hard, and a number of animal tracks were preserved. One particular kind seemed to zigzag perpendicular to my direction of travel. I took some pictures. I would see these tracks crossing my path almost all the way up to the summit.



After some climbing, the ground started to level out. The snow was still hard, so I didn’t need my snowshoes. I spotted another set of tracks. To my inexperienced eye they seemed like deer tracks. They were headed up the mountain, so I followed them.


I eventually spotted some scat, which looked like deer to me, but more spread out than I am used to seeing it.


Some distance above that location I spotted, or more exactly smelled, what I guessed was a deer wallow. Edit: General consensus seems to be that this is a site where coyote killed or at least attacked and wounded a deer.


There was a fair amount of blood at the location. I am not familiar enough with this stuff to be able to say whether this is normal or not.




The smell was strong, so I got out of there quickly. I kept moving for another hour or so, at which point I decided to stop and eat lunch. I used the Kovea Spider stove to heat up some water. The stove worked great despite the cold and the fact that the canister was almost empty.


After lunch the temperature had started to climb, and the snow was getting softer. I pulled out the snowshoes. These snowshoes are new, so I wasn’t sure how they would work with the shoes I was wearing, but they performed great. The snowshoes I was using are the 25 inch MSR Lightning Ascent. MSR’s Ascent series is their most aggressive snowshoe, designed for backwoods use. They have large crampons built into the frame and the toe area. They allow for travel over steep and uneven terrain. I was surprised how well they performed. They were light years ahead when compared the the Army surplus snowshoes that I had used in the past. I was very pleasantly surprised.



Eventually I reached the second steep section of the trek. This time there was no particularly easy approach. I headed up, and at times I was rather scared. After some climbing, I started to see above the trees below.


Eventually, further up, I was able to find a good approach to the summit through the rocks. At this elevation the wind was very strong. It made the sweat freeze on me immediately. It was a strange combination of being hot and cold at the same time.


After a final push, I reached the top of the mountain. A few steps away I spotted one of the trail markers. The hard part was done.


Not far from this location, there was a good shot off the peak.


It was now around 4 pm. With sunset at 5 pm, I had to hurry down the trail, so I could get to a lower, and less windy elevation where I could set up camp. I found a good spot some distance from the trail. I cleared out the location with my Bahco Laplander saw, as I had not brought my hatchet on this trip, and stamped out a platform.


I used MSR snow stakes to for the tent. They are a great piece of equipment. They hold well without much effort.


If you are wondering where the second snowshoe is, it is being used as a support for the center pole.


I sat, cooked dinner, and melted some snow so I can stock up on water for the next day. I kept my water bottle in the sleeping bag during the night.


Now, in case you didn’t know, here is a trick for using a stove in the snow. Obviously, if you just place it on the snow, the stove will heat up and melt down through it. The best thing to do is place it on a rock, but that is not always an option. Something you can do instead is use your ice axe as support.



All that was left to do at that point was eat dinner and watch the sunset.


Soon after sunset I went to sleep. The best part of winter camping is that you get to catch up on sleep. The night was uneventful. The next morning I packed up and got going down the trail, or more precisely next to the trail. The trail itself had turned into ice. I found the snow next to it easier to travel.

I had decided not to wear my shell pants for the descent. I wasn’t going to be doing any serious climbing, and it didn’t matter too much if some part of my pants got wet. The gaiters would be sufficient.


I made good time down the trail, and soon, cut back into the woods towards my final location. When I scaled down a steep section of rock and saw a waterfall, I knew I was close.


Shortly after I was back at the car. Most of the gear performed well. I was very happy with the Scrapa Mont Blanc boots, the Black Diamond Sabertooth crampons, the REI Flash 62 backpack, the MSR Lightning Ascent snowshoes, the Kovea Spider stove etc. The only problems I had were with the vapor barrier liners (VBL) and the gaiter. The VBL kept sliding down into my boots which was annoying. The gaiters kept accumulating snow under the straps that go under the boot. I’ll have to think of a solution for that.



The end.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Mors Kochanski Talks About Survival Axes

I think I mentioned before that Mors Kochanski, a well known survival and wilderness instructor has started posting videos on YouTube regarding different topics. Here I wanted to share with you two videos he put out on axes. They are good to watch just because they are put out by Mors, but unfortunately they don’t seem to contain too much information that the average axe user wouldn’t already know.

Part 1:

Part 2:

There are a few interesting things that struck me personally. The first was the horrible condition in which he keeps his axes. These are probably some of the most poorly taken care of axes that I have ever seen, and would personally consider unsafe to use. I think that at the point where your axe handle is held together with duct tape, it is time to rehang it.

The other thing is the size of axe that he recommended for survival. His choice was a Swedish army surplus boy’s size axe. The axe itself is great. I have reviewed it here before. However, under what circumstances are you going to end up in a survival situation, presumably without the rest of your gear, but at the same time carrying a 3.5 lb axe? Just seems unlikely. It is not a bad size axe to carry around with you, and perhaps that is what he intended to convey, but as a survival tool, it is just unrealistic that you would have it with you, but not your regular gear. Perhaps out concepts of survival differ.

And the third thing that i found humorous is that he pointed to some Gransfors Bruks axes and said that they are not his favorite, and are not what he would chose to carry, but that they became very popular because Ray Mears endorsed them. I thought it was a very interesting glimpse into wilderness expert “mine is bigger than yours”. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Fridtjof Nansen – Images From the Fram Expedition and His Attempt to be the First Man to Reach the North Pole

When it comes to winter exploration, and right down miraculous ability to survive in the cold, few names come up more often than that of the Norwegian, Fridtjof Nansen. In 1895, Nansen and his companion Hjalmar Johansen set out from their ice locked ship, the Fram, and made a dash for the North Pole. After failing in their attempt, they were stranded on the ice, where they managed to survive for a year while making their way south. Eventually they ran into a British explorer, Frederick Jackson, who took them back to Norway.

Recently I was able to find a set of photographs from the expedition in the National Library of Norway, and wanted to share them with you.

In 1893, Nansen and his crew set out in a custom built ship, the Fram, with the intent of being the first people to reach the North Pole. The plan was to sail as far north as possible, then let the ship get ice locked in the hope that the ice flow will take it through the North Pole. The plan was considered by many even at that time to be ridiculous and absurdly dangerous. None the less, they set out, and soon the Fram was ice locked.

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Relatively soon however, it was discovered that the ice flow was not taking the Fram to the pole, but rather in a circular path around it. Unwilling to give up on his attempt, Nansen decided that he and Hjalmar Johansen would take a team of dogs and try to make it to the pole over the ice. They knew that even if they were successful, they would have no way of returning back to the ship, but would have to make their way to land. Here is an image of Nansen from that time period:

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And one of Johansen:

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After preparing for the trip during the winter, in 1895 the two men set out with a dog team, two canoes and two sleds for the North Pole. Eventually, the dogs were killed for food.

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It is sometimes asked, and I have wondered myself, why Nansen did not bring fur clothing for the trip, much like his countryman Amundsen did a decade after on his bid for the South Pole. The truth is that Nansen had brought fur clothing, which him and his crew wore on the ship. When traveling on foot however, it was decided that the fur clothing would be too heavy and too warm. Just like Scott on his attempt to reach the South Pole, Nansen opted for wool and canvas clothing. 

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After much effort, it became clear that the two men would not be able to reach the North Pole, and they had to turn back. Poor maps, as well as the shifting ice made that a nearly impossible task. The journey forced them to spend another winter on the ice in a makeshift shelter. They survived by hunting walrus, birds, and eventually bears which came to feed on their meat supplies.

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They made it through the winter, and by a stroke of luck, they ran into Frederick Jackson, a British explorer, who had also made an attempt to reach the North Pole, but with no better luck. Here you can see Nansen and Jackson meeting.

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Ironically, Jackson had applied to be on Nansen’s expedition, but was rejected because Nansen wanted all of the crew members to be Norwegian.

Well, those are the pictures I was able to find. I hope you enjoyed them.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Best Winter Backpacking Boots

Ok, I admit it! It’s a misleading title. I have no idea what the “best” winter backpacking boots are, but in this post I want to share my thoughts on the subject with you.

So, here I am assuming that you have decent experience backpacking in warmer weather, and have decided to start getting out into the woods during winter. Naturally, a good pair of winter boots would be essential for the job. The first thing that most people do of course is to look online. I think you will find that the search returns very few hits. The few results that you do get, even the ones from respected organizations like the AMC and NOLS have what I believe to be very outdated, and in some ways misleading recommendations. Here I would like to explain why I believe that to be the case.

The first thing to consider is that people tend to mistakenly assume that winter boots are simply divided by degrees of warmth. So, if you know the temperature will be 0F, then you get boots rated to 0F, if it will be –40F, you get boots designed for that temperature. If someone has crossed the arctic with a particular boot, or climber Everest in it, then it must be warm, and therefore must be the ideal boot for your winter backpacking trip. I strongly believe however that there is a second criteria along which winter boots have to be separated and rated. That criteria is the type of activity which is to be performed during the trip. Temperature ratings are easy, but ignoring the differences between the intended use of certain boot designs can lead you to use boots that are warm but totally inadequate for the task at hand. I think that is an error made very often these days when looking at winter boots, and I will get to that point a bit later.

I’ll discuss temperature ratings in a bit, but first, let’s look at types of intended use for winter boots, at least as I see it. I will divide the type of use into three categories for this post, but please understand that this is a continual gradation with specific boots falling somewhere along the line. Within each of these categories, we can then examine boots of different warmth and temperature rating.

Types of Activity

Boots for stationary activity/Travel over light terrain

Such boots are designed to be soft and roomy. They are well suited for stationary activities like ice fishing or riding a snowmobile. They are also very good for travel over light terrain, perhaps while pulling a pulk. Their main goal is to provide the maximum amount of insulation. In this category I include some traditional cold weather shoes, such as mukluks.


Mukluk style shoes can easily be adopted to provide great amounts of insulation. In fact, it is very easy to get a boot a few sizes larger and add insulation yourself either through a liner or just extra socks. They are very flexible which allows movement of the foot inside, which also promotes circulation and increases warmth. The big downside however is that they are horrible at dealing with moisture. Even ones made from water resistant materials like seal skin will get wet. Keep in mind that even in very cold/dry environments, the boots will get wet because of the moisture produced by your feet, which can be significant. Reading the accounts from explorers like Nansen and Scott, shows that very quickly such boots will turn into blocks of ice unless you can find a way to dry them out. The breathability of the boots becomes largely irrelevant at low temperatures because the water vapor freezes inside the boot before it can exit.

A modern upgraded version of these boots is what is often called the PAC boot. They follow the mukluk design and start with a soft, roomy, insulated boot. However, they then go on to add an outer boot which offers protection from the elements and added durability. Companies like Baffin and Sorel make good examples of this boot. Baffin for example offers boots in temperature ranges for 0F to –120F.


This type of boot offers perhaps the greatest opportunity for insulation, and can be seen worn on Antarctica and other very cold environments where travel is over relatively level and easy terrain. They have the added benefit that the inner, insulated boot can be removed so it can be dried more quickly than a boot with single body construction. When Richard Weber and Mikhail Malakhov became the first men to reach the North Pole unsupported and return successfully, they did it with a PAC style boot designed by Sorel for the expedition.

However, the greatest asset of this boot is also its main problem. The boots are soft, large and very padded. Over more difficult terrain, they start to fall short. If you leave the level snow fields and have to start scrambling over some rock, the soft boots offer very little support. It is also virtually impossible to securely place a crampon on this type of boot, which significantly limits the type of terrain over which you can travel.

Boots for travel over moderate terrain/Backpacking boots

For travel over more moderate terrain, scrambling over snow, ice, and rocks, a different boot is preferable. This is the type of activity I most closely associate with backpacking. For such travel, we need a stiffer boot that offers more support not only for the ankles, but also for the bottom of the foot as well. In this category we have boots with a shank that provides rigidity, as well as a more rigid upper boot. Think of a regular backpacking boot that you use for the rest of the year, simply more insulated. A good example is the Keen Summit Country II, but other manufacturers such as Solomon and Merrell make similar examples. 


Most of these boots have temperature ratings down to –40F. Their more compact and rigid construction does not allow for as much insulation as the PAC boots, but they can still be made very warm. Some manufacturers actually offer double boot versions which are similarly rigid and have the same temperature rating, but include a removable inner boot for faster drying time. The Merrell Norsehund Alpha are a good example.


This type of boot is semi rigid, so it offers good support over mixed terrain. It is also comfortable when walking over long distances because it has enough flexibility. With temperature ratings down to –40F, they also offer good insulation. They also have the very important benefit of being able to take a crampon. While you will not be able to use a fully rigid or automatic crampon with these boots, many crampons with universal attachments will work well. You will not be climbing any vertical ice with these boots, but they will perform very well over a wide variety of terrain, and they will do it comfortably.

Many winter hunting boots fall into this category. Boots like the Irish Setter Snow Claw XT offer good support over large varieties of terrain, while they have enough flexibility to keep them comfortable when walking over long distances.


Hunting boots often use thinsulate as insulation, so you will see their warmth ratings as grams of thinsulate. Generally, anything over 400 grams of thinsulate is considered a warm winter boot, although you will find boots with up to 2000 grams of thinsulate.

Technical mountaineering boots

If you have been searching online for winter backpacking boots, odds are that you have already seen that most places that discuss the issue recommend a variant of these boots. The reasoning is that if a soft boot is good over limited terrain, and a semi rigid boot is good over a wider range of terrain, then a fully rigid, mountaineering boot will be the best thing out there. After all, that is what people use to climb peaks like Denali and Everest. In my opinion that is a very misguided approach, but before I get into that, let’s go over some basics of mountaineering boots.

Mountaineering boots are designed primarily as technical climbing boots. They typically have fully rigid soles and very stiff upper construction. That is done to facilitate climbing. When climbing rock, or ice with the use of crampons, typically, you have a very small toehold, where either the tip of your boot or the crampon has caught the surface you are climbing. If the boot was soft, it would bend when your foot puts pressure on it, as it is attached to the surface at only one small point. Once it bends it will slip out. A rigid boot can take that small toehold, and turn it into a stable platform for your foot by preventing the boot from bending and slipping out. Mountaineering boots can also take a full range of crampons including fully rigid and automatic crampons. The boots can also be used without crampons to kick in steps into packed snow and ice because of how stiff they are.

For a long time the best way to achieve this was to use a double boot similar to a PAC boot, but with a fully rigid plastic outer shell. Understandably these boots are referred to as plastic double boots. Good examples include the Scarpa Inverno featured below, but a few other companies like La Sportiva and Koflach (now owned by Scarpa) make similar boots.


If you did any search online for winter boots, odds are you were directed to get a pair of plastic double boots. The thinking, as I mentioned above, is that they are extreme enough to handle anything, they are very warm, and you can remove the liners to “dry” them out in your sleeping bag.

I strongly believe that this trend in using double plastic mountaineering boots for every winter activity is very misguided and leads to use of boots that are not well suited for the task. For starters, plastic double boots vary widely in terms of warmth that they offer. Just like with any other type of boot, there are some designed for moderate temperatures (the Scarpa Omega for example) and there are others designed for climbing Everest (La Sportiva Olimpus Moons). So, if you decide to get such boots, check to see if they suit the temperature in which you plan on using them. Just because it is a double plastic boot, does not mean it will keep you warm. Second, I am a big skeptic when it comes to “drying” out gear inside a sleeping bag. From my experience, the boots will not dry, they will simply not freeze. On the other hand, they will get your sleeping bag wet. I would much rather have cold wet boots than a cold wet sleeping bag. I find this benefit of the double plastic boots to be dubious. Most importantly however, these boots are extremely uncomfortable for regular walking. They sacrifice all flexibility and comfort. For me, they are only to be used if the terrain absolutely requires them. Having to travel 10 miles a day over mixed terrain in such boots is my idea of medieval torture. Regardless of how dry I may be able to get the liners by keeping them in my sleeping bag over night, it is just not worth it.

In more recent years, there have been developments in mountaineering boots, and for most environments, the plastic double boot has been replaced by single leather/GoreTex boots. They have equally stiff soles, so they can take crampons, but they are much less bulky, and have more flexible tops. After a lot of time in them, you may even start to think that they are comfortable. La Sportiva Nepal Evo GTX are the ones that everyone seems to be using these days in the lower 48 states. They are an excellent boot. Scarpa makes an almost identical boot, the Mont Blanc. These boots also come in different temperature ratings. For example, La Sportiva Trango is designed for warmer temperatures than the Neapl Evo or Mont Blanc.


The single mountaineering boots offer the same technical aspects as the double plastic boots, but are more comfortable. The down side is that the insulation is not removable, but I find that a set of vapor barrier liners (VBL) solves that issue. That being said, they are not nearly as comfortable as any of the other types of boots outlined above, and I believe they should only be used for winter trips if serious mountaineering is on the schedule.

So, where does that leave us in the search of the best winter backpacking boots? Well, I strongly believe that the right boots for you will have to be designed for the type of activity you have in mind and they must have the right temperature rating.

The easy thing to tell everyone, and I believe rather incorrectly, is that you should get a pair of plastic double boots if you will be out in winter. I think that unless you will be in terrain that requires the use of full crampons and an ice axe, that such mountaineering boots are not just unnecessary, but also harmful. They are very uncomfortable, and if you plan on covering any distance in them, the whole trip will become torture. Sometimes, for certain trips, such boots are the only way to go. If you will be traveling over terrain that requires serious crampon use, then mountaineering boots will be required. Even then however, I prefer single mountaineering boots to double plastic boots. While the liners are not removable, the boots are much more comfortable. I find that even trips that require more technical mountaineering, are comprised of 80% regular backpacking, and 20% technical mountaineering. For those 80% the single boots wins out. 

At the other end of the spectrum, many “bushcraft” experts recommend a mukluk style boot. I also believe them to be inadequate for general winter backpacking. They are ideal for certain types of terrain, as they are very comfortable and you can easily adjust the insulation inside, but their lack of rigidity, bulk, and inability to take any type of crampon, makes them hard to recommend as a good all around winter backpacking boot. If you will be traveling over relatively level terrain, or performing stationary activities, such boots are great. However if you plan on traveling over more difficult, mixed terrain, they leave a lot to be desired.

For the average person, if your winter backpacking trip is going to resemble your trips in warmer weather, than I would venture to recommend a boot that falls somewhere in the middle. A boot that is fairly rigid, so it can take some form of crampon and allow you to get a good foothold on various types of terrain, while at the same time having enough flexibility to allow you to walk long distances in comfort. Something like the Keen Summit Country II is a good choice, and if you want one with removable insulation, the Merrell Norsehund Alpha would be your best bet.

Temperature Ratings

After you have decided what boots you want to use based on the type of activity you have in mind, you then have to focus on how warm of a boot you will actually need. On one hand temperature ratings are simple-you get boots rated for the temperature you are likely to encounter. On the other hand however, the warmth of your feet depends on so many interlocking factors, that it is often difficult to select the right boot, even if the advertised temperature rating of a boot is correct.

Regardless of what boots you chose, keeping your feet warm involves a lot more than warm boots. Eating enough food, being well hydrated, and keeping your core temperature up are essential to having warm feet. Similarly, your activity level will play a crucial role in the warmth of your feet. A certain boot might be ideal in terms of warmth when you are climbing a mountain for several days, but go ice fishing with it on a frozen lake for a few hours and you might find your toes freezing.

What I personally use is a combination of three boots. For warm winter trips, with temperatures above 0F (-18C), I actually use my regular backpacking boots, with thicker socks. Those boots are the Solomon Quest 4D. For colder weather I switch to the Merrell Norsehund Alpha boots. They are very warm, while at the same time having good support. They also work well with my Hillsound Trail Crampons Pro (a mild approach crampon) for moderate terrain covered by snow and ice. If I will be doing more technical mountaineering, where I will be using an ice axe, and full crampons, I use a pair of Scarpa Mont Blank boots. Now, the Mont Blanc boots are not extremely warm. They will probably be comfortable down to about 0F (-18C), or maybe a bit lower, but not much. For colder temperatures you’ll have to switch to double boots like La Sportiva Spantik, which seems to be the preferred boot for Denali. I’m not familiar with any single mountaineering boots that would be warm enough.

I know, I’m not giving you much help when it comes to temperature rating. The reason is that how warm something feels is a very personal thing. The point I am trying make in this post is that selecting boots based on warmth should only come second to selecting boots based on function. When looking for advise on boots, ask someone who does the type of activities that you plan on doing.