This article is also published on the Correct Toes Blog, in slightly modified form, dated December 3, 2012.
Keeping your feet and toes warm during the cold winter months is an important consideration, and so too is keeping your feet and toes healthy and pain-free. Winter is no time to forget natural foot health principles, and the footwear you use during the cold months should receive the same high scrutiny your warm weather footwear receives. In this post, I'll discuss some of the most important considerations for cold weather footwear and how you can stay injury-free in the winter while out and about.
Important Principles to Remember
The rules that govern healthy footwear apply equally to warm and cold-weather shoes and boots, though it’s often more difficult to find foot-health-positive winter footwear. To review, then, winter footwear should be completely flat from heel to toe, widest at the ends of your toes, flexible in the sole, and lightweight. The relatively greater amount of shoe or boot material included in winter footwear usually means increased weight. Search for the lightest possible winter footwear that still protects your feet from the elements. Lightweight footwear (whether it be summer or winter footwear) enables a more natural (i.e., low-joint-impact) gait.
The late Dr. William Rossi, a leading figure in the natural foot health movement, once stated that, “... a shoe has only two functions: as a nonintrusive, protective covering, and as an ornamental dressing. The moment a shoe assumes a therapeutic function for the average foot, the foot is in trouble.” A good winter boot or shoe can be just this (a nonintrusive and protective covering), as long as it allows your foot to function like a bare foot and does not alter the natural anatomical position of your toes.
Winter Footwear Considerations
A few hardy souls may be willing to use their warm weather minimalist footwear in cold conditions, but for most people, ensuring that the feet are insulated from the cold—from both the air and the ground—is a key consideration when selecting cold weather footwear. The risk of frostbite on any exposed skin is real, and it can have a lasting effect on the sensory nerves in the exposed area. Keeping a sufficient buffer between your foot and the frozen ground is important because a significant amount of body heat can be lost through your feet.
Winter footwear must be wide enough to accommodate not only the width of your foot but also the thickness of your socks. Many people prefer thicker, woolier socks in the cold winter months, and these socks can take up a significant amount of space within your shoe or boot. Some shoes and boots have an inner lining (fuzzy or otherwise), too, that takes up additional space within the shoe or boot and can squish your toes, so judge footwear width accordingly when shopping for winter shoes or boots.
When selecting cold weather footwear, consider the shoe or boot’s upper, specifically whether it’s stretchy and flexible or stiff. A flexible upper allows more room for your toes to spread, which is an important advantage. A stiff upper can be okay too, as long as the width of the shoe or boot (at the ends of the toes) is adequate to begin with. It’s important to avoid buying a narrow shoe or boot with a stiff upper, thinking the upper will loosen up or adjust over time—it won’t.
Most winter shoes and boots can be modified to create more toe room. One way to do this is to remove the liner. Removing the liner can significantly increase the amount of space within the shoe or boot for your foot and toes. In most cases, the soles alone will be thick enough to buffer heat loss from the bottoms of your feet. If, after removing the liner, your shoe or boot feels too loose or floppy around your heel, you can add a tongue pad to help take up some of the slack. Re-lacing footwear is another simple and helpful modification that can increase toe room in cold weather shoes or boots. Consider starting the laces a few eyelets higher up on your foot than normal, leaving the bottom one or two sets (i.e., the sets closest to the toes) open. This modification helps reduce pinch forces on your toes, allowing them more freedom within your shoe or boot’s toe box.
Consider using socks that keep your feet sufficiently warm but do not cause sweating. Toe socks—which you can use in combination with Correct Toes to help optimize your foot health—are great winter socks. Conventional socks can be okay too, but it's important to stretch the seems around the toes to remove any tapering effect they may cause. If you wear slippers in your house, you should make sure these slippers are flat, widest at the ends of your toes, and flexible (not all slippers possess these important design features).
A final consideration when searching for healthy cold weather footwear is the Shoe Liner Test. Remove your footwear's liner and stand on it (wearing socks) to determine if your winter shoes and boots are truly foot-health-positive. If any part of your foot or toes hang over the liner, the shoe or boot is too narrow.
Healthy Winter Footwear
When shopping for cold weather footwear, remember that the brand name of the shoe or boot is less important than the actual fit. Footwear brands that may be appropriate for cold weather situations include Ugg, Soft Star, and Crocs—it just depends on the model. Feel free to contact us if you have found winter shoes or boots that work with Correct Toes or adhere to our natural foot health principles. We are always searching for new products to support our readers' long-term foot health.
One Possible Option: Lems Boulder Boot
The Lems Boulder Boot is an excellent cold weather footwear option! We have tested it in temperatures as low as 15 degrees F. For extremely cold temperatures, please do use a warm wool sock, and please avoid using Correct Toes toe spacers as the device can get quite cold next to the toes. This boot meets all the criteria for Natural Footgear Certification, including a toe box sufficiently wide enough to allow for natural toe splay, a completely flat sole from heel to toe, a flexible sole, and an overall lightweight design.
Winter Traction Aids to the Rescue!
We highly recommend Due North Winter Traction Aids! These traction aids are excellent in preventing slips and falls in icy and wintery conditions. They work great for everyone from seniors who may be unsure of their footing to hardcore athletes who train outdoors in the winter. Use Due North Winter Traction Aids when shoveling snow from your driveway or sidewalk, walking your dog, or jogging in the city or on the trail.
Don't Forget Your Warm Socks!
Wearing warm socks is an important consideration for winter weather and activities. We like combining wool toe socks with our Lems Boulder Boots and Due North Winter Traction Aids for active outdoor activities during the cooler winter months. Visit our toe socks page to see the latest socks offerings on the Natural Footgear site.