The Best Backcountry / AT Ski Boots
What's the best alpine touring/AT boot for backcountry skiing? We reviewed the ten top randonee-style boots on the market and compared them both side-by-side as well as individually out in the field to find out which is the best for overall touring, which offers the best value AT, which performs best for inbounds as well as which is ideal for ski mountaineering and mega-big missions. To figure this out we compared overall design, materials, fit, flex and liners and broke it down into six easily digestible comparison categories along with important considerations and other buying advice in the review below.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Editors' Choice Award: Dynafit Vulcan
The Dynafit Vulcan wins our OutdoorGearLab Editors'
Best Bang for the Buck: Dynafit Neo PX
All the uphill performance Neo PX is a pretty awesome boot for a good price at $650. You can buy AT boots for around $100 less including Dynafit's own Radical M CR ($550) but we feel if you can save up the extra $100 to throw down for the Neo you'll be stoked with noticeably better performance on the up and the down. Like Dynafit's other boots maybe the only downside is there is essentially a little more "fiddle factor" to get used to these boots, but also like the rest of their line, after a few days of touring you'll get it figured out.
Top Pick Award for Best In-Bounds Performance: Tecnica Cochise 130 Pro
The Tecnica Cochise 130 Pro was our Top Pick
Best AT Boot for Ski Mountaineering: Dynafit TLT6 CR
The best boot for huge days and ski mountaineering objectives. Dyanfit TLT6 Mountain CR is a slipper among ski boots. It feels improbably light and nimble with more range of motion than we think most folks have flexibility for. The TLT6 comes with two tongues, a stiffer and a less stiff tongue to let you dial in your objective suitably. It's the best uphill boot we tested that, because of its range of motion and nimble feel, is the best climber on both rock and ice among AT boots we tested. Its only drawback is, for super cold objectives with its thin liner, it's the least warm boot in our review. Not a big deal for most folks who will buy this boot to use in tech bindings, but the TLT6 CR does not work in frame bindings like the Fritschi Freeride Pro or the Marker Duke. If you like the TLT6 CR but wish it was a little stiffer, and have an extra $250 check out the TLT6 Performance with a carbon cuff that makes it noticeably stiffer with all the same advantages.
Runner-Up: Scarpa Maestrale RS
While the Dyanfit Vulcan wins our Editors' Choice award, the Maestrale RS remains a rad boot for folks looking for a solid downhill performer that can still tour all day and eat vertical like a champion. It certainly doesn't hurt that the Mastrale RS is $300+ dollars less either. We thought the Maestrale toured uphill nearly as well as the Dynafit Vulcan, the TLT6 CR and the Neo PX, but performed better on the down than either the TLT6 or the Neo PX. The Mastrale also has less "fiddle factor" than any of those boots and is the easiest boot we tested to get into and out of.
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Analysis and Test Results
If you are looking into alpine touring boots you will need an avalanche beacon and alpine touring/AT bindings and should consider an airbag pack. If you haven't purchased any of these things be sure to check out our extremely thoroughly researched Best Avalanche Beacon Review, Best Avalanche Airbag Pack Review and Best Alpine Touring Binding Review for Backcountry Skiing.
Selecting the Right Product
Where are you going to use these boots?
Where you planning on using these boots is the first question you should ask yourself. Are you going to use them exclusively for touring because you already own a downhill setup or are you looking for one boot for everything from riding chairs at the resort to day touring?
Fit is certainly one of the most important factors when considering which AT boot to buy. The first thing to consider is that your touring boots should not be as tight as your alpine boots. If your toes are continuously pressing against the front of the boot, you'll likely loose some toenails during a long flat skin. You're also likely to spend a lot more time during the day (or multiple days) in your touring boots than your alpine boots. Most Alpine touring boots feature thermo-moldable liners, because they are warmer and lighter and help produce a better fit. Getting a proper boot shell fit is key, that way you know (at least lengthwise) that the boot should work for you.
Most Alpine touring boots come with thermo-moldable liners meaning that the liners change when you heat them up to better fit your foot. Getting them heat-molded is certainly something you want to have done by someone who has done it before. It does make a pretty significant difference and subtle fit difference between boots.
Mondo sizing was yet another attempt to be the end-all of boot sizing discrepancy. Yet like all other units of measuring peoples feet, it is retaliative. The number was supposed to be a length in centimeters of the users' foot.
Many boots label their production last width, which is the distance across the widest part of your forefoot located just slightly behind your toes. The given last width is for a particular model's measured width in a size 26.5 boot. Take for example a boot that has 101 mm last width in a 26.5 might have a 107 mm last width in a size 30. Around 101-104 mm is a pretty common alpine touring last width because of the idea that users will be wearing them longer and are willing to sacrifice a little performance for all-day comfort whereas with alpine boots 99-102 mm is a little more common width.
We compared the instep height of each boot to help our readers decide which boot to get. The Scarpa Maestrale RS and the La Sportiva Spectre had the lowest "flattest" feeling instep. The K2 Pinnacle and the Black Diamond Quadrant had the highest. All the other boots were somewhere in-between.
Boot Shell Materials
Alpine touring boots are made from a variety of plastics and carbon fiber. Often randonee boots use a higher quality plastic than downhill boots that is stiffer for its weight. Generally speaking the more you spend, the nicer the materials you'll get. Some common boot shell materials are Carbon Fiber, Grilamid, PU and PX.
As you would likely guess, is the lightest and stiffest material used on touring boots. It's minimally affected by cold but is nowhere near as durable as most plastics which is why most boots simply use it in the cuff and not the lower shell, with the exception of super lightweight ski mountaineering and rando racing boots. Lastly, carbon fiber makes everything cost more.
Grilamid is currently the stiffest plastic for its weight that is currently in widespread use in AT boots. It is also the most expensive, it's harder for boot fitters to work with than either PX or PU if you need the shell altered. Unlike Polyurethane and similar to Pebax, it presents almost no change in stiffness with temperature.
Pebax or PX:
Not to be confused with the base material Petex, PX is likely the most popular shell material among randonee boots. It isn't as expensive as Grilamid but it is more expensive than Polyurethane. Pebex is stiffer for its weight than PU and offers the desirable characteristic of a more consistent flex regardless of temperature. Polyurethane boots on the other hand have flex changes significantly more due to temperature. Pebax is harder to have a boot fitter work with than PU because of its strong "memory", but it is still possible. Lastly, most users feel PX is more "reactive" than PU, but as a result, slightly less damp.
Polyurethane or PU's:
Stiffness is the most affected by temperature among the most commonly used plastics. As it gets colder, polyurethane gets stiffer, but on warmer days it is softer. A positive characteristic of Polyurethane is that it is the most easily manipulated (AKA easiest to "punch") and for those who need a lot of boot work done, PU boots are the best.
Tech Binding Compatibility
If you are planning to tour with any kind of regularity you should consider buying boots that either have tech fittings or feature the option to swap soles to tech binding compatible ones. If you are wondering more about tech bindings and touring bindings in general, be sure to check out our Best Alpine Touring / AT Bindings for Backcountry Skiing review for a detailed comparison of all types of backcountry bindings. In the review, all the boots we tested came with permanently attached tech soles, or the in the case of the Tecnica Cochise 130 Pro, the tech compatible soles are sold separately but still an option. If you are planning on skiing 70% or more inbounds then getting a frame style binding is an excellent choice and a burly touring boot will serve you inbounds and make short tours and booters more comfortable.
If you are planning on having one boot for both touring and resort skiing and already own a downhill setup with downhill bindings, considering a boot with interchangeable soles is a great option. Typically there is one sole that has a lugged, sticky rubber sole that typically, though not always, offers tech compatibility. The other sole is a hard, flat, plastic or rubber sole that is certified to work with DIN/ISO 5355. What that means is that they'll be compatible and have a consistent release in downhill/alpine bindings.
Don't use your AT boots in your alpine bindings!
As tempting as it might be, don't put any rockered touring sole ski boots into DIN/ISO 5355 alpine bindings (typical alpine bindings). They may, or may not fit, but the release value likely won't be consistent and your odds of injury are much higher. There are a handful of exceptions among alpine bindings that are specifically designed to fit both types of boots, some examples are the Marker Lord SP and Salomon/Atomic Warden bindings.
Other important considerations when purchasing an Randonee boot.
Can I just tour in my downhill boots?
Most downhill boots will fit into most frame style bindings like the Marker Duke, Barron and Fritschi Freeride. The problem with touring in alpine boots with little-to-no walk mode is, it's much harder work and just straight up, less comfortable. Most people who try to do it for any kind of extended tour will end up with shredded and sore shins.
Uphill Performance vs. Downhill Performance
While certainly far from universally true, to some extent, lightweight, more comfortable fitting boots don't perform as well on the descent as their more heavily laden counterparts. But this wasn't always the case, as the Dynafit Vulcan (7 lbs 1 oz) skis performed just as well as the Tecnica Cochise 130 Pro (9 lbs) and the K2 Pinnacle (10.5 lbs).
Criteria for Evaluation
We tested all of these boots over the past couple years and garnered a wide range of feedback from outdoor professionals, local ski shops, mountain guides, patrollers, ski instructors and more. We compared them both side-by-side as well as in individually out in the field while using them how we expect you'd use them and reported our findings below. We compared and scored them in size categories described below.
Uphill Touring Performance
Range of Motion
Range of motion of the alpine touring boots we tested range from more than you need (70 degrees) to not enough (25 degrees), with most boots being in the 40-60 degree range. Five years ago most boots had around 30 degrees range of motion but with design improvements the range of motion has increased dramatically do to user demand. With that said, more isn't necessarily better, for example most people don't need more than 50-60 degrees, you just aren't striding that far. We do think that 40 degrees of motion is WAY BETTER than 30 degrees and users will instantly notice the difference. You'll notice the difference going from 40 to 60 degrees and it feels better, but it isn't a deal breaker. Boots with 20 degrees range or lower like the K2 Pinnacle and the Tecnica Cochise Pro 130 have a good walk mode for a alpine boot, but a poor walk mode for a randonee boot and these boots perform comparatively poor for all-day ski touring. We did think the comparable downhill performing Scarpa Freedom SL had noticeably better range of motion and as a result overall touring performance than either the Cochise or the Pinnacle, but it still didn't have as much range as many of the other touring oriented boots.
The best range of motion for touring was Dynafits line of boots all with a amazing 60+ degrees range of motion. They felt as effortless and resistanceless as possible as we pushed these boots uphill. The Dynafit TLT6 was our overall favorite boot for uphill travel but the Dynafit Vulcan and One boots performed nearly as well and a cut above the rest. The next best touring boot was the La Sportiva Spectre which also performed fantastically but wasn't quite as good as the Dynafit models.
Walk Mode: Ease of Initiation and Durability
We compared the walk mode of each boot in performance and how easy it was to initiate and talked to local backcountry shops, guides, and a handful of reps in order to get an idea of how durable the walk mode of each boot is.
Laces: Do you need them?
Many randonee boots offer the option of using laces. Laces are certainly a personal preference but a lot of people don't know when and why they should use them. If you are prone to heel blisters, laces are your friend and they can really cut down heel rub by better locking the heel in place. This has become an even bigger lace advantage as boots get more and more forward lean, which is great for touring but do mean even potentially more blister problems for some folks. Laces can also help your boots feel a little stiffer on the down by simply providing more resistance. A note on the Black Diamond Quadrant that some of our testers experienced: While tightening the Boa system feels good and makes the boot feel super snug, a number of folks over tightened it on cold days resulting in some pretty cold toes.
We tested and compared all these boots both while touring and riding chairs. Downhill performance is how well the boot helped us ski down, and as a whole, stiffer boots performed better in our testing.
Overall Flex and Stiffness
Generally speaking everyone wants or at least thinks they want stiffer boots, however, depending on your skiing ability, personal body weight and skiing style: ski boots can easily be too stiff and will work against you instead of helping you while skiing down. For example most 120 lb women won't benefit from a 130 flex boot, they won't be able to absorb bumps as effectively as someone who has just a little more ankle flexion. On the other side a 225 lbs 6'3" user will need a stiffer boot even at an intermediate ability because they just have more weight and leverage to flex the boot.
A note on flex numbers
First lets be clear regarding alpine touring boots and traditional downhill/alpine boots in that there is no official standard that exists across all manufacturers. This comes as a surprise to many, who thought those numbers (the flex index) was a standardized scale, but this is not the case. Individual companies test boots and rate them relative to each other, so comparing different flex ratings within one manufacturer makes sense and will give you an accurate comparison about their relative stiffness. However comparing flex index numbers between different companies is a different story and isn't fair to yourself or the boots. For example a 130 flex AT boot might be stiffer than a 120 from another company but it also might be softer. Basically use these numbers as a rough guideline to helping you choose boots but don't get too hung up on the numbers themselves. Even within the shop while trying boots on, the stiffness can feel different. Depending on how tight your boots are buckled and how a specific boot fits, could be more than enough to make up a small difference in manufacturer flex ratings.
With that said, our testers sat and side-by-side flex tested the stiffness of all the boots in our review and did our best to test them one at a time while taking two laps at a ski resort per boot. Our testers agreed the two stiffest boots were the Dynafit Vulcan (with the tongue) and the Tecnica Cochise Pro 130. The K2 Pinnacle was not soft, but noticeable softer than both of these boots and comparable to the Scarpa Freedom SL. After that, the next stiffest boots down were the Dynafit Mercury and the Scarpa Maestrale RS, which felt pretty similar. Our testers did find the Dynafit TLT6 CR stiffer than the La Sportiva Spectre with either of its tongues in.
Forward Lean Adjustments
All of the boots we tested featured at least two forward lean positions and many of the boots in our review had the option to tweak that forward lean forward or backward depending on personal preference. As a whole, backcountry skiers don't need as much forward lean as resort bound skiers because folks in the backcountry are typically skiing a little slower, turning more, skiing more variable snow and have a backpack on. So the 16-20 degree forward lean is typically enough for most users, especially because most alpine touring bindings have more ramp/delta angle (toe is lower than the heel) to make up for the boots lack of aggressiveness.
There is a pretty big range in boot weight among Alpine Touring boots on the market. The heaviest boots we tested were the K2 Pinnacle at a stout 10 lbs 7 ounces, the lightest was the Dynafit TLT6's at a scant 5 lbs 7 oz with most AT boots we tested weighing in the the upper 6 pound to lighter 7 lb range. Among the heavier more downhill performance oriented boots, the Scrapa Freedom SL and the Tecnica Cochise 130 Pro had fantastic performance on the down while not weighing the 10+ pounds like the K2 Pinnacle or other downhill boots with a walk mode.
Ease of use
We compared how each boot was to use, including how easy it was to buckle, how easy it was to switch to touring mode and ski mode as well as ease of entering and exiting the boot.
Entering and Exiting:
Generally speaking boots with tongues, or three piece boots are easier to get into than two piece boots, or boot that feature an "alpine wrap". Among the three piece boots we found the Scarpa Maestrale RS with its large pivoting tongue was the easiest boot we tested to get in and out of, making it an excellent choice for those with limited ankle flexibility. The Dynafit Vulcan and Mercury both have tongue style designs that do such a good job of holding your foot in place that they are the most difficult of the three piece boots to get out of.
We compared how easily each buckle was to operate as well as how durable they are. Our favorite buckles were on the Scarpa Freedom SL and the Mastrale RS because they were super easy to use, even with gloves, and durable. This is one of the few categorizes where while we loved the overall simplicity of the Vulcan, Mercury and Neo buckle system and loved that you couldn't forget to go into walk mode because that transition is achieved by closing the top buckle. However as a result, if the buckle breaks (which we never experienced but heard a handful of cases of others) it must be ski strapped into place in order to ski down.
Comfort is a little relative as each person has a different foot shape, width and size but we did our best to compare boots for touring and downhill comfort as well as how much each liner changed. While we loved the Dynafit boots in every other category and thought they had decent liners, but they certainly aren't the best. Most of the Dynafit liners along with Black Diamond's "moldability" or how much they changed to form-fit users' feet during the heat-molding process was near the bottom. Intuition liners are still the lightest, warmest, and best molding liners that we have ever seen and appreciate both Scarpa and K2 using them in their boots.
After determining the kind of days you plan to be spending in these boots, and where, other factors will also need to be considered. Fit, material, and performance are just a few important factors making this purchase a hard decision to make. Using this review, we hope to give you a clear idea of what boots will best suit your needs.
— Ian Nicholson
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