Choosing a style of mountaineering boot can be really easy for some trips. It is as obvious for a day trip up to a Swiss glacier in spring that a single boot will work as it is a necessity to choose a warm double boot for an 8000m peak. But what about all of those trips in-between? And what about the new style of combined boot and gaiter? There can be a lot of grey area in the middle where the good news is that either of the styles could work. The main question you have to ask your self is - how much do you want to err on the side of caution?
The big point to take away is that mountaineering boots are like an insurance policy. If everything goes exactly to plan you can get away with a smaller policy. Sometimes if you take out the ‘all extras’ policy and everything goes exactly to plan you may feel like you’ve over done it. But when things start to go wrong either with the weather, your body or the trip logistics - having a larger policy might mean you can keep on going when those going light-on can’t.
The truth is that almost anything in the world can be climbed in a lightweight boot, as long as everything goes to plan. Even Chad Kellogg ran with running shoes up to 6700m on his speed attempt up Everest. Only changing into his doubles at the base of the Lhotse Face. The other side of the story is that while I’ve been to 6000m in a pair of Gore-Tex approach shoes in great conditions, my toes have been bitterly cold in a pair of mountaineering boots on the Main Range in Australia at about 2000m.
There are three main factors that need to be considered when attempting to choose a boot - weather and conditions, the style of trip or the style in which you climb, and personal fitness and body traits.
Weather and Conditions
Obviously this would be the main consideration. In fact for a lot of people new to mountaineering it is their only consideration and is an easy one to get the head around. Two big factors would be the altitude and the time of year. The time of year is important not just because of the temperature but it usually also determines things like how much fresh snow there is; breaking trail through deep snow can make toes incredibly cold. Moisture can also play a huge part in how cold you “feel” - dryer climates like Nepal or European Alps can be a little more forgiving at the same temperature as wet climates like Patagonia, New Zealand or even Australian winter for that matter.
Style of Trip
This point I believe takes on a bigger role than most people give credit for. There are so many factors at play with ‘how’ you intend to climb that can keep your feet warm or make them incredibly cold. Simple things like shelter (or exposure) have a huge factor. If you’re planning on staying in huts in New Zealand or Europe and doing day ascents out of those huts, you can get away with a much lighter boot because you know that no matter how cold or wet your toes get during the day you will always be able to dry them out and warm them up at night. You can basically start each day with some nice dry toasty boots. People attempting the same climbs but only using bivvy bags may need to consider their options a little more carefully. They need to be able to dry their boots out each night and keep their toes warm day in' day out' without the use of good shelter.
Related to that idea is when in the day you need to climb. Temperatures through the night can be incredibly cold compared to when the sun comes out. If your ascents from the hut are only going to see a couple of pre-dawn hours of climbing and mostly sunny fair weather you could use a lighter boot than those doing a climb that will see them exposed for much longer and climbing into the night, or setting out at midnight for a summit push.
How fast you intend to climb is linked in with your fitness but also has to do with the style of trip. Chad Kellogg could get away with such light footwear because he basically never stopped moving. He didn’t wait to belay a partner, he didn’t spend precious minutes building anchors or waiting for other climbers either to catch up or those that block up bottle-necks. A typical climb for most mere mortals involves a lot of waiting around; and toes get cold when you’re waiting around.
The last big factor in the style of trip is simply how much you’re willing to push should things go wrong with the weather or circumstances. Are you going to wait for the optimum temperature? Are you going to climb through the snow storm or through the night? If you run out of food are you going to keep going? All of these factors play back to that ‘insurance policy’ idea.
Personal Fitness and Body Traits
This is something only you can know and it often comes after a couple of trips of experience. I’ve learnt that personally I have a very warm core but terrible circulation through my hands and feet. This means I can get away with saving weight on things like puffy jackets and sleeping bags but I really need to invest in how I look after my hands and feet should I want to keep climbing. I’ve climbed with others that can take their gloves off and tie knots or set up tents bare handed while I can’t fathom taking off my mitts. Don’t be disappointed if this is you, you just have to work out your routines and systems a little more, and maybe go some warmer gloves and boots.
Types of Boots
There are three main types of boots - double boots, single boots, integrated gaiter boots.
Double boots involve an inner thermal liner or ‘bootie’ that fits inside a shell or ‘outer-boot’. They are often a little heavier than the others and bulkier although in recent years have become much more comfortable, flexible in the ankle and lighter than the traditional ‘plastic’. There are many things to love about double boots and they’d be considered the insurance policy with ‘all extras’. They are easy to keep dry even if you are bivvying out. Because you can remove the inner lining, you can sleep with these against your chest in your sleeping bag. They dry out quite quick this way and warm up. Even though you’ve left the shells outside, every morning you can get up and put your feet into nice toasty booties to start the day. Because of this, if you’re doing a trip that involves being exposed to the cold and elements for a long time they are a safe and reliable option. Once some leather single boots get frozen up, it can be incredibly difficult to warm them up if you don’t have the right shelter.
The down side to a double boot besides the extra weight and bulk is that you can’t really use them to approach the climb in. Unlike some singles, you have to carry them up to the snow line before you can really start to use them. Although a well fitting double boot climbs technical terrain very well, they still aren’t quite a single boot when climbing at your limit. This is probably more of a factor when scrambling on rock but is also worth noting when on mixed or ice.
Consider double boots if you:
- Are climbing above 5000m in good spring weather
- Climbing anything in winter conditions
- Are bivvying out and being exposed to the cold for a long period of time between good shelter or base camps
- Climbing something that means you need to push through the night or climb through adverse weather conditions.
Single boots can be made of either leather or synthetic fabrics, are lighter and lower profile. Popular for climbing in New Zealand or Europe spring/summer. They can be used for the approach into the mountains saving further weight with a second pair of shoes. The leather boots are particularly popular in New Zealand as they are the most durable of all the options. Climbs that involve a lot of scree can destroy boots very quickly so that can be important if you want them to last a number of seasons. They are often just that little more dexterous, making them better for technical terrain on rock, mixed or ice.
The synthetic style of single boots are becoming incredibly light while still offering a reasonable amount of insulation so they can be amazing and freeing to climb in, but it is just worth noting that they won’t last quite as long as their heavier leather friends.
As talked about above though, single boots can be hard to manage if you are exposed to the elements for a good few days. If they do wet out and freeze up you want to be able to get to a hut or below the snow line to thaw them out. Having spent four days in a single boot that was frozen solid taught me a lot (don’t judge me, I swear I learnt a lot). Naturally, single boots aren’t quite as warm as doubles or integrated gaiter boots so if you know you have cold feet, or you know you’ll be waiting around and not moving a lot in the cold do take this into consideration.
Consider single boots if you:
- Are climbing up to around 5000m in good spring weather
- Are doing day ascents from huts or base camps in colder conditions
- Not being exposed to extreme cold for too long
- Need one boot to hike in and climb in
- Climbing extremely technical terrain
- Climbing colder things in a single push with not much waiting around à la our mate Chad.
Integrated Gaiter Boots
A newcomer to the market, these boots blur the lines a little and can either be considered an warm single, or a colder double. Ultimately they are more like a warm single as you don’t get any of the benefits of a double as the liners don’t separate. But they do extend what a single boot can do with no weight disadvantage. The question then is why wouldn’t you just always go with a integrated gaiter boot? Really the only answer I could think of is that the durability of the leathers is still better. So if you’re willing to sacrifice a little durability then they are a great option (the walk-in could be a little warm too). They do tend to stay a little drier than a standard single and you can obviously leave your normal gaiters at home, saving you some more weight.
Consider integrated gaiter boots if you:
- Are climbing up to around 6500m in good spring weather
- Are climbing in winter conditions at lower altitudes (great for technical winter climbs)
- Climbing colder things in a single fast push
- If you personally just need something warmer for spring/summer mountaineering than standard singles
Examples of integrated gaiter boots: La Sportiva G5
Ultimately all the above points offer a rough guide to the use of boots and knowing what is the best boot for the situation comes with a little more education (especially from local climbers in the area) and a little trial and error. If you are new to the game then chances are you are going with a guide or a more experienced climber so listen to what they have to say. Not only will they know more about local conditions but they will also know what they are willing to expose you to. Guides may make the decision to keep you in the hut (or in town) if the weather is too bad for the equipment they’ve recommended. Once you’re experienced enough to take yourself out, you can also make the decision whether you want to use gear with a higher threshold for changes in conditions (or a bigger insurance policy) or if you want to play only to more certain conditions and styles of climbing. Sometimes carrying a heavier pair of doubles may mean you can climb for longer when others in light singles can’t. Sometimes it might be the difference between keeping your toes and losing them. Never underestimate the mountains no matter where you are or at what altitude. Many climbers will remember Mark Inglis, an experienced mountaineer who became a double amputee when he was stuck in a blizzard on Mount Cook for 13 days. I wouldn’t think that a different model of boot would have saved his feet but the lesson to take away is that New Zealand and other lower altitude climbing destinations can still turn it on. One week you could happily climb Cook in a light synthetic single, the next week you’ll be stuck in the hut unless you have your warm doubles.