Winter Mountain Boots: How to ensure you buy the right winter boot.
Mountain boots - Arguably the most important piece of equipment you'll purchase for a winter day out in the mountains.
Winter boots are certainly a work horse. They form a major part of your 'tools of the trade' and are the absolute foundation for your day out in the winter mountains.
Your boots should vary depending on the type of environment you are planning to venture in to and the conditions under foot, in a similar way that you would have different clothes depending on activity.
'Boot buying is easy, the hard job is buying the right boot'
Buying boots and then crampons to go with them can feel pretty overwhelming. It can feel as complicated as navigating with a ‘Contour only’ map for the first time. But, once you fully understand what the heck is going on, it all becomes pretty clear!
SO WHAT ARE THE FIRST STEPS?
It’s important to first decide what you’d like to use the boots for as unfortunately, ’One boot does not do many jobs’. Where you will gain performance in one area, you may loose some performance in another. Therefore, think hard about what you’d like the boot to do. Will you be:
1. Winter Walking
2. Winter Mountaineering
3. Summer Alpine Mountaineering
4. Ice Climbing
5. High Altitude Climbing / Mountaineering
6. Summer Glacier Traverse
7. Something completely different
GETTING IT ALL WRONG - A PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
When I first started my winter mountaineering career, I went out, spent a couple of hundred pounds and bought a pair of what I thought were a really good pair of winter boots. I completely thought that I looked liked the ‘Winter Mountaineering’ hero that I was so eager to be and ventured off to Scotland. I was booked in for 5-days of winter mountaineering.
The Scottish mountains can be a brutal place at times. It can be cold (really cold), often wet (really wet), and the conditions rarely consistent! Very quickly I realised I had maybe been ill-advised on my boot choice.
There was not enough thermal insulation in my boots for the harsh cold and wet conditions of Scotland. Each day I struggled with cold feet. Standing around in the snow, I was constantly having to stamp my feet to keep the blood flowing. It was uncomfortable and detracted from the enjoyment of being in the mountains.
My new boots were also flexible in the cuff and in the sole. In order to have secure footing in hard snow and ice, the stiffness in a winter boot is paramount in creating foot steps and edges to keep the foot secure. Trying to edge or front point in my new boots was difficult, meaning I always felt insecure and had that feeling that my feet were about to pop out causing me to take an uncontrollable slide.
Whilst, I had bought a set of B2 winter boots, they were ‘light weight’. What I had bought were a pair more suited to glacial travel and easy low grade mountaineering terrain. They were not suitable for the harsh conditions of Scotland and for steep terrain.
I now have a fuller understanding of winter mountaineering boots but I learnt the hard way. Here are some handy hints and tips for when you are considering purchasing your first pair of winter boots.
UNDERSTANDING BOOT RATING
This is a general rule of thumb rating system. It's not a fixed sytem, but does give a rough structure to the stiffness of boots.
A flexible three-season walking boot, generally with thin leather or fabric uppers, intended for summer or light year-round hill walking and trekking with the emphasis on comfort. Use of crampons is not recommended as the boot does not provide a sufficiently stable platform, leading to the danger of the crampon becoming detached in use.
Four-season hill walking boots with a semi-stiffened midsole and a more supportive and durable upper. This allows the use of crampons for walking on short sections of easy snow and ice. These are not suitable for steep, technical terrain. Often these boots do not have significant insulation for really cold environments but could be used for trekking and walking in snowy conditions.
Best for most UK winter hill walking tackling long days in snowy conditions. An almost fully stiffened four-season mountain boot with a thicker upper, higher ankle profile and usually the facility for crampons with heel clip bindings to be fitted. This type of boot maybe suitable for simple, low graded terrain with in the UK mountains or Summer alpinism. It is unlikely that you will be planning to head in to very steep technical terrain with hard ice and snow.
Designed for the full-on mountaineer. A totally rigid technical mountain boot, allowing the use of crampons with heel clips and wire toe bails. For everything from walking to technical and high-altitude mountaineering or hard ice/mixed climbing, depending on design. Perfect for the UK mountains where you will be planning to head in to steep terrain with hard ice and snow mixed with rock.
TYPES OF BOOT
In general, there are two primary types of boots: Single skin boots and Double skin boots.
SINGLE SKIN MOUNTAIN BOOT
Single skin mountain boots don’t separate in anyway – there is no inner or outer lining that comes apart from the boot. For most people, single boots are warm and stiff enough for all seasons. You could wear these boots to climb most peaks in the UK and Europe in ‘normal’ weather conditions. It is possible to buy single skin boots which are BI, B2 or B3 rated.
It is also possible to break the 'Single Skin Mountain Boot' category in to 2 segments too. If buying a single skin boot, ensure you are buying a pair which is suitable for the environment you are planning to travel in. If heading to Scotland, you will benefit from a heavier weight boot thats more robust, than if you’re heading to the Alps. Scotland is wet and harsh which can trash boots very quickly and casue them to leak, where as the Alps the weather is normally drier and not as cold. Therefore a more light weight boot can be used.
EXAMPLES FOR - UK MOUNTAINS
- More insulation
- Robust build quality and fabrics used
- Stiffer cuff
- Less flex in the sole
EXAMPLES FOR - ALPINE
- Lighter in weight
- Less insulation
- Often with a more flexible sole
DOUBLE SKIN MOUNTAINEERING BOOTS
Double skin mountaineering boots have separate synthetic inner and hard plastic outer boots. They are heavier and generally used in very cold climates because they are warmer and more waterproof, thanks to the plastic outer layer. However, they can cause your feet to sweat. This is where the inner layer is useful. If camping on your mountaineering trip, double boots are effective as you can dry them out overnight.
Double skin boots are often very stiff therefore good for tightly attaching crampons to without reducing blood circulation to your feet.
It is also possible to buy boots rated for 7000m and 8000m mountains.
Your winter boots will need to take a crampon. Crampons, like your new boots are not ‘one crampon, many jobs’. You will have to decide what you’d like them to do and how you’d like them attached to your boots.
The buying of crampons is a whole new subject, we will cover this topic in more depth in another article.
In general, crampons are classified in the following way:
UK winter hill walking, glacier traverses.
Compatible with boots rated:
Technical winter scrambles, winter climbing, alpinism.
Compatible with boots rated:
Ice climbing, technical mountaineering.
Compatible with boots rated:
TIPS FOR BUYING BOOTS
- Do your research. Decide what you’d like the boots to do for you. There are so many options out there on the market.
- Be prepared to spend some money! Winter mountain boots are not cheap. It goes with out saying that ‘if you buy cheap, you buy twice’. Cheap boots will not last very long and will possibly not give you the security you need in the winter mountains. There are some amazing deals available, so it’s worth shopping around once you’ve whittled down your boot choices.
- Go to a friendly local outdoor shop and try some on. Alternatively, buy online but be prepared to pay for the return postage if your boots do not fit as not all boots are the same shape.
Ensure you find a pair which suit your feet. A poorly fitted boot will ruin your enjoyment of the mountains. Make sure there is no heel lift which can cause blisters and that you have enough space in the toe area so when kicking steps you’re not damaging your precious toes nails.
- Try your boots with different sock combinations. Also, try them towards the end of the day as your feet will be bigger than in the morning.
- Put your boots on as many times as possible before you venture outside. Wear them around the house, walk up and down the stairs sit and watch the TV or cook your dinner in them if needed. You want to be sure that moment you head outside, they fit like a pair of slippers and are not going to ruin what could be an amazing adventure in the mountains..
As a Winter Skills provider, we offer a range of skills courses based in Scotland through out the winter months. As part of these courses you will find out more information about winter mountain kit and develop the techniques and skills to become competent and safe in the winter hills.
Thursday 29th of November 2018