You’ve got the setup nearly dialed; skis, bindings, poles. Perhaps the most critical piece remains — proper fitting boots. Aim for perfection when fitting ski touring boots. Here are five tips to ensure your feet are happy.
Many readers are opting for new boot this season. Heading into the shop (or online marketplace) more informed makes the boot fitting process better. This piece first ran in 2019 and has been lightly edited to update. Thanks to our publishing partner Cripple Creek Backcountry for the support.
October is here, and if the toenails you bashed and lost last season were to come back, they would have done so by now. With your feet healed, it’s time to start taking measures to prevent toenail loss this upcoming season. Proper boot fitting is crucial for your future ski touring comfort and success. After all, you’ve got millions of steps ahead of you to earn those turns; you might as well be kind to your feet.
I remember dancing around the store the first time I put on the Dynafit TLT5 and working an entire day with boots on my feet. (For the latest version of this boot, check out the Dynafit TLT X and the Dynafit TLT X – Women’s.) I would proudly take the bus to and from skiing without bringing a second pair of shoes. I should have paid attention to the slight rubbing over a season of irresponsible neglect resulting in a small clone of myself budding out of my ankle bone. Now, that boney clone is a significant impingement to fitting any new boots.
Please don’t make the same mistake I did. Here are five tips gathered over a dozen years of boot fitting and learning the slow way how to prevent ski touring pain with great-fitting boots.
1) Understand how a touring boot should fit
There is a wide range of “best practices” for fitting a touring boot. I worked as an alpine boot fitter before specializing in touring boots, and, wow, that first year of fitting was a learning experience. The resort boot world focuses on downhill performance. Some wiggle room between fitting modes is needed. Ski tourers don’t appreciate having their feet intransigently cast into a hard plastic shell.
A ski shop usually employs the primitive practice of shell fitting if a boot fitter’s x-ray vision is not working the day of your visit. The basic goal is to ensure enough room around the toes without leaving the heel swimming. After taking the liner out and gently pushing your toes to the front of the boot shell, it is possible to check the space behind the heel. Boot fitters typically use a fit stick, but if you are trying this at home and don’t have this tool, stack two fingers on top of each other (or roughly 1.5 – 2 cm of space), your stacked fingers should fit between your heel and the shell. This spacing goes to 1 cm or pretty much as tight as a skier can handle for performance fits.
Others things to consider in terms of boot fit are how it fits your heel, instep, and leg around the cuff area. All these regions, considering fit, are connected. For example, supporting the instep better can help with heel lift.
We mention five tips, but fitting can be semi-complex to find what works best for you. And before you walk out the door with new boots, if the shop has a stairwell, take a few strolls up and down in walk mode to see how the fit holds up. If you have fit concerns, communicate that to the boot fitter.
The comfort touring world is significantly different. It allows for a full 2 cm fit or, in special cases, a bit more room between the heel and shell. But be careful; a boot that is too big (anything much more than two fingers) is sure to create rubbing and blisters. I still fit my touring boots as aggressively tight as my old 130 flex alpine boots that, thankfully, haven’t been worn in years. Fit is personal, and I feel helplessly out of control if I improperly size my boots, which often means too big, so I always go down. However, I once entered the Grand Traverse last minute and raced 40 miles on a pair of borrowed boots a full size up from my standard race boots; it was the best a pair of boots ever fit.
In the end, comfort versus performance need not be a trade-off. You can make a tight performance fit very comfortable and a roomier ski boot more responsive; just expect to spend extra time dialing in the fit.
2) Customize your boots to your feet
Custom ski boots are no longer just for the rich and famous. Ski boots have three parts that are easily customized for your ski touring enjoyment. We’ll address those three parts below.
Take some time to know your feet before you consult an expert or DIY your next boot fit. This knowledge will save time, money, and miscommunicating with a boot fitter (if you go that route).
Nearly every brand has its own proprietary thermo-moldable liner, although some work better than others. Sometimes the improvement of stock liners comes at the cost of that immediate out-of-the-box fit.
The first rule, remember that when trying on boots for the first time in the store, this is the tightest a boot will ever fit. Boots have a natural break-in period even without the heat mold, but a good heat mold can save you a couple of agonizing days in the mountains.
Several boot manufacturers are on board with creating shells and liners with slightly wider toe boxes. Feet swell when touring for long durations; the extra toe box room can help maintain foot comfort. However, if the toe box feels cramped, there might be an easy solution— add a toe cap to the liner before the heat mold.
Toe caps not only pack out space where you need it most but force the heel back as the liner hardens, making a better pocket for control. Be cautious, though, with repeated heat molding as it will degrade the liner’s life. Cook the liners once, ski them in a bit, then begin to handle hot spots one at a time instead of cooking the whole boot again. (Want to DIY? Check out Lou’s home boot molding tips from the archives.)
A few brands, such as Salomon, Atomic, Tecnica, and others, are now toting thermo-moldable shells. The amount of space you can gain from baking the entire shell is impressive, but I would only recommend this to skiers with very hard-to-fit feet. It is a bit of a one-way street: room can be created but cannot be taken away. Cooking the entire shell can be a good option if you downsize your boots, but if your boots feel good already, try to ski them a few days before committing to any irreversible processes.
Footbeds cover a wide range of prices and constructions, from medical grade to complementary felt-covered cardboard, the standard issue in every box of ski touring boots. Upgrading footbeds can be an essential maneuver for shoring up boot fit.
After-market footbeds offer better arch support than standard inserts. Solid arch support provides a better response as your boot will roll with your foot in every turn and pull your toes back from the front of your boot.
Custom medical orthotics can cost more than $300, but some great over-the-counter products, such as Sole or Superfeet, are roughly $30-$50 and can get you most of the way there with some slight customization.
3) Go for a 1-2 hour tour
This next suggestion is simple, but it is an important one coming from someone who has done irreparable damage to their feet. Get some limited miles and vert in the boots. If you go out for an hour or two, you might notice hotspots develop (pre-blister) or even bone impingements that could eventually hobble you or limit your ski season. Try to address any issues early and quickly, and make a mental note of what doesn’t feel right with the fit and may be causing problems.
If you are six hours or more into a tour and some of these issues develop, you could set yourself back for the entire season. Resist the urge to go big and long on your first day or two out in new boots.
4)Prevent and treat blisters
Blisters still happen despite taking steps to get in a proper fitting boot. Skinning along or booting, you are taking thousands of steps in a row; at some point, even with the best-fitting pair of boots, something will give. A THIN pair of ski socks made of breathable, moisture-wicking material is a huge part of a comfortable boot fit while ski touring. Less thick fabric decreases the sock’s chances of balling up and rubbing. Thinner socks also help control foot temperature: Feet tend to sweat while going uphill, yet that sweat will freeze your toes going downhill. Thin socks help manage this moisture in two ways: feet sweat less, and there’s better breathability.
If you do encounter a blister, catch it early. You may have to pull your foot out of the boot while standing in the snow and address the issue. Or, as a warmer alternative, stomp out a platform, sit on your pack, and address the issue. The point is this; blisters impact your ski day (or future ski days) less if you nip them as soon as you feel hot spots.
Carry moleskin in your first aid kit to place over the hot spot and prevent further irritation. If the blister has already burst, apply a hydroseal bandage with some climbing or duct tape over it. And if you failed to bring moleskin, pull out the duct tape, athletic, or Leukotape (I’m certain you have it packed), and cover the irritated area, as it too can assist with hot spot elimination.
Treating blisters in the field isn’t ideal, but if you can at least get through the rest of the tour and clean it better once you’re indoors, you’re doing more than just letting it fester.
If you’re fitting new boots and know you’ve got some hot spots already, tape those areas before putting on socks and heading out for a tour. If blisters are a repeating theme, acknowledge this point of worry and tape potential hot spots preemptively every time!
A few more Blister prevention tips:
Here’a solid tip from the comment archives: carry pantyhose in the first aid kit. The reader wrote, “putting on a calf-length pantyhose under your sock can stop a hot spot in its tracks before it becomes a blister.”
We also know some skiers who use 2mm thick or ultrathin eZeefit ankle booties. These are neoprene ankle socks that often help eliminate hot spots from developing. As a neoprene item, know they smell something awful after a long day of touring.
5) Punch or pad your touring boots
When the simple mechanisms for boot comfort have been addressed, and you still have fit issues, it is time to operate. Talk to any friend that spends a hundred days a season in boots, and you can bet they have resorted to some drastic measures.
Not all ski boots are created equal when it comes to the ease of punching. Polyurethane boots are easier to manage than lighter Grilamid or carbon-infused plastics. The key is finding a local shop comfortable working with these different plastics. Melting points can be sensitive, and the lighter the shell, the thinner the plastic. The right boot tech will know to go slower, hold the punch longer, and expand the boot incrementally.
If you have weird ankle bones like me or a heel spur under constant pressure, a good punch can alleviate the pain before it becomes a nagging problem.
Since touring boots often have more space to work with (remember, you’re not looking for a fit to slay slalom gates), strategically placed foam padding can be a great option before you bring out the expanders.
Often, black and sore toenails are born from sliding into the front of your boot rather than the fit being too tight. Adding foam to your instep can help lock your heel back and prevent this.
A C-pad or donut of foam around an extruded bone can dissipate pressure that causes soreness or bruising. Use caution with “mustache” pads over your Achilles; this has become a common prescription for Achilles soreness but can result in other issues as your foot is pushed forward in the shell.
Pro Tip: Tongue Style touring boots often collapse the shell onto your medial malleolus (inside ankle bones) as you tighten the plastic. The cuff articulation can exacerbate this by rubbing the ankle against the constriction; this is an easy place to bend the shell out and can save a lot of pain. Check out our article on fitting the La Sportiva Spectre for details on this process.
Remember, fitting touring boots is a process. We ask a lot of our feet to go the distance in adverse conditions, but there is plenty you can do to make them comfortable. In the end, the fit of your boots will and should be the last thing you think of on the final steps up the peak before you rip skins and the sheer bliss of the descent takes over.
Doug Stenclik is an avid skimo racer and ski mountaineer who lives for sharing the amazing sports of ski touring and splitboarding. Since his first time on skins he was hooked and the obsession has taken him all over the United States and the world pursuing the human powered ski turn. He founded Cripple Creek Backcountry in 2012 and took over the Colorado Ski Mountaineering Race Cup in 2014 to spread knowledge and the love of the sport. In 2019 he took a step back from the ski shop and race promoter life to become a publishing partner with WildSnow.