Footwear is one of the most crucial pieces of gear for any trip, and getting the correct type and fit is important. The best way to deal with many mountain emergencies is to escape and your ability to do this quickly and safely depends on your footwear. This article concerns single and double mountaineering boots, though there are many other types of footwear including Rock Shoes for technical climbing, Approach Shoes, trail-running shoes, ski/snowboard boots (often used by ski mountaineers), and normal hiking boots. One of the key features of a mountaineering boot is whether or not it is compatible with step-in crampons, hybrid crampons, or neither. See the Crampons article for more.
These boots are a step above conventional hiking boots. They are more sturdy, have a partially or completely rigid sole, often sport toe and heel rails for crampons, and are usually made from a single piece of waterproofed material. Compared to double boots, they are lighter and easier to hike in, but are not as warm and preclude the chance to keep liners warm in a tent or sleeping bag (though you can always bring your boots into the tent with you - have a plastic bag on hand if you plan to do this).
When mountaineers speak of single boots, they usually mean the insulated kind. A very popular insulated single boot (this model is bordering on over-kill for Mt. Whitney in winter) is La Sportiva Nepal.
An example of a non-insulated full leather boot is the Asolo TPS 520 GV. These are the minimum requirement for real mountaineering.
An example of non-insulated part nylon hiking boots are the Vasque Breeze Gore-Tex XCR. These may be great for hiking and backpacking, but they have no place in mountaineering (i.e. they are not meant for snow). They will be terrible with crampons, and your feet will get wet. Also very hard to kick steps if you are not using crampons. They may be great for summer mountaineering; you might also consider trail-running shoes and approach shoes for summer climbs.
For mountaineering on snow, you will eventually be using crampons, and it is important that your boots are compatible with your crampons. This is explained in some detail in the crampons article. The Asolo leather boots pictured are suitable only for strap-on crampons, and will not work with either hybrid or step-in crampons. The La Sportiva Nepal boots pictured are designed for step-in crampons (but they will also work fine with strap-in or hybrid crampons). The Asolo boots lack the front and rear welts that are necessary for a step-in crampon. Note that even with strap-on crampons, which don't require any special binding on the boot, the Nepals will outperform the Asolo simply because the boot is stiffer. However, this stiffness also makes them less comfortable to hike in, which is a factor that many people overlook. So for a summer climb that requires snow crossing and some snow climbing, the Asolo boot may be the better choice.
These boots consist of a plastic outer shell and a soft, removeable inner liner. One of the classics is the Scarpa Inverno (this model is now a bit out-dated, but it perfectly represents the category), or Asolo AFS Evoluzione Mountaineering Boots. More modern versions are like La Sportiva's Spantik or Baruntse. The modern versions have a synthetic leather (as opposed to plastic) outer shell -- see Colin Haley's boot guide -- which makes them more maneuverable than the old versions. But the over all purpose of double-boots is independent of the type of material: with an inner boot and outer boot system, you can sleep with the inner boots on, inside your sleeping bag. This helps them dry out, since they will become wet with snow-melt or sweat. This is very important on long expeditions, and only somewhat relevant to short weekend trips in the Sierras, unless you are climbing on a particularly cold weekend.
In general, double-boots are heavier, stiffer, and inferior to insulated single boots, for the purpose of winter day trips in the Sierra, but excellent if you want to climb, for instance, in the Washington Cascades (for most of the year) and in Alaska (through the year). But they are warmer and better for several day trips, so they have their place. An older plastic version of double boots, like the Scarpa or Asolo mentioned above, are also cheaper than cutting-edge single layer insulated boots.
A model with built-in insulated gaiter, like the La Sportiva Olympus Mons Evo, is overkill for the Sierras.
What to wear to Mt. Whitney in winter
(For participants on the Club Winter Mountaineering Trips)
We recommend synthetic single boots with insulation. Simple full leather backpacking boots that do not have insulation will not be very warm, although a few brave soles (pun intended) wear them every year. Hiking boots that are partially leather and partially nylon are unacceptable. These have no insulation and they will also become very wet. Even in winter, the Sierras will be above freezing during the day when it is sunny, and so the snow on your boot will melt and soak through.
If you wear full leather boots, make sure you have recently waterproofed them.
A simple rule-of-thumb: if you paid under $175 for your hiking boots, they are probably unacceptable. Almost all decent full leather boots cost $200 or more. Insulated single boots, which we recommend but do not require, cost $250 to $500 typically.
For the ski mountaineer, it is often that you face the decision: climb in a ski boot and suffer on the approach but have a better ski, or climb in a mountaineering boot and either use a specialized binding (like the silvretta) or carry along an extra pair of ski boots. There's no right choice, and both of them require making a compromise. Some alpine ski boots have locking/unlocking heels that make hiking a bit more comfortable, but even so it will not be pleasant. On rock, ski boots perform very poorly -- it is nearly impossible to climb even a low-angle slab with them. For more advice, ask someone like Nick or Gary. For backcountry snowboarding, similar tradeoffs exist, though snowboard boots can be fairly comfortable to hike in and might even accept crampons, and it is also possible to snowboard in your mountaineering boots.
Boot Purchase and Repair
- For a general list of local stores, see Equipment#Stores
- Dave Cobbler in Seattle charges around $50-$75 plus shipping to resole and restore boots.
- The shoe repair store in the Vons shopping center on the corner of California and Pasadena apparently can do some good, inexpensive repairs on non-plastic boots.
- Rock shoes resoling information might also be useful