Toasty tootsie testing
Baby it’s cold outside. Nothing is more important than keeping your feet warm on a bike ride. Here are the best mountain bike winter boots.
It only takes one miserable, trench foot experience sloshing around in a pair of icy shoes to realise how much better life becomes wearing appropriate winter footwear.
FLAT PEDAL USERS: scroll down to the bottom of this guide for a recommended flat pedal boot for you.
Obviously a winter boot is a substantial investment, but you’ll only be wearing it for a few months at a time, so it should last several years before it needs replacing. This also allows you to save your summer shoes from a frozen and grimy beating, and that should in turn make them last longer, too.
With most of the big names now offering some kind of foul weather model, there has never been a better time to buy a dedicated winter wader. We gathered together six of the best boots on the market, snugged up our collars, defrosted our chamois leathers and set off into the bitter cold for some serious toe-to-toe testing.
Tale of the test
When testing MTB footwear we normally focus on comfort and power transfer, but with winter boots, key features are water resistance and warmth. These are easy enough to quantify, but slightly more difficult to assess are the practical details, like how easy is it to get the boots on and off, considering your fingers may be cold and wet after a ride. Are the laces sticky and prone to getting choked up with grime? Can the soles handle muddy slopes when you are pushing? Do the boots still keep you warm when filled with water?
The only way to find that out is to live in them, which is what we did through autumn and, what is turning into, a pretty chilly Scottish winter. As usual we used our Scottish squad of bearded mountain men and race whippets to put the boots through their paces.
The last thing you want to be doing in winter is fiddling with frozen laces or getting frustrated at ineffective Velcro. Speed laces, with sliding jams, are fine, but our favourite at the moment is the Boa dial system — it’s a simple twist to tension, easy to release on the move, and it rarely goes wrong.
There is no such thing as a winter boot that keeps 100 per cent water out, because if you step in a deep pool, water will simply come over the top. Even if you avoided that puddle, rain and splashes will still be able to run down your leg and into the shoe. That said, it’s still worth opting for a Gore-Tex liner, or a similar proprietary membrane, because this holds the water next to your foot, where it stays warm, rather than allowing cold water to flush through constantly.
A flap over the lace system not only deflects splashes from this potential water entry point, it also means you aren’t going to be scraping mud away from your lacing system when trying to take the shoe off.
Lifting the height of the protection is a good idea to stop water ingress. Lighter and flexible is best as this stops it interfering with pedalling. The cuff is rarely fully waterproof, it’s only there to deflect splashes, rather than survive submersion.
As with all bike shoes, there is a variety of sole stiffness out there — stiffer for better power transfer, more flexible for easier wear off the bike. In winter you are more likely to be walking sections, so a more flexible outsole is preferable.
Since you’re trudging through mud and snow in the winter, it also makes sense to have a fairly aggressive tread on your shoe. Stud fitments are also useful if you are going to be attacking muddy inclines. Also look for soft compound rubber, as this will skate less on greasy rocks and roots.
More than ever, winter is a time for sacrificing style for function, so it was with a slightly suspicious eye we viewed the Giro Alpineduro’s pretty boy, café-rider looks. Despite some practical drawbacks, the Alpineduro was a very pleasant shoe to ride in, with a decent mid-stiffness shank for power transfer and a waterproof and insulated upper that always kept our feet warm.
Mavic Crossmax SL Pro Termo
With great coverage, the excellent and efficient Boa binding system, Gore-Tex waterproofing and an easy clean exterior, the Mavic ticked pretty much all our boxes. A sleek, efficient shoe, but just a little expensive to get top marks.
With a waterproof liner, it was a superb boot in wet conditions but, as the cold weather started to bite in November, it soon became apparent it was more than capable when the temperature dropped too. Overall, a solid shoe, with plenty of protection and a reasonable price tag.
Northwave Celcius Arctic 2
Easily the warmest boot on test, with a luxurious fleece lining positively enveloping our foot when slipped on. Put it this way — if you suffer from cold feet, this is the boot to buy.
Some boots you can just pull-on and forget they are there, with every function and practicality covered to the point that they just blend into the background. Most riders went out assuming the MW5 was of a comparable price to the rest on test and still came back firmly nailing them to the top of the heap. We found it hard to fault this shoe — warm, perfect stiffness and cheap — a worthy winner.
Specialized Defroster Trail
The Defroster was very comfortable and warm, however, with the Boa performing as well as ever for easy tightening, loosening and adjustment on the move. The slick outer also proved easy to hose off and clean after rides. Lacks a bit of protection, and one of the most expensive boots on test, it’s also worth checking the sizing before you buy.
The good news is that every one of these boots kept us warm and dry, with only one boot (the Mavic Crossmax SL Pro Thermo) struggling slightly when the temperature really plummeted several degrees below zero. Even then we were making a point of only wearing summer thickness socks to really test the shoe’s mettle. Chances are the Crossmax SL Pro Thermo would have been fine with more sensible socks.
The Giro was an excellent, superb quality boot when on the bike — a little draughty round the ankle and less splashproof than others, but otherwise perfectly capable. You may be tempted if the retro style appeals to your artistic side (they also come with black laces in the box if the orange ones are a bit too much), but that combination of impractical laces and less than aggressive sole just wasn’t for us.
The Specialized was penalised slightly for that stiff and ungainly ankle cuff, poor tread for muddy trekking, plus a surprisingly low-level seal for the waterproof liner — right at the bottom of the laces, rather than the top for all the others. Otherwise it was a warm boot with plenty of wriggle room for toes. Just remember and order a size below your usual.
Level pegging was the Northwave, another superb and extremely warm and waterproof boot. We couldn’t fault it on the bike, with a stiff sole helping the miles fly by, but off the bike it was a little ungainly, and that hard plastic tread skated easily on frozen surfaces.
A step up was the Mavic, with its high yet comfortable splash proofing, aggressive tread and sleek lines complementing an efficiently shank to boost pedal power. A Gore-Tex liner added big name performance to the waterproofing, but as we’ve mentioned, you need a thick sock when the temperature drops.
The Lake was a great find. It’s a warm and waterproof boot, and while it did lack some of the splash-proof height, the lack of a sealed ankle meant it breathed better in warmer conditions, and this extended its use into the warmer months. With this versatility, and a decent price, the Lake is one of the best value winter boots on test.
Great value is something we can also say about our test winner. At £130, the Shimano MW5 is up to £50 cheaper than its rivals, and when you combine this with excellent weatherproofing, comfort, ease of use and good compromise of pedalling and walking stiffness…
The ultimate winter boot.
Finally, something for flat pedal users
All these clip-in booties listed above are all well and good for the SPuD brigade, but what about those of us who run flat pedals? Including those who may who clipless pedals for most of the year but make the switch to flat pedals for winter playabout riding..?
Five Ten Freerider EPS High
In an ideal world we’d like to see a slightly thicker Stealth S1-soled model sitting somewhere between the Freerider Elements and Sam Hill Impact in terms of support and stiffness, but since this doesn’t exist, the EPS gets our vote as the best winter flat pedal trail shoe you can actually buy.