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10 Ways to Keep Your Feet Warm on a Cold Weather Walk

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Updated June 01, 2014

Don't let cold feet keep you indoors during the winter. There is more to winter walking than just the treadmill. But your toes can get painfully cold, and you may even risk frostbite in bitter weather. You want to avoid getting sweaty feet, as that puts you at risk of developing a blister. You can protect your feet in cold weather with these tips.

1. Less-Breathable Shoes

Lowa Renegade II GTX Lo Hiking Shoe
Wendy Bumgardner © 2010
If I'm not walking for speed, I switch to trail shoes or boots that don't have mesh uppers. Shoes that are full leather will keep out the wind and cold. You still want to choose shoes that are flexible enough for getting a good walking heel-to-toe roll, rather than rigid boots built for carrying a backpack. Otherwise, you may find yourself with shin splints and foot pain. Luckily, more and more designs of trail running shoes provide both protection and flexibility.

2. Double Layer the Socks

SmartWool Socks
Wendy Bumgardner ©
The classic combo for hiking is a sweat-wicking polypropylene thin sock with an outer wool sock. This works well for keeping your toes warmer for winter walking. But don't choose a combo that ends up too thick to wear with your shoes. I choose SmartWool socks for my wool layer as they are less scratchy and are machine-washable. They come in a wide variety of thickness. But I've also done well with just switching to a single, thicker hiking sock made of a sweat-wicking fabric. Another trick is to wear a pair of knee-high nylons as your inner layer. They add no thickness at all but provide the little extra that can keep your feet warmer.

3. Insulate With Paper

Paper Towel Foot Insulator
Wendy Bumgardner © 2013
Take a tip from Tour de France riders -- paper makes a great disposable insulator. As they crest the Alps, they grab a newspaper from a fan and tuck it under their shirts to give them insulation on the cold mountain descent. On cold days, I grab a paper towel or Starbucks napkin and fold it over the top of my foot, toes, and under the toes. Then I put on my shoe. This provides a thin layer of insulation that is usually just enough for comfort. I can wear my usual mesh performance shoes, even if I didn't think ahead to wear better socks. The caveat is that the paper can get wet from water seeping into the shoe. But on dry, cold days it is an easy, free solution.

4. Toe Warmers

Grabber MyCoal Toe Warmers
Wendy Bumgardner ©
Toe warmers are single-use inserts that provide gentle heat for up to six hours. You put them in your shoe above or below your toes. Just opening up the plastic packet activates them. They are thin, like insoles, but if you have a tight fit on your shoe you may have to wear a thinner sock. When I'm doing my distance and speed training in winter, I want to wear my performance walking shoes, but they have a mesh upper that lets in a lot of cold air. Wearing a toe warmer above my toes blocks that and keeps my toes warm.

5. Keep Your Feet Dry - Sweat Wicking Socks

Thorlos Lite Walking Socks
Wendy Bumgardner
Your toes are going to get cold if they get wet. Your feet will sweat even though it is cold outside, so you need to wear socks that will wick the sweat away from the skin. Don't wear cotton socks or socks with cotton padding, as cotton soaks up the sweat and doesn't wick it away. You want to choose wool, polypropylene, CoolMax or other technical fabric socks.
Before You Buy Walking Socks

6. Keep Out the Rain and Snow

Rain Shield O2 Rainwear
Wendy Bumgardner ©
Don't let the wet in. You can invest in a pair of waterproof shoes, such as those with a Gore-tex liner. This usually adds $20 or more to the price of the shoe. I've had good luck with keeping my feet dry when wearing waterproof trail shoes unless I get so wet that rain soaks into my socks from my legs or pants. You can battle this by wearing rain pants or shoe gaiters.

7. Plastic Wrap to Keep Cold Air Out

Plastic Wrap Over Sock
Wendy Bumgardner © 2013
I just tuck a some plastic wrap or a plastic sandwich bag between the shoe upper and my upper foot and toes. This prevents cold air from reaching my toes, while sweat isn't trapped at the bottom of my foot. It's thin enough to fit in my shoe without switching the kind of socks I wear. If I don't need it once I'm out on the walk, it's easy to remove and dispose of.

8. Disposable Shower Caps to the Rescue

Shower Cap and Running Shoe
Wendy Bumgardner © 2010
Those single-use hotel shower caps are worth collecting. You can use them as shoe gaiters to keep rain and snow out of your shoes. I do this for cold weather races, but they are odd-looking for wearing on your fitness walk unless you don't mind the stares. How to use shower caps as shoe gaiters. You can be more discreet and slip them over your sock, then put on your shoe and now you have a waterproof layer inside your shoe that will also keep out the wind. I've done this with success, although it can result in sweaty feet and wet socks, so you need to experiment with it.

9. Duct Tape

Shower Cap Shoe Cover Secured with Duct Tape
Wendy Bumgardner © 2010
If you don't mind the fashion statement and the glue residue on your shoes, you can quickly add a windshield to your shoes by putting duct tape over the uppers of your shoes. The advantage is that it is quick, easy, and it's free if you already have a roll of duct tape. I've had good success with taping a full circle, including the sole, as duct tape sticks to itself strongly and didn't come off throughout a rainy 3-hour walk. If you only tape to the shoe fabric, it may come off in wet weather. If you use the shower cap gaiter, it's best to add a final circle of duct tape to keep it all in place.

10. Just Walk Faster

You should always start at an easy pace for the first couple of minutes. After that, on cold days you may want to pick up the pace with some fast-walking intervals or choose a route that has hills or stairs near the beginning to get your blood moving. The extra blood flow from a faster heart rate will help keep your feet warm. It will also get the rest of you back inside sooner.

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