Ski boots might be the single most important piece of skiing equipment you own—maybe even more important than the skis themselves. Your boots, after all, are the only piece of equipment that touches your body. Skis of different qualities will do more or less the same job, but all of your power and control comes from your feet. The wrong ski boots will screw up your performance on the slope, at best, and cause serious pain and injury at worst.
When you prioritize shopping for ski boots, you’ll be able to enjoy the benefits for years to come, and save yourself the hassle and hurt of skiing in the wrong footwear. Here’s some tips to prepare you for the process, so that you can get what you need to ensure that your first day on the slopes goes smoothly.
Start With The Right Shop
You’re not going to get the right boots if you don’t shop at the right store. This might sound like a no brainer, but in the era of online shopping, the temptation can be strong to click and order on delivery. This might be an option for regular shoes, but ski boots are not regular shoes (more on this in a moment). It’s crucial to go to an actual brick-and-mortar store to get the right ski boots, because there’s no way you can get the right fit off the internet. When you decide to go shopping, make sure you have enough time to invest in the trip—a proper ski boot fitting can take up to two hours, done properly.
Find a shop that carries a wide selection of ski boots in different brands, sizes, and styles. It can be helpful to visit before ski season even begins to make sure they’ve got everything in stock. You’ll also need to make sure that the staff is knowledgeable enough to get you properly fitted, and aren’t just there to make a sale at any cost.
Ski Boots Are Not Shoes
It’s possible to go shoe shopping without a specialist because you can feel whether or not you’ve got the right size. In fact, armed with your shoe size, you might not even need to try shoes on at all, especially for shoes like sandals that come with a lot of room for error. But ski boots aren’t shoes. They function completely differently on your feet, forcing your body into completely different and unusual positions.
In shoes, you are generally able to stand perfectly upright, distributing your weight roughly equally between the ball of your feet and your heel. Your foot widens as it spreads out against the ground, and your ankles are more or less free to flex.
In ski boots, though, your knees are forced forward at a slight angle, distributing your weight mostly on the ball of your foot. Your ankles should be completely immobilized and prevented from rolling inside the boot. This is the physical arrangement that skiing power comes from. If a ski boot is too big, you lose all the power, and put yourself at risk of serious injury.
“If the shoe fits, wear it” is a great motto for sneakers and flip flops, where each number roughly fits everyone else of a similar foot size, but ski boots are more like Cinderella’s infamous glass slippers—they should only fit you. A good boot fitter will take your foot length, width, shape, arch, and build, as well as any other unique features into account when sizing you.
If The Boot Fits, It’s The Wrong Size
One of the most common mistakes people make when buying ski boots is choosing a comfortable boot. That’s right: if it’s comfortable when you buy it, it’s almost certainly the wrong size. Because ski boots are built with a spongy liner that compresses over time to mold to your feet, new boots should feel too tight the first day that you wear them. If you buy a pair that fits comfortably right away, they’ll quickly become looser and larger until they’re much too big. Compensating by buckling your boots in tighter to the skis will just damage the nerves and blood vessels on the tops of your feet, and won’t make the boots fit any better.
The same rule of thumb goes for kids. Avoid the temptation to buy boots for kids to “grow into”. Ski boots come in one-centimeter size increments, which is more than a shoe size (in American as well as European sizes). This means that if a ski boot is two sizes too big, it’s an inch and a half too big, which is a huge gap for a kid’s foot. The boots will be incredibly difficult to ski well in, and the learning curve will be much steeper than it would be with boots that fit right. Don’t make skiing harder than it needs to be, or put kids at risk of injury.
The Flex Index
Ski boots are rated on a flex index that measures how stiff boots are. In general, stiffer boots are able to transfer more power, and for this reason are better for more advanced skiers. Boots with a softer flex, or a flex index below 80, are good for beginners, partly because they’re more comfortable. If you’re an intermediate skier, go for a flex index between 80 and 100. Medium-flex boots are more responsive than soft flex boots, so they’re better for speed and turning.
If you’re an advanced skier, stiff flex boots are the way to go. With a flex index of 100 or more, these ski boots are perfect for steep or challenging terrain with tight turns, bumps and jumps. Racing boots are the stiffest, but can be too rigid if you’re going for real maneuverability as well as speed.
Unfortunately, flex index ratings vary by manufacturer, so you’ll just have to try them on and see how they feel in the shop.
Don’t let the process of buying ski boots turn you off. Instead, get excited for the chance to choose a ski boot that’s truly unique to you, so that you can enjoy skiing like a pro, and hit the slopes knowing you’ve got exactly the right equipment.