DIY Winter Boots/Mukluks

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(Dennis Lanigan) #1

Here’s a look into my thought process on winter shoes for Minnesota and Alaska as I figure out what gear I need to stay warm in Winter.

Like much of the winter gear I’m investigating, breathable winter boots are awfully pricey. Steger boots, the boots commonly recommended for winter travel, are $200. Workshops on making mukluks at North House Folk School are $280. My question, as always, is can I make that myself without shelling out a bunch of $$$?

[Pictured: Mukluks from Steger]
Making breathable boots by hand is no small feat, let alone boots with hard soles like Stegers. There are ways though as people do sell the hard rubber soles for winter boots, like here on Etsy. I have a couple ideas on how to attach the soles to the mukluks. There is no non-toxic way I can think of though. Likely I would use Barge cement, or something similar. That’s likely what Stegers uses.

Here’s the steps of what I’d likely do: 1) Make a stitchdown turnshoe with whitetail deer buckskin (I’m not interested in tanning elk and don’t have access to moose). A stitchdown turnshoe means that the upper of the shoe would be stitched down onto a piece of thick bark tan sole leather. 2) Glue the sole leather to a piece of thick shoe rubber (designed to hold on to rubber soles better than leather). 3) Glue on either a flat Vibram sole, or a sole that wraps around the base like on Stegers.

Another aspect of making winter shoes is usually people get them larger than their actual foot size so they can fit wool felt liners. There’s three options I can think of: 1) Felt my own liners 2) Get felted sweaters and sew a liner (I did this for buckskin mittens and it worked well) 3) just get liners from Steger for $20.

The book Snow Walker’s Companion has patterns on making mukluks. As does Lure of the North, along with DIY winter moccasin kits.

(Andrew) #2

Not sure whose idea it was (not mine), but @david Jeff and I have an experimental plan to use salvaged fatbike tires for mukluk soles. If you’re getting started first, and are close to a bike shop, it’s an idea with potential.

(Dennis Lanigan) #3

Not a bad idea. I actually work right next to a fat bike shop. I have to keep myself from going in there and drooling on the bikes. But I already have the vibram soles that I need, so I’ll probably experiment with those.

Another idea that I’ve seen done is shredded truck tire material. I have a bunch already if you want some. Jason Hovatter uses it for his turnshoes and his turnshoe workshops. It’s basically Barge cement and tire shreds mixed together and glopped on. I’m personally on the fence about this idea because tire shreds are linked to cancer among soccer players exposed to the stuff when it’s used on soccer fields (especially goalies).
[cropped picture, original by Jason from his website here]

(Tim Beal) #4

I do know that in temps below 25 degrees there is not much need for waterproofing. It is in temps above 25 that snow gets progressively wetter and some waterproof sole is nice. I have even worn my felt boot inserts in cold snow with no major issues. Simple felt cloth can be sewn into a overshoe which would offer some protection to the felt liners.

In wet conditions rubber over boots are a decent low cost solution. I have also used NEOS with single and double felt liners with decent success.

Other members of my family have knitted wool blankets and washed them in hot soapy water to felt, then cut patterns out to make felt boot/socks and mittens. We should all learn to knit, and a simple knit/pearl is easy enough, by making blankets and felting them, and cutting out pattern for boots, it saves having to learn how to knit heals and reductions. :slight_smile:

I like the Fat bike tire recycling project, even good for some summer sandals.

I hear you on the cost of the Steger Mukluks.

(Andrew) #5

I think Jeff mentioned some kind of crazy strong fish glue concoction for adhering soles. But that might have been for laminating bows. Ha!

(Andrew) #6

I get the impression that modern locals switch to Bogs or Muck boots when it’s 25+. Maybe that use is why there’s a fish skin boot tradition.

(Dennis Lanigan) #7

@andrew have you seen this article “Fish Skins as a Textile in Alaska Native Cultures”? It has pictures of salmon skin boots.

(Dennis Lanigan) #8

If there’s some way to make a fish or hide glue that’s water resistant let me know. Nothing I’ve seen about either makes them appear water resistant. Maybe pine pitch and fish glue?

I’m also seeing stuff about tannins, alum, and wood smoke/formaldehyde (smoke contains formaldehyde) for making waterproof hide/fish glues for instrument making. I’m really curious because glue is coming up a lot and I’d like to make my own non-toxic stuff.

Waterproof hide glues?
(Sherwood Botsford) #9

Thoughts and sources:

Felt liners. Here in Canada, most stores that carry work boots also carry various weights of felt liners and soles. Most winter boots will last 2-3 sets of winter liners. Also, lots of people like to have two sets of liners, to leave one by the fire drying while out with the others.

Waterproof soles are problematic. I’ve had rubber soled mocs, and had consistent problems with condensation and cold feet.

In the far north, the Hudson Bay Company Northern Division would sell ‘moccasin rubbers’ These were like toe rubbers, but with no heel cup, and generally a softer stretchier rubber. Natives would use them over their moosehide mocs when it started getting wet. The Northern Division was spun off into a separate company, “The Northwest Company” (If you know some of the early Bay history, this is quite ironic.) I don’t know of they still sell moccasin rubbers.

Leather swells when it gets wet. This is enough of a problem with snowshoes, that you MUST use spar varnish, and not polyurethane varnish – the expansion of the leather causes poly varnish to crack and flake off.

I’ve tried using linseed oil on the soles of leather mocs. This works reasonably well. Just coat the sole however, and the parts of the moc that are under the snowshoe harness.

(Andrew) #10

It’s been related to me that before any kind of varnish was available, babiche was cut very thinly and pre-stretched so much that it maintained tension when when and did not require additional coating. Any reports on this?

(Sherwood Botsford) #11

When I ran a crew turning cow wrappers into snowshoes, we preferred to use leather from the back for the center portion of the snowshoe, and the thinner side and belly hide for the toe and tail.

Our treatment: The entire cowhide was soaked in a barrel of lime water until the hair loosened. We then would pull it out, and drape it over a smooth horizonal beam, and scrape the hair off. This was a balancing act: Soak too long and the hide was weak. Too short, and the hair wouldn’t come out.

Hide was then cut into pieces about 18" across, immersed in water and frozen to store it.

The fastest way to cut it was to freeze it flat, then use a bandsaw. (DO remember to clean the bandsaw.) You can also cut it with a very sharp boning knife. Use a fusee to touch up the edge every few feet.

Snowshoes are laced with the hide sloppy wet. As it dries it shrinks hard.

If used in cold weather, you don’t need to waterproof it. Accounts I’ve read of the native culture indicate that snowshoes were regarded as disposable items. They would make a pair for the conditions then present, use them for a week or a season, and discard, or recycle. My bet is that they used some form of waterproofing on them. On canoes they used a mix of wood ash, spruce pitch and fat. I bet that they used some form of fat and pitch on snowshoes too in warm weather.

At one point in my past I was snowshoeing 5 to 30 miles a day. I had 2 pairs of snowshoes so that one pair could sit an extra day beside the stove drying out. Wet babiche has little strength and wears away very quickly. In addition a soggy snowshoe is like having 3 inches of porridge on top of the trail sucking energy out of you.

You can use nylon parachute cord for lacing snowshoes, or if you can find it 1/16 x 3/8 nylon webbing. Nylon will get a bit stretchy when soaked in warm water, but in general you have to pull a lot harder to get enough tension on the snowshoe.

Cord is a good learning medium. Your first center takes about 3 hours to lace, and you will be undoing nearly as much as doing. (Follow an existing snowshoe) Don’t lace for real until you can get it below an hour. My crew could do whole pair in about 2 hours. The pros can do a pair in 45 minutes.

Use a bench. Sit on one end of the snowshoe, with the part you are working on in suspended space.

the lacing is slippery. We kept 8 inch chunks o broken snowshoe frame. Take two turns around that, and use as a togggle to put tension on the lacing.

(Andrew) #12

That process sounds very different from the traditional Athabaskan methods. What was the thickness of the resultant babiche in the above method?


I’ve been digging around and found a few mentions of Scandinavian snowshoes using birch or willow withes instead of hide. They seem to have been smaller than the North American sort and meant for wetter snow, perhaps. But I’m wondering if a larger version ( maybe in between sized) using some whole and some split withes might be a solution for times when the snow is a little wetter and babiche would stretch.

(Andrew) #14

Would be good to explore. My reading leads me to believe that the old way in this area definitely included multiple pairs for different conditions, but I haven’t seen much written about anything other than the long, narrow hunting snowshoes.

Hudson Stuck talks about Athabaskans intentionally using smaller snowshoes even in cold powder for the purpose of breaking out trails, but I don’t think there was much detail.

For now, we have some of those milutary surplus magnesium shoes that seem better off in melty Spring scenarios.

(Matt Nun) #15

Wanted to share some pictures of the muluks I’ve been using this winter and the system inside it. I believe they’re military mukluks from the 50s ish, but can’t find a whole bunch of info on them.
Leather bottom with a canvas upper, inside in the bottom are two burlap foot pads (I have felt ones to switch over to next winter), and then a wool “sock” which goes over a Teva thinsulate liner from another winter boot. I like the Teva inner boot because it has a good rubber foot pad on it that makes the food bed feel alot less swimmy. Thought it might be useful for anyone looking to make their own or see some different ones beyond the steger ones.

(Matt Nun) #16

Here’s a link, photos too large to upload perhaps:


A bit out of season, but hearing about fat bike soles here put a bug in my ear (looks like just over 2 years ago now) that I finally got to try:

Surly Knard 3.8 is the tire, bought some bike stuff on craigslist and the guy threw in a beat up fatbike tire for free.

The tread was just wide enough for what I’m calling a “summer mukluk” for a winter boot I’d recommend a 4" or wider tire.


The tire wanting to return to its native curved shape made glueing them problematic, there are still a few bubbles in the center of the shoe, and I have yet to find a glue I’m happy with. The vibrams on my winter muks seemed to take the glue better then these, but even those are starting to peel after pretty minimal use.

(Dennis Lanigan) #19

Fowler, nice mukluks! How did you make the pattern? I use duck tape around my feet to make patterns for shoes, but I’m always open to other methods.

I just made some shoes (i’ll post pictures later) with vibram soles recently. I used barge cement and a layer of “mid sole” material between the leather and vibram. Is barge what you used? I’d try some of that if not.


I first tried seam grip which was an utter failure, then reverted to E6000 which is what I had used in the past.

What did you use for a midsole? I just have a layer of felt insole over a piece of cork I cut out, all inside the cordura shell. The double felt of my winter muks is very comfy but the cork made these a little firmer then I’d like.

I have a bit of formal education in pattern making so it is a bit of “draw the rest of the owl” for me. I start by tracing my foot, then add some extra by guessing and using other shoe insoles as reference points, Once I have the sole I can measure the circumference to tell how long my rand should be, then the upper just kind of happens. I thought the winter muks were easier to make as you can use the wool liner as a kind of foot model and build a lot of the pattern by draping techniques, and as such you also have a much larger target window as to fit because you want them loose.

Here is one muk all cut out ready to sew:

I used spacer mesh to give the 1000d cordura in the toe and rand some structure, Thicker leather would work fine on its own or for a winter shoe felt, wool blanket or heavier fleece would likely work well. The curve of the rand came from lots of guessing and experimentation, but once you have one you like you can just tweak it for different shoes, I’ve made two generations of winter muks so these went together very quickly using similar techniques. Conversely a lot I learned from these will likely roll back into the 3rd generation winter versions.

I have enough pictures for a mediocre how-to with these but I might wait until I make the 3rd gen winter muks and try to record the process better.