Scarpa's SL is 35 this year, having first hit the trails back in 1983. A lot has changed in the outdoor world since then; now in its ninth version, has the new SL Active kept pace? The model was initially designed with the UK market in mind, and since it's sold well over 120,000 pairs in Britain alone, and consistently ranked among the top sellers here, Scarpa has clearly been doing something right.
Like Dr Who, this boot has been through many incarnations over the years, but going on the adage that if something ain't broke then you shouldn't try to fix it, the upgrades have tended to be gradual rather than radical. Despite its up to date tweaks, at its heart the new mark nine retains the essential SL character that many will know and love.
This is a benchmark 3-4 season boot. For a non-technical walking boot it's definitely at the stiffer and weightier end of the spectrum, which isn't going to suit every user or every situation. But if you want a quality leather boot that combines plenty of support with a high degree of comfort (once broken in) then this must be one of the best available. The SL Active still determinedly bucks the flimsy ultralight trend, erring instead towards solid durability. And crucially, it remains an all-leather boot. As I'm no fan of waterproof linings in footwear for year-round use, I'm pleased to see that Scarpa have continued to resist the market pressure here.
I reviewed its predecessor several years ago (see left), and was pretty positive. So how does the new SL Active differ, and are the changes for the better?
Firstly, the new version has shed a bit (not a lot) of weight. The fit has tightened up too, with a new lower volume last. Instead of the harder, shinier full grain leather of the previous version, the cuff and parts of the tongue now sport a softer and more luxurious nubuck. And inside, the heel area is now lined with leather, which should wear better. It's got new lace eyelets too, though I can't say they're better as such.
In recent times, it seems we've come to expect footwear that's comfy straight out of the box. If you've forgotten what a chunky traditional leather boot feels like when brand new then it can come as something of a surprise - these things need breaking in. I remembered that the hard way, mid-way through an all-day walk - a rash choice for my first outing with the new SLs. At first they felt cumbersome and uncompromising on the feet, and I soon developed a corker of a heel blister. Did they simply not fit, I worried (always a concern if you've got to review a boot). For my next couple of walks I was more restrained. The boots soon softened in the right places, and they now feel a lot more nimble and well-fitting. Having got that awkward getting-to-know-you period out of the way we're getting on fine with each other. Don't make the same mistake; start them off gently.
The new SL Active is built on a so-called TM last. Scarpa say this is narrower and lower volume than before, but not all over; specifically it's snugger around the heel, which they say gives it a more supportive and responsive fit than the previous model. In use the lacing and the padding on the heel do seem to combine to give a really good close fit, and I've not had a trace of heel lift. The cutout at the back of the cuff is more pronounced on the new SL, which takes a bit more pressure off the achilles and helps give the boot a slightly more nimble ankle flex than its predecessor. I've noticed this is an advantage when scrambling or picking my way over bouldery ground - and it can't hurt in terms of all-day comfort either.
Scarpa say the width at the toe has not changed but I do think it now feels a fraction narrower. However it's hard to know for sure when comparing an old well-broken-in boot with a new one. I have broad feet, especially at the front, and for me the previous fit was perfect at the toe. At first I was a little concerned that the new fit might pinch here, but so far so good. If it has room enough for me in the toe then it's safe to say it still has a fairly broad fit. The lacing doesn't extend quite as far forward as on the previous model, but I always did think that went further than necessary on a boot that's not for technical climbing.
What are they for?
I'd call these archetypal 3-4 season boots. They're happy on the variety of terrain you'll find in the British hills - rough paths, rocky ground, wet grass, bogs and snow. Their relative stiffness makes them good for edgeing, so while they're a bit clumsy for higher grade scrambles or easy rock climbing, low grade walker's scrambles like Sharp Edge or Crib Goch would be well within their remit. Rated at B1, they can take a strap-on walking crampon, so while you won't be front pointing up steep winter terrain in them they're well suited to all-round winter hill walking in the UK, and cross over into Alpine trekking too. For prolonged use above the snowline, and certainly for any actual winter climbing, I'd look at something warmer, stiffer and more technical. In hot summer weather, on the other hand, the SL Active is too much for me. Bridge season conditions in spring and summer are what they do best - changeable temperate weather, plenty of bogs, and the occasional snowy day.
Much of the outdoor industry seems to operate on the assumption that adding a waterproof membrane to footwear is always desirable. I beg to differ. With quality leather, minimal stitching, and some basic user maintenance, a leather boot arguably doesn't need an additional waterproof 'breathable' lining in order to keep out the water. In fact the lining may end up being a redundant extra that just makes things more sweaty (in my experience no membrane sandwiched between layers of boot is going to breathe that well) and it is likely to be the first point of failure as a boot ages, too. If you're relying on a membrane to keep out the wet then one day your boots will probably leak. Isn't it better to build water resistance into the outer in the first place? For me the exception to this rule of thumb is full winter boots, in which you want all the warmth and protection you can get.
The SL Active fully lives up to my expectations here. Its 2.8mm 'Sherpa HS2' leather is good quality stuff - thick, durable and impregnated with a waterproof treatment. Scarpa have made the majority of the boot, including the lower half of the tongue, from a single piece of leather. This minimises the amount of exposed stitching, which makes the boot better able to take wear and tear and reduces potential leaks. When they're new, water runs off the SLs like the proverbial from a duck's back. Regular reproofing should keep the uppers effectively watertight for years, if my scuffed old pair are anything to go by. You can wade through bogs and ford streams all day, and so long as the cuff isn't immersed these boots stay dry inside. Who needs a membrane?
To protect the upper and your foot from sharp jabbing rocks, Scarpa have kept the high, wrap-around rubber rand from the previous model. The only spot it doesn't cover is a small strip of leather at the heel; and the fact that these are already scuffed suggests that the rand elsewhere is doing its job.
With a nice soft tongue, and the replacement of the former hard shiny full grain leather with lovely soft nubuck around the cuff and the top of the tongue, the feel of the new model is a little more luxurious and forgiving. Over a long day on your feet, that matters. I've also noticed that the nubuck is less inclined to squeak than the full grain tongue of the previous boot, which creaks like a rusty hinge with every step even after a half-decade of softening.
One final upgrade is only noticeable if you look inside. Previously Scarpa used a soft, sweat-absorbent cocona lining throughout, but they've now added a leather lining at the heel. This is smoother and so less liable to rub your heel; it's also likely to be harder wearing. Having more than once worn holes in the back of boot linings, I'd consider this a small but welcome improvement.
With loads of lateral rigidity, and only a little forefoot flex, the sole supports the foot well when you're carrying heavy loads on rough ground, and provides a solid platform for kicking steps into snow or edgeing when you're scrambling. Though it's not built to take a crampon with a heel clip, the sole of this B1 boot doesn't actually feel much less rigid than some B2s I've worn.
Underfoot, the Vibram Trek sole unit's tread is essentially the same as the previous model's. With good deep lugs that bite into soft ground, and a big aggressive ledge at the heel for downhill braking, I've found it an excellent sole for soggy UK hills. The new SL Active has plenty of traction on both dry rock and wet grass, though I have found it a bit skatey on smooth wet rock (as are most boots I guess). On my old SLs the rubber compound feels very hard, and the sole has certainly proved long-lasting, being a long way yet from needing a resole. The rubber on the new model seems softer; this may well improve its grip on rock, but how might it affect its comparative longevity? I'll have to report back later.
Shock absorbing in the midsole has improved, say Scarpa, with addition of a 'mono-density PU wedge'. When walking on harder surfaces I do think the new SL Active feels a bit more forgiving. The updated sole is also lighter, they say.
Compared to the previous model, the new SL Active has shed a modest amount of weight. On my kitchen scales I make it 1980g for a pair of size 47s (footbeds included), while its predecessor comes out at 2068g in size 46 (my feet have got wider in recent years - old age or over use?). The fact remains though that in a weight-obsessed age this still looks comparatively heavy. Even technical B3 mountain boots are available at lesser weight, after all. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but if you like to be light on your feet it is certainly something to consider.
When I switched from summer trail shoes to the new SL Active this autumn, the weight was instantly noticeable - but as they've broken in, and I've got used to wearing boots again, I've found myself less bothered by it. In terms of weight the new SL is on a par with another comparably chunky all-leather boot we reviewed recently, the Hanwag Tatra II (1960g). For a boot of this type, then, this seems a benchmark kind of weight. The important thing to bear in mind is that with weight comes durability, and the promise of a longevity that you'd never expect from a lighter alternative. These days it's common for lightweight footwear to wear out in one or two seasons; in fact we're almost conditioned to expect it. By contrast the older SL Active has been my favourite pair of leather walking boots for five years. Despite some heavy service, if I keep looking after them then I'm confident they'll still be going strong five years hence.
It may look a bit dowdy, but beneath that traditional exterior the new SL Active is a great boot. With its thick, high quality leather, and the addition of satisfying little touches like a soft nubuck cuff and a leather-lined heel, this is a real class act. The impeccable build quality easily justifies its rather high price tag. This boot should take years of heavy use. It's no lightweight, and those who prefer lighter and more flexible alternatives may find it handles a bit like a tank. But on the other hand, if you're after a solid and supportive boot for hillwalking on all terrain, then the latest version of the classic SL Active still has to be one of the best options available even after all these years. If your winter hill-going is fairly modest then this benchmark B1 boot could be your year-round staple. However I prefer trail shoes in summer and more technical B2 or B3 boots in winter, so for me the SL Active best fits the bridge season niche (which in the Scottish hills can mean half the year). But above all I like it for what it doesn't have. Boots with no membrane lining are comparatively hard to come by, so well done Scarpa for keeping it real with the SL mark nine.
Lighter, neater, improved fit and comfort with added luxury features that celebrate 80 years of boot making know- how. The boot has a significant weight reduction through the use of a mono density outsole which provides exceptional cushioning underfoot. The use of the outstanding and acclaimed TM last allows for a neater feel with awesome heel lock down. The upper maintains the legendary DNA of the Sherpa HS12 leather combined with a softer Nubuck cuff that provides ergonomic flex zones and padding. The heel lining in leather provides a luxurious and classic touch that offers outstanding durability.
Finished with a micro rand for added scuff and abrasion resistance and new bi-component speed lace look set to make this latest incarnation a modern classic.
- Price: £250
- Weight: 1612g (Mens 42)
- Sizes: 41-48 (men)
- Crampon Rating: B1
- Sole: Vibram Biometric Trek
- Last: TM
- Upper: Sherpa HS12 Leather
- Lining: Leather & Cocona
- Insole: Performance Flex Plus
For more info see scarpa.co.uk