A simple guide to buying footwear for mountaineers

Perhaps you’re an aspiring mountaineer or a seasoned veteran and you want to get some boots to match your sport. Mountaineering boots, as I have learned, are a serious investment and should be taken as seriously as you would any safety gear. After all, you’re trusting your very limbs to this type of footwear! Like all kinds of gear in the outdoor world, you get what you pay for with each price jump. However, you shouldn’t pay extra money for a boot that you won’t be using to its full potential (why buy a Ferrari and only drive it 55mph?). So before you go and buy double-plastic, knee-high mountaineering boots for a couple of summer routes, consider your options and
A shoe collection my girlfriend can be proud of...
The first questions you need to ask are-
  • What and where are you climbing now?
  • Which seasons do you climb?
  • What are your goals?
  • What mountain ranges are you planning on climbing?
  • How often do you climb?
  • Do you plan on ice climbing?
  • How well do your feet fare in cold weather?
Especially if you are going to a serious outfitter, you would want to be able to answer all these questions if you really want to get boots that suit your needs.

The major decision point is of course “Location, location, location!” Where are you going to climb? This is what separates 200 dollar boots from 500 dollar boots. If you’re planning on doing just coastal ranges such as the Sierras and Cascades, you might not have to get a top of the line boot. For the Rockies and Tetons (and even the Whites sometimes!), you’ll probably want to go up a price range.

If you’re just planning on doing some Class III summer routes… you might even be satisfied with a sturdy pair of hiking boots as opposed to mountaineering boots. I’ve continued to use my old hiking boots when the temperatures are not as cold and I want to have a lighter boot on. Heavy mountaineering boots can be tough on your feet and legs!

Also, if you only climb 1-2 times a year, you might just want to rent boots instead. I’ve seen many outfitters who will rent you top of the line boots for 20-25 dollars a day.

Next, you will have to figure out where you will buy your boots. It is extremely important that you go to a real outfitter as opposed to a major retailer. Don’t get me wrong, I love getting stuff from REI and EMS but you might be working with someone who is not very familiar with brands and suiting the boot to your needs. I purchased mine at Fifth Season Sports which is in the town of Mt Shasta, California. A real outfitter will schedule you for a boot fitting where they will take a good hour to match the boot to your size and need. This is worth the time and perhaps a little extra money. I’ve been extremely satisfied with the boots I’ve purchased from this outfitter.

These so-called “real outfitters” are almost always located nearby a major national park or climbing destination. In a place like Seattle or Portland, its easy to find them. I've also purchased gear from Joshua Tree Outfitters near Palm Springs, Ca, Elevation in Lone Pine, CA and International Mountain Equipment in North Conway, New Hampshire. There are, of course, many options!

Pricing of mountaineering boots generally range from $200-$500 with top of the line boots going for $700-$1,000.

As far as brands go, the outfitter will know the who's who in the world of mountain footwear. Personally, I swear by my Lowas which have kept my feet warm on winter ascents in the Rockies, Sierras and Whites and many summer ascents in the Cascades. La Sportiva and Scarpa make everything from summer mountaineering to technical, high altitude boots. Again, trust the outfitter with decisions around brands. Most of us mountaineers do not have the money to try out 5 different kinds of boots. Seriously though, unless you're doing Denali or the Himalayas, don't spend 800 dollars on boots.

Another important part of buying mountaineering boots is to bring your crampons or consider purchasing crampons. Its usually not a problem, but it is good practice to make sure that everything fits well together. Also, there is a real difference between mountaineering crampons and ice climbing crampons. You can use ice climbing crampons for regular mountaineering but not mountaineering crampons for ice climbing.

I'll soon be posting a gear review of my boots which I use on nearly all my winter trips. If you have an opinion on your boots, tell me what you think!