How to Choose High Altitude Boots

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The Importance of Choosing The Right Boots

There’s little doubt that pretty much the most important piece of kit you can choose for any trek is a sturdy pair of boots, and when you’re trekking in high altitude boots, having comfortable boots that can do the job is even more important.

Choose the right ones, and you’ll stand a great chance of having a successful trek.

Choose incorrectly and you risk blisters, cold feet, pain and – quite seriously – the prospect of your trek not being successful.

This article is designed to help you make the RIGHT choice. And make no mistake, there is a choice to be made.

A few years ago, you wouldn’t have this decision to make.

Everyone wore a simple set of trekking boots, and added crampons when the ice arrived.

But now, as commercialism has flooded into the trekking scene, there are thousands of different boots, for hundreds of different eventualities, and as a result, it can really confusing to choose the right boot for your needs.

Now, just before we get into the nitty gritty, let me make something clear: we are talking today about HIGH ALTITUDE boots, for trips like Mount Elbrus, Mount Aconcagua and the Island Peak Trek.

If you’re looking for boots to trek at normal altitude, then just email me at [email protected], and I’ll give you some recommendations, but for now, let’s focus on high altitude.

Now, if you’re off on a high altitude trip, then you’ve got two broad options when it comes to high altitude boots:

  1. Buy them
  2. Hire them

Let’s get the second option out of the way – hiring is pretty simple.  Most countries where high altitude trekking takes place will have provision for you to hire them, or – if you prefer – you can hire them in your home country before leaving for your trek.

If you are hiring, then one word of caution: if you opt for a ‘hybrid’ model, make sure they’re double boots, waterproof and warm. There are a lot of ‘lightweight’ boots out there, but most of them will end up not fitting the bill at high altitude.

If you’re buying high altitude boots, it’s most likely that you want to do more than one trek – boots aren’t cheap, so if you’ve got plans to trek once, and never again, then hiring could be the more cost effective option.

Equally though, if you’ve got ambition to several treks, then buying boots will obviously save you money in the long run over hiring them for each trek.

Before deciding on a specific type or brand of boot, you’ve first got to decide what overall boot strategy you’re going for. Here are your options:

  1. Single Layer Boots

These boots are designed to allow you to walk in AND climb, hence the name ‘single hybrid’.  Hybrid boots have come a long way in the last few years, and a pair of hybrids will suffice if you’re scaling Mont Blanc, Mt Elbrus, or other similar mountains.

Having said that, if you’re doing some serious trekking and going to – say – Nepal, then I’d recommend investing in approach shoes to go alongside your single hybrid boots.

La Sportiva Nepal Evo

La Sportiva Nepal Evo for Nepal trekking at high altitude

  1. Double/Triple Layer Boots

Just like the ‘single hybrid’, doubles are designed to be worn during the walk and the climb, but the difference is that they’re double lined – this allows you to use them on the very high peaks, where the temperature is dramatically lower.

Obviously, this double lining results in more warmth for your feet, but the downside is that it reduces the feeling – you feel less connected to the ground than you do with single hybrids.

One other thing to bear in mind is that if your trek requires crampons, double hybrid boots and crampons don’t go together especially well – there are only a limited number of crampons that will work with this sort of boot.

La Sportiva Olympus Mons

La Sportiva Olympus Mons for high altitude trekking trips

  1. Walking Boots AND a Pair of Plastics/Semi Plastics.

 This option clearly requires you to take two sets of boots on your trek, but it ensures that you’ve got an appropriate set of footwear for all eventualities.

Your option when it comes to the ‘climbing’ bit of your excursion is ‘plastic’ or ‘semi plastic’, and both these come with their own set of pros and cons – plastics will be more stable and drier, but they’ll weigh more, and require a period of adjustment – I suggest you wear them a lot before your trek.

On the other hand, semi plastics are lighter and less rigid, whilst still giving you the security of a plastic – the only concern with a semi plastic is that they’re potentially less waterproof than a full blown plastic boot.

The La Sportiva Spantiks are a great option.

La Sportiva Olympus Mons for high altitude trekking trips

Things to Consider

  • Single layer boots are very comfortable, but they can be a pain to dry them out.
  • If you’re doing technical climbing, and you’re not going up higher peaks, then single hybrid could well be the right option for you.
  • If you are going up the higher peaks, then a double hybrid could well be the way to go – the Mons 8000, and the Scarpa 8000 being particularly good models.
  • When buying hybrids, you should always go half a size bigger, and then bulk up with socks – that cushioning is vital.
  • It’ll take a while to ‘get into’ your plastics, but once you’ve adjusted to them, they’re a fantastic option for summiting in high altitude. They’re incredibly robust, they’ll keep your feet warm and you’ll feel much sturdier when climbing.
  • Having said that, you don’t have a huge level of responsiveness, so if you’re doing technical climbing, you might want something more malleable.

The long and short of it?  Think it through and go with what suits you…

It’s not always easy to advise people on exactly what boot they should go for, especially when you’ve been trekking for a long time.

Over time we build up our own biases, and it can be hard to remove that stuff and just focus on the right boot for the right trek. I have been wearing La Sportiva Boots and Approach shoes for the last 10 years and I won’t be changing – They fit my feet. But what is right for me may not  be right for you.

For what it’s worth, if you’ve never used plastics before, then it is probably sensible to go for a very high quality hybrid boot.

The Nepal Evo is close to the pick of the bunch in that category, and will serve you up to about 8,000m – after that point, the Mons are the way to go.

What About All this Code – Does it Have Something to do with Crampons?

Crampons for high altitude trekking

When you start researching high altitude boots, you’ll quickly become aware of various codes, and depending on your experience, you might not have the foggiest idea what any of them mean – so let me bust the jargon for you.

You’ll probably be familiar with the ‘B’ grading of boots, with B:0 being a standard walking boot, and B:3 being a boot designed specifically for climbing and mountaineering.

Where it can get complicated is when you’re trying to work out which boots work with crampons, and which type of crampons are appropriate.

Crampons have their own grading system – cunningly headed with ‘C’. Here’s what they mean, and how to match your boots with the correct crampons.

B:0 boots cannot be used with crampons.  Clearly crampons are designed for a specific type of climate and environment, and ordinary walking boots do not fit the bill for the same environment.  The result is that there is no happy marriage between B:0 boots and crampons – if you require crampons and you’ve only got B:0 boots, then unfortunately you’ll need to invest in or hire some new boots.

B:1 boots can be used with strap on C1 crampons. This arrangement is appropriate for moderate snow and ice conditions.  The boots have stiff enough soles, ensuring that the crampon doesn’t get loose or come off, and the upper part of the boot is also stiff, providing ample ankle support.

These boots are at the lower end though, so they aren’t super stiff – they’re flexible enough to walk around in when you’re lower than the snow. Example La Sportiva Trango Trek

B:2 boots can be used with C1 or C2 crampons.  These boots are stiffer than B:1 boots – they’re designed to be used in snow with crampons, as opposed on an approach walk.  That’s not to say that you can’t get B:2 boots that might serve you well on an approach walk, but it’s worth bearing in mind that they are not designed for that purpose. – Example La Sportiva Trango Cube

B:3 boots can be used with C3 crampons.  This category is where the boots get completely rigid, allowing the crampon to be securely clipped on, without the risk of the crampon coming off.  These boots should only really be used for the technical climbing  – they’re completely rigid, so extremely uncomfortable for walking on ‘normal ground’ – think walking in ice skates and you’ll get an idea of what I mean.

Whatever boots you go for, and whatever crampons you choose to fit with them, my advice is to speak to someone who knows what they’re talking about.

Whilst this grading system can help, some boots and crampons simply don’t work well together, so it’s wise to get the advice of someone who knows which products work well together. Example La Sportiva Nepal Evo Cube

How To Choose The Right Boot Warmth

Obviously it’s vital to ensure that your boots are correctly fitted, and the appropriate boot for the occasion, and a key part of that is the level of warmth they provide you.

Unlike ordinary walking boots, once you’re in mountaineering boot territory, you’ll start to see ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ boots – this allows you to keep the inner part of the boot dry, and gives you something to wear when you’re not climbing.

Once you get into snow, it’s vital to ensure that you have the correct level of warmth – if you get up high and your feet are too cold, your trek will be ruined.

Conversely though, using a boot that makes your feet too warm can result in your feet sweating too much, leading to blisters and other unpleasant situations (frostbite is a genuine risk if your feet sweat too much).

So, to make sure you choose the correct level of warmth, here are the four main options:

  1. ‘Four-Season’ boots. These are the kind of boots that you could use in a UK winter, and they’ll work for Atlas Mountain peaks, and some of the Nepal treks. However, they’re cleary not appropriate when the altitude starts increasing and the temperature starts plummeting.
  2. La Sportiva Nepal Evo. We touched on these earlier, and they’ll serve you well up to about 6,000m without too many issues.  If you want to go up to 7,000m without investing in a different boot, you’ll probably need to get an overboot to go with the hybrid.
  3. La Sportiva Spantiks. These will take you up to about 8,000m but no further, but in order to get up to that sort of altitude, you’ll need an overboot.
  4. Triple-Boots. These are just for 8,000m + peaks, and as the name suggests, they’ve got three parts – the inner boot, the shell and the super-gaiter.

Your Next Steps…

I really hope this has helped you make your decision on high altitude boots, but I really do urge you to think carefully before making any decision. I would certainly find a good outdoor shop and go and try on lots of different types and see what fits!

If you’d like to talk it through in more detail, just contact us at [email protected] and let me know what trip you’re going on, and I’ll be happy to give you some advice.

Oh, and if you’ve got any friends going on similar adventure treks, please feel free to share this article with them!

Enjoy your trek…

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