Get the Ski Boot That's Right for You.
Admit it. When you start thinking about new purchases for the upcoming ski season, your thoughts wander right over to those new-fangled skis, don't they? How many of us give serious thought to our boot choice? Even the legendary Lange ads – who can forget the classic "Keep Those Tips Up" poster? – had us (or at least the males in the audience) thinking more about the curvaceous models in those boots, rather than the boots themselves.
But ski boots are crucial to our performance, and in large part our enjoyment, on the hill. They are the primary connection between our bodies and our skis. If the boots aren't right, everything else can go wrong.
Chris O'Donoghue, Kulkea's National Sales Manager, has almost three decades of experience in the ski industry, working for both retailers and manufacturers. He readily admits "purchasing a ski boot is quite difficult for most people, as it is usually the most precise piece of footwear one will ever own." Fortunately, he's also more than willing to share some "insider information" for prospective boot customers. That starts the minute you step through the door.
"When you walk into a ski shop, watch how salespeople approach you," said O'Donoghue. "The first thing that should come out of their mouth is, 'Well, let's look at your feet.' Because without looking at your feet, they're wasting your time.
'How could you possibly know which boot to even begin to look at unless you know what shape the foot is? How long is it, how wide is it, what is the instep height? You've got the Fred Flintstone feet, and the long, skinny paddle feet, and they all fit boots differently."
"The analogy I always use is, round peg, round hole. Square peg, square hole," he said. "If you're going to try to cram the square peg into the round hole, you're going to be there a while."
And, more than likely, you're not going to be happy with the results. Don't fall into the trap of buying the same pair of boots that a buddy loves, unless you have the same exact feet. Everyone's feet are different. That's why it's important to deal with a salesperson/boot-fitter who understands that variety.
To find out exactly what type of foot you've got, and which boots represent the best option, the salesperson ought to have "an Old School shoe Brannock Device," and know how to use it, said O'Donoghue.
"Brannock is a company that makes those silver foot-measuring devices. If the salesperson doesn't use that device first, he doesn't know your foot," said O'Donoghue. "That device is the end-all, tell-all for the human foot. It tells you so much about the foot, and what you're looking at. Not only your foot, but how your foot relates to everybody else's foot, which is important to understand when you're thinking in terms of the generic nature of boots and shoes."
Speaking of shoes, make sure you don't confuse your run-of-the mill dress shoes with ski boots. They are very, very different animals. That's why it's critical to have your foot measured without any weight on it, while you're sitting.
"Ski boots are not shoes," said O'Donoghue emphatically. "For example, shoes allow you to stand perfectly upright, while ski boots usually force your knee forward about 12 degrees, depending on the boot, so that your weight is balanced over the ball of your foot, not your heel."
Essentially, you don't want extra space inside the boot, because that allows your foot to move.
"When you stand up, your foot widens," said O'Donoghue. "The shoe industry wants your foot to spread out, so they've trained you to buy your shoes loose. In a ski boot, that is a catastrophic mistake. You can get away with it most of the time in a shoe, but in a ski boot you create all kinds of problems."
The same caveats apply to your ankles.
"If you don't fit the foot inside the boot the way the engineers designed it to fit, then the boot shell is not close enough to the foot, it's not immobilizing the ankle from lateral movement," said O'Donoghue. "You want the foot to be able to articulate up and down, and you need to be able to move forward and back, but you really don't want the ankle to roll inside the boot."
Why? Because a ski boot is a performance piece of footwear, similar to any other piece of high-performance equipment, designed with a very specific purpose.
"In a ski boot, we purposely hold the knee right over the mid-body of the foot, so that you're held in that locked position, and everything is about power transmission, through the boot, into the ski," he said. "So if everything isn't held just right, nothing works. And you're at higher risk (for injury)."
Essentially, a good boot fit is snug, and takes into account the foot's length, arch length, width, instep height, general shape, and tissue density (hard feet vs. soft feet). There can also be "personal quirks," said O'Donoghue, such as hammer toe, pronation and supination of the ankles, poor circulation, athletic calves, and the like. The more experienced the boot fitter, the more likely he or she will take all these factors into account.
The next step is to match the boot with the type of skiing you want to do, and the type of skiing you're capable of. These aren't always the same. "A good salesperson will get you to describe many of the details of how you ski and what your goals are," said O'Donoghue. "Buying a ski boot to make you a perpetual intermediate doesn't make a lot of sense if you really want to become an advanced skier, does it?"
"(Salespeople) need to ask many very descriptive questions about how and where you like to ski. Attitude matters. Goals matter. Pure athletic ability is only part of the story here," he said. "See if they ask you to describe your aggressiveness in sports in general. If you are timid at tennis, then you are likely to be cautious when you ski."
Much like skis (and skiers), boots come in various performance categories, from "recreational" to "performance" to "advanced." The high-end "advanced" boot will be stiffer, less forgiving, but far superior in precisely translating any exertion directly to the ski. So it's critical to conduct an honest evaluation of your abilities, present and future, and then convey that to the salesperson. If you're uncertain, don't be bashful (better to feel awkward in a cozy ski shop than on top of a mountain in single-digit weather).
"Ask the boot-fitter what to be on the lookout for," said O'Donoghue. "They will likely have a good idea of what you can expect."
After a brief break-in period (typically two to three days), boots can be "tweaked" to further modify fit, such as adding material between the liner and shell, grinding material from the liner and/or shell, or adding a custom foot-bed (check out the moldable insoles by Footbalance) to enhance stability.
"Ask the fitter what solutions they may apply to anything they expect to see flare up, based on your conversation," said O'Donoghue. "The good boot-fitter will know pretty well what they expect to happen, and will have the solution to those potential issues in mind already."
How to Buy Ski Boots: Tips from an Insider.
Getting Ready for Ski Season.
Ski Gear Checklist. (Print it!)
Prepare to Ski.
Photo: courtesy of Ola Matsson