With so many models & types of ski boot out there, the choice can be overwhelming. This handy guide will help you choose the right ski boots for your skiing and buy the perfect pair.
Proper fit, appropriate level of stiffness, and comfort are all essential for a great day of skiing. If you've been renting ski equipment, you should at least consider buying ski boots. Although the initial purchase price can be high, they last for years and provide a consistent foundation for improving your skills, as well as saving the hassle of going back and forth to the rental shop during your holiday to find something comfortable. Spending the time with a skilled ski boot fitter will pay off.
Reviews of the 2017-18 ski boots from the major manufacturers will be online later this year.
Alpine Ski Boots
Alpine (downhill) ski boots have a stiff plastic shell designed to hold your foot and ankle firmly in place. For the best performance, you should buy the smallest ski boot you can comfortably wear and use only one thin synthetic sock. All ski boots expand in size slightly after you have worn them several times, as the foam material in the liner is compressed. This process is known as 'packing out'.
Plan on spending at least an hour with a skilled ski boot fitter, and try on many different ski boots. A bargain boot that doesn't fit is no bargain. As your skill improves, you generally want a stiffer (and often more expensive) ski boot designed for faster, more precise and more aggressive skiing. If you're a beginner or an intermediate, you don't need this stiffness unless you're of above-average size or weight.
If your foot is very difficult to fit or you simply want the best fit possible, inquire about custom ski boot fitting. Some manufacturers recommend special moulding systems that make either the boot liner or the ski boot shell conform exactly to your foot. All alpine ski boots are compatible with all conventional alpine ski bindings and most frame touring bindings.
Alpine ski boots can be divided into 4 main categories - Piste/Race/Freeride/Freestyle.
Piste boots are generally designed for comfort & regular resort skiing, then often feature 'walk mode' that makes it easier to plod around the streets when you are not skiing, these can add a bit of weight to the boot and in some cases can fail (giving you a floppy boot when skiing) though they have improved in recent years. Performance piste boots tend to be stiffer and more precise, taking many of the technologies of a Race boot.
Race boots are purely focused on performance so are stiff and tight. Because of this they are often fairly uncomfortable as all day ski boots, which is why most racers unbuckle them whenever they are not bashing gates.
Freeride boots are designed to deal with mixed terrain so often have stiff lateral flex (side to side) with a bit of forward give to absorb drops and sudden changes. The tend to be lighter than other boots and often have a grippy sole, both of these features are to help with boot packing or skinning uphill.
Freestyle boots are built to deal with the impacts of hitting jumps and rails in the snow park so are usually fairly flexible.
Touring Ski Boots
Touring or AT boots are primarily differentiated from downhill boots in having a mechanism/switch on them to change from a skiing mode to a touring mode. In touring mode the cuff of the boot can move forward and backwards with a greater range of movement, allowing you a more natural stride motion when touring. Dedicated touring boots are lightweight, and have a large range of motion in the cuff making skinning uphill far more efficient. In the past, touring boots have often had the uphill advantage but with a distinct loss in downhill ability. However, boots have developed a lot in recent seasons and now there's a wide variety of alpine boots available with a walk mode (the name for the touring mode on a ski boot) that fit frame bindings and AT boots that ski well and fit a tech binding. This means that whatever your skiing you can get a boot to match, although boots with higher downhill performance are typically heavier than the other end of the spectrum, a skimo race boot.
A touring binding will allow you to free your heel on the uphill, but secure it again for the down. The really lightweight touring boots tend to have inserts so they can be used with pin touring bindings but not all will work with step-in touring bindings, so it is essential to check boot/binding compatibility.
There are a few touring boot/binding standards -
Dedicated touring boots for tech, AT or pin bindings have a curved rubber sole and metal inserts in the toe and heel, these are not standardised for use in normal downhill bindings, so make sure the boots you get work with your bindings and vice versa. These bindings range from extremely lightweight with no release mechanism to fully DIN certified, the latter weighing more but offering much better protection in case of a fall as well as a more solid interface with the ski for better control.
Frame bindings will take almost all standard alpine ski boots (ISO/DIN 5355) and allow you to skin uphill at the same time as acting like a regular alpine binding in terms of DIN safety and control of the ski, the downside is that they weigh more and they don't skin quite as smoothly as pin bindings, the rigid frame can also affect the flex of the ski. Most of these bindings also accept AT boots (ISO/DIN 9523) WTR (walk-to-ride) and GripWalk, though some earlier models do not accept the rockered AT boots, if in doubt check with your boot fitter or ski tech.
Be honest with yourself as to the true intentions of your skiing. Whilst many of us aspire to the ideals of touring, it is likely that we actually spend more time on piste or freeriding, and therefore a slightly heavier boot with a 'hike/ride' mode and a frame binding is often more suitable and offer a far better skiing experience. That said the recent wave of Freeride AT boots and DIN standard Tech bindings are the best of both worlds, easy and light for the uphill and solid and safer for downhill.