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Mountain Logic Gear Guide

Mountain Footwear

 Ask any experienced mountaineer what the most important piece of equipment is on a climb, and chances are good they’ll say boots. If they fit properly and keep your feet warm, they are doing their job. If they don’t, painful cold feet may compromise your experience. A wide variety of mountaineering boots exist on the market today. They range from non- insulated, lightweight boots designed for short climbs with little glacier travel all the way up to heavily insulated, double boots with integrated gaiters designed for high altitude expeditions, including Everest. Most people will find that a boot somewhere in between these two extremes is ideal. But with so many options to choose from and only a vague manufacturer's description to go by, how do you know what boot is right for you? We asked the guide team over at our sister company RMI Expeditions, some of the most experienced mountain guides in the U.S. 

There's a ton of info in this post, so we've grouped it under a few sections below. Just click the tab to get the information you're interested in!

 Ask any experienced mountaineer what the most important piece of equipment is on a climb, and chances are good they’ll say boots. If they fit properly and keep your feet warm, they are doing their job. If they don’t, painful cold feet may compromise your experience. A wide variety of mountaineering boots exist on the market today. They range from non- insulated, lightweight boots designed for short climbs with little glacier travel all the way up to heavily insulated, double boots with integrated gaiters designed for high altitude expeditions, including Everest. Most people will find that a boot somewhere in between these two extremes is ideal. But with so many options to choose from and only a vague manufacturer's description to go by, how do you know what boot is right for you? We asked the guide team over at our sister company RMI Expeditions, some of the most experienced mountain guides in the U.S. 

There's a ton of info in this post, so we've grouped it under a few sections below. Just click the tab to get the information you're interested in!

Watch: Choosing the Right Boot with Peter Whittaker and Melissa Arnot

Different Types of Mountain Footwear

Mountaineering Boot Fit

How a boot fits is without question the most important factor of boot selection. While trekking boots and hiking shoes should fit the same as your street shoes, general and high alpine mountaineering boots are fit a little differently. A good fit correctly addresses the three dimensions of your foot:

  • Length - Toes should wiggle easily inside the footwear. If you have hammertoes or some kind of toe sensitivity such as a neuroma, pay special attention to choosing a boot with the right length (depth) for your foot.
  •  Width - Feet should not slide around inside footwear; nor should they be compressed from side to side.
  • Volume - The "bulk" of your foot should fit securely inside a boot’s interior. Matching the volume of a boot to your foot is the most critical part of getting a good fit. It has everything to do with controlling heel slip (blisters) and toe bang on downhill hiking (black toenails). When a boot fits properly it should feel like a big hand is holding your foot over the instep where the laces are. Your foot should feel very “quiet” in the boot as you walk.

Boot Fit Tips

  • Always size up - Size up one-half to one full size for general mountaineering, single boots, and one full size for a high altitude or double plastic boot. More room increases circulation and accommodates foot swell at altitude, resulting in warmer feet. A larger boot will also allow room for an orthotic or custom foot bed, which is recommended.
  • Prevent toe bang - Make sure your toes do not touch the front of the boot. Half of mountain climbing is walking downhill. Toe bang on the descent is painful. Test for this by lacing your boot up tightly and tapping your toe behind you. If your toes feel crunched against the end of the boot, size up.
  • Comparative Fit - Mountaineering boots do not fit like ski boots or rock climbing shoes. These are not intended for walking in. Mountaineering boots are, so you can expect a looser, roomier fit. Tight mountaineering boots are a recipe for discomfort, decreased circulation, and potential frostbite. 
  • First Impressions - First impressions are huge. Have your sock system on (almost all of our guides wear a single sock, even to the top of Everest), lace up the boots, and walk, stand, sit, tap your toes and scuffle around for 15 minutes. How do they feel?
  • Brands and Models - Be aware that boot brands and models are shaped differently. If the boot fit is too tight overall, you’re likely in the wrong size. If the boot is pinching in some areas but is loose in others, you’re in the wrong brand or model.

Blister Prevention

Friction is the primary cause of blisters, so be sure to wear socks and boots that fit. The key is to catch a hot spot before it becomes a blister. Our guide team carries medical tape, or duct tape, and applies it at the first sign of a hot spot. This will allow the sock to move and slide on the tape and not your foot. If you are too late and the blister has formed, consider moleskin, a soft, cottony fabric with an adhesive backing. Often the best approach to a fresh blister is to encircle the hot spot with a donut ring of moleskin, which will reduce friction against your boot.

Socks, Liners, and Gaiters are just as important as boot choice when it comes to mountaineering. 

Picking the Right Socks

Sock combination really boils down to personal preference, but here are some basic tips to keep in mind. Remember, whatever you choose, be sure to try your sock combination with your boots BEFORE you get on the mountain.

  • Material - Do NOT wear cotton. Synthetic is better but natural wool is best (and doesn't absorb odor, meaning: less smell).
  •  How many socks? - People often add more socks thinking they're adding warmth. Be careful, as reducing valuable boot space may cut off circulation and leave you with colder feet.
  • Light, Medium, or Heavyweight? - Many of our guides wear just one medium or heavy weight sock on a climb, no matter what the conditions.
  • Liner socks? - Many climbers swear by liner socks. These are more for moisture management and reducing friction than for providing warmth.

Advice on Socks

A good strategy for socks is to bring two pairs of socks and change pairs as soon as you are done climbing for the day, letting the pair your wore all day air dry. Continue this rotation for each day you are on the mountain and you will always have a pair of dry, warm socks to change into. Guide tip: stick your damp socks in your sleeping bag and let your body heat dry them out overnight. Caution: don't do this with soaking wet socks.

Liners

Consider purchasing a custom foot bed for more cushion, comfort, and warmth. There are good options to choose from, ranging from thin to thick with padded arches. You can also replace the liners (heat-moldable or non) in older plastic boots to increase comfort and warmth.

Gaiters

An overboot will allow you to wear a less insulated mountaineering boot on colder expeditions. A popular boot that may not be warm enough for Denali, can work perfectly there when paired with an overboot, thus saving you from having to purchase another pair of mountaineering boots. Gaiters will help further protect your feet and boots from the elements, keeping moisture out and trapping warmth in.

Knee-Length or Short Gaiters?

Whatever model you choose, gaiters should be large enough to fit over your mountaineering boots as well as contain any loose clothing on which your crampons could catch. Knee length gaiters are a good option for early and late season when you may encounter deep snow on the climb. In mid-summer, when most of the climb will take place on firm snow, a shorter gaiter can be used. The shorter gaiter still protects from snow getting in your boots while providing less coverage in warmer conditions. The Whittaker Mountaineering rental model is a tried and true knee-length gaiter. 

Watch: Choosing the Right Boot with Peter Whittaker and Melissa Arnot

Different Types of Mountain Footwear

Hopefully this guide helps you pick the perfect Mountaineering boots! If you have any questions, feel free to email us at info@whittakermountaineering.com.