Style of Boot
When considering which mountaineering boot to buy, you first need to consider what category of boot will help you achieve your goals in the mountains. In picking a category of boot you should consider what types of objectives you have in mind. Some questions to ask yourself: Will I be climbing vertical ice, neve, snow or rock? Will I be hiking long distances to get to the climb? How cold is it going to get? Will I be spending nights in the mountains or just day tripping?
We have broken the boots we reviewed into three categories:
Single boots have just a single upper boot. The upper may be composed of many layers sandwiched together, but they do not separate in any way. Single boots are the lightest category and are suitable for climbing hard ice, rock, and mixed in warm to cold conditions. Single boots are a good option for climbing anywhere in the lower 48 or many objectives in Canada and Europe. The boots that fell in the single boot category are The North Face Verto S4K and the La Sportiva Nepal EVO.
This category can be further broken down into two sub categories. Boots which have a fully rigid sole supported by a full length shank and a toe welt vs boots that have a semi rigid sole supported by ¾ length shank and to no toe welt. The Nepal is a rigid soled boot while the Verto S4K and the La Sportiva Trango S Evo are a semi rigid boots. The rigid boots are a lightweight option for climbing ice and mixed year round. The semi rigid boots should be considered three season boots for moving quickly in less technical terrain. Much of what can be done in a semi rigid boot can be done in waterproof approach shoes by experienced mountaineers.
Double boots are composed of an inner and outer boot which separate. Double boots are typically used in very cold areas since they are warmer and the liner can be taken out and dried in a sleeping bag at night. The downside to double boots is that they are heavier than single or super-gaiter boots due to the added layers. La Sportiva Spantik is the only double boot in the review and we feel that it is currently the best double boot available. The Spantik is currently the go-to boot in the Alaska range and on Aconcagua. For super high altitude climbing in the Himalaya or Karakoram you will want a boot beyond the warmth of the Spantik like the La Sportiva Olympus Mons or the Millet Everest GTX.
Plastic boots also fall into the double boot category. We did not test any plastic boots in our review because we feel that modern double boots such as the La Sportiva Spantik or La Sportiva Baruntse have made plastic boots obsolete. These newer doubles not only are warmer, but they climb ice, rock, and mixed much better than clunky double plastics. Fabric and leather uppers on modern doubles insulate better than plastic, and allow for increased comfort and range of motion. The only advantages to plastics are that they are extremely durable can be found used for very little money. This is because most people are replacing their plastics with a more modern double boot. Plastic boots might still have industrial applications for people who work in miserable climates but you won't catch us climbing anything in them ever again.
A quick tip from Ian Nicholson one of our expert mountaineers regarding double boots:
"When climbing in a double boot, bring the liner in your sleeping bag at night to warm them and slightly dry them, but don't leave them on your feet. It doesn't seem to make that much sense, but wearing them can make your feet quite cold, and just letting them dry in your bag makes them that much more pleasant to put on in the morning."
Super-gaiter boots are an exciting new take on a old concept. Super-gaiter boots are essentially a hybrid between single and double boots. They consist of a non-removable inner boot covered by a permanently attached outer gaiter. The gaiter adds warmth, weatherproofing, and in most cases protects the laces from abrasion. Super-gaiter boots are suitable for climbing in colder or wetter conditions than single boots. If you are planning on climbing early season Patagonia ice or Canadian multi-pitch super-gaiter boots are a good choice. This style has become the weapon of choice for many winter mountain guides in Colorado as well as elite climbers in Patagonia since they offer more protection than a single boot with a only a small weight penalty.
One downside to super-gaiter boots is that they can be hard to dry. Since the gaiter cannot be removed, it makes for less drying airflow around the inner boot. This may not be a problem if you use your boots once a week, but might become an issue if you are climbing many days in a row and sleeping in a cold tent. If your objectives involve many winter nights camping on snow, you may want to consider a double boot over a super-gaiter since it will be easier to dry them overnight.
The super-gaiter style boots we tested were the La Sportiva Batura 2.0 GTX and the Scarpa Phantom Guide.
How to Size Mountaineering Boots
The size of a mountaineering boot will have as much to do with warmth and performance as features of the boot. Many climbers feel that they must fit their rock shoes as tight as possible in order get maximum performance out of their feet. While this is debatable in sport climbing shoes, it is certainly not the case when it comes to mountaineering boots. If your boots fit too tight, you will suffer from two problems for sure: the first idea is that if your blood flow and toe movement is restricted, then your feet will get cold. The second problem with fitting your boots too tight is that your toes will bang against the end of the boot when kicking in your front points or when walking downhill. We recommend sizing your boots big enough to be able to wiggle all of your toes about one third as much as you can without shoes on.
Whenever possible we recommend trying on mountaineering boots before buying them. Our testers prefer a single mid-weight wool sock for all styles of boots over any combination of two socks. You should try on boots with whatever sock set up you will climb in. Since your feet swell in the mountains, attempt to try on your boots late in the day when your feet are naturally slightly larger. Lace them up tight and try to kick into something with as much force as it takes to kick front points into ice. If your toes bump the end of the boot when doing this, then we recommend you upsize until this stops. Second, try to stand on a small edge under the toe welt of the boot. This will simulate standing on front points and you should feel if your heels lift up in the back of the boot. A small amount of heel lift is okay but too much and your climbing will suffer. The key is to find a balance between toe wiggle and heel lift. We have found that different brands have distinctly different heel cups, so you may need to switch brands to find the right combo of length vs heel hold down.
If you are reading this review, it is likely you will be purchasing boots online. None of the boots in this review are cheap, so we also recommend buying boots from online retailers that have generous return policies. If you can swing it, order two sizes and return the ones that don't fit. We won't tell. As a very general rule we recommend buying your true street shoe size or possibly one half size bigger. For double boots, which will be used at higher altitudes in colder temps, go a half size bigger than you would in single or super-gaiter boots.
When considering footwear you must consider that our test feet are not your feet. Even though we may highly recommend a boot for its features, if the boot doesn't fit your foot well it isn't the right boot for you. We did have a few observations about fit and sizing that may help guide you in the absence of being able to try them on.
We found that all of the La Sportiva boots had very consistent sizing across the four different models that we tested. We still recommend upsizing the Spantik a half size due to wiggle room being extra important when you are dealing with very cold conditions. Also remember that your feet will swell more at the higher altitudes where the Spantik is often utilized. The fit of the Batura is half way between the Trango and the Nepal width wise.
For wide feet we recommend trying out the Scarpa Phantom Guide, which had a distinctly wider fit than any of the other boots in the review. The Phantom Guide runs a half Euro size larger than the La Sportiva Boots. If you wear a 44 in a La Sportiva you will likely wear a 43.5 in the Phantom Guide.