Before heading out on a mountaineering expedition, it is essential to make sure that you are bringing all the proper gear and equipment.
Having everything you need to successfully make it to the top of a snow-covered peak versus leaving an essential piece of gear at home often is the difference between a memorable adventure and heading home early or worse.
Perhaps the most critical piece of gear that you can take on your next mountaineering expedition is the right pair of boots.
Mountaineering boots differ from hiking boots or trail shoes and, for snow-covered peaks, are irreplaceable. Mountaineering boots are highly insulated to protect your feet against freezing temperatures and have a stiff rubber sole for keeping your foot in place while climbing over rocks.
Most importantly, they are designed to fit with crampons. When you walk, your foot and boot flex. If the boot flexes too much, the crampon can fall off. As a result, mountaineering boots are built with stiff soles to prevent this from happening.
However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The type of boot that any prospective climber should buy (or rent) will largely depend on the location, type of expedition and personal preference.
Below we have included a list of the different types of boots, some tips for trying them on and how to take care of your feet during a mountaineering expedition.
Usually made of either leather, plastic or another synthetic material, single boots are lightweight and ideal for warmer, drier and generally summer-like conditions.
Depending on the material, these boots will have a range of stiffness from entirely rigid for a more flexible sole and offer different levels of ankle support.
However, the boots are a single unit, making them difficult to dry if they get wet. They also do not provide adequate warmth against cold and protection against storms, which makes them ineffective for high-altitude expeditions.
Lightweight synthetic boots are perfectly suitable for climbing Kilimanjaro. Meanwhile, heavyweight leather, synthetic or hybrid boots are good for climbing the Ecuador Volcanoes, the Mexican Volcanoes and even Mount Elbrus in dry, summer conditions.
Single boots are generally the cheapest option of the three types of boots, making them an economical choice for mid-summer climbing.
Double mountaineering boots comprise an outer boot shell, usually made of hard plastic or leather, and a removable soft inner boot. They are also made from either leather, plastic or synthetic material.
This system provides additional warmth in sub-freezing temperatures while providing excellent ankle support and the ability for the user to kick-step in all types of snowy conditions.
One of the main advantages of this boot, which makes it the one of choice for many different types of mountaineers, is that the inner boot can be removed and dried in the tent or sleeping bag during the expedition.
As a result, double boots are frequently used on multi-day expeditions above 5,000 metres (16,400 feet), where temperatures will fall far below freezing. They are ideal for expeditions to Aconcagua, Denali, Island Peak, Lobuche, Mera Peak and Peru’s high peaks.
High Altitude (Triple) Boots
High altitude boots are the warmest and sturdiest boots available. Every aspect is designed for expeditions to 7,000 metres (23,000 feet) and above.
The boots comprise an outer insulating gaiter, which keeps wind, snow and ice out. Underneath is the boot shell (also known as the inner boot) and inner liner.
The boot shell is constructed with ankle support, a rigid sole with toe and rear welts, and a full shank. The inner liner keeps in the warmth and can also be removed and dried in the tent or sleeping bag.
Combined, the system is perfect above 7,000 metres (or in the Polar Regions) but will cause feet to sweat profusely at lower elevations and is less agile walking on most surfaces. High altitude boots are also the most expensive option.
How to Size Mountaineering Boots
Having the correct fit for your mountaineering boots is crucial to performance on the mountain and overall comfort throughout the expedition.
Guides usually recommend that you buy boots with 1.5 centimetres (0.5 inches) to 2 centimetres (0.75 inches) of space between the toe and front of the boot.
The boot should not feel tight on any part of the foot when fully laced up, but you should only feel a slight heel lift (less than 0.6 centimetres/0.25 inches) when walking with the boot.
Remember to always expect a bit of heel rise since the foot bends while walking, but the boot does not initially. After continued use, a flex point – or crease – will be established in the front of the boot, and the heel lift should stop.
Since mountaineering boots have a stiff toe, it is not always easy to figure out how much extra space there is in the boot. One way to figure this out is to put your foot into the unlaced boot and slide it forward until the toes touch the end of the boot. You can then slide your hand down the back of your foot. You should be able to get one finger behind the foot and underneath the heel.
When buying boots, remember to bring thick mountaineering socks to the store to try them on. Then, when purchasing the boots, save the receipt and spend a few days walking around indoors at home to make sure they fit well and will not cause blisters.
Boot Care Tips
After purchasing a pair of boots, most climbers immediately want to break them in. The only way to do this is to wear them for short periods on flat terrain until it feels comfortable to wear them all day.
There are no effective shortcuts to breaking in boots. Using leather softener, applying heat treatments and dampening them before walking will all damage the boots in the long run.
To get the most out of your mountaineering boots and protect what is almost sure to be a substantial financial investment, it is always best to clean them after every expedition.
Dirt and grit can cause the boots to deteriorate. Cleaning them gently with a soft nylon brush and boot-cleaning product will keep them in the best condition for as long as possible.
Along with cleaning the boots, it is also important to renew the water repellency. Do this when you notice that drops soak into the boots instead of beading up and rolling off.
Foot Care Tips
Wet feet are the bane of mountaineers. Anything from underwear to shirts can be worn day after day during an expedition. However, having enough clean socks is key to keeping your feet healthy.
Make sure to bring wool or synthetic socks on the trip, but never cotton. Experiment at home with both types of socks and select the ones that work best for you for the expedition.
The goal with the boots and socks is ultimately to prevent blisters, which form when the feet experience friction and heat. Wet socks or poorly fitted boots can cause them.
It is best to avoid getting a blister, but if you feel one forming, quickly stop and apply sticking plasters, moleskin or duct tape to prevent them from being agitated.
Having the appropriate mountaineering boots are critical to a successful ascent. Take your time and consult experts at reputable outdoor stores before making your decision. Sometimes, it is best to rent mountaineering boots first to see what you like and what you do not.
However, once you have found the right pair, you are one step closer to all types of incredible mountaineering adventures.