The best winter boots and gloves for the worst cold, recommended by dog sledders

From the Yukon Quest to the Iditarod, this is the best gear you can get.

When you are mushing in long distance races like the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest, being prepared is a matter of life and death. Through the course of these 1,000-mile races, mushers will face all sorts of terrain, whether its steep mountains, wind-swept shores of the Alaskan coast, or dense forests, or dealing with blizzard white out conditions or temperatures dropping below minus 40 or 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mushers compete to be the first to make it to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. While the race is not as well-known as the Iditarod, the Yukon Quest is considered a tougher race, as it’s a month earlier than the Iditarod, making it colder and darker. Moreover, mushers travel through many remote parts of Alaska and the Yukon with sometimes 100s of miles between checkpoints.

Photo by Elisa Shoenberger.

A good pair of boots is an essential part of a musher’s gear. Through it all mushers have to stand on their sled, run along their sled, even pull it when the terrain gets too steep or the snow is too deep. Mushers strive to find boots that ideally keep their feet warm and dry throughout the race. Frostbite is a real concern while on the trail and can make the race significantly more dangerous and even lethal. Mushers, however, have to make tradeoffs between warmth and weight. A big pair of boots might be toasty and warm but they may not be ideal for moving around quickly and nimbly.

Gloves are also essential. Throughout the race, mushers had different needs for their hands and thus may require different kinds of gloves for the task. They need to have enough dexterity to chop up food and cook it, but also put protective booties on their dogs’ feet on a regular basis. But when they are riding in the sled, they need bigger gloves, often mittens, to help keep their hands warm. Interestingly

At the 2020 Yukon Quest, starting in Fairbanks, Alaska, we talked to seven mushers about their boot and gloves preferences. Many mushers make modifications to their boots, often combining boots with outer layers or adding liners. Moreover, mushers often pair their expensive mittens with inexpensive gloves, sometimes even found at the hardware store to be able to fulfill all the tasks needed during the race.

Boots and liners

Rob Cooke elected to wear his Cabela’s Pac Boots for his seventh Yukon Quest. For Cooke, warmth was essential after suffering from frostbite on his toes while running the Copper Basin 300, a 300 mile race where temperatures were reported to have dropped to 55 and 60 below. He looks for a boot with a thick sole so it’s insulated from ice.

For this year’s race, he made some modifications to his boots. He took out the lining that the boots came with, and he replaced them with boot liners made from Tuscan lamb wool and fleece from Boundary Fur Sewing.

For Cooke, he keeps coming back to the Quest because of the people and his dogs. “The dogs love it. They love to run. One thing I’m looking forward to getting out on the trail with me and the dogs. Just looking after them, and having them looking after me,” he said before he started the 2020 race.

Two of the Yukon Mushers elected to use Neos overshoes as a base for their boots. Michelle Phillips, musher who took second in 2020 Yukon Quest, liked Neo Overshoes because they keep her feet dry. Like Cooke, she replaced the liners with Intuition liners that provide warmth. One popular musher liner is Intuition’s Mukluk that can even be molded to one’s foot if desired. She returns to the Quest because she loves the challenge and being in the wilderness and seeing people.

2020 Yukon Quest competitor Cody Strathe also elected the Neo Overshoes, but combined it with the Lobben, a Norwegian boot made from felted wool. Strathe likes the Lobben because they are breathable, and he can easily pull the liner out to get them to dry quickly.

While Yukon Quest veteran and 2020 Iditarod rookie Deke Naaktgeboren elected to wear to Cabela’s Trans Alaskan Boots for the Yukon 300, he talked about the benefits of bunny boots, nickname for Extreme Cold Vapor Barrier Boots used by the US Military. He says that they keep one’s feet dry and warm, even if you step into water. However, they are very heavy and big so it’s hard to do a lot of activity with them.

Naaktgeboren is about to run the Iditarod for the first time. Ever since he owned a Siberian Husky in college, he has wanted to compete in this premier dogsledding race. Naaktgeboren raced in last year’s Yukon Quest where he fell in love with the race so he’s going to compare the two. He’s always dreamed of running the Iditarod.

Gloves and mittens

Most mushers use beaver mittens when they are riding in the sled. They can put their entire hand into the mittens, even with the gloves on. 2000 Yukon Quest and 2020 Iditarod competitor Aliy Zirkle said about beaver mitts: “they are quite large. I can fit my entire hand up almost to elbow. There is a lot of space; space creates heat.” She’ll wear fleece gloves that fit into the beaver gloves neatly.

Cooke also elected the beaver mitts to help protect his hands after his challenges with Copper Basin 300. He wore the beaver mitts for this year’s Quest to protect his hands as much as possible. Three time Yukon Quest champion Allen Moore and Strathe also choose beaver mitts to keep their hands warm as well.

When asked why Moore keeps mushing, he said that the adventure keeps him going: “We know it’s going to be hard. From the time we start there are obstacles. Most mushers will say I will never run this again. As soon as it is over, they will want to do it again.” Strathe was less optimistic after the first checkpoint and 40 below temperatures but looked forward to warmer weather.

When Naaktgeboren isn’t doing dog chores, he’ll use these mittens to hold on to his sled. On his website, he describes them as “sleeping bags for your hands.” These gloves make sure that his hands stay nice and toasty on longer runs.

He previously used beaver mittens, but since he’s started using synthetic ones, he prefers them because they are warmer and dry better.

Several mushers liked to have inexpensive gloves underneath their mittens. Moore described them as “cheapo” fleece gloves, while Strathe described Kinco double layer wool gloves.

Naaktgeboren will buy 30 pairs of inexpensive gloves in the fall at the Alaska Industrial Hardware because he’ll end up going through all of them in a season from use. These gloves give him the dexterity he needs to do his chores outside, like laying out the straw for the dogs, or feeding them. But he can also put the gloves in his overmitts so when he doesn’t need the mobility, his hands can stay nice and warm. He often has 10 pairs of gloves drying off at home. Zirkle also prefers deerskin fleece gloves because they are durable and she likes to use them for dog chores.

As for Zirkle, she explains that she keeps returning to dogsledding because “It is truly and honestly what I do. When you find your passion in life, I was lucky to find my passion back in my 20s. Dogs are it, the Arctic is it, and adventure.”