It was September and Tribune outdoors columnist Barbara Brotman and I were already anxious and unhappy.
What was worrying us both was the upcoming cold weather and our annual failure to find a solution to our big winter woe. That is, keeping our feet protected from Chicago's usual trifecta of misery: freezing temps, snow and flowing gutters of icy slush.
So we made a pact. Not one more winter of foot angst! We were on a mission to find the best possible boots.
We took all the word-of-mouth recommendations we'd collected over many years, then called the companies whose names kept coming up. We asked the manufacturers to let us borrow their warmest, driest models — their choice — to be put to the test by two extremely picky women who were fed up with cold feet.
The loaner boots arrived. We were eager to try them. And then we waited. And waited. And waited some more. Who could have predicted this headline from chicagoweathercenter.com: "Chicago having its warmest winter in 80 years."
Not that we were complaining. But, it did delay our testing. In fact, it delayed our testing so long that I was able to enlist a third Tribune reporter, Regina Robinson, to join our cold-feet squad.
Regina brought two important qualifications to the job. She's the most cold-sensitive person I know. She sits at her desk with a Snuggie covering her feet.
And, she wears the same size shoes as me and Barbara, so fitting into the eight pairs of test boots was no problem.
While we waited for the bad weather, we tested the boots' waterproof claims by standing in icy puddles — in our bathtubs. And eventually, of course, it got cold and snowy and we were able to do some serious street testing.
Be assured that there's still plenty of rotten winter weather to come before the trees leaf out. And, with luck, our favorites will soon go on sale. So use this as your guide.
And the winner is …
Well, there are three winners. We couldn't agree. That's because, we discovered, there is no perfect winter boot.
In picking our favorites, each of us had to make compromises. I insisted that I be able to walk a mile and drive a car in the boots I chose. Regina needed to comfortably hustle to and from the train, look cute and stay warm.
For Barbara, it was all about staying toasty without being too clunky. Which is why she continued to acquire more boots after our test was over. Her top pick was the Wildcat Lace-up Boots she ordered from L. L. Bean. She liked them even more than the eight in our official test, citing their not-too-bulky warmth.
Finally, about the Neos. They're not really boots. Remember galoshes? These are the modern equivalent. You wear them over your shoes or boots. They're like a parka for your feet.
They're terrible to walk in (think Herman Munster) but can't be beat for warmth. Tribune photographers, who spend a lot of time outdoors — at sports events and stakeouts — swear by them. They're light and portable.
Trib photographer Nancy Stone is taking a trip above the Arctic Circle where the temperature can drop to 60 below. "All I'm bringing shoe-wise," she said, "are my nice-looking (but not so warm) boots and my Neos to wear over them."
The name of her Alaska destination is Coldfoot. But she's pretty sure hers won't be.
When buying boots, consider:
• What's the task? Shovel snow (5), take a long city walk (3), ride a bike (2), walk the dog (8), strike a pose (1).
• "Cement overshoes" effect makes driving difficult. You can barely feel the gas pedal (6, 7).
• "Waterproof" is a relative term. Some were impressive (2, 3, 6, 7). Others not (4).
• Zippers, shoelace eyelets, seams are your danger zones for water, cold air. Make sure there are multiple layers or rubber there.
• If you're wearing heavy socks, tucking in your pants, allow for that when choosing your size and style.
What the testers said
Ugg Australia Edmonton, $350, uggaustralia.com: "Where's the toe and ankle lamby softness we love in classic Uggs? Not as warm or dry as I'd hoped," says Ellen. "Fairly warm. … Oh my gosh, so comfortable!" says Regina.
Toe Warmers Women's Active Boots, $85.95, amazon.com: "My favorite! Sheepskin from toes to top: Bliss. Great walking comfort, good looking and waterproof too! Wish they were cheaper," says Ellen.
La Canadienne Iza, $285, lacanadienneshoes.com: All testers agree that our feet were cold and wet. What's the point?
Aetrex Berries Bungee Boots, $149.95, aetrex.com: "Toasty … so clunky … difficult to walk in and very noisy," Regina says. "The warmest of the lot," Barbara says.
Neos The Explorer overshoes, $89.95 reduced from $128.50, overshoesonline.com: "Best combination of style and warmth," Regina says. "Scary to drive in. So heavy, exhausting to walk in," Ellen says.
Sorel Cate the Great, $200, sorel.com: "More trim and closer-fitting than most heavy-duty boots, and also better looking. … A little chillier than some others in the test," Barbara says. "My ankles kept rubbing together, making walking difficult," Ellen says.
The North Face Greenland Zip II, $120, thenorthface.com: "They banged against my ankle until the zipper slid down, at which point I started to come out of them," Barbara says. "Irritated by the zipper continually coming undone," Regina says.
Columbia Bugaboot Plus Zip Omni-Tech, $115, columbia.com: "Though they had the stiffness of other substantial winter boots they were comfortable. ... Best overall," Barbara says.
L. L. Bean Wildcat Lace-up Boots, $119, llbean.com