A little over a year ago, I rolled the dice on a completely new kind of boot. On the recommendation of a wilderness survival/winter camping expert, I acquired the U.S. military issue Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) N-1B boot, styled after the time-tested mukluk. After a proper break-in period, I can say the gamble paid off handsomely.
A Murky Background
Even in the digital age, some things remain shrouded in mystery. I did my best to search the internet for clues about the history and development of the N-1B. It seems there isn’t much to find without combing through paper records in a dank basement in Washington. Here is the only “fact” that came up repeatedly:
-They are 1990s-era issue for Air Force personnel stationed in places like Alaska, Greenland, etc.
That’s it. And I put “fact” in quotation marks because I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate. It strikes me as a misconception that has been accepted as truth.
You see, I seem to have found an online scan of the original, official specifications document (MIL-B-6362F), dated September 8, 1976. That is the last and most current MIL-SPEC number, which appears on my boots and others on the market. In other words, there appears to be no newer “recipe” for these boots. So, maybe they sat on it for 15 years or so before issuing the boots, which seems unlikely. But what do I know?
Frankly, I wish more could be known; it seems a person could learn a thing or two (about the boots, best use, etc.) if more was available about the development phase.
N-1B: Solid Boot Design
Whatever they had in mind, this boot design is a far departure from the Extreme Cold Vapor Barrier (ECVB) boots (aka, “Mickey Mouse” or “Bunny Boots”), developed in the Korean War era. Those all-rubber clunkers are reported to be ridiculously warm, but they don’t let your feet breathe whatsoever.
The toasty N-1B Mukluks, on the other hand, are made of water-resistant cotton duck, designed for maximum breathability, and surprisingly light. They were described to me by winter camping expert Scott Oeth as “the poor man’s mukluk,” in an in-depth discussion about how to keep feet warm in winter.
That “poor man’s” part got my attention because around here, mukluks made in Ely are the gold standard…and well known for depleting one’s supply of gold. So when N-1Bs popped up online for just $40, in new condition, liners included, I pounced.
Now, we’re not talking about a revolutionary new things here; N-1Bs are just one version of an age-old design. For millennia, mukluks (and similar footwear) have been made by people in extreme latitudes, fashioned from animal skins and pelts. They were/are insulated by fur from animals like seal and caribou. Mukluks are known for being extremely warm and comfortable— “like wearing slippers,” according to Scott.
Probably their strongest quality—which makes mukluks so warm—is their breathability. The porous, wicking materials of the liner and shell allow moisture (foot sweat) to escape. By contrast, trapped moisture will typically accumulate in socks and liners in less breathable designs, like pac boots. That moisture makes insulation worthless, which in turn makes your toes cold.
Probably their weakest quality is their non-waterproof nature, which means they can’t be worn when snow is on the melty side. Scott says they are best below 20 degrees or so. There have apparently been large-scale attempts to add waterproofing treatments to similar mukluks, but that did not allow feet to breathe, which of course rendered them useless.
Just goes to show it’s better to know the right time to use the right tool, than to try and shoehorn it into all applications.
The Test Came Back…Positive
I had to wait until late December for cold enough weather to try them out. The first time was for an evening of ice fishing, around ten degrees above zero. I didn’t want to be out there long, lest they prove unworthy of the task.
They passed with flying colors. In fact, they quickly became the go-to boots for the rest of the winter, including a weeklong trip to Fairbanks for ice fishing and dogsledding and northern lights viewing.
As far as I can tell, they do an excellent job at mitigating foot moisture. This has become very important, as I’ve had trouble keeping all 10 toes warm for the last five years or so. With diligent attention to “moisture management,” as Scott calls it, feet stay lots warmer. My N-1Bs are the best boots I have for wicking and expelling foot sweat.
As you can see from the picture at right, there’s not much to these boots. The components are: a) zip-up cotton duck shell with rubber sole; b) removable wool liner; c) removable felt insole. Extra liners are widely available online; some sellers offer them separately from the boot.
One minor modification (if you can call it that) was to purchase more insoles (d) for more insulation, and to swap out as needed (made by Servus; around $10). There have been times in the past when my feet got cold because warmth was sucked out through the soles of my boots. This is a known problem when fishing on bare ice. It would be hard to say now if the original insoles alone wouldn’t be sufficient, but I can say with confidence that conductive heat loss has not been a problem with extra insoles.
If I had any criticism, it would be those rubber soles. The meager tread is not great. I almost went for a spill the other day on a slippery local lake, which was a reminder that N-1Bs are best on snow—the more powdery the better.
Find Yours: N-1B Size and Price
As far as sizing goes, different sellers offer differing advice. Perhaps my own experience will be helpful.
I normally require a size 11, wide or extra wide. My N-1B mukluks are size Large, and they are roomy enough on my feet for a liner sock, plus one or two wool socks. The laces would also allow for more room, if needed.
In that original MIL-SPEC document I referenced earlier, size guidelines are right on the front page. Here is what the U.S. government recommended:
That seems awfully roomy. On the other hand, that recommendation would allow you to fit several layers of socks in there, which would probably help attain the supposed 40-below temperature rating.
As for price, you probably won’t find a pair in new condition, liners included, for $40 (far and away the best price I’ve seen). That same seller has raised their price to $60; the nearest to that elsewhere is $50–without liners (another $12 or so). With several online retailers selling new stock for reasonable prices, you should never have to settle for the beat up, junky ones that might show up in surplus stores.
Bottom line: it’s the best $60 boot around.