You want to put in more days on the mountain than ever. Or, you just want to get into the sport as a beginner, but not have the hassle of renting gear every time you go.
We can write a book on the ins and outs of proper boots. They’re the one important pieces of gear that, done right, will keep you from discomfort and can actually improve your skiing.
Here’s what you should know now— before you even hit the ski shop.
Where should you look for ski boots? Great ski boots can seem to be everywhere during the season. You can find them in store, online, at tent sales or even on eBay. The smart choice: Go to either a reputable ski shop in your area, or at a mountain where you ski often. (More on that later.)
Don’t buy from discount ski shops or big-box sporting goods stores. You get what you pay for. Going down a double black is the wrong place to find out that your choice in ski boots was a bad one. Discount shops and big sports retailers usually don’t have a staff experienced in getting you the right fit, or making the fit adjustments necessary (bootfitting.) They’re more retailer than ski buff. Ask friends (namely, us at WSR!) which shops have a good reputation.
Pick a reputable shop. Good ski shops have a staff with the proper knowledge of boot brands and how they vary in fit for different feet. Likely the staff has skied many different mountains in many different brands of boots. They’ll be able to make good recommendations based on the characteristics of your foot type— of which they should do a spot assessment either with your socks on or off. (If any retailer recommends a boot before you’ve even taken your shoes off, take caution!)
Don’t find a good bootfitter. (Find a great one.) Bootfitting is a craft with the primary purpose of optimizing your boot’s fit for comfort and performance through modifications that range from melting —and stretching— the plastic shell to hammering and padding hotspots to eliminate pain. Like a great tailor, a great bootfitter can make your boot-to-ski setup such that your skiing will improve and you’ll feel great in your boots. Most good ski shops have a bootfitter on premises. Ask around. Ski instructors will tell you who the best in town is too.
Buy boots on-mountain or home? Should you buy ski boots at the mountain’s ski shop? Or a ski shop near home? Here’s the WSR take:
If you go the same mountain often, buying at a ski shop in that resort’s area will allow you to try out a boot —and test any adjustments that the shop might make to your fit— on the mountain, same day. The advantage: you don’t have to wait until you go to your hometown ski shop after a weekend to have an adjustment made. Disadvantage: Prices can be higher.
Shopping at a hometown shop can be good too. You’ll be close by to your shop, and be able to talk to your boot department pro anytime you feel the need—either before a trip or after. Adjustments can be made on a weeknight if need be, ready for you to start your next ski day bright and early without an early morning stop on the way to the mountain.
Everyone’s feet are different. What works for your friend won’t necessarily work for you. Don’t buy ski boots based on popularity. Even if they’re rated #1 in every review in the world. Go by the fit.
Last year’s model is okay. If it’s a great fit. Sometimes the technology changes little from year to year. If you can find the boot that makes your feet —and your skiing— feel heavenly, but they’re a model year or two old, get them anyway. If the price is low because of it, all the better.
Don’t go gadget-crazy. Electric boot warmers. Foam-pumped liners. Special entry boots. Soft shells. There are a lot of great technologies that ski boot science has to make your fit and your skiing better. Don’t feel any of them are a must-have. A caveat: any boot innovation that will make adjustments easier (adjustable buckles, for one.)
Don’t buy on looks or brand. Everyone in the world may ski a particular brand of boot. Doesn’t mean it’s perfect for you. Nor is that particular model just because it’s in blue or has the cool design on the side. Again, buy on comfort and fit. If you have a special type of foot, and one brand is known for accommodating that type in its shell design (called a”last,”) it may be worth looking into. Your bootfitter or ski shop pro will tell you more.
Get the right fit. So how do you tell if a boot is even a remotely a good fit? By a shell fit, which any good ski shop pro will do for you. Remove the cushioned liner of the boot, and stick your thinly-socked or bare foot inside. Let your shin butt up against the tongue of the shell. The empty space between the back of your calf and the back of the boot shell shouldn’t be more than about an inch and a half, or the width of two fingers. Some use a flashlight to peek down the space. Once you’re wearing it with the liner back in, a good boot’s fit should be like a firm handshake around your foot. If your feet can swim around in the boot, it’s too big. And as a bootfitter will tell you, it’s easier to make a smaller boot fit you better than a too-big boot fit at all.
Don’t judge on the feel sitting in store. Most boots feel completely different on the slopes. If a boot feels like a winner once you slip it on in the store, stand in it for at least 10 minutes. If all is well and discomfort is minor, ask your shop pro about solutions.
Demo if you can. If you have the opportunity to demo or rent a boot you’re interested in, it’s a great way to choose the best boot for you. Have to buy a boot and don’t have the time or luxury or a demo? Ask about the refund/exchange policy at the shop. Also ask if any bootfitting modifications are included in the purchase price.
Buying on the web. Yes, you can get ski boots on eBay. And lots of places online. But (this is a big “but”) you miss out on that all-important personal attention in the shop, and of course the ability to try on the boot. Here’s the WSR take on when it’s realistic to buy boots online: When you’re experienced with ski boots and their fit, and you know the exact model and size you need. (Given that, if you’ve learned the latter from a local store visit, please consider canning the price-shopping and just patronize the local guys who did the brain work in the first place.)
Buy the footbed. Please! With a new ski boot, your purchase isn’t done. The insoles —“footbeds”— that come in the box aren’t really much use. The majority of comfort factor in a ski boot comes from the way your foot sits in the boot. And that’s the product of a proper footbed. Some are off-the-shelf, which are much better than the stock ones —and may suffice. And some can be custom-molded and posted to your foot (costing upwards of $100 or more.) Either way, a footbed that works for you can improve your skiing tremendously.
"Complain the pain." Lastly, if you have any discomfort in a new boot (not uncommon at all until the liner breaks in and better shapes to your foot), tell your shop pro or bootfitter. They’ll make some modifications and strive to get you to a better place. It may take some good communication between you and the shop, but it will be well worth it.