The annual ski boot test run by America’s Best Bootfitters for Ski and Skiing magazines was held last week at Mt. Bachelor. Conditions were classic spring with creamy corn conditions on all aspects allowing testers, a hodge-podge group of boot fitters, friends of fitters, and manufacturers, to put their feet inside more than 100 models of boots to see how they perform outside the showroom.
Serious Business, Serious Fun
If you think testing skis is fun, you’re right. Testing boots, on the other hand, is more serious business. It isn’t that the 50 odd people testing boots are having a terrible time. As one among them, I can vouch for the others, it’s still a pretty fun “job.” However, having to actually ski in a boot, or several of them, that don’t exactly fit the way your own boots do and lack the comfort of a proper fit most definitely can compromise the fun factor. It’s still skiing, but skiing in boots that your feet swim in, or squish your toes while biting your shins and ankles is not exactly an enviable vacation, but still better than a day at the desk.While that sounds like mostly fun and games, ABB takes their mission to evaluate alpine ski boots for next season seriously. Where that shows up is in the forms testers must fill out regarding the performance of the boot – two pages worth of ratings ranging from the fit of the boot in 12 zones of the foot, to how it feels while turning, and for those with a walk mode feature, how well they tour. If you really want to know what boot is the best, or rather, what boots are best for various feet, you need to get lots of different feet in them and document the kinds of feet and skiers that are best for each boot.
Once all that data is collected and organized it is used by ABB to write up their view of the boots at the test on the ABB website, as well being used by the editorial staffs of Ski and Skiing magazines as the basis for penning their annual boot reviews.
To help with that I worked with Bob Egeland, a certified pedorthist and backcountry skier who is one of the principal members of Masterfit Enterprises, the business that runs the ABB boot test and makes products like EZ Fit footbeds, and Masterfit University, a traveling roadshow of seminars that help novice and experienced boot fitters sharpen their skills to help skiers get better fitting boots. Our focus was testing and documenting the performance of the many boots that have a walk mode, with two categories defined – backcountry and all-mountain-adventure, or what most of us refer to as sidecountry. Practically every manufacturer of boots had a model with a walk mode that was considered a valid boot for earning turns. The more alpine a companies heritage, the more limited the range of motion was.
Backcountry VS Sidecountry
The distinction between backcountry and sidecountry boots is based on weight, the type of sole and cuff ROM in walk mode. Dedicated backcountry boots are lighter, with consequently less power in downhill mode, while sidecountry boots weigh more and have more meat to deal with difficult snow. In general all the BC specific boots either come with Dynafit fittings, or the soles can be easily swapped out. Some of the sidecountry boots have tech fittings too, but the feature that really separates the two categories is the cuff ROM and associated viscosity of movement. Sidecountry boots have a cuff that only moves to a vertical orientation along the Achilles spine. To your leg, it feels better than dead vertical, more like 10°—12° to the rear. What is interesting to note is this is the same ROM that most backcountry boots provided for many years until the ski mountaineering race scene began to influence BC boot designs.
Sadly, a number of backcountry boots weren’t even there for comparison, such as Dalbello’s Sherpa. Instead, the Panterra and Lupo were there for consideration in the slackcountry category. Like Head’s Challenger and Venture, walk mode is limited, but on a short tour would nonetheless be a welcome feature, or simply when walking around at a resort.
Those who have been in the game a bit longer, like Tecnica’s Cochise and Salomon’s Quest series fared better, offering boots that not only offered a walk mode, they were lighter and had tech fittings, or the soles could be swapped. Some, like the Quest Max TR 130 were downright impressive with a walk mode that would be quite acceptable on a long tour. Not only was the ROM medium high, it was light, had low resistance to leg movement in walk mode, and had inserts for 2-pin tech bindings.
From the touring side of the market, brands like Scarpa, Black Diamond, and Dynafit were offering boots with strong downhill capabilities. None quite as beefy as, say Rossi’s AllTrack Pro 130, but stout enough. Unlike alpine companies offerings, all these models offered a ROM in the cuff to make them the obvious choice for long tours while delivering alpine caliber downhill control. Dynafit’s Radical, BD’s Factor MX, and Scarpa’s Freedom all had enough meat to handle speed and junky snow with a long stride for faster skinning too.
There were very few true lightweight rando boots to review, and tele was only mentioned among the brethren who believe at the apres-ski sausage fests. Although it would have been nice to test more models from the backcountry based brands, it was a push for me to get on 24 pair of boots in four days and fill out the two-page comprehensive forms for each. Thankfully my feet bore the various shapes of the boots I put them in without any hot spots, blisters, or even redness. Other testers were braver, sporting bony ankles or bunions that made skiing boots with feet that demanded customization a painful exercise, not a delightful romp in the snow. It should be admitted, however, they were still smiling while “testing.”