The best fitting snowboard boots, ever?
I have very narrow and low-volume feet and find it very difficult to find footwear that fits well. This article is about my quest to find a pair of snowboard boots with a good fit. I live in the UK and many of the people and businesses I mention are in the UK. The technologies I mention are, of course, more widely available than that.
Tl;dr: I had custom foam liners fitted by Pete at Anything Technical in Kendal. They suit me very well. YMMV. I mention other options.
The first thing I did after I completed a beginner's snowboarding course and knew that I wanted to do more, was to buy a pair of snowboard boots. The hire boots were like a pair of paddling pools strapped to my feet. I wanted more control and less chance of injury.
The only snowboard boots that come close to fitting me are Salomon's regular fit boots. (They also have a wide fit in many models.) If I have to be stuck with one brand then I'm told that I'm lucky that it is Salomon. Apparently their liners take a lot longer to "pack out" than some brands.
Even so, in any off-the-shelf snowboard boots, my foot has lots of side-to-side movement and I can easily roll my foot outwards if I try. I didn't notice this much when I was a new intermediate but as I progressed I started to feel limited by inconsistent control and risk of injury. My worst crash was the first time that I hit a flat section at high speed. Without a slope to force my feet into the uphill side of the boot, I lost all feeling of control.
Despite my skinny feet, heel lift has not been a problem for me. I guess my heel and ankle mesh well with the aggressive shape of many snowboard boot liners. Despite this, a few years ago, I tried using a heel-hold kit in the hope that it might reduce side-to-side movement. It didn't seem to have much effect on foot movement but I did notice that my feet felt colder. I worried that I might be losing some blood supply and removed the kit.
Last year, I found the Tögnar Toolworks boot-fitting products page. I considered buying some of their fitting products and trying to customise my boots. I love messing with technical things (bicycle repair, binding setup) but I also have a habit of buying the bits for exciting "projects" and then seeing those bits sitting on a shelf for the next year. I knew that modifying my boots would be a trial and error process (it's not like I can see inside the boots once I strap them on) so I didn't trust myself to finish this particular project.
I decided to look for a professional. I found that there are organisations like Masterfit University that train people to be ski-boot fitters. Training can include a snowboard-boot-specific module. I contacted a few fitters but none of them sounded enthusiastic. One of them even told me that, "No one custom fits snowboard boots. There's no market for it."
Despite this, I eventually found Coyoti in South Wales. I spoke to the manager who was the first person I had talked to who had a real interest in customising the fit of snowboard boots. The first thing he did was check whether I'd bought a pair of boots on the internet that were just too big for me. Apparently that's common when purchasing snowboard boots. Reassured that I did have the best-fitting boots I could find, he explained to me how foam pieces could be shaped and attached to the outside of the boot liner to modify the fit. I was very tempted to drop by next time I visited my family in Wales. The only thing that worried me was that it was a long way to return if I found out later that the fit was not quite right.
I've been very lucky in the last few years. Through a series of fortunate events, I acquired a pair of walking-boot lasts made by Altberg. They were a very close match for my feet and for the first time in my adult life I owned some footwear that actually fit. This gave me an idea: Could someone make me a bespoke pair of snowboard boots from the walking boot lasts? I decided to email a few people about this.
The first reply I got was from DOUK. (They hand make snowboards in the UK! And they offer a custom graphics option!) Unfortunately, they didn't know anyone who made snowboard boots in the UK. When I thought about it, I realised that any company in Western Europe would probably put its snowboard boot production in a cheaper part of the world.
The second reply came from Steven Hankin at Glide & Slide in West Yorkshire. I had contacted Steven because Glide & Slide are the only UK importers of Strolz custom ski boots. Steven had an alternative idea. He had previously fitted a custom foam-liner in a pair of snowboard boots for a customer who had flown over from Poland for the fitting.
I had not heard about this kind of liner. It is often fitted in ski boots. A liquid foam is injected into the liner, which expands to fill the space between the boot shell and the foot. The foam then sets. It sounds like no other method could compare for getting perfect boot fit. The problem with doing this in most snowboard boots is that they are much softer than ski boots and would be warped by the high pressure of the expanding foam. Steven solved this by bagging and then duct-taping his customer's boots so that they could not stretch.
This sounded like a brilliant solution to me; a way to get a perfect fit with zero trial-and-error. If I was going to go to this expense then I decided I would get a new pair of boots. I didn't want to risk my boots reaching the end of their life soon after getting the liner fitted, so I went to the Snow and Rock shop in Chill Factore where I had bought my 2010 Salomon Savage boots.
Andy Ferrari in Snow and Rock was extremely helpful. I told him what I intended to do with the boots. He was particularly impressed that Steven planned to use an articulated liner like those used in alpine touring ski boots, so the liner would not add to the stiffness of the boot at all. Even so, Andy recommended that I talk to Solutions4Feet in Oxfordshire. He felt that if anyone had experience of fitting custom foam liners in snowboard boots, it would be them.
I did speak to someone at Solutions4Feet. They had seen multiple disasters from people attempting to fit custom foam liners in snowboard boots. They recommended using a low pressure system like BootDoc and said that if I could get hold of them in the UK then they would fit them for me but with no guarantee of success.
I had a look at the BootDoc liners online and saw that the manufacturer was marketing them for snowboard boots, which was very reassuring. I looked for a UK seller. Sports Direct were selling BootDoc liners very cheaply in a small selection of sizes but I read on a forum that the liners they were selling were many years old. The foaming chemicals would have degraded and become useless. I emailed Sports Direct to ask about this but they never replied.
I needed some help to find a UK seller of BootDoc liners so I emailed the Austrian manufacturer. They eventually put me in touch with Pete at Anything Technical in Kendal. He said that I could buy a liner from him and he would fit it at no extra cost. That sounded like an offer I could not refuse. I sent Pete my new boots (2017 Salomon Dialogue) so that he could be certain of ordering the liner with the most appropriate length and width. A few weeks later, I headed up to Kendal for the boot fitting. I was ridiculously excited about the prospect of having snowboard boots that would fit me well.
The first thing Pete did was to make custom footbeds for me. I have over-pronating feet and I had been using off-the-shelf Superfeet insoles, but I didn't feel like they offered enough support. A foam liner will mould around the footbed as well as the foot, so if you're having a foam liner fitted then you will need to make any decisions about footbeds first. Once the footbeds were made, the boot-fitting process started.
Pete applied some foam pads to my feet where the bones were most prominent, and also over the toes. These pads would give me a little bit of room at the points where a too-tight liner would be most uncomfortable. We had a chat about the fact that foam liners are available for home fitting and I was glad that I hadn't gone down that route. The liners are a single-use tool. If you forget anything before injecting the foam then you either need to find a way to modify the liners afterwards, or else buy another pair.
With the pads on, next came socks, plastic bags (in case of a foam leak, I assume), the empty liners with their injection tubes, and finally my boots. At this point the boot laces were left loose. Pete had me stand on a slope with my toes pointing uphill. This forced my heels to the back of the boots and pushed me a little bit in to a snowboarding stance. The two-part foam was then mixed together and injected into the liners and Pete had me move my knees in a circular motion in order to encourage the foam to flow all round my feet. I could feel my feet heating up from the exothermic reaction in the foam. At this point, the boot laces were tightened and we just had to wait for the foam to do its thing.
When Steven at Glide & Slide had told me about how he fitted a high-pressure foam liner, I had worried about what effect it would have on the boots. He uses a strong tape to stop the boot material from stretching, but even without the material stretching I worried that the pressure would force the boots into a more spherical shape. The BootDoc liners are marketed for snowboard boots so I assumed that they would have a very low pressure and that shape change would not be an issue. I was wrong.
Looking down at my feet, I saw that the first boot to have foam injected became noticeably wider than the other boot. This fattening happened midway between the heel and toe. I assume this is where the most room for shape change is. I was glad I had expected something like this otherwise I might have been worried. I decided to ignore it for now. Both boots expanded in the same way.
After a while, the foam set. I took off the boots, bags, socks and foam pads. Then, with my own socks, I put my newly custom-fitted boots (so exciting!) back on, strapped on my board, and had a play. This was a world away from my previous experience of snowboard boots. Almost every part of my foot felt in contact with a surface. Only my toes had some wiggle room. I tipped the board from edge to edge and from end to end and felt that I had just got a big increase in control. I couldn't wait to try this out on some snow.
Pete warned me that my new footbeds would change my stance. I spent a couple of hours in Chill Factore riding and tweaking my setup. And then I went on holiday to Vallorcine in the Chamonix Valley.
The first snowboard lessons that had really worked for me were from British instructors. I think of this style of snowboarding as "pushing edges" because the emphasis was on how much edge pressure to apply and keeping shoulders parallel to the board. This is the style I usually revert to at the beginning of each holiday. In this mode, I was a bit worried about my new boots.
The foam-filled part of the liner stopped more than an inch below the lip of the boot. I felt like there was a bit of a "dead zone" when I swapped from edge to edge. This would be less dramatic for someone less skinny than me but, no matter how tight I made my upper boot laces, I had a feeling of losing contact in the transition. Distracted by this, it took me a while to realise that almost everything else was better than I'd had before. Hitting a flat section at speed no longer felt scarily dangerous. I felt like I had a lot more control.
Later in the holiday, I had a lesson. Like most instructors in the Alps, Christophe paid a lot of attention to my upper body movement. Using this to fine-control my turning changed my experience of my new boots. The edge transition stopped being something that I noticed through my calves as I focused on more of my body for control. Revising this technique was very rewarding and also reassuring.
There were a couple of problems that felt trivial. I would occasionally notice some heel lift. This was a new thing for me. It did not seem to interfere with my control and it was rare, so I assume that technique was a factor. Also, there was a design flaw in the liner's detachable tongue: Some velcro was in contact with my sock. In order to stop my sock from being chewed up, I covered up the exposed velcro. I used a sticky blister-protection strip, which was stiff enough not to fold up when I pushed my foot in. Job done.
My confidence increased and black runs felt manageable to me for the first time. Other things had changed since the previous holiday (I was more confident because of personal-development work, this was my first 2 week snowboarding holiday, etc) so I don't know how much of my improvement was due to the boots. They were definitely a factor though.
I am really happy with my boots now. I do wish the foam-filled section extended further up my calves, but it would take a lot of selling for me to switch to any other solution. If my boots wear out before climate change kills snowboarding in the Alps then I absolutely see myself going back to Kendal for another pair.