Thinking of buying some new winter boots? This article is aimed at those buying their first pair of winter boots, but hopefully seasoned winter warriors may still pick up a handy hint or two.
Navigating the path to buying the right winter boot can be bewildering- single or double boots, plastics, B ratings, crampon compatibility? There’s a lot of choice out there, and some pitfalls that are best avoided, so to help you find the right pair for you and your adventures I’ve compiled my ten top tips for buying winter boots.
The first and most important thing is to decide what you want them for- Winter hill walking? Winter mountaineering? Winter climbing? Summer or Winter Alpine climbing? High altitude mountaineering and climbing? All of the above? It’s best to think long and hard about this before heading out to buy a pair. The old adage of ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ holds true for boots, as you can get one that will do it all, but you’ll have to compromise on performance in one area or a number of areas. Once you’ve got a clear, and realistic, idea of your intended use then you can start zoning in on which selection of winter boots will be best for you.
A friend of mine often quotes ‘buy cheap, buy twice’ and he’s right. There’s no hiding the fact that winter boots are expensive but considering how much use you can get out of them over the years, it’s a small price to pay. In summer it’s possible to get away with budget kit, but winter’s a different ball game so don’t be afraid to splash some cash, because when you’re out in a howling blizzard you won’t be regretting it.
Boots come in a variety of stiffness’s and the following unofficial, B Rating, system is widely used:
B0 Flexible three season boots designed for summer use.
B1 Four season hillwalking boots with a semi stiffened midsole and moderately supportive upper. Suitable for summer mountain use and simple winter hill walking.
B2 Four Season hillwalking boots with a nearly fully stiffened mid sole with ankle support and a very supportive upper. Suitable for all winter walking and easier winter mountaineering and climbing.
B3 Fully rigid technical mountain boots. Suitable for winter mountaineering and winter climbing in the higher grades.
Over recent years the lines between these B-ratings have become blurred and some modern boots don’t fall into a definitive category. Therefore, it’s best to see these ratings as a rough guideline rather than a set of definitive rules. Especially as some modern boots would fit much better into a B1.5 category!
Provided you’ve read and done ‘Top Tip Number 1’ it should be a fairly simple process to decide which category of boot is right for you. It’s worth noting that it might be tempting to buy a B3 boot as it can be used for everything, which is partially true, but it will not be as comfortable for long days winter walking and it will be heavier.
Once you know the stiffness of your boot you’ll need to work out which crampons will work with them. Crampons are often classified as either:
C1 Fully strapped or flexible crampons often with 8-10 points suitable for winter hillwalking. Compatible with B1, B2 or B3 boots.
C2 Articulated crampons with 10-12 points with a cradle/heel-clip attachment suitable for winter hillwalking, winter mountaineering and easier winter climbs. Compatible with B2 or B3 boots.
C3 Rigid crampons designed for technical climbing. Suitable for climbing only and not recommended for days out winter walking. Compatible with B3 Boots.
In addition to this there are a variety of attachment systems so it’s worth checking and ensuring that your boot and crampons will work together. Depending on the shape and size of your boot sole some crampons may fit your boots while others may not, so always seek out professional advice when fitting crampons to boots.
Winter boots generally come in two different styles; either single or double boots.
Single Boots have just one single upper. The upper may be made up of multiple layers and linings but they don’t separate from each other in any way. They are lighter than double boots and are suitable for winter walking, mountaineering and climbing in the U.K. as well as routes overseas.
Double Boots are made of an inner and outer boot that separate so tend to be heavier than you average single boot. However, they are warmer than single boots and therefore they’re typically used in colder climates. They also have the advantage that you can remove the liner and dry it in your sleeping bag overnight so are a well suited to multi day routes and expeditions. Plastic boots also fall into the double boot category and they have their advantages by being cheaper and more durable than other double boots, but you tend to lose some ‘feel’ under foot when compared to a fabric boot.
Lots of high-end boots now have integral gaiters and are a sort of hybrid between single and double boots. They comprise of an inner boot, which cannot be removed, coupled with a permanently attached outer gaiter. The gaiter adds warmth and weatherproofing and protects the laces from abrasion and reduces the likelihood of snagging your crampons on them. They can however take longer to dry out once wet due to reduced air flow in and around the inner part of the boot.
Once you’ve worked out what sort of boot you’re after then it’s time to get researching. Get on the internet and read what the manufacturers say, just the facts not the sales pitch. Read reviews on the boots you’re interested in, ask friends about what boots they’ve used and find out the pros and cons of different makes and models. As a result of this process you should have narrowed down the field to a smaller selection of boots that you want to go and try on.
Go to a reputable outdoor shop, with a good selection of winter boots and knowledgeable staff, that way you’ll receive good quality advice on which boots are best for you, along with a proper fitting service. If need be, head to a wide range of shops in order to try all of the boots you’re interested in. Time spent now is time well spent, as if you get it right then you won’t have to do it again for years to come but get it wrong and you’ll be back before you know it. Try to steer clear of buying boots online, unless you know exactly what you want and are 100% certain of the fit because you’ve used them before. If not, it can become an expensive game returning boots by post to online shops.
Try the boots as much as possible before you buy them. If a mate has a pair that you were considering buying, and they fit, then ask if you can try them out on the hill for the day. If your mate hasn’t got a pair that you’re after then consider hiring a pair, many outdoor shops offer this service. There’s nothing better than giving them a go on the hill to work out if their right for you.
When trying boots on its best to avoid going in the morning as your feet will be at their smallest, they swell up in size through the day, sometimes increasing by up to a size. Take along the socks you’ll usually wear in your boots so that you can get a realistic fit.
Ensure you try the boots out for a good while, take a walk around the shop for as long as you can, walk uphill and downhill in them and keep an eye out for heel lift. You don’t want your heel to lift/slide up when you walk as over time this will lead to discomfort and blisters. Kick the walls, well it doesn’t have to be the wall, but swing your leg from the knee and kick something solid, e.g. a step, to imitate front pointing in them. When kicking you don’t want your foot to slide forward in the boot, so your toes whack the front of the boot. If your toes hit, then try going up a size but watch out for heel lift.
Though winter boots are expensive they often come with the cheapest, floppiest, piece of card posing as an insole. So, it’s worth considering buying some proper insoles, your feet will thank you. However, this does mean an additional cost on top of buying the boots. It’s worth experimenting and trying as many different insoles as possible. If you have any foot issues, then some custom-made orthotic insoles will pay dividends. Even if your feet are fine, some basic insoles can make a difference to the fit of a boot and reduce the pain and ache in your feet at the end of a big day on the hill.
So, you’ve done your research, you’ve been shopping and tried on lots of different models and have bought a pair of winter boots and are eagerly awaiting your first chance to use them. But are you sure they are the right ones? It’s always good to try them out again at home. Most shops offer a refund or exchange service on boots, provided you haven’t used them outdoors. So, try them on lots at home, walk up and down the stairs, do the hovering in them, cook dinner in them etc- basically wear them a lot. Then if you’re certain that there the right ones then it’s time to get out and play!
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