Although it does happen, it’s not all that often that British winter conditions demand a full winter boot to keep toes pink and wiggly. A combination of overshoes and waterproof socks is usually enough to keep them warm, although keeping them dry is another matter, especially in the perma-bog of the Highlands.
When we began to plan a trip to cross Iceland in March, a good set of boots was one of the first things to be added to the list of new kit needed, as cold feet are one thing, but cold feet in sub-zero temperatures with limited food and no quick fix if things should take a turn for the worse are another matter. Maintaining your extremities is a top priority when it’s cold – what starts with numb feet and hands could very quickly descend into something more serious, so along with the other simple things like managing sweat and eating well, toe preservation was something to be planned and considered well before we got on to the plane.
A lot of the brands currently producing cold-weather specific cycling gear are, unsurprisingly, from the States and Canada, and the kit has evolved in tandem with the explosion of fatbiking and winter ultras. I debated for a while whether there was much value in looking for a bike-specific boot, or whether an insulated mountaineering boot would do the job and add versatility. In the end I decided to do the job properly and sourced a pair of 45NRTH’s Wolvhammers from their UK importer Charlie the Bikemonger, which leads us, via five weeks of use in Scotland and Iceland, to this review.
The Wolvhammers aren’t the warmest boots that 45NRTH produce – the recently introduced Wolfgars use a double-boot design with a removable felt liner, recommended for use down to around -30 Celsius. The Wolvhammers are simpler, using a single boot with a leather and nylon outer, a breathable waterproof membrane, and a mixture of primaloft insulation and aerogel beneath the foot to provide warmth and waterproofing. There’s nothing there that you wouldn’t expect from a boot designed to keep your feet warm and dry in the cold and damp of winter. 45NRTH rate the Wolvhammer for use between -4 and -18 Celsius; although ratings like these will always be subjective, me experience was that the temperature rating was fairly accurate.
One of the main differences between these boots and a ‘normal’ winter mountain boot is that the ankle area remains very flexible, as the need for support there is fairly minimal. They are also surprisingly svelte and lightweight in the flesh. The tongue opens up easily, and cinches closed using a simple cord-lock system and velcro strap as opposed to the laces and zip of the older version. This was one of my favourite features. Not having to tackle laces while wearing warm gloves in the mornings and evenings meant one fewer faffy task to do, and saved time and mental energy. It also removes potentially breakable moving parts. Not a big advantage, admittedly, but over the course of weeks I really appreciated being able to get them on and off with minimal effort.
The sole, as you would expect, is a chunky Vibram unit that continues the mountaineering-inspired looks. I thought it was noticeable, when I was researching the options, that there are relatively few cycling boots offering a sole that would be much use if forced to walk for any length of time through soft snow. For me that was a big plus: if things get bad to the point that I’m pushing a loaded bike through unrideable snow for any length of time, then I bloody well want them to be good for walking in and have good, sharp edges for kicking into nevé. Although I only ever used them with flat pedals, the soles can also take a cleat, the cut-out for which is covered by a plastic cover which screws into the cleat bed. That plastic cover was much harder than the rest of the sole and was slightly convex, meaning that it contacted the pedal body and reduced grip with certain pedals. Although it wasn’t a big problem when I used Hope pedals with long pins, by keeping the cover lower profile or using rubber instead of plastic, it could be improved.
45NRTH’s sizing chart suggested a size 44 for my feet, which is what Charlie supplied. The fit was good with thick socks, suggesting that 45NRTH have taken thicker socks into account on their sizing chart. Noticeably, there was plenty of room on top of my feet and around the toe box to promote blood flow and avoid cold spots.
In Iceland, I used a vapour barrier sock sandwiched between a merino liner and a long wool outer sock, to keep water vapour from my feet out of the insulation. It was a very effective way to keep the boots and outer socks dry over the course of a week or so of riding every day, but it’s worth noting that with this system going an extra size up might have been a good idea, as if I wasn’t very careful putting the socks and boots on in the morning it was possible for bunching of the vapour barrier sock to lead to pressure points and cold spots.
The big question: are they warm! In a nutshell, yes, although that always depends on taking care of your energy levels, and especially on avoiding blood flow restriction. The coldest temperatures we experienced in Iceland were around the -15C mark, and with the vapour barrier system I didn’t experience cold feet until night, when too long spent staying still forced me to retreat into the sleeping bag to stay warm. In warmer temperatures in Scotland, it was the boots ability to keep my feet dry that kept them warm. When I rode without the vapour barrier system the breathable membrane did an acceptable job, but some moisture build up is inevitable – the fleece lining stopped the inside of the boot feeling uncomfortable when wet. The only major problem I had with the boots was during the final week of our trip in Iceland, when water started to leak through the cleat bed and into the bottom of the boot beneath my toes. I got in touch with 45NRTH, who explained that damage can occur to the waterproof membrane during the manufacturing process, and immediately agreed to exchange them for another pair.
That big sole did give a slightly disconnected feel to the pedals, but ultimately they are a dedicated winter boot, and it didn’t feel like a bad compromise. In use the flexible upper boot was comfortable, and ultimately fairly unnoticeable (which is a good thing). Walking about camp and around towns was comfy enough as well, which is just as important as comfort on the bike when out on an expedition. On that note, the reflective flash on the heel also added a welcome extra piece of visibility in typically flat winter light. The balance of stiffness between pedalability and walking comfort felt fine to me during the course of our trip, and the only noticeable wear so far is some polishing where the cord passes over the tongue.
The Bottom Line
Rather than replacing a standard clipless winter boot, the Wolvhammers offer a more expedition-oriented package, and I was very impressed with them. They are clumpier and more expensive than a standard winter shoe, yes, but if your winter adventures take you to mountainous parts of the UK, or involve multiple days of cold, wet and the occasional off-bike push then they are by no means overkill for a British winter, and if future plans take you to colder climes then they can still cover anything short of extreme Arctic temperatures. They won major brownie points from me for the fact that they performed just as well off the bike and in snow, something which is lacking from a lot of other winter boots but which is important at a time of year when the likelihood of having to push through unrideable sections is high. Winter brings out the weaknesses in any bit of kit very quickly, but aside from minor tweaks and an unfortunately faulty membrane, I wasn’t left wanting anything more from the Wolvhammers.