Guide to Buying Boots

Ski Boots

Typical Sizing & Selecting

The chart below is sort of accurate. What it doesn’t take into account is that boot manufacturers still make different sized boots, even though the Mondo sizing is intended to eliminate that. The way mondo sizing works (allegedly works) is that the dimension, such as 25.5, defines the inner size of the boot in centimeters. If you ever bother to measure your foot in centimeters, you’ll see quite quickly that none of the numbers really jive. In fact, a ladies’ 27 is a centimeter smaller than a mens’ 27, which tells you that the whole standardization thing is a bunch of hooey. Another thing to remember is that most boot manufacturers do not make half sizes, they just use smaller liners. In theory, a 27.5 and 27.0 are the same shell. Then again, one of your feet might be a millimeter longer than the other.

So, what to do?

If you are buying boots retail, ignore the sizing and just try on boots until they fit. If you have to completely tighten all the settings, the boot is too large. If you have to max out every setting, the boot is not necessarily too small…because it will stretch through use. Even if you need someone to help clamp down the buckles the first few times you wear them, you are probably on the right track. Too small is far better than too big — the act of skiing will “pack out” the liner and make it larger. A tighter fit means the boot moves when your foot moves, a loose fit means that your feet slop around in your boot and your skis won’t move unless you overcompensate, which puts you off balance, which leads to a yard sale. Just make sure the boot doesn’t cut off your circulation, and don’t store your boots out in a cold garage the night before you ski.

If you are buying online or mail order, have your foot measured at a shoe store on one of those big metal things. Go to the chart below, add one full size to your size, and read across to your mondo size. In other words, if you are a ladies’ 8.5, add a size to 9 or 9.5, and try a mondo size 26.5 to 27. If you have a good metric ruler, have somebody check you out with that. Better still, head to your chain sporting goods retailer and use their foot measurement thing — usually it has a metric or mondo scale. Start with that, and be sure whoever you order from has a return policy.

Going cheap? buying through ebay or some other less-than-iron-clad-returnable outlet? Do the same: Have your foot measured, add one full size, look for the corresponding Mondo size, etc. Then make sure that whatever you buy is cheap enough so that you won’t be upset if it all craps out…and you can always try to resell via a ski swap, ebay, newspaper ad, etc. and plod ahead!

Nothing wrong with that; most of us have skied in used boots at one time or another. Your best opportunity for saving money in the world of skiing is to shop at ski swaps. At swaps it’s fairly easy to come up with boots that fit: You simply yank the inner liner out and try that on. You can squeeze the inner liner with your fingers and figure out exactly where your toes goes, and by the way you can do that with kids boots as well. Unless they’re little kids and you’re looking at rear-entry boots — more about rear-entry in the next paragraph.

And remember, we’re talking about boots with four adjustable buckles*, right? If you’re looking at something other than that, it’s either a children’s boot, rental boot, or a boot that is old…which isn’t necessarily bad. Some people simply fit into rear entry boots better than front entry — style be damned — and any “new” rear entry boots are so old they’re bound to be dirt cheap. If you take skiing seriously enough that you’re reading this article, you don’t want rear entry boots. But if you’re really only planning to make one or two runs down the gently sloping groomed novice runs on one or two holiday outings per season and care nothing about improving your game, yeah, you can use rear entry boots.

Sometimes rental cast-offs are available at ski swaps. Rental boots may be front, rear, or fewer buckles, but are usually built to take a beating, so don’t be put off by those either.

In a nutshell, the basic rules of ski boots: Tight fit, comfort, minimal or no “foot slop,” ankle rigidity, and make sure you can make the boots go where you want them to go/do what you want them to do — because that’s the only way your skis are going to.

Narrow Boots, Wide Boots, & Custom Fit

In the paragraphs above, we talk exclusively about the way the average Joe buys ski boots. If you have unusual feet, or if you ski frequently, you may have to step it up a notch.

Are all ski boots the same width? No. Absolutely not. The width of the shell depends on the “last” the manufacturer uses to form it. Different models or product lines use different lasts.

As an example, let’s look at a recent seasonal line up from Tecnica. In this particular year, the Tecnica Diablo fit a men’s B to C foot width. The Tecnica Vento fit a D to E width, the Tecnica Modo was even wider, and the Tecnica Vento HVL (HV stands for High Volume) was designed for men with feet shaped like a duck foot; probably the widest boot available. (Don’t look for these names exactly; they’re probably re-branded by the time you read this. Can’t imagine names like “modo” and “vento” are gonna light up the English-speaking markets.)

If you have any doubts about finding boots that fit, your best bet is to go to a custom bootfitter; most high end ski shops have someone who can help you. Chain stores are less likely to be able to meet your needs, but then again if they happen to carry a wide boot, you might find the right fit. The advantage to a custom bootfitter is that they will take into account the shape of your legs to cant the boots properly, and a host of other things to give you a perfect fit.

Mondo Ski Boot Sizes

 
Mondo Size (cm) U.S. Men’s Shoe Size U.S. Women’s Shoe Size
21.5 4
22 4.5
22.5 4 5
23 4.5 5.5
23.5 5 6
24 5.5 6.5
24.5 6 7
25 6.5 7.5
25.5 7 8
26 7.5 8.5
26.5 8 9
27 8.5 9.5
27.5 9 10
28 9.5 10.5
28.5 10 11
29 10.5 11.5
29.5 11 12
30 11.5 12.5
30.5 12 13

FLEX

A flexible boot is easier to walk around in, but that comfort comes at the expense of performance. If your foot mushes around in the boot, it feels good — but the mush is moving, not the boot. Likewise the stiff boot provides much greater response, but that performance comes at the expense of comfort.

Now there are some caveats that can’t be avoided — a novice female with a slight build who skis once a year positively must have a low flex. And a 250 lb. man who skis once a year positively must have a stiffer flex, sacrificing comfort, because the boot needs to support his bulk.

Ultimately, you are the decider, selecting the combination of comfort and stiffness that is best suited to your needs and skiing style. In general, you can use this as a guide to Flex Rating numbers:

  • “Comfort” flex is for the Beginner to Intermediate skier. It’s also known as a “soft” or “easy” flex. Emphasis is on comfort. The Flex Rating is generally in the 50-80 range.
  • “Performance” flex is for the Intermediate to Advanced skier. This is a soft to medium flex; not quite as comfortable but a lot more responsive on the hill. Flex Rating is generally in the 80-100 range.
  • “High Performance” flex is for the Advanced to Expert skier. This is a medium to stiff flex; at the higher range this is not overly comfortable but has the response that Experts need to ski moguls and trees the way the rest of us wish we could. Flex rating is generally in the 100-130 range.
  • “Race” flex is for racing, and little else. This is an extremely stiff flex; these are the people you’ll see unbuckling their boots as soon as they finish their run. A lot of high school and beer league racers go out and buy race boots, then learn quickly that they made a huge mistake. Flex rating is generally 140 and higher.

Incidentally, the top World Cup level racers demand even more responsiveness from their boots. Not only do they use a flex rating that would make most of us squeal in pain, many opt to wear a boot one-and-one half sizes too small, and use a lubricant to squeeze their feet in. Bode Miller, for example, wears something like a size 11 street shoe and ski boot, but squeezes into a 9.5 when he races. Ouch.

Boot Condition

If you decide to go cheap — again, no shame in that — look for boots in good overall condition. If they’ve had the snot beat out of them and are used up and worn out, they’re not going to serve you well.

A few items, such as heel and toe pads, can be replaced when worn out. But in some cases those parts may not be available, or they may cost more than the boots.

Do NOT buy anything online that says “…boots are in like-new condition but one has a broken buckle that can be replaced at a ski shop…”

Do NOT buy a pair of boots “…one of the boots is missing the power strap, but that can easily be replaced by a ski shop.”

In most cases with used boots — unless they are of very recent vintage — the parts will never be found unless we buy another pair with a good buckle. Remember: You can’t “wish” an item to be good. The ONLY time to buy broken or incomplete items is if you happen to know the item and have the needed part in your possession.

Packing Out

This refers to the fact that, as you ski, your calves, ankles and feet are mashing the inner liner and compressing it over time. As this happens, you’ll notice you have to make your boot buckles tighter and tighter. So plan accordingly — if you have to max out your boots on the tightest setting right from the get-go, those boots are too big for you. Yes, you can replace the lining. For many casual skiers, however, when the lining is shot — the boots also tend to be shot. If you are a frequent skier, say 30 days or more per season, it probably makes sense to replace your liners and heels/toes from time to time. Speaking of which…

Micro-Adjustment or Micro-Fit

This is where you can spin the buckles around for infinite fit possibilities. If your buckle feels too tight at one clasp point but too loose at the next, micro-fit enables you to make it perfect with a couple twists of the wrist.

Heels & Toes

Better quality boots have replaceable heels and toes. Unscrew the screws, prise off the pads, replace with new, re-screw. It’s important to keep an eye on these, as worn heels and toes will not properly engage the boot binding…which can lead to all sorts of problems. If you are considering a pair of used boots with overly worn heels and toes, do NOT buy them unless you can verify that they are of very recent manufacture and replacement heel & toe pads are readily available.

Once you understand how these work, you can get quite creative. I once found a pair of intermediate boots for $5. at a ski swap; they had no liners and two of the buckles were smashed. The power straps had been removed as well. But the heels and toes were in pristine condition, and the boots were from the same manufacturer I was using at the time. I thought, hmmm…and took a chance. The heels and toes were identical to those on my high-end boots — and in much better condition. I took off those parts, then threw the boots away.

* * * * *

* Some boots are designed with three buckles or with cable clasps (the Flexon design) and tend to be for park’n’pipe or freestyle or jumping off cliffs and whatnot. If you’re in the market for that sort of thing, there’s very little in this article that you probably don’t already know.

–Rick