Ski boots are a crucial piece of gear because they not only connect your feet and lower legs to your skis, but if not fitted correctly, they could cause pain that will put a damper on your ski day. Therefore, it’s important to prioritize finding the correct boot model and fit. In truth, buying a ski boot can be a daunting task, since it’s a process that may involve many trips to the ski shop or local boot fitter to tweak the fit during the break-in period and potentially to heat and mold your liners. However, going into the process knowing what type of boot you need is the first step. Figuring out whether you need a freeride boot, a high-performance boot, or a women’s-specific boot can be determined by your skiing ability level as well as the terrain and snow conditions you favor. Answers to these questions are where a new boot search begins. After that, fine-tuning your search by last width and stiffness can fast-track your journey toward your best boot match.
You can do your homework by reading boot reviews or looking at manufactures’ websites. This will help you understand categories as well as familiarize you with new technologies that may be of interest. It’s important to avoid common mistakes while buying boots. The first common mistake is not seeking expert advice from a qualified boot fitter. You can save money by picking up a pair of boots that sort of fit, but you will most likely get what you paid for when you go out on the slopes. Going to a good boot fitter means you get expert advice, personalized service, and the ability to get further help with hot spots or problem areas. Another common mistake skiers make while shopping for boots is to buy the wrong size. This will typically be the result of making the first common mistake of not investing in a boot fitter. Boots that are too big can lead to pressure points and ultimately poor ski technique because you will not have a good connection between your feet and your skis. Most experts agree that it’s better to have a pair of boots that are too small than too big because boot fitters can always punch or blow out boot shell material to fit problem areas. The third common mistake is over or underestimating your ability level. Either way, you could end up with the wrong boot model or flex. Being upfront with a boot fitter means you’ll end up with a boot that’s the correct flex for your ability, size, and weight.
Category (Type of Boot)
When you’re seated with a boot fitter, they will ask you a series of questions to determine your ability level (beginner, intermediate, advanced, or expert). Next, they’ll ask what terrain you like to ski and which mountains you typically visit. This helps them figure out what kind of boot you’re looking for. For example, are you an advanced skier who likes to carve up the groomers? Your type of boot may come from the High-Performance category. Do you ski the front and backside of the mountain in variable snow? Your type of boot may come from the Freeride category. If you like to hike for your turns, you may choose a boot with hike/ski mode. Racers look at boots in the race category, juniors look at junior boots and women can choose from multiple selections of women-specific models. Once you identify your ability level and boot category, you move on to the all-important issue—finding the correct fit.
Boot shells are measured by a system called Mondopoint, or Mondo for short. It’s the length of the sole in centimeters. This system makes sizing consistent for other countries that usually have different sizes listed on shoes, such as between the UK, U.S., and Europe. There are some slight variations among different brands. For example, one brand might list the sole length for a mondo size 25.5 as 295mm, while another brand might say 298mm. This size can fluctuate depending on the end-user and whether the manufacturer designed the boot for a comfortable fit or performance fit. Boot shells are made in increments on the full size, so a size 25.0 will use the same shell as a 25.5, with little difference in fit. Regardless, the goal is to have a snug fit without pain or loss of circulation and with the leg in an upright position.
A boot fitter will study the shape of the foot, looking to see if it’s narrow, medium, or wide—some skiers’ foot shapes make those decisions obvious. Other feet can be either more or less tolerant of compression, or fit tension and so skiers may trend away from what their foot shapes might suggest and toward narrower boots for a more snug fit or wider boots to avoid chronic numbness and promote warmth. A pro tip for trying on boots is to wear a thin ski sock so that your foot fits as snug as possible inside the liner.
The so-called last width measurement is the distance, in millimeters, taken from the inside of the shell at the widest point of the forefoot on only the reference size 26/26.5 boot in a given model. Narrow lasts fall into a range between 96-99mm. Medium lasts are considered 100-101mm. Ski boots are considered wide at 102mm and up.
You don’t need to reach for a digital micrometer because a good boot fitter will help you determine which width neighborhood to call home. Do ski boots fit the way the manufacturer says they do? Not all. It’s why you should read boot reviews. It’s like the story of Goldilocks: You’re looking for a fit that’s not too big, not too small, but just right.
Stiffness (flex index)
The so-called flex index is a number assigned to a boot that conveys how stiff that boot is in forward flex (the feel against your shin). The higher the number, the stiffer the flex feel.
Generally, the softest boots have a flex index of 80 and the stiffest boots have a flex index of 140. How do skiers decide what flex is best? Usually through trial and error, but with some guiding parameters: A boot needs to be stiff enough to support the skier’s tall, neutral stance. The too-soft boot will collapse under the weight and leverage of the skier, creating too much bend in the knee and resulting in smoking quads. Conversely, the too-stiff boot won’t budge under a skier’s typical flexing pressure, rendering a skier’s movements overly static and causing sore shins.
As with skis, stiffer boots transmit energy and thus edging movements more effectively, enabling stronger arcs in the snow and more stability at speed on harder snow. Softer boots are more forgiving and soft to the edge, so better for those lower on the learning curve or possibly for freeride boots used for skinning as well as downhill skiing. While huge strides have been made in recent years with respect to easing entry and exit, as a general rule, softer boots will be easier to get on and off. Due to the costs associated with materials and construction, the stiffer the boot, the higher the price.
Boots come with a variety of features, depending on the category. Many boot models come with the ability to replace the toe and heel pieces. This is important because as those pieces wear down, they have less of a tight interface with the binding. Both junior boots and freeride boots tend to have replaceable toe and heel pieces because of the high wear on the bottom of the soles. Some boots have added rockered soles so that they match the natural gait of a person’s pattern of walking around ski lodges and base areas. Many freeride boots have a hike/ski mode or lever, which either locks the cuff and lower shell together for control while downhill skiing, or loosens the connection for more mobility while walking or hiking.
Some features designed for comfort have matriculated back up to high-performance models such as liner tabs by the calf meant to pull on the boot, or materials used for warmth that benefit all liners. Some liners have plush material while others have slippery material placed around the heel to help with getting the boot on and off. Manufacturers often have unique buckles and power straps to help create better foot wrapping of the liner and shell and ultimately, a better fit. Boots also come with the ability to change the stance, which is typically the final touch a boot fitter will make before you walk out of the store, hopefully with a well-fitting ski boot. Remember, you may need a trip or two back to the boot fitter to work out any hot spots, but the effort is well worth the time because the goal is that ski and feel your best in your boots.