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Gear Basics - How to Choose What's Right for You

Mountaineering Boots

The single best thing you can do is buy a boot that is appropriate for the type of climbing you will be doing. Performance varies tremendously depending on whether the boot is designed for the terrain you are on. If you try to do long alpine rock scrambles in a heavy plastic boot, you’ll find the going more difficult and the fatigue factor high. On the other hand, if you try to climb technical ice in a boot with insufficient support and warmth, you’ll suffer mightily. Unfortunately, no manufacturer can achieve ultimate versatility. As you progress in the sport, your boot collection will grow. Imelda Marcos had the right idea. Warmth, technical rock climbing performance and technical ice climbing performance determine the type of boot you should buy.


Boots fit into a "warmth continuum", with plastic double boots at the warm end and low-topped rock climbing boots at the other. Generally speaking, the warmer the boot, the worse its technical performance. Try to avoid buying boots that are warmer than you need. You will want double plastic boots for most high altitude climbing (above about 15,000 feet in most ranges) and for winter waterfall ice climbing in places like the Canadian Rockies, Alaska or New England (although in New England you might be able to get away with warm insulated leather boots). If you plan to do a lot of alpine mountaineering in ranges like the Cascades, the Sierra or the Alps, or waterfall ice climbing in warmer climates, you will get better performance in leather boots. Of course, if you have poor circulation, a history of frostbite, or just get cold feet, get a warmer boot.

Performance on Technical Ice

For the best performance on technical ice, the sole of the boot needs to be narrow and cropped close to the outer and toe edges of the boot for precision and control. You’ll need a stiff, full-shank sole, but some flexibility in the upper part of the boot can help. A good fit in the heel helps keep your heel down when front-pointing. Some warmth is obviously necessary, but sometimes not as much as you might think. The La Sportiva Nepal Tops, K3's and Nepal Extremes (warmer) are excellent leather boots in this class.

Performance on Technical Rock

Like boots for technical ice, the sole of a good alpine rock boot needs to be cropped close to the boot. Lighter is better than heavier. A little flex in the sole is good, but not too much or the boot will not have enough control and stability on small edges. A very thick sole will decrease your precision and control on small holds. Plastic boots are very difficult for rock climbing and scrambling. Unless you absolutely need the warmth of plastic boots, choose leather boots when your climbing plans involve more than a small amount of rock scrambling. The La Sportiva Trango Plus are good examples of a boot that excels on technical rock.


Getting the right fitting mountaineering boots is a zen exercise in balance. The smaller you fit the boots, the better they will perform, until foot damage and pain counteract the performance advantage. Bigger boots will be warmer, but will perform less well, especially on steep ground and when front pointing.

Very few mountaineering boots come in women’s sizes–the two notable exceptions being the La Sportiva Makalus and the Koflach Women’s Viva Softs. Women with low volume or narrow feet will have a harder time getting a good fit. Often the boots made in Europe, such as the La Sportivas, seem a bit narrower and lower volume–try these.

A good guideline for fit is to try on boots with one mid-weight sock. Insert your index and middle fingers stacked together behind the heel, with your toes bumped up against the front. Usually, if your two fingers will just fit, you have a good size. Be very particular about pressure points, rubbing or pinching. If you can feel it when the boot is new, you will be miserable after a few hours outside. The inner boot insulation in plastic boots often compacts a little bit in use or when damp, so plastic boots will feel slightly more snug when you are trying them on than they will after a couple trips.

Some shops, especially ski shops, can punch boots out at trouble spots, for example to accommodate bunions. This is fairly straightforward with plastic boots and also possible, though more problematic, with leather boots.

Go to womenclimbing's Boots | Go to MountainWoman Footwear

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