NORDIC BACKCOUNTRY BOOTS

Last Updated: 01/03/2006


OVERVIEW

Nordic backcountry boots can be sorted into 3 broad categories. This categorization is a crude oversimplification of reality. There are seemingly countless variations on boot designs and you can easily find examples of boots that don't fit into these 3 simple groups. No matter. The categories still provide a basic framework that allows us to consider the basic trade-offs associated with choosing the right boot for the job. One way to think of these categories is that they each provide different answers to these 2 questions:
  • How flexible are the toes?
  • How supportive is the cuff?
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    SNOWFIELD CLASS BOOTS - Optimized for striding

    The Boots: I call these boots Snowfield class boots, in deference to the old Asolo Snowfield (which is pictured to the left). They are essentially cross-country boots that have been beefed up for backcountry travel. Like cross-country boots, they provide enough flex at the toe for efficient kick and glide. Unlike nordic boots made for track skiing, Snowfield class boots typically have rugged soles suitable for hiking. Often they are better insulated, as well.

    In term of height this type of boot is generally about ankle high, like a sturdy hiking boot or a nordic skate boot. This is generally enough height to provide some degree of ankle support but not so much that it would impede your stride. This is especially noticeable with higher boots at the end of the stride, when your rear leg is fully extended. Higher boots will dig into the back of your leg and won't allow your foot to extend. Some modern boots in this category incorporate light plastic cuffs that have been inspired by nordic skate boots. These cuffs aren't high and aren't meant to help drive big skis, but they will help provide lateral support with less weight.

    I differentiate between this type of boot and higher, more supportive boots with this this simple test. If you can bend the boot cuff sideways, it is a Snowfield class boot. Putting it another way, if you put the boot on and you find it is still possible to roll your ankle over to the side, it is a Snowfield class boot. Speaking as a person who has a tendency to roll my ankle when I hike, I find that pretty much every skate type boot I've tried on still allows me to roll my ankle, which is why I put them in this class, despite their plastic cuffs.

    These boots are available in styles that are compatible with both 75mm 3-pin bindings and system bindings like NNN-BC and SNS-BC. When choosing between 75mm and system boots there are several things to consider. First and foremost, of course, is fit. A good fitting 75mm boot is better than a poor fitting system boot regardless of any other considerations and vice versa.

    A second consideration is compatibility with other skis and boots that you own. If you are mostly a track skier, you may want to get a modern system boot with the thought that you will eventually have several different skis mounted with the same binding system: some for dedicated track use and others for skiing in the woods. On the other hand, if you have (or plan on having) even beefier Extreme Class or Excursion Class plastic boots, you may want the ability to use them with your lighter skis . (See the section on Matching Skis and Boots for more information.) This argues for getting a 75mm type boot instead, especially since there are really no system boots in the stiffer Extreme Class.

    A third consideration is the differing feel of the boots. System boots pivot freely at the toe due to the lateral toe bar that is at the core of all system bindings. In contrast, the duckbill connection of the 75mm boot with a 3-pin style binding is a bit more stiff. Advocates of system bindings often claim that this allows system bindings to be more efficient for kick and glide. Related, 75mm boots in this class tend to bend easily at the ball of the foot. This makes it very easy to weight the rear foot properly in a telemark turn. In contrast, system boots are often noticeably stiffer at the ball of the foot. This stiff sole combined with the free pivoting action of the system binding can create a feeling that is described by some as "tippy-toed" when trying to make telemark turns. Advocates of 75mm boots often claim that 75mm boots are better turners.

    Now, some folks claim you can trick system boots into making telemark turns by replacing the internal rubber bumper in the bindings with stiffer ones, thus causing the boot to be more likely to flex at the ball of the foot instead of at the toe bar. But others point out that doing this creates more tip pressure which, in turn, may cause the rear ski tip to dive under the snow in soft snow conditions.

    The final comment to be made regarding 75mm boots compared to system bindings is that Steve Barnett, author "Cross-Country Downhill" and "The Best Ski Touring in America" has been a frequent and outspoken advocate of the SNS-BC system. And he's not alone. SNS-BC bindings have a loyal following among people I've spoken with on numerous internet forums. Barnett and others point out that the SNS-BC design features a long deep groove in the sole of the boot which mates with a ridge on the binding plate (shown in the picture on the left). They claim that this combination makes a more powerful and torsionally rigid connection between the boot and binding. Some report that this increase in power allows them to ski skinny skis in rougher terrain that would otherwise require them to use a taller, more supportive Extreme class 75mm boot with pins. Barnett reports that the boots are powerful enough to drive larger skis, saying "I'm currently using them with skis as big as the Atomic TM26 (97-62-88). That is a very capable ski, and it works well with the SNS BC system. It is easier to ski a ski like that than a smaller, less turn oriented one with the system boots and bindings - not harder. This is currently my favorite combo for mountain tours."

    I'll retreat to something more of a reporter's stance on this. I use nothing but 75mm boots and bindings, but this more do with my big feet (large SNS-BC boots have been hard to find) and my thin wallet (I already have a substantial investment in 75mm bindings and boots). So, I can't comment based on personal experience. But when choosing between who's lead you should follow on a question like this, you should listen to Barnett, as he is generally regarded as the father of modern nordic backcountry skiing in America. And again, he's not alone in terms of singing the praises of SNS-BC boots and bindings.

    Preferred Skis: I think these boots are best matched with Traditional Touring and Compact style skis, where their superior striding performance can really shine. Flatter cambered Old School Tele skis will work ok with Snowfield class boots but, these boots won't be able to tap into that type of ski's better turning capabilities.

    Really, really good skiers will match these boots with wider, high-camber skis like Catamount Class skis or Narrow Shaped skis. But I would not expect to be able to get decent turning performance out of this combination, unless, of course, you are a really, really good skier.

    Examples: Past examples include: the Advanced Base Camp Backcountry; Alpina BC600, BC 2000 and BC 2500; the Artex Jasper BC; the Asolo Snowfield and Snowpine; the Merrell Telemark, FTS Matrix and M2 Trace; the Rossignol Randonnee BC; and the Salomon Greenland and BC 9.

    Recent examples include: the Alpina All Terrain; the Garmont Tour and Venture 75 and Venture NNN-BC; the Karhu Convert; and the Rossignol BCX7, BCX8 and BCX9.

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    EXTREME CLASS BOOTS

    The Boots: These are, by far, my favorite type of boot. At the time of this writing, I own 4 pair of nordic boots and if I had to reduce my collection to just a single pair, I would keep this type of boot without hesitation. In my mind, they are the perfect compromise boot for backcountry touring, especially when comfortable striding is a must.

    I've named this class of boot after the Asolo Extreme, which in my mind really defined this type of boot. The distinguishing features of Extreme class boots are: a) their slightly higher cut, b) plastic reinforcement in the cuff and c) a leather toe box. In the days of Norwegian welted boots, the plastic cuff was hidden under the leather. In more recent designs like the older Crispi Futuras and Alpina TeleLites and the more recent Karhu Sirius and Descent, the plastic cuff is on the outside of the boot.

    I differentiate between Extreme class boots and lower, less supportive Snowfield type boots with this this simple test. If you can not bend the boot cuff sideways, then it is an Extreme class boot. Putting it another way, if you put the boot on and you find it is practically impossible to roll your ankle over to the side, it is an Extreme class boot.

    Some boots like the classic Asolo Extreme were strictly lace-up. Another common design has been laces combined with a single buckle over the instep. And more recent designs like the Crispi Futura Peak and Karhu Sirius had no laces and 2 buckles. Leather telemark boots with high plastic cuffs like the classic Merrell Super Comp should not be considered in this class. That type of boot is too high for comfortable striding. The discontinued Alpina TeleLite (pictured to the right) would be the biggest boot I would put in this class. SIDE NOTE: The TeleLite has a plastic knub on the back of the boot that kept the cuff from rotating backwards. A common modification to make the boot a better touring boot was to cut this knub off.

    Now, the obvious conclusion to be drawn is that a higher, more supportive cuff should translate into better turning performance. While this is definitely true, I would caution against putting too much stock in this. In my mind, turning performance is largely dictated by how torsionally stiff the boot is at the toe, as this largely controls how effectively you can edge the ski. This is especially true when skiing on hardpack snow. A rule of thumb given to me by a much better skier than I am is that leather toed boots should not be skied on hardpack with skis with waists wider that 60mm or 65mm. This largely agrees with my experience. If you want to turn wider skis with confidence, you really should consider plastic Excursion class boots.

    The reason I love Extreme class boots is not for their increased turning power. It is for their better ankle support. I find that I can kick and glide with more confidence in rough backcountry conditions when I can keep my foot nice and flat as I stride out on it. Extreme class boots allow me to do this better. If I'm going to be skiing on an flat, well graded logging road in good snow conditions, I'll take my lower Snowfield class boots for their better kick and glide performance. But if I'm going to be skiing on rougher trails or off trail, I want the extra security of the stiffer cuff found in an Extreme class boot.

    Another place where I want the stiff cuff of an Extreme class boot is when ski camping with a heavy overnight pack. If I'm looking down the barrel of narrow hiking trail that drops down through the tight woods with "rocks and stumps all around" and no good options, then I want to be able to follow Hans Scnhier's famous advice to "Schtem. Schtem like hell." That is, I want to be able to stick my skis out in a survival mode snow plow and hold the skis there with less risk of catching an outside edge and a better chance of really plowing through the junk with my braking skis. The solid ankle support of an Extreme class boot allows me to do this better. Can better skiers get by with lighter boots? Sure. But they are better skiers than I am.

    Having sung the praises of Extreme type boots I should conclude with a warning. Their construction, which combines leather lowers and stiff, unyielding plastic cuffs, can lead to significant fit problems. Snowfield type boots are usually soft enough that oddities with your foot are more easily accommodated. And plastic double boots give boot fitters all sorts of ways to tweak boots for better fit, including what many consider to be the best fit solution: thermo-moldable liners. But if your foot conflicts with the plastic cuff (or the stiff plastic frame that supports it) in an Extreme class boot, you may be out of luck, at least with that particular boot. There is generally little that can be done to modify the fit dramatically. Worse, this type of problem may be not be noticed in the warm comfort of a store. Instead, it may only reveal itself miles from a trail head.

    Preferred Skis: These boots are well matched with just about any nordic backcountry ski except for those at the skinniest and widest ends of the spectrum. On striding oriented Traditional Touring and Compact skis, the extra weight and higher cuff on these boots will impede fast striding. And the leather construction of these boots should limit their use to skis with waists at or under 65 mm, which as a rule, should rule out Classic AT and Wide Shaped skis.

    This said, this type of boot invites effective mismatches. Their extra ankle support will allow you to push skinny skis into rougher terrain. And if the snow is nice and your technique is solid, you may be able to use these boots with wider skis. All other classes of nordic backcountry skis would be perfect matches for this type of boot.

    Examples: Past examples include the Andrew Solitude, Alico Blaze, Alpina TeleLite, Andrew Solitude, Asolo Extreme, Merrell Ultra, Merrell FTS Flash and Karhu Sirius.

    Recent examples include the Karhu Descent.

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    EXCURSION CLASS BOOTS - Power for turning

    The Boots: Back in the day of Norwegian welted boots, you could roughly separate nordic backcountry boots by the number of buckles. There were lace-up boots with no buckles, some with a single buckle and still others with 2 buckles. While the 2 buckled Norwegian welted boot is still rumoured to exist in Europe, they've pretty much disappeared from the US market.

    Today, this niche has been filled by a new crop of lightweight and flexible plastic double boots. The boot that seems to define this class is the Garmont Excursion, although both Crispi and Scarpa have boots to offer as well. Unlike their heavier telemark cousins, these plastic boots are designed to be lighter, more flexible and more amenable to touring. Added to this, thermo-moldable liners are now available which offer a custom fit while making the boots even lighter and warmer to boot. These plastic boots are relatively low cut (compared to higher cut tele boots) and all have 2 buckles.

    When I think of Excursion type boots, I think of prowling around New England hardwoods looking for turns. When I'm doing this kind of skiing, I want a good deal of touring freedom, which is why I want a soft flexible touring boot instead of a higher, stiffer full-bore telemark boot. To me, true telemark boots feel like boat anchors or hobbles on my feet when I'm touring. So I definitely want a boot that won't kill me when racking up miles. But I need turning power. When dodging birch trees, I need to turn with confidence and Excursion class boots provide this.

    Despite this great power, plastic boots are not yet my favorite type of boot. It seems to me that the 75mm design relies on a certain amount of flex in the duckbill to achieve decent striding. And plastic boots just don't have that amount of flex. Plastic boots don't stride as well as leather boots. And when you stand flat footed, the curve, or rocker, of the sole puts upward pressure on the binding. When turning or striding, you feel this as a spring like feeling as the boot literally pops up, an effect sometimes called rocker launch. This upward pressure can also cause the front screw to rip out of the ski if the binding is not well secured. Now, light plastic boots are nowhere nearly as bad as heavier plastic boots in this regards, but it is definitely noticeable compared to leather boots.

    Preferred Skis: This class of boot can be pushed onto the lightest of touring skis but their turning prowess comes into their own on the widest touring skis including: Narrow Shaped Skis, Classic AT or Wide Shaped Skis.

    Examples: Past examples, include Advanced Base Camp Telemark, Alico Corniche, Andrew North Rim, Smilla and Xpedition, Asolo Extreme Plus, Crispi Futura Peak, Garmont Guida and Cruiser and Merrell Fuzion.

    Current examples include the Crispi CXT, Garmont Excursion and Scarpa T3 and T4.

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    MATCHING BOOTS AND SKIS

    The general rule of thumb is that the wider ski is, the higher and stiffer the boot should be to control it for turning. But rules are made to be broken and there are good reasons to go against this guidance. Here's a summary which ski types go with which boot types as a starting point, followed by some suggestions for mismatching skis and boots. Now that we've established the party line, as it were, let's discuss two different types of "mismatches" that deserve some attention.

    Big Boots & Skinny Skis: In a 1995 article in Cross-Country Skier magazine, Stowe native Jan Reynolds describes what she calls "Norpine" skiing, which is using heavier boots on skinnier xc style skis. I've found that this is a great combination for New England style backcountry skiing, especially on flat to rolling terrain. The choice of skinnier Traditional Touring or Compact skis for this is obvious, since they offer good striding efficiency. But the usefulness of the heavier boots might counter-intuitive.

    I find this combination useful for 2 reasons. First, on rough and rugged backcountry trails, I find I can kick and glide with more confidence and more commitment when I can keep the gliding ski straight and level. I find that higher cuffed boots allow me to do this easier. Now, clearly if the trail is open and the snow conditions are good, I can stride much easier and faster when shod with lighter boots. But if the conditions are tricky, the combination of heavier boots with fast, narrow skis can be faster than other combinations. Light boots and skinny skis might offer too little support to keep the skis tracking straight in the junky snow. And heavy boots with wider skis will be slower, just on account of the slowness of the wide skis.

    The second place where heavier boots on lighter skis can make sense is probably more obvious - when you want to ski down steeper terrain on lighter skis. Heavy boots won't turn straight skis into turn-o-matics. But they do help a great deal. If find this useful when I want skinnier skis to cover a lot ground but I expect some of the downhill sections to be more challenging.

    Short Boot & Wide Skis: Going the other direction, matching wider skis with shorter, lighter boots can also make sense in certain cases. One case is when the skier is skilled. I've seen enough really good skiers do amazing things with Snowfield class boots on wider skis to believe that just about anything is possible. And to be pretty darn envious of their skills.

    Another time when this combination makes sense is when turning is not the priority of the trip but you still want the flotation and easy maneuverability of shorter wider skis. In New England, this may mean on a camping trip that will involve skiing off trail or on our narrow hiking trails. Another place I've heard of this type of combination is in more alpine terrain when the route combines flattish approaches in deep snow with sections of mountaineering terrain where the skis will be carried and lighter, more hikeable boots are appreciated. One might think of Snowfield type boots on wide skis as the nordic equivalent of relatively low-cut plastic climbing boots and AT bindings. In both cases the skis are primarily used as faster versions of snowshoes. And both cases, the choice of boots has more to do with their hiking and climbing characteristics.

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    BOOT CONSTRUCTION

    There are 3 basic construction types used today for backcountry touring boots. Understanding them is key to choosing the right type of boot for your uses. Here they are from lightest to heaviest.

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