What to wear in frigid cold weather
When I came to Alaska, the exchange rate of the DM (former German currency) to dollar was very bad. I had been on sabbatical in the year before. Thus, I knew when I paid a salad from money earned in Germany, I had to work three times as long for that salad than I would have to work for the salad in the US. Thus, while waiting for our green card, it seemed a good idea to stock up on classic outerwear, clothing and foot gear that I could wear for years to come. In other words, exchange the money that has lower value in the US, to something that has high or equivalent value in the US. When immigrating to a cold climate region like Alaska, it is a no-brainer that a shearling coat, cashmere sweaters and cardigans, as well as boots are needed. Following this plan, I went shopping.
Look for the right boots for the weather of your area
Eternal classics that never go out of style are riding boots, engineer boots, shearling boots, cowboy boots, desert boots, and since the 70s, the seventy style knee-high boots with a quarter of an inch or so (0.5 cm) thick sole and a sturdy heel. It is obvious, the cowboy boots are not meant for the cold. High quality cowboy boots have a leather sole and that sole slides on the compressed snow of a parking lot or icy surfaces like it does on a wood dance floor. Desert boots – as the name says – are made for the desert. They are a guarantee for wet and cold feet when worn in rainy wet climate regions on rainy days. Don’t even think about snow!
Thus, I went searching for the highest quality leather riding boots I could get my hands on. Since I knew that I might face temperatures below -20F (-28.9oC) for long stretches of the about seven month cold season, I brought wool socks to the store and put them on over my woolen tights. When I entered the store, I told the sales person that I want to buy boots for Alaska and want to wear them with the best insulating insole they have plus tights and socks. I wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t end up with a pair of heels I can walk in the store, but nowhere else.
She said that a lamb or sheared sheep skin with foam underneath are best. This suggestion made sense. Air is a great insulator and the foam has many little air pores and there is air between the hair on the furry side of the insole. She asked for my shoes size and I repeated that I wear a 37.5 or European size 5 in pumps. These sizes are a US size 7.5.
Go a size up for extra socks/insulation sole
She seemed hesitant when she said that I probably would have to go a size up. “That’s fine” I replied. “I bet everyone does that and then my feet still look shorter than those of the gal that wears a larger size than I do.” She laughed and I laughed. “Yes,” she said when walking to the insole rack “but buying boots 1.5 sizes larger is traumatic for many women, I am selling shoes since 20 years, and never got my head around it.”.
When she came back with a size 38.5 (US 8.5) I said “It’s the Cinderella thing, you know. The mean step sisters had a larger size and cut their toes off to get into the shoes to get the Prince. Remember?” I replied while I put the socks on. “Never thought about that” she said pensively while she put the insole into a size 8.5 boot and gave it to me. “as if a man recognizes his gal by her shoes. Especially, when there are billions of gals that wear the same size and thousands who have the same shoes today.” “Right, but you never think about how many women on Earth right at the moment wear the same shoes as you do, do you?” We laughed.
Meanwhile I somehow had fumbled my feet into that boot. I stood up for some test walking. I knew immediately, I had to go up another half a size. The next try with a size 39 (US 9) was a perfect fit with a same size lamb skin foam insole, my thick wool socks and the tights.
Another pair of boots I invested in was a pair of shearling boots. I also bought the with my wool socks on, but in a size 8.5. I first was very hesitant whether or not to buy them because the toe box was very wide. To be honest, I had that absurd fantasy that I would look like a supersized toddler in them. 😉 Full disclosure, I visited the store several times, looking again and again at them. I finally bought them after I had bought a beautiful maxi black shearling coat that matched perfectly with these boots. Unfortunately, I believed that I wouldn’t need to add a lamb skin foam insole as they had a 0.4 inch (1 cm) thick sole and the foot bed was furry. Big mistake! The foot bed was faux fur and wore off in just one winter as I wore these shearling boots whenever it was frigid cold (below -25F, -31.7oC). The fur on the inside of the toe box and shaft where a real good insulation against the weathers, especially when I had to walk through ankle high loose snow. Unfortunately, I can’t replace the worn off foot bed with a foam lamb skin insole as then I would squeeze my toes against the wall of the toe box and loose the advantage of the air insulation. I wish I had bought them in size 9 too.
In fall before the first winter, I was wondering how smart my purchase have been. Thus, I went to Prospectors, the store everyone recommended to Alaska winter appropriate clothing. When I entered the store, I plain hated it and was like “My colleagues and new friends wanted to make fun of me. That’s an outdoor store!” As you know, for me “outdoors” is the space between buildings. Since my husband was with me and was excited to see down parkas on the racks close to the entrance, I couldn’t do what I felt like, i.e. making a 180 degree turn and get out of there!
Take a deep breath when you see the extreme cold weather shoes
To make a long story short, I went downstairs to the shoes section. I was seeking for a confirmation that I did the right thing when investing in my riding and shearling boots. Looking at the shoes shelf I felt like I had to throw up! Norwegian lobben boots in gray, red and black, ankle or calf high, your choice. Modern versions of the old Army supply of so-called Bunny boots, Sorel boots that had even wider toe boxes than the shearling boots I had bought in Germany. Even worse, all kinds of mukluks, one more ugly than the other – at least that’s what I thought. I was about to scream “No way that I wear that stuff!” In my fantasy, they must have been the blueprints for the Alaskan Bigfoot story. I turned around on my heels and hurried upstairs like the devil were behind me.
When I arrived upstairs I saw my husband at the cashier. He had bought two down parkas – one in blue and green – and a pair of Sorel boots that were marked on the shoe box to be suitable down to -45F (-42.8oC)! Even worse, at home I found out the blue one was a size S! No way that I wanted to wear that!
When the polar vortex comes you are happy about warm feet
The first really cold winter days came in mid November with temperatures below -25F (-31.7oC). My foot gear that I had bought in the winter before with the frigid cold winters of Alaska in mind, worked fine with these temperatures, when all I did was walking about 200 yards from the parking lot to the office building and return. However, when I had to wait for the campus shuttle for more than five minutes after class, the shearling boots without foam insole where a no-no. Thus, they became my “warmer weather boots” when temperatures were between -15F and -5F (-26.1 and -20.5oC). My feet felt comfortable in the riding boots with foam lamb insole as long as the wait didn’t exceed 15 minutes or so. They also felt right when I hadn’t to walk longer than 30 minutes.
I learned the importance of the right footwear the hard way
After that first real cold snap, an episode of warm weather followed with temperatures just a couple degrees below the freezing point. A winter storm from the Bering Sea brought a lot of wet, heavy snow. After the storm had passed, the Sun shined and the air was calm. Blue skies, a real kitschy winter landscape like you know them from postcards. It didn’t feel that cold at all outside.
Our about 200 yards long driveway was buried in a foot of snow, and had to be cleared. I wore the shearling boots. Since the air seemed warm compared to the frigid cold we had before, I passed on wearing double socks. Bad mistake! After half an hour of snow shoveling my feet felt worse than they did when waiting in my riding boots with foam lamb skin insole for the shuttle for 15 minutes the week before at temperatures below -25F (-31.7oC). My husband wore his Sorel boots and shoveled 2.5 hours and came in and his feet were still nice and warm. Now two things darned me that I had never associated with dressing or fashion despite I knew them well from physics:
Even when it seems to be warm outside, the ground is still cold and insulation is important towards the ground to decrease the loss of body heat.
Any insulation only slows down the process. In other words, it is impossible to not feel uncomfortable once the temperatures are below a certain point.
I felt cold the entire evening that day. Not to mention I got a really bad cold. I learned my lesson, and as soon as I felt better, I went to that “It” apparel store of my new friends and colleagues. I felt forced by the weather to buy a pair of Sorel style booties in a cool – read color I liked – for snow shoveling. Of course, 2 sizes larger than what I wear when wearing my beloved 3 inch high pumps. 🙂 Yes, you can wear high heels in Alaska like in a city. Do I have to say that I hoped nobody would see me buying those snow shovel booties?
It’s ok to wear the shoe “closet monsters” only when it’s needed
I wore these “monsters” only for snow shoveling the 200 yards long driveway. The only times I ever wore them in public when watching the Yukon Quest starts downtown in Fairbanks on the Chena river and the restart of the Iditarod on the Chena in College. Do I have to say that I don’t watch the start when temperatures are below zero Fahrenheit (-18oC). Anyhow, these “monsters” permit watching the dog teams at these temperatures for about 2 hours before my feet start feeling uncomfortable. Then I immediately leave to get a coffee and drive home.
My advice to keep your feet warm
At the university, we have many students from India and other Tropical countries. When they ask me, I give them the following advice:
- Don’t bring any so-called “winter clothes” or “winter shoes” from your Tropical home country.
- Lamb fur insoles and boiled wool insoles are great.
- Also shoes with a thicker sole provide some extra insulation from the ground.
- The most important thing when shopping for winter shoes is that they fit without squeezing the foot even when one wears double wool socks. Air insulates well, but when the toes/feet are pressed against the wall of the toe box, one gets cold feet by conduction and has bad blood circulation.
- Go for men’s knee-high socks to keep your calves warm. They come in nice pattern, but are cheaper than patterned knee-high women socks.
- Felt booties are great as long as the snow is powdery and they are not cut like moccasins (see moccasins style in the photo below). The felt booties get wet in no time in wet snow. The moccasin style booties collect snow on them leading to cold feet from conduction from above. Furthermore, the collected snow melts when one enters public transportation, a mall, the office, i.e. a place with temperatures above freezing. Wet feet are a recipe for cold feet too. The round toe felt booties style looks great with flannel lined Alaska jeans.
- Have a pair of shoes or flatouts at the office to get out of your boots. You don’t want to sweat in them while at work. The sweat will get cold in no time outside and you get cold feet. I schlep my pumps matching to my outfit back and forth every day.
- For women who have a car can keep their knees warm while warming up the engine and look stunning in over-the-knee boots worn over jeans or leggings (with long Johns or tights underneath).
What do you do to keep your feet warm when it gets bitter cold? Did you know that my style recipe book How to Dress for Success in Midlife has also sections on how to dress for cold weather? You can buy it here.
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Photos of me: G. Kramm
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