Arguably the most important piece of kit you have regardless of activity, is your Footwear. This is no different when traveling in the polar regions. Blisters and frostbite can happen quickly and turn an otherwise thrilling expedition into an ordeal. Here’s what you need to know…
Boots: You probably won’t already have the necessary boots in your closet, but you may have something similar. The “Pac Boot” style is a standard in winter snow boots and has a rubber lower, leather or synthetic upper, and a removable liner. This combo creates the ideal boot for insulation, waterproofness, and inner moisture management.
Baffin Footwear has been making top-of-the-line pac boots for decades and has a line specifically for polar expedition purposes. The Baffin 3pin Guide Pro is our personal favorite. The liner system is so warm, most people can get by without a heavy sock layering system and the 75mm 3pin compatible duckbill is the best boot/binding system out there. All of this in a significantly lighter package than other Baffin Boots.
Camp Shoes: There are few things better than getting out of your boots at the end of a long day, putting on some thick, dry socks, slipping into your camp shoes. Depending on which polar region you’re in, and what your preference is, the best option will differ. Let’s break the camp shoes down into three categories.
Mukluks - The traditional style of footwear worn by many native northern peoples. Today there are many modern versions, Steger Mukluks being some of the most widely known. They breathe exceptionally well, have a removable liner, and are probably as warm as your ski boots. On the downside, they aren’t the lightest/smallest option available and require some small amount of maintenance to keep the ice off.
Booties - Synthetic or Down booties are a great lightweight option. Booties with synthetic insualtion, like the Baffin Base Camp Booties, pack well, insulate even when damp, and they are cheap to boot.
For drier polar climes, down booties are the way to go. These ones from Feathered Friends are a perfect example. They are the smallest, lightest, and the down insulates better than synthetic insulation by weight.
Tennis Shoes - If the temperatures aren’t getting too low, trail shoes can be just what you’re looking for. Great traction on slippery or rocky terrain, and it’s a piece of kit you probably already have. To make your trail shoes into the ultimate modular footwear, add in a Neos Overshoe to increase warmth and waterproofness. They slip on right over your regular shoes and pack down fairly small.
Socks and Vapor Barriers:
Everyone has their own variation on foot layering and that’s fine because everyone’s feet are different. However, everyone will get moisture in their boots, the question is, how will you choose to deal with it.
A vapor barrier (a.k.a. “VB”) is a waterproof layer, worn somewhere between your foot and the boot liner, generally over one pair of socks. This can be anything from a high tech commercial VB sock to a subway sandwich bag. We prefer plastic bags that are a little sturdier.
This is the best way to keep your boot liners from absorbing all of the foot sweat that gets produced over the course of the day. The downside is that since the moisture can’t go into your boot liner, it will stay right next to your foot, which, depending on how much you sweat, can make the whole situation pretty damp.
One tried and true setup is to have a midweight wool or silk liner as a base; A vapor barrier over that; Then another, thicker sock, over the VB to keep everything in place and reduce slippage.
Ultimately, your footwear system needs to be well tested before setting foot on a long expedition. Unhappy feet can turn an otherwise stellar expedition into a grueling ordeal very quickly, and we all prefer to thrive (rather than just survive) on our excursions into the cold.