Guide to Buying Backcountry Ski Boots
The 2018/19 season is upon us and with it a new batch of shiny Backcountry Ski boots. If thinking back to last season makes your feet hurt you might be interested in our 2019 Ski Boot Buyers Guide.
Last season we 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, Lightweight Touring, Freeride and Telemark. 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 the most versatile available.
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. Expect most of these boots to feature a fixed, Rockered rubber sole for ski touring.
The biggest change in recent years though 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.
One of the issues for these boots in the past has been that they can only be used with ski touring bindings, this is largely still true but advances in ski touring binding performance and safety have meant that it is now quite realistic to do all of your skiing on your performance touring boot and your ski touring binding.
Another introduction to the world of bindings is having an effect on how these boots are used. The growth in 'touring boot compatible' Alpine bindings has the potential to further revolutionise the way people use performance touring boots. Bindings such as the Salomon Warden 13 MNC feature a fully adjustable toe height which allows the safe use of most ski touring boots, this means that you can switch between you touring set up and your freeride / all mountain skis whilst using one ski touring boot. This sounds great but be aware that this developing area of the market hasn't quite settled down into defined 'norms' yet. Many bindings such as Marker ID and Look Dual will state that they are compatible with 'touring boots' but they mean WTR (walk to ride) or Grip Walk type soles which have a maximum boot sole rocker height and are generally found on freeride boots, not on 'proper' ski touring boots. These WTR type bindings generally don't have sufficient toe height adjustment for safe use with Performance Touring boots so speak to someone that knows about compatibility before buying a touring boot and Alpine binding combo.
Scarpa Maestrale RS Scott Superguide Carbon
Lightweight 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 by some, 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 WTR 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 standard Alpine downhill bindings, most have a system of interchangeable sole units to allow this. All of our Freeride boots have pin tech fittings to use modern pin tech touring 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 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 limited touring. The ability to use touring and standard 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 2.1 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 or M27 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 here.
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 here.
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.