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BLOG | TIPS | 12 April 2016

How to Choose Mountaineering Boots

Planning for an expedition in the Alps this year? Find out how to get the right boots for your next adventure.

Alpine climbing boots
If you're planning on doing some serious mountain climbing this season, you'll need to decide what kind of mountaineering boots to take. There are several factors to consider when choosing boots of this kind. Thinking about how technical the climb is as well as the terrain, altitude and climate before purchasing a boot will all help you achieve the right balance between protection, safety, and performance.

Comfort is also an important factor when choosing a mountaineering boot. Discomfort leads to pain, blisters and a greater risk of accident. A semi-rigid or rigid sole and more durable upper take some getting used to, and they will certainly not provide as much comfort as a flexible boot or shoe. However, these features are there for a reason, so don't risk replacing them for flexible boots or trekking shoes just because these are more comfortable as these would not offer the same level of performance during activity.

Whatever footwear is you decide to choose, safety should always be the most important factor behind your choice.

SEMI-RIGID OR RIGID BOOTS?
One of the first decisions you will have to make is whether to choose a fully rigid or semi-rigid boot. This will depend on how technical your activity is going to be.

Semi-rigid boots

Semi-rigid boots (also categorized as B2) are the best choice for three-season mountaineering. These are the most popular and are perfect for non-technical ascents in winter (e.g. 3,000m Pyrenean peaks). The semi-rigid sole has less flex than a hiking or trekking shoe or boot, but enough for comfort when walking. This kind of sole gives enough support in complicated areas, on crests, scree slopes or patches of snow and gives good protection and balance when carrying heavy loads.

La Sportiva Trango Cube GTX, a good example of a semi-rigid boot


The sole is usually (but not always) compatible with semi-automatic crampons and it is limited to non-technical areas in winter conditions, such as glacier walking.

The best kept secret of a technical mountaineering boot

The mid-sole of a boot has a hidden element that plays an essential role: the shank. This insert gives the right amount of stiffness to a sole. The shank in a rigid mountaineering boot is full-length and non-deformable, for guaranteed performance.

And here lies one of the greatest advancements in footwear materials of the past ten years. Shanks used to be made of steel, which made them stiff but also heavy.

Nowadays, boot shanks are made from PU (polyurethane), fibreglass or even, in the most advanced boots, carbon, which provides total rigidity with minimum weight. This is one of the secrets that has allowed manufacturers to reduce the weight of a boot by up to 400 grams, resulting in reduced fatigue and increased safety in the mountains.

Top: full-length rigid shank (5); Bottom: semi-rigid shank (3-4)
The flexibility of a shank is usually classified from 1 (most flexible) to 5 (most rigid). Rigid boots have a No.5 shank, while semi-rigid boots have a No. 3-4. As you can see above, greater flexibility is usually achieved by reducing material.
Rigid boots (B3)
Boots with a rigid sole are necessary for technical winter mountaineering, ice-climbing and couloir ascents. They are usually compatible with automatic crampons and the completely rigid sole offers the performance required on technical mountain climbs.

Only rigid boots can be used with crampons for ice climbing and couloir ascents. When digging in the front crampon points on an ice climb, your entire weight is on those two points, which means your soles need to act as a platform and be as stiff as possible.

A totally rigid sole is essential for alpine climbing.
The main problem with rigid-sole boots is discomfort on approaches and hikes. However, it should be said that nowadays, rigid boots are not nearly as uncomfortable as some years ago due to the designs, materials or cuff flex.

The category of rigid boots is divided into two sub-categories:

SINGLE VS. DOUBLE BOOTS

Single Boots
These are the most popular nowadays and what makes them different from double boots is that they don't have a removable liner. Single boots in the past were bulky and heavy, but years of R+D have led to lighter materials and modern, low-profile designs. Today single boots offer greater protection, are lighter and less bulky. Lighter boots reduce fatigue and therefore enhance safety, while reduced volume increases agility. Other features, such as modern, more comfortable last designs and reduced seams provide a level of comfort that was unimaginable in the recent past.

Some single boots offer exceptional warmth-to-weight ratios, thanks to the inner layers made of the latest thermal materials. The most popular models with technical designs and an integrated gaiter, include the Boreal Stetind, The North Face Verto S6K Extreme or La Sportiva Batura 2.0.

These kinds of boots are highly recommended for climbing north face walls and in cold climates. In fact, they perform extremely well and have replaced double boots in many situations.

Boreal Stetind, a good example of a single boot with integrated gaiter
The progress of modern mountaineering and access to the mountains are becoming easier, which means that nowadays C2C (Car to Car) activities are extremely popular. This has led to a surge in sales of single boots for ice-climbing, corridors and technical routes. The following models are highly appreciated for their low weight and thermal capacity: Bestard Fitz Roy, Nepal Evo GTX, Nepal EVO GTX Woman, Boreal Kangri Bi-Flex, or Nepal Cube GTX.

Bestard Fitz Roy
Single boots offer the optimum combination of technical features, comfort, agility and thermal protection. However, there are still occasions when a single boot just isn't enough, such as expeditions, extreme climates, or multi-day activities. In these cases, double boots are essential.

Double Boots

Unlike single boots, double boots have a removable liner that offers even greater thermal capacity. This extra warmth is essential for high-altitude mountaineering, not just because you experience extremely low temperatures, but because at high altitude your body is unable to function correctly and cannot produce as much heat to keep you warm.

The advantage of being able to remove the boot liner means you can let it dry out over night. A typical mountaineering trick is to put the liner in your sleeping bag with you for the night, so that by morning it is warm and dry. This is perfect for multi-day activities where the liner becomes damp from perspiration at the end of each day. If the liner is not dried out each night, it remains damp and uncomfortable the following day. In fact, it is not uncommon for this humidity to freeze during the night, which increases discomfort and can even lead to frostbite.
The drawback of double boots is that the liner requires a bigger shell, which is why they tend to be heavier and bulkier than single boots. This is a handicap for technical alpine climbing, which benefits from a low-volume boot that can fit into cracks and give greater precision on holds.

The new generation of single boots means that double boots are now mainly used for expeditions at high altitudes (Andes, Himalayas) and for when greater thermal protection is required. However, this distinction is not all black and white, and there is some cross-over. Some double boots, such as La Sportiva Spantik or Boreal G1 Lite offer slightly less thermal capacity and have a lower profile, so they perform well on technical activities in cold temperatures at lower altitudes, where a single alpine boot would otherwise be used.

La Sportiva Spantik, with removable liner


New Models of Double Boots - The Best of Both Worlds

The evolution of double boots has been slow, but steady. It began with boots such as the La Sportiva Spantik or La Sportiva Baruntse. Although they maintained a traditional structure, their weight and volume were significantly reduced. However, this evolution is incomparable to that of the latest generation of boots, such as the Arc'teryx Acrux AR GTX and La Sportiva G2 SM, which have caused a revolution.

Arc'teryx Acrux AR GTX. A triple boot with the weight and volume of a single.
Both are double boots, with good thermal capacity, a removable liner and a built-in outer gaiter. Their design has nothing to do with traditional double boots. Their volume and weight are practically the same, or even lower, than single boots with an integrated gaiter, such as the Boreal Stetind or La Sportiva Batura 2.0 GTX.

The Arc'teryx Acrux AR GTX and La Sportiva G2 SM do not have the same thermal capacity and are not designed for the same use, but they are both extraordinary examples of how research into new materials and designs can completely revolutionize mountain footwear.


The Upper: a Piece of Armour

An alpine climbing boot has to offer total protection, not just from the cold, but also from impact against stones or falling rocks or ice. So it has to be tough and durable and usually has a rubber reinforcement on the sides and toes for increased protection.

In the past, boots were reinforced with durable materials, such as thick leather or stiff plastic. Both materials were bulky and heavy. But just like the shank, these materials have evolved. PU, Kevlar and other materials, have achieved lighter, more low-profile designs without sacrificing durability and protection.

Of course, all of these boots must also offer maximum protection against the elements. To do so, they incorporate a waterproof, breathable membrane – in most cases a Gore-Tex membrane specially designed for footwear.
TECHNICAL SINGLE MOUNTAINEERING BOOTS WITH ANKLE FLEX

Technical mountain climbs require a rigid sole for support on the vertical but also enough freedom of movement in the ankle area so that you can adjust the angle of your foot on holds. A rigid boot provides the platform, but not the freedom of movement – until now. Manufacturers have recently begun designing rigid single boots with a flexible ankle for mixed, ice and technical alpine climbing. Examples of these boots are the Boreal Kangri Bi-Flex, Scarpa Mont Blanc Pro GTX.

However, although these boots excel on the vertical, they tend to lack support and stability when walking on rough terrain and snow. Walking across a steep slope is the best example of this. The lateral reinforcements give some amount of support, but not as much as that provided by a boot with a stiffer cuff. Other rigid boots with a more classic design, such as the Bestard Fitz Roy or La Sportiva Nepal Evo GTX, also have a certain amount of ankle flex and are more comfortable than earlier models, but provide enough support in this delicate area to give mountaineers a sense of security when walking on snow or across steep slopes.

Anyone who hasn't tried rigid boots with ankle flex will be pleasantly surprised by the level of comfort and more natural foot movement. Veteran Spanish climber and mountaineer Juan Corcuera, confirmed this when he tested the Scarpa Mont Blanc Pro for us:

”For those of us used to wearing heavy, stiff boots, apart from the obvious differences, at times the Scarpa Mont Blanc Pro feels more like a shoe than a boot.

Scarpa Mont Blanc Pro GTX
”Any doubts we had concerning support when crossing steep slopes were cleared after crossing frozen slopes which required crampons. In spite of the high flexibility we were surprised by how well it worked without overloading the tibialis anterior and peroneal muscles and without having to work hard to control the boot.

”I must say that although the ankle support is better than you'd expect, it is less than usual in a snow boot and this becomes more apparent when you're feeling particularly tired. After a long day descending the couloirs on Telera Peak in the Pyrenees, for example, you reach a point where you have to start walking down and I would have preferred greater support at that point.”

Juan Corcuera during the Scarpa Mont Blanc Pro test. Here you can see the range of movement permitted by the flexibility of the ankle.
A boot like the Mont Blanc Pro, then, with its combination of rigid sole and ankle flex, appeals to a number of different types of users. Some prefer this boot for its comfort during less-technical alpine ascents, while others take advantage of its enhanced performance on more technical routes.

COMPATIBLE WITH AUTOMATIC OR SEMI-AUTOMATIC CRAMPONS

Another factor you will have to take into account when choosing mountaineering boots is their compatibility with different types of crampons. Most rigid boots are compatible with automatic crampons, and most semi-rigid boots with semi-automatic crampons (except some that can only be used with the strap system). The exceptions to this rule are rare.

Top: semi-rigid boot, compatible with semi-automatic crampons. Bottom: rigid boot compatible with automatic crampons.
So choosing the right gear begins with deciding which kind of boot you require. The kind of boot chosen will determine the kind of crampons. Remember that some crampons, such as the Edelrid Shark, are compatible with all three binding systems: straps, semi-automatic and automatic.

CHOOSE THE RIGHT GEAR FOR YOUR NEXT ADVENTURE

Clearly, there are many factors to consider when choosing a mountaineering boot and it is important to consider each one carefully, because the wrong boot will affect your safety and progress. The degree of difficulty of your activity, your level of experience and other factors, such as the weather conditions, altitude and kind of terrain will all condition your final decision. You will also find that rigid boots require half or a whole size larger than your shoe size, as toe movement is essential to avoid frostbite.

Barrabes has over forty-five years of experience in mountain footwear and equipment. Our wide selection of mountaineering boots from top brands has been chosen with care and precision, to help make sure our you get the right boot for your next mountain adventure.

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