How to Choose All-Mountain Ski Boots

A climber turned skier. Choosing the right boot can make or break your experience. The Tecnica Cochise  seen here  is a backcountry spirited boot with a bias toward lift served skiing  which is why it wins our Top Pick award.
Article By:
Mike Phillips
Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Wednesday

Buying a pair of ski boots can be an overwhelming process. There are many reputable brands on the market, each selling several different models that suit different needs. Some boots have more features than others, and sorting out which are the most useful for you can make choices difficult. To make matters worse, each individual model may have variations in flex and width. How do you choose which boot will suit your needs the best?

We did a full comparative review of ski boots, so to see which models our professional test team liked the best, reference our Best Ski Boot Review.

Ski boots are a highly personal piece of equipment. Their performance, comfort, and warmth depend mostly on fit, your needs, and personal taste. To ensure the best fit we recommend seeking the advice and services of a professional boot fitter. A boot fitter can measure your foot, ask you questions, and make initial recommendations based on his or her experience and knowledge of particular products.

If you will be purchasing ski boots from an online retailer, consider the ease of returning the product to the seller if you need to exchange them for another size or model. If possible, try on a couple different sizes from different brands so that you can compare them and decide which shape and size is most suitable for your foot and skiing ability.

This article will introduce some basics in how to choose a ski boot that fits your foot, and some of the features to look for on modern all-mountain ski boots.

Types of All-Mountain Alpine Boots



Traditional Style Alpine Boots


Traditional style boots like the Lange RX have an overlapping shell design.
Traditional style boots like the Lange RX have an overlapping shell design.
These boots consist of a traditional two-piece shell and cuff design. Both the lower shell of the boot and the cuff overlap to provide increased stiffness in the front of the boot and to keep out snow and water. Examples of traditional models from this test include the Lange RX 120, Salomon X Pro 120, and the Atomic Hawx 120.

Adventure-Freeride Boots


These boots begin to cross over into the world of backcountry skiing. Best suited for lift-accessed out-of-bounds terrain or in-bounds hike-to terrain, they feature a walk mode that makes for more comfortable travel while walking, traversing, or ascending. Their boot soles are also enhanced to help them be more secure when walking on exposed rocks and uneven terrain. Because they are heavy when compared to alpine-touring specific boots, they aren't recommended as a dedicated backcountry ski boots.
Walk mode options featured on boots that cross over into the adventure/freeride category.
Walk mode options featured on boots that cross over into the adventure/freeride category.
Examples from this test include the K2 Pinnacle 130, Rossignol All Track 120, Tecnica Cochise 120 and the Dalbello Panterra ID 120.

For boots designed specifically for backcountry touring, check out our Best Backcountry / AT Ski Boot Review.

The Anatomy of a Ski Boot


Ski boots are relatively simple contraptions. They are meant to provide a positive connection between your body and your skis. Materials and features of boots may vary across manufacturers and models, but there are universal components that make up a modern alpine ski boot.

Shell


The shell of the ski boot is the hard plastic outer boot.
  • Shell materials contribute to the weight and stiffness of a ski boot.
  • Shells can be adjusted by professional boot fitters for specific places where the boot may be too tight on your foot, despite an otherwise good fit.
  • Certain boots, such as the Salomon X-Pro 120, have shells that are heat moldable to shape to the general contours of your feet and provide a more precise fit.

The shells of our tested boots: (L to R) Dalbello Panterra  Tecnica Cochise  Nordia Hell and Back  Salomon X-Pro  Lange RX  and  Atomic Hawx.
The shells of our tested boots: (L to R) Dalbello Panterra, Tecnica Cochise, Nordia Hell and Back, Salomon X-Pro, Lange RX, and Atomic Hawx.

Liner


The liner of the boot is a removable soft inner boot contained within the shell of the ski boot. It is an important consideration in purchasing a ski boot.
  • Heat moldable liners add value to your investment because they are an easy way to achieve a more customized fit.
  • Heat moldable liners are cooked in a boot fitter's oven, reinserted into the shell of the boot, and when you put your foot inside and buckle the boots, the now malleable liner will shape to the contours of your foot, giving you a custom fit.
  • With time, heat moldable liners will shape to the skier's foot just by skiing in them.

Liners from our tested boots: (L to R) Salomon X-Pro  Atomic Hawx  Dalbello Panterra Tecnica Cochise  Nordia Hell and Back  and Lange RX.
Liners from our tested boots: (L to R) Salomon X-Pro, Atomic Hawx, Dalbello Panterra,Tecnica Cochise, Nordia Hell and Back, and Lange RX.

Sole


The RX 120 uses a soft rubber material on it's replaceable soles. These showed wear with less than a week of use.
The RX 120 uses a soft rubber material on it's replaceable soles. These showed wear with less than a week of use.
Alpine boots are DIN compatible. This means that they are designed to function safely with traditional alpine ski bindings. The boot sole can be a continuation of the shell or may consist of pieces that can be removed and replaced due to wear or to be compatible with alpine touring bindings. We recommend boots with interchangeable soles because the life of the boot can be prolonged by changing toe pieces and heel pieces when they show signs of wear.
  • Excessive wear on the sole can affect the boot's connection with the binding and therefore the skier's safety.
  • Boots that do not have removable soles can be preserved by avoiding walking on pavement, dirt, and other hard surfaces. After-market products such as YakTrax can be used while walking to protect the boot sole.

Footbed


The footbed inside the liner gives your foot support.
  • Footbeds that come in boots from the manufacturer tend to be thin pieces of foam that offer little support.
  • We recommend purchasing an aftermarket footbed such as the Superfeet RedHot to improve the fit of your boot and preserve the health of your feet.

Buckles


The Salomon X Pro 120 buckles are easy to operate with gloves and mittens on.
The Salomon X Pro 120 buckles are easy to operate with gloves and mittens on.
Ski boots have between two and four buckles to tighten the shell of the boot.
Buckles should be made of metal for durability.
  • Having micro-adjustable buckles allows for a more precise fit. Micro-adjustable buckles will spin to lengthen or shorten their shaft, which serves as an intermediate adjustment between the regular ladder steps on the buckles.
  • Buckles should be easy to operate with gloves on.

Power Strap


The Atomic Hawx 120 has a wide powerstrap that maintains a close fit to the shin and does not slip.
The Atomic Hawx 120 has a wide powerstrap that maintains a close fit to the shin and does not slip.
The power strap allows you to tighten the top of the cuff on the boot for a close fit to your shin.
  • Power straps can utilize velcro for closure or some sort of camming buckle.
  • Wide power straps are more effective than skinny straps. They have more velcro to hold them in place and will slip less.

Walk Mode


Activating the walk mode of the Dalbello Panterra. It is easy enough to accomplish while wearing gloves  though we don't feel the walk mode allows for much mobility in the cuff.
Activating the walk mode of the Dalbello Panterra. It is easy enough to accomplish while wearing gloves, though we don't feel the walk mode allows for much mobility in the cuff.
It is becoming more common to see a walk/ski mode on all-mountain models. This is a technology adopted from alpine-touring or randonee boots, which are used by backcountry skiers.
  • A walk-mode enables the skier to disengage the cuff of the boot from the bottom of the boot, enabling some freedom of movement in the ankle. This makes walking in the boots or travelling uphill using climbing skins much easier.
  • This is a nice feature for skiers who walk or hike in their boots often, or if you are starting to venture outside the resort boundary using alpine-touring equipment.

Recco Reflectors


The Atomic Hawx 120 comes with a Recco chip embedded in the shell to aid in rescue if the wearer is caught in an in-bounds avalanche.
The Atomic Hawx 120 comes with a Recco chip embedded in the shell to aid in rescue if the wearer is caught in an in-bounds avalanche.
Recco is a system used by ski patrols and mountain rescue teams around the world to enable them to locate victims buried in an avalanche. You will find Recco reflectors embedded in some shells.
  • The reflector is a passive chip that can be picked up by a receiving unit that functions similarly to an avalanche beacon.
  • This could be an added piece of insurance for skiers that frequent avalanche terrain within and near resort boundaries.

Trying On and Sizing Boots for Skiing


Before trying boots on, you should have an idea as to the general shape of your foot, the length and width of your foot, your skiing ability, and the application of the boot. With this information you can look for a boot in the correct size, last width, and with an appropriate flex rating for your ability or preference.

Sizing


Mondo Point System
Manufacturers use the Mondo Point sizing system. It is a measurement of the length of your foot in centimeters. There are conversion charts that can show you what your street shoe size equates to in Mondo Point or you can have your feet measured. This is a good place to start.
  • As an example, a Mondo Point 27.5 roughly equates to a US size 9.5 M and 11 W.
  • Shell sizes tend to be measured on the whole size (27.0, 28.0 etc.). Half sizes are created by adding more padding to the liner or by putting a thicker footbed in the liner.

To measure your feet at home:
  • Put a piece of paper, larger than your foot, on the floor against a wall.
  • Stand on the paper with your back and heels glued to the wall.
  • Draw a line marking the longest part of your foot.
  • Measure the distance in cm from the edge of the paper to the line you've just made.

A conversion between the centimeter measurement of the Mondo Point system to American shoe sizes. This is just a guide  and your correct measurement can be taken by a boot fitter.
A conversion between the centimeter measurement of the Mondo Point system to American shoe sizes. This is just a guide, and your correct measurement can be taken by a boot fitter.

Last Width
The last of a boot refers to its general shape and width inside the shell (outer boot). Generally speaking, narrow width boots will be somewhere in the 97-98 mm last range, medium width boots will be in the 100-102 mm last range, and wide boots will be 102 mm and larger.
  • Narrow lasted boots tend to be lower volume. They are suited for skiers with small feet or those seeking a very snug, performance fit.
  • Medium lasted boots will be comfortable out of the box for most people, and for those with an "average" sized foot.
  • Wide lasted boots are made for people with wide feet that need the extra space.

Boot Sole Length
The All Track 120 has a rubberized sole that helps maintain traction on uneven terrain. The shell design is intended to save weight. You can see the listed boot sole length imprinted into the shell.
The All Track 120 has a rubberized sole that helps maintain traction on uneven terrain. The shell design is intended to save weight. You can see the listed boot sole length imprinted into the shell.
The length of the boot sole is measured in millimeters. The actual length of the boot from the toe to the heel will vary, even if they are the same size.
  • Check the sole length of your current boots before stepping into your bindings with new boots. They may not fit!
  • You should have your bindings checked every season with the boots that you are going to use with those skis/bindings.

Boot Stiffness
The flex rating of a boot refers to how difficult it is to flex the boot forward. It basically tells you how stiff the boot will feel. Skier ability, size/weight, skiing style, and personal preference may determine what "flex" boot is appropriate.
  • The flex rating is expressed using a number. You will find men's models rated from about 50 to 130. The higher the number, the harder the boot is to flex forward, and in turn the stiffer it feels.
  • In general, beginner skiers will get more out of a softer flexing boot, while advanced and more aggressive skiers will appreciate a boot that is harder to flex.
  • The flex rating can usually be found marked somewhere on the cuff of the boot, probably in conjunction with the model name. Many models will be available in different flex ratings and some can be adjusted easily to be slightly stiffer or softer.
  • Unfortunately, the flex rating metric is not standardized between manufacturers, and it can be difficult to compare the stiffness of boots from different brands without trying them on.

This is a guide to help steer you towards the correct boot flex rating based on your abilities and skiing style. Beginners should choose a softer flex boot that will be more forgiving when they make errors  more comfortable and easier to get on and off. If you are a more advanced skier or a little heavier you may want to go with a boot that has a stiffer flex level that can be a little more responsive.
This is a guide to help steer you towards the correct boot flex rating based on your abilities and skiing style. Beginners should choose a softer flex boot that will be more forgiving when they make errors, more comfortable and easier to get on and off. If you are a more advanced skier or a little heavier you may want to go with a boot that has a stiffer flex level that can be a little more responsive.

Sizing Tips


We suggest trying on ski boots later in the day. Feet tend to swell a bit throughout the day and at higher elevations. By trying boots on in the afternoon or evening, you are helping to mitigate the risk of buying boots too small. Try boots on (and ski) while wearing very thin wool or synthetic socks. They help to wick moisture away from your skin, are resistant to bunching up, and provide a more precise fit. Thick socks can restrict circulation and will actually make your feet feel colder.
  • The most important tip is to size the shell to your foot first.
  • Remove the liner from the shell and carefully insert your socked foot into the shell. Stand up and slide your toes to the front of the boot so that they are just touching the end.
  • You should have no more than 2 fingers width between your heel and the back of the boot.

The shell size is important to boot fit. You should have no more than 2 fingers width between your heel and the back of the boot shell.
The shell size is important to boot fit. You should have no more than 2 fingers width between your heel and the back of the boot shell.

Then, try on the boot fully assembled.
  • Reinsert the liner carefully into the shell.
  • While seated, insert your socked foot into the boot. Buckle the top buckles loosely.
  • Kick your heel into the ground to seat your heel and ankle into the heel pocket of the boot. Tighten the power strap of the boot which in combination with the top two buckles will more firmly seat your heel and ankle in the heel pocket of the boot.
  • Now tighten the buckles at the forefoot of the boot.

When trying on boots with the liner  kick your heel into the ground to seat your heel and ankle into the heel pocket of the boot.
When trying on boots with the liner, kick your heel into the ground to seat your heel and ankle into the heel pocket of the boot.

Stand up to see how the boots feel. Keep in mind:
  • Ski boots are meant to be snug.
  • As you stand up straight in the boot, your toes should barely touch the end of the liner. Flex into the tongue of the boot as if you were skiing and feel your toes pull back slightly from the end of the liner.
  • You should not be able to lift your heel easily, and there should be little to no lateral play in your forefoot.
  • Wiggling your toes is a good thing, but too much dead airspace may indicate that the boot is too large for you.
  • Adjust and micro-adjust the buckles as needed.
  • Tighten the powerstrap to maintain positive contact with your shin.

A precise fit of your boots will increase performance, make them more comfortable, and reduce the risk of foot injury. Again, it is strongly recommended to visit a professional boot fitter to help you choose a boot that is right for you and make adjustments to the boot as needed.

The Bottom Line


Buy boots that fit your feet well. Seek professional boot fitting advice if are are having trouble finding a good fit, and try on several different boots in different sizes before buying. Ski boots should be snug without being painful, and you should be able to wiggle your toes but not be able to lift your heel. There should be little to no lateral movement in your forefoot.

Skiing is fun  and wearing your boots should make it more so. The lightweight Tecnica Cochise 120 is plenty of boot for skiing variable  in-bounds terrain.
Skiing is fun, and wearing your boots should make it more so. The lightweight Tecnica Cochise 120 is plenty of boot for skiing variable, in-bounds terrain.

Choose boots that suit your needs. They need not be overly stiff if you are a beginner or intermediate skier or if you are not an aggressive skier. If you are crossing over to skiing outside the resort boundaries or want to access hike-to terrain in-bounds on occasion, consider a boot with a walk-mode feature. Consider your budget and how much you ski, there is no need to get an expensive boot if you only ski a handful of days a year. There are affordable boots with excellent features that could fit your feet well and provide good ski performance at your level.

Mike Phillips
About the Author
Mike is a full time seasonal outdoor professional. In the winter you can find him doing avalanche control work and caring for injured skiers as a professional ski patroller at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, California or backcountry skiing on the East Side of the Sierra. During the drier months of summer he trades in the skis for lightweight packs as a backpacking guide on the John Muir Trail, Mt. Whitney, and less talked about regions of California's High Sierra. Mike calls the Eastern Sierra home, where he lives in a small house at the foot of a volcano in a little aspen grove with his wife and accident prone dog.

 
 

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