The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of gear

Best Backcountry Ski Boots of 2020

By Jediah Porter ⋅ Review Editor
Monday November 9, 2020
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Anything but the best backcountry ski boots will ruin your day. We've been at this for almost 5 years. For 2020 we review 14 models across the entire spectrum of available products. We have used nearly 60 models over the years and have collected a crack team of passionate skiers. Our test selection includes mainly those suitable for all-around, human-powered backcountry skiing. We also branch out some. We assess each for uphill performance, weight, downhill performance, comfort and fit, and warmth. Read our full review to ascertain just what you should get.

Related: Best Backcountry Skis of 2020
Related: Best Climbing Skins of 2020 for Backcountry Skiing

Top 14 Product Ratings

Displaying 6 - 10 of 14

Best Overall Light Backcountry Ski Boots


Scarpa F1 LT


Editors' Choice Award

$798.95
at Backcountry
See It

67
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Uphill Performance - 20% 8
  • Weight - 20% 9
  • Downhill performance - 35% 5
  • Comfort and Fit - 10% 8
  • Warmth - 10% 5
  • Ease of Use - 5% 5
Weight: 4.5 lbs | Binding Compatibility: Tech
Light
Nimble
Excellent liners
Fiddly transitions
Wide fit

The top-scoring Scarpa F1 LT is basically tied for our highest award. As a result, we grant two of these highest awards. Both boots are excellent and carefully balanced, amd both fit a broad array of foot shapes. Both are also suitable for all-around, day-to-day backcountry skiing. The F1 is for those that lean towards uphill efficiency, while the Tecnica is optimized slightly more for downhill. The F1 is among the lightest and most nimble in our test but performs on the downhill like the bigger dogs.

The Tecnica will go downhill better, be a little warmer, and is more durable. The F1 is lighter and goes up hill better. Either one is an excellent choice.

Read review: Scarpa F1 LT

Best All-Around Backcountry Model


Tecnica Zero G Tour Pro


Editors' Choice Award

$899.95
at Backcountry
See It

68
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Uphill Performance - 20% 6
  • Weight - 20% 5
  • Downhill performance - 35% 8
  • Comfort and Fit - 10% 8
  • Warmth - 10% 6
  • Ease of Use - 5% 7
Weight: 6.0 lbs | Binding Compatibility: Tech, and DIN AT
Light
Neutral fit
Proven overlap construction downhill performance
Traditional, involved transitions
Limited insulation value

The Zero G Tour Pro enters the fray from long-time backcountry ski boot manufacturer Tecnica. Their previous touring boots were basically alpine boots with tech fittings and a walk mode. This update, though, is a full, ground-up touring boot, and is remarkable in many ways. Essentially, it is a "normal" ski boot that tours. The overall configuration is familiar and durable. The execution is light and well balanced for all-around, high downhill energy backcountry skiing. The weight-to-downhill performance ratio is amazing, which amps up your speed records on the hill. This Tecnica is lighter than many options and skis downhill better than most AT boots available at any weight. Further, the cuff range and low-friction enable near-effortless touring and walking. You immediately trust these boots for their familiarity, and the performance won't let you down.

All backcountry boots present inherent trade-offs. Right off the bat, uphill and downhill performance are inherently conflicting. Boots get better and better at optimizing both, but you can't have it all. There are definitely other boots that tour better than the Tecnica, and there are a few that ski downhill better. Further, to minimize weight and maximize performance (uphill and down), warmth is sacrificed; the Tour Pro is noticeably less insulating than average touring boots. However, when it comes to trying to balance these opposing performance metrics, this boot is the best of its class. For all this, but balanced even more to the light-weight, efficient end of the spectrum, check out the other highest award-winning Scarpa F1 LT.

Read review: Tecnica Zero G Tour Pro

Best Bang for the Buck - All-Around Backcountry Skiing


La Sportiva Spectre 2.0


Best Buy Award

$337.99
(50% off)
at Backcountry
See It

46
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Uphill Performance - 20% 5
  • Weight - 20% 5
  • Downhill performance - 35% 4
  • Comfort and Fit - 10% 5
  • Warmth - 10% 5
  • Ease of Use - 5% 4
Weight: 6.3 lbs | Binding Compatibility: Tech, Ski Trab TR2, and DIN AT
Inexpensive
Long track record
Balanced performance
Finicky walk mode switch
Difficult fit for some

The La Sportiva Spectre 2.0 is among the least expensive boots we've tested. This makes it a high value option that won't break the bank. Current backcountry ski boots are largely great. With our discerning initial selection criteria, and with the available magic of professional boot fitting, value hunting is often simply a matter of finding the cheapest thing in our list. The Spectre 2.0 has been on the market for years now, with past, subtly different versions (usually just color changes) often deeply discounted. They are light, tour well, and ski well enough for casual backcountry skiing. Get excellent help in fitting them to your feet, and you will be well served for a long time.

When they debuted years ago, the La Sportiva Spectre was the "world's lightest four buckle backcountry ski boot". The benefits of low weight are obvious. The "four buckle" qualifier is a sort of proxy for downhill performance. More buckles equals greater performance, to some degree. However, this claim has since been surpassed, and some products have gotten much better and lighter. Four buckle options are now even lighter than some with fewer buckles and ski really well. In any case, the Spectre is a little out of date. Others ski and tour better and are lighter. At the price, though, you shouldn't be disappointed with its performance.

Read review: La Sportiva Spectre 2.0

Best Bang for the Buck- Fast and Light Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering


Atomic Backland Carbon


Best Buy Award

$799.95
at Backcountry
See It

57
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Uphill Performance - 20% 9
  • Weight - 20% 8
  • Downhill performance - 35% 2
  • Comfort and Fit - 10% 8
  • Warmth - 10% 5
  • Ease of Use - 5% 5
Weight: 4 lbs 12 oz | Binding Compatibility: Tech, DIN AT
Inexpensive
Wide, high volume fit
Uphill oriented performance
Multi-step transitions
Wide, high volume fit
Soft and thin stock liner

You want a second, lighter ski touring setup. Or you know, right off the bat, that you will prefer lighter weight ski gear. But you are on a budget. In this niche, the Atomic Backland Carbon is the best backcountry ski boot we have assessed. It uses proven technology and brings ultralight performance to a price point much further below close competitors. It is comfy and tours uphill like a dream. Pair it with similarly lightweight skis, and bindings, and you will fly up entire mountains, fresh and ready for huge downhills.

You'll pay a bit of a price on those downhills. The lower cuff and softer flex of these lightweight boots will never ski downhill like beefier options. We are confident that you will be more than willing to accept this compromise. However, you need to fully understand what you are getting into. These are suitable for expert level skiers, on small skis, that are willing to tone down the energy in their downhill skiing in exchange for uphill efficiency. Further, the fit of the Atomic Backland is relatively high volume. For optimum downhill performance in any sort of boot like this, a close fit is best. These will perform best for those with wider or higher volume feet.

Read review: Atomic Backland Carbon

Best for Hard Charging Downhill Performance


Lange XT3 120


Top Pick Award

$468.84
(28% off)
at Amazon
See It

62
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Uphill Performance - 20% 1
  • Weight - 20% 2
  • Downhill performance - 35% 10
  • Comfort and Fit - 10% 8
  • Warmth - 10% 9
  • Ease of Use - 5% 7
Weight: 7.8 lbs | Binding Compatibility: GripWalk, Tech, and DIN AT
Excellent downhill skiing
Durable
Warm
Reliable
Limited uphill and foot-travel performance

The Lange XT3 120 is the best we've tested for downhill-optimized performance. For someone who spends most of their time riding chairs or other mechanized access, it's a great choice. It's also optimal for those that typically engage in short tours, boot packs, and sidecountry touring. It is one of a few available that will work with tech style touring bindings AND with resort alpine bindings (the resort bindings must be "GripWalk" compatible). Our lead test editor and full-time backcountry ski guide has used them for day-to-day guiding, where comfort, downhill performance, and warmth are his biggest considerations.

The weight and lack of touring mobility will narrow the appeal of these boots. They don't tour nearly as well as any other option we assess. We do not recommend them for big days or technical tours. That said, if you're a fan of going into the backcountry for short jaunts and want excellent downhill performance, where the uphill isn't as much of a concern, this is a top recommendation.

Read review: Lange XT FreeTour 130

Best for All-Around Touring, Downhill Optimized


Dynafit Hoji 130


Top Pick Award

$899.95
at Amazon
See It

59
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Uphill Performance - 20% 3
  • Weight - 20% 4
  • Downhill performance - 35% 8
  • Comfort and Fit - 10% 6
  • Warmth - 10% 9
  • Ease of Use - 5% 4
Weight: 6.9 lbs | Binding Compatibility: Tech, and DIN AT
Excellent downhill performance
Acceptable touring performance
"One-Step" transitions
Heavy
Transitions require more than one step to get touring efficiency

The Dynafit Hoji Free Tour 130 is the beefiest boot we can recommend for all-around, all-day, human-powered ski touring and ski mountaineering. It skis way better than all the other award winners, aside from the Lange XT3. It is lighter, with considerably more touring cuff efficiency than that same Lange. The Lange is too much for day-to-day touring. The Hoji Free is the absolute maximum weight we'd recommend for strenuous touring.

You get excellent downhill performance and serviceable uphill efficiency. We like, on the surface and in some settings, the "one step" transition feature. To loosen the cuff and release the lean lock requires just one lever. When you loosen the boot like this, from ski to tour mode, you get a touring mode that works, but isn't optimized. To get truly functional uphill touring performance, you have to loosen the top buckle and power strap separately. This is the same as on pretty much every other touring boot. We don't mind doing it, but we'd be really psyched if the one-step "Hoji Lock" actually fully freed up the cuff. In the meantime, if we had to choose between the current system and a more traditional transition procedure (that should be lighter), we would choose a more traditional transition procedure.

Read review: Dynafit Hoji 130


Steep  beautiful  human-powered  and in tester ski boots.
Steep, beautiful, human-powered, and in tester ski boots.

Why You Should Trust Us


Our AT ski boot testing team is led by long time tester and all-around mountain athlete

Jed Porter. As an IFMGA certified guide, Jed spends a huge amount of time on skis for both work and play. Furthermore, these professional and personal ski pursuits take him deep into the backcountry in a multitude of locales, providing a unique opportunity to put gear to the test over a variety of real-world conditions. In addition to Jed's wealth of knowledge and experience, we sought out input from seasoned ski mountaineers, beginner ski tourers, and other guides to round out our evaluation of these ski boots.

We have used parts or all of our quiver of backcountry ski boots in locations all over the world. From the western United States to Canada, Alaska, Peru, Argentina, Chile, and Europe, our testers encountered every type of snow and terrain conditions. We took these boots up just as much as down and found whatever limitations, quirks, or impressive qualities each pair brought to the table. In addition to testing out in the wild, we measured, weighed, and flexed each boot in our lab to gain empirical data and see how manufacturer claims held up to our measurements.

Our backcountry ski boot test team has had hours of conversations with people, just like you, seeking advice, assessment, and comparisons between the ever-expanding list of options on the market. It is thoroughly mystifying, even if you are well-versed. We've got your back. With many decades of experience backcountry skiing, dozens of years spent in ski gear consulting, and thousands of days of touring, ski mountaineering, and human-powered ski guiding under the belt of our test team, we can make authoritative and relatable recommendations. We've distilled deep and broad information, critiquing hundreds, using dozens, and publishing here reviews on the thirteen best backcountry ski boots on the market.

Related: How We Tested Backcountry Ski Boots

They look and ski like alpine boots  and tour like your average touring boot. Win win.
A skier in the flat light of Zermatt's flat-light  glaciated skiing at the end of Europe's Haute Route  all in the light and mobile Atomic Backland.
Walking is a joy in such light and freely-articulating kicks.

Analysis and Test Results


We've been testing these boots over the years and gathering more and more information on performance and best uses. To rate each comparatively, we look at six important metrics, including uphill performance, weight, downhill performance, comfort & fit, warmth, and ease of use. This review compares each thoroughly across the metrics.

Related: Buying Advice for Backcountry Ski Boots

For value and adequate performance  up and down  the Spectre 2.0 is a good choice.
For value and adequate performance, up and down, the Spectre 2.0 is a good choice.

Value


It is likely that you've already dished out for a pair of touring skis and some sweet AT bindings to go with them. Now you're looking at the up-to four-figure price tag of backcountry ski boots has you really prioritizing value as you shop for a pair of boots. Worry not! We rounded up all the specs for the boots in our review and mapped them out specifically in terms of value. First, ski touring boot prices are consolidating. The best, most expensive ones aren't nearly as far from the least expensive as they used to be.

The high-value selections (Atomic Backland Carbon and La Sportiva Spectre 2.0) represent what we believe to be a great value. Value shopping for ski boots usually compromises performance and weight more than durability or fit. If the boot fits, less expensive options will do the trick, and you will grow accustomed to their particular performance trade-offs.


Uphill Touring Performance


Range of Motion

The range of motion of the boots we tested range from 72 degrees (more than you need) to a minimal 34 degrees, with most boots being in the 40-55 degree range. To be clear, we are talking about the forward and rearward hinging of the boot cuff, relative to the lower boot shell, all while the boot is in its touring mode. We measured this cuff range ourselves, using a standardized, repeatable method. We chiefly found the manufacturers' reference to be close to accurate. Ten years ago, most boots had around 30 degrees range of motion, but with design improvements, the range of motion has increased dramatically.


With that said, there are diminishing returns on additional cuff range of motion. For example, most people don't need more than 45-50 degrees; you just aren't striding that far, and your ankles don't have that much range naturally. We do think that 45 degrees of motion is WAY BETTER than 35 degrees, and users will instantly notice this critical difference. You'll see the difference going from 45 to 60 degrees, and it feels better, but it isn't a dealbreaker. Backcountry ski boots with around 35 degrees of range or lower like our favorite Lange have an excellent walk mode for an alpine boot, but a weak walk mode for a human-powered option. They perform comparatively poor for all-day ski touring.

AT ski boots have difficult  conflicting jobs to perform. The best boots are carefully balanced.
AT ski boots have difficult, conflicting jobs to perform. The best boots are carefully balanced.

The best touring mode ranges in our test were found on the Scarpa Scarpa F1 LT, La Sportiva Sytron, and Atomic Backland Carbon. For an alpine boot, the 34 degrees range of motion in the Lange XT FreeTour isn't bad. Further, the 55 degrees of articulation of the Tecnica Zero G Tour Pro is admirable, for an "overlap" constructed shoe. Only when skinning on flats and in scrambling terrain did we notice the limited range of motion of any of the backcountry ski boots tested here.

The Scarpa Maestrale XT has an advertised range of motion above 50 degrees. However, in use, the stiff liner and tight cuff rivets inhibit that. Further, as noted below, cuff friction within the range of motion also matters.

Uphill efficiency is a function of cuff friction and range of motion. Here  testing for exactly that on Wyoming's Teton Pass.
Uphill efficiency is a function of cuff friction and range of motion. Here, testing for exactly that on Wyoming's Teton Pass.

Cuff Friction

The range of motion is easily quantified and, once past that 45-degree threshold, makes a huge difference in one's touring efficiency. The trickier part, and arguably more important, is the friction within that range. Plastic flexion, liner binding, upper/lower interface friction, interference from ski/walk mode hardware, and cuff pivot tension all inform the ease with which a boot's cuff hinges through its range of motion. The best backcountry ski boots approach zero interference within the range of motion. It is difficult to describe what creates friction, but it seems to be a combination of plastic thickness, ski/walk mode construction (pin-in-bar systems have more friction. Bar-less systems have less), and liner stiffness, especially in the ankle flexion zone.

Boot testing and backcountry skiing.
Boot testing and backcountry skiing.

The ultralight backcountry ski boots we tested have the least friction, while the Sytron, Backland Carbon, and Scarpa F1 are in a class of their own. At the other end of the spectrum are also the heaviest boots. The Lange, Atomic Hawx, and Salomon have significant friction. The La Sportiva Spectre and Dynafit Hoji Pro Tour and Free Tour feature cuff ranges (basically 50 degrees for each) that rival those of the ultralight boots, but have considerably more friction within that range.

It is cuff friction in the Hoji Pro Tour that sets it apart from the Tecnica. Both Hoji models (Free and Pro) feature an innovative buckle and lever system that theoretically allows for one-move transitions between up and down. However, when used as intended, the cuff friction in tour mode is significant. If you lift your pant cuffs and individually disengage the relevant buckles, you get lower cuff friction.

The Scott Freeguide Carbon tours much like the Tecnica, Spectre, and Hoji Tour.

The La Sportiva Spectre on a mini-expedition in the Tetons.
The La Sportiva Spectre on a mini-expedition in the Tetons.

We tested the cuff range and friction with each of the boot cuffs unbuckled. All AT boots tour better with the cuff buckles and Velcro straps undone, which makes a good fit even more crucial. If you need the upper buckles secured for a comfortable fit (or, in the case of the Hoji Boots, for transitions as advertised), you will be significantly compromising the touring efficiency.

Downhill Performance


We tested and compared all these boots mainly while ski touring but also scored some mileage on chairlifts. 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. That being said, 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.

Regardless of ski conditions  for high-energy  high-speed skiing  stiff supportive boots are best. Skier: Jediah Porter
Regardless of ski conditions, for high-energy, high-speed skiing, stiff supportive boots are best. Skier: Jediah Porter

For example, most 120 pound people 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 mass behind their ankle flexion. On the other side, a 225 pound 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, let's be clear regarding alpine touring boots and traditional downhill/alpine boots and flex ratings: there is no official standard for flex, and it varies across manufacturers. This comes as a surprise to many, who thought those numbers (the flex index) was a standardized scale. Individual companies test boots and rate their models relative to one another. Therefore, comparing different flex ratings within one manufacturer's range makes sense and will give you an accurate comparison of their relative stiffness. However, comparing flex index numbers between different companies is a different story and isn't fair to yourself or the boots.
The Atomic Hawx Prime ski boot in action on a great powder day in the weird winter of 2020.
The Atomic Hawx Prime ski boot in action on a great powder day in the weird winter of 2020.

For example, one 130 flex AT boot might be stiffer than a 120 from another company, but it also could be softer. Use these numbers as just a rough guideline to helping you choose boots. Don't get too hung up on the numbers themselves. Even within the shop while trying boots on, the stiffness can feel different. How tight you buckle, liner type, and overall fit could be enough to make up for small to major differences in manufacturer flex ratings.

Our testers flex tested the stiffness of all the boots in our review, side-by-side indoors, and also did our best to test them one at a time while skiing multiple laps in varied terrain. In order to reduce variables, we made sure to make at least a few direct comparisons using the exact same skis and bindings. However, testing realities dictate that we can't use every boot with the same exact ski and binding set up. Our testers agreed the stiffest boots were the Lange XT3. Just below these are the Atomic Hawx Prime XTD 130, Hoji Free Tour, and Scarpa Maestrale XT. The next category down holds the Salomon S/Lab MTN, Dynafit Hoji Pro, and Tecnica Zero G.

Our test team unanimously loves the Tecnica Zero G Tour. The cuff mobility in touring is amazing  and everything else is well balanced too.
Our test team unanimously loves the Tecnica Zero G Tour. The cuff mobility in touring is amazing, and everything else is well balanced too.

After that, the next stiffest boots down were the Scarpa Maestrale RS and Scott FreeGuide. We'd say that the Maestrale represents the middle of the pack, as well as presenting a downhill performance that virtually no one will complain of. Just slightly softer than the Maestrale and Scott, in a class of boot that technically proficient skiers should be able to use in any terrain and conditions are the Scarpa F1LT, Dynafit TLT 8 and the La Sportiva Spectre 2.0.

The super light Atomic Backland Carbon and La Sportiva Sytron are the softest boots on our roster.

Forward Flex Pattern.

In actual ski use, absolute stiffness is only part of the equation. For the most part, all else equal, stiff boots ski better. However, when comparing similarly stiff boots, we further differentiate by examining the subjective sense the skier gets from the forward flex pattern. Fully rigid boots, especially when pressing shins forward, are impossible to ski. One needs some degree of forward motion. The best boots flex easily at first, maybe in just the first degree of travel, and steadily meet greater and greater resistance. This resistance should ramp up steadily and smoothly, in what we call a "progressive flex."

Yeah  testing ski gear is rough work. Assessing boots for their downhill performance is much more enjoyable  but harder to discern differences  in perfect powder snow. Lead test editor Jed Porter at work in Grand Teton National Park.
Yeah, testing ski gear is rough work. Assessing boots for their downhill performance is much more enjoyable, but harder to discern differences, in perfect powder snow. Lead test editor Jed Porter at work in Grand Teton National Park.

Lightweight, stiff materials, especially carbon fiber and other types of fiberglass, constructed into "three-piece" style boots (lower shell, upper cuff, and tongue) offer less progressive flex than "overlap," two-piece boots (lower shell and upper cuff - no tongue on the shell) made of thick plastic and no carbon. The best flexing boots we tested, generally, are those overlap boots at the hefty and less-touring friendly end of the spectrum. Special mention must be made here of the Dynafit Hoji Tour and the Scarpa Maestrale XT. The Hoji and XT are both tongue style boots that flex nearly as well or, in some cases, better than an overlap boot. The cuff and ski/walk mode of both Hoji models is an entirely different, tensioned design that better locks the parts in downhill mode and dramatically improves the initial feel, and at least somewhat enhances the ultimate performance of the boots.

As evidenced by the Hoji and Maestrale XT, tongue boots can be made to offer a modicum of progression in their forward flex. It is this attribute that the Salomon S/Lab MTN also stands out. It isn't a ton stiffer than the bulk of the pack, but its forward flex has a progressive quality that closely simulates that achieved with an overlap shell. Tongue boots are lighter and tour better, so the pursuit of progressive flex in a tongue boot is many boot manufacturers' goal. Notable is the way that Atomic has built their overlap Hawx boot to be only a little heavier than the Salomon, with even better progressive flex that skis better than the S/Lab MTN. The Tecnica Zero G is lighter than, and tours better than the Salomon with a flex pattern that is equal to or even slightly better.

On the left  a two-piece "overlap" boot. On the right  a three-piece "tongue" style boot.
On the left, a two-piece "overlap" boot. On the right, a three-piece "tongue" style boot.

Forward Lean Adjustments

Some of the boots we tested feature at least two forward lean positions, and some of the boots in our review had the option to tweak that forward lean forward or backward depending on personal preference. As a whole and theoretically, backcountry skiers don't need as much forward lean as resort skiers. Folks in the backcountry are typically skiing a little slower, turning more, skiing more variable snow, and have a backpack on. Fixed (or only slightly adjustable), moderate amounts of forward lean are usually adequate in touring boots.

Weight


There is a pretty big range in boot weight among Alpine Touring boots on the market. The heaviest boots we tested were the Lange XT3 at a stout 7 lbs 11 ounces, the lightest was the La Sportiva Sytron at a scant 4 lb 3 oz. There was a time when we were testing AT boots weighing over 10 pounds, and sub-five-pounds was reserved for rando race boots and nordic skiing. For the ski performance they deliver, the Langes are fairly light. The Dynafit TLT8, Tecnica Zero G, and Scott Freeguide all bring average downhill performance at a fairly light weight.


For durability and all-around use, provided you do not need class-leading downhill performance, you should be able to keep your pair of boots near 6 pounds. The fact that Tecnica, with their Zero G Tour Pro gets alpine-like performance into size 26.5 boots that weigh 6 pounds is a benchmark to celebrate. Seven pounders have to now ski much better than the Tecnica to stand out. The Atomic Hawx and Dynafit Hoji Free fit this description. Right around the six-pound mark is also the Dynafit Hoji Pro and the Scarpa Maestrale RS.

Ultralight boots are under five pounds. The La Sportiva Sytron, Atomic Backland Carbon, and Scarpa F1 LT are solidly in the ultralight category. You'll fly uphill, but have cold feet and limited durability. Downhill performance, after an adjustment period, won't suffer as much as you might fear. These boots don't charge downhill, but you'll adjust and enjoy yourself in a different way.

Backcountry skiing isn't always terrain as serious as this (note the skier in the lower right third of the photo). When it is  you want your boots well tuned and carefully chose.
Backcountry skiing isn't always terrain as serious as this (note the skier in the lower right third of the photo). When it is, you want your boots well tuned and carefully chose.

Ease of Use


We compared the "fiddle factor" of each boot in normal use. We identified 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. In the ease-of-use category, we also assessed durability. A broken boot in the backcountry is not easy to use. Some are more likely to break than others, and on some, the consequences of failed parts are greater.


Entering and Exiting:

Generally speaking, boots with tongues, or "three-piece" style, are easier to get into than two-piece boots, or boots that feature an "alpine wrap." Among the three-piece boots, we found the low-cuffed, super flexible ultralight boots easiest to get on and off. The La Sportiva Spectre 2.0 and both versions of the Scarpa Maestrale (RS and XT) open wide. The Lange, Atomic Hawx, and Tecnica, predictably, are hardest to get in and out of. We would be reluctant to choose these boots for expedition or multi-day use, where you'll be getting in and out of the boot while in a tent.

With the overlap touring boots, remember though that you can activate the walk-mode for greater ease in getting them on and off. Overlap touring boots are easier to get on and off than overlap resort boots, because of the walk mode. Unexpectedly, the ultralight La Sportiva Sytron was very hard to get in and out of. We expect the lighter boots to be easier to get on and off than the heavier versions. The Sytron is, strangely, a battle to deal with. One tester, after a particularly long and high paced touring session (8000 vertical feet and 4.5 hours) was so exhausted that he couldn't get out of the Sytron on his own. Luckily, assistance wasn't far away. Nor was a hot shower, cold fizzy water, and an entire pizza.

Making quick transitions draws out ease of use limitations. We like boots that require fewer steps.
Making quick transitions draws out ease of use limitations. We like boots that require fewer steps.

Buckles

We compared how easily each buckle was to operate, as well as how durable they are. Our favorite buckles were on the Salomon S/Lab MTN, Atomic Hawx, and Tecnica Zero G because they were super easy to use, even with gloves, and durable. Dynafit has slimmed down the buckle arrangement of their flagship TLT series. The TLT7 employed a complicated arrangement of cables and snaps, while the TLT8 eliminates the cable and some connections. We like the TLT8 closures better than we liked the closures of the 7. The buckles of the La Sportiva Spectre are rather unorthodox, presumably to save weight. They also feature a learning curve, but are fine. There is something very satisfying about the positive snap of the very standard buckles on the overlap cuffed Atomic Hawx, Tecnica, and Lange boots.

The closure system of the Scott Freeguide is the most elaborate of any we assessed. First, the liner closes with the proprietary BOA closure. BOA is a knob and cable system that tightens down on your instep. The lower and mid cuff of the Scott closes with regular levers. The top closes with one wide velcro strap, tightened with a camming buckle. The ski/walk mode lever is an old-school, internal affair. Scarpa's F1 LT award winner is similarly complicated: BOA lower shell closure, cam-tightened velcro main strap, removable all-velcro "power strap".

The upper cuff closure of both Dynafit Hoji boots is about as complicated as it gets. The whole Hoji cuff is designed with two major goals in mind; the cuff locks together super securely, and the user can switch between tour and ski mode with just one lever. The result, though, is a system that is more complicated than other options and more vulnerable (theoretically… we didn't have any actual problems) to failure. Once you are accustomed to the "Hoji Lock", you can indeed make transitions with just one move. However, the tour mode, when used this way, involves more cuff friction than anyone wants. The "pants down always" transitions that Dynafit claims are novel, but not a useful reality when undoing the buckles completely results in much better touring ease.

The most innovative attribute of the Dynafit Hoji is the one-move "Hoji Lock". It works as advertised  but the tour mode it enables is still quite limiting. You do better to fully undo the buckles.
The most innovative attribute of the Dynafit Hoji is the one-move "Hoji Lock". It works as advertised, but the tour mode it enables is still quite limiting. You do better to fully undo the buckles.

Transitions

Most of your backcountry ski day will be spent going uphill. Another good portion is downhill. Many people love these things, and love of one or both of these things is what draws people to backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. Another large chunk of your day is spent in transitioning between the two. That isn't nearly as fun. Therefore, it is nice when equipment makes it easy to get through the transitions without much drama. Your boots will have two distinctly different modes, and switching those modes involves buckles and adjustments. The best transitioning boots make this process easy.

The La Sportiva Sytron is the fastest boot to transition. All that is required to switch modes is one lever accessible without moving your pant cuffs. The Dynafit Hoji should be as simple, but the walking articulation in "fast change mode" is significantly limited. The Dynafit TLT8 changes between modes with an upper buckle and a cam-lock power strap. The award-winning Scarpa F1 LT can be stripped of its power strap with minimal detriment. So modified, the F1 can transition with a main buckle flip and a rear lever snap. However, like the Hoji boots, this streamlined transition yields a touring mode that isn't as efficient as it could be. For ost transitions, we found it best to add a third step and loosen the main cuff velcro strap on the F1.

No other product in our test matches the transition ease of the above. The next closest competitor is the Salomon S/Lab MTN. It has two main buckles, a ski/walk mode lever, and a cam-locked power strap. To go from walk to ski mode (and vice versa), the user manipulates the cuff buckle, the ski/walk lever, and the power strap.

The Atomic Backland Carbon is solidly in the ultralight, fast category, but its transitions are more complicated. To go between uphill and down, you have to lift your pants cuff and change rear lock, cuff buckle, and power strap. It's not that bad, but it isn't as slick as some other options in this weight class.

Ski boot testing isn't always this rowdy  but we make sure to put 'em through the paces.
Ski boot testing isn't always this rowdy, but we make sure to put 'em through the paces.

Contrast these with these others that complicate transitions. The Lange XT3 and Tecnica Zero G Tour Pro both have four buckles, a rear ski/walk mode lever, and a power strap, all of which usually require adjustment between up and downhill mode. The Atomic Hawx Prime has the same configuration as the Lange and Tecnica, requiring all the same steps. One major advantage of the Atomic Hawx and Tecnica over the Lange is that the Atomic and Tecnica have a fully external ski/walk mode lever. While the mode changing levers of the Lange sometimes gave us trouble, the Hawx and Zero G go easily and securely every single time.

A sampling of recently tested ski boots. From left to right: Hoji Free  F1 LT  Hawx Prime  Spectre  Freeguide  XT3  Tecnica Zero G  Sytron.
A sampling of recently tested ski boots. From left to right: Hoji Free, F1 LT, Hawx Prime, Spectre, Freeguide, XT3, Tecnica Zero G, Sytron.

The La Sportiva Spectre 2.0 and Scarpa Maestrale RS and XT have buckle and transition setups much like the Lange and Hawx. These two are discerned from one another by the Scarpa Maestrale RS "instep" buckle. Many users really like this buckle configuration (the Hoji boots also have it) that pulls and holds the skier's heel down and back.

Comfort and Fit


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 each liner affected fit. Our test team represents a variety of foot shapes, all in size 26.5. In years of comparisons now, it seems that our lead test editor has feet that are right in the middle of the road. They aren't super wide, nor super narrow. It is a comparative, qualitative assessment, largely based on the experience of our lead testers that we report. With length fixed at 26.5, for test and comparison purposes (in some cases, given the different shapes and volumes of different models, we might opt to size up or down for our use), we compared rough estimates of the boot's volume and additionally noted toe box, overall volume, and heel pocket retention/volume. We also commented on general impression of width, though volume is a better metric.


The Salomon S/Lab MTN and La Sportiva Sytron fit on the narrow, low volume end of the spectrum. The Lange XT3, Tecnica Zero G Tour Pro, and Dynafit Hoji are neutral in fit. The Scarpa Maestrale RS and Scarpa F1 seem to be higher volume than the others. One tester found the Maestrale XT to be narrower than he expected a Scarpa boot to be. Other testers did not have this experience. Special mention must be made of the Atomic Hawx. These start with a pretty neutral fit, but are made of special plastic that is far more readily adjusted than the plastic used in the other boots. They can be easily "heat molded" to accommodate a wide range of foot shapes and issues. The Atomic Backland Carbon is high volume, while both the Dynafit TLT8 and Scott Freeguide are optimized for very wide, high-volume feet.

Fast  slow  steep  flat  deep  icy... We chase all the conditions into all the corners of what you can call backcountry skiing. The result is authoritative commentary on your options in AT ski boots.
Fast, slow, steep, flat, deep, icy... We chase all the conditions into all the corners of what you can call backcountry skiing. The result is authoritative commentary on your options in AT ski boots.

After the fit, there are comfort concerns. Fit is king, but there is one major non-fit-related comfort criteria we looked at. For some boots to get lighter, materials in both shell and liner have gotten thinner. Thinning the liner serves two major purposes. First, it is less material. Therefore it is lighter. Additionally, and less obvious, but thin shell materials offer better support when they fit closer to your foot. Any shell material offers better support when it is close to your foot, but thin shell materials need that performance bump more. In the end, some liners are thinner than others. For bony feet, no matter how well you fit the boots, thin liner boots are more prone to cause pressure points. The La Sportiva Spectre 2.0 and Atomic Backland Carbon both seemed especially prone to this, causing bruising on the ankle bones of two testers each.

Backcountry ski boots have a nearly impossible job to do  supporting and enabling two very different tasks. To skin uphill and ski down  boots must perform and fit very well. When chosen carefully  modern equipment can make the most amazing mountains readily accessible.
Backcountry ski boots have a nearly impossible job to do, supporting and enabling two very different tasks. To skin uphill and ski down, boots must perform and fit very well. When chosen carefully, modern equipment can make the most amazing mountains readily accessible.

Warmth


We find it surprising how seldom the insulation value of ski boots is mentioned in other web reviews. Skiing regularly takes place in cold conditions. Your boots should accommodate that. With a wide range of construction styles and materials, we found variation in the warmth of the boots we selected for review. Thicker liners and thicker shells make for warmer boots. More material between your warm foot and the cold outside slows the transfer of heat. What this means is that there is a pretty clear correlation between the weight of the boots and the insulation value. Of course, fit matters, but that can be adjusted. The other thing that matters is the "density" of the liners. Softer foam in the liners seems to feel warmer.


The ultra-light boots are the least insulating, while the beefy boots are the warmest. A notable exception is the Scarpa Maestrale RS. It is among the lighter four-buckle boots in the test, but the liner is thick and fluffy. Scarpa works with Intuition Brand for their liners, and Intuition liners are proven and highly functional. Many will replace stock liners with Intuition liners for performance, warmth, and comfort.

The least insulating boots in our test are the La Sportiva Sytron, the Scarpa F1, and the Atomic Backland Carbon. It is no coincidence that these are also the lightest boots in our test. Users of lightweight backcountry ski equipment, especially footwear and clothing, rely on speed and movement to keep themselves warm. This is almost always a fine solution. However, when things go south, and one is forced to stand still for any reason and for any length of time, the choice to bring no extra jacket and glorified sneakers as boots seems a little sillier. It is a blast, literally, to move unencumbered through the mountains, but do so knowing the consequences of that choice.

When it's super cold  you need your boots to keep up. Insulation is part of the equation  but appropriate fit is the major part.
When it's super cold, you need your boots to keep up. Insulation is part of the equation, but appropriate fit is the major part.

Warmer options include, as mentioned above, any of the heavier boots. The Tecnica Zero G Pro Tour can be configured for acceptable warmth. The stock liner is thin and cold, but the boot is supportive enough to "size up" and insert a thicker aftermarket liner. You get greater comfort and warmth with this strategy, with only a little compromise in downhill performance.

Testing ski boots for flat light and firm snow control. It's a rough job  but someone has to do it. Skier: Jediah Porter.
Testing ski boots for flat light and firm snow control. It's a rough job, but someone has to do it. Skier: Jediah Porter.

Conclusion


Fit and application are the primary criteria by which you will choose boots. Thanks to an exploding interest in backcountry skiing, your options are ever-expanding. There are now multiple fit options at every level of performance. With this in mind, we recommend you think long and hard about how you wish to strike the uphill/downhill balance. If you are less experienced in the backcountry, consider that you will quickly learn to appreciate lighter gear on the way up and nearly as quickly adjust to the downhill performance of that lighter gear. On the other hand, you will just as quickly learn to dread dragging heavier gear up a mountain and reap limited marginal returns for the way down. Go lighter than you think, to a point.

Jediah Porter