Review: Scarpa SL Activ boots

I love the whole process of getting new gear!

I love the research (“What do I want Product X to do? How much do I want to spend? What’s available that falls into that Venn diagram? What do people think about those options? Do I like it?”)

I enjoy the trying on/out of the various options.

I probably don’t enjoy the “handing over of the money” part if I’m honest, but I do like the “shiny new thing feeling” that comes just after that!

And then there’s the fun of finding out whether you’ve made the right choice, how Product X works in the field, and whether it does what you hoped it would.

However there is one area of acquisition that always makes me a bit more apprehensive and that’s buying footwear, particularly footwear for use on the hill and mountains. I find it very hard to know whether the tiny, tiny bit of heel lift I get when I’m walking up the little ramp in the shop will translate to hellish blisters on the hill. Is the toe box roomy enough? Is it too roomy? The staff always say to wear the boots around the house for a couple of weeks to let them break in, but does that really help you know what they’ll be like coming down a Munro in the snow after a ten hour day? And decent boots aren’t cheap, get it wrong and you’ll be hauling round an expensive uncomfortable mistake for years!

Well anyway, this particular bullet needed to be bit. So bite I did.

I was looking for new boots primarily for winter walking. I’ve by and large made the switch to trail shoes for my three season mountain activities. It’s so nice to have light feet! However for winter activities boots are still my preferred option. The soles on my Scarpa ZG10s were getting worn down, and a resole (+ p&p) would be close to £80. I made a sizing mistake when I bought these a few years back, so they’ve never been completely comfortable. Also, these boots won’t take a crampon and with a winter visit to Torridon coming up I thought that might be a useful feature to have. So with all that in mind I decided to relegate the ZG10s to the role of workboot, and start looking about for a replacement/upgrade pair.

My criteria then for new boots were the following:

  • A good fit!
  • Well made. I can’t afford to buy new boots every year or two, so I needed whatever I bought to be tough, strong but not insanely heavy.
  • Crampon compatible. Boots get graded on their ability to have a crampon fitted: B0 is “don’t even think about it”, then it ranges from B1 is “yep, good for winter walking, glacier crossing and easy winter climbing maybe” all the way to B3 “I’m just popping up Everest for the weekend”. B1 would be perfect for my requirements. The sole would be stiff enough for using with crampons, but not so stiff that walking would be uncomfortable.
  • A good price. Very important!
  • Not garish. Some very “striking” colour schemes on boots, I prefer a more low-key look to be honest.

So, to the internet! As you start going up the boot pyramid, your choice starts to narrow. Lower down its slopes, say at the budget walking trainer level, you could probably choose from 200+ brands/styles/colours. A few levels up, where I was looking there are far fewer options. At the top, Everest boots if you will, there might just be 3 or 4 choices. This made my search a bit more straightforward, only having a few boots to consider/discard. Quite quickly my eyes were drawn to the Scarpa SL Activ. They ticked most of the boxes I wanted ticking. The price seemed a little high, but factoring in the 15% discount I would get at Cotswold Outdoor with my Canoe England card, this could be made a bit more tolerable!

I popped along to my local Cotswold Outdoor store where a very helpful member of staff (whose name now eludes me) gave my feet the measuring of their not-so-young lives. After being measured with me sat, they were measured with me stood. Wide points, flex points, all sorts of measurements led to the conclusion that the Scarpa SLs in size 43 would be perfect. If only they had some in stock!

Fortunately, the Droitwich branch did! So I bought them.

Initial impressions were that they were incredibly well made. The leather looked tough, the substantial rand appeared to be able to take/give a beating and even details like the lace hooks were really well thought out. As instructed by the shop, I started wearing them around the house to help break them. They were very comfortable if a bit warm when I was sat next to the log burner.

Due to crumby weather and work constraints it was a few weeks later before I could give them their first run out in the wild. A short hack up the side of Fan Fawr in whiteout conditions, followed by a ten miler a few days later over Fan Dringarth in cold but clear conditions provided useful tests. I was very pleased: the boots were comfortable, I had no hot spots or blisters, my feet stayed warm and bone dry, even when I was knee deep (and beyond at times) in snow. Result!

A few weeks later we headed off to Torridon. Tuesday saw me heading up to Coire Mhic Fhearchair in what became pretty grotty weather. The path was clear but rough and uneven. The rock was phenomenally grippy, even when wet. Yet after close to ten miles of hard going my feet were still very comfortable! The boots had taken a tiny bit of a hammering, with a few grazes and scrapes from the rough Torridonian sandstone on the leather, but the rand had taken most of the knocks and overall they looked fine still. A few days later three of us headed up Beinn Alligin in good (then amazing!) conditions. The top half half of our route was snow-covered, and again the Scarpas proved faultless. No slips or slides even on snow covered rocks. No blisters, no dampness. Sadly, no need for crampons, I’ll have to amend this review when I have given them a whirl with spikes.

In summary, it can be a bit of expensive trial and error buying boots. In this case I thoroughly recommend the foot measuring/boot fitting advice that I received from Cotswold Outdoor at Cirencester, top quality service. The boots themselves, Scarpa SL Activs in case you’ve forgotten, are superb. They are comfortable, warm, fantastically well made and super tough. I’m very very happy with them, and am looking forward to putting many more miles onto them over the coming years. 5 stars!

by Ken Long

Category: Mountains Featured Equipment Review