Soft to Hard Boots
From Snowboard to SplitboardThere were many places I wanted to go in the backcountry that I was limited by with soft snowboard boots. All couloirs were off limits (I had actually done Dead Dog Couloir, a couloir off of Torreys Peak in soft boots, and realized just how dangerous it was). If I wanted to transition from ‘backcountry snowboarding‘ to snowboard mountaineering I was going to have to advance the equipment I was riding on. Snowboard boots are inferior on many levels in the backcountry.
So began the transition to Alpine Touring [AT] boots. Living in Boulder, CO I have been privileged to live near many, if not most of the outdoor sports industries. I was able to stop in to Scarpa USA, and La Sportiva and seek advice from great boot fitters such as Larry Houchen of Larry’s Bootfitters, Bent Gate Mountaineering, and Neptune Mountaineering. Before making a decision on a hard boot I wanted to know everything there was to know about AT boots.
I wasn’t pioneering the trend with AT boots on a splitboard, in fact, many of the backcountry snowboarders are making the transition for the same reasons. As I came to find out, you can make an AT boot behave just like a snowboard boot, if not better. You just need to understand the physics and properties of AT boots. The trick is to find a ski boot that can give some forward and lateral flex in all the right places, and you can exceed the performance of snowboard boots by many fold.
So what is exactly is an AT boot? An AT boot has a vibram [hiking] sole as opposed to a DIN [smooth] sole found on alpine boots. AT boots are meant for hiking uphill in the backcountry, and/or touring in which the binding allows the heel to be free. AT boots are designed for more flex and touring properties. I can drive a truck in my AT boots, they feel like a stiff hiking boot.
I am biased to Scarpa because they seem to be sized toward my foot. Note that often times brands tend to size toward a certain type of foot bed. Often if you find the brand you like, different boot models will fit very similar. I tried on virtually every AT boot that was out there just to try to figure out which brand fit my foot shape.
Avoid the more rigid 4-buckle models. These are typically designed for aggressive skiing and do not offer much in the way of forward lean. The Scarpa F1 & F2 is a model that is very popular amongst snowboard mountaineers as is the Dynafit TLT. Look in to the various 3-buckle AT boots. Even when you narrow down a brand, you may find the choices overwhelming.
Here are some pointers to narrow down your selection:
- Narrow your choice to a 3-buckle or 2-buckle model.
- Be sure they have a walk (tour) & ski mode, which is usually a lockout switch on the back.
- Consider a model that has a Dynafit toe-piece.
- I would highly suggest a model with an Intuition liner (heat moldable), or at very least consider the cost of the liner separately when shopping for a style.
- Almost all AT boots have them, but assure they have a Vibram sole.
- Lastly. I will discuss this in greater detail, but consider an AT boot made of Pebax rather than Polyurethane (PU).
- Some AT boots have a canting adjustment (not to be confused with binding canting), this can be a real plus to align your ankle to your boot. Some models even have a canting adjustment on both sides of the boot.
Once you have narrowed down your choices get a shell fit. It is very important to get a shell fit regardless of what size you think you wear (known as BSL which is measured in millimeters). Go to a real mountaineer place or boot fitter to get sized. Know that in Scarpa-land, that a size 27.5 is the same shell size as a 28.. Scarpa change sizes on the half size, most other AT boot manufactures change shell size on the full size. Only the liner changes sizes on the breaks. An article on Gearx summarizes this this sizing breakdown. After you determine the shell size, get fit for the mondo size (actual centimeter boot size). All Scarpa AT boots use an Intuition liner – so it is heat molded to your feet. Once they are heat molded it is like wearing a tennis shoe. Keep this in mind if you shop for them used.
Pebax vs Polyurethane
Polyurethane (PU) has long been the standard choice manufacturing ski boots. Many AT boots however, including SCARPA have chosen the superior performance characteristics of Pebax plastic. Pebax is stronger and lighter than PU. One of the most important qualities of Pebax is that it isn’t affected by temperature swings, meaning your boots don’t get softer or stiffer as temps rise or fall. Pebax is more consistent with temp fluctuations than PU.
Now that we have touched boot manufacture details, we will touch a bit on boot performance as it applies to splitboarding.
Hard boots will have a learning curve. I will point out a rather significant detail here though; soft boots will allow you to learn technique while hard boots will force you to use proper technique. Hard boots will offer a rapid response and your edge transition quicker, however, your margin of error to achieve edge balance will be much narrower. Hard boots by nature have a stiffer suspension, and analogous to car with a stiff suspension; you will feel every bump in terrain and will likely have more heal side chatter. There are several modifications that compensate for some of this which I will touch on later.
As mentioned earlier, avoid a 4-buckle system, simply said, they will be too stiff and you will not get enough forward lean. The cuff height of the boot you choose will also play a significant role in the amount of stiffness. Unlike a snowboard boot, where you might have one or maybe two points to tighten or adjust stiffness, an AT boot has multiple points to adjust stiffness. Some AT booters will buckle the lower & mid buckle tighter while leaving the upper buckle and power strap looser. Many also keep the boot in tour or walk mode (a switch on the rear of the boot).
Most AT boots have a heat molded liner (known as a thermo liner). Intuition liners which come with many brands of AT boots are more favored. Once you have your liners heat molded they are just as comfortable, if not more so than soft boots. Again, have your liners fit by a professional bootfitter, it doesn’t cost that much and makes a huge difference.
Dialing your boots in
Once you have settled on your boots and have had the liners heat molded and fit, it’s time to marry them to the bindings and board. There are a few adjustments that can be done carpet surfing (strapping in on carpet at home before on the snow adjustments). This is also a good time to get to ‘know’ your equipment.
Touring mode allows your rear heel to move freely. You will develop a style that is comfortable to you, but here are a few pointers; In touring mode, loosen your buckles, especially the power strap. It is very important that you do not allow your feet to sweat, and they will get a workout touring.
When making a transition to riding mode it can be advantageous to remember roughly where you buckle to each time for consistency. The canting adjustment on the boot aligns the tilt of your ankle in relation to the plane of the board. The adjustment is of some importance to avoid fatigue or pressure in riding mode. Many people using a binding cant to put an inward angle in ride mode.
The amount of forward lean in most AT boots can be adjusted with the touring lockout bar. Some will further modify this bar by drilling it so that the forward lean will be more pronounced. I would recommend taking your setup on the snow before making this modification. I tend to ride with my lower buckles tighter, and my upper buckle and powerstap a bit looser. I also keep the boot in tour or walk mode. This combination replicates a snowboard boot almost identical. Personally I have found that locking out into ‘ski mode’ (which locks you in to a rigid forward position) fatigues my legs trying to hold an edge.
This also gets in to the subject of binding cant [canting] which I will discuss in more detail in the next segment.
- After a day of riding remove the liner from boot, or angle the liner out of the boot to provide air circulation allowing it to dry. If you are using footbeds, remove those to dry. NEVER put heatmolded liners in the dryer or too close to a heat source (fireplace, stove) to dry, the heat can destroy the glue and molded properties of the liner.
- Never dry AT boots near a heat source, and if you dry them near a forced air heater vent, make sure they are buckled. You can distort the shell on Pebax with heat.
- Even though many AT boots are made from Pebax, do not leave them in your car overnight. A cold liner will have the same insulating properties as a refrigerator and insulate the cold inside you boot. The plastic shell will also be more rigid and harder to get in to.
- Always tighten the second [middle] buckle first, it will seat your heal and make the other buckles easier to dial in.
- When you are not using your boots, fasten the buckles to a neutral tightness. Otherwise, the shell can warp. In the summer months store them in a cool dry place. Do not make the mistake of storing them in a hot garage.
The transition to AT boots is not only an expensive investment, it is also a large progression step. If you take the time to learn the difference in fundamentals and follow some of the tips provided above the transition will be much easier. There is a large community of snowboard AT booters out there, and it’s a community that is growing at a rapid pace.