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At the outset, let me state that this is an impossibly large and mutable topic. Everyone's feet are different. The universe of boots keeps changing. The weakest link in the chain though is the skier. Generally men think they're better than they are; women think they're not as good as they are; which results in boot choices being made on the basis of ego rather than honest self-assessment.
Now that I've insulted almost the entire population of potential boot buyers, this article first assumes you want to buy some Alpine Touring (AT) boots because you may possibly do some ski touring. Second, the article then defines some categories of boots to try to make sense of the universe of AT boots.
Two follow-up articles will first present the real flex of the various touring boots you may be considering, with data gathered after years of input from TGR forums users. Then a second follow-up articles will offer my highly opinionated suggestions on which boot to buy. As of the start of the 2013/14 season, my picks are the Dynafit Vulcan and the Scarpa Maestrale RS.
Lee Lau and friends testing appropriate boot fit, and faceshot percentage, around British Columbia's Duffey Lake.
The most important thing in any footwear is fit. This goes especially for AT boots which must be comfortable on the up and fit well enough to have decent performance on the down. AT boots are inherently about compromises. It would be impossible to make something that is "perfect" for both the skin up and the ski down. Therefore the first priority is to get something that fits well and work from there. Fit is a big topic in of itself. Experienced bootfitters are worth their weight in gold and are trained and compensated accordingly. Explore this exceedingly complex topic and begin the process of educating yourself by reading this educational thread and discussing it in the forums. Or better yet, buy your boot from a place where you can talk to a bootfitter who can see your feet and work with your boots. In Whistler, the go-to shop is Escape Route.
Ski boot fit is complicated by the fact that is possible to tune fit by manipulating the shell of the boot (by heatmolding. grinding or by punching) and also by altering the boot liners (usually by thermomolding). My personal incredibly highly-biased opinion is that most boot companies would be better served if they tossed their stock liners and instead substituted them with Intuition Liners.
Generally, there are rule of thumbs about AT Boot fit (2 fingers of space between heel and ankle in the boot, liners should be snug, etc.) but they are high-level generalized rules. People have different feet, different abilities and different preferences/goals for their skiing and ski-touring. This segues nicely to the next topic: just what kind of alpine touring are you going to do?
Will you really be doing a lot of climbing this winter? Really? Scarpa Maestrale RS on the Diamond Glacier at Icefall Lodge
Do you ski like Eric Hjorliefson or climb uphill like Greg Hill? Or maybe you're a genetic athletic mutant with a VO2Max of 98? Or maybe you're just an average Joe or Jane who wants a decent boot and may go touring 2 weeks of the year on vacations to British Columbia? Or maybe you're an experienced alpine skier who'd like to try some ski touring?
All AT boots - I repeat, all AT boots - are about compromises. Try to be honest with yourself when thinking about how much touring you will do. Some factors to consider when picking a boot:
-Will you scramble on rocks?
-Will you use the boots on a snowmobile?
-In a season, how many times will you ski on that boot? How many times will you tour?
-Are you fit? Are you out-of-shape? Somewhere in between? Aerobic conditioning counts the most...
-Have you ever skinned before? Have you bootpacked a little? A lot?
-Are your approaches to where you tour relatively flat? Or are all the approaches steep?
-Do you trash gear? Or are you the kind of person who maintains their gear well?
-Will you use the boots in Dynafit-style "tech" bindings? Or will you switch between tech bindings and frame-style touring bindings (e.g. Marker, Atomic, Fritschi etc.)? Or will this be a one-boot to do it all and you will use the boots in an alpine binding?
I'm sure there are other factors to consider that I've missed, so feel free to add them in the comments to this article. Now that you've thought about how you want to use the boots (you were honest with yourself, weren't you?) move on to the next part.
FREERIDE TOURING BOOTS
Dynafit ZZeus - Fissile Peak in the Whistler backcountry
I'll cave in here and adopt the marketing term. These are stiff boots biased to downhill performance. They still should have a walk mode no matter how rudimentary (20 to 30 degrees) so at least you can stand around upright in them and have some semblance of a touring stride. Some but not all should have a rockered sole (helps when you're walking around or bootpacking). They should be fairly stiff.
Most of these boots will be on the heavier side and will weigh in at 1700g per boot or more (~4lbs) and have four buckles (although you will learn that more buckles does not necessarily mean more stiffness). Generally they will have heavier construction (eg removable boot boards and the like or beefed up walk mechanisms) and may be made out of heavier plastics. Many of these boots will also have interchangeable soles so you can tear them up on sled decks.
If you're looking for a boot that does it all or if you're 80/20 inbounds/touring then you should be looking at this category of AT boots. Examples of these boots include (although this list is by no means exhaustive):
*A special note on the Dynafit Vulcan in that is a category buster. Pair it with a stiff liner and it is a Freeride boot. With a softer liner, it's a All-round boot. With a soft liner and without the tongue, it's a touring-oriented boot. Truly a chameleon, it's set the bar high for boot design and transcends categories. The only downside - no replaceable soles.
ALL-ROUND TOURING BOOTS
The majority of people who have two pairs of boots (a dedicated alpine boot and a dedicated AT boot) will be looking at all-round boots, which are the largest category by far. All-round boots used to suffer from mediocre downhill ability at the expense of decent uphill ability but now is not the case. Every one of these boots will have a pretty good walk mode (30 - 40 degrees), rockered soles, and in the case of the standard offerings, will have some exotic plastics which are lighter, thinner and are less susceptible to changing flex when cold vs warm (plastics are Polyamide, Pebax, or Grilamid, for example). Note that some of these plastics are harder to punch than polyurethane, so be gentle and patient with your boots.
This category of boots will tend to weigh about 1500 - 1700g per boot (3.3 - 3.8 lbs). Not many of these boots will have interchangeable soles. These boots will tend to have four or three buckles. There's a lot of variety in this category in terms of stiffness/performance/tourability in this category so even here, you are well served to remember that light boots don't make someone who's out of shape climb hills well or make someone who skis poorly become a shredder. At their best, all-round boots will be very good in almost every situation. At their worst, all-round boots will be mediocre; jack of all trades and master of none.
Get these boots if you're going to be 30/70 in-bounds vs. touring with in-bounds counting as doing 2 or 3 laps on the lifts then heading out as soon as the powder disappears. Examples of such boots include:
Dynafit TLT5 Performance - Duffey
These boots are for those who don't bother with lifts and head straight out the door with the intention of walking uphill and earning turns. Some of these boots are specifically designed for randoneering racing but since I've seen some people ski insane lines with boots that were supposed to be designed just for rando race courses, it's wise to concede that touring-oriented boots aren't just designed for butt-wiggling twenty degree powder fields or skittering down rando courses.
Suffice it to say that this category used to be plagued by indifferent downhill performance to obtain superior touring performance. If any category of boots has improved the most in the last 5 years; this is it. Touring oriented AT boots will have smooth, big walk modes (generally 40 degrees or more), rockered soles, exotic plastics and will look for weight savings wherever they can. Unless all you're doing is meadowskipping pow, generally do not expect these boots to last more than a 100 days or so without showing their age.
This category of boots will weigh in below 1350 grams (3 lbs) with some getting below the sub 1kg weight. They will tend to have two or three buckles. They won't have interchangeable soles. Expect the plastics in the boot to be thin. Expect the liners to be thin; people who get these boots aren't suppose to be standing around a lot getting cold. They'll be very light and tour very well. Many boots in this category are specific to tech bindings only, so be aware of your needs before buying.
People who look at boots in this category either don't particularly care well they ski downhill or are such good downhill skiers that they could crush any terrain even if they wore flip flops. They either don't need my advice or won't listen to it in any event. In this category of boots examples include:
THE BOTTOM LINE
Marketing makes buying boots complicated. Your ego makes buying boots complicated. Don't overthink things. Get a boot that fits. Then figure out what you want when you say you want to tour. Then buy a boot that makes sense for you. When all else fails get the red boots. The red boots are faster.
Looking for gear this weekend? Be sure to check out TGR's Black Friday sale, with 20% OFF all TGR merchandise and movies and FREE shipping in our gear store powered by Backcountry.com for any purchases over $50!