Modern ski boots are built for the up, and the down, a great combo for destinations like Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains. PHOTO: Matt Hansen
Modern ski boots are built for the up, and the down, a great combo for destinations like Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains. PHOTO: Matt Hansen

From Rear-Entry to Elf Shoes, Ski Boots Have Come A Long Way, Baby

The fastest growing boot category is hybrid, combining design elements for backcountry and resort

Back in the 1980s, when Tom Turiano started skiing in Grand Teton National Park, he didn't have a lot of equipment options. Like other backcountry skiers of the time, touring gear consisted of Nordic and telemark gear, which was great for getting around but lacked stiffness for control, especially in deep snow or steep terrain.

One of the early explorers of the Teton Range during the midwinter, Turiano, an acclaimed author, historian and guide, set out on Nordic and telemark gear to traverse the mountains. Skis were over 200 centimeters long and only 50 millimeters wide. Boots were made of leather and equipped with a Vibram sole and duckbill. Bindings had three pins for the duckbill toe and cables that wrapped around your boot heel.

Some skiers performed incredible feats on such equipment. In 1982, Rick Wyatt, an honors student at the University of Utah who, as he shared in an interview two years ago, flunked out because he spent too much time in the mountains, skied the Grand Teton on telemark gear. As Turiano notes in his 1995 guidebook "Teton Skiing: A history and guide to the Teton Range," Wyatt skied the peak in superb style--solo and without a rope.

Turiano continues in the book’s passage about Wyatt:

He used Asolo single, low-top leather boots without support cuffs and Fischer Expeditions with aluminum edges and Troll expoding bail pin bindings with Voile plates for support. In the icy chute between the Stettner and Ford couloirs, Wyatt strapped his skis to his pack and downclimbed. He almost elected to jettison his pack because his ski tips were scraping continually on the rock and upsetting his balance.

When the snow stabilized in the spring, Turiano and others tossed aside their tele gear for stiffer alpine equipment in order to ski the high peaks. His boot of choice: the rear-entry Salomon SX 91 Equipe.

"You had to have rear-entry so you could walk," he said.

My, how times have changed. In the 1990s, the all-plastic Scarpa Terminator changed telemark skiing forever. In 2008, Black Diamond introduced the Factor, a stiff alpine boot with a walk mode, which allowed resort skiers to have better mobility for hiking for stashes. Then, in the early 2010s, Dynafit upped the ante in the backcountry category with the TLT5, an "elf shoe" that weighed just over two pounds.

As backcountry grew in popularity, traditional European-based alpine companies (a la Atomic, Salomon, Nordica, and Fischer) began creating their own hybrid boots--that is, ski boots that work in the resort but have design elements that aid in hiking or skinning.

Now, people run up the Grand Teton in ski boots that look like they belong on the Space Shuttle. But it goes beyond just elite athletes who climb and ski thousands of vertical feet. Every day skiers have a wide array of options, and many new recreational boots come with a walk mode. Not for skinning so much as getting to the lifts from the parking lot. Or rather, relaxing in "bar mode" with a plate of nachos and pitcher of beer.

At the Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show in Denver last month, numerous boots were on display that included a walk mode and tech fittings, increased stiffness for power, and a medium last for comfort. It showed just how far boots have come in the last few decades.

Fischer's new Ranger Free has all the bells and whistles: walk mode, tech fittings, 55 degrees of cuff rotation, Vibram GripWalk soles. Ten years ago, such a design would have put it in the backcountry category. Today, Matt Berkowitz, Fischer's director of marketing, calls it, simply, a "modern freeride ski boot."

The Fischer Ranger Free is neither backcountry boot nor resort boot, but rather “a modern freeride ski boot.” PHOTO: Matt Hansen

The reason is because customers have shown that they don't want to be limited in what they are able to ski, or access to ski. And unlike in Turiano's early career of skiing the Tetons, all anyone has to do now is walk down the street to the nearest ski shop to find an assortment of options.

Rossignol Alltrack LT weighs 1690 grams, has Dynafit-certified tech inserts, and 50 degrees of cuff rotation. Probably not what you’d use to ski the Grand Teton, but it’s designed to take you far while giving you power for the descent in variable snow.

The 2019 Rossignol Alltrack LT is a new addition to the hybrid category of ski boots. PHOTO: Matt Hansen

Dynafit's new HOJI boot uses an innovative walk mode that essentially acts as a fourth buckle. Even with all three buckles locked in, you can release the walk mode and unlock the entire upper cuff, providing 55 degrees of rotation. This means that you can control the boot with a single lever. To switch into downhill, all you need to do is lock down the walk mode.

Eric Henderson, who does PR for Dynafit, brings it full circle to Turiano's day, summing up the HOJI: "It's almost like having the comfort of your father's rear-entry boots and the performance of race-stock boot in one all-day touring option."

The 2019 Dynafit HOJI is not like rear-entry boot, or maybe it is? The left boot shows the ski/walk mechanism. PHOTO: Matt Hansen