Staff, courtesy of Nordica
Many people put a lot of thought into finding the best ski, but much less effort into finding the right ski boot. It’s understandable. Made of hard and unforgiving plastic, these sometimes imperfect protectors of delicate toes had a reputation for discomfort that was hard to shake. But that’s what we’re going to do. Because there’s a warm, comfortable, almost cozy boot out there that delivers exactly the performance you need. We do the work on sub-zero mountain mornings (and some beautiful mild spring days) to find the best boots for every type of skier.
The Expert: Louis Mazzante is the test director at Popular Mechanics and oversees the brand’s ski and boot testing. He is a former ski instructor and collegiate ski racer. He lived in Rocky Mountain towns for years (including during a very cold winter and spring sleeping in a pop-up camper in Summit County, Colorado) and now spends several nights a week outfitting on the East Coast hardpack near the Testing Pop Mech Test Zone. in Easton, Pennsylvania.
Styles of ski boots
There are two main types of alpine (downhill) ski boots: front entry and rear entry. Front boots, which are the most common, use a series of buckles across the top of your foot and shin to close. The multiple buckles create a tight and secure fit for excellent power transfer and control. Back-entry models were popular decades ago and have made a small revival. Most open like a clamshell, making them much easier to put on and take off, but they don’t transfer power as efficiently. This makes them less ideal for aggressive skiing. They are best for newer skiers, those who primarily ride softer snow, or anyone with a relaxed style. There is a third type we will cover, called AT, which is made for ski touring. Using specialized bindings, ski tourers “skin” up a mountain as if on Nordic skis, then descend as if on downhill gear. Those boots should be light, flexible enough to walk in, yet capable of doing big mountain descents.
More gear for the slopes: Best Women’s Ski Jackets • Best Women’s Ski Pants • Best Ski Gloves • Best Men’s Ski Jackets • Best Women’s Snow Pants
What to look for in a great ski boot
To help you decide which boot best meets your needs, it is helpful to understand a boot’s purpose and how it works. Think of ski boots like a bicycle or car tire; they are the critical connection between you and your skis, helping to transfer power to your edges for precise control. Because of that important role, boots must be tight. Too soft and it will feel like you’re skiing with a flat tire – flat and out of control. The best boots balance the level of stiffness you need with comfort. It is difficult. Too much padding or insulation and the boot will feel like a flat tire. Not enough and your feet will be screaming for you to take the boots off after your first run. Fortunately, advances in materials and construction techniques mean that it is possible to find comfortable boots at almost every performance level. Here’s what to look for.
Stiffness and flexibility Experienced and aggressive skiers need a stiff boot to transfer power to the edges of their skis. Newer, lighter and more casual skiers generally want a more comfortable boot that flexes more easily. Bootmakers use a numerical flex rating index to note each boot’s stiffness, typically between 50 and 130. Here’s a simple guide to setting the right one for you. (We’ve included some overlap to account for different skiers’ weights and strengths; for example, lighter but experienced skiers want a boot with a stiffness level of 70, while a heavier first timer might be better off with a boot rated at 80.)
- Beginner / less aggressive: 50 to 80
- Intermediate: 70 to 100
- Advanced: 90 to 130
Comfort and fitness Of course, you want the boot to be comfortable enough to ski in all day. An important consideration is the boot’s width. Many models come in two or three final sizes – for example 98mm, 100mm and 102mm. Larger containers usually fit wider feet better. But last also has performance implications. More advanced skiers should look for a smaller last to ensure a tighter fit and better power transfer.
To further improve the fit, many boots come with heat-moldable liners that conform to your feet as they warm up. Some must be taken to a shop to be baked in a specialized oven, while other liners will do so over time just by the user wearing the boot.
Other features to consider Newer boots, especially more expensive models, come with Gripwalk soles. These rubber inserts near the toe provide extra grip while walking and have a convex shape to improve your gait, making walking across the parking lot to the lodge much easier than in the past. Just make sure your bindings are compatible. Some boots have heating elements that you can control with a dial or through a Bluetooth connection.