Product Review: ECW N-1B Mukluk Boots

N-1B Mukluk ECW Boot product review

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 know, 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 has 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. Bits and pieces came from here and there, but overall 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 is 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 are 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 I found N-1Bs for sale online for just $40, in new condition, with liners included, I had to pounce. 

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 things) 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.

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 install a second insole (d) for more insulation (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 my 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 caused me to realize that N-1Bs are best on snow—the more powdery the better. 

Find Your Own: 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 I needed it. 

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. 

The bottom line: it’s the best $60 boot around.

Product Review: Irish Setter VaprTrek Boot

It all started in 2014. A great pair of leather boots had given up the ghost and I needed something new. Another pair of leather boots seemed a good idea, but with all the walking I do in the bird hunting season, I didn’t want anything too heavy. One boot caught my attention, marketed as light in weight and tough as nails. I’d never owned anything in kangaroo leather before, so who was I to doubt their claims? 

Well, I should have. Astonishingly, I wore those boots out in just one October. The leather in the toes completely disintegrated, and the waterproof layer underneath could clearly be seen. I regret to this day I didn’t take pictures, but I was livid as I packed up the box. I wanted them out of my sight. Ever since then, I’ve been in search of a boot that could stand up to the way I hunt.  Continue reading “Product Review: Irish Setter VaprTrek Boot”

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Product Review: 2004 Ford F-150 Heritage

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“It’s a work truck. You’re a smaht guy.” Those were the last words spoken to me by salesman Sean, through the truck window, as I drove my F-150 Heritage off the lot in April of 2004. After I rolled the window up, my wife and I looked at each other and wondered aloud what that was supposed to mean. It seemed nonsensical. We laughed and shrugged it off, but never forgot that moment. I’m not sure what made those words so immortal, whether it be their cryptic nature or because it was fun to say “smaht” in our best manufactured Massachusetts accents. Either way, they stuck with us. After fourteen and a half years, however, Sean’s absurd adieu now seems strangely prophetic.  Continue reading “Product Review: 2004 Ford F-150 Heritage”

Product Review: Sea to Summit X-Pot

It all began a year ago when I received a funny-looking thing for my birthday from my brother and his wife. “It’s a pot for cooking; we thought it would be good for your hiking and camping trips,” she explained. I had to examine it a bit to understand what it was: a collapsible cooking pot, made of aluminum and silicone. With no backpacking or canoe trips in my immediate future, I put it away with similar equipment (and apparently almost forgot about it). Continue reading “Product Review: Sea to Summit X-Pot”

Book Review: Three Mushroom Guides

Every year on social media, there are people looking for suggestions for good mushroom guidebooks. While browsing the internet or (especially) the bookstore, it becomes clear that some books are not put together well, some are not good for Eastern U.S. foragers, and some are just plain junk. While I’m not saying these are the three “best” books on the market (a pointless judgment call, really), I will describe what I like about each and why I would recommend each.  Continue reading “Book Review: Three Mushroom Guides”

Product Review: Sawyer Mini Water Filter

When I decided to take a short ice fishing trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, I had a problem where water filtration was concerned. I have historically used a pump-type filter, but I didn’t consider this an option for this outing; even though the temperature was forecast to be above freezing during the days, the night temperatures would certainly imperil anything that would be damaged by freezing. Likewise, I couldn’t expect to keep containers of water on hand, so whatever amount of water I treated would have to be used in a short time. I decided that I would be able to keep something- if small enough- warm in interior pockets by day, and in my sleeping bag with me by night. What I didn’t know was how many different options there are now for water filtration/purification. Continue reading “Product Review: Sawyer Mini Water Filter”