The Latest Innovations In Snowboard Boot Construction Continue To Bring The Perfect Fit Within Reach
Salt Lake City, UT – Listen to the conversations the next time you’re waiting in the lift line or kicking back in the lodge, and chances are most snowboarders share one common complaint — boot comfort. The problem? Everyone’s feet – from the toes to the arches to the heel shape — are different. Snowboard boots, however, are by necessity manufactured for the “average” man and woman. Good luck finding those two.
Thankfully, snowboard boots have gotten a lot of attention in recent years. And the primary goal of all that attention has been to improve the wearer’s fit, comfort, and support. There are now countless innovations to make a boot match those weird ankles, eliminate dreaded heel lift, even compensate for some unruly toes. Unfortunately, however, many riders still make their season’s choice based on style, rather than fit and features.
Don’t be one of the sheep. I rounded up some of the latest and greatest boot designs on the market, dialed them in at the shop, and then tested them extensively on the slopes. By the time I was done I found that, while no boot is perfect, with a little research and time in the shop, you can find a boot that’s near perfect for you.
Here’s a look at the innovations that just may forever change the way you look at boot comfort — and how you can tailor them to provide a custom fit.
ThirtyTwo’s Lashed snowboard boot comes with a thermo-moldable liner to improve fit.(photo: ThirtyTwo)
Turn Up The Heat
One of the most popular methods of customization in today’s snowboard boot market is the heat moldable liner. Typically fabricated of thermo-moldable EVA foam, these liners are designed to custom mold to the unique shape of a rider’s individual feet. Liners are heated to a point where the inner foam expands, much like a marshmallow toasted on a fire. Once at the appropriate temperature, the buyer can slip his foot into the boot, wait patiently as the liner cools, then walk away with a liner custom fit to their unique footprint.
I tried the heat molding process on a pair of ThirtyTwo Lashed boots ($190, www.thirtytwo.com). Since 1996, ThirtyTwo has been at the forefront of heat molding. Today, the company has the process down to a science. I handed over my boots to the guys at The Click in Park City, Utah. They then placed the boots on ThirtyTwo’s specially made heat stacks for 15 minutes, turning the once rigid feeling liner into something far more soft, warm, and flexible. Then, I simply stepped into the boots, laced them up comfortably, and stood in one place for about 15 minutes as the liner cooled and took the form of my foot. (A tip? According to shreds at The Click, put your toes up on a small riser to simulate the flexed position you’ll ride in. The shop typically uses a skateboard deck, flipped upside down.)
Many boot companies just suggest riders wear their normal snowboard socks. ThirtyTwo suggests you strip off the socks, don the company’s soft neoprene toecaps, and then slip a stocking-like sock over your foot to hold the cap in place. The idea is that the liner truly conforms to the shape of your foot, while leaving a little extra room around the toes to provide some wiggle room to ward off cold feet. ThirtyTwo is also unique in that, rather than a slip-in footbed, the company’s liner sits atop a harder plastic footbed base in the boot’s outer shell. Again, the idea is a custom fit. The lower base provides the overall shape and support required, while the moldable liner above conforms to the unique needs of your foot. Well-placed support pieces, like an Achilles pinch pad, are also glued to the outside of the liner, providing additional support around the ankle and heel to keep it locked down in the boot.
Of all the modifications in this story, I found the heat moldable liners the single best solution for truly getting my boots comfortable. It’s a mirror image of your foot and ankle, meaning any weird attributes — whether they are the shape of your toes, foot, or ankle — are accounted for. Currently, many boot manufacturers offer some form of heat moldable liners. Judging by the looks of up-and-coming products at the winter trade shows, expect that list to further expand for ’07-‘08.
Pump It Up
Another method of customization is to use air. DC Shoes offers an inflatable air bladder (think old-school Reebok pumps) in the liner of several high-end boot models to precisely tailor the fit to any rider’s individual ankle area. Pressure is added by pumping a bubble-like ball attached to the top of the liner. A second button releases the pressure. While it initially seemed like a gimmick at first glance, after riding a pair of air-equipped DC Judge boots ($260, www.dcshoes.com) I’m a believer. I’ve always been prone to some degree of heel lift, and the air bladder proved excellent at keeping my heel locked into the bottom of the boot where it belongs. I also greatly appreciated the ability to tailor the pressure on the fly, opting for firm pressure when negotiating the steeps, medium pressure when desiring a little more tweakability, or even no pressure for instant relaxation at the lodge.
While the air bladder proved the most functional of DC’s comfort attributes, the company also integrates several more well thought-out additions into its best liner. A gel pad has been integrated into the toe area, a nod to cushioning your toes when they get jammed forward into the boot on abrupt landings. I noticed the gel almost tricked me into buying the next size up when I first tried the boots on, but after wearing them around the house for a longer period, it seemed to quickly mold itself to my toes. Local shops, however, told me their experience has shown the gel makes the boots run about a ¼ size small, so pay close attention to the fit.
A third nod to comfort, air-activated heat warmers that slide into a pocket in the footbed, was also welcome on cold days. The warmers are common, and can be found at many shops. Their heat radiates up through the footbed, and adds a welcome dose of heat around the toes. Unfortunately, as on most snowboard boots, I found the footbed itself was far too flimsy to offer the kind of support I require. Talk to any pro snowboarder and one of the first bits of advice they’ll offer is to replace any boot’s stock footbed with something a little more supportive. I opted for a pair of heat moldable Sole inserts (www.yoursole.com), available for about $35. The Sole inserts offer far better arch support, although I’m keeping the warmer-ready DC footbeds handy for those really cold days.
Wire And Lace
Perhaps the fastest growing trend in snowboard boots, however, is alternative closure systems, specifically the BOA system. For those not familiar with the system, BOA replaces traditional laces with a thin stainless steel cable, which is channeled through elongated guides and across the tongue in a criss-cross pattern. The wire feeds into a ratcheting knob at the boot’s tongue. Crank the knob clockwise and the wire is tightened, securing the boot. Pop the knob out and the tension releases, allowing the wire to uncoil. BOA’s obvious advantage is speed and convenience; I “dialed-in” a pair of BOA-equipped boots in about 15 seconds. Laces took far longer, and can do a job on your hands over the course of a season. I was also able to loosen my BOA boots within seconds at lunch. The other advantages of BOA are fit and security. Tightness can be fine tuned on the hill with just a quick turn of the knob. Force is evenly distributed, and can’t loosen or come untied like laces. As boots loosen during the course of a day, a quick turn of the knob tightens things back up.
The latest BOA designs have replaced the single coiler knob and wire with dual zones, one which tightens the lower foot area, and the other which snug up the boot’s upper half. The two zones overlap at the ankle, acting to hold it down and reduce heel lift. This newest design eliminates the one complaint I found with BOA — that equal tightness across the fit. With dual zones, I can tighten down my ankle and calf area, but leave my foot a little looser for comfort. Currently, BOA can be found in boots made by DC, Vans, K2, Roxy, Northwave, and several others.
Companies like Burton and Salomon have also created alternatives to conventional lacing. Burton offers Speed Zone technology, a system where a single pull of a handle tightens the laces on either the upper or lower zone of the boot. Each lace is then secured in place via a lock, and the handles tucked away inside pockets sewn into the boot’s outer shell. Speed Zone offers the speed and convenience advantages of BOA, while maintaining more of the feel of a traditional lace enclosure. BOA critics would argue it also eliminates the mechanical aspects of the winder. Salomon, meanwhile, offers the Powerlace system, which again keeps more of a traditional lacing design, but enables the wearer to simply pull a handle to tighten the laces, which are secured with a tongue-mounted block. Again, it’s simple and fast, as well as secure. Salomon also offers dual zones in its higher-end boots, allowing the wearer to adjust tension differently over different areas of the foot.