A GUIDE TO MOUNTAIN FOOTWEAR

nail your alpine boots

Written by Secret Compass

No item in your kit store is single-handedly more capable of ruining an expedition than unsuitable footwear and few environments demand as much from your feet and thus your boots than the mountains.

Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as the ultimate do-it-all mountain boot and with so many available options and a whole bunch of jargon to accompany them, you’ll want to wrap your ahead around exactly what your demands are and what’s available before parting with three figures.

From the humble mountaineering / trekking crossover to the heavy hitting technical mountaineering boot, below we decode the labyrinth of mountain footwear and crampons to ensure you have the right tools for the job in hand. Because nothing sucks more than having the wrong tool for the job.

Secret Compass team trekking on the lower slopes towards the summit of Iraqi Kurdistan's Mount Halgurd © Tom Kontson Secret Compass team trekking on the lower slopes towards the summit of Iraqi Kurdistan's Mount Halgurd © Tom Kontson

Trekking or Mountaineering Boots?

Depending on what it is you’re looking to achieve and the sort of terrain you’ll be covering will impact massively on the type of boot you’ll want to use and at a glance, we can split mountain boots into two types: trekking boots and technical mountaineering boots.

Strong and versatile, trekking or walking boots are the first port of call for most hiking trips and a fundamental component of anyone’s gear shed. What separates trekking footwear from a standard pair of shoes is their ability to do two things: effectively protect your feet from external elements and to provide plenty of support for comfortable long days, ultimately mitigating injury. While this kind of boot will do you fine for summer and lower, trekking summits, if it’s a technical ascent you’re looking to bag, mountaineering boots are for you.

Secret Compass expedition leader Matt Barratt hikes his way towards the summit of Georgia's Mount Kazbek Expedition leader Matt Barratt hikes his way towards the summit of Georgia's Mount Kazbek © Martin Hefti / Secret Compass

What are Mountaineering Boots?

When we talk about mountaineering boots, we’re referring to crampon compatibility. What we mean by this is that you’re able to attach a set of crampons securely to the boot due to a stiffer ‘shank’ built into the boot. This means they won’t flex and pop out of crampons, unlike ‘normal’ hiking boots which are easily bent as they connect with the terrain. Mountaineering boots will also usually have far better insulation meaning they are far warmer compared to a standard trekking boot.

Mountaineering boots still come in a range of options depending on the type of terrain you’ll be tackling. For trekking through snow and ice or across a glacier, you’ll require a boot with more flexibility while for vertical technical climbs you’ll require something far stiffer. This range in stiffness can be categorised as B1, B2 or B3 which align with which crampons will work. Most summit bids will cover a range of surfaces, so the key factor to consider here is the time you’re likely to spend in crampons vs without.

B1: All-round four season boots

These are designed for long days and a small amount of winter hill walking, they will have a stiffened midsole and often feature reinforced uppers or rubber rands and are compatible with C1 crampons only.

B2: Boots for long days in snowy conditions

The midsole and the upper will be stiffened on these boots whilst maintaining a small amount of flex. This allows comfortable walking even if not using crampons. As a general rule, the reinforced upper will add more warmth to the boot than you may find in a B1. These boots can be paired with C1 or C2 crampons.

B3: Technical mountaineering boots

With a fully rigid construction, B3 rated boots are designed with technical mountaineering and mixed/ice climbing in mind. There are a wide range of designs from lightweight, technical, climbing boots to double layer, plastic, high-altitude versions and can be paired with the full range of crampons, i.e. C1, C2, C3. These kinds of boots are best left for the technical part of the climb with crampons. Their fully rigid soles mean walking on rocky surfaces will heavily wear their soles.

B0: Not suitable for Crampons

Normal hiking boots are occasionally referred to as B0 as they are not suitable for use with crampons. Even with flexible linking bars, crampons will not be able to flex as much as these boots and consequences can be brutal.

Glacier traverse in Greenland © Helen Spenceley Glacier traverse in Greenland © Helen Spenceley

How do Boots and Crampons Work Together?

As boots are rated B1, B2 or B3, crampons have a rating system of C1, C2 or C3 which also refers to flexibility. As a rule, your boot rating should match or exceed the rating of your crampon. So:

B1 boot – Should only be used with C1 crampons.

B2 boot – Can be paired with C1 or C2 crampons.

B3 boot – Can be used with C1, C2 or C3 crampons.

As climbs demand more from your boots, increased stiffness means you can attach crampons to the boot more tightly without altering the boot’s shape and reducing blood circulation to your feet. More technical crampons can also come with extra features such as anti-balling plates to prevent snow build up underneath your foot, or front spikes to assist with those tricky steep sections.

SC expedition leader Lachlan Bucknall kicks steps on Mount Halgurd in Iraqi Kurdistan Expedition leader Lachlan Bucknall kicks steps on Mount Halgurd in Iraqi Kurdistan © Martin Hefti / Secret Compass

What is the Layering System?

Mountaineering boots can also be categorised by the way they do or don’t separate. Single layered boots are constructed from one unit, with no separate inner or outer lining. For the majority of people heading out to low-mid altitudes, these are warm enough for all seasons.

Double mountaineering boots are built with a synthetic inner inside a hard plastic outer, providing increased warmth and waterproofing suiting them to extremely cold climates and peaks over 5000m. The inner layer can be separated meaning they can be easily treated or dried overnight. These will generally be stiffer, carrying a B2 or B3 rating although technology is changing quickly and bringing some interesting, lightweight, B1 double layer options.

The third option is a super gaiter mountaineering boot. With knee high covering, this option provides extra warmth and weatherproofing making them better in colder conditions and suitable for longer expeditions such as the big 8000m peaks. These are typically a B3 boot but super gaiters can be added to B2 boots if required.

Should I Wear Different Shoes Around Camp?

Over time, the stiffness in technical boots can become uncomfortable, and while they’re built with technical ability in mind, your feet will appreciate a bit of respite back at camp. A second set of shoes also give your summit boots the opportunity to dry overnight.

Camp shoes need to be comfortable but able to withstand the needs of the environment surrounding your camp.  So if you’re camping above the snow line, you’ll need waterproof, highly cut boots to keep your feet dry but separate from your summit shoes for added flexibility and to dry out your summit boots. If you’ve chosen to wear an alternative pair of shoes during the approach, great. These can also be your camp shoes.

If your basecamp is further down the mountain in drier, warmer conditions, allowing your feet to air in sandals or lighter footwear will help keep your feet in better health during the expedition. You’ll just need to ensure your feet stay warm when the temperatures drop later in the evening, and as ever, be mindful of the extra weight you’re carrying.

Expedition leader Dave Luke leads a team to an unclimbed Mongolian summit © Secret Compass Expedition leader Dave Luke leads a team to an unclimbed Mongolian summit © Secret Compass

Fit Reigns Supreme

As is the case with all technical outdoor gear, above all, your boots need to fit well. You won’t be long down the trail before you notice a bad fit and your feet will soon show the consequence. From width to arches, feet vary massively and different brands cater for different needs and with most good outdoor shops offering a professional fitting service the best option is always to try on a range of boots and get fitted properly. Try them with the proper hiking socks you plan to wear on expedition and make sure you walk laps of the shop, covering incline and decline as well as uneven surfaces where possible. Generally speaking, they should feel comfortably snug all over with sufficient toe wriggle space however consider the environments you’ll be using them in – altitude and temperature can greatly affect the size and shape of your feet. A good boot should be confidence inspiring.

Break In your Boots

All too often is this overlooked. Breaking in your boots as much as possible is absolutely essential prior to taking on an expedition in your new boots. It’s also a great excuse to get out on the hill and train.

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