Do Your Ski Boots Fit? How to Tell If You’re Good to Go
Ski expert Matt B. dives into what makes a good ski boot and how you should try it on to know if you've found the right pair.
What if I told you that the most important part of your ski set up wasn't your skis; would you believe me? Many skiers may not – after all, it's called "skiing," not "booting"! Alas, the most critical pieces of your ski set up are those creaky, tough-to-walk-down-stairs-in, "thump" machines called ski boots. But what makes a good ski boot, and how should you try them on to know if you've found the right pair? Let's get into it.
THE Ski boot myth
First: Ignore your uncle who went on three ski trips to Alta, UT, back in the 80's and claims that, "if your boots aren't killing your feet, then they're too big." Those days are behind us, and boot manufacturers these days have really progressed to make some surprisingly comfortable, performance-oriented alpine boots. (RIP rear-entry boots though – fingers crossed for a comeback tour soon.)
So while your ski boots shouldn't cause discomfort and fatigue, that doesn't mean they should feel like a pair of UGGs. On the contrary, you're going to want something that embodies the word, "snug."
This does not mean you should size down – although sometimes that can be beneficial and we'll get into that – to find a boot that will serve you well. Instead, in extreme cases, you might need to make a decision if you value top-end performance over all-day comfort. The average boot, however, is largely a best of both worlds these days, with models that will let you rip beautiful, arcing turns on groomers but won’t make you think twice about hitting apres in them, either.
Now that we have that cleared up, let's move on to what you're going to need to do to get set up in the right pair of boots, for beginners, intermediates, and experts alike.
We (you) need your digits
Break out your ruler, because it's time to measure your feet! And no, you won't need your "shoe" size; instead, you're going to find what's called your "mondo" size, which is just the length of your foot, measured in centimeters (cm).
To do this, lay a measuring device on the ground perpendicular to a wall, back your heel up to the wall, lean forward on an angle and do a sort of squatting motion, flexing at the ankle and knees, like you would while skiing. Look down, see how long your foot is in centimeters, and write this down – you'll need it later.
Next, use your measuring device of choice (my favorite is a ruler, although I have used a kitchen bench scraper in a pinch) to measure the forefoot width of your foot in millimeters. Write this down, too, since you'll want it later. Heads up: the width of a ski boot is called its "last."
By the way, ski boots are typically only sold in whole sizes, and it’s common to see a size like “27.0/27.5.” If you are an average skier who has, say, a 27.0 mondo size, for example, then by all means, get a 27.0/27.5 model. If you are super serious about performance at all costs, then pat yourself on the back, tell your friends, and opt for the next size down: 26.0/26.5.
Pump up the volume!
This is a quick, semi-subjective measure that you'll need to assess on yourself: do you have a high instep (aka does the top of your foot kind of arch pretty high?) or a relatively flat, "low volume" foot? Instep height is important, but fortunately, you probably have a good idea of what you're working with if you’ve worn shoes before.
When assessing boot fit, volume is the measure of how much "room" you're going to have in the boot, which may affect its performance and comfort. Personally, I have a very high arch and wide feet, so high-volume boots like the Dalbello Panterra are a must for me. In fact, I can't even put many of today's low-volume models on my feet - they just won't fit!
Keep in mind that there are lots of ways to manipulate the volume of your boot and make a low-volume boot a high-volume pair (the reverse isn’t really feasible). Some people add a special footbed to take up more space in the boot (many high-volume boots actually come with an extra footbed for this purpose). Others wear thick socks – though this is not recommended, as thicker socks typically translate into more sweat, which means cold toes.
Sock it to me
Speaking of socks, what should I use when trying on boots? Simple: use exactly what you'd wear when actually skiing, which typically means a ski-specific sock. Usually, these are made out of merino wool, which is a great insulator even when wet (ahem, sweaty), and offer some additional compression and arch support.
Wear these socks when trying on your boots and any time you have “work” done on them (if desired – more on that later). Ski socks usually pull over your calves and have deliberately placed padding on the shins, ankles, and arches, so it's important that you are happy with how the boots and socks work together to avoid pressure points.
Ski socks are typically ~$20 per pair, but they really are so much better than those tube socks you've been doubling up on in years past.
Weird flex, but OK...
Ok, so you have your foot length, aka "mondo point" size, aka that measurement you wrote down after jamming your foot against the wall. You also have your width measure, aka "last" in millimeters, and you've assessed whether you have a high or low volume foot. What's next? Flex!
Flex indicates the stiffness of a boot, specifically the ski boot shell, and has an impact on comfort and performance: A stiff boot will allow more of your power to flow through the boot and drive your skis, while a soft boot will have some "give" in it, which will be more comfortable overall, but will make you work harder to really ski on edge. Further, if you are on the heavier or lighter side, you may need to be selective with your flex. Lighter skiers won't be able to generate as much force to drive their boots and skis, meaning they should opt for more flexible models, while heavier skiers should do the opposite and opt for a stiffer version when possible.
A zoomed-out flex rating for men and women by ability is as follows:
- Men: Intermediate to Advanced (85-100 flex); Advanced to Expert (110-130 flex)
- Women: Intermediate to Advanced (65-80 flex); Advanced to Expert (85-100 flex)
*Beginners may be well-served by choosing a flex lower than the "intermediate to advanced" measures; however, in my experience you will quickly outgrow this, meaning you'll need to buy new boots again pretty soon.
Note: Your Curated Ski Expert may recommend a couple of pairs of boots for you, some with different flex ratings. Don't worry – this is OK! Generally, the buckets of flex ratings are very similar, except in hyper-performance-oriented models. So, a 110 flex and a 120 flex are not too far off, for example.
Putting it all together
When buying boots, remember these things to avoid fit issues: 1. Your foot's mondo size, aka length, in centimeters 2. Your foot's last, aka width, in millimeters 3. Your instep size, which translates into high or low volume models if needed 4. Your skiing ability (be honest but leave room for progression, particularly if you're a beginner)
Having a good understanding of these factors is critical to buying the right pair of boots. There are more factors you can consider to really dial in the fit, too, such as calf size (for the upper cuff circumference). Talk to your Curated Ski Expert for more.
My friend says you shouldn't buy boots online - is this true?
This is a common question, but for many, many people, buying boots online is A-OK. When you take the time to understand your measurements and what different things like "last" and "volume" do to the fit of a boot, you can help ensure you get the right boot the very first time.
And, to boot (pun intended), purchasing online is typically much cheaper than buying in person, especially when looking at boots.
The best part: If you buy a pair online that you like, you can always take them into a local shop to have "work" done on them, such as "punching" the shell to knock the width out a bit, heating up the ski boot liner to fit to your foot (although many liners, such as Intuition Liners, do this quite well without heat), and more.
Hey, sole sister. A note on binding compatibility
Let's talk about soles real quick – and no, not custom insoles on the inside (although these are a great investment if you want to take comfort up another notch). Instead, we need to talk about boot soles.
There are a variety of boot soles, such as traditional Alpine Soles, various GripWalk Soles, and more, which don't all play nice with every single binding on the market. The majority of today's boots have either standard Alpine Soles or GripWalk soles, and most new bindings are able to accept these soles. However, you need to make sure your boot's soles will work with your bindings, so either check with your Curated Ski Expert, wherever you get your skis mounted, or do some light googling.
Trying on your boots
Alright, you bought some boots. Awesome! Now, let's try them on. 1. First, put on those trusty ski socks; you know, the ones you're going to use during the season. 2. Then, undo all of the boot's buckles and the powerstrap (that wide velcro strap across the top – this allows you to transfer more power to your boots and skis.) 3. Sit down. 4. Put your feet in both boots. It is totally OK if your toes touch (but not jam into) the end of the boot here – in fact, gentle toe touching means you did a great job selecting a boot length. Give the boots a light tap on the floor with your heels. 5. Stand up into a neutral position. Your feet will move a bit as your heel settles into the heel cup and your toes recede a bit. Right now, you can get a feel for whether you have a supportive footbed, and if your instep is appropriate. And, if your toes are still really cramped against the front of the boot, you’re probably going to need to return them. 6. Buckle the top buckle lightly and lean forward. This gives you some resistance to further push your heel backwards. 7. Buckle the second-from-the-top buckle to “firmly snug” (not a scientific term). This is the most important buckle since it keeps your heel in place – make sure to get this snug without cutting off circulation. 8. Buckle the top buckle. Lots of your power comes from your shins - at this point, you're locked in there. 9. Buckle the buckle(s) over the top of your feet. These should not be tight - just snug. You don't gain performance down here, but you can lose it if it's too loose. 10. Secure the power strap. That's it!
How do you feel? Initial indicators are important, however, the best way to tell is to keep your feet in the boots. I, personally, am a fan of cranking my standing desk all the way up and standing in my new boots for a few conference calls, but do whatever works best for you. (Just don't wear them outside in case you want to return them!)
Fine-tuning with micro adjustments
If you are in between buckles, or if your circulation is getting cut off, you can make tiny adjustments by "spinning" the buckles on the boot. Righty-tighty and lefty-loosey work here, just play around with things until you feel like they are set.
How should they feel?
By now, you know that boots should be snug, not constricting. If you are a super performance-oriented skier, then yeah, you want tighter boots. But for the rest of us resort skiers and weekend warriors, something that allows your power to translate to the skis is all you need.
Pay attention to pressure points on the edges of your feet – these can be "worked" out at a local ski shop; other measures, like needing more volume, are a little harder to reverse. Similarly, if your calf is too large or constricted, try loosening your top buckle, which doesn't need to be overly tight if your second-from-the-top buckle is correctly snug.
Talk to your Curated Ski expert to learn more about boots and fit!