One of most common questions we get is “how to choose mountaineering boots” and this is also one of the most challenging questions to give a simple answer to. Footwear is one of the most important pieces of gear that you will need on any mountaineering trip, and the wrong boots can ruin an otherwise great adventure. Here are some suggestions to help you:
Your first goal is to determine what you will be using your boots for the most – hiking, backpacking, mountaineering, technical alpine climbing? If you are looking to buy only one pair of boots, carefully consider what you will be wearing them the most for. If you plan on mainly using them for a lot of backpacking trips with only a few occasional forays off-trail, a boot with a more flexible sole is ideal, as this will generally be more comfortable for long days on a trail with a big pack on. However, if you are looking to spend more time off-trail on snow or steep/loose scrambling terrain, then a boot that is on the stiffer end of the scale will provide much more security. So, while a good light backpacking boot might be fine for your first few mountaineering trips, you may find yourself wanting a beefier boot while kicking steps and travelling on steeper snow.
You will next want to consider the type of “welt” (the lip on the toe and heel of the boot). This will determine the style of crampon used for that boot. For general mountaineering and snow climbing, a “strap on” style of crampon is fine and can go onto any boot, regardless of welt. Another very popular crampon system is a “Hybrid strap-on”, that uses a step-in style for the heel and a strap-on style for the toe. This Hybrid style only requires a heel welt, and is a popular system used with most general mountaineering boots. If you are looking at more technical mountaineering and ice climbing, a boot with a heel and toe welt is a good idea as it will allow a technical “step-in” style of crampon attachment, much simpler and more secure for technical climbing (though these boots are often the most stiff/rigid and less comfortable for extended walking).
In terms of construction, any boot used for off-trail and mountaineering should be above the ankle, as this style of boot will provide protection when scrambling on loose rock; helps keep small stones, sticks and snow out of the boots; and is generally a more secure and stable boot. Boots that are a lower-cut will not perform very well with crampons, and while very comfortable for trail use, they are not recommended for mountaineering.
Most mountaineering in British Columbia involves a lot of travel on snow, so you will certainly to choose a mountaineering boot that is waterproof. Many fabrics are used in boot construction, ranging from the traditional all-leather boots to a complex combination of modern fabrics and materials. If you opt for a leather boot, be aware that leather requires ongoing care and treatment to maintain its ability to stay waterproof, be sure to get proper waterproofing at the same time as you get the boots. Synthetic fabric boots and hybrid (part leather/part synthetic) boots can still be very waterproof, but be sure to do your “due diligence” and research the boot model before you buy, as not every boot is equal! Generally, the more stitching you see on a boot, the more likelihood of water getting inside. As with most gear, a cheaper pair of boots will usually not perform well. Most name-brand boots that may cost more will generally be well designed and are worth the extra dollars.
Finally, the most important point of all when choosing your mountaineering boots – fit. After you determine the general style of boot, you will need to try a lot of different boots on, and go with the one that has the best fit. A boot that fits well is more important than almost any other factor, as long as it is a decently built boot suitable for the activity. Make sure you allow enough time when boot shopping to try them on, walk around the store for a while, compare different models/size on each foot. Avoid buying the cheapest boots unless they fit better than any other boot you can find! If you are unable to visit a store in person to try boots on, most retailers allow you to buy 2-3 pairs and try them on at home and wear them for a few hours each (indoors). then, you can return the boots that do not fit and keep the best ones.
For Canada West Mountaineering courses, any boot that accepts crampons and is designed for mountaineering or light mountaineering will be fine. Even many sturdier backpacking boots are fine as long as they are reasonably stiff and can accept a crampon.
Lastly, please make sure that you spend enough time in the boots to break them in before your course or trip!