Skiing with poorly fitting boots is like riding a bike without a seat. You’ll probably get to your destination, but it’s not an enjoyable experience.
In 2003 I built my Colnago Dream Plus road bike. I found Chris King headsets from a velo swap, the frame from an Ebay seller in the UK, Reynolds Ouzo Carbon forks, Campagnolo drive train, and Vittoria Open Corsa CX tires on Mavic rims. The bicycle is a work of ridable art. I still feel joy every time I take it on the road. Of all that went in to it, the most important selections I made were for the saddle, handlebars, and cycling shoes with Surefoot insoles – the points where my body touches the equipment.
Boots – There Are So Many Choices
I have skied in boots from several different makers – Raichle, Salomon, Rossignol, Tecnica, Atomic, Nordica, and Lange – and I gained insight to how my boots affect my body position and my technique. For instance, the boot’s ramp angle could be causing my heel to be too high or my toes to be too high, or the boot cuff could lean too far forward or be too upright.
Body position, ankle flex, and a neutral stance
Here is an exercise you can do at home with your existing boots, or in the boot shop when trying them on, or on the snow with your skis on. It’s one of several exercises I use to assess how the skier and their equipment are working together.
Boots with too much forward lean will put you ahead of the centerline, and boots that are too upright will sit your hips behind centerline. If you already have boots you like that don’t put you in proper alignment, adjustments can possibly be made by the boot fitter using toe or heel lifts, boot sole grinds, or cuff adjustments, but it is best to buy boots that align properly for your body.
Buying the Right Boots
My students and friends often ask how to select which boots to buy and I’m happy to give guidance when it comes to such an important decision. I recommend narrowing your choices to a few different boots, based on a few questions:
What is your height and weight, skill level, fitness level, and type of ski?
What type of terrain do you like to ski and what type of snow do you encounter most?
Different people with the same dimensions may have different requirements of the boot.
The Shell and the Liner
If you are able, find a professional boot fitter (I trust Surefoot) and with their help, try on your different options and follow these steps. You might find this approach unconventional but it will get you the best fit. Try on three sizes: Your usual size, one boot-shell-size smaller and one boot-shell-size larger (e.g., Sizes 25, 24, 26). In each size, check for which one fits your midfoot the best. Choose this size and work from there.
Next, is to take a “shell-fit” measurement by placing your foot in the shell of the boot with the liner removed and check for spacing between your foot and the shell for the length, and ankle placement. This will confirm that the make and model is a good fit for your anatomy. Lastly, check the forefoot width to make certain that it is not too tight or too loose in the toebox. Common widths in men’s boots are 97mm, 100mm, or 102mm. Your boot fitter can then adjust the width and length by punching and grinding the shell. In addition, injectable or heat moldable liners will help fill the inconsistencies between your foot and the shell of the boot. A stock boot liner with a solid midfoot fit may be all you need, however, I have a custom foam liner made to ensure my foot has the best possible fit, my ankle flexes properly, and my achilles and heel feel supported.
Orthotics and Insoles
A good insole or orthotic fills the gaps, gives your foot support, and places your ankle in a neutral position. This allows your leg to stack efficiently so that it is moving in alignment with the boot and ski. Proper alignment at the bottom* will allow the rest of your body to have the most versatility, range of motion, and will reduce fatigue. (*This is one of the meanings behind the name of the book: Skiing: from the Bottom Up.) When your foot is out of alignment, you are forced to make adjustments - in your ankles, knees, hips and spine - which are inefficient and sometimes lead to injury or pain. When your body is properly aligned and stacked and you ask it to move a certain way, it will; you won’t have to be making conscious adjustments to compensate for your misalignment.
Novice and intermediate skiers should have a softer flexing boot. A newer skier makes extraneous movements to stay in balance. If the boot is flexible it allows the energy to be absorbed rather than being fully transmitted to the ski and snow. As the skier becomes more skilled, the movements become more accurate and purposeful. A stiffer boot then transmits these movements along the edge of the ski to the snow more quickly and powerfully. A more flexible boot will absorb the pressure of moguls and off-piste terrain. A stiffer boot will require the skier to absorb the uneven terrain in the ankle, knee, hips, spine, and muscular system.
Boot Flex Numbers
It is important to note that there is no industry norm for boot flex. The current rating goes up to 150 for the stiffest race boots. Each manufacturer has its own standard, meaning a 120 flex in one brand may not be the same stiffness as a 120 flex in another brand, although they would be close. Finding the correct fit is primary, and forward flex is next. A final note, a boot will stiffen as the weather gets colder. The boot that you are flexing in the shop will be stiffer when you ski it on the hill. And a boot in January will be stiffer than the same boot for spring skiing in April.
My Current Boot Quiver
Having multiple boots is not required, but I have quite a collection going. I have three pair of Surefoot custom boots. One for backcountry, another for teaching on very cold days (it has a slightly wider toe box and is softer flexing), and the third pair with a “one-finger” high performance fit for teaching and for my days off. They all have a Lange shell with Surefoot X4 Pro or X5 Pro foam liners, Surefoot insoles, and a Thermic bootheater element under the ball of my foot.
I love the feeling of getting fitted and walking out to the shop with new shiny boots, almost as much as skiing them. Boots are the most important piece of gear I use, and I will invest more in boots than any other item. After you purchase new boots, you may find that they need a brief break in period to allow your feet to get use to the new fit. If you are new to orthotics it may take some time to get a good feel for them as well. The benefit of buying from a good bootfitter is that you can bring the boot back into the shop for on-going adjustments. If the adjustments don’t seem like they are working, it may be your technique. But not to worry, that is what upcoming blog posts and my upcoming book, Skiing: From the Bottom Up, will address.
How did my ski life start? Well, as many great endeavors begin, it was a woman, well actually an 18-year-old woman. Her name was Cindy Russell and she was beautiful. I was 18 too, and with nearly two seasons of self-taught snowboarding experience, I wasn’t ready for what I was about to get myself into. My snowboard instruction consisted of some pictures in Powder Magazine, and a segment in a Warren Miller Movie. The equipment in 1986 was pretty basic. I had Sorel work boots that I strapped in to the Burton Elite 150 snowboard. This was as techie as snowboarding had become in those early days.
It didn’t matter if I was riding alone or with a few of my skiing friends. What I knew was that sliding on water - frozen or liquid - was the best thing in the world. I started surfing when I was 11 and I thought that was the most bitchin’ thing ever. And then I found the freedom and friction-less glide of a seemingly endless wave. I couldn’t get enough, and I still can’t.
On weekends during the winter and spring, I drove my truck up to the Southern California mountains early every Saturday morning. I would “couch surf” in the nights and snowboard for those two days. Then the opportunity came to ask out the most beautiful girl I knew. I worked up the nerve to ask Cindy if she would go up to Big Bear Lake with me. She said, “Yes”!! And I was thrilled.
We left our town of Dana Point at 5 am and arrived laughing and smiling a couple hours later at 7:15. The weather that day was incredible with cool blue skies and 10 inches of fresh powder. My skills were going to be on display and the conditions were great. Cindy and I flirted and took powder laps one after the other until we skied out to the eastern boundary of the small ski area.
The boundary run ended on a cat track that was pancake flat and exposed to the midday sun. The snow had transformed into 10 inches of glue. I had never experienced this snow condition until right then when I flew into it at about 25 mph. My snowboard slowed immediately to zero as my upper body maintained its speed into a downward arc. When I emerged I was without gloves, goggles, my hat, and one Sorel. Cindy skied up to me, kindly retrieving my clothing and thanking me for the snow test in untracked conditions. This was not at all how I envisioned removing my clothing for the first time around Cindy.
As we pushed out of the seemingly never-ending flat run, I tried several ways to gain momentum, all of which ended in frustration and an increasing amount of sweat drenching my shirt under my jacket. When we finally came to a semi-groomed flat section I was exhausted. In capitulation, I made a request of Cindy that took my 18-year-old ego down several notches. I asked, “Cindy, can you pull me?” UGGGGGH, I couldn’t believe what I was saying as I thought to myself, ‘Jon, you were so cool, UNTIL NOW.’ Cindy extended her ski pole and began to skate with me in tow. This is when I decided that I was going to trade in my snowboard for skis.
In the lodge that afternoon, the trade was made. My transformation from snowboarder to skier was initiated. I was now the owner of 185 cm White Fischer RC4 skis and Raichle RE3 rear-entry boots. For the next three years, I would spend my college weekends becoming a Southern California skier.
This is an excerpt from Jon's forthcoming book Skiing: From the Bottom Up. Send your feedback and follow along here for weekly posts with stories and ski lessons from Jon's nearly three decades of experience.
Join Jon for the 2018 Zelement Club JaPOW ski and ride trip to Myoko, Japan. January 28 - February 4.
Private Lessons with Jon are available through Copper Mountain Ski School from mid-November to mid-April. Call +1.970.968.3023 or email email@example.com to book your lesson now. Read more about lessons with Jon on our Colorado page.
“We have a serious Coconut situation going on here!” she said to me as I began writing this book. You see, the book Skiing: From the Bottom Up (working title) is beginning to take shape at sunset while I overlook the Indian Ocean in Bali. I’ve been teaching the sport of skiing since the age of 23 and I planning to teach it for many years into the future. I absolutely love it! I chase the winter season differently. I now split my time between the state of Colorado for the winter, and Bali during the Southern Hemisphere “winter”. This perfect mix allows me to stoke my fire with the contrast of the two distinct environments. The story within this book has been writing itself for decades, but it took the tropical temperatures for the messages to blossom.
The idea for this book came to me during an online workshop for aspiring authors hosted by our friend Carl Massy at The Practice. Halfway through the session, I stopped listening (Sharon was engaged and taking great notes) and within 7 minutes I mind-mapped the outline of the book. As I write, I will share some of the content on the blog each week from now until mid-February and I’d love to hear your comments and feedback. You will join me on daily adventures in the life of a ski instructor – at 8 am Instructor Clinics and 4:30 Instructor Technical Sessions, to the backroom of the boot shop (Are you ready Surefoot crew?), and down memory lane recounting how the sport has evolved since I started teaching in 1992 – learning lessons to improve your skiing along the way.
In February, I will begin shooting and editing videos that will be companions to the blog and eventually the book. You will be applying your new skills on your first run after reading the book and you can take the instructional videos on the mountain with you. Powder, moguls, carving, skidding, speed and line control, breaking through the intermediate and advanced ruts, and developing Intuitive Jedi skiing skills.
I will do my best to make this experience incredible and fun for all those who read and follow and contribute. I have had such wonderful coaches and colleagues along my journey and I have also been blessed with many incredibly kind and generous students over the years who have supported my ski-teaching habit. Soon I will launch a GoFundMe account to raise the money to fund this project. The funds will be used for copywriting, editing, publishing, design, and video production. As a backer, you will have access to advanced copies of the book, first editions, on-mountain meet and greet ski sessions, 2-day Masterclass sessions, and a Signature 1-week Zelement Club vacation. And everyone who supports at any level will be recognized in the book credits.
I am honored to embark on this journey with you. As we go through process, I will post certain sections and other related content on the blog. I am excited to hear your feedback to make this book even better.
It’s time to build this from the Bottom Up.
Love and Gratitude,
Join us for JaPOW: A special week of coaching and teaching skiing in the famous powder of Japan | January 28-February 5, 2018.
Private Lessons with Jon are available through Copper Mountain Ski School from mid-November to mid-April. Call +1.970.968.3023 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to book your lesson. Read more about lessons with Jon on our Colorado page.
Sharon and Jon live the life of their dreams. Zelement Club is their way of inviting others to join them in this adventure.