Editor’s note: This post was buried, we’ve edited and brought it to the front for the 2016-2017 ski boot sale season — which is now. Edits are ongoing. Please know that the boot examples are just that, and not intended to be a complete listing of what’s available. What is more, ski touring boots are tending to overlap categories more than ever, so our attempt at categorization is under revision. Suggestions welcome. By the way, it’s been interesting watching the ski touring boot market these past few years. Traditional makers such as Scarpa have responded to new competition by really stepping it up on the innovation front. Meanwhile, established alpine companies such as Tecnica and Dalbello are giving us beefy ski touring boots that yield a better than ever blend of traditional downhill performance with uphill efficiency.
New backcountry skiers often ask me for advice. Questions about buying AT (Alpine ski Touring) boots are by far the most common. Therefore I thought it would be useful to put together a comprehensive yet basic buying guide for AT ski boots. This aims to be an explanation of all the types of backcountry skiing boots and boot features rather than recommending certain brands (though for our example boots we only use those with a good reputation). It’s targeted to those new to backcountry skiing, but hopefully will find some use by everyone.
Fit is the most important question when buying a ski touring boot. A well fitting “shoe” will be more comfortable, warmer, and will ski better than one that doesn’t fit your foot. Pressure points can be painful, or too much wiggle room will make even a stiff boot ski worse than a well-fitting softer boot (which is yet another reason “flex ratings” can be lame).
The shell of a boot (as well as the liner) is designed according to a “last.” This is basically the generic foot form that the boot is molded on. Different companies use different lasts. Because the shape of lasts vary, it is difficult to buy your first ever backcountry ski boots online, sight unseen. Instead, we recommend buying from a reputable shop so you can easily evaluate how the last of the boot fits your foot. Once you find a brand/last that works, it can possibly be the brand you pick for many years. (Find the best shops here)
If you’re new to the ski touring game, the best way to figure out the best match for your foot is to work with a bootfitter or a shop employee trained in bootfitting. We can’t emphasize this enough. They’ll help you evaluate your foot and point you to a boot that can accommodate your shape and issues. Do not base your purchase on what fits your friends, or what a magazine reviewer says “fit off the shelf,” or “felt great.” Those are not your feet.
After matching the shell to your foot, the next step is the liner. Many higher-end AT boots come with thermomoldable liners that mold to your foot when heated. If your boots don’t have these, fear not. Intuition makes some of the best heat-mold liners on the market and they can be bought separately. More, boot makers are constantly improving liners that are intended to fit without heat molding. It’s possible that type of liner will work for you, so if the “non mold” option exists have the shop employee help you explore it.
Personally, I can rarely ski a boot without first molding the liner (here’s how!).
A massive variety of ski touring boots are available. They lie on a spectrum from lightweight boots to heavy, stiff “beef boots,” and everything in between.
AT boots are always a compromise between the ability to ski well and walk well. Boots that ski downhill the best are often heavier, more uncomfortable and inefficient for walking, and efficient touring boots may have less performance on the descent. Hence the huge variety in boots. In the last few years this gap has shrunk and some newer boots ski almost like an alpine boot while having excellent efficiency skinning up. What kind of boot you want will be dictated mostly by how you plan to use it. Consider how much time you will spend at the resort vs. backcountry, your skiing style, and what type of touring you plan to do (e.g. powder, spring skiing, mountaineering, etc.)
Beef boots are boots that put a priority on their ability to ski downhill well. Generally these boots are basically alpine ski boots with the addition of a walk/ski mode, rubber sole, and sometimes tech fittings that allow use with tech bindings such as Dynafit. Although these boots put the emphasis on the down, they are generally quite usable for hiking (much more than a traditional alpine boot). Polyurethane (PU, used in most alpine boots) is often the material of choice with these boots. Pu “feels” like an alpine boot, although its use may result in a heavier boot.
These heavy duty AT boots often have the option of sole blocks you can swap between alpine and touring versions. In some brands, the tech fittings are on the sole blocks while others may have the tech fittings built into the boot body above the sole block attachment point. The latter is clearly superior due to the stress placed on the sole blocks by the tech fitting binding attachment. K2 Pinnacle exemplifies a boot with the tech fittings molded into the main shoe body. Note that while swap soles might appear to be an ingenious option, in real life very few skiers have the time to constantly swap soles and most simply do it once if necessary after purchase, to configure the boot for its most common purpose. Point being, be realistic if you’re letting the swap sole option drive a purchase decision.
Beef boots are recommended to those who will be skiing mostly on the resort and need one boot to do it all. Also, aggressive skiers who like a stiff boot, will often use beefy boots even on long tours. Some examples of beef boots are:
“All around” ski touring boots are the most common touring boots, and what WildSnow.com readers are usually in. They generally have a traditional AT boot construction with a walk/ski mode, rubber sole, tech fittings, and lower cuff. Most use tongue construction, while some are overlap boots (see below). “All around” may have a conventional “DIN” shaped sole that works in frame bindings as well as tech binding if tech fittings are included. Examples of exception are the Dynafit TLT5 and 6, popular “all around” boots that do not have a DIN shaped sole.
As their name implies, all around boots work very well for a variety of backcountry skiing. They are generally lighter in weight and still have a fair amount of stiffness for skiing. However, they are aimed at traditional skiing and ski mountaineering so you may find them too wimpy for aggressive skiing. Pebax is the plastic usually used in these boots, but higher end models are tending to use Grilamid and other plastics that can be molded thin but still stiff to save weight. If you are planning on using the boot mostly in the backcountry and don’t mind sacrificing some downhill performance, these boots will be a good choice. Be aware that this category is somewhat subjective, so our examples may overlap into other categories:
Ski mountaineering race boots are ultra-light shoes designed for randonee “skimo” racing, although many people use them for standard ski touring as well as fitness uphilling. They place a high priority on uphill efficiency at the expense of downhill performance and/or price. In addition to the standard features of AT boots, ski mountaineering race boots usually include technical features such as innovative buckles or carbon-fiber construction. These boots often use Grilamid (a nylon plastic) which is stiff, yet lightweight due to how thin the walls of the boot are (many say these boots don’t “feel” like an alpine boot’s flex, which is generally true, as achieving downhill performance with minimal material may require an extremely rigid flex). Race boots always have tech fittings. They often have a sole shape that will not function correctly in frame bindings such as Fritschi Freeride or Marker Tour.
There are mixed opinions on the downhill performance of race boots. Many feel they approach the stiffness of alpine boots, and use them for all their backcountry skiing. They are indeed quite stiff, and ski strong, however they don’t quite have the “feel” of an alpine boot due to lack of progressive flex in the cuff and other more subtle factors. Race boots are often pricey. Also, race boots often save weight by being very low-volume. This can make them cold and difficult to fit. A few race boot examples from different brands:
Category-breakers have come on the scene in the past couple of years. These are astoundingly light in weight while also performing on the downhill. These boots are still a slight compromise, and won’t quite ski as well as some alpine boots, or climb quite like race boots. However, they have proven to be an incredible advancement in AT boots, and are highly recommended. Unfortunately some of these boots command a high price. Some examples of category breakers are:
Salomon Mountain Lab
Scarpa Maestrale RS tours well but skis somewhat like a heavier boot.
Dynafit Vulcan is super stiff to the point of having an unforgiving flex, very light.
Dynafit TLT 6 is on the lighter side, but skis stiffer than its look and weight would indicate.
Women’s boots are made by most boot manufacturers, and generally have a close equivalent on the male side of the line. Most often they have many of the same components and features as an equivalent men’s boot. However, they often have softer flex, a slightly different fit, and of course different sizing. There’s nothing wrong with a woman using a guys boot, or vice versa. Women’s boots may lack stiffness, so some aggressive women skiers may consider trying men’s boots. Conversely some smaller guys might want the soft flex and smaller sizes of women’s boots. Women’s boots from various manufacturers:
Scarpa Gea RS (women’s Maestrale RS)
Dynafit women’s One
Dynafit women’s TLT6
La Sportiva women’s Starlet
Bargain ski touring boots are offered by many boot manufacturers. These boots are often a “dumbed down” version of some of their higher-end boots. They are are often made with polyurethane, and may lack features such as thermomoldable liners and tech fittings. Bargain boots can be a good choice for someone on a budget or a beginner. However, many skiers will eventually want to upgrade to a nicer boot. Therefore, “bargain” boots can end up costing you more money in the long run. Put another way, so long as your boots and skis cost less than your bicycle (or, bicycles?), get the best shoes and skip that wheelset upgrade. We don’t review bargain boots at Wildsnow since they are usually compromised clones of higher-end boots. An example of a bargain boot is the Dynafit Neo PX, it uses less expensive Pbax plastic. With a non-thermo liner and sale price, this can be quite a value as it still includes tech fittings and a walk mode that’s quite comfortable. Still, nearly every skier will eventually want thermo mold liners and less weight. Why wait?
Most AT boots have a variety of common features. Depending on your intended use, some features are nice to have and some should be avoided.
Materials define performance.
Polyurethane, often abbreviated PU, is a plastic used in most alpine ski boots, and some varieties of alpine touring backcountry ski boots. It is a stiff plastic and has a consistent, familiar flex, hence it is used in alpine ski boots. PU is also inexpensive and easy to manufacture. Because it is common in alpine boots, boot fitters are accustomed to working on it and are able to more effectively fit boots made from polyurethane. Unfortunately PU is the heaviest of these materials as it needs to be thicker to provide necessary beef. You’ll find PU used in a variety of boots, sometimes to reduce cost, other times to yield a more alpine-like feel. Also, the stiffness of polyurethane is affected by temperature; the boot will feel noticeably softer on a warm spring day. Conversely, they feel stiffer the colder it gets.
Pebax is another traditional plastic used in AT boots. It is light and somewhat stiff. Most AT boots are made of Pebax. Unfortunately you will be hard-pressed to find a truly stiff Pebax boot. Also, Pebax isn’t affected by temperature as much, so it’s great for spring ski mountaineering when it’s warm.
Grilamid is a relatively new shell material on the ski mountaineering boot scene. It’s a specialized plastic that’s a formulation of nylon. Grilamid has the advantage of being stiff and strong, therefore minimal material can be used, reducing weight and bulk. Many newer high-end AT boots utilize this plastic. Although stiff, some skiers feel Grilamid doesn’t have as nice a flex as polyurethane. It also tends to be expensive to manufacture, and those costs are passed through to the consumer.
Carbon fiber is used to varying degrees in various high-end backcountry ski boots. It is ultralight and ultra stiff, and can dramatically reduce a boots weight. Unfortunately, carbon fiber boot parts are expensive and difficult to manufacture.
Walk/ski mode is probably the most important feature – it makes an AT boot what it is. At it’s most basic, it’s a mechanism that makes the boot more flexible for walking uphill. Some mechanisms work better than others, and there’s a big variety in how much they “loosen up” the boot. Traditionally they simply attached the top and bottom portions of the boot shell. Recent innovations have made the connection tighter and the walk mode softer.
Lugged soles are another feature that sets AT boots apart from other ski boots. Almost all touring boots have some sort of lugged sole made of a soft grippy material. This helps with walking and hiking, especially in difficult terrain. Unfortunately rubber soles wear out quickly when used for hiking without skis, and often can’t be used in normal alpine bindings. Some newer AT soles have hardened areas that are certified for use in frame and alpine bindings, while other boots may have ‘swap soles’ so you can configure the boot for alpine use. The swappable sole feature can make boots heavier, but is something to consider if you want a do-everything boot or are worried about your boot soles wearing out.
Tech fittings are small metal fittings that enable a backcountry skiing boot to be used with “tech” bindings. These bindings, long solely made by Dynafit and now produced by a variety of manufacturers, are lighter than “frame/plate” type AT bindings. Tech fittings are only available in some AT boots, and may bring the cost of the boot up. Although they add cost, if you think you might use tech bindings in the future, it’s a good idea to get a boot with the fittings; doing so can end up saving you money in the long run since most backcountry skiers will eventually be on tech bindings.
Shell construction is generally divided into two categories; overlap and tongue (cabrio). Overlap shells are similar to shells used in most alpine boots and generally provide more stiffness, although they also make for a stiffer walk mode. Tongue boots on the other hand are how most traditional AT boots are constructed. The tongue is similar to the one found in a normal shoe, although stiff and plastic. Tongue boots get much of their stiffness from the stiff tongue, which saves weight, but can result in a boot that isn’t very stiff, and doesn’t have as much lateral (side-to-side) stiffness. Recently however, well engineered tongue boots have caught up to overlap boots, and may ski just as well as their overlap cousins.
Buckles are of course how boots are closed, and they can provide much of the stiffness. Traditionally the number of buckles directly correlated to the stiffness of a boot. “4 buckle” boots were seen as the burliest boots out there. However, recent developments have thrown this out the window with some boots that have 2 or 3 buckles being as stiff as 4 buckle boots. Even many alpine boot companies are producing boots with fewer buckles. When shopping for older boots (3+ years old), it can be a good idea to consider the number of buckles. However with newer boots, do not use the number of buckles as a way of evaluating the “power” of the boot.
Adjustments for cuff alignment and forward lean are common on alpine boots, but unfortunately not on AT ski touring boots. They add weight and complexity, and therefore are commonly left out. If adjustment is a feature you need, take care your boot choices include it or plan on having a boot fitter make adjustments using fitting techniques.
A note on stiffness: It is difficult to ascertain how a boot will ski. For one, stiffness depends largely on fit (not to mention how tightly you crank your buckles). Also, there is no good way to compare boot stiffness. Many manufacturers assign a “stiffness rating” to their boots, usually from 110-130. Don’t be fooled by these numbers. There is no regulation governing them — they’re somewhat arbitrary and best for comparing boots within a brand rather than across the shopping spectrum. Most manufacturers simply assign “130” to their stiffest boot in a line, and “110” to their softest boot. There is little to no correlation between different companies. The best way to ascertain stiffness is to read reviews, and then get out and demo the boot if possible. Perhaps most importantly, don’t fall into the trap of using stiffness as your most important criteria for boot performance. Pro skiers leaping off 75 foot cliffs might need a boot that fits like cast iron, while most skiers appreciate something with more comfort and can simply adjust their technique to accommodate an average flex.
Used backcountry skiing boots
Generally boots are the hardest backcountry gear to find used because of the variety of sizes and how poorly worn out and customized liners will fit you. If you do find a pair of boots that seems right, here are a few tips. Check the shell first. Look for cracks in flex areas, especially at the curve in the tongue on “cabrio” boots. Check all buckles for function and breakage. Examine the sole for excessive wear. Ski touring boots can be re-soled, but finding someone who can do this well is sometimes a challenge in the U.S. (much easier in Europe). The liner is what really gets the wear. It’s definitely going to be “packed out,” meaning the padding gets permanently compressed. The liner may also get holes worn into it, usually in the heel area or from wear points in the shell (usually screw or rivet heads). Luckily liners are inexpensive compared to buying new boots, even for top-quality Intuition liners. Therefore, it can be a good deal to buy used boots and then replace the worn out liners with new. That being said, it’s worth attempting to “re-bake” and mold thermo liners that are not too worn out. Talk to a qualified bootfitter about that option.
Other ways boot wear out: Plastic deteriorates over time, making the boots softer. It’s safe to assume that a well worn (1+ good seasons) pair will be somewhat softer than a new pair of boots. The soles of AT boots often wear out quickly as well due to how thin they are (weight savings). If you are planning on using the boots with Dynafit or other tech bindings, sole wear is a minor issue as it won’t affect the performance of the bindings. However, if you are using your boots in alpine bindings or plate/frame style AT bindings (Fritchi, Duke, etc), then sole wear can make the binding fit incorrectly and compromise the release mechanism (check used boots in such bindings before purchase). Also, if you hike or climb without skis, sole wear can be a detriment and some AT boots wear quickly at the toes under the tech fittings when used for these activities.
There are quite a few complex mechanisms in most AT boots, and these can break and wear out as well. Buckles are especially prone to breaking. Luckily it’s fairly easy, with a little tinkering, to retrofit another buckle onto most boots. Walk-mode mechanisms and cuff pivots are more difficult to repair; failure of these mechanisms may mean a boot needs to be dumpsterized.
Thanks for reading. If you have any questions, comments, or if I missed something, leave a comment. If you have a comment on a specific backcountry skiing boot, check out our boot reviews section, and if we’ve reviewed it before, feel free to comment on that post as well.
Wildsnow Ski Touring Boot Resources