Mountaineering Boots

By April 26, 2018October 31st, 2020Articles, Gear Tips

Footwear is perhaps our single most important piece of gear while we’re in the mountains. Every season we field questions about which boots are best for which trips. We compiled the information below to help you pick the perfect boot and ensure that your feet will stay warm, dry and comfortable on your next adventure!

What should you consider when selecting a boot?

Region and Route

  • Research whether you will be primarily climbing on snow, ice, rock, or mixed ground. Choose boots that promise best balance of precision, waterproofing and durability.
  • Research the length and character of your approach hike. Will you traveling on trails or on looser, less stable surfaces? In some cases, you may choose to bring a separate pair of light approach shoes.
  • Research the weather and climate conditions for the time of year when you will climb. Will you climb in milder summer conditions or in cold air at high altitudes, in rain, deep snow or storms?

Size

  • For your comfort, it is usually best to buy mountaineering boots one half size to one full size larger than your street shoes.
  • Your mountaineering boots should not be too large, but they should be roomy enough to accommodate warm, thick socks. Your new boots should be large enough that when you take a step, your heel can lift slightly away from the footbed without rubbing sharply against the back of the boot. Finally, a roomier fit will prevent your toes from jamming painfully into the front of your boot during long descents.
  • See our full Boot Fitting guidelines below.

Personal Preference

  • Choose a boot model and manufacturer that fit you best. Do not choose a boot based on cost, color, or other cosmetics. Ensure the boot is sized correctly to allow for heel lift and room for your toes.
  • Any style of boot can give you blisters or shin bang. We recommend always bringing moleskin, band-aids, and duct tape in case you experience this.
  • Make sure you break in your boots before your trip. Wear them on local trails to see how your toes and heels feel on uphill and downhill slopes.
  • For specialized boot fitting in Seattle, we recommend you visit the experts at Jim Mates at Custom Boot Service.

We ask that you please take the time to invest in the right type of boot for your trip. If you bring the wrong style of boot, you may not be able to participate in the climb. If your boots prove inadequate or too painful during a climb, you also may jeopardize your teammates’ success.

* Please Note: Hiking or trekking boots are not allowed on any Northwest Alpine Guides trips.

Single Mountaineering Boots

Leather, synthetic, or hybrid single mountaineering boots come in various styles ranging from heavyweight models that offer better water resistance and warmth at higher altitudes, to lightweight boots designed for warmer, dryer, summer-like conditions. Single mountaineering boots can come with fully rigid soles or more flexible soles, and offer varying degrees of ankle support.

Pros: Leather, synthetic, or hybrid boots are usually lighter and more comfortable to walk in on varied terrain. Since they are lighter and more nimble, they perform better in certain terrain, such as mixed snow and rock climbing, alpine rock climbing and ice climbing. They can be less expensive, making them a good option for mid-summer climbing. Hybrid single mountaineering boots are usually warmer than leather boots and offer better protection against harsh weather conditions.

Cons: Leather, synthetic, or hybrid boots can become cold at higher altitudes, during high winds, or in wet conditions. Once wet, they usually take longer to dry. High-quality versions of these boots will be your most expensive boot options. Lighter weight, flexible shank boots can have more problems with crampons falling off or not fitting properly.

Single – heavyweight leather, synthetic, or hybrid:

  • Mount Baker (mid-summer, dry conditions)
  • Mount Shuksan (mid-summer, dry conditions)
  • Mount Rainier (mid-summer, dry conditions)

Recommended Heavyweight Single Boots:

Single – lightweight synthetic boots:

  • Mount Shuksan (mid-summer, dry conditions)
  • Mount Olympus (mid-summer, dry conditions)
  • Glacier Peak (mid-summer, dry conditions)
  • Eldorado Peak (mid-summer, dry conditions)
  • Sahale Peak (mid-summer, dry conditions)
  • Forbidden Peak (mid-summer, dry conditions)

Recommended Lightweight Single Boots:

Hybrid – Synthetic Double Mountaineering Boots

Highly insulated, high-quality hybrid synthetic double mountaineering boots are the most durable type of footwear you can purchase for domestic and international climbs. These types of boots are tough and share many of the qualities associated with plastic double boots without the added weight.

Pros: High-altitude hybrid mountaineering boots are typically made of Gore-Tex or similar synthetic materials that block wind and precipitation from reaching your feet. An inner boot with additional insulation allows for maximum warmth and protection in colder environments. These boots are constructed with full ankle support, a full shank, rigid soles, and usually have a front toe welt and rear welt. The inner liner can be removed for drying and stored in your sleeping bag during cold nights at high altitudes.

Cons: They can be bulky and less agile walking on and off snow, whether on snow slopes, trails or mixed terrain. They can be very warm at low altitudes increasing foot perspiration.

Ideal for:

  • Mount Baker (early / late season)
  • Mount Rainier (early / late season)
  • North Cascades Mountaineering Courses

Recommended hybrid double boots:

Plastic – Double Mountaineering Boots

These boots are made up of an exterior hard plastic shell and an interior soft bootie with a fully-rigid sole and good ankle support.

Pros: Plastic boots are usually warmer, more water-resistant, and can be better for kick-stepping in various snow conditions because of their rigid construction. They will keep your feet dryer than most other styles. These boots can be less expensive compared to higher-end synthetic models, and usually work well with most styles of crampons because of their full shank rigid sole, rear welt, and front toe welt.

Cons: Plastic double boots can be less comfortable and agile when walking off snow, whether on trails or mixed terrain. They also tend to be heavier than their hybrid counterparts.

Ideal for:

  • Mount Baker (early / late season)
  • Mount Rainier (early / late season)
  • North Cascades Mountaineering Courses

Recommended plastic double boots:

Foot Care

Socks

Selecting the right socks can be almost as important as your shoe choice. Some people prefer thicker socks to reduce friction or wool socks for added warmth. Experiment at home with different types of socks to see which fit you, and your boot, best. Socks must be wool or synthetic. Cotton is not acceptable because it collapses and loses its insulating capacity when wet.

Too tight in the boot

Some retail stores will recommend you wear liner socks, though in our experience, many people do not necessarily benefit from these. In fact, sometimes liner socks can produce blistering just as quickly as using a single-weight sock. Others may prefer to use inserts for arch or foot support.

Whichever is your preference, always remember to pack enough socks before leaving on a trip. You can get away with re-wearing the same shirts, pants, and even underwear for days in a row, but keeping clean socks available is the key to preventing damage to your feet.

Blisters

Friction and moisture are two of the main causes of blisters. When you wear inappropriately heavyweight boots or socks on a trip, your feet may overheat and cause friction that results in a blister.

Some retail stores will recommend you wear liner socks to prevent blisters. However, in our experience, many people do not actually benefit from these. Liner socks can cause blistering just as quickly as using a single sock.

If you feel a hot spot or a blister beginning to form, alert your guides and stop to fix it immediately. Use moleskin, band-aids, or duct tape to prevent the area from becoming more agitated. If your feet and socks are damp change into dry pair for sleeping. Wet socks can be placed inside the tent or sleeping bag to help dry them out. Foot powder can also help keep your feet dry and friction-free during long expeditions.

If you do not check the weather before you leave on an expedition, precipitation could get trapped in your boots and your feet may become permanently dampened for the rest of the trip. Be sure to wear gaiters to avoid this problem!

Boot Fitting

A correct fit is crucial to the overall comfort and performance of a boot. New boots should be worn exclusively indoors until you are satisfied with the fit and certain that you will not need to return them. With your hiking socks on, perform the following tests to help confirm that your boots fit correctly. Because your feet swell during the day, these tests should be done in the evening hours.

With the boots fully unlaced, slide your foot all the way forward until your toes make contact with the front of the boot. In this position you should be able to comfortably slide your index finger down between the heel of your foot and the back lining of the boot. If there is room to fit two or more fingers behind your heel, the boot is too big. If force has to be applied to insert the finger, the boot is too small. In either case, the boots should be returned for an exchange of size.

If you have access to a ramp of some sort, stand in a downhill position with the boots fully laced. You should be able to wiggle your toes without jamming the front of the boot. Stand naturally and do not try to force your foot forward while performing this test.

Heel Lift

It is not uncommon to experience some heel lift when boots are new. This is due to the fact that a flex point (crease) has not been established in the forward area of the boot. Once a flex point has been established, the heel of the boot will rise with the foot and heel lift should be eliminated. Heel lift should not exceed ¼ inch in new boots. If you experience excessive heel lift, return the boots for an exchange.

Break In

There is no quick way to break in boots. Shortcuts such as using leather softeners, applying heat treatments and wetting boots to walk them dry, drastically reduce the life of your boots. The only recommended break in procedure is to wear the boots for short periods of time on flat terrain until they can be worn all day long. Once the boots can be worn all day you can venture into the mountains with them.

It is a good idea to carry moleskin during this break in period. If you feel any pain or hot spots while hiking, take off your boots and socks and apply a large sheet of moleskin around the affected area. This will prevent blisters from forming.

Please reach out to Northwest Alpine Guides with any questions. We’ll gladly help you find the right boots for you.