RealSkiers: What You Should Know Before You Buy Your Next Boots
This young lady wisely opted to have her boots fitted by the pros at Boot Doctors. (RealSkiers)
Buying alpine ski boots has never been a picnic. It isn't going to get any easier, at least not in the near term.
I've just returned from 5 days of intensive on-snow boot evaluation at the MasterFit Boot Test, conducted on the wintery slopes of Mt. Bachelor. Sixteen boot brands were represented, covering categories from Frontside to Backcountry. Dozens of testers willingly buckled themselves into every manner of boot and sallied forth to essay them.
Here's the topline take-away: there isn't a number embossed or printed on a ski boot on which you can depend.
The most egregious offender is the flex index, a number that is so important it's routinely part of the boot's model name. Because there's no standard for flex index, savvy marketers use it as a positioning instrument rather than a scientific measure of flex resistance.
Thus we have "130" flex boots with the resistance of pudding alongside others where the number indicates a relatively rigid, race-like flex, as it was originally intended to. In this topsy-turvy world, how is the hapless consumer supposed to know which "130" flex is real and which are pretenders?
You can't, at least not without trying them on. As one of the primal properties of the boot is a highly mutable fiction, figuring out one's appropriate model at a distance (i.e., online) is hopeless.
Wait, it gets worse. You'd think since all alpine boots adopted the metric (aka, mondopoint) sizing system years ago, that a size 27.5, for example, would be very close to the same internal length for all sizes marked with this shell size. Would that it were so.
In actuality, "27.5's" come in a wide variety of internal length dimensions, some of them off by a full size. That's a big strike two for anyone trying to size himself or herself without hands-on assistance.
Length isn't the only dimension that's fudged. Somewhere on every boot is an indication of its forefoot width, given in millimeters. This number is problematic for several reasons: 1) forefoot width is perhaps the least significant dimension to cite as it's easily modified; 2) this dimension changes with every size, but this fact is rarely mentioned; and 3) it's often flat-out misleading, particularly among so-called "medium" boots that use 100mm as their reference but are frequently wider. Strike three!
Why, I hear my alert readers cry, would manufacturers engage in such a shell game with their consumers?
Because every one of them fears losing a "fit-off" against another model in the first few seconds after trying their boots on. A little (or a lot) of extra room means less chance of rejection by consumers who are justifiably worried about comfort above all else. A soft-flexing boot with a high flex index can entice the self-professed advanced skier to pay more for a model than they might otherwise. (Boots with a higher flex index invariably cost more than boots in the same family with a lower index.)
The hodgepodge of flex and sizing numbers is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it increases the chance that when the uneducated consumer meets the untrained bootfitter the result will be an all but unskiable arrangement. On the other hand, it so magnifies the risk of a costly yet unworkable outcome in the online world that consumers may come to realize that bootfitting at a distance is folly.
Alpine ski boots are expensive. Everybody wants a deal. The clash between these two forces naturally leads many skiers to seek a shortcut to the perfect fit. Sorry folks, that isn't the way this wacky corner of the world of commerce works. While there are no absolute guarantees of success, the only path that optimizes the chance of success involves your bare feet in front of a trained, veteran bootfitter who has your best interests at heart.
Yes, Virginia, such unicorns do indeed exist. I just spent a week skiing alongside them. I spend my whole year trying to identify them and promote them. They will know which models should be down-sized and which boots have similar flexes, regardless of what number is printed on them. They are your best chance of finding the perfect boots, and with them, the chance to enjoy skiing more than you ever thought possible.
If that sounds to you like a pipe dream or a miracle, consider this: I just skied a Lange RS 130, a no-compromise, no-frills boot that's easy to put on and take off. (Veteran Lange users are excused if they have to read the last sentence several times before they can comprehend it.) Now that's a miracle.