There's a strong argument that the most important part of your ski touring kit is a pair of quality boots that fit well. The good news is that this growing category has seen some impressive advancements in recent years, with a plethora of models that excel both on the climb and descent. Below are our top backcountry ski boot picks for the 2021 season, which range from lightweight builds for deep alpine exploring to downhill-oriented models that can split time between the backcountry and resort. For more background information, see our detailed buying advice and comparison table below the picks. And to complete your alpine touring set-up, see our article on the best backcountry skis.
Weight per pair: 6 lbs. 6 oz.
Other flexes: 110, 130+
What we like: Excellent performance on both the uphill and descent.
What we don't: Ski/walk system can collect snow and ice.
Many backcountry boots favor either uphill or downhill performance, but the Scarpa Maestrale RS's impressive balance of both earns it our top billing for 2021. To start, it's a standout on the skin track with a comfortable fit, lightweight carbon fiber and Grilamid construction, and total flex of 60 degrees, which exceeds our ankle's range of motion. Further, the boot does a fine impression of an alpine model with a progressive flex that can be driven hard. And Scarpa didn't skimp on the liner either: the included Intuition Cross Fit Pro is a proven design that is warm, resists packing out, and can be heat molded for a custom fit.
The Maestrale RS (and women’s Gea RS) was lightly updated recently with a revised power strap that includes an integrated RECCO reflector and a few tweaks to the shell and buckle design to boost durability. But it’s still the Maestrale we know and love: the RS is compatible with a wide range of binding and crampon styles, sports a generous 101-millimeter last that accommodates most foot types, and its 125 flex rating is plenty sturdy for the vast majority of aggressive skiers. For those on either end of the spectrum, Scarpa also makes a standard Maestrale (110 flex rating and $100 less) and Maestrale XT (130+ flex rating and $100 more)... Read in-depth review
See the Scarpa Maestrale RS See the Women's Scarpa Gea RS
Best Hybrid Backcountry/Resort Boot
Weight per pair: 6 lbs. 15 oz.
Other flexes: 100, 120
What we like: Lightweight with a confident feel on the downhill.
What we don't: Falls short of the Maestrale for touring.
Truth be told, many backcountry skiers split their time between touring and the resort. The good news for these folks is that there are a growing number of one-quiver boot options, including Atomic's Hawx Ultra XTD 130. The Hawx is reasonably nimble and flexible for walking, and reworked, lighter buckles in the 2020 update improve touring performance. On the other hand, with an aggressive stance, four-buckle design (many backcountry models use two or three), and a new, more substantial liner, the XTD can hold its own on steep groomers. And it doesn’t hurt that the boot is now made with GripWalk soles for even better compatibility with alpine bindings.
With a competitive weight of 6 pounds 15 ounces for the pair and a stated flex of 130, the Hawx Ultra XTD toes the line better than most. But as with any all-in-one answer, there are some compromises. Race-oriented downhillers will want a little more stiffness and control (adding a resort-focused liner helps), and dedicated backcountry enthusiasts will prefer the Maestrale RS above with its smoother tour mode and better range of motion. And while its main competitor—the Lange XT3—can ski more aggressively, the Atomic gets the edge as the superior all-rounder. At about a pound lighter, the Ultra XTD is the better option for those putting in a lot of time on the skin track. One final fit-related note: The Ultra listed here has a snug 98-millimeter last, but Atomic also offers the Hawx Prime XTD with a roomier 100-millimeter shape.
See the Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD 130 See the Women's Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD 115
Best Lightweight Touring Boot for the Uphill
Weight per pair: 5 lbs.
What we like: Super lightweight; buckle system allows for fast transitions.
What we don't: Can’t charge like an alpine boot and minimalist liner isn’t particularly comfortable or protective.
Dynafit's tried-and-true TLT series received an upgrade last season with the TLT8 Expedition CR. Like the previous version, this boot targets ski mountaineers and those wanting to cover significant ground with a focused, ultralight build. The fit system includes just two buckles and a thin power strap to trim weight, and the integrated design means you only need to adjust the top buckle when transitioning between walk and ski modes. Tack on a minimalist liner and Grilamid shell, and the TLT8 Expedition is among the lightest boots on our list at an all-in weight of 5 pounds.
The Dynafit TLT series is a favorite among the fast-and-light touring crowd, but the simplified design does have some shortcomings. First off, the included liner isn't as warm or protective as the picks above (although Dynafit did boost the insulation and comfort with this latest model). In addition, while the boot is fairly stiff relative to its feathery construction, it can feel harsh and is more difficult to drive in poor snow conditions. That said, the TLT8 increased durability and fit customization by swapping the old wire system for a more precise ladder buckle set-up. Finally, while it can't match the overall mobility of the Salomon X-Alp below, the TLT8 does beat the X-Alp in both weight and ski-ability.
See the Dynafit TLT8 Expedition CR See the Women's Dynafit TLT8 Expedition CR
Best Budget Backcountry Ski Boot
Weight per pair: 7 lbs. 8 oz.
Other flexes: 120, 130
What we like: Solid entry-level backcountry boot at a great price.
What we don’t: Not for hard chargers and inefficient on longer tours.
Touring boots are undeniably expensive, but K2’s Mindbender 100 is a solid entry-level design for skiers splitting time between the resort and backcountry. Beginners should prioritize comfort more than anything else, and the Mindbender’s generous last and heat-moldable liner and shell help to ensure a good fit. Further, you get the benefit of compatibility with both alpine and tech bindings—a great set-up for those who want to try out backcountry skiing but aren't ready to fully commit. Add it all up, and at $500, the K2 Mindbender 100 ticks all the boxes for beginner skiers on a budget.
Considering the great price—for a backcountry boot, at least—you can expect a few drawbacks. For one, the Mindbender is far from light at 7.5 pounds when you factor in its modest 100-flex rating. While many of the models in this article are made with Grilamid or carbon, the K2’s more affordable TPU shell adds significant heft. Additionally, its 50-degree range of motion is only average, and it lacks the friction-free performance of higher-end alternatives. And on the downhill, the 100-flex rating is missing the precision and power that you get with a stiffer design (K2 does make 120-flex and 130-flex versions for $600 and $700, respectively). Serious riders should stick with a premium option like the Scarpa Maestrale RS above, but the Mindbender is a solid choice for adventurous resort skiers that want to dabble in the backcountry.
See the K2 Mindbender 100 See the Women's K2 Mindbender 90 Alliance
Best of the Rest
Weight per pair: 6 lbs. 13 oz.
What we like: Seriously good all-around performance with the Hoji Lock System.
What we don’t: Not a weight leader.
Dynafit’s Hoji Pro Tour was an attention-grabber when it was released a couple seasons ago, but its speed toe design came with limitations in binding and crampon compatibility. Last season, however, they addressed that with the Hoji Free. Compatible with alpine bindings and crossover tour set-ups like the Salomon Shift, the boot offers serious performance with very few compromises. It’s true that weight has gone up a little and the newer variation is certainly less proven than alternatives like the La Sportiva Synchro below, but the Free delivers as an all-rounder with a true 130 flex (it pushes our 122-millimeter-wide Black Crows Noctas with ease) and a solid 55 degrees of cuff rotation.
One of the more innovative parts of the design is the Hoji Lock System, which locks the spine and cuff together in a stiff forward lean for a closer-fitting, more alpine-centric feel on the descent. The design is user-friendly and functions just like a typical backcountry model by flipping a lever along the back of the boot. Importantly, Dynafit paid plenty of attention to the Hoji's climb-ability with the aforementioned range of motion, plus transitions are lightning fast (we only have to lock down into ski mode and tighten the toe buckle). If the boot proves to be reliable—and all signs are positive thus far—we fully expect the Hoji Free to become a go-to choice for expert-level backcountry skiers... Read in-depth review
See the Dynafit Hoji Free
Weight per pair: 7 lbs. 15 oz.
Other flexes: 120
What we like: The downhill capabilities of an alpine boot with a walk mode.
What we don't: Too heavy for long tours.
On the pendulum of uphill and downhill performance, Lange’s XT3 swings decidedly toward the latter. Featuring a strong 130 flex, snug and performance fit from the four-buckle design, and a shell construction that’s shared with their impressive RX downhill boot, the XT3 is as confidence-inspiring as it gets when skiing big lines and through variable conditions. But flip the lever into walk mode, and you get surprisingly good range of motion (53 degrees with the latest model) and the GripWalk soles hold their own while hiking. For sidecountry skiers or those who want one boot that can transition between the resort and backcountry, the Lange XT3 is a strong option.
What do you give up by going with such a downhill-focused boot? Most notably, the Lange XT3 is one of the heaviest designs on our list at almost 8 pounds for the pair, which is a significant downside for those spending extended time on the skin track. Compared with other boots in the sidecountry category (the Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD and Rossignol Alltrack Elite, for example), it's the heaviest of the bunch. But with Lange's performance on the descent and the added ability to choose between flexes and last widths, the Lange XT3 is a great match for aggressive riders embarking on the occasional uphill foray... Read in-depth review
See the Lange XT3 130 LV See the Women's Lange XT3 110
Weight per pair: 5 lbs. 14 oz.
Other flexes: 110, 120
What we like: Very lightweight for a stiff, aggressive boot.
What we don't: Thin liner impacts comfort.
Tecnica revamped the Zero G line last year with new materials and some innovative tech, resulting in a lighter, stiffer boot. The top-end Zero G Tour Pro here uses a thin Grilamid shell, and carbon fiber in the cuff keeps it light while also adding stiffness. Additionally, the walk mechanism connects in two spots when locked into ski mode—both at the top of the spine and the bottom—keeping the boot from bowing and deforming under pressure and increasing the flex point. Overall, these features make the Tour Pro one of the lightest, stiffest touring boots on the market.
Tecnica trimmed away over one pound from the previous model, which certainly is impressive, but we're curious to see how the boot stands the test of time. Comfort also suffers a bit with the minimalist build, and not everyone will like the thin liner. And take note: a 130 flex makes for a solid boot for expert skiers, but this stiff and unforgiving build will overpower those with less experience. If this sounds like you, Tecnica also offers the Zero G Tour Scout and Tour Alpine, which have 120 and 110 flex ratings, respectively.
See the Tecnica Zero G Tour Pro
Weight per pair: 6 lbs. 6 oz.
What we like: A very capable climber at a competitive price.
What we don't: Doesn't ski as well as some lighter options.
Effectively taking the place of La Sportiva’s popular Spectre 2.0 for 2021 is the Vega. Similar to its predecessor, the Vega is among the best climbers in the business. Opened up in hike mode, it matches the Maestrale above in overall range of motion and comfort. The latest model also includes an upgraded liner, and its roomy 102.5-millimeter last means that it matches up really nicely with those with wider feet and/or a preference for a spacious toe box. Priced at $679, the Vega is a good value overall, undercutting most of its competition by $100 or more.
Why does this well-designed ski boot end up with a mid-pack ranking? While its weight of well over 6 pounds puts the boot squarely in the all-around category, it's clearly been built with the uphill in mind. On the descent, the Vega lacks the progressive flex and outright rigidity of the Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD above (although its liner is arguably better-cushioned). In the end, the Vega’s climbing skills earn it a spot on our list, but it’s caught a little too much between the ultralight and all-rounder categories to secure one of our top rankings.
See the La Sportiva Vega See the Women's La Sportiva Vega
Weight per pair: 5 lbs. 7 oz.
What we like: Skis better than most skimo boots.
What we don't: The stretch gaiter makes removing the liner difficult.
Produced in tandem with the Arc'teryx Procline, the Salomon S/Lab X-Alp is built for long traverses and unrelenting uphill travel. Ski mountaineers love this boot for its extremely low weight and huge cuff rotation, both vertically (75 degrees) and laterally (35 degrees). But this boot stands apart from most ski mountaineering models in its stiffness while in ski mode, offering a surprising amount of security while moving downhill. And although it comes with a stated flex of 100, the S/Lab X-Alp feels noticeably stiffer than the Procline (flex: 90), thanks to the spine built into the back of the shell.
If skiing big lines is a priority or you're looking for a single boot for all types of backcountry adventures, the Salomon X-Alp falls short. As with the Procline, this is a focused build that excels on the uphill but struggles when driving a stiff ski in variable conditions or difficult terrain. Furthermore, while the non-zippered gaiter design is sleek and comfortable, it does make taking the liner out of the shell at the end of the day rather difficult. And finally, Salomon has cut down on the amount of rubber on the sole in order to save weight, which results in less durability. These complaints aside, the S/Lab X-Alp remains a proven favorite among ski mountaineers.
See the Salomon S/Lab X-Alp
Weight per pair: 6 lbs. 5 oz.
What we like: Proven design with predictable downhill performance.
What we don't: Not a good option for hard chargers.
Scott flies a little under the radar in the backcountry ski world, but there's a lot to like with their men's Cosmos and women's Celeste boot line. As with K2’s Mindbender, the Cosmos is a good option for those just getting into the sport. The boot does a fine impression of a mid-range downhill design with solid performance even in mixed snow conditions. And its four-buckle layout is familiar and offers plenty of adjustability. Finally, unlike many all-new models hitting the market, this third edition of the Cosmos has a great track record of durability and long-term performance.
All in all, the Cosmos is a solid backcountry boot option but fails to stand out in a very competitive market. The 115 flex is fine for intermediate riders or those not wanting to push their limits in the backcountry, but it's not as stiff or precise as a top-rated option like the Atomic Hawx above. In addition, the design is a little dated overall: the boot isn't as smooth while climbing, you occasionally can max out its range of motion, and it's a fairly time-consuming process to transition between hike and ski modes. That said, the Scott’s aggressive $630 price tag makes it a great value for a proven and well-rounded design.
See the Scott Cosmos III See the Women's Scott Celeste III
Weight per pair: 7 lbs.
Other flexes: 130
What we like: Super cush, thick liner; skis like a true alpine boot.
What we don’t: Less sole rubber than we’d like to see for scrambling and bootpacking.
The popular Head Kore line (which includes both skis and boots) is designed for advanced skiers that prioritize trimming weight without compromising stability while charging steeps. Their Kore 2 touring boot achieves this balance with a fit that’s spacious in the toe box—vital for all-day comfort—and snug in the heel for staying locked in both on the climb and descent. And the Kore comes with an alpine-binding-compatible sole (ISO 5355) and a tech toe for use with pin bindings. Overall, you get a ton of flexibility whether you choose to shred the resort on your alpine set-up or explore the backcountry with your touring kit.
That being said, the Kore’s four-buckle layout and 7-pound weight put it decidedly in the downhill-focused category. And this is where it falls a little short: Atomic’s Hawx Ultra XTD undercuts it slightly in weight, has better range of motion, and doesn’t give up much in terms of power transfer. Further, the Atomic’s sole has better traction and durability for scrambling over rock. On the other hand, the Kore 2 is the better value at $699 (the 130-flex Kore 1 also undercuts the XTD 130 at $749) and its more accommodating fit should work better with wider feet.
See the Head Kore 2
Weight per pair: 3 lbs. 14 oz.
What we like: Feather-light for racing.
What we don't: Feels very soft while skiing downhill.
The Scarpa Alien truly is a niche boot that is excellent at doing one thing: moving fast on flat and moderately uphill terrain. At under 4 pounds for the pair, it's the lightest touring boot on our list, and the impressive 74-degree cuff rotation puts it on the same level as the Salomon S/Lab X-Alp above. In addition, the Alien uses a twist Boa closure system rather than traditional ladder buckles, making transitions quick and convenient. And although the Alien is on the soft end of the spectrum for downhill skiing, it offers extra adjustability to make up for it with four different forward lean settings.
The Alien RS makes going uphill far less of a chore, but it feels insecure when descending moderately steep slopes or in chopped-up conditions. Although the flex of 95 is decent for a lightweight rider, it's too soft for a strong pilot on a set of stiff skis. To be sure, Scarpa had skimo racers in mind when producing this boot, so if that is a sport that you are excited to dive into, the Alien RS is an excellent ultralight option.
See the Scarpa Alien RS
Weight per pair: 6 lbs. 8 oz.
What we like: Solid buckle system with well-designed micro-adjustments.
What we don't: Not quite as light, comfortable, or walkable as the Scarpa Maestrale.
La Sportiva's Synchro takes direct aim at the Scarpa Maestrale RS above. On the downhill, it's proven to be a formidable competitor: the sturdy build tackles everything from powder and steep groomers to slick ice and choppy snow with confidence. Furthermore, the Synchro shares the Pegasus four-buckle system with La Sportiva's recently discontinued Spectre, a set-up that locks tightly and offers micro adjustments so you can hone in a snug, secure fit.
As an all-around option, we've given the Scarpa Maestrale RS the nod over the Synchro for a couple of reasons. The Scarpa has a larger cuff rotation (60 degrees as opposed to 50 degrees) and its trimmed-down three-buckle system pays dividends during long tours. And although the Synchro's closed-cell foam liner is nice, it is not as luxurious as the revered Intuition liner, which has kept our feet warm in frigid temperatures. These gripes aside, the Synchro is another very solid, lightweight boot for big days in the mountains.
See the La Sportiva Synchro See the Women's La Sportiva Shadow
Weight: 7 lbs. 12 oz.
Other flexes: 100, 130
What we like: Alpine boot-like design and performance.
What we don’t: Relatively limited range of motion.
As a follow-up to their standout Shift binding, Salomon has released a touring boot under the same name. The new hybrid design targets downhill-oriented riders with traditional alpine boot features like a four-buckle layout, sturdy shell, and a warm liner. The fit also is among the most customizable on our list thanks to Salomon’s Custom Shell HD, which is shared with the brand’s popular S/Pro resort boot and allows for extensive head molding. For the uphill, the Shift checks the right boxes with an easy-to-access hike lever, tech inserts, and GripWalk soles for reliable traction.
Who is the Salomon Shift Pro best for? With its powerful and heavy build, the design caters more to the resort crowd that mixes in the occasional half-day tour. Switching into tour mode gets you pretty limited freedom of movement—its 40 degrees range of motion is the smallest on our list and falls short of other freeride models like the Rossignol Alltrack Elite (50°) and Lange XT3 (53°). That said, if your climbs aren’t especially steep or you don’t mind sacrificing some efficiency, the Salomon’s resort-inspired construction has a lot of appeal among skiers who like to charge both on- and off-trail.
See the Salomon Shift Pro 120 See the Women's Salomon Shift Pro 110
Weight per pair: 4 lbs. 13 oz.
What we like: Impressive cuff rotation with high flex point for aggressive downhill skiing.
What we don't: Unproven durability.
At only 4 pounds 13 ounces for the pair, the Atomic Backland Carbon is one of the lightest boots on our list, and a solid choice for uphill-focused skiers with high demands from their boot on the downhill. With the impressive combination of a 74-degree cuff rotation and relatively stiff, 110 flex, it’s on par with the Salomon X-Alp above in mobility, but with greater control on the descent. And it’s easier to transition now too: on the latest Backland, Atomic ditched the removable tongue stiffener—an innovation that proved too cumbersome in use—and instead built downhill stiffness into the spine.
With such impressive specs, why isn’t the Backland Carbon ranked any higher? Put simply, there’s too much new tech for us to feel comfortable about it over the long-term. Boa closures aren’t anything new in the outdoor world, but it does give us pause about potential issues with loosening and failing over time. Further, you inevitably lose some warmth and durability with the noticeably thin materials (we’re happy to see metal used for the top buckle, however). But these are fairly common concerns for ultralight boots, and the Backland’s combination of weight, mobility, and downhill performance make it a very appealing option.
See the Atomic Backland Carbon
Weight per pair: 7 lbs. 11 oz.
Other flexes: 110, 120
What we like: Like the Lange XT3, the Alltrack is confidence-inspiring on the descent.
What we don't: Heavy and fairly limited cuff rotation.
Rossignol's Alltrack Elite is built for those who aren't ready to bid farewell to their loyal resort skis and bindings. While in ski mode, the Alltrack Elite feels like a true alpine boot: it has an aggressive stance, four sturdy buckles, and the shell is stiff but precise. Additionally, the new GripWalk sole makes it easy to swap between touring and resort set-ups (provided you have modern bindings), and the Thinsulate-filled liner offers sufficient warmth for season-long use. Its narrow 98-millimeter last might not work for all foot shapes, but the Alltrack Elite is well-equipped for hard chargers that like to take on ambitious side- and backcountry lines.
With the Alltrack's emphasis on downhill performance, you inevitably give up some of the seamless walkability of a dedicated backcountry boot. Rossi’s hike mode and more traditional buckle system simply can’t match the ease of use and freedom of movement that you get with Scarpa’s Maestrale or Dynafit’s Hoji Free above. And among sturdy freeride-oriented models, the Lange XT3 has a little better range of motion and climbing comfort. But the Rossignol remains a well-made, versatile boot overall, and there's real value in being able to use it interchangeably at the resort and in the backcountry... Read in-depth review
See the Rossignol Alltrack Elite 130 See the Women's Rossignol Alltrack Elite 120
Weight per pair: 6 lbs. 15 oz.
What we like: Stiff and strong on the downhill.
What we don't: We consistently maxed out its flex while skinning and bootpacking.
The third Salomon boot to make our list is their S/Lab MTN, which sits in between the freeride Shift Pro and ultralight X-Alp above. This boot has been designed for advanced backcountry skiers with a sturdy 120 flex rating, reinforced Grilamid shell, and stiff carbon fiber spine. At almost 7 pounds for the pair, the MTN falls slightly on the heavy end of the all-rounder category, but its powerful build is a great match for a pair of wide powder skis. And with a new Freetouring liner and the form-fitting Custom Shell carried over from the prior model, the S/Lab MTN fits a wide variety of foot sizes.
The S/Lab MTN is designed to go head-to-head with a do-everything model like the Scarpa Maestrale RS above, but we've found that it falls short in most areas that matter. To start, the Salomon simply is not as good of a climber. The stiff cuff limits its range of motion when leaning forward and we consistently maxed out its flex while skinning and bootpacking. Further, on the downhill, the Salomon lacks the Scarpa's smooth and progressive flex: the MTN is stiff and fairly harsh, reminding us of AT boots of the past. This lack of refinement and uphill capability pushes the S/Lab MTN down our list, but it's still a viable option for serious downhillers... Read in-depth review
See the Salomon S/Lab MTN
|Scarpa Maestrale RS||$795||All-around||6 lbs. 6 oz.||125||101mm|
|Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD 130||$800||All-around/sidecountry||6 lbs. 15 oz.||130||98mm|
|Dynafit TLT8 Expedition CR||$750||Ultralight||5 lbs.||Moderate||103mm|
|K2 Mindbender 100||$500||Sidecountry||7 lbs. 8 oz.||100||100mm|
|Dynafit Hoji Free||$900||All-around||6 lbs. 13 oz.||130||102mm|
|Lange XT3 130 LV||$750||Sidecountry||7 lbs. 15 oz.||130||97mm|
|Tecnica Zero G Tour Pro||$900||All-around||5 lbs. 14 oz.||130||99mm|
|La Sportiva Vega||$679||All-around||6 lbs. 6 oz.||115||102.5mm|
|Salomon S/Lab X-Alp||$900||Ultralight||5 lbs. 7 oz.||100||98mm|
|Scott Cosmos III||$630||All-around||6 lbs. 5 oz.||115||103mm|
|Head Kore 2||$699||Sidecountry/all-around||7 lbs.||120||100mm|
|Scarpa Alien RS||$870||Ultralight||3 lbs. 14 oz.||95||99mm|
|La Sportiva Synchro||$759||All-around||6 lbs. 8 oz.||125||102.5mm|
|Salomon Shift Pro 120||$700||Sidecountry/all-around||7 lbs. 12 oz.||120||100mm|
|Atomic Backland Carbon||$800||Ultralight||4 lbs. 13 oz.||110||98mm|
|Rossignol Alltrack Elite 130 LT||$700||Sidecountry||7 lbs. 11 oz.||130||98mm|
|Salomon S/Lab MTN||$800||All-around/sidecountry||6 lbs. 15 oz.||120||98mm|
- What Are Backcountry Ski Boots?
- Ski Boot Categories
- Flex Rating
- Walk Mode and Cuff Rotation
- Boot Fit and Sizing
- Women's-Specific Ski Boots
- Boot Liners
- Binding Types and Compatibility
- Backcountry Ski Boot Soles
- Choosing Skis and Bindings
Backcountry ski boots, otherwise known as AT (alpine touring) boots, are designed specifically for use when skiing in areas with no chairlift access. They differ from standard downhill (alpine) models in a few ways, the most notable of which are binding compatibility and uphill capability. Whereas a downhill ski boot typically is only compatible with an alpine ("frame") binding that keeps both the heel and toe locked in at all times, a backcountry ski boot is used with a touring-specific binding that secures the toe and allows you the option of freeing the heel of the boot for uphill travel.
Another defining feature of a backcountry boot is its walk/hike mode. With a flip of a lever along the spine of the boot, you can control the flexibility of the cuff. Opened up, the boot should have sufficient range of motion for climbing. And locked into place, it resembles a standard downhill design with enough stiffness to transfer power to the bindings and skis. The competing demands of weight and flexibility on the climb, with stiffness and control on the descent, means alpine touring boots are complex and incorporate high-end materials like Grilamid and carbon fiber. This leads to expensive price tags that often exceed $600, but a quality design that fits your feet well can be an amazing partner for exploring the backcountry.
In a perfect world, an alpine touring boot would be both lightweight and flexible on the uphill, and stiff and supportive when bombing down steep terrain. We don't live in a perfect world, however, and although some boots come close, the reality is that you'll always be sacrificing a bit of downhill prowess for uphill comfort or vice versa. As a result, we've put backcountry ski boots into three general categories: "ultralight" for those that prioritize climbing efficiency and low weight above all else, "sidecountry" for those that want alpine-worthy downhill performance, and "all-around" for boots that try to achieve that elusive all-in-one solution. Below we break the styles down in greater detail.
Ultralight (Ski Mountaineering)
More than any other style of touring boot, ultralight designs for ski mountaineering or deep backcountry exploration prioritize uphill travel. They are characterized by a minimalist build, high cuff rotation (often both lateral and vertical), minimal buckles, crampon compatibility, tech binding fittings, and grippy soles. The low weight and increased motion of these boots can make skiing down feel a little insecure, especially on icy or hard-packed terrain. Thus, these boots are perfect for long days in the mountains when uphill travel or long mileage is the goal, and certainly not for frequent use in bounds. The Dynafit TLT8 Expedition and Salomon S/Lab X-Alp are two of our favorite ultralight boots.
Sidecountry, synonymous with "slackcountry" or "lift-accessed backcountry," describes out-of-bounds skiing that is easily accessed from the resort. In many areas, skiers can ride a lift, skin for a few minutes to the area boundary, and find themselves in legitimate backcountry terrain. Because sidecountry terrain necessitates far less uphill travel than other forms of backcountry skiing, an ideal sidecountry boot will prioritize stiffness and stability on the downhill (similar to a typical alpine boot) over uphill comfort and weight savings. Look for an increase in weight, bulkier designs, less cuff rotation, four buckles, a slightly more forward lean, and compatibility with alpine bindings. Boots like the Lange XT3 130 LV and Rossignol Alltrack Elite fit squarely into this category. And we'd be remiss not to emphasize here that sidecountry skiing holds almost all of the same risks as any other kind of backcountry skiing, so be sure you are prepared with the proper equipment and training (you can see our full backcountry skiing checklist here).
All-Around (Alpine Touring)
In between the extremes of ski mountaineering and sidecountry designs is our all-rounder alpine touring category. This term describes a standard day of skiing in the backcountry: you're probably not attempting to set any FKTs (Fastest Known Time), but your ascent is likely completely human powered. For this healthy mix of downhill and uphill, you need a boot that can excel at both—that proverbial perfect world. Alpine touring boots are characterized by this balance, with lightweight builds, a high range of motion in walk mode, a stiff ski mode, crampon and tech binding compatibility, and grippy soles. A boot like the Scarpa Maestrale RS (and women's Scarpa Gea RS) is able to pull off all of these features. This best-of-both-worlds scenario tends to warrant a higher price tag, but for folks who seek a true backcountry experience with big ups and downs, it's worth the investment.
The weight of a ski boot makes a huge difference for comfort and maintaining energy throughout a day in the mountains. Whereas the typical weight of an alpine ski boot design can hover around a hefty 11 pounds per pair, an average backcountry model weighs around 7 pounds and can drop as low as 3 pounds for a ski mountaineering set. If traveling uphill comfortably and efficiently is the goal—without overly compromising on the descent—there are a number of excellent options in the 5 to 7-pound range. For short tours or strong riders who prioritize downhill performance (including sidecountry enthusiasts), you should have approximately 8 pounds and under for the pair as a good benchmark. When you creep above that point, uphill travel can become an uncomfortable and overly exhausting activity.
The flex rating describes how much pressure must be applied to flex the boot forward at the ankle while in ski mode. A lower number means the boot is softer, while a higher number means the boot is stiffer, and you'll find numbers ranging from 70 at the low end for a super soft beginner alpine boot up to 130+ for an expert model. It's worth mentioning that there isn't a standardized test to establish these ratings—it's up to the manufacturer to list them. But for the most part, we've found the flex rating to be a helpful tool (and we call out any boots that don't seem to match their given rating in the write-ups above). Typically, less experienced skiers will prefer a boot on the soft side, while advanced skiers will want the power transfer and stability of a stiffer boot. Furthermore, female skiers or those with lighter builds often prefer boots with lower flex ratings, which is reflected in the offerings on the market.
Backcountry ski boots tend to be less stiff than alpine boots for a number of reasons. First, backcountry skiers are more likely to seek out powder than hard snow, and a boot with more give will perform better in these conditions. Second, speed is harder to generate and of less priority in the backcountry. And third, touring boots typically are manufactured with lighter materials, which makes them softer in general. Because of this, a backcountry ski boot's flex rating won't always translate perfectly to the flex rating of an alpine ski boot (for example, a backcountry boot with a stated flex of 110 might feel slightly softer than an alpine ski boot with the same given flex number). Below are some general recommendations for ski boot flex based on ability level:
Recently, there has been a push by many ski gear manufacturers to offer a range of flex options for individual boot models, allowing the user to choose the perfect stiffness for his or her ability level. For example, the Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD is available in 100, 120, and 130 flex ratings for men, and the women’s version has 85, 95, and 115 variations. Further, you’ll see prices rise as flex ratings increase, due to the more premium materials and design of a stiffer boot. When applicable, we’ve made mention of the various flex options available for each boot in the individual write-ups above.
"Earn your turns" or "You've gotta get up to get down." However you choose to say it, backcountry skiing is just as much (if not more) about the uphill as it is about the downhill. For this reason, all backcountry ski boots (and some alpine ski boots), are designed with two modes: a walk mode (increased range of motion for uphill travel) and a ski mode (stiff and supportive for descents). Each boot has a way of locking into ski mode or releasing into walk mode, usually by way of a lever on the back that engages and disengages with a flip.
Walk mode and "cuff rotation" go hand-in-hand: this specification describes the amount of fore/aft motion (and in cases like the Salomon X-Alp, side-to-side motion as well) available in a ski boot while in walk mode. The cuff rotation is defined by a few factors, namely the materials used in the design of the boot and the amount of play these materials are allowed. But it's important to note that soft materials and a high cuff rotation create inherent weakness in the structural integrity of a boot. Thus, while boots with a greater cuff rotation will be more comfortable on long ascents, they aren't able to provide as much support on the descent as a boot with harder materials or lower cuff rotation.
The cuff rotation specification is a good number to pay attention to when thinking about how much of your ski day will be uphill focused. If you are more interested in full days in the mountains with big ups and long traverses, a greater cuff rotation like what you get with the Salomon X-Alp (75 degrees total forward/backward) will help preserve energy in your legs and will be more comfortable in general. If the goal is long, potentially steep descents, opt for a boot that sacrifices cuff rotation for a higher flex rating. Boots such as the Scarpa Maestrale RS (60 degrees) and the Dynafit Hoji Free (55 degrees) offer a good mix of both.
Buckles are yet another place where manufacturers can make decisions regarding the uphill vs. downhill performance debate. Whereas a standard alpine ski boot has four buckles, a backcountry boot can have anywhere from two to four. Fewer buckles means less weight, which certainly is helpful for uphill travel. However, fewer buckles also means you'll sacrifice power and rigidity on the descent. Skiers more interested in uphill travel can get away with a boot with fewer buckles, while skiers more interested in making solid downhill turns will feel more confident with three or four buckles. Additionally, most backcountry-specific ski boots are manufactured with a removable "power strap," which is a thick piece of Velcro near the top of the cuff. This strap adds significant support for aggressive downhill skiing, particularly on harder snow. However, since it also adds weight and is not needed for uphill travel, some manufacturers prefer to remove the strap altogether.
In terms of buckle design, most boots are built with a classic aluminum buckle with ladder and catch bail, but more and more we're seeing different configurations and technologies. Many recent innovations allow for more support without more ounces. The Scarpa Maestrale, for example, now uses a "wave closure system" at the mid-foot that combines two buckles with one strap for a lightweight set-up that spreads pressure out along the entire top of the foot. Other boots use the Boa buckle closure to hone in fit with a simple twist. And boots like La Sportiva's Synchro and Shadow use the solid and durable Pegasus Plus Buckle, a system that incorporates a micro-adjusting "washer" on the end of each buckle for a more exact fit. No matter the closure system, it is important to practice buckling, unbuckling, and adjusting your boots before heading into the mountains. You'll likely be dealing with your buckles a lot as you transition from uphill to downhill and vice versa, and you'll want to be efficient when temperatures drop and the wind starts howling.
Perhaps the single most important aspect of a ski boot is how it fits your foot. We highly recommend trying on multiple pairs before purchasing, as every manufacturer builds boots with a specific shape that will fit some feet better than others. The main challenge will be finding the ideal balance of a snug yet comfortable fit. If it's too roomy, a boot will not offer the needed support for downhill skiing. If sized too tight, it will (at best) be uncomfortable during long days in the mountains, but more likely it will cut off circulation and create dangerously cold feet. If you're transitioning from alpine skiing to alpine touring, keep in mind that you'll want to size your boot a bit looser than you might be accustomed to. With little opportunity to take your boots off throughout the day and the need to skin or hike uphill, you'll want to prioritize comfort and a good fit above all else.
Ski boots size is delineated by the Mondopoint—aka-Mondo-scale—which refers to the length of your foot in centimeters. You can measure your own Mondo size quite easily, by putting your foot against the wall, marking where your toes end, and measuring the distance in centimeters. Most ski boot shells are built only in full-size increments, whereas liners come in half sizes. If you're a Mondo size 25.5 for example, you'll get a size 26 ski boot shell with a size 25.5 liner. You can use a conversion chart to determine your Mondo size but we still highly recommend getting fitted by a ski boot professional.
Whereas a boot's Mondo size refers to the length of the foot, the last refers to the foot's width, in millimeters. Many traditional alpine ski boots are available in two to three different lasts to accommodate various foot sizes, but backcountry ski boots don't usually offer this option. Because of this, when shopping for a boot you'll want to make sure you choose a model made with a last that fits your individual foot. Those with wider or higher volume feet should look for boots with lasts 100 millimeters and up, and those with narrower feet will be happy with a last between 95 and 98 millimeters. Again, it's worth repeating that this information is good for planning purposes but can't come close to the value in getting fitted by a reputable ski shop.
Most ski boots technically are unisex, but some manufacturers have chosen to broaden their audience by making touring models specifically designed for female skiers. For example, La Sportiva created the Shadow as the women's counterpart to their revered Synchro. Scarpa has a women's version of the Maestrale RS called the Gea RS Boot. And Dynafit has a women's version of almost every one of their models. Unfortunately, many companies have not gotten around to producing women's specific-models of some fantastic boots. The question is: what are the differences between a women's ski boot and a men's ski boot?
In reality, there are not as many differences as you might think. Women's boots have graphics that may (or may not) have more marketing power for the female ski community. In addition, women's boots usually come in smaller sizes (for instance, the La Sportiva Synchro starts at a size 25, while the Shadow offers a 23). But most importantly, many women's-specific boots have lower flex ratings that make them softer. All of this assumes, of course, that women prefer different graphics, have smaller feet, and want flexier boots, which is often, but not always, the case.
The bottom line is that each ski brand makes their boots with a unique shape, fit, and features. The men's and women's models embody the distinct qualities the brand aspires to offer. If you identify as a female and have found the perfect pair of boots that only come in a men's model, try them on and don't be afraid to go for it (and vice versa). As long as they feel snug and comfortable, they'll provide you with the backcountry ski experience you're looking for.
A backcountry ski boot is designed with both an outer shell and an inner liner. The shell provides strength for the downhill, while the liner is built to conform to the foot and provide both comfort and warmth. Most boot liners are a classic slip-on with a forward tongue, while some have a lace closure for added support. Finally, some liners do not have a tongue at all. In general, the type of liner you choose comes down to how secure and adjustable you like your boot to feel.
One of the most important features of a boot liner is the foam that is sandwiched between the shell and inner lining. On the budget end of the spectrum are open-cell foam designs, which are comfortable at first but tend to pack out quickly. They also take some time to dry, which can make for an extremely cold day as your sweat starts to freeze. On the other hand, some premium offerings include a more expensive closed-cell foam liner—for example, the Intuition Cross Pro in the Scarpa Maestrale. These liners keep their shape and cushioning much longer than those of the open-cell variety. What's more, they dry very quickly and tend to keep your feet warmer, even during the coldest days.
If your ski boots come with an open-cell foam liner, we have found it to be worth the price (especially for those who run cold) to buy a closed-cell foam liner separately. And whether they're made of open or closed-cell foam, most boot liners are heat moldable, a process that fits them precisely to your feet and eliminates hot spots and potential for loss of circulation. If finding a comfortable ski boot has been a challenge for you, we recommend working with your local ski shop professional.
There are two main styles of backcountry ski bindings: tech and frame (you can read more about the pros and cons of each in our article on tech vs. frame bindings). It's important to pay attention here, because the style of boot you choose will influence which binding you'll pair it with, and vice versa. Tech bindings, otherwise known as pin bindings (such as the G3 Ion) have metal prongs at the toe that insert into small holes in the front of the boot. The boot hinges at the toe point and the heel locks in (for the downhill) or remains free (when skinning uphill). These bindings are known for being lightweight and streamlined, but overall offer less security and power.
Frame bindings, such as the Marker Tour F12 EPF, essentially are traditional downhill bindings attached to a rail that extends from heel to toe. This rail attaches and releases from the heel, allowing for both uphill and downhill movement. Frame bindings often are less expensive than tech bindings and offer more power on the downhill, but they are bulky and heavy, both on your ski and with each step. In general, ski mountaineers and the majority of alpine touring enthusiasts opt for tech bindings, while beginners or those who prize downhill performance choose frame bindings.
And here is where boots come into play. A tech binding only is compatible with boots with tech fittings—other style boots simply will not work. The good news is that most backcountry ski boots (and every boot that made our list above) are now made with tech fittings—essentially, two holes built into the toe of the boot that allow you to lock into the pins of a tech binding. On the other hand, frame bindings accommodate a wider range of boots, including some with tech fittings and also those specifically designed for downhill skiing in the resort. And it doesn't stop here: for more on binding compatibility, see the boot soles section below.
The ski boot sole discussion actually is a continuation of the binding compatibility dialogue above. In other words, boot sole is another determining factor of what bindings will fit your boot. This certainly is one of the more complicated topics surrounding backcountry ski boots, especially as technology continues to change so dramatically. That said, it's very important to have a general understanding here, and at the least, have the wherewithal to check that your boots and bindings are compatible before you buy.
Let's start simply. An alpine-style ski boot sole (referred to as ISO 5355) is flat on the bottom and only compatible with corresponding ISO 5355-ready bindings (often frame style). An alpine touring boot sole (ISO 9523) is rockered (similar to the bottom of a boat) to allow for a more natural gait. It also has sticky rubber on the bottom, which comes in handy for walking or kicking steps in snow. These boots, such as the Salomon S/Lab X-Alp, are only compatible with tech bindings.
Now there is a third option. In the last few years, Salomon and Marker have created new technologies—Walk-to-Ride (WTR) and GripWalk, respectively—that allow a boot to be compatible with both frame bindings and tech bindings. Boots with WTR or GripWalk technology are not quite as rockered as tech-only boots, yet not totally flat like an alpine boot. Most of these boots are made with tech fittings as well. And most companies have followed suit, leading to popular boots such as the Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD, which can be used with tech bindings, tech toe/alpine heel bindings, GripWalk frame bindings, and MNC bindings (see below). Thus, one pair of boots can now be used with multiple ski set-ups (resort set-up, alpine touring set-up, etc.) without the pain of swapping out bindings or having incompatible combinations.
It's important to note that not all alpine (non-touring) bindings are WTR or GripWalk compatible. If you are interested in using your backcountry boots with your downhill set-up, it's definitely worth double checking whether or not your bindings are WTR or GripWalk certified. Furthermore, new MNC (Multi Norm Compatible) bindings from Atomic and Salomon take away the guesswork—they simply are compatible with pretty much every style of boot. Very few boots and bindings are labeled MNC (Salomon’s Shift MNC binding is one standout), but it is a strong indication of where the market is headed.
When choosing a pair of boots, it's important to think through the style and performance level of your entire ski kit, including your skis and bindings. Starting with alpine touring skis, you'll want to make sure to match the flex of your boots with the stiffness of your skis. There is no rubric for this, but generally boots with a higher flex rating (115+) should be paired with stiffer skis, and vice versa for boots with a lower flex rating. A pair of soft skis can feel overpowered by a stiff boot like the Maestrale RS, which can lead to a disconnected and insecure feeling while descending. Alternatively, it is never fun to feel as if you can't turn your skis while using a pair of boots that flex too much.
In addition, your ski bindings play a key role in performance. Like boots, the binding options fall into general categories of ultralight, all-around, and downhill-focused. Light and fast travelers will want a minimalist design like the Dynafit TLT Speed, the G3 Ion is an excellent all-rounder option, and the Salomon Shift has a lot of appeal for those splitting time between the resort and backcountry. And most importantly, as we covered in detail above, you'll want to make sure your boots and bindings are compatible with one another. For more information, including our top picks, be sure to see our article on the best ski bindings.
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