While few purchases are as exciting as new ski equipment, the act of shopping also comes with a healthy dose of consternation. Nowhere do we get more flustered than trying to figure out how to find the right pair of ski boots.
As a reflection of our many different skiing styles and desires, the industry has produced specific boots to match our ever-segmented world. From fit to style to design to whether or not you want a walk mode and grippy soles, just knowing where to begin can be intimidating. This is true for professionals on down to beginners. But this issue applies best to those who ski all the time: Boots, which cost a pretty penny, mean a great deal to us. In fact, boots can make or break a season. Since we depend on them all the time, we need them to be comfortable and work as intended. But even those of us who ski regularly have a hard time knowing exactly how a boot should properly fit.
In search of professional advice, I reached out to one of the industry's foremost experts in bootfitting and design. Matt Schiller, 46, has spent the majority of his career dialing equipment for some of the world's best skiers. From the World Cup to big mountain athletes to the X Games, he's been responsible for making sure boots, skis, and bindings are precisely tuned to get every possible advantage on the biggest stage. That includes three years as the service manager for the U.S. Ski Team, six years as Nordica’s race director, and three years as competition director for Atomic, where he helped Mikaela Shiffrin find the best fit for her equipment as she launched her career.
Three years ago, he struck out on his own and started the Park City Boot Room. It is Schiller's goal to share what he has learned from his extensive experience as an equipment professional. So what should you know about getting new boots?
As the saying goes: You don't choose the boot—the boot chooses you. Schiller says finding new boots starts with having an open mind about fit, mechanics, and function. During an appointment, Schiller takes at least a half hour to collect several measurements before he even puts a boot on someone's foot. "I look really hard at mechanics," he says. "That will give them a short list of boots where they can think about fit, stance, and flex, and then they can go pick their top three boots with some guidance. I think that has to happen, no matter if you're a pro or a layman."
"If you go with what your buddy skis on, or an athlete skis on, that's more than likely going to be the wrong decision. This is the most important piece of the puzzle, and you need to consider certain parameters of foot mechanics that will help you go one way or another." —Matt Schiller, Park City Boot Room
The following are his key considerations when trying to provide a comprehensive and dialed-in fit.
Skiers might be surprised to find out that, according to Schiller, the two most basic measurements many of us consider first when buying a new boot—length and last—are the second and third most important measurements, respectively, for sizing. "The most paramount measurement is ankle circumference: your ankle, your Achilles, and your heel, which is known as the midfoot," he says. "For me, the midfoot measurements—matching the ankle and Achilles and hinge points—are my determining factor."
The reason for this is because length and last (the width of the forefoot) are easy to play with. You can punch a sixth toe, heat the liner, or simply extend or shorten the boot's shell. These are places you can find wiggle room, says Schiller. The midfoot area, on the other hand, is a little more difficult to work with after purchase, and so as a buyer it helps to have that foundation from the very beginning in order to seek out certain models and boot design.
An exact midfoot measurement should indicate proper length. Just as our height almost always matches our arm span, Schiller says there's similar correlation between midfoot circumference and foot length.
"You can imagine if you're long and skinny, and you're length is a 27.5," he said. "But if you're ankle measurement is 26.5, there's nothing holding you there if you go with the longer boot."
The next thing Schiller looks at is mechanics, or range of motion. "If you can stay flat footed and flex your ankles 10 degrees or more, you're in decent shape for most aggressive boots," he says. "If you're under that 10 degrees, no matter how hard you flex the ankle, you're levering inside the boot and your heel lifts. You get all this movement and lift. So I then gear folks to fore and aft adjustments. Some boots have way more forward pitch; some are more upright."
Options include using spoilers in the back of the liner, augmenting heel height, and changing the ramp angle of the boot-board. The goal is to create a stance where the leg is balanced in harmony with the foot.
Schiller also looks at the different plastics used to design boots. Some of the newer plastics are more difficult for bootfitters to manipulate. Skiers who are accustomed to getting a boot punched out should be aware of what a particular boot is capable of. Schiller says some of the slender, lighter weight options don't enable serious boot work.
Type of liner is also very important, but that alone inside a boot (aka fitting it 'out of the box') provides a "pretty false fit," says Schiller. A better indication is a shell fit, or putting your barefoot inside the shell to determine length. Schiller points out that a lot of new lightweight boots often have extremely thin liners in order to shave weight. So liner thickness and whether it is heat-moldable are further considerations to make when buying new boots. "In the heat-molding process, we would closely match the foot to the shell design," he says.
A proper footbed is perhaps the most important element of a good boot fit. It does so many things, Schiller said, but most important is that a well-fitting footbed creates natural alignment for a skier's entire lower body. A custom footbed usually runs more than $100, but the advantages make it a no-brainer.
"The footbed is huge to solidify the foot shape and keep everything stacked and in line with the direction of the boot." —Matt Schiller
"A foot has a natural shape when you are seated with your feet on the ground," Schiller explains. "When you're just sitting in a chair and resting on the ground, you have a certain foot shape. When you stand up, your foot shape changes without support. More than likely, you have some pronation, your ankle bones will protrude in, the outside of your foot will roll up a little bit, your toes will elongate, and more than likely your heel turns and lifts to the backside. Just looking at this, you can always call out four or five 'ouchy parts.' A good footbed needs to fill the void of all the empty space, match your arch, neutralize your ankle joint, and make sure your Achilles will be perpendicular to the floor. In other words, when you stand up on a footbed, things shouldn't change from your seated position. If you see space and gaps anywhere, all those spots are going to be banging around on the inside of the boot."
Once on skis, the footbed helps your leg track straight. It stabilizes your foot in the boot and keeps your leg in line with your foot. "When you flex and move and walk and ski, things want to operate efficiently," says Schiller. "The footbed is huge to solidify the foot shape and keep everything stacked and in line with the direction of the boot.
Flex is another very common indicator for consumers looking at new boots. But skiers should know that there is no industry standard. As a result, some 130 boots will be much stiffer than others with the same listing. More important than forward flex, Schiller says, is lateral stiffness. He said most new boots today have enough lateral stiffness (that is, side to side) to drive today's skis. "You can go softer than you think because laterally all these boots are going to perform," he says. "Yes, you need to get to the front and go with the terrain, but don't sweat the flex number because most of these boots will tip right over."
Know the terrain and style you want to ski. Consumers should consider a familiar chassis based on what boots they've skied in the past, and if a new, different one may require time to adjust. Believe it or not, the industry is way ahead of the learning curve of the skier, says Schiller. Different styles and designs may require a skier to adapt his or her style in order to find the sweet spot on a new boot.
Another consideration: If you want a walk mode, is your skiing more about the up, or the down? Putting a boot into walk mode changes the dynamic of your foot in the boot shell, as your foot wants to slide forward as the cuff rotates. Walk modes also typically weaken the stiffness of a boot, causing it to lose some of its downhill performance.
In the end, it's about finding a quality local shop that's going to spend at least a half-hour with you before they even put a boot on your foot. Schiller recommends consumers bring in their old boots to help explain where they are coming from: What did they like about their old boots, and what did they dislike? Consumers should also expect their shop to ask what kind of skiing they want to do.
"Then we tweak the puzzle to make the boot do what they want to feel," says Schiller. "All I can do is interpret what they want to do on their skis and build the boot up so it does what they want to do."
The rest is up to you.