For newcomers like Prateek Malhotra, choosing the right pair of boots to tackle snow, slips and sub-zero temperatures while staying on budget can be a nightmare.
Malhotra, who came to Manitoba from India in September to study at the University of Winnipeg, says he went to about eight stores over 25 days, trying to solve the mystery of the right winter boot.
He questioned the sales representatives. He tried several brands. He couldn’t afford to get it wrong.
“You are buying a shoe of such a high price. You cannot buy again and again, especially at such a time when we don’t have that much funds available,” Malhotra said in an interview with CBC.
His diligence paid off. He finally found the perfect pair of boots, and has been able to keep walking the four kilometres he hikes every day to and from his part-time job, even during repeated extreme weather warnings and massive snowfall in Winnipeg this month.
Later in the semester, when he got an assignment to present to his class on a topic of his choice, he knew right away what he wanted to share: what to know when buying your first pair of winter boots.
His goal was to summarize all the things he had gone though, he said, “so that all those students … like me, who had come from abroad” could “make a wise decision.”
WATCH | Why Prateek Malhotra wanted to help other international students:
Rosheedat Adeniji found out how hard making footwear decisions here can be after she came to Canada from Nigeria with her husband and three kids last March.
“I didn’t know the right thing to buy,” said Adeniji.
She kept hearing about winter, but she says the warm Winnipeg summer confused her.
When it was time to shop this winter, she says she went to the store and “grabbed some boots” for herself and her kids.
But after the first day of snow, she knew the gear was wrong. She got frostbite and fell twice.
Her kids complained too.
“[When] my children came back from school, they were just lamenting that this [was] a very wrong thing to buy for them because the snow actually penetrated into their boots,” she said.
Adeniji then reached out to friends for advice and did extensive online research. That’s when she found out most boots have temperature ratings — guidelines from manufacturers for how they’ll stand up to the cold.
She realized the ankle-high boots she got for the kids were too low, so she went back out shopping and asked sales representatives for help to find better boots.
Adeniji says she hasn’t slipped or been cold in her new boots, and her kids now enjoy recess at school.
It is an experience that helps her empathize with other newcomers as the donation and volunteers co-ordinator for the Canadian Muslim Women’s Institute.
She says the non-profit gives out about 50 boots a month to people in need.
Options for newcomers with language challenges
For the foreseeable future, a substantial number of people across Canada each year will likely have to wrestle with the same footwear questions as Malhotra and Adeniji.
That’s because Canada’s immigration numbers are booming. Last year, 401,000 people became permanent residents — the highest number in a single year, according to the federal government. The targets for this year and 2023 are even higher.
For newcomers, finding the right clothing can be essential in a climate like Manitoba’s, where the cold can be deadly in extreme situations.
While Malhotra and Adeniji eventually got help from sales representatives, Yasmin Ali, president of the Canadian Muslim Women’s Institute, says that may not be an option for all newcomers.
“A lot of them don’t speak English, so it’s very difficult for them to just go in the store and ask for winter boots,” Ali said.
Ali says that until those immigrants connect with members of their community, they can get help through settlement agencies like hers, where many staff speak their first language.
“It makes it so much easier to talk about what your needs are … and the staff can easily advise them based on firsthand lived experience,” she said.
Geoff Fernie, a senior scientist at the KITE Research Institute — a Toronto lab that focuses on improving the lives of people affected by disability, illness and aging — advises newcomers to take a scientific approach to shopping.
That includes using the boot ratings posted on KITE’s ratemytreads.com website, which features the results of scientific tests done on boots.
While Toronto isn’t as cold as the Prairies, Fernie is confident the research findings apply.
“I can assure you that although Winnipeg is unusual, the ground with snow and ice in Winnipeg is similar … to Toronto,” he said.
Fernie cautions newcomers to make prevention a priority. Slipping in the winter is a major factor in mobility loss for people, he says.
That’s something that could be a particular concern in Manitoba, which faces a huge backlog of surgeries — and many newcomers lack the support network to go without work for an extended period if they have to recover from a bad fall.
Using boots that test well in research can significantly reduce the risk of falls, Fernie says.
KITE’s website can also help with shopping, since it finds that high prices don’t always mean good quality.
“There is not a direct relationship between how good the boot is and how much they cost,” Fernie said.
Consider sizing, socks, situation
Rich Hildebrand, the director of retail operations at Canadian Footwear, says when buying a boot, the first thing to consider is sizing.
“Boots that fit too tightly will lead to cold feet,” he said.
That’s especially important when shopping for kids, because their feet grow quickly.
Hildebrand says one way to ensure a fit for kids is to remove the boot’s liner and have the child try that on. There should be at least a thumb’s length of space at the front of the boot to trap air, which helps to keep feet warm.
“We know if the liner fits, the boot will fit,” Hildebrand said.
The wrong socks are another overlooked cause of cold feet. Wearing the wrong first layer, like cotton socks, “is like having a wet bath towel around your feet,” Hildebrand said.
Buyers should also consider what they’ll be doing daily. Someone outside for a long time will need more insulation than someone who is just going from a car to work, Hildebrand says.
Warmth isn’t necessarily everything, however.
The warmest footwear might not be the most supportive, he says, and might be too heavy.
“Someone doing a lot of walking is going to want to go for a more hiking style with a little more support in the back. More of a lace-up style of boot,” he said.