When a new customer takes his shoe off and it looks like a canoe paddle, I know immediately that we're not going to try certain boots. But before that happens, I open a dialogue with him to start to identify what type of skier he is. I've fit all levels of skiers, from World Cup racers to weekend warriors, and the biggest mistake people make when buying boots is to buy them too big. They think big means comfortable. Another common mistake is to buy too much boot for your skill level, or "overbuying," which is common whenever people buy athletic gear. Once there's a dialogue established and a person's skill level is assessed, a good salesperson will look at foot shape and measure the foot for length. I usually choose three or four models based on my initial assessment of the foot.
Next, you should be shell-sized, which means the boot liner is pulled out of the shell and the customer's longest foot is put in. You should be told to move your foot forward so the toe just touches the front. At this point, there should be about two fingertips' worth of space between the heel and the back of the boot.
If it's the right shell size, the boot is reassembled. The customer should put his foot back in and be given time to work the boot for a few minutes. The first comment inevitably is, "My toes are against the front of the boot." So I have them bend the ankles and drive the knees forward. That pulls the toes away from the front of the boot, and they'll say, "Oh yeah, that's better." This exercise helps people realize they don't need as big a boot as they think they do.
Or as stiff. Some skiers will buy too stiff a boot because it's the cool boot to have, like the Tecnica Explosion 8 of a few years ago-most people couldn't bend the thing to save their lives. People need to be honest about their technical aptitude. A stiff boot transmits energy really quickly, but it also demands much more of the skier. At the lower skill levels, you're still basically finding your balance and gaining an understanding of what you have to do mechanically to put a ski up on edge and make a turn. If your boot is too stiff, you won't be able to bend your ankles, so you won't be able to pressure the front of the ski. Too stiff a boot skis the skier instead of vice versa.
Try Before You Buy
After trying on three or four models, decide which model feels best in the shop-with advice from a salesperson on how a boot should feel. We allow customers to go out and actually demo the boots on the hill, but not every shop will do this. Ask.
Either boots work or they don't. Our customers can come back and change boots if something hurts or just isn't working. Most people will try at least two in a day and make a choice from there. If you don't have the option to demo boots, make sure you spend time in the shop working the boots and asking questions.
Then there's the rare breed who knows exactly what they want and can buy a boot right off the shelf and be happy. That's very unusual. More common are people who'll never be able to get into a ski boot right out of the box. For those people, I get them into a good shell and then go to a custom liner. Most of our customers fall somewhere in between.
Don't Forget the Footbed
Once you decide on a boot, you should talk about custom footbeds. Almost everyone can benefit from a custom footbed. Period. It's the nature of the sport more than it is a particular foot pathology. You're putting a foot that wants to function in a certain way-walking and running-into a hard plastic shell. Without the good fit provided by a custom footbed, the foot can't achieve the stability it needs or articulate the way it wants to. When you crank down on buckles to achieve stability, you wind up with cold, numb feet. Comfort is the real benefit of footbeds.
In my opinion, the best ski-specific custom footbeds are made with your foot in an unweighted position. They're more precise and will allow for more subtle motions inside the boot that will be transmitted through the boot to the ski.
What kind of footbed you choose comes down to how you like to articulate your feet inside your boots and how much you want to spend. Most good footbeds cost about $150, but they'll last through three or four pairs of boots. I also should mention that one pair of thin wool or wool-blend ski socks is all you need. Thin socks allow for a good fit that lets your blood flow, which helps keep your feet warm.
Once you have the right shell and footbed, you should think about alignment. We start off by aligning the center of the skier's knee mass over the big toe. Using a plumb bob or a canting device, we calibrate the knee mass by dropping a plumb line straight to the toe. That's how you learn what the knee's doing.
Boot manufacturers now realize the value of proper alignment, so most are making boots that have dual cant assemblies that allow a lot more canting on the cuff. This enables you to really get the foot, ankle and lower leg properly aligned. That's incredibly important. If you can stand in a natural stance on skis and stay within a range of motion, you're more likely to grasp what skiing really is-balance in motion.
If your balance is finely tuned underneath your foot and you have a good fit around the foot, when you make a move on your skis, they're going to react in a predictable fashion. And when your skis are predictable, your learning curve is going to be much steeper.
Proper alignment also produces better balance and a more comfortable feeling. That instills confidence, which means you learn quicker and ski better. Which, in the end, is what we're all after.
Corty Lawrence has pioneered bootfitting techniques for 23 years. He is co-owner of Footloose Sports, Mammoth Lakes, Calif.