The Alfa Polar is a highly thought-out niche Nordic backcountry ski boot developed specifically for very cold and long ski trips where a NNN-BC binding makes sense.
Living and traveling outdoors in winter requires a very unique skillset and highly specialized equipment. It’s vital to keep our extremities warm and functional, particularly in those moments when it’s really really cold. When ski camping in polar or subarctic environments where firewood is not available, humidity is actually to be feared more than the cold itself because when your insulating layers are soaked or worst, frozen, there is little hope of staying warm. Great care must therefore be taken to keep our clothing, our sleeping bags and our boots dry. It can go so far as having to sleep in a vapor barrier liner (VBL) bag (imagine sleeping in a garbage bag) with our wet clothing (sock and glove liners, etc.) spread over our chests and left to dry overnight by our own body heat!
Three key strategies must be combined to create a winning solution for our feet in these extreme conditions:
- - the insulation must be sufficient for the coldest conditions we will encounter,
- an outer barrier must prevent the wind from robbing your precious body heat and stop moisture from penetrating into the insulation layers. Furthermore, this same barrier must allow any moisture trapped within the insulation from exiting the boot system,
- an inner barrier (VBL) is used to prevent any moisture generated by our feet from penetrating the insulation layers.
Granted, the moisture from our feet might not be sufficient to corrupt the insulation in our boots after a day out, but give it more than three days of ski camping, and you will get into serious trouble without a VBL.
The basic idea behind the Alfa Polar is actually quite simple and surely has a lot of history to it (unfortunately I am not old enough to know that much of it). To better understand what it is, lets imagine how it might have actually been conceptualized: you start with an oversized boot of your liking allowing for extra insulation layers (liners and/socks), you wear a vapor barrier liner sock between a thin liner sock and your insulation layers and you cover the entire boot with a super gaiter. A super gaiter is a combined gaiter and rubber rand that covers your entire boot and lower leg. The epic Berghaus Yeti Extrem is the most popular example of a super gaiter.
Actually, the more mature leathers amateurs amongst us surely know about these super gaiters as they were quite common at some point in time in North America. They were used to keep warm in norwegian welt 3-pin leather boots. The infamous Dave “Pinnah” swore by them for touring:
http://web.archive.org/web/201510021509 ... boots.html
You can see a ton more of these gaiters in action in the awesome tutorial “The Telemark Movie” from the mid 80’s:
On with the boot
So, coming back to the Alfa Polar, it’s basically the only “mass” produced NNN-BC boot to combine the three winning strategies for polar comfort. To boot, it so happens that Alfa has done an AMAZING job at it. Let’s look at some of the details.
For starters, the boot last they use is massive giving you so much more width and volume than any other nordic ski boot of its kind. It has so much volume that I highly doubt it could even be used comfortably when size accordingly for use without extra insulation. This actually great news because we absolutely need this volume for insulation purposes when in very cold environments. It must be said here that Alfa recommends sizing up two sizes (EU sizes I believe) for use with liners. Depending on your needs, sizing up a size might be sufficient in my opinion. For comparison, an Alfa Polar EU44 actually has more inner length, volume and a ton more space at the toe box than an Alpina Alaska EU45. We will get back to the actual liners to be used alongside the Polar later on.
If, at this point, you still happen to be thinking about sizing the Polar to your foot size and using it without liners, I’d warn against it. You should be looking at the Alfa Outback instead.
The Polar’s inner boot is soft and super easy to secure with an efficient yet simple lacing system. To tie the boot up, you simply pull the laces to lock the forefoot in place and then lock the ankle in place using two pairs of hooks. The inner boot is well constructed and the collar in particular is well insulated with medium density foam. The insulation around the foot itself is actually not that thick, similar to what you would find in a normal backcountry boot such as the Alfa Skarvet or Alpina Alaska.
The Alfa Polar 2016 comes with an inner Gore-Tex membrane. It looks and feels just like any Gore-Tex or similar shoe/boot inner membrane. However, Gore-Tex is not that useful in extremely cold environments, particularly in boot systems that includes a VBL. In fact, a “breathable membrane” might actually slow down the evacuation of humidity trapped inside the added boot liners. I’m assuming this is why Gore-Tex membranes are no longer built into the new Alfa Polar, yet are found in all the higher end Alfa backcountry boot models where they provide an obvious benefit.
The bottom of the inside of the boots I am reviewing is covered by the same Gore-Tex membrane as the rest of the inner shoe. It appears as if there might be a little synthetic fiber insulation between the Gore-Tex membrane and the hard L-board below, I just do not know for sure. Regardless, you definitely need more insulation from below than that (hence the additional liners!).
The sole flex is actually quite modest. My well-worn Alpina Alaskas (EU45) (polarized with a Berghaus Yeti Extrem gaiter) are actually just a little stiffer in the sole than these. As the Polars are essentially a Nordic backcountry ski boot, their flex seems fine to me. The outer sole of the Polar is standard NNN-BC, nothing out of the ordinary.
The Polar 2016 came with the standard removable foam (open cell) “anatomic insole” currently included with the higher end Alfa Backcountry models, which is simply nothing to write home about when compared to an appropriate aftermarket insole. I have noted on their website that the new Polars now come with an “insulator insole” made from insulating felt. This sounds like a better fit, but you might not even use the removable insoles with you extra linin anyhow, more on that later.
All of Alfa’s backcountry and expedition boots (except perhaps the Alfa Advance 75mm expedition boot) have an “internal heel counter”, which, it appears, is actually glued to the outside of the boot (look for the big “A” logo). From those other Alfa boots I own, this does indeed form a nice deep heel pocket that keeps your foot locked in place, effectively reducing rubbing and blistering.
The Alfa Polar also comes with a sizable rubber protector that covers a significant portion of the forefoot. This is combined with a full-grain leather rand across both sides on the boot. Together, these features greatly enhance the longevity of a boot meant to covers kilometers of wind sharpened ice sastrugi and exposed to the occasional lashings of metal edged skis. As a matter of fact, the use of full-grain leather on the sides instead of rubber seems like a smart compromise between protection and flexibility.
The gaiter is built in a similar fashion to the previous generation red & black Berghaus Yeti Extrem gaiters. The closure for both is a combination of a single-sided YKK zip, a full length Velcro flap and a metal snap button up top. The top of the gaiter can be cinched around the leg using a small shock cord and toggle strategically placed out of harms way.
The two gaiters differ significantly in the materials used. The Berghaus Yeti Extrem, essentially built for mountaineers, features a lower section of very durable coated (probably with polyurethane?) Cordura and a traditional 3-ply Gore-Tex membrane above. The Alfa Polar gaiter is basically a highly breathable lined Cordura, giving it a more robust feel overall. The inner sides of both legs of the Alfa gaiter are also reinforced with a thick and robust Kevlar fabric that can surely withstand lots of abuse.
After having thoroughly tested the Berghaus Yeti Extrem during a 50-day ski crossing in Laponia (http://living-laponia.tumblr.com/
), I am actually quite impressed by it. However, I see Alfa’s version as a definitive improvement. For starters, obviously, the gaiter is integrated so there is no need shop for the appropriate sized gaiter and glue the thing on. Secondly, Gore-Tex does not actually work that well in very cold environments. I would regularly find my frosted leg sweat on the inside of the Gore-Tex fabric. This was not a huge deal because I could simply brush it off in the evening before retiring to my down booties. Nevertheless, I doubt this would happen with the Alfa Polars as the fabric is that much more breathable (and surely just as windproof). The extra protection on the Polars is also that much more reassuring.
Also, most of the stitching on the boot and the gaiter is doubled, which obviously enhances durability! By the way, each size 44EU Polars weigh 1080gr. while my “polarized” 45EU Alaskas each weigh 1275gr (about 250g for the single gaiter), both without liners. You’d actually be hard pressed to build a lighter alternative to the Polar given that its inner boot foregoes leather altogether.
Is there anything wrong with this boot?
With the liner in place and the boots on, I have noticed that the gaiter is a little tight near the top of the inner boot, and that’s even without my winter pants on. I’m wondering if this gaiter’s relatively narrow cut could generate undue strain on its zipper?
Have you noticed that strange narrow strip of leather that runs all the way up the back of the gaiter? As the gaiter itself it built out of two pieces of Cordura, I’m thinking the unique function of the leather strip is to reinforce that seam. It's a small detail but if the gaiter could be built out of a single piece of Cordura, it would look much better and weight less in my opinion.
Also, the top collar of the gaiter is built out of a Cordura material as thick as the main gaiter material. Alternatively, the red & black Berghaus Yeti Extrem’s top collar was constructed out of a finer material and I believe this is a better match because it reduces bunching as the shock cord is drawn tight around the leg. It could also be useful to have the shock cord installed in a way that would simplify its replacement in the field.
A few words on liners
Of all the things Alfa did right with the Polar, the most important is its massive last that allows for an amazing amount of lining required to keep our feet warm well below -20C. There is just nothing like it amongst all the NNN-BC compatible boots available.
Traditionally, the bulk of the Polar liner was composed of a thick felted wool sock crafted by artisans and known is Norway as an “Ull Kartank”. They are very warm, expensive and nearly impossible to find outside of Norway. Furthermore, as they are not knitted, they are relatively fragile when exposed to constant friction. I have read that it takes as little as 30 days of skiing to open a hole at its heel. That is why it is usually combined with a Helly Hansen polar pile sock (aka a Burgdof). The appropriate size pile sock is placed over the felted wool sock, effectively protecting it from friction. In time, the soft inner pile of the sock meshes with the felted wool which forms nicely to your foot.
This traditional liner is highly breathable and must be protected from your body’s sweat. As such, with this system, skiers should wear a thin wool or polypropylene liner sock followed by a VBL sock, effectively protected the lining from moisture. Currently, I know of only a few VBL sock offerings: those by Rab (previously Integral Designs), Exped and Rbhdesigns. Unfortunately, the Rbhdesigns socks are relatively fragile and their seams are not taped. I have found that the Exped socks are more comfortable to wear (compared to the Rabs and due to their more precise cut) but more difficult to locate in North America. If there is still room between the traditional liner system and the VBL, it is possible to fill the gap with thick wool socks. The removable insole can also be swapped for something thicker or simply removed, depending on fit and comfort.
More recently, polar adventurers have replaced traditional liners with heat moldable foam liners such as those produced by Intuition. Given these liners are made from closed cell foam, they effectively combine the insulating power of the traditional liner with the impermeable nature of a vapor liner sock. As a complete system, it’s actually quite a bit cheaper than the traditional option. The chosen liner shape must however be designed for walking. Good options include the Mukluk liner sold directly by Intuition and the relatively new Alfa Polar Liner (made by Intuition) custom built expressely for this boot. Heat molding these liners provides the added benefit of an instant perfect fit.
Most of my winter ski camping experiences have been with the traditional liner system (albeit with thick oversize wool socks instead of the hard to find wool felt liner) but I have also trekked and toured with Intuition liners. The fit of Intuition liners is indeed superior, whereas in a traditional set up, I often felt I had too much loose material under the arch of my foot and this can sometimes be painful. On the other hand, while winter camping, its super easy to dry out the VBL socks by turning then inside out, letting then freeze and brushing the frost away. With the closed cell foam liners, drying the thin fabric liner insides requires that you place them in your sleeping bag at night. However, on those occasions I have tried, they never managed to dry up completely and took an awful lot of space. In the end though, wet or dry inside at the beginning of the ski day, should not matter much as the insulating foam itself cannot absorb water.
All in all, the Polar Advance is the King of its category. If you are heading into seriously cold environments and winter camping with NNN-BC bindings, there is currently no other ready-made alternative that I know of. However, if you prefer 75mm bindings there are a few options currently available: the Crispi Top Expedition (theoretically!), Crispi Svalbard 75mm, the Baffin Guide Pro or perhaps something like the Alfa Quest Advance 75mm or Alpina Alaska with custom-built gaiter. Alternatively, if you are simply looking for a NNN-BC compatible nordic backcountry boot with integrated gaiter and do not require extra insulation, I recommend the Alfa Outback or the Crispi Svalbard (or older Tiur) instead.
The attention Alfa has given to details and the robustness of this boot is simply out of this world. It’s expensive, but if you’re committing to a polar adventure, I’m convinced you will never regret the purchase. Of course, the boot will only keep you warm and safe if you manage your sweat, so choose your lining system accordingly and stay on top of your game. You are going to have a blast!
Obviously, this review of the Alfa Polar, while based on my experience ski camping with “polarized” leather ski boots, was produced in the comfort of my living room. Stay tuned to this thread for more test results as the temperature drops and I actually get to play around with them outside. Alternatively, if you have experience with them, feel free to share!
: I have not received any compensation or payment from Alfa or any other party for this review.