Boreal Alpha Review

© Martin McKenna

Built on the same last as the popular Joker, Boreal's Alpha combines a forgiving beginner-friendly fit with sufficient performance to appeal to more seasoned climbers in search of a bit of comfort on moderate routes. With an unlined synthetic upper replacing the Joker's more premium lined leather, the Alpha could be a winner for anyone looking for a decent shoe that won't break the bank.

A friendly yet reasonably capable all-rounder, this flat-lasted, semi-asymmetric, moderately supportive shoe would be equally at home indoors, on long easy mountain routes, and on sport or trad climbs in the less-demanding grades. I've used it for a bit of everything over the last few months, and aside from a bit of a personal foot-shoe mismatch, we generally get on well together.

Boreal Alpha - built for comfort, but not a total boat to climb in  © Dan Bailey
Boreal Alpha - built for comfort, but not a total boat to climb in
© Dan Bailey

Pros: An affordable but good quality all-rounder ideal for both beginners and lower-grade climbing
Cons: Is it broad or narrow? Our opinion differs on the review team, so clearly the last won't suit all foot types (none do). Laces would have allowed a greater range of fit

Fit and comfort

The Alpha comes in sizes 5-14.5 for men, or 2-8.5 in the lower volume Alpha WMN's version; it's good to see the smaller and larger end of the size scale getting a look-in, as well as half sizes. With quite a flat profile, and only slight asymmetry, this toned-down model is made to favour comfort over out-and-out performance. Some might say that is why I am reviewing them.

Ideal for easier routes like Crutch (S 4b) at Upper Cave Crag  © Martin McKenna
Ideal for easier routes like Crutch (S 4b) at Upper Cave Crag
© Martin McKenna

However do remember that 'comfort' is only ever a personal judgement, not objective fact. In our review of the most recent Joker, built on the same last as the Alpha, Rob found the fit broader than average. My experience of both the old Joker and the new Alpha is quite the reverse. I would consider this a fairly narrow shoe, throughout the length of the foot. This is something I've always tended to find with Boreal footwear. But of course that is just my take. Triangulating between Rob's experience and my own, plus some feedback from Boreal, let's settle on 'medium width'. It's fairly average in volume, too, so inevitably it'll suit some people better than others.

The point at the front end slightly favours the middle toe, and as a broad-footed oaf with a fairly square-ended foot, I'm not best placed to judge the Alpha as a shoe for all-day comfort. I generally slip my heel out between pitches, especially in warmer weather when feet can swell.

All this is a good illustration of the perennial bane of a shoe reviewer's work - how to generalise on fit from subjective experience, in light of the fact that we all have different foot shapes. The only sensible advice is always to try a shoe on and judge how it works for you, personally. You can't beat a physical bricks-and-mortar shop for rock shoe fitting.

Boreal advise to fit in your street shoe size if you want to wear these all day, or to go down a full size for more precision. With a view to getting a bit of performance out of them, without having to suffer in something more aggressive, I downsized from my standard 47/12 to 46/11 (and yes, I've attempted to factor this into my assessment of width and volume). This has helped in terms of precision, and at my lowly level the Alpha gives me all the performance I usually feel I need.

As a velcro model the alpha offers less fine-tuning at the front end than a lace-up, and while I like velcro for convenience I do think I'd have preferred the option of laces to try to eke a bit more adjustability out of them. I sometimes find velcro shoes let me down in terms of heel slippage, but the Alpha manages to hold my heel securely in place without feeling too tight and uncompromising on the Achilles, something I do tend to experience (and bet I'm not alone) in more radical shoes. After a few months of use the unlined microfibre upper hasn't noticeably stretched, so other than a bit of softening you can probably expect the fit to remain much as it was out of the box.

With its soft, breathable two-part tongue, and perforated synthetic upper, the Alpha doesn't seem to get too sweaty in summer weather. Even in the Highlands that's a consideration.

Support and performance

I tend to like a stiff and supportive shoe, which I guess suits the sort of climbing I usually do, as well as reflecting my age. Thanks to the predominance of softer rock shoes these days, I do struggle to meet this preference. I think we can call the Alpha medium-stiff - around the same as a Joker, for those who are familiar with Boreal shoes, though perhaps a step down from the likes of the Ace or the Silex.

There's enough support in the forefoot for decent edging performance, but not so much that you can't get a good smear on slabbier ground. By modern standards they are neither precise nor aggressive, but I do think they offer a good level of foot support for beginners, and the sort of all-round middle-of-the-road performance that should suit climbers operating in the more accessible grades, be that a traddy HVS or sport climbing at the lower end.

I've been happily climbing up to around 6a sport and 5a trad in mine, and more capable climbers could doubtless get higher numbers out of them. If I was pushing my grade on either sport or trad I'd probably start thinking about a more performance-oriented shoe. For bouldering, indoors or out, there would of course be loads of better options. Boreal's suggested uses include both 'climbing courses' and long outdoor routes, which I guess chimes with my own assessment.

The advantage of a forgiving shoe - feet still reasonably happy even on a hot day  © Martin McKenna
The advantage of a forgiving shoe - feet still reasonably happy even on a hot day
© Martin McKenna


Underfoot it's Boreal's Zenith Quattro rubber, which seems good and sticky without yet, in my review pair, showing signs of quick wear. You get a fairly generous 4-4.5mm of it, depending on size, so there should be a reasonable amount of life in the Alpha before you'll be thinking about a resole. The tradeoff is that there is not tons of sensitivity - something I can personally live with.

At the heel, Boreal have provided a bit of cushioning, as well as a little textured tread that may offer a token amount of grip on a walk-off. I guess the padding helps with comfort on a walking descent, and it does accord with the old duffer/beginner image of this shoe. But it also seems a bit unnecessary, since you won't need it at a single pitch crag, while if you're walking off Tryfan you'll have brought a pair of actual shoes to do it in. Suffice to say, people who go in for heel hooking are not going to be faring well in the Alpha. That sort of thing is just not their game.


If you're looking for a forgiving and moderately supportive all-rounder that's equally suited to beginners and all-day climbing in the less demanding grades, the Alpha is a strong contender at a very competitive price.

For more information

21 Jul

How the Joker be wide but the Ace narrow if they are based on the same last or is my understanding of shoe lasts completely wrong?/

It's a good question Andy. Rob wrote the Joker review while I reviewed the Alpha. To an extent I think we're coming up here against the problem of individual fit and subjectivity, which is the bane of a rock shoe reviewer's existence.

I definitely do not find the Alpha broad, at all. I think it's fair to say I've always felt Boreal shoes come out narrow. Perhaps it's partly a toe profile thing in this instance, and the fact I down-sized clearly hasn't helped, but on me they are very close throughout, so much so that I cannot imagine a size larger feeling suddenly wide in comparison.

Rob on the other hand (foot) found the Joker broad, on balance. Others seem to think similar.

They do have the same last. So we are going to have to discuss who's right. And somehow attempt to amend our two reviews so we each reflect our actual experience while not apparently contradicting each other. Nightmare. But I'm glad you spotted it early!

Though I suspect there is no 'right' and as ever the advice (which we probably ought to include as a disclaimer with all footwear reviews) is that every person is going to have to try them on and judge fit for themselves.

OK, I have attempted to put all that into the review. Hopefully not too garbled.

Thanks for raising it! We do like to at least try to be consistent.

22 Jul

I absolutely agree to a degree of shoe feel subjectivity but surely in measuring the last of different shoes (in the same size obvs) you would have some objectivity? and for climbing shoes I think measuring the width of the sole (at a standardised point) would correlate well to last width?

Either way you've supplied the best solution which is "go try them on". With my toes rebelling against most of my shoes your review has me curious about these. thanks

24 Jul

I remember when I worked for an outdoor sports magazine years ago in Ireland and the test for shoe volume was done with coffee beans! As long as you measured the shoe before it was worn I guess you could still use the beans for their intended purpose. It was interesting seeing the difference between shoes based on volume measurements. The coffee beans test wasn’t a quirky Irish invention btw, it was a ‘thing’ within the footwear industry I believe.

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