If you’re in the market for a new pair of boots, you may have come across a handful of different options that are labeled for “mountaineering” instead of hiking. Since these shoes look a lot like fancy hiking boots, you may be wondering if there’s actually a distinction between mountaineering and hiking boots or if it’s all just a marketing ploy.
So, what exactly is the difference between hiking and mountaineering boots? Mountaineering boots are generally taller and stiffer because they’re designed to be used with crampons for climbing in an alpine environment. Hiking boots are primarily designed for use on rocky, grassy, and muddy terrain – not snow and ice.
While you’ll certainly find people that believe mountaineering boots are a one-size-fits-all solution to all outdoor footwear needs, there are instances where a hiking boot would be more appropriate.
To help you better understand the difference between mountaineering boots and hiking boots, we’ll walk you through the basics of these two kinds of footwear and answer some of your top questions about the different boots you might use in the mountains.
Mountaineering Boots vs. Hiking Boots
To get you started, let’s discuss the basics of mountaineering and hiking boots:
What is a Mountaineering Boot/Alpine Boot?
First things first, what is a mountaineering boot? Often called an alpine boot, mountaineering boots are high-top footwear that’s primarily designed for use in mountainous terrain, such as permanent snowfields, glaciers, and alpine rock.
Unlike hiking boots, they are very stiff and often contain a metal or plastic “shank” underfoot to provide a rigid sole, which is preferred for steep snow and ice climbing. Mountaineering boots will pretty much always extend past the ankle and are meant to provide a lot of support to your feet as you travel over complex terrain at high elevations.
Types of Mountaineering Boots
While all mountaineering boots are designed for use in alpine environments, there are different categories of mountaineering boots out there. Here are a few of the most common types:
Single vs Double Insulation
Perhaps the easiest way to distinguish between mountaineering boots is by whether or not they’re “single” or “double” boots. Basically, a single boot is a mountaineering boot that has just one layer of insulation that’s permanently attached to the inside of the shoe.
A double boot, however, will be made of two parts – a hard, waterproof shell and an interior insulating liner. All double boots are going to be warmer than even the best single boots and are ideal for overnight trips in cold environments because you can bring the inner boot inside your tent to keep it warm and dry at night.
Full Shank vs 3/4 Shank
A lesser-known distinction in the world of mountaineering boots is that of the full shank and 3/4 shank boots. A shank is a stiff piece of metal, kevlar, plastic, or fiberglass that’s built into the midsole of a shoe to provide stiffness underfoot.
Shanks are critical to any mountaineering boot because the stiffness they provide make it easier to climb steep slopes and also make it possible to use the kind of crampons you need for technical ice climbing.
Modern mountaineering boots will be either “full” or “3/4” shank boots. A full shank boot has a shank that runs the length of the shoe, providing maximum stiffness for use with automatic crampons, which are used in technical ice climbing. These boots are critical for technical alpine climbing but are uncomfortable to walk in on rocky terrain.
3/4 shank boots, on the other hand, have only a partial shank, which means they allow for some flexibility underfoot. This type of shank is found in many “summer weight” mountaineering boots as it allows the wearer a bit more comfort when walking on trails. However, 3/4 shank boots aren’t compatible with automatic crampons and can only use semi-automatic crampons instead.
What is a Hiking Boot?
While a mountaineering boot is designed for use in snowy, icy alpine environments, hiking boots are made for use on rocks, mud, grass, and any other terrain you’d find in the mountains. They are good for both on- and off-trail travel, but are not appropriate for climbing or for travel over glaciers.
Types of Hiking Boots
Like mountaineering boots, “hiking boots” refers to a whole category of footwear that has many sub-types that hikers should be aware of. These include backpacking boots, hiking shoes, and trail runners, among others. Here are the main differences between these types of boots:
As the name suggests, backpacking boots are primarily designed for backpacking. They tend to be tall, stiff boots that provide a lot of ankle support for people carrying heavy packs.
While backpacking boots were once very common, many experienced hikers now opt to use lighter hiking shoes or trail runners, even when carrying a heavy pack. However, stiffer backpacking boots are still generally recommended for new backpackers as they get used to walking with heavy loads.
Hiking shoes are basically lightweight versions of backpacking boots. They can be either mid-top or low-top in design and are meant to provide some support and traction as you hike. They won’t be as stiff as a backpacking boot, which makes them more comfortable, but this means they don’t provide as much ankle support, either.
Trail runners are a type of running shoe that are specifically designed for use on rocky, muddy surfaces. They look quite similar to many modern running shoes but will have burlier outsoles that can provide more traction on complex terrain. Trail runners are also becoming increasingly popular amongst lightweight hikers who choose them over hiking shoes for their adventures.
How are Hiking and Mountaineering Boots Similar?
While they have their differences, hiking and mountaineering boots are similar in some respects. Both hiking and mountaineering boots are a type of footwear that’s designed to protect your feet when you’re in the mountains. Plus, many models share aesthetic similarities, so it’s easy to get them confused. However, this is pretty much where their similarities end.
How are Hiking and Mountaineering Boots Different?
Although they look quite similar, hiking and mountaineering boots are quite different. Here are some of the many ways that these two types of footwear differ when you’re in the mountains:
Generally speaking, a mountaineering boot will be made of some combination of sturdy rubber, plastic, kevlar, leather, and synthetic fabrics while a hiking boot will often be made of nubuck leather or suede. Since mountaineering boots are designed for the harshest conditions on Earth, they will often be made of top-of-the-line materials, which is reflected in their high price.
The outsole of a mountaineering boot is made for use on snow, so they’ll usually have deep lugs for better traction, while hiking boot outsoles are more designed for mud. Additionally, the outsole of a mountaineering boot is generally going to be quite stiff, which helps improve stability on snow and ice.
The midsole of a shoe is the foam that separates the upper (fabric/leather) of the shoe from the rubber outsole. While most midsoles are designed to absorb shock and to add comfort to the shoe, mountaineering boot midsoles are very stiff and will have some sort of shank inserted to add extra stiffness. Hiking boots, on the other hand, usually have nice, flexible midsoles for added comfort on the trail.
Mountaineering boots will almost always weigh more than hiking boots because they are better insulated and are built with burlier materials for the harsh conditions of the alpine. If you’re going on a hike, though, this added weight isn’t going to give you any real advantage and will just tire you out more easily.
Mountaineering boots feature a high-top design that extends well past the top of the ankle. This added height is designed to better support your foot and ankle as you climb through tricky terrain. While some backpackers like tall boots, the height of a mountaineering boot is overkill for most hikers.
Put simply, mountaineering boots are designed to be used with crampons while hiking boots are not. Although you can certainly find strap-on crampons that will fit on trail runners and hiking shoes, they aren’t appropriate for use while ice climbing or mountaineering and won’t get you very far in the alpine.
On the other hand, mountaineering boots are purposefully stiff and have toe and heel welts that are specifically designed for use with crampons. So, if your chosen outdoor activity involves technical climbing, you probably need mountaineering boots.
Ultimately, the differences between hiking and mountaineering boots translate directly into what kind of terrain you can access in either kind of footwear. While hiking boots would be appropriate for a backpacking trip into the Cascades, they wouldn’t cut it for a climbing trip up Mount Ranier.
Basically, hiking boots are for lower-elevation travel in the mountains that doesn’t involve glaciers, ice, and lots of snow, while mountaineering boots are best for technical climbing in the alpine.
Here are our answers to some of your most common questions about mountaineering and hiking boots:
Can you hike in mountaineering boots? While you certainly can wear mountaineering boots for hiking, you probably won’t be very comfortable if you choose to do so. Since mountaineering boots are very stiff, hiking in them sort of feels like you’re walking on a trail with slightly more forgiving ski boots. As you can imagine, this is not fun.
Although you’ll potentially see people on the trail that are hiking in mountaineering boots, they’re probably on their way to climb to an alpine summit and would probably prefer to be wearing hiking boots instead while they’re below treeline.
Can you use crampons with hiking boots? These days, there are many different kinds of crampons out there, some of which are designed for use on regular hiking boots. However, while you can use some kinds of crampons with hiking boots, these are not the kinds of crampons you need to go ice climbing or mountaineering.
Instead, these crampons are for hiking on icy trails in the late fall and early spring. If you want to go climbing, you’ll need a type of crampon that you can only use with mountaineering boots.
The best mountaineering boots – My Recommendations:
Here are my recommendations for the best mountaineering boots around, based on personal experience:
La Sportiva Trango Cube GTX (Summer Mountaineering)
The La Sportiva Trango Cube is a solid all-around three-season mountaineering boot that’s built to last. It’s made with a combination of QB3 waterproof fabric, injected TPU plastics and Gore-Tex for added durability when scrambling through rocky terrain. Plus they perform exceptionally well with semi-automatic crampons, which make them great for summer climbing in the alpine.
More info: sportiva.com
La Sportiva Nepal Evo (Ice Climbing)
The La Sportiva Nepal Evo GTX is an absolute classic in the world of mountaineering boots. This time-tested boot is a fan-favorite for ice climbing, thanks to its nice mix of stiffness, insulation, and comfort for long days in the mountains. Plus, it’s got a super snazzy color combo, so what’s not to love?
More info: sportiva.com
La Sportiva G2 SM (Winter Mountaineering)
Designed in collaboration with Simone Moro, a leading alpinist known for his technical winter ascents, the G2 SM is a double mountaineering boot ideal for any cold-weather alpine pursuit.
The G2 SM features quick-drying materials and an integrated gaiter to help keep your feet comfortable during long stretches in the mountains. They’re also designed specifically for stability on technical climbs so you can keep pushing grades, even in the winter.
More info: sportiva.com
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David is an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.