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 2018-2019 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 and our ski touring checklist.
Weight per pair: 6 lbs. 2 oz.
What we like: Excellent performance on both the uphill and descent.
What we don't: Ski/walk lever can be finicky to use.
Many backcountry boots favor either uphill or downhill performance, but the Scarpa Maestrale RS's impressive balance on both earns it our top billing for 2018-2019. 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.
What are the downsides of the Scarpa Maestrale RS? First, we found it a little tedious to get on and off due to the split boot design. In addition, snow and ice has a tendency to accumulate in the walk/ski mode lever, which occasionally can make it difficult to lock down when transitioning. But these small gripes haven't diminished our appreciation for this well-rounded build. The RS is compatible with a wide range of binding and crampon styles, has 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. If you don't need the super stiff RS model, Scarpa also makes a standard Maestrale, which has a 110 flex rating and costs $100 less... Read in-depth review
See the Scarpa Maestrale RS See the Women's Scarpa Gea RS
Best Hybrid Backcountry/Downhill Boot
Weight per pair: 6 lbs. 4 oz.
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. Similar to the Lange XT Free 130 LV below, it's reasonably light and flexible for walking, but its aggressive stance and four-buckle design can hold its own on steep groomers. As with any all-in-one answer, there are some compromises. Race-oriented downhillers will want a stiffer boot, and dedicated backcountry enthusiasts will prefer the Maestrale above with its smoother tour mode and better range of motion. But the Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD toes the line better than any other on the market.
The Hawx XTD's low weight of 6 pounds 4 ounces for the pair certainly is notable, especially given its stated flex. However, the 130 rating is a little generous and the boot doesn't ski as aggressively as its main competitor, the Lange XT Free 130 LV. But we give the Atomic the edge here because of its superior touring performance. At 14 ounces lighter for the pair, the Ultra XTD is the better option for those putting in a lot of time on the skin track.
See the Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD 130 See the Women's Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD 110
Best Budget Backcountry Ski Boot
Weight per pair: 7 lbs. 3 oz.
What we like: Great price and a fit that works with a lot of foot types.
What we don't: A better sidecountry than pure backcountry option.
Backcountry ski boots are undeniably expensive, but Salomon's QST Pro TR is a solid buy for those on a budget. Priced more than $200 less than our top picks, the QST includes Salomon's signature fit that works well with average to wide feet, a heat-moldable shell, and smooth downhill performance. All in all, it's a quality build that has a lot of appeal for those transitioning from resort to backcountry use. The TR is compatible with tech bindings, has a user-friendly hike mode, and its polyurethane shell is very durable.
What do you give up with a more affordable design like the QST Pro TR? To start, it's not a strong climber, and it's fairly easy to max out its 40-degree range of motion on steep sections. Further, the boot lacks premium lightweight materials like carbon fiber, so it falls on the heavy end of the spectrum at over 7 pounds. And on the downhill, its 100 flex rating is missing the precision and power that you get with a stiffer design (Salomon does make a 120 flex version for $600). Serious riders should stick with a premium option like the Scarpa Maestrale above, but the QST Pro is a solid choice for adventurous resort skiers who want to dabble in the backcountry.
See the Salomon QST Pro 100 See the Women's Salomon QST Pro 90
Best Boot for Ski Mountaineering
Weight per pair: 5 lbs. 12 oz.
What we like: Impressive cuff rotation in walk mode; thick, durable rubber outsole.
What we don't: Big price tag and limited stability in ski mode.
For an ultralight boot that can take you into serious high-mountain terrain, check out Arc'teryx's Procline Carbon. This streamlined model offers truly impressive mobility thanks to its 360-degree cuff. Unlike standard touring designs that only flex forward and backward, the Procline's open cuff also allows for 36 degrees of side-to-side rotation. There's so much freedom of movement that it was initially awkward for us, but we quickly grew to appreciate the ease in which this boot climbs. It almost effortlessly maneuvers around switchbacks while skinning, and its Vibram outsole is a reliable partner when hiking over rock and ice.
The biggest downside to the Procline AR Carbon is its limited stability while in ski mode. Arc'teryx does state a flex of 110, but it feels even softer in use. It's also worth noting that the Procline is not a particularly warm boot, and if you'll be spending extended time in subzero temperatures, it may be worth upgrading the liner. All things considered, the Procline lacks the versatility of the all-around options on this list, but it's unmatched for moving fast in the mountains.
See the Arc'teryx Procline AR Carbon See the Women's Arc'teryx Procline AR Carbon
Best of the Rest
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.
Released last year, 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 popular Spectre below, 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 weighs a few ounces less per boot, which is something you'll feel 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 per pair: 4 lbs. 7 oz.
What we like: Ultralight with an effective buckle system.
What we don't: Minimalist liner isn't warm or particularly comfortable.
The new Hoji below has gotten a lot of attention for the 2018-2019 season, but Dynafit's tried-and-true TLT7 shouldn't be overlooked. This boot targets ski mountaineers and those wanting to cover significant ground with a focused, ultralight build. The fit system has been simplified and includes just two buckles and no power strap to trim weight, and the integrated cable design means you only need to adjust one buckle when transitioning between hike and ski modes. Tack on a minimalist liner and thin Grilamid shell, and the TLT7 Performance is among the lightest boots on our list at an all-in weight of 4 pounds 7 ounces.
The TLT7 is a favorite among the skimo crowd, but the simplified design does have some shortcomings. First off, the included liner isn't very warm and it lacks the cushioning and all-around comfort of Arc'teryx's Procline above. Furthermore, while the boot is fairly stiff relative to its feathery construction, it can feel harsh and unpredictable while skiing in poor snow conditions. Finally, it can't match the overall mobility of the Procline above or Salomon X-Alp below, although it does beat both of these boots handily in terms of weight.
See the Dynafit TLT7 Performance
Weight per pair: 8 lbs. 2 oz.
What we like: The downhill capabilities of an alpine boot with a walk mode.
What we don't: Too heavy for long tours.
If your version of backcountry skiing often begins on the lift, a stiff, powerful boot matters more than a lightweight build. For sidecountry skiers or those who want one boot that can transition between the resort and backcountry, the Lange XT Free 130 LV is a strong option. On one hand, the 130 flex rating and hard plastic near the heel, spine, and lower shell give the Lange the feel of a downhill boot. But flip the switch into walk mode, and the closed-cell foam liner and soft plastic around the foot and lower leg allow for uphill travel.
What do you give up by going with such a downhill-focused boot? Most notably, the Lange XT is one of the heaviest designs on our list at over 8 pounds, which is a significant downside for those spending extended time on the skin track. Compared with other boots in the downhill/backcountry category (the Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD and Rossignol Alltrack Elite, for example), it's the heaviest of the group. But with Lange's performance on the descent and the added ability to choose between flexes and last widths, the Lange XT Free is a great match for downhill skiers embarking on the occasional uphill foray.
See the Lange XT Free 130 LV See the Women's Lange XT Free 110 LV
Weight per pair: 6 lbs. 7 oz.
What we like: The Hoji Lock System could be a game changer.
What we don't: Limited binding and crampon compatibility.
One of the most anticipated new boots for the 2018-2019 season is Dynafit's Hoji Pro Tour, which was made in collaboration with legendary freerider Eric Hjorleifson. The big news is the innovative Hoji Lock System, a walk/ski technology that 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 good range of motion and a smooth, rounded toe for less drag in powder.
The big downside of Dynafit's speed toe design used on the Hoji and TLT7 above is that it limits binding and crampon compatibility. Both boots can only accommodate tech bindings, and they can't even be used with a crossover option like Salomon's new Shift. Further, if a crampon is needed for skinning up steep and icy slopes, the Hoji fits one particular model: the Salewa Cramp-In. And a final consideration is that the Hoji Lock System is relatively new to the market and has not had a ton of mileage, so durability still is a question mark. But if the boot proves to be reliable, we fully expect the Hoji Pro Tour to become a go-to choice for expert-level backcountry skiers.
See the Dynafit Hoji Pro Tour See the Women's Dynafit Hojo Pro Tour
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 above, 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. The S/Lab X-Alp does not have a stated flex number, but it comes in a little stiffer than the Procline 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 Salomon's QST, it's 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. Priced at $780, the Cosmos/Celeste doesn't represent a great value either, but their proven track record makes sense for those who prioritize reliability over the latest technology.
See the Men's Scott Cosmos III See the Women's Scott Celeste III
Weight per pair: 6 lbs. 6 oz.
What we like: A very capable climber.
What we don't: Doesn't ski as well as some lighter options.
A long-time favorite among the ski touring crowd is La Sportiva's Spectre 2.0. As with the original version, the boot is among the best climbers in the business. Opened up in hike mode, the Spectre equals the Maestrale above in overall range of motion and comfort (as long as you take the time to dial in the fit). It's also among the most versatile touring boots in terms of binding compatibility with a design that works well with the majority of tech, frame, and crossover models. And priced at $679, the Spectre 2.0 is a good value overall, undercutting most of its competition by $100 or more.
Why does this popular ski boot end up with a mid-pack ranking? As with the Scott Cosmos above, the La Sportiva Spectre 2.0 feels like slightly dated. Its weight of well over 6 pounds puts it squarely in the all-around category, but it's clearly been designed with the uphill in mind. While descending, the Spectre lacks the progressive flex of the slightly lighter Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD above, and its thin liner can be uncomfortable when you're driving it hard. The Spectre's climbing skills earn it a spot on our list, but in most cases, we prefer La Sportiva's more versatile Synchro above.
See the La Sportiva Spectre 2.0 See the Women's La Sportiva Sparkle 2.0
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, it's the lightest touring boot on our list, and the impressive 74-degree cuff rotation puts it on the same level with the Salomon S/Lab X-Alp and Arc'teryx Procline AR Carbon 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: 7 lbs.
What we like: Stiff and strong on the downhill.
What we don't: Not a great climber with its limited cuff rotation.
The third Salomon boot to make our list is their S/Lab MTN, which splits the difference between the budget-friendly QST and hardcore X-Alp above. This boot has been designed for hard chargers with a sturdy 120 flex rating, reinforced Grilamid shell, and stiff carbon fiber spine. At 7 pounds for the pair, the MTN falls on the heavy end of the spectrum, but its powerful build is a great match for a pair of wide powder skis.
The S/Lab MTN is designed to go head-to-head with an all-rounder 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 capabilities pushes this boot down our list, but it's still a viable option for serious downhillers... Read in-depth review
See the Salomon S/Lab MTN
Weight per pair: 4 lbs. 14 oz.
What we like: Impressive cuff rotation with high flex point for aggressive downhill skiing.
What we don't: Removable stiffening tongue can be a pain to secure during transitions.
With the Backland Carbon, Atomic has come up with a unique solution to the walkability vs. skiability debate: a removable stiffening tongue that clicks into the front of the boot for the descent. This feature enables the Backland to have an impressive combination of 74-degree cuff rotation with a stiff flex, which puts it on par with the Salomon X-Alp above in mobility but with greater control on the downhill. Moreover, at 4 pounds 14 ounces, the Backland can compete with almost any ski mountaineering design in terms of weight and comfort on the skin track.
The Backland's stiffening tongue certainly has solved a problem, but not without added issues. Transitioning from skinning to skiing already is a busy activity: switch bindings over to ski mode, lock boots into ski mode, take skins off, put a warm layer on, put a helmet on, eat food, drink water, etc. With all of that, the extra step of finding a piece of plastic floating somewhere in your backpack and attaching it to your boots may leave you lagging behind your friends. However, if the tongue doesn't seem like an inconvenience, these boots fit the rare-to-find bill of ultralight, ultra-aggressive ski boot.
See the Atomic Backland Carbon
Weight per pair: 5 lbs. 14 oz.
What we like: Very lightweight for a stiff, aggressive boot.
What we don't: Pricey.
For 2018-2019, Tecnica has revamped the Zero G line with new materials and technology, 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. The new 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 new 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. Also, its steep $900 price tag is a big pill to swallow, especially with excellent options like the Maestrale RS above for $100-ish less. And take note: a 130 flex makes for a solid boot for expert skiers, but this stiff 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 See the Women's Tecnica Zero G Tour
Weight per pair: 7 lbs. 14 oz.
Flex: 110-120 (men's); 90-100 (women's)
What we like: Very good price for a backcountry boot.
What we don't: Limited binding compatibility, especially for an entry-level design.
At $550 and with the looks of an alpine boot, the Dynafit Radical is a solid option for first-time backcountry skiers. In tour mode, its cuff rotation of 60 degrees is generous and will make ascents fairly comfortable, although it can't match the smooth operation and ease of use of a premium design. And on the downhill, the Radical has the secure feel of a resort boot, which is a nice feature for those making the switch to backcountry gear.
With the value-oriented Radical, Dynafit has sacrificed some lightweight materials along the way. The boot uses a polyurethane shell, which is significantly heavier than the Grilamid construction found on most higher-end backcountry boots. Although this heavier plastic makes for more security on the downhill, its extra weight will start to feel burdensome during long ascents. It's also worth noting that the lower flex rating of the Radical will likely feel a bit too soft for experienced skiers on the downhills.
See the Dynafit Radical See the Women's Dynafit Radical
Weight per pair: 7 lbs. 8 oz.
What we like: Compatible with both tech and alpine bindings.
What we don't: Limited cuff rotation and flat soles make walking awkward.
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 soles on these boots are both tech certified and ISO 5355 certified for alpine "frame" bindings, so you can easy swap between alpine and tech bindings.
With the Alltrack's emphasis on carving hardpack, you inevitably give up some of the seamless walkability of a dedicated backcountry boot. Additionally, the flat sole that provides the ISO 5355 certification is awkward for walking, whether you're moving around on hard ground, snow, or touring with your skis on. In fact, for this very reason we give the edge to the slightly rockered Lange XT Free 130 LV over the Alltrack Elite. But the Rossignol remains a solid, versatile boot overall, and there's real value in being able to use them interchangeably at the resort and in the backcountry.
See the Rossignol Alltrack Elite 130 See the Women's Rossignol Alltrack Elite 100
Weight per pair: 8 lbs. 6 oz.
What we like: Inexpensive and compatible with both alpine and tech bindings.
What we don't: Heavy and removable AT soles are a thing of the past.
Rounding out our list for 2018-2019 is the budget-friendly Scarpa Freedom. This boot technically is marketed as an alpine design, but with removable AT soles, it's a viable backcountry option as well. The true benefit of the Freedom is the ability to use it with both alpine and tech bindings-an ideal set-up for those who want to try out backcountry skiing but aren't fully ready to commit.
With all of the impressive new boot sole technology out there, the Freedom's removable soles are a true throwback. Quite simply, technologies such as Walk to Ride (WTR) and Multi Norm Compatible (MNC) make the Freedom's design obsolete. Switching out the soles when you want to go into the backcountry takes time and planning, which is one of the downsides to these boots. Also, because the Freedom is mostly intended for alpine skiing, it is not built with much consideration for weight savings or comfort in walk mode. We think most beginners are better off with the Salomon QST or Dynafit Radical above, but the Freedom does get the very slight edge in price.
See the Scarpa Freedom 100 See the Women's Scarpa Freedom
|Scarpa Maestrale RS||$795||All-around||6 lbs. 2 oz.||125||101mm|
|Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD 130||$800||All-around/sidecountry||6 lbs. 4 oz.||130||98mm|
|Salomon QST Pro 100 TR||$500||Sidecountry/all-around||7 lbs. 3 oz.||100||100mm|
|Arc'teryx Procline AR Carbon||$900||Ultralight||5 lbs. 12 oz.||110||98mm|
|La Sportiva Synchro||$759||All-around||6 lbs. 8 oz.||125||102.5mm|
|Dynafit TLT7 Performance||$900||Ultralight||4 lbs. 7 oz.||Moderate||102mm|
|Lange XT Free 130 LV||$700||Sidecountry||8 lbs. 2 oz.||130||97mm|
|Dynafit Hoji Pro Tour||$800||All-around||6 lbs. 7 oz.||120||103.5mm|
|Salomon S/Lab X-Alp||$900||Ultralight||5 lbs. 7 oz.||Moderate||98mm|
|Scott Cosmos III||$780||All-around||6 lbs. 5 oz.||115||103mm|
|La Sportiva Spectre 2.0||$679||All-around||6 lbs. 6 oz.||115||102.5mm|
|Scarpa Alien RS||$870||Ultralight||3 lbs. 4 oz.||95||99mm|
|Salomon S/Lab MTN||$800||All-around/sidecountry||7 lbs.||120||98mm|
|Atomic Backland Carbon||$750||Ultralight||4 lbs. 4 oz.||Stiff||98mm|
|Tecnica Zero G Tour Pro||$900||All-around||5 lbs. 14 oz.||130||99mm|
|Dynafit Radical||$550||Sidecountry||7 lbs. 14 oz.||110-120||Unavail.|
|Rossignol Alltrack Elite 130 LT||$700||Sidecountry||7 lbs. 8 oz.||130||98mm|
|Scarpa Freedom 100||$495||Sidecountry||8 lbs. 6 oz.||100||101mm|
- 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 flexy 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 (skimo) 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 Arc'teryx Procline Carbon 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 removable tongue, and compatibility with alpine bindings. Boots like the Lange XT Free 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 don't go unless 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), and 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) 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 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 travelling 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 60 at the low end for a super soft beginner alpine boot up to the 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 it to be a helpful tool (and we call out any boots that don't seem to match their given flex 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 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:
Men's Flex Ratings
Women's Flex Ratings
"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 Arc'teryx Procline Carbon, 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 Arc'teryx Procline Carbon (42-degree forward lean, 35-degree backward lean) 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 like the Lange XT Free LV (total rotation of 40 degrees) that sacrifices cuff rotation for a higher flex rating. Boots such as the Scarpa Maestrale RS (60 degrees) and the La Sportiva Synchro (50 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 to 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 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. Many boots have used 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 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. 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, not as much as you might think. Women's boots have different 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 makes 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. Some liners have a lace closure for added support, and sometimes this lace wraps around the calf and shin like a coil, such as on Arc'teryx's Procline Carbon boot. 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 Salomon Guardian MNC 16, 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 determiner 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 a frame style binding (either a standard downhill binding or a backcountry-specific frame binding). 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, WTR 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 every style of boot. Very few boots and bindings are labeled MNC, 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 (110+ for men and 90+ women) 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 new 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.
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