During the winter months, it’s a constant fight to keep your feet warm. Mud, rain, snow and sleet are just some of the realities you'll face when tackling the trails. Luckily, Guy Kesteven has been testing mountain bikes and accessories in typical British weather for over 20 years so he knows exactly what to look for to keep your toes cosy when the temperatures fall.
Best winter MTB boots: everything you need to know
Like with all mountain-bike shoes fit is very important but it's probably even more crucial when it comes to winter boots. That’s because any tightness will kill circulation and freeze your feet faster than riding in flip flops. To make matters worse, some boots just add insulation inside without increasing the external volume making them tighter for a given size. Others use a specific winter last with increased space - particularly around the toes for wiggle room - so your blood flow isn’t affected even with fat socks on. We’ve tried to describe fit as best we can, but as always, there’s no substitute for physically trying them on before you buy.
Wet feet lose heat very quickly so waterproofing is potentially very useful in a winter boot. Even some level of water resistance to keep spray at bay goes a long way to increasing comfort when it’s cold. Don’t forget that feet sweat though, so unless the waterproofing is reasonably breathable, you’ll soon have damp toes whether it's wet outside or not. That’s why you’ll see a lot of Gore-Tex and similar materials being used on more expensive winter boots.
Waterproofing is only useful if the boot is well sealed enough to keep water from getting in and that can vary massively. Neoprene socks and sleeves at the ankle definitely help, but they only ever slow down flooding rather than stop it, unless you wear waterproof trousers over the top. However, the biggest fail in a lot of boots is gaps where tongues join or cuffs start, which can lead to water rushing in well below the level you think it should.
The level of insulation varies dramatically in winter MTB boots. Some have barely any warmth-boosting beyond water-resistant protection, which keeps them light and tight for hard riding, yet if you’re aware of that and ready to double-sock for added warmth then they can be just as suitable. Others are double-skin, Thinsulate loaded monsters with thermal, foil-faced insoles ready to go sub-zero without shivering, however, these can be seriously heavy, so you’re likely to feel like your feet are stuck in a shed when you’re trying to grind out the last few miles of a long day.
Another aspect of winter boots that you might not consider, but can make or break usability, are fasteners. Something that seems smart in the shop might be useless when covered in filth, and this can make boots come loose while riding or mean a long, increasingly angry fight to get them off at the end of a ride when you’re soaking wet and frozen. Zips are a prime example of reduced performance when they get gritty and icy, and exposed Velcro soon gets stuffed with junk and starts flapping rather than fastening. Boa dials actually work pretty well (they did start in skiing after all) but humble laces are still the simpler-is-smarter winners.
Winter doesn’t just bring colder, wetter conditions, it also makes things a lot more slippery. That means you’ll be walking a lot, and more likely prone to slipping in the process. Cue some winter boots like Lake having full-on walking boot treads with optional ice spikes or at least toe stud options for traipsing up steep hike-a-bikes or cyclo-cross runs. Soles tend to be softer too, which is useful for flexing your foot slightly and keeping it mobile and warm rather than rigid and frigid. If you’re still competitive at the dark end of the calendar, look for boots that still have a stiff, pedal-focused sole.
The best winter MTB boots you can buy this year
Specialized’s old Defroster was a relatively svelte three-season item but the latest design is a proper weather-beating monster with suitably Frankenstein aesthetics.
Unlike most boots, they’re sized up for thick socks as standard and your feet actually slip into fully waterproof, seam-sealed inner booties. These have a reflective layer to bounce heat back as well as 400g Thinsulate insulation. The outer is seriously sturdy with rubber toe and heel protection, and a fully reflective lower boot for added safety during on-road sections. It’s kept snug with a Boa lacing system hidden under a wrap-over flap with the dial poking through a side porthole. Finally, a tall double wrap neoprene collar closes it off from the top.
The SlipNot sole is soft and grippy without being super heavy and a stiffness rating of 6 means power transfer is acceptable. It gets a full suite of Specialized’s Body Geometry orthotic technologies under the insole to spread pressure.
The result feels more like putting your feet into a small building than a boot, so don’t expect any meaningful trail feedback through your feet. The tall, stiff collar can also be uncomfortable for a couple of rides until it softens up. Protection from the cold and wet is next-level, and they’re the one boot I never get cold feet in. While the initial cost is high, they’re a great investment. Our test pair have also survived a couple of seasons totally unscathed while similar aged and abused boots are looking decidedly second hand.
There are a few enduro boots that are pretty weatherproof, plus plenty of trail shoes with waterproof liners but these O’Neal shoes are potentially the best of both worlds at a reasonable price.
The centre of the sole with its soft dot tread gives a great connection with broader pedals which translates into excellent trail communication. The rearward, inboard cleat position can help centralise you on the bike but you will find it very soft if you’re used to stiffer more XC-oriented shoes. Toe, outer-edge and heel tread are chunkier for off-bike grip, extended welt provides rock protection up the toe sides and rear, and the whole upper is thick and rubberised for first-class Enduro durability.
It shrugs rain, wind and cold off extremely well, helped by the thick protective flap over the lacing system. Tightening is done with a single MOZ dial on each shoe, which includes a locking catch to prevent accidental release, although that can be hard to flick with cold, fat-gloved fingers. A short neoprene cuff adds splash and roost protection around the heel. Obviously there’s not the same level of wading/relentless rain proofing as the ankle-high boots here but they stay surprisingly comfortable in grim conditions without feeling like wellies or muting rider-to-bike interaction. Add the armoured toughness and they’re great as a dirty weather enduro shoe any time of the year.
The bottom half of the boot is shared with the new multipurpose Foray trail shoe so you get two replaceable toe studs and a soft and grippy Tachyon sole for off-bike traction. The nylon composite ‘Bronze’ sole has a stiffness rating of 6 so it’s comfy for walking in and gives good trail feedback on the bike. It will feel flexy compared to a race shoe if you’re revving it hard though. The ‘InForm Performance’ last is also designed to be particularly roomy, but as Bontrager are normally very snug it’s actually just an average - rather than obviously big - toe box.
Tightening is governed by a Boa dial winching a flap over the midfoot which leaves plenty of potential for toe-warming wiggle when needed. The insides are insulated and there’s a very tall, seam-sealed water-resistant neoprene cuff. Even with a side zip, you’ll need to use the heel pull to heave the boots on and off through the tight collar entry but that gives a super-snug feel as soon as they’re on. That much neoprene means they operate on a wet (through sweat or rain) but warm basis, but as no boots ever really stay dry for long that’s a reasonable and very practical approach. The neon ‘Radioactive Yellow’ colourway makes sense for rides who include some road sections, but we can see a lot of mountain bikers wishing there was a more subdued option.
Price is reasonable for the tech but as they’re brand-new boots we can’t comment based on longevity until we’ve got our test pair to the far side of their first winter.
Lake Cycling was one of the first brands to produce proper winter-focused mountain bike footwear and the 304s are the latest evolutions in a long line of high-comfort, high-tech boots.
To ensure easy blood flow, the 304s use a specific winter last with increased volume and there’s a wide fit version too, although Lake still advises sizing up with winter socks. Additional 200g Thinsulate lining in the toes and along the lower side combines with an Outlast liner that’s designed to regulate temperature. Your feet sit on a fleece, bubble wrap and reflective silver layer ‘Thermosol’ sandwich insole. A chunky Vibram sole makes for no-slip walking when you can’t pedal any further.
Up top, there's a full wrap rubber toe bumper to protect the premium, super supple Pittards WR100 water-resistant leather upper. There is a flap and a Velcro stabilising strap over the lower part of the Boa-laced boot which uses an oversized dial for easy gripping with fat-fingered winter gloves. The thick, tall collar completes awesome weather protection but the stiff feel can be intrusive when pedalling, especially when they're new. The leather needs looking after carefully and all the tech makes them super expensive. They feel fantastic though, with excellent warmth and minimal sweating making them great for epic days out.
If the 304s look overkill or too tall, the MX145 and MX180 add lighter weight and armoured enduro options to Lake’s comprehensive winter boot arsenal.
Shimano’s latest top-end winter shoes are a suitably tech-rich upgrade on its tried-and-tested frigid riding format. They provide a really good balance of trail feel and decent weather protection, but there are gaps in the armour and they take an age to dry.
The rubberised flap over the closing system and neoprene collar design have been a Shimano staple since its first DH boots (which also worked great in winter) and the MW7s are updated with a Boa dial lacing system. The wraparound design of the neoprene collar lets you adjust the tightness and it’s built into the external flap so water can’t sneak into the base of your ankle. This all tightens to a snug fit without any obvious pressure points. Combined with a noticeably malleable (stiffness rating 5) ‘Torbal shank’ sole, this close fit means decent ground feedback and bike control. A Michelin-branded outsole gives decent traction on foot while still leaving the cleat area clean but there are no toe stud threads.
The reasonably splash-proof, rubber toe and heel, reflective detailed outer is backed up by a GoreTex ‘insulated comfort’ liner that seals the cleat slots as well. A fleecy insole adds cosiness and the neoprene collar is naturally insulating. They’re sized for fat socks as standard, so that means a decent amount of thermal protection for all but the coldest days and they stay largely dry on most rides. If they do get wet, however, they weigh a ton and take an age to dry.
In terms of other Shimano options, the £140 MW5 gets Dryshield rather than Gore-Tex and a generic rubber sole rather than Michelin. £200 XM9 is basically a Gore-Tex walking boot with a cycling-specific sole and there are several semi-weatherproofed, casual styled Shimano shoes, too.
The full winter version of Mavic’s Crossmax range is warm and waterproof enough for most mucky rides while keeping good communication and propulsion for more aggressive riders.
The blade lugged Energy Grip Terra+ Contragrip sole is the grippiest here for scrambling up slippery slopes and staying surefooted over wet and greasy roots. They are composite reinforced for reasonable pedalling stiffness, too.
The multi-panel wipe-clean outer with rubber toe bumper has proved impressively durable in extended use but it’s still a relatively light boot. Insulation is minimal but weatherproofing comes via a fully waterproof Gore-Tex liner and a tall, textured neoprene ankle sock. It’s all secured pressure-point-free with a single dial and the lace protection flap extends right up the front of the ankle cuff for good splash protection. It’s secured with a waterproof zip that's stiff and stubborn even when new, so make sure you keep it clean and well-lubed (ceramic lube or rubbing candle wax on the zip works well).
You’ll need to upsize for toe wiggle room with fatter socks. Despite that, the combination of grip, performance and feel, with effective weather protection still makes the SL Pro Thermo one of the most used shoes in our autumn-to-spring arsenal. If you want something lighter and stiffer but still weather-shrugging then the CrossMax Elite CM £160 is a winter racer, complete with extra long toe studs for cyclo-cross grip.
Northwave does a whole range of winter boots and shoes from the super warm Himalaya to the insulated Raptor TH Thermal race shoe, but we reckon the Raptor family are the best all-rounders.
They certainly aren’t messing about with compromised power delivery, basing these boots on a triple-density carbon-reinforced sole with a stiffness rating of 12. While there’s no flex for walking, the sole does get toe studs and minimalist tread for short-run sections during winter races or CX sessions.
The sole is backed up with a really rigid heel cup and a side-mounted dial-adjusted lacing system so you can really tighten them without pressure hot spots. The dial also gets a side-latch release for easy escape with fat winter gloves.
While it doesn't look bulky, there is extra insulation and thermal protection over the toe box. The X-Frame upper uses Gore-Tex’s waterproof and windproof Duratherm membrane for efficient climate defiance, and rather than a wraparound design which can leak, the tall Clima Flex collar uses a neoprene sock with a Gore-Tex ‘Rattler’ membrane for a snug but mobile fit.
A four-layer, aluminium-backed, insulated and fleece-faced insole adds extra warmth and considering their sleek looks and low weight, these are surprisingly warm boots. The rubberising does reduce their breathability though, so they can get damp inside if you’re a heavy sweater, and the rigid sole also makes them more suitable for racers. If you don’t need extra insulation, the standard Raptor GTX has similar uppers but without extra insulation and a softer (stiffness 8) carbon-reinforced sole for £190.
45NRTH is a specialist winter biking kit company based in often brutally cold Minneapolis so by their standards, the Ragnarok is a lightweight performance boot for milder months. For most of the world though, they’re a great boot for riding all year without losing out much on propulsion or trail feel.
When we say ‘performance’, they’re not race-shoe-stiff, but rigid enough that you can still get a stomp on up climbs without them drooping under the load. There’s plenty of space around the cleat holes to stop clogging, although the deep tread can make getting in and out awkward on platform style pedals. The tread rubber apparently even has glass fibre shards electrostatically aligned to provide extra micro grip on treacherous surfaces. There are downloadable templates for accurate sizing and while the heels are snug, the toes are oversized to give warming wiggle room. They’re cut well enough for the single Boa dial to give a supportive, secure fit that makes the most of the sole stiffness and relatively low weight.
The perforated lower boot is also backed up with a breathable membrane and light insulation for core warmth. There’s a low rise wraparound neoprene collar and while 45NRTH don’t claim the boot will keep you dry in epic storms (no boot actually will) they retain warmth really well when damp and they dry quickly. That makes them really well suited to riders who are regularly out in the wet, who’ll get more value from the relatively steep price.
Italian brand Fizik always has a distinctive aesthetic and its new Clima X2 wet weather boot is a prime example.
While most brands hide their waterproof liner under a solid outer skin, Fizik mates it with a woven ripstop ‘sock’ which forms the top part of the upper and the stretchy ankle sock. This is then anchored to the sole with a velcro wrap strap and a short section of Boa-tightened lacing over the midfoot. Toe and heel are then protected with big PU-laminated bumpers while a Vibram Megagrip rubber sole gives excellent grip off the bike. The cleat slots are also extended to allow the more rearward pedal position that gravity riders prefer.
A stiffness rating of only 3 from the nylon reinforced base means they’re pliable enough for extended walking and excellent trail feedback. The cleat slots are also extended to allow the more rearward pedal position that gravity riders prefer. They’re noticeably soft and twisty when sprinting unless you use a big platform pedal so not the first choice for gravel/XC use. The stripped-back design means they’re 20 per cent lighter than most of the competition and they dry fast too so they’re still great for more Enduro style autumn/spring/whenever it’s wet work.
If you want a properly insulated boot from Fizik, the more conventional Terra Arctica X2 (£280) uses the same sole unit with a super breathable eVent membrane backed up by a fleece liner and insoles. A more solid upper means there’s just one Boa dial sorting out the snug security, too.