How to choose the perfect hiking boots for the Tour de Mont Blanc (and other mountain trails)
Sometimes on the Tour de Mont Blanc I felt like a mountain goat, leaping from rock to rock down a steep path made up of glacial moraine. At other times, my feet felt like lead weights as I toiled up a never-ending zig-zagging path to reach the mountain refuge at the end of a 10 hour day. Either way, I was very glad to have a decent pair of walking boots like my new Berghaus Explorer Light boots from Blacks to keep me company on the trail.
My last pair of hiking boots had certainly earned their keep. Over the last few years they’d taken me around three-quarters of the Tour de Mont Blanc circuit and were still looking fine on the outside, but inside the heel lining was wearing thin and the bones of the boot were starting to poke through the padding with an increasing risk of blisters. My boots made it through last year’s walk mainly because I covered up the sharp edges with plasters, but this year I didn’t dare risk that again. It was definitely time for a new pair of walking boots. Fortunately Blacks, the UK specialist in outdoor clothing, came to the rescue with an offer of a new pair of boots to help me finish my Tour de Mont Blanc, but now I needed to choose which of the many options would be perfect for the Alpine trail.
Boots with ankle support
Fortunately I’d had the benefit of three previous years walking in the Alps so I knew what my boots would have to cope with; Dusty dry paths that wind uphill through the forest; Boulders and stones of glacial moraine; Stony paths with rough steps leading steadily upwards; stepping stones to cross fast flowing mountain streams; Slippery shale, uneven turf, bare rock, even occasionally patches of snow! My boots would have to cope with all these different mountain terrains,
To protect against twisted ankles on uneven paths, I knew I’d need boots that had some good ankle support. I’ve read people questioning whether you can get away with trail shoes on mountain walks like this and of course the TMB Ultramarathon runners do the whole thing in lightweight trail shoes. I also think that a tough pair of trail shoes or walking shoes with minimal ankle support are fine if you’re on holiday in the Alps and just want to do the odd day ‘s walking, perhaps getting a cable car up to the top and walking for a few hours down to the valley. However, for those doing the whole Tour de Mont Blanc which is a 10-12 day trail, I would strongly advise a robust pair of boots with ankle support. When you’re walking for up to 10 hours a day, for many days in a row, on all terrains and in all weathers, your feet will thank you for it.
Boots that are light-weight
When you’re carrying a 10kg pack for long walking days, the last thing you want is to feel that you’re carrying heavy weights on the end of your legs. When I was trying on boots, I was conscious of weight, going for boots that were a combination of leather and mesh fabric, lined with Gore-Tex. If you are going in for serious mountaineering you may need something heavier weight such as an all leather boot, but my Berghaus Explorer Light boots were the ideal combination of robust support without weighing me down. The combination of leather and fabric was also ideal for summer walking as your feet can get pretty hot and sweaty, especially when the sun is shining (as you hope it will be).
Boots that are waterproof
We’d had fantastic sunny weather on our previous walks on the Tour de Mont Blanc, so my boots had not been heavily tested on the waterproof front. However, if we’d experienced several days in a row of rain which can easily happen, I’d have been very glad to have a pair of boots lined with Gore-Tex or other breathable, waterproof membrane. The nearest my boots came to getting soaked was when I slipped crossing one of the shallow streams, but as I jumped out the water ran off my boots in a very satisfying way. My daughter when treking in Nepal on a school trip during the monsoon, found that the only parts of her body that stayed dry were her feet encased in Gore-Tex lined boots. She was most scathing about the so called waterproof jacket I lent her, but that’s another story. You will pay a premium for Gore-Tex branded boots, but look out for boots that use similar unbranded waterproof membranes that can be more affordable. The key thing is that you need your feet to stay dry.
Finding a hiking boot that fits your feet
It’s important, when choosing a new pair of walking boots, to try on as many different pairs as you can before making a choice. Make sure you take a pair of walking socks when trying on in the shop (who wants to share socks with a stranger’s sweaty feet?) In my local Blacks store in Bristol, I tried on as many different styles and sizes as were available and found that different brands had different fits – some seemed narrow in the toe while others were roomy. My normal size 6 was fine in some styles of hiking boot, while in others it was too tight and I had to move up a size. I would not even consider any boot that you can feel rubbing or is uncomfortable in any way when you first try it on – life is just too short. If you can feel it in the shop, believe me it will be ten times worse after a long day on the trail. By trying on lots of different styles you will find a boot that feels instantly comfortable when you put it on, and for me these were the Berghaus Explorer Light Gore-Tex boot.
How did I get on?
My boots felt comfortable from day one, but I have to admit that by day 2 and 3 I was starting to feel areas on my toes and heel that were starting to rub. I think that this was probably not the boot’s fault as I should have allowed some more time to wear them in and let them mould to my feet by wearing them on my walk to work, or even around the house. I managed to stop the blisters developing by wrapping all the sore areas in plasters, especially the specialist Compeed padded heel plasters that I’d brought with me and were worth every (expensive) penny. By taking this action I was able to prevent painful feet and my boots and I are still the best of friends and ready for the next mountain adventure.
A good pair of hiking boots will typically cost between £80-150 and if you’re doing a long distance hike like the Tour de Mont Blanc, this is one item of kit where I wouldn’t economise. If the boots that feel most comfortable to your feet are at the higher end of the price scale, I would buy them and scale down the costs in other areas. After 10 days walking your feet will be thanking you for choosing the best you can afford and your boots should last for years.
My Berghaus Women’s Explorer Light Gore-Tex boots cost £100 at Blacks, the UK online and high street retailer who specialise in Outdoor Clothing for walking and hiking. The boots have a substantial rubber sole for good grip, suede and mesh fabric upper and are lined with a waterproof Gore-Tex membrane. As the name suggests, the boots are lightweight, yet provide good ankle and foot support and are ideal for walking in warmer climates. Thanks to Blacks for providing me with a pair of boots for this review.
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More tales from the Tour de Mont Blanc
Tour de Mont Blanc Diaries – Courmayeur to Chamonix and over the pass into France
Tour de Mont Blanc Diaries – Champex Lac to Ferret and a walk in the woods
The mountain clothing you’ll need for treking the Tour de Mont Blanc – video
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