No Other Piece of Equipment is as important as your boots. You can ski well with crummy poles, ten year old skis (if they have edges!) and a blaze orange camouflage jacket from Target.
You can’t ski well if your boots don’t fit, or if they are wrong for you. Boots that don’t fit don’t just hurt your skiing, they hurt you. Few things can ruin that expensive ski vacation faster than boots that drive you off the hill after a few hours. Even boots that seem to fit well can hurt you in more subtle ways. The wrong boot can make learning harder, reinforce bad habits or leave you floundering to stay in control. Making a poor choice in a boot is also not so wonderful financially. While boot prices have not made the stratospheric climb that skis have in recent years, they certainly are not cheap.
Fit Is Critical and getting the right fit can drive you stark raving mad. There are only a few boot manufacturers in the world who will make a boot to the precise dimensions of your foot and ankle. Unless you buy one of these boots, you have to start with the bootmaker’s idea of how the calf, ankle and foot are shaped. To top it all off, boots are intended for a world market and feet are different in other parts of the globe. The good news is that this allows for a lot of choices. The bad news is that this makes for a lot of choices. Some brands are good for narrow feet while others are more accommodating to wide feet. The same applies to the ankle, heel and calf. There is also variation in fit in different lines among the same brand. Race boots tend to be pretty unforgiving and boots at the lower end tend to have much thicker and cushier linings. We also have to contend with different sizing systems and markings on the boot. Sometimes these are close to being fiction. Last, but certainly not least, is that age old human paradox: wanting what you shouldn’t have.
Take that snazzy orange Technica to the right. It is pretty hard not to notice. I don’t know about you, but it talks to me every time I see one. Slyly, it whispers: “I am a hot, hot boot. I’ll take you places you have never been before. Other skiers will see us together and go weak in the knees.” Truth be told, it is a great boot and its on the feet of a lot of really good skiers. It is not, however, the right boot for me. Other boots fit me better out of the box and work better for me as a skier - like the cute yellow one at the top of the page.
First things first. Decide what type of boot is right for you. There are all kinds of boots out there now - or at least all kinds of marketing labels. Boots with different kinds of flex are marketed to different levels of skiers and designed for different levels of skiers. Beginner level boots are usually mid-entry boots designed to have a soft flex, lots of comfort and ease of entry and exit. Intermediate level boots are a mix of traditional overlap construction and mid-entry. All-mountain boots or expert level boots are, with few exceptions, overlap boots whose flex ranges from moderate to stiff. Pure race boots, of which there are really very few, are all overlap boots with thin liners that emphasize control over comfort and have the flex pattern of a brick. Obviously, the type of boot that you need depends on what level of skier you are, what type of terrain you like to ski on, where you do most of your skiing, and your size, weight, and strength. If you are a strong intermediate skier you just won’t get the control you need out of the boots you learned to do wedge turns in. By the same token, the same intermediate level skier who succumbs to “hot boot lust” and gets in a stiff race boot will be overpowered by the boot, unable to flex it properly and end up wiggling his or her butt down the mountain leaning back against the rear cuff and turning on the tails of their skis. I can’t count the number of times I have seen teenage males in precisely that situation. If you don’t know what you should get, go to a good ski shop and if the salesperson doesn’t ask a lot of questions about how, where and what you ski, find one who does and tell them everything you can about your skiing. Listen to what they recommend. Once you have narrowed your choices down you can move on to the fun part - fitting.
Maybe you are lucky and happen to be one of those genetic mutants with perfectly shaped feet on the end of wonderfully straight ankles. If you are, fitting will not be such a chore. But even you perfect feet people need to remember a few things. Shop nearer the end of the day because even your perfect little tootsies swell during a hard days work. Wear or bring the socks you ski in (most good shops have a stash of clean ski socks if you forget). One of your feet is likely to be a little larger than the other. Remember that your street shoe size is just an estimate - a rough estimate with some boots. The salesperson should measure your feet with a Brannock device to get all the dimensions including your arch length. If you are in a self service situation such as a swap or clearance sale, remember that almost all boots are sized using the diabolical mondopoint system. (mondopoint was not invented to confuse Americans, it just seems that way) Mondopoint translates to U.S. sizes as shown by this chart:
Once you think you are in the right ballpark, get all the wrinkles out of your socks and try the boot on. Buckle it up from the bottom up and wiggle your big toe to see if it is grazing the liner. Then stand up and flex your ankle forward while bending your knee to seat the heel in the back of the boot. The boot should be snug just about everywhere - the liner is just meeting your foot for the first time and will get looser if the relationship becomes long term. Make sure the heel stays put - but don’t try to force it out by getting on your tiptoes - just clump around in the boot for at least 10-15 minutes unless it just feels wrong from the start. Be sure to try on a couple of different boots for comparison. Try a different one on each foot. Remember, the liner will conform to your foot and get packed out over time. If you want to double check the size, take the boot off and pull the liner out. Put the liner on and check it for length just as you would when buying shoes. Take the liner off and put your foot in the boot shell. With your toes touching the front of the shell, you should have about one to two fingers worth of clearance between your heel and the back of the boot. If all is well, your search has ended.
Ouch! This simple little word encompasses the boot buying process for me. I have hideously wide feet with long arches, a matched set of bunions and narrow little ankles that roll in (pronate) to make my forefoot splay out even more. What do I do? I suffer, but not when I am skiing, just when I am buying boots. Most of the mainstream ski rags now offer tips on what brands accommodate different types of feet in their annual buyer’s guide issues. So if you have an idea what your foot is like, you can start there and aim for the brands that work for narrow feet, high insteps, elephant calves, etc. Note which ones may work for you. Be prepared to try on as many on your list as you can. If you can’t find boots that fit without pain, accept the fact that you will have to start with the ones that hurt the least and work from there. This is where going to a good bootfitter will help. Brian Eardley at the Ski Center in D.C. is nationally renowned and I personally have had good experience with both Brian D. and Derek at Pro-Fit Ski and Skate in Leesburg. (To be fair, I am sure that there are other good bootfitters at other shops around D.C. - I just don’t know who they are.) There a host of things that can be done, from stretching liners and shells to adding padding or using cu$tom liners. Depending on what needs to be done, the modifications may be included in what you pay for the boot or may require some extra compensation. If things are truly hopeless, Strolz in Austria and Daleboot in Salt Lake City can make boots precisely for your feet.
This is not a peanut. It is the bottom of a custom footbed. The illustration shows one made out of cork by Peterson, but others made out of foam and plastic are just as good. Before I owned a pair, I was convinced that custom footbeds were just another example of the ski industry’s ongoing conspiracy to pry huge chunks of cash out skiers for stuff they really did not need. Wrong! If you have certain kinds of fit problems, one example being pronation, custom footbeds can be used to change the way your foot sits in the boot and thereby solve or reduce the problems. Are they cheap? No. Plan to spend in the neighborhood of $100 and up to have a decent pair made. Are they worth it? Yes! For almost everybody - particularly for me because nothing else I did allowed me to wear my boots without pain. Even for people with more normal feet or perfectly normal feet, they can be money well spent. Although they are encased in a big plastic boot, never underestimate how important your feet are when you ski or how much they move - even in a boot that fits. A foot sitting on a custom footbed is not only a secure and happy foot, it is a foot that communicates better with its owner and his or her skis. The improvement in comfort and control is, in my experience, worth every penny.
If custom footbeds are out of your budget or you don’t have to have them to address a particular problem, it is still worth your while to consider replacing the stock footbed in your boot. If you pull that stock footbed out of the liner, odds are that you will be looking at a thin slice of foam with a little hump in it that passes for an arch support. There is not much to it, either for support or control, and you can get a pair of sized footbeds that can be cut to fit for thirty or forty dollars. A pair of these helped one of my growing sons with discomfort in his boots when he would have outgrown custom footbeds in one ski season. (Dad loves you, but not that much.)
Tweaks, Tips and Alignment. There are a few other things to contend with once you have conquered the fit monster. One of these is the cant adjustment. Particularly in boots aimed at higher level skiers, you will find some provision for a cant adjustment. These are offered to help address the fact that we expect to have skis that lie flat on the snow when they are attached to legs that aren’t really straight. If you are pretty knock-kneed or bowlegged, the cant adjustment in a boot will not remedy the situation and you may need shims under the inside or outside of your bindings to get your skis flat. However, if you are closer to “normal” the cant adjustment on your boot can tilt the upper cuff in or out to accommodate the shape of your legs. Checking the alignment of your knees, legs and ankles is best left to a skilled shop, but if you just want to adjust your boots for your legs, take the liners out of your boots and place them parallel to each other on the floor at a distance equal to how far apart your feet would be when skiing or walking. Stand in them in your stocking feet and flex your ankles and knees as if your were skiing. If the distance between the cuff and the inside and outside of your leg at the top of cuff is about equal you don’t need to adjust the canting. If one distance is greater than the other, use the cant adjustment to move the cuff in or out until the distance on the outside and inside is about the same.
A lot of boots also have adjustments for forward lean. People with longer legs need less forward lean than people with shorter legs. The entire point of this adjustment is to set the boot so it works with you to help you keep good fore and aft balance, so set the forward lean at point where you have the ability to move a little bit forward and a little bit back while you are centered over the middle of your ski.
Break your new boots in before you ski in them. Wear them around the house for short periods when they are brand new so the liner starts to mold to your foot. The more you wear them, keep them on longer. This breaking in period can also serve to point out fit problems that may crop up and allow you to go back to the shop and have them addressed before you go on that pricey vacation. When the snow flies, you will be ready to go.
Keep your boots buckled when you are not using them. This helps them keep their shape, particularly over the summer. During the ski season, try to keep the liners dry by exposing them to circulating room temperature air. If you leave them in your boot bag overnight after a day of skiing, they will be damp when you put them on the next day. This promotes cold feet and if continued on a regular basis, will lead to an aroma that few will forget.
The End. Whatever your budget is for ski equipment, don’t scrimp on boots so you can buy the hottest skis, graphite poles or that metallic green one piece suit. Boots are the single most important piece of gear you have. Fortunately, if you work at it, you can still find a deal on boot that fits and is a good choice, particularly in the late spring and the pre-season sales. Find the right boot and get out and ski!
Otto Matheke is a PSIA certified Level II instructor at Ski Liberty, where he has been teaching since 1993. A graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont, Otto also works as an attorney with the U.S. Department of Transportation.