Getting the right mountain boots

November 8, 2008

Reading Time: 16 minutes.

The first pair of proper mountain boots I ever bought turned out to be a disaster, in fact, almost terminally. Like many people who are just getting into climbing, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted when I walked into the local climbing shop that afternoon and, unfortunately for me, neither did the staff. I’d borrowed 100 quid off my grandad to buy some boots so that I could go up to Scotland with some people I hardly knew, a trip I could only make if I had something suitable to wear on my feet. I’d read that a good pair of boots should cost a week’s wages but seeing as I didn’t have a job and was still at school I thought £100 would cover it - knowing it would have to because that’s all I could borrow.

The shop was quiet that afternoon, in fact, it was always quiet which no doubt explains why it’s no longer there. The manager asked me what I wanted the boots for and what size I was. I said “Winter climbing” and “size 10” even though it turned out later that I was actually an eight and so without measuring my feet he produced a whopping green box that contained a pair of size 12 Scarpa Mantas. Not knowing what I was looking for, and only used to wearing trainers, I just stuck them on my feet and said: “They’ll do”, paid my money and off I walked down the street.

It was only years later that I realize that the boots he brought out were probably the only boots he had in stock which were remotely stiff enough for winter and even then they were, at that time (I’m talking very old style Mantas here), barely suitable for four-season walking and that’s why he’d pulled them out when, in fact, he should have told me to find a shop that sold the right boots.

A day later I was in Scotland, replete in my fancy new boots, it was raining, of course. My first mistake was that I was unaware that gaiters were a good idea and so within a few minutes my fancy new boots began to fill with water. The second problem was that they were just far too big, in fact, my feet just rattled around inside them and the wetter they got the bigger they seemed to grow. Another problem was because they were so big, they creased across my toes which, of course, were several inches back from the toe box. All these things became apparent within the first hour.

Leaving the waterlogged track we headed up on to a steep traverse over heather-clad hills, rivers pouring down every few feet. It was there that I began to feel very anxious in my boots, as they were very unstable due to my feet rolling inside them. This meant they couldn’t hold their edges well when contouring causing me to repeatedly slip every few minutes. Also, by now my feet had begun to rub badly, with hot spots turning to blisters, the process no doubt sped along by my waterlogged skin.

Finally, we arrived at a snow-covered ridge, up which we scrambled towards the summit, which I was glad to reach soon after, thankful that there was no real climbing involved. Standing there in the pissing rain, feet close to full-on trench foot, I felt no elation, just sad about wasting a lot of money because not only did I have a pair of boots that were totally unsuitable that I couldn’t take back, I also now had to find the money to buy a pair that would be suitable. Little was I to know that very soon I’d have more to worry about.

Spending only enough time to eat a soggy Marathon bar on the top, we turned and started making our way back down the ridge, big drops unseen on the way up suddenly coming out of the clag on either side. At one point a patch of snow led down and around a steep section of rock and so the climbers in front just turned and started kicking steps down it and so, being the novice, I did the same. Within a few steps I was suddenly aware that my boots were providing almost no bite in the steep waterlogged snow and looking down I could see why. Unlike my partners, whose boots seemed to hold them rigidly to even the tiniest edge, mine looked like clown shoes… except no one was laughing. Before I could think about how much danger I was in, exposed high on this ridge, my toes turned to 12 o’clock and I was off.

Luckily I’d done my homework and was prepared for this situation, all I had to do was a self-arrest with my borrowed ice-axe, something I’m sure would have worked even though I’d only seen it in books, that is if my axe wasn’t still firmly strapped to my rucksack. Like anyone would do in the same situation I improvised and used my fingers, clinging to the slush with every ounce of my being, sliding past the guy in front as I hurtled down. Suddenly, below, I saw a tiny rock sticking out of the slope. I knew if I could catch it with my foot it might just stop me. That was, as long as my boot didn’t just come off or it proves to be a sheep dropping. Holding my breath, I managed to hit it with my heel and digging my fingers in, managed to stick it. Luckily I hadn’t screamed.

“Did you mean to do that?” asked the guy I’d just bobsleighed past. “Oh, oh y-yes,” I said, carefully removing my rucksack so I could get my axe out to cut some steps. “I always come down like that, it’s much faster you know.”

Big boots - the most important piece of gear you’ll ever buy

Like it says above, boots are the most important item of gear you’ll ever buy, because they do more work, get more hammer and provide more security than any other piece of gear you use. And unlike anything else, they must fit perfectly, otherwise, you’ll be in a world of pain. Buying boots is easy, it’s just buying the right boots that’s hard. This article aims to put anyone in the market for a new pair of boots on the right (or left) foot. The big boot purchasers’ checklist

So you’ve decided you need some big boots, perhaps because you’re planning on hitting Scotland this winter, or maybe going to the Alps, or you fancy upping your walking to some tough trekking or winter walking. You’ve wondered if the boots you’ve got will do, but you’ve decided, perhaps after reading about my intro to winter boots, that you should invest in some proper footwear. If you’re one of these people, or perhaps someone who already has big boots but may feel they need to be replaced, then here’s a checklist so that, unlike me, you should get the correct boots. Money’s no object

First of all, even before you start thumbing through the mail-order catalogues, trawling the shops and surfing the web, make sure you have the money to spend in the first place. This may sound like an odd thing to say, but I’ve seen a lot of people who go into a shop intent on buying boots when they don’t have enough money to do so. Unless I, or someone who had a conscience (there are some) was serving them, what would inevitably happen was they would leave with the boots that most closely matched what they wanted that could be purchased with the money they had, which could mean anything from four season walking boots too stiff fabric boots - none of which are going to work. The problem is that you will spend 70% of the cash you’d need to buy the correct boot on a boot that is only going to be good for 30% of what you want it to do and, worse still, may kill you in the process.

You should have at least £180 to spend and be prepared to spend up to £250 if your feet don’t happen to fit £180 boots or if you want something more specialized like a plastic boot (you can spend up to £500 so count your blessings if it’s only £200 you’re spending). The reason boots are so expensive is, unlike almost all outdoor gear these days which is getting cheaper by the season, winter boots are primarily made in Italy, where a Euro doesn’t go as far as a Yen.

These boots are also made out of the best materials, the thickest leathers or space-age fabrics like Kevlar or laminates, and have the most advanced sole units, with each part of the boot being designed to stand up to serious abuse. In fact, many of the boots on the market should be far more expensive than they actually are, but often the boot companies will keep the price below a certain ceiling as they are the flagships of the brand, even though the bread and butter actually come from approach shoes and dog walking boots (which, of course, are made in Eastern Europe or Asia).

What if you can’t scrape enough cash to buy the right boots? Well again don’t just buy what you can afford. Check out the end of lines, old styles and models in shops. See if you can find a pair of second-hand boots, either on notices in climbing walls and shops, on climbing chat forums, even eBay.

Due to the fact that a lot of people buy boots like I first did (i.e. they get it wrong) there are a lot of boots that can’t be worn, plus a lot of people give up after one season (I suppose it’s not that surprising considering the winters we’ve been having of late). You can easily find quality boots for well under £100, sometimes almost brand new. When buying second-hand leather boots make sure the leather’s still supple and hasn’t dried out by being stored in a warm place for too long (they may crack). Most boots can be resoled if the soles are looking thin and proofed if they look tired. Try them on and make sure they still retain their stiffness as some well-worn boots will become too flexible once the uppers become soft.

Plastic boots shouldn’t be too old and I’d stay away from any old Koflach boots (usually grey models) as they have a tendency to crack through ageing (look for Asolo, Scarpa and Lowa). This is the route I took after my disaster with my Mantas; buying a pair of German Army mountain boots from an army surplus shop for about £50 (I could goose-step up anything).

Shop till you drop

Next on your list is to do your homework. Switch on your computer and type in: climbing+winter+boot and have a look at what people are saying. Take what you read with a big dose of salt as 50% of what you read is usually ill-informed rubbish (my column’s got that figure down to 10%), but it will give you an idea of what people are buying, or not buying. Have a look at the boot companies’ websites for an idea of their current models but again don’t pay too much attention to what they have to say apart from the facts (most of these sites are actually devoid of anything of any real value anyway - which is a shame).

Try and make a list of boots you want to try out, the boots that not only fit what you want to do now but in the future, as this increases their value as they won’t need to be replaced a year down the line. A good example of this is super guide, Rich Cross’s, first boots - a pair of pink Scarpa Vegas. These boots stood him in good stead for his first forays into Scotland then into the Alps in the summer, then in the winter and then into the Himalaya, Patagonia, Alaska, in fact, they were used for 10 years (with the inner boots being replaced once), starting on easy routes in the Northern Corries and culminating on his new route on Ama Dablam. Now as far as value goes, for Rich the metre climbed to the £ ratio was probably something like 0.0000001p and shows that although as a student, investing £170 in a pair of Vegas may sound like a lot, 10 years later it looks like the best buy he ever made.

Through this process, you should be able to form a list of the ‘must’ try on boots. This list could include saying the most popular boots on the market (remember popular boots are also good boots because people’s feet don’t lie), which would no doubt come from the dominant three manufacturers: Scarpa, Sportiva and Salomon. The dominance of these brands isn’t necessarily a sign that they are making the best boots (for you) but is more due to them having the best distribution, marketing and brand recognition. This means that if a shop has three spaces on their wall for climbing boots they will inevitably go for one from each of the above brands because in the very difficult and low turnover area of boots (requiring a lot of fitting and aftercare usually), they know that the boots and the brand will be recognized immediately. Add to this that once a boot gets established, like the Nepal Top, everyone will want to try it, or be recommended it by their mates, making life easy for the shop because the customer has already made up their mind and all you have to do is get a pair on their feet that fit. The problem with this is that there are also boots that are as good, or better, from less widely seen brands like Hanwag, Boreal, Vasque, Meindl and Raichle that are often overlooked because they don’t always make it on to the displays of the main outdoor chains. The bottom line is the more boots you can get on your feet the greater the chance of getting the perfect boot for you.

Once you’ve made a list then find a shop or shops, that stock at least two models you’re looking for, then ring them up to find out if they have boots around your size (some may not hold many sizes). The more specialized shop which has a higher turnover of winter boots will usually hold good stocks and carry a larger selection of boots. That isn’t to say that a shop that only has one four-season climbing boot in stock should be ignored (after all good advice and fitting isn’t about how many boots you have), it’s just that you’ll be more limited in what you can try on. The growth of outdoor shop clusters in the Lakes, North Wales, the Peak and Scotland makes this process much easier than in the past, as you can go from shop to shop trying on several brands in a short space of time.

In my shop days, I sent winter boots to customers in Asia, South America and even Everest Base Camp, often with nothing more than a faxed outline of a foot for guidance, nevertheless if at all possible don’t buy boots mail order (I know that for some people it’s impossible to get to a shop so it’s unavoidable), as the chances of getting the perfect fit is the minimal first time, meaning that you may end up spending a lot of money in postage (especially if you’re FedExing to Everest BC). If you are in the back of beyond and can only mail order boots then try the following, send an insole from a boot that fits you well, as this could be matched up with the insoles in the boots as a rough guide (include your shoe size and perhaps a drawn outline of your feet, plus details about your feet i.e. if they are narrow or wide etc). Consider ordering three pairs of boots, one the size you think you’ll be and one a full size different either way. The two boots that don’t fit can then be posted back and refunded (check with the retailer first) and is a faster way to get a good fit and cheaper than sending several pairs of boots backwards and forwards. Some shops offer free postage on mail order and postage at cost for subsequent return post, which is a good way to reduce the extra costs of mail order.

Get on the floor

Once in the shop, if you’ve not got a clue what to look for, make sure that you get served by a winter climber with experience of selling winter boots, perhaps by ringing up beforehand to make an appointment. When fitting boots you should ideally go in midweek so that you can get the full attention of the staff and the shop is free of ‘tyre kickers.

Don’t go first thing in the morning if you can, as your feet will be the smallest at that time. Ideally, you should go after a long walk, but not so long that your feet are knackered and sore. Doing so can make a huge difference as some people’s feet can grow by up to two sizes (in extreme cases), as they retain water and the muscle structure relaxes (wash your feet though before you try on your boots). Also, remember to cut your toenails and take along the socks you’d usually wear (the shop should supply you with some socks if you forget).

Before you start trying boots get your feet measured to give you a rough idea of your foot size as many people don’t know their true shoe size. This measurement, probably taken on a Branok device, is only a reference point because all boots vary widely, meaning you could be a 44 in one boot and a 45.5 in another. A winter boot isn’t a street shoe, so be open-minded about what size you go for, for example, I’ve got a size 42 foot but some of my winter boots are size 46.

Doing the shop floor shuffle

Now you should ideally be sat with a big pile of boot boxes, slightly swollen feet and plenty of time. Sometimes it’s worth putting the boots on without any socks first, just to see what space is like within the boot. If it feels restrictive and odd immediately then try something else on. If the boot feels good on your bare feet then lace them up to feel how they support your feet without the padding of socks. If they feel good take them off, stick on your socks and try them on again. People are always told to stick a finger down the back of the boot to check how much room there is (so you don’t bash your toes), but this isn’t the best way to find this out because it’s how well the boot holds your foot that counts, not the size of the boot (trying the boots on without socks will allow you to gauge this better).

Sock wise the standard one thick sock and one-liner sock is what most people use these days, although if you’re buying them for very cold routes I’d add another thick sock (or two thick wool socks and no liner sock), in fact, I always go for more socks rather than less as this gives you more flexibility in fine-tuning the fit.

Put on the boot, making sure your heels are firmly in the back and check they still feel good before lacing. Lace the boot by standing up (not by crossing a leg and lacing them in the air), as this means the foot is weighted when the boot wraps down around it, allowing the foot structure to spread as it will be when you’re walking and so reducing potential rattle. When lacing boots it’s important not to over tighten in order to lock the foot in, especially over the arch of the foot, as this will reduce circulation and put pressure on delicate nerves and tendons. Ideally, there should be no tension on the toes, moderate tension on the forefoot (to stop side to side movement) and firm tension around the crook of the ankle/foot and moderate tension around the ankle itself. The crook of the foot is where the lacing holds the boot in place, holding the heel into the heel cup. Many people think that it is the width of the boot’s heel that determines the heel lift on the boot but is, in fact, primarily how effectively the combination of lacing and fabric (leather, nylon or foam) wraps and holds the crook and ankle in place. For the heel unit to hold your foot it would need to be vice-like.

Once you feel you’ve got the right boot on your feet stomp around the shop in them. One important thing to do is give something several good hard kicks, as if you were front pointing, in order to test how well your feet are locked inside the boot. Your toes may well slide to the end, especially if you’re kicking hard, but they should then stop and go no further. If they are too small you’ll know about it because your toenail will ricochet off the front. You can also try stamping down a ramp (many shops have these), but these are more for walking boots, not climbing boots, so you need that extra test.

Next, get up on your edges and see how well your heels stay locked in when edging on your toes, recreating what it will be like when front pointing. If you have tons of heel lift, either the laces are too slack, or there is too much volume in the boots, meaning you either need to reduce the volume (insert volume reducers, wear more socks, try a smaller size) or try another model. Generally the stiffer the boot the more heel lift, something that penalizes companies who use top-grade leather, as these boots will only hold the foot well once they have broken in (that’s why the Sportiva Nepal Top made it big, because unlike most of the boots before it the leather was much thinner and softer, meaning they were great straight out of the box). You will never overcome all heel lift when front pointing or edging (unless you make your boots as tight as rock boots) and you will have to live with some lift, but the most important thing is that when walking the lift is minimal otherwise your heels will get torn up.

If you’ve got the right length boots but they are pinching at certain spots, perhaps due to bone spurs or bunions, then consider having these areas stretched on a rubbing bar, otherwise the only boots that will be wide enough to accommodate your problems will no doubt be too long.

What you are attempting is to balance two opposing forces: heel lift and toe impact, both of which are conflicting, meaning you must find a size and shape of boot that gives you a compromise you can live with. In my experience, if a boot feels like a perfect fit, then it’s too small and going up to a boot that’s half a size bigger (but which doesn’t suffer from heel lift etc) is a better boot in the long run. Compatability

If you own crampons take them in at the same time to check they’ll fit your new boots before you buy them. If they don’t then you’ll either need to try and find a pair that fit you and your crampons, or buy new crampons to go with your new boots (crampons are easy to sell second-hand). It’s also often worth checking that your gaiters fit as well. Going the extra mile for comfort

In the past I was always pretty cynical about fancy custom footbeds for boots, seeing them as a good way to get a nice custom shape and fill your boots out and so reduce heel lift (which is as good a reason as any), but as for actually making you stronger and all that reflexology rubbish, I wasn’t convinced. I saw them as, ideally, only for those users who had problem feet, pronators etc, not for people like me who had feet that seemed free of problems. That was until a few months ago when I went for a two-hour run, wearing a pair of Conform’able custom insoles. After an hour I found that although one leg felt strong, the other one was feeling increasingly fatigued, with my foot and calf really beginning to hurt. After another 20 minutes it got so bad I just had to start walking and even then the pain was chronic.

Once home I took off my shoes in order to massage my foot and found to my surprise that in the shoe on my sore leg I’d forgotten to put in the custom insole and I’d been running on the standard foam ones. Now I know this is the type of story a bronzed American athlete with perfect teeth would tell on the home shopping channel but it’s true and it really changed my mind about the effectiveness of custom insoles. Like running, mountaineering puts a huge strain on our poor feet, with long multi-day trips and heavy loads and now I see the use of custom insoles as important as gaiters and crampons.

At the moment the two custom insoles on the market (which are custom shaped to your feet in the shop) come from the SuperFeet and Conform’able (both around £30) and both come highly recommended.

Come back soon

So you’ve got your boots and you are ready to part with your cash, but before you do check out the shop’s return policy. You should be able to take them back - unused - and get a refund or swap them and if you can’t then don’t buy them. This allows you to take them home and wear them around the house, helping to give you peace of mind (remember not to proof them until you’re sure they are okay). I’ve even met people who’ve bought boots and taken them to the gym and worn them for an hour on the treadmill - although unconventional and a little mad - it sounds like a good idea (don’t try this with crampons on though).

Some shops will also take back boots that have been worn outside, with a sliding scale of how much of a refund you get depending on how long you’ve had them, meaning you only lose £20 after a week but at least you save £180. Another advantage of this system is that because these shops obviously don’t want to have loads of used boots to sell, and just having such a system means they are a serious boot retailer, they will probably make sure you get the right boots for you in the first place. Now all you need to do is wait for some snow to arrive so you can use them.

Mountain slippers

One piece of footwear that works very well when using big boots is the ultra-lightweight running shoe. These can be worn on approaches or on descents in order to give your feet more comfort, dexterity and speed, then simply stashed in your ‘sack once you get to the point where you need your boots. This may sound like a mad idea but I’ve been using this technique for years and I don’t know why more people don’t do it. For example, this winter I wore my trainers on the walk up to the CIC Hut several times, even when snowy and wet, and simply changed over at the hut into my boots. This technique is especially useful where you have very long sections on roads or good tracks, say in Scotland or in the Alps, with the minimal weight of a pair of trainers worth the effort of carrying.

Because trainers have foam soles and are flexible you can use them in comfort in surprisingly cold temperatures. I usually wear one pair of socks on the approach and change over to my big boots and big boot socks once it gets too steep or snowy, sticking a plastic bag over my socks if it’s very wet and boggy.

Using this approach you can knock half an hour off some approaches, plus you can get there with fresh feet, but don’t push it, as I know of at least one climber who died in the Alps wearing trainers when he should have been wearing boots.

The best trainers for this job are the lightweight fellrunning models, as they are tough, light and feature very good traction. All the big trainer manufacturers make trainers in this category along with specialist outdoor brands like Activ8, Walsh and now Salomon. Although you’d imagine them as being ideal, most approach shoes aren’t good at this type of job, as they are more often than not too heavy. I don’t want to get into particular models but one that looks to me to be the perfect Alpine shoe is the Nike Mayfly, which at only £30 has to be close to disposable.