Saturday, November 17, 2007

Warm feet are happy feet.

Since I was a kid I've ridden year-round. Living in MI, MN, and the mountains of Colorado, I've had more than my fair share of cold feet through the decades. It wasn't until I started riding and racing in Alaska that I finally got tired of it and decided to do something proactive to prevent permanent damage.

Most folks in AK give up their clipless pedals in the wintertime. I can't pretend to explain such an irrational act using my limited grasp of the English language, so I'll leave it to them to try to confabulate a worthy reason.

I start with a very, very thin liner sock. I've used wool, polypro, silk, and many blends. All work about the same--they move the moisture away from your feet as best they can. All of them stink after just a few uses. As long as you avoid cotton, you're on the right track.

Next I use a vapor barrier liner. Some folks use something like a Subway sandwich bag, which works fine right up until your toes poke a hole through it. The point of the VBL is to keep the sweat produced by your foot from soaking and degrading your insulation. Once your insulation is wet, your feet are cold. Period. I've used the high dollar Black Diamond VBL's on a few trips, and while they're durable and good at keeping the moisture where it's supposed to be, they have many seams that always succeed at rubbing holes and sores into my feet after about day 4. So now I use a thin plastic 'boot' that I got from a bootfitter at the local ski shop.
It's meant to be used when getting custom foam liners fit to your fancy alpine ski boots, but I think I'm giving it a far more dignified life in protecting my insulation from my stinky feet.

Next is the insulation. I use a Sorel felt liner sized ~1/2 size too big for my feet. One of the big 'secrets' to keeping feet warm in winter is giving them room to breathe, which means enough space that you can wiggle your toes easily. What this does is to guarantee that blood is circulating freely. All the insulation in the world is useless if it's clamped too tightly around your foot. The insulation doesn't *produce* any heat--it merely keeps what heat you have available from escaping. So that blood supply is critical because it's the blood that's keeping your feet warm. Nothing else--just the blood.

The Sorel felt liner I use is 12mm thick. If you're a savvy shopper you can find thicknesses from 5mm on up to suit your local temps and needs.

I've got some seriously screwed up ankles from a lifetime of football, basketball, and hockey mishaps, so I need to use a custom orthotic inside of the felt liners. YMMV here. Underneath the orthotic I glued a piece of reflective foam (from a car windshield sunshade) to 'reflect' any heat that makes it's way down back up at me. I doubt it does anything other than satiate my need to know that I at least tried to cover all bases. On top of the orthotic I glued a piece of felt. Very comfy and never cold to the touch.

The outermost layer I use is the Lake MXZ-302 winter cycling shoe. At roughly $270 per pair they are what most folks would consider hideously expensive. I guess it's just a matter of perspective. Having known too many folks with frost damaged feet over the years, I think my toes are worth a few extra dollars. Besides--I wear them 4-5 days a week for three months of every winter, then for roughly three weeks straight when I'm in AK, and I usually get two to three seasons out of a pair. Money well spent, methinks.

The key to this system is sizing the felt liner to your feet, and the outer shoe to fit the felt liner. For reference, I have a size 8.5 foot. I buy a size 9 felt liner, and a size 15 (!) outer shoe. If your feet are bigger than about a size 10, this system will probably not work for you, simply because the outer shoes only go up to size 15 from most manufacturers.

I make a few mods to these to increase traction on ice and to keep overflow from getting in when I have no choice but to dunk my feet at -40 degrees.

This system has evolved slowly over the last decade. If you ride in the lower 48 for less than two hours at a stretch it is overkill for you: For that purpose a pair of the Lake shoes sized 1 to 1.5 sizes too big, with a mid-weight wool sock and a VBL should be plenty. If you ride in the northern US or anywhere in Canada, Alaska, or Northern Europe, my system might be worth further investigation and some fiddling. I've used this setup comfortably down to -65 degrees, and am confident in them to much colder than that. Truthfully, should I ever meet my maker on a winter trip, I think my feet will be the last part of me to freeze. This system really is that good.

If I left out any critical details, please point them out and I'll edit/elaborate later.

Happy winter riding.



  1. So let me get a few things straight...

    A: You have size 8.5 feet? Wow...
    B: According to your math, if I was going to spend time in the extreme cold, using your system, I'd need a size 21.5 Lake MXZ302.

    Sound about right?


  2. p.s. only 1 of your many photos actually worked.

  3. Rats-o, no photos.

    Thanks for sharing yer methods.

  4. Do you do anything special beneath the Sorel liner where the cleat is located?
    What pedal do you use in the winter?

    Pics for this post aren't working for me either.

    Thanks for the good info.

  5. Nice tips!

    What about sorels with platforms?

    Call it old school whatever =)

  6. Padre--No amount of fuzzy math would get you into extreme cold, so shoe size is kind of a moot point, dontchathink?

    All--I re-loaded the pics, so they should be working now.

    DB--The Lake boot has a felt liner between your foot and the cleat, so anything further really isn't necessary. If you look at the shot of the underside of the shoe, you can see that I filled the cleat pocket with RTV--basically to prevent water/slush from working it's way up inside.

    DN--Sorels with platforms? I guess I choose to live in a world full of color, instead of just black and white! To each their own, though...


  7. Ah yes, it makes more sense now that I can see pics. I wear a 10.5 or 11 US EE so I might be out of luck. However, Lake did come out with a wider version of their winter shoe for 2008! The sheet metal screws are a nice touch!

  8. Back in the day... when snowboarding was an infant, we would exchange ski boot liners for the felt ones in the sorels (hard boots on s board were inheard of as of yet). This gave us more stability and warm.

    The same logic make work here - exchanging quality liners into a available winter boot, although adding SPDs to any shoe can be tough. YMMV

    The company I work with makes custom foot orthitics, perhaps we could design a rider specific insert.

    The neoprene over shoes last only too long (short).

    good topic MC

  9. Those Lake MXZ302 shoes are awesome! I rode here in Colorado with just a pair of snowboarding wool socks and those Lake boots (sized one size bigger per the great folks at Lake) all last winter. I was riding in a storm with windchill at around -17 and my feet were toasty. Thanks for the other tips about the VBL etc... I don't see me riding in anything worse than last year, but it's nice to know some of your tried and true secrets to warmth! Thanks again for sharing!


  10. Mike, Here's my question....with a size 15 boot, is it possible for the cleat to be in the right position for your foot? I have the Lake MXZ301's one size larger then my shoe size. Even with one size up, there was not a lot of room to adjust the cleat so it was positioned correctly.

    I find my set-up only gets me down to about 0 degrees. Below zero and I switch to platforms and hiking boot two sizes bigger with VB's. That kept me warm down to -30 air temp during the Arrowhead 135 this year.

    Thanks for this post. I have learned the importance of "wiggle room", but hadn't heard of anyone taking it to this level before. I'll continue to re-think things.

  11. thanks for all the detailed info.
    i too was wondering about the cleat positioning with a boot that large. the extra space of the large boot must be much more in the toe than in the heel (if the heel of your foot wasn't most all the way back in the boot it'd slip out too easy). with this scenario you must end up with a cleat pretty damn far forward on your foot. for someone like me, who rides with a cleat as far back on my shoe as possible (especially on longer rides) i'd be very concerned about fatigue and injury due to my foot being so far back on the pedal. obviously this hasn't been a significant problem for you but i'd love to hear your take on it.

  12. Timely post there Mike! Thank you.

    I use the Lake shoes myself, but I don't bother with the extreme stuff yet. MX 165 (I think) is what I use sized two sizes too big and it works a trick for commuting.

    I'll likely be taking some of your info here and upgrading to that lake shoe here soon. I want to get into some more extreme temps and riding here. (For the two to three weeks it keeps me off the bike now)


  13. RE: cleat positioning--on older models of the Lake winter shoe (~'02 and '03, maybe even '04 IIRC) the cleat pocket was further forward than I liked, so I just drilled two holes further back, dremeled a 'pocket' around them, then used one of those removable cleat backing plates inside the shoe to get the cleat exactly where I needed it. It took a few hours of fiddling to get it all done and done right, but it worked great.

    On the newer models (last 2-3 years) the cleat position ends up just fine for me in the 'normal' cleat slots. Granted, I have it pushed 95% of the way back in those slots, but still--using the stock cleat pocket works fine.


  14. My current cheapo setup is to wear 1-2 regular socks plus some thick woolly ones in my race shoes, topping it off with Endura MT500 overshoes to help lessen the wind chill. And so far it's worked fine for everything but my toes.

    So I've been thinking about sacrificing whatever tiny wiggle room I have left by cutting up some old wool socks to make an extra layer for the toe area.

    Might also try some Sealskinz socks -- their gloves are amazing. In any case I need to figure something out before my toes fall off, as Icelandic wind chill is a bitch. May end up getting a pair of Lakes