When skiers complain about gear, ski boots usually take the brunt of the criticism. Not only are each skier’s feet unique, our own two feet aren’t even symmetrical. Which is why generically shaped hard plastic boots can be problematic. Alpine ski boots are notorious for causing shin bang, aching arches, sixth toes, heel spurs… the list goes on. Add sweat, constant movement and extra weight, and it’s easy to see why alpine touring (AT) boots can cause even more problems. Everything from the perfect day in the backcountry to a much anticipated hut trip can be ruined by foot pain, so it’s crucial to know how to properly fit a touring boot and how to address issues in the field.
Across the way from Strafe headquarters, Aspen Expeditions sells 24 different models of touring boots. General Manager Dirk Bockelmann advises customers to fit their AT boots more generously in length than alpine boots. “The number one thing is space for the toes,” says Bockelmann. “That’s a big departure for the historic alpine performance fit. You have to have happy toes and extra space to go uphill. And a little space gives you warmth, which is very important in the backcountry.”
Years ago, skiers shopping for AT boots could match brands to a certain foot shape. People used to say Dyanfits were narrower than Scarpas, but that’s just not the case these days. With each brand making dozens of models, the shape varies greatly within each line. Even reviews that talk about a boot’s stiffness aren’t all that helpful, because your own ankle flexibility determines your range-of-motion needs. Master boot fitters can help determine the best fitting brand by measuring your foot and watching you walk.
Strafe athlete Max Taam solicits local boot fitter Mark Rolfes to punch out the forefoot of his boots to accommodate his wide feet. Thin ski-mo race boots require a delicate touch, so make sure your boot fitter has experience working with AT boots before you make an expensive mistake.
Almost every AT boot on the market today comes with a heat moldable liner, which somewhat customizes the fit. Bootfitters can help you create space where you need it. Or a larger volume liner, like an Inuition liner, can help fill space. AE is partial to Intutions, which Scarpa uses as its stock liner. Bockelmann says the ski touring specific Pro Tour liner hikes best and offers tongues of varying stiffness.
Whether it’s with laces or Velcro or wrapping (like the Intuition overlap liner), a liner should fit snug around the ankle and foot, even while the upper cuff is loose for hiking. “The foot and liner should work together,” says Strafe’s Pete Gaston. “The liner holds your foot, while the liner should moves freely inside shell. Instead of foot to liner friction, you’ll have liner to shell friction.”
Bockelmann says every boot needs some kind of foot bed, whether that’s a spendier custom foot bed, or something off the shelf. “Especially for hiking, foot beds increase circulation,” he says. “Without a foot bed, your foot splays out. If you have a wide foot, foot beds can help make it narrower. It’s like hiking barefoot, without a foot bed it’s just less supportive.”
Once you’ve fit your touring boot as best you can, it’s time to break it in. Allow ample time to troubleshoot on short tours before you head out for a big day. Try different socks, different pitches and different style skin tracks. It might take a couple trips back to the shop to pinpoint repeat hot spots.
Blisters form from a combination of moisture and friction—two elements every prevalent while ski touring. When you feel a hot spot and you’re hours from home, take action immediately. “Don’t wait too long to address it,” says Strafe athlete and ski mountaineer Ted Mahon. “Once it’s an open blister, it will be considerably more uncomfortable.”
“For me, hot spots in ski boots are usually on or around my heel,” says Mahon. “A smoothly placed piece of duct tape on the trouble spot usually takes care of it, allowing for a smoother surface for the sock or liner to slide against.”
“I’m a big fan of duct tape over anything else,” says Bockelmann. “A square piece of duct tape with no wrinkles will do wonders. Moleskin and donuts can just create more problems by adding more material to the issue.”
Local ski-mo racer and Strafe athlete Jessie Young is loyal to Leukotape, a sticky and durable cloth tape that she often leaves on for a week at a time. “It sticks much longer than even duct tape,” says Young. “And there are no hard edges to create more hot spots.”
Aspen ski mountaineer Christy Mahon swears by applying a thin layer of Vaseline before putting socks on. Bodyglide anti-chafe skin protectant creates an invisible barrier on your skin to prevent blisters, chafing or any skin discomfort caused by friction.
Avalanche conditions, route finding, outerwear, layers, food, water—there are a lot of chances to ruin a backcountry ski tour, but nothing can blow up the day like a blister. There’s no way to 100 percent prevent foot pain, but if you put as much thought into taking care of your feet as you do the other components of backcountry skiing, you’ll be a lot more likely to come home unscathed and happy.
Author: Tess Weaver Strokes