Staff Writer: Colin Chenail
So you're looking for a pair of mountain boots. Maybe you want to summit Denali or maybe you want to tackle the famous WI5+ La Pomme d'Or. Maybe you just want to have a shot at Garibaldi next summer. If you have already started shopping, you've likely noticed the numerous designs available on today's market, but might be confused by the abundance of options.
To help you decide and understand, we will describe some important mountain boot characteristics and the way they impact their performance. We'll then break down all of the available models into a few categories from which to choose, depending on your intended use. Whether you're looking for a high altitude, ice climbing or summer mountaineering boot, we've got you covered.
1. Boot Characteristics
Above: This is an exploded view of a Scarpa Phantom 6000's sole and midsole. The insole isn't pictured here. (1) and (2) Heel and Toe welts. (3) PU Midsole. (4) EVA Midsole. (5) and (6) Outsole
A lot can impact the overall rigidity of a boot, but stiffness mostly comes from the midsole and the insole. A midsole is a structural layer of the boot that sits in between the sole and the insole. Usually made out of polyurethane or EVA, it provides cushioning and rigidity, and can consist of one or two components. The insole is another structural component, which sits in between the midsole and the footbed. In mountain boots, it serves the double purposes of insulating from the ground and adding rigidity. It is not to be mixed up with the footbed, which is the removable liner your foot rests on.
The stiffness of your boot will impact its performance in two ways: (1) Its walking ability and (2) its climbing ability.
Stiff soled boots are great for front pointing - the act of standing solely on the front points of your crampons, usually on high angle terrain - but they are quite uncomfortable to walk in for extended periods of time. On the other hand, softer soled boots are great to walk in, but they lack the support needed for technical crampon work. At Climb On, we classify our mountain boot's midsole stiffness in three categories: (1) Moderately Stiff, (2) Stiff and (3) Very Stiff.
Stiffness Category 1: Moderately Stiff
Moderately Stiff boots are the way to go for non-technical mountaineering. The softer midsole doesn't restrict your stride so they are quite comfortable on long approaches but they remain stiff enough so that they can fit a crampon securely. However, they are not suitable for extended front-pointing. They're also a great balance between support and sensitivity, making them the best choice if your objective includes lots of scrambling.
Stiffness Category 2: Stiff
Stiff boots resemble the previous category, and are usually used for similar objectives, but they put the emphasis on climbing rather than walking. While they're a little less comfortable to walk in for extended periods of time, they're stiff enough to allow some moderately technical front pointing.
Stiffness Category 3: Very Stiff
Very Stiff boots are what you're aiming for if you're thinking about getting into ice and mixed climbing. Their (super) stiff midsole will give you the support needed to front point all day and the confidence to stand on dime edges.
1.2: Crampon Compatibility
Directly linked with midsole stiffness is crampon compatibility. Three types of crampon attachment exist: Strap-On, Hybrid and Step-In. Hybrid and Step-In rely on heel and toe welts, which are little pieces of polyurethane serving as attachment points for crampons. They are only found on stiff enough midsoles.
Strap-On crampons are the most basic form of binding system: two soft plastic harnesses that wrap around the back and front of your boots and that are tied together with a sling. While not the most secure form of attachment, it has the advantage of not requiring anything other than a stiff enough midsole to fit your boot, making them the solution for ultra lightweight mountain boots that do not have welts. They're usually used for non-technical glacier travel by climbers looking to approach rock climbing objectives (think Bugaboos or Tantalus range).
Hybrid crampons attach to the heel welt of your boot via a heel lever and use a rubber harness at the front. They're usually used on moderately stiff and stiff boots. They fit more securely than strap-on crampons, but they do wiggle around more than step-in crampons. Boots need a heel welt to fit them.
Step-In crampons are the most secure form of binding. They can only be used on boots that sport both a heel and toe welts. To secure themselves to a boot, they use a toe bail - a thin steel bar made to fit over the top of the toe welt - and a heel lever. Due to this precise binding system, they can only be used on very stiff boots since a little flex in the sole could make them fall off. When purchasing step-in crampons, make sure the shape of the toe bail fits the shape of your boot's toe welt ensuring a secure attachment. Crampon manufacturers usually offer toe bails of different sizes that can be bought separately to accommodate toe welts of different shapes.
1.3: Upper Material
Leather boots are still quite common on today's market. Their reputation for durability certainly keeps them a favourite amongst customers. This material does have a few advantages: it's naturally breathable and quite durable. However, they're slightly heavier than their synthetic counterparts, and they do have a tendency to absorb water after sufficient exposure. When slogging in wet snow for long enough, the leather upper will become soaked with water which may get through the waterproof/breathable membrane.
A lot of modern boots are made out of synthetic materials. While this term may sound quite vague, it basically means Nylon. Most of the time, it will be coupled with a supple plastic material, like polyurethane, to enhance durability and water repellency in key areas.
Above: Image courtesy of La Sportiva
Every mountain boot sold at Climb On Equipment is equipped with a waterproof/breathable membrane such as Gore-Tex. It does not, however, mean that every boot is watertight. Waterproof/breathable membranes do have their limitations, so boot designs and materials can greatly influence water-resistance. As noted above, synthetic boots tend to be better at keeping your feet dry than leather boots, while supergaiter boots (boots that sport a built in gaiter) are the best at keeping water out. Note that some of them, like the La Sportiva G5 Evo, do not use a watertight zipper, making them inappropriate for walking directly in shallow water like you would do crossing a creek, for example.
1.5: Double Boots
When you think of a "hiking boot", you think of what is referred to as a "single boot". While most mountain boots are designed this way as well, some of them are double boots, meaning that they comprise of a shell outside which sits around a removable liner. Note that the shell cannot be worn by itself. While this type of construction is inherently warmer, it also gives you the ability to "dry" your boots at night. Simply remove your liners and insert them into your sleeping bag; they should be a little less damp the following morning. This feature can be crucial to prevent frostbites on multi-day climbs.
Double boots usually come in two variations: "6000m" and "8000m". While the latter are easily recognizable with their knee high integrated gaiters, "6000m" boots look just like your average supergaiter, perhaps with noticeably more volume. Newer iterations of 6000m boots work fine for technical climbing and it's not uncommon to see people climb hard ice in them. They do, however, suffer from more heel lift than their single supergaiter counterparts, making them less precise and more strenuous on your calves for technical climbing. "8000m" boots are heavy and clunky and thus should only be used where they are absolutely necessary, i.e. extremely cold environments.
Insulation is quite a complex subject when it comes to mountain boots, mainly because there are so many variables that can affect a boot's warmness. While flagship general mountaineering boots like the La Sportiva Nepal Cube GTX are typically insulated with "traditional" footwear insulation like Primaloft (usually 200g/m2), newer designs like the Scarpa Phantom Tech uses a mixture of Primaloft, closed cell foam, heat reflective aluminium and Aerogel as insulation. Since there is no standardized metric to quantify insulation in a mountain boot, we (at Climb On) classify it into 4 categories:
Insulation Category 1: Boots that are not insulated
As the name implies, they do not contain proper insulating materials. They will, however, feel warmer than approach shoes because of the thicker materials and waterproof/breathable membrane used in their construction. Usually, a non-insulated boot will work fine as long as the temperature doesn't drop below zero. Note that they can feel quite cold when walking in snow for extended periods of time, even if the air temperature is well above zero.
Insulation Category 2: Boots that are moderately insulated
These type of boots are typically used for 3 season mountaineering. Beware, while they will help your feet get toasty the next time you rope up on a glacier at 5:00 am, even this little insulation can make your feet sweat like crazy on approaches in typical summer weather.
Insulation Category 3: Boots that are insulated for winter climbing
The warmest single boots out there. Typically taking the form of a supergaiter boot, they're made from a plethora of insulating materials to keep your feet toasty on these frigid belays.
Insulation Category 4: Boots that are insulated for high altitude
Exclusively double boots. A complex mix of insulating materials in a supergaiter package. The type of boot for expeditions and multi-day climbs on high altitude peaks.
For mountain climbers in the 21st century, weight has become an important characteristic of the gear we choose. Ultralight sleeping bags and tents keep the weight to a minimum when we venture into the alpine, while ridiculously light cams allow us to carry more gear on longer routes. But there are pieces of equipment where weight matters more than others, the number one of them being footwear. In fact, a 1984 study from the U.S. Army's Research Institute noted that you spend 4.7 to 6.4 times more energy carrying the same weight on your feet than on your back. In other words, carrying one kilogram on your feet equals carrying five kilograms on your back. Thus, you should probably give a little bit of attention to weight during your boot shopping, even if you're not into that whole ultralight gear thingy. That being said, don't trade weight for comfort: a hundred grams more on your feet is worth it for healthy, non frostbitten toes.
2. Types of Boots
In the light of all these characteristics, we can classify mountain boots in a few easy to recognize categories. Boots in these categories from different brands will more or less share the same general characteristics.
Supergaiter is the generic term for boots that have a built-in gaiter. But they're not just your usual boot with an integrated gaiter, they're a complex combination of state of the art materials made to deliver the best warm-to-weight ratio in a package that's engineered for technical climbing. With their very stiff midsole, insulation for winter climbing and step-in crampon compatibility, they're the boot of choice for ice and mixed climbing routes, like the ones you would find on the Stanley Headwall or in the Hautes Gorges de la Rivière Malbaie.
Supergaiter boots with a removable liner, they're made for high altitude and expedition climbing. They're at home in the highest ranges and coldest environments of the planet. As stated above, "6000m" boots still work fine for technical climbing despite their tendency to suffer from more heel lift than their single boots counterparts, while "8000m" are not designed to be used for such purposes.
While this name might tell you otherwise, these boots are better suited for a hard mixed pitch than for slogging up the Mont Blanc. Typically made from a leather construction, their very stiff sole and automatic crampon compatibility makes them great for technical climbing, but they are only moderately insulated, making them inappropriate for ice and mixed climbing in most climates. While they were once the boot of choice for technical winter climbing, they have now been replaced by supergaiter boots, who offer similar performance in a significantly warmer package. Note that they're still enjoyed by dry tooling and hard mixed climbing aficionados, some of whom feel that their climbability is unmatched.
Moderately insulated boots with a stiff sole. Soft enough for walking long distances but stiff enough for moderately technical front pointing. They're at home on most classical mountaineering routes but also shine on more technical objectives. Their versatility makes them great for long missions that implies a variety of techniques, like peaks where you would need to do a little bit of ice climbing, some scrambling and a bunch of glacier travel. They usually pack quite smaller than General mountaineering boots, which is useful when the time comes to swap the boots for rock climbing shoes. Because of all of those characteristics, they're often used in places like the Chalten massif, or in the alps during the summer.
Not insulated and moderately stiff, usually compatible with hybrid crampons. Similar to their "alpine climbing" counterparts, but different in that they put the emphasis on walking rather than climbing, they are the boot of choice for long approaches. They're also the best at scrambling, thanks to their softer sole, but that also makes them unfit for climbing ice. They're usually used for something that implies a lot of hiking, a little bit of glacier travel and a bunch of scrambling, like the Tantalus Traverse.
3. A note on sizing and fit
Needless to say, sizing and fit can have a tremendous impact on your comfort level. While you can always remove your rock climbing shoes at a belay station to relieve yourself from a sore achilles tendon, it is obviously not a possibility on an ice climb. Thus, the sizing and fit of your next pair of mountain boots should not be overlooked. Choosing the proper size is of the utmost importance, and can be a tricky process. Get them too tight and you will bump your toes so much while walking downhill that you could lose some of your toenails. On the other hand, get them too loose and you'll likely suffer from significantly more heel lift, which might result in some blisters on the back of your heels, as well as a more strenuous climbing experience. Fit can also be an issue. While softer materials make mountain boots more compliant than, say, ski boots, finding the proper fit can still be tricky. When trying them up, look for pressure points. A slight one can be tolerable while trying them on in your living room, but can become unbearable after a full day of climbing. Leather boots tend to feel less comfortable than their synthetic counterparts out of the box, but they do mold to your feet to a certain extent, with time and use. As with rock climbing shoes, mountain boots are made with a last. A "last" is a wooden foot around which the boot is built. Think of it as a reverse mold. While they often have tens of them, each of specific dimensions, manufacturers often use the same last for several boots, so if you previously found a boot that fitted you well, take note of its last and look for boots that are made from the same one.
If shopping at our store location, our staff will be more than happy to provide you with as many sizes and models as you please, so plan at least an hour to try them all. If shopping online, feel free to order a few sizes and try them meticulously inside your house, then return the ones that don't fit!
Some add-ons can also improve the fit and comfort of your boot. Notably, supportive insoles can help fill-in a too voluminous boot and hence reduce heel lift. To minimise blister occurrence, consider using a pair of liner socks, which are thin, tight fitting socks that go under your normal socks. The theory is that the outer sock would rub against the inner sock rather than your skin, hence preventing blisters.
Here at Climb On Squamish, we pride ourselves in providing a vast selection of the best gear on the market. While we think all of our mountain boots are great products - otherwise we wouldn't store them - they're, let's say, not as versatile as a set of cams. To choose the boot that is right for you, you'll obviously need to determine what you intend to do with it. Planning for a winter in Canmore? Go for a pair of single supergaiters. Looking to go to the Alps next summer? Then go for an alpine climbing boot. You might even find that one boot does not fit all your needs: The one you'll choose for a trip to the Ruth Gorge is likely going to be inappropriate for an (austral) summer in El Chalten. In any case, we advise that you take your time during the buying process. You'll be happy you did the next time you're 200 meters off the ground, up a frozen waterfall, with toasty, perfectly comfortable feet.
It is our hope that this article helped you search for the perfect boot. If you still have questions, feel free to drop by in-store or send us an email. We'll be more than happy to help.
[Main Cover Photo] Image courtesy of Scarpa Italy