Fitting Ski and Snowboard Boots for Minimalists and Barefooters

The video covers the essentials in 2 minutes.  Read on for the whole story.

Snowboard and Ski Boots

You’re a minimalist or barefooter, you’ve liberated and strengthened your feet, your arches support themselves, and you trust your feelings in your feet when they tell you they like what you are doing with them, or not.

You honor and maintain your feet by choosing shoes that respect your anatomy (natural shape and form) and allow freedom to control your own movement.

Then there’s your snowboard or ski boots.  You cringe as you think of cramming your foot into those torture devices.  Does it have to be that way?  Nope – Here’s how.

Last time you bought boots you probably were told: “Your toes should touch the end of the liner, but not be jammed, with a little room to wiggle up and down, not side to side so it’s snug on your pinky and big toe.  You should be able to tighten down your toes, forefoot, and ankle, so when you lean forward your heel stays doesn’t slip up, and when you lean back your foot doesn’t slide forward or really jam your toes into the end. A little jamming when you lean back can be ok, just not too much.”

You followed that advice and by lunch time on the mountain your feet are cramping, screaming for freedom, or they’re already numb.

I’ve experimented over the last 7 years, and have learned how to make the oppressive boots you already own much kinder, and how to choose freedom the next time you buy new.

My journey to foot health began with an epiphany realizing that my feet, which I thought were strong and capable, had become atrophied little flippers.  As my bodywork mentor asked me to move my toes and ankles independently from each other, the awareness that grabbed my attention was that I forgot how! – I had the feeling of a wooden peg-legs stuffed in ski boots.  It made me realize I had never really felt capable feet during my favorite activities.  I had always treated my foot as something I should use external technology to manage and suppress any complaints or issues.

I’ve worked to rehabilitate my feet from that day on and have become a minimalist and barefoot enthusiast, and advocate for rehabilitating root cause of foot problems, rather than a symptom manager.

Two years into rehabilitating my feet, I found that I could trust my feet, and they were more than capable of holding their own alignment as long as the footwear I wore allowed it.  That winter, I started wondering what I could do to make my snowboard boots work better for my now more capable feet.

OLD Burton Moto Boots

1. I’d had these Burton Motos since age 19 – I was fit according to the guidelines I quoted above, and now that my foot had relaxed and grown in size, I was definitely hitting the end of the boot more than I’d hoped.  I needed to increase the volume inside, and if possible and create less resistance for my toes.

a. I removed the structured (arch support included) footbed liner and replaced with thinner insole of uniform thickness with no arch or heel structure. This allowed my heel to sit a little further back and for my entire sole to expand and spread out a with weight bearing rather than forcing this expansion into my toes.

b. I cut the boot liner where the big toe fights against the toe taper, when striving for proper alignment with the first metatarsal during flexion and lifting of my medial arch.

These modifications created more comfort and endurance for my legs and feet.  The main complaints from my feet after these modifications were my toe tips still jamming the end, but less so, and fatigued/sore arches from the crushing forces of binding straps. Instead of screaming by lunch, my feet would last until 2 pm before really bitching.

The next epiphany came when kids were ready to hit the snow.  Mt Hood didn’t offer snowboarding lessons until kids were 7 yrs old, due to the ankle strength needed to keep a snowboard on edge. So we skied – I dusted off my old skis & our neighbor set us up with kids gear.  I borrowed my brother’s size 10 ski boots and managed to endure the confinement for a couple easy days going at a beginners pace. (My feet had expanded in size upon going minimalist as the gripping tension left my toes, and I learned to relax into my tissues.

My wife was given skis with the new deeper sidecut technology plus some boots, but the boots were rear-entry Salomon Men’s size 12.  I tried them on for fun, and instantly noticed my foot loved the space, and the rear entry retention system could tighten in the right places to secure my heel and ankle, with just a tiny bit of slide forward when I leaned back.  The foot bed liner was pleasantly flat.  I had an idea about how to stop the forward slide.

Salomon Rear Entry BootsMet-pads-bright

2. I had started working with Metatarsal pads by that time and put a pair in the boots.  They improved it- met pads felt like a control knob was firmly held by my tripod of arches, and provided an anchor to stop the forward slide in the footbed. 

My feet felt comfortable and free on the slopes for the fist time ever! Ankle and forefoot were secure, toes free to splay, move and keep proper alignment.

I used the Salomons comfortably through both kids learning skiing (over 4 years time), my snowboard only saw a couple days of use during those years. Each snowboard day in my Motos was a stark reminder of how my feet had finally found oversized slope comfort in ski boots that my snowboard boots couldn’t offer.

I went to the Salvation Army thrift store in winter 2011/12 hoping for cheap poles for my son as he was ready for them.  No dice on the poles, but I walked through the Shoe section on my way out.  Snowboard boots tucked back in a top shelf corner caught my eye.  I looked quickly at the size: 12 US mens.  They were prototype Nike Zoom Force 1’s.  The tag read “Promo Sample, Ship to Bvtn” (Beaverton).  Crud, too big.  I put them back on the shelf and headed out. Something stopped me before I made it out the door- maybe it was the surprising comfort I found in oversize ski boots, maybe it was what I knew about prototypes and how they are often inaccurately sized or labeled.

 What if?  It was worth a try.  Especially since the price tag said $18.00.

zoom force 1pedag solar insole

The Nike’s have an ankle cuff sewn into the outer boot that tightens around and holds both the boot liner and ankle in place.

anklecuff 2

I cinched up the ankle cuff and liner, then the outer boot, and started my happy dance as I realized the ankle cuff and oversized boot provided the toe and forefoot freedom I craved while securing heel and ankle,  like the ski boots did.  How’d they work on the slope?

This year the kids could finally push themselves around and get themselves up after a fall on skis, so I was able to put my skis away and get both feet strapped on my board again.

So I gave the Nikes the liner and met pad treatment too:

– I took the structured foot bed out of the liner and replaced with a trimmed to fit liner from my Lems, the extra volume this opened in the boot allowed a millimeter or two of forward movement when I leaned back.

– I threw in Met Pads, and the forward travel was gone.  Once again I found myself in total boot comfort.  Heel and ankle secure, toes and forefoot free to move and align as needed.

– Since they were so long, and my board and bindings were bought when I was wearing 2 sizes smaller, I ground away the excess sole on toe and heel to reduce drag while riding.

I rode them hard and comfortably for 2.5 seasons. I replaced the laces twice, and replaced some of the plastic lace eyelets that broke with metal ones.

Last february for my 40th birthday, I bought some new boots. I went to the snowboard shop and thad them bring me oversized models that had the ability to tighten around the ankle. Unfortunately Nike backed out of the Snowboard game last year, but there are other manufacturer options that have specific ankle/heel tension adjustability.

(Wanna dip your toes in this experiment before paying big $ for oversized new gear?  First step is to minimize the boots you already own and see if your feet like it.  Then, find 2nd hand gear and experiment with some cheap used boots with these features!)

lunarendorInjinji Snow Toe Socks houndstooth

I chose Nike Lunarendors in 11.5 -not as spacious as the 12 zf1’s but I was looking for the perfect blend of space for toes and initial snug fit for my heel and ankle – I really had to tighten the liner in the zf1s to keep my heel secure when forward leaning and would have to re-tighten them one or two times a day.

I gave the Lunarendors the minimzing treatment: purchased oversized, liner swap, met pads, then I got my first pair of Injinji toes socks tall enough to work with a boot. (Injinji Snow Socks Available Now!)  Wonderful comfort – My only criticism of the Lunarendors is that they have more toe taper and toe spring than the Zf1.  These features create a bit more argument with my soft tissues over natural alignment, and at the end of a full day, I feel a more fatigue in my abductor hallucis (it fights the toe taper while seeking straight toe alignment with my first metatarsal.) and I feel fatigue and some soreness under the ball of my big toe and sesamoids.  (Toe spring lengthens or stretches thin the tissues on the bottom of the foot, and increases weight directly on the sesamoids while detracting from flexor hallucis longus and abductor hallucis’s ability to lift the sesamoids and arch when co-contracting.) These seem a trade-off for the need to re-tighten the boots – I often end the day with the same knots I started with.  These are also nit-picky complaints – the fatigue and soreness I feel are mild reports from a communicative, happy and sensate foot, not the tortured screams and days of backlash I used to feel as consequence of a day on the slopes.

Be sure to watch our video on Big Toe Alignment and Arch Support Tensegrity to learn what the big deal is.

Happy riding, wishing you snow-boot bliss,

How to minimally fit ski and snowboard boots