Types of Wet Weather Footwear
There are a few different options when conditions get wet and/or cold, and depending on your intended uses.
Winter boots are designed for cold conditions, first and foremost, and are always insulated often with Thinsulate™ or another proprietary insulating material. Depending on how much insulation they have, winter boots can be rated down to -40°F. And since snow and cold are roughly synonymous in many areas, winter boots are almost always waterproof, though this waterproofing may only cover the foot (and won't extend above the ankle). Winter boots can be designed for a variety of activities (from hiking and snowshoeing to outdoor work), and are a great option if you only plan to wear them when it's cold out (but we wouldn't recommend trotting around town in them during a spring drizzle). There's definitely some cross-over between winter boots and rain boots (which can be insulated), but here's the informal difference: winter boots (typically) have laces, while rain boots are always slip-on.
If you spend a lot of time in the outdoors, chances are you already have a pair of waterproof boots, and these are a great option if you don't want to shell out more money for another specific boot. Backpacking boots typically come up over the ankle, are generally waterproof, and are (virtually) never insulated. They're typically made of a leather or synthetic upper, a solid midsole that resists twisting, and an outsole specialized for dirt, rocks, and whatever else you'll find on a trail. We've all used backpacking boots in the place of rain boots, and depending on the depth of the water and mud, they do fine. For a while, our lead tester worked on a sheep ranch farm in an earlier model of the Vasque St. Elias, which worked out fine (though some insulation would have been really helpful in the chilly New Zealand mornings).
There are a variety of waterproof shoes available nowadays, and many use proprietary technologies similar to Gore-Tex. These can look like sneakers, and are ideal if you only intend to use them around town. They won't stand up to much abuse, but they'll look good around town. They'll definitely keep you dry from puddles and light rain, but they won't be enough for much more than that.
Rain boots are always waterproof, made of rubber (and/or foamed neoprene), and slip on. They can be insulated, and depending on the design, may be ankle-height or almost knee-height. They're extremely common on farms and boats, due to their comfort and the ease with which they can be hosed off at the end of a long day, and different brands can be found all around the world.
A short history lesson - Rain boots date back to the early 1800's, when the 1st Duke of Wellington had a leather Hessian boot modified to fit more closely around his calves. The new style caught on, and in 1852, Hiram Hutchinson realized the footwear potential for vulcanized rubber, and began to create rubber boots in France. The waterproof calf-high boots were immediately popular among French farmers, who had traditionally gotten their feet soaked and muddy in wooden clogs. Rain boots were a big improvement.
Let's start with the drawbacks to rain boots:
- They're literally rubber tubes you put your feet (and sometimes legs) in. They do not breathe, and if it's warm out (or if you're exercising hard), you'll get sweaty feet.
- Since they're mainly just rubber, they are heavy. The lightest (ankle-high) boots in our test weighed over 3 lbs per pair. For context, sneakers usually weigh 1.5 lbs per pair or less.
- As they don't have laces, they often fit loosely.
- And as a result, they're often not comfortable over long distances (we'd never wear a rain boot backpacking).
- They look different than normal shoes (and if it's not currently raining, people will always ask why you're wearing them - trust us on this).
Due to these drawbacks, not everyone needs rain boots. But if your feet keep getting wet and uncomfortable in other footwear, rain boots are the best option.
The Rain Boot Spectrum
All rain boots are not designed for all conditions. On one side, there's the casual boot, on the other, the work boot. There are some other boots that exist in between.
If you want dry feet, but don't expect to be constantly slogging through water and muck, casual rain boots are a great option. Compared to more intense work boots, casual rain boots typically don't come as tall, weigh as much, or provide the same amount of traction. Casual rain boots will typically not feature much insulation and are better suited for puddles and urban errands than mucky fields and freezing creeks. And they will typically not be built for all-day comfort (though this was not always the case). When we've worked on farms, no one is wearing a casual boot, except for the occasional trip to town.
- LaCrosse Alpha Muddy
- Bogs Carson
- RK Mens Boot
There are two pairs of boots that we felt fit between casual and full-scale work boots, due to their weight, stiffness, and general trustworthiness in rough conditions. You could do hard labor in these, but you might not love them if this is your main goal.
- Hunter Original Tall
- The Original Muck Boot Company Edgewater II
These will have higher shafts, better traction, (generally) more comfortable insoles, and will weigh more because of these features. We used these when bushwhacking to climbing crags, kicking around rivers while car camping, and wading through knee-deep snow on trips to the mountains. In our experience, farmers in Maine, New Zealand, and Argentina wear this type of rain boot from fall to spring, and some even wear them through the summer.
All the boots in this category are solid, but each will be geared towards a different type of work, depending on which features they have (we'll examine these features in detail below).
- XTRATUF Legacy Series 15"
- Baffin Enduro
- Kamik Icebreaker
- Bogs Classic Ultra High
- The Original Muck Boot Company Arctic Sport
The general weather in your area will determine whether rain boots are a good option for you. There's no certain annual rainfall cutoff, above which you need rain boots, but if you spend more than three months in wet conditions, rain boots are a great option. And if those wet months are generally below 40°F, you should definitely check out insulated boots.
All the boots in our test were waterproof, but only (obviously) up to their top of their shafts, which ranged from the ankle-high LaCrosse Alpha Muddy at 5.5 inches to the just shy of knee-high Original Muck Boot Company Arctic Sport at 17.6 inches.
However, depending on your intended use, you may only need a lower boot - which can make them a lot more comfortable for casual use. But remember, if your boot only stands 6 inches high, it's surprisingly easy to splash your ankles, even in shallow water. When we tested the boots in the Puget Sound, we were constantly worried about waves and splashes in the shorter boots, while the highest boots allowed us to confidently stride around without worrying about errant droplets.
And if you're really concerned about water getting in the top of the boot, choose a boot that will fit more snugly around your calf (the Arctic Sport and the Bogs Classic Ultra High). It can be a pain to shove your feet and pant legs in, but there won't be a big space for rain to fall in (like the 17.5 inch circumference Baffin Enduro).
Not everyone needs an insulated boot, and if you're hoping to use the boot in moderate temperatures, they're not a great idea, as your feet will get unpleasantly warm. But if it'll be reliably cold, insulated boots are a wonderful idea, as you can simply slip them on and head out the door, no matter whether how snowy it might be. And if you're going to be shoveling snow, or spending a lot of time in cold temperatures without moving, an insulated boot is essential.
Once you've decided how warm a boot you're looking for, check out the warmth scores of all our boots, but remember, warmer boots are not always better, and you may be happiest in an uninsulated option like the Baffin Enduro.
If you're hoping to use your rain boots for quick errands and walking to your mailbox, comfort isn't a big consideration. But if you're like us, and you want to invest in something that you can wear for 12 hours or more at a time, comfort is king, and comes down to a few different factors.
Every type of footwear is designed with a "last", which is the manufacturer's deliberate approximation of a human foot. Every brand and (generally) every model of footwear is going to be designed with different lasts. The category of footwear will also vary the last - dress shoes and climbing shoes are patterned on far snugger lasts than backpacking boots and rain boots. Laces can help make different shoes fit, even if the last isn't ideal for your foot, but rain boots don't have laces, so the fit is necessarily going to be loose. Rain boots also rarely come in half sizes, so you may not be able to find your specific size. But we really recommend against sizing rain boots to your exact foot size (due to the enormous variety of foot issues that can develop from overly tight shoes). So go to a footwear store, find a Brannock device, and figure out your foot size and width. With that information, we recommend you size up. Rain boots should not be snug, and you'll almost certainly be wearing these with midweight socks or thicker. Our testers both have size 12 feet with a D width, and we went with American size 13's in all but one boot (the Baffin Enduro, which runs big). And if your feet are extremely narrow or wide, or are injured (with bunions, hammertoes, neuromas, metatarsalgia, or any of the other delightful things that can go wrong), recognize that you may have to take some time to find something that will feel good for you.
Cushioning and Insoles
There's a wide range of cushion and insoles present in all of these boots, from some without any insole whatsoever (the RK boot and Kamik Icebreaker), to boots with extra padding under the insole (the Arctic Sport). But it's important to recognize that manufacturers typically cut costs when it comes to insoles, and even the shoes with the most highly hyped and squishy insoles may not feel great for long. In our experience, many people are better served by more supportive insoles, which hold their feet (and arches) in a comfortable configuration for the entire day (rather than letting their feet flex and unflex for hours at a time as their arches struggle to keep up). We are specifically partial to the Superfeet brand, and have worn their Green and Blue models for various activities over 8 years, though any brand of insole that is designed for your specific arch type will be an improvement over generic insoles.
We found that adding our own specialized insoles to the boots made them all fit slightly snugger (volume-wise) and were even capable of making some initially uncomfortable boots bearable for hours.
Some boots, designed for more casual use, have squiggly patterns on their bases. These will be sufficient for general light use, including yard work and walking on concrete, but you'll likely be disappointed if you're hoping to use them in snow or mud. If you are looking for better traction on a variety of surfaces, large lugged options like the Arctic Sport or the Kamik Icebreaker can hold on when lesser boots slip. We assessed all the boots in our test on wet grass, mud, snow, ice, stream beds, and in standard urban terrain, and found that generally the larger the lugs, the better they held.
While style may not be the most important factor in your rain boot decision, it's nice to have something that looks good. During our tests, we talked to friends (and to the many people who wanted to comment on our boots as we tested them fearlessly in dry warm weather) about the looks of all the boots. Generally, the more casual boots will look "more stylish" though we all disagreed on which were our favorites. It also has to do with your personal style - the Hunter boots looked pretty strange with our more utilitarian (read: Carhartts and old jeans) aesthetic, but many women wear and love the Hunter boots around Seattle, and we got a lot of compliments on them if we were dressed up. One of our testers even accidentally wore the Hunters to a job interview (he forgot his nice leather boots) which led to some awkward explanations, as it wasn't even raining that day.
Style tip - rain boots are designed for you to tuck your pants into! If you don't, they'll fit and look strange. This runs the opposite of cowboy boots, which, our Texan friends assure us, you should never tuck your pants into (if you're a guy).
Ease of Use
This also shouldn't be a huge factor in your decision, but it's very nice when a pair of boots are well designed and are easy to use. And we were totally won over by the handles built into the Bogs Ultra Classic High as well as the heel studs, which made putting them and taking them off a cinch, no matter how thick our socks. In general, the boots with the larger circumference shafts will be easier to slide in and out of, while the snug Bogs Carson required some fiddly finger work to get our heels into.
And we also assessed how easy the various treads were to hose off - if you're using these boots the way they're designed, they're going to get muddy! Typically, the deeper and skinnier grooved boots were the most difficult to clean, and the XTRATUF boots especially grabbed gravel and kept it stuck up in the tread for days.
No rain boot will be perfect for all conditions. We weighted each metric based on how important we thought they were (prioritizing water resistance and comfort) and ended up with the delightfully well-rounded Bogs Classic Ultra High as our Editors' Choice. Depending on your priorities, you may come to different conclusions. All we hope is that you end up happy with whatever you choose!