Welcome to our quick introduction to the different families of backcountry ski boots.
The season is upon us and with it a new batch of shiny ski touring and freeride Ski boots. If you are new to backcountry skiing or haven’t looked at what s out there in years then this introduction to backcountry ski boots may be of use.
We have decided to focus entirely on our speciality, Ski Touring boots and Freeride Ski boots, so every boot in our range features a walk mode to make life more comfortable. These walk modes are designed for use when hiking or skinning to earn you turns but they also make getting around the resorts easier and much more comfortable.
Below we’ll give an introduction to the different family’s of modern Backcountry ski boots and their typical uses and how to decide which ones are for you.
We split our ski boot range into 4 main groups:
Performance Touring Boots: Touring boots that are designed to give lots of ski support.
Lightweight Touring Boots: Focussed on the uphill side, light weight with big walk mode ranges.
Freeride Boots: Focussed on the skiing side, great ski support but still with touring features and Gripwalk alpine binding compatibility.
Telemark Boots: Flexible at the bellows with telemark binding compatibility.
There are boots which exist in between these categories but they are still useful definitions.
Performance Touring Boots
This is the modern ‘all round’ boot category for us, advances in the boots as well as bindings have made a huge difference to the way people are using these boots now and as such we see these boots as some of the most versatile available if you are looking to do some ski touring amongst your other ski trips.
This family was referred to as ‘4 buckle’ touring boots but the modern designs don’t really fit with this description. They are ski touring boots which are designed to give the best possible performance when touring and when skiing. The weight of the modern Performance touring boots has come right down and many are now sub 3KGs for the pair. The current batch usually have a big range of motion in touring mode too. These boots feature a fixed, Rockered rubber boot sole for ski touring.
One of the biggest changes in recent years is the way that these performance ski touring boots ski. Many of them now ski every bit as well as Freeride boots and Alpine downhill boots. This has opened up the way people use these boots making them suitable for most people to use as a one boot to do it all with very few compromises as long as you don’t need alpine downhill binding compatibility.
These boots comply with the ski touring boot norm ISO9523 but don’t work with Grip Walk or alpine bindings so they can only be used with ski touring bindings. Advances in ski touring binding performance and safety have meant that it is now quite realistic for many people to do all of their skiing on a performance touring boot and ski touring binding.
Lightweight Ski Touring Boots
These are the lightest category of touring boots and sit between the Skimo race boots and the Performance Touring boots.
Referred to as 2 buckle touring boots in the past, they are designed primarily for the ascent. With very lightweight construction and big ranges of motion in walk mode these boots tour very well and make a big difference on the way up.
They tend to be softer in ski mode because the shells are thin so they don’t offer as much help as the performance touring boots on the way back down. As a result they are best suited to good skiers who are skiing light weight skis and doing long days of ascent. For a lot of regular skiers these Lightweight Touring boots would be part of a 2 boot solution alongside a Freeride or Alpine boot.
Because weight is a primary concern with these boots the designers often reduce the size of the toe and heel lugs to the bare minimum. This means that usually these boots are only compatible with Pin Tech touring bindings and not frame touring bindings or MNC style Alpine bindings. Some of these lightweight touring boots are also not compatible with the modern pin tech ‘fusion’ bindings which feature Alpine style heels for improved ski performance such as Salomon Shift, Marker Kingpin and Fritschi Tecton 12.
Freeride Ski Boots
Freeride skiing is all about the descent. It is off piste skiing focused on the line and the quality of the snow.
These days Freeride has become a blanket term which covers all off piste skiing. Freeride skiing is primarily lift served so often around the resorts. It is common for Freeride skiers to need to hike or skin for a time to reach stashes of fresh powder or to get back out from a valley after a Backcountry run, though typically the hiking will be for short periods. As a result freeride boots will feature a walk mode to make hiking and skinning more comfortable.
Freeride boots will be compatible with ski touring bindings but also modern Grip Walk Alpine downhill bindings, they used to all have a system of interchangeable sole units to allow them to clip into alpine bindings but since Grip Walk took over as industry standard most Freeride boots come with Grip Walk sole units fitted. All of our Freeride boots have pin tech fittings to use pin tech touring and hybrid bindings.
Freeride boots are primarily designed for the skiing performance so tend to be heavier and stiffer than the Ski Touring boots and often have a more limited range of motion in walk mode, though as the kit advances the touring function of these boots is getting much better.
Freeride Ski boots are perfect if you will primarily be skiing in and around the resorts, if your skiing is mostly about the descent and you will only be doing occaisional touring though the latest generation are suitable for much more touring. The ability to use touring and alpine bindings makes them very versatile.
Telemark Ski Boots
Here we are talking about Alpine telemark skiing rather than Nordic Telemark.
Telemark skiing is free heel so requires unique bindings and ski boots.
The boots need to flex across the ball of the foot so have a plastic ‘bellows’ to allow this. They will also be compatible with one or other binding system.
The two main systems are NTN (new telemark norm) and the older 75mm or 3 pin ‘Duck bill’ system.
We just stock the NTN system these days because it has advantages for ski performance and convenience.
The NTN system doesn’t use a Duck bill toe so they have a ‘normal’ sized toe lug and an extra lug in the middle of the boot sole for the bindings to attach. This is used instead of a heel cable.
Some of the latest Telemark bindings such as the Meidjo use pin tech toe pieces along side the NTN attachment under the boot. This works very well and has produced lightweight Tele bindings which give excellent skiing.
How to chose the right boot type for you?
First things first, decide where you are going to do most of your skiing, currently and in the future.
It could be piste, off piste or touring. Some people will want one boot to do all three, this can involve a compromise but as the kit improves these compromises are being reduced. You may know you will want to climb in your ski boots, you may know that you will never want to climb in them!
Most boot descriptions will give you figures for weight, the width across the ball of the foot and a flex index number to indicate the stiffness of the boot, the higher the number the stiffer the boot. Please take these figures with a pinch of salt as they are only a guideline and are open to abuse by marketing departments as such they can be misleading.
Flex index numbers for Backcountry ski bots are normally given on the AT scale, to equate this to the Alpine boot flex index figure you should take 15-20 off the AT number, therefore expect a 130AT flex touring boot to be roughly equivalent to a 110 Flex Piste or Race boot.
The last width numbers are usually given for a M26 size, the width of the boots usually changes by around 2mm per size.
Ski boot sizes are based on a scale we call mondo sizing going from approx mondo 23 (approx UK 4) to mondo 34 (approx UK 15), do not expect all boots to be produced in all sizes. Shells for ski boots have never been produced in half sizes, it used to be that different liners were used to create the half size down but now with modern thermo fit liners there is no longer any difference between the full and half sized boots, more on this elsewhere on the blog.
Almost everyone will need their ski boots fitting in order to get the best out of them.
Backcountry boots are different to alpine boots in many ways so get your boots fitted by people that are used to using and fitting touring or freeride boots to get the best results.
Ski boot fitting normally involves help with choosing the model and size, heat molding liners, stretching plastic shells, grinding plastic and modifying inner boots and can transform a pair of boots from instruments of torture to virtual slippers.
Find out more about our boot fitting services in the blog.
We strongly recommend supportive arch footbeds for most people, these provide increased performance and comfort.
We can offer lots of advice about Backcountry Ski boots so please get in touch if you have any specific questions.