Made to measure: have ski boots fitted to maximise comfort

Stephen Wood buckles up top first, of course

After 17 years on the slopes, I thought I knew the first thing about skiing. But I didn't. Asked by boot-fitter Phil Vass which buckle I tightened initially when putting on my boots, my answer was the one at the toe. Vass was generous rather than scornful: almost everyone makes that mistake, he said. The correct place to start, he informed me, was with the top buckle, on the calf.

This was more pleasing than embarrassing. The reason that I was sitting in the Ellis Brigham shop in Kensington High Street was not because I enjoy having people stare in wonder at my gnarly, knobbly feet. Nor did I need new ski boots: my current pair, made by the Austrian boot-maker Strolz, is only five years old and has done nowhere near the 200 days of skiing which, so I am told, ski instructors reckon to a boot's average life span. Rather, I was there to learn.

Boots don't stand still: most seasons see changes in materials, structure and design. Reluctant to wait the estimated seven years to the end of my own pair's days, I put my bare feet in Vass's hands for a state-of-the-art fitting, and to catch up with boot technology.

Admittedly, the quest was prompted in part by a marketing decision by the most innovative ski-equipment company, Salomon, to lay greater emphasis this season on comfort. Its boots now come in five "shells", at least one more than most of its competitors make; and the company is also working in partnership with foot-bed maker Conform'able to improve the foot/boot relationship. I was interested, too, in the major change that has taken place in the process of customising the boot liners.

The fitter's tools have not changed. A foot gauge and a short piece of wooden dowel are all that is required. True, Vass's gauge his own, rather than the shop's is a beautiful thing, made in polished aluminium by the US specialist Brannock. On the other hand, he didn't deploy a pocket torch, used by my first fitter (in 1996) as he peered down into the boot to see how my foot was doing inside.

Getting the right shell the structure of the boot is the first and most critical decision a fitter must make. With a mixture of calculation and intuition, he or she must choose the one which best accords with the shape of the customer's foot. Since I was evaluating Salomon's boot-comfort initiative, Vass could choose only from among that company's shells. (Given a free choice, he said, he would also have let me try a slightly softer, Lange boot.)

Obviously, shells come in different lengths. But they also come in different shapes, varying in width but also in the relationship between the size at the heel and the "toe box". Vass hauled the liner out of an Impact 8 boot, to check that my foot fitted comfortably inside the shell. It did. Then he inserted his 20mm-long dowel behind my ankle, to establish that he had chosen the correct boot length (a task made trickier by the fact that a foot bed can alter the foot's effective length). Vass was satisfied: the 100mm-wide Impact 8 boot, in a size 27.5, was the one for me.

If the customer was always right, a fitter's task would be easy. Unfortunately, the converse is commonly true. Fitters often moan about the effect of ski magazines: when a writer eulogises a particular boot, it is difficult to persuade customers that there is no reason why the boot should be equally comfortable on their feet.

Colour is an even bigger problem. Of course, skiers want boots that are attractive and won't clash with their skiwear. We all mention this to fitters, and laugh at such frivolity but it's anxious laughter. Because we know that he or she will ignore the hint, and choose the boot that best fits our feet, not the one that best fits our aesthetic sensibilities. And we know applying the principles of sod's law that the fitter is going to reach for that boot whose colour scheme recalls the television show Pimp My Ride, with its too-brilliant white, fluorescent mid-blue, black flashes and lurid typography. That is my new boot, and I put it on with a dissembling smile.

(The colour question is an interesting one. Each Salomon boot comes in two colour styles, though Ellis Brigham stocks only one. How does the company know which colours to use for a particular shell? Has it done the research and found that people with wide feet are, say, high achievers with a tolerance for credit-card debt who have a propensity for buying garish sports equipment? Not according to Salomon's Eric Davies; he says the colour styles one usually black, the other much brighter are the result of focus-group work.)

With my boot chosen, the next task was the foot bed. This is a device a glorified, three-dimensional insole that supports the foot along its length and ensures that the ankle doesn't twist and the arch doesn't drop. The Conform'able version is made on a platform that feels as if it has soft mud on top, covered by a black rubber sheet. Barefoot, you stand on top of the sheet; the fitter aligns your feet; and in a few minutes an impression is created in the "clay", and used as a mould to make a heat-hardened foot bed. With that in place, all that remains is to customise the liner.

It is this process that has changed since I endured my fitting at the Strolz shop in Lech. Then, customising involved wearing the boots and having warm foam pumped into the liner a sort of double-walled, inner boot under pressure; the effect was to fill up the spaces between boot and foot, ensuring a close fit. Having one's feet squeezed is painful enough, but the process also involved hauling on handles fixed to the floor, to prevent the pressurised foam lifting the feet. The area where this process took place in the Strolz shop looked like a torture chamber.

All that is history, for leisure skiers. Most manufacturers led by Salomon use comparable systems, albeit with different proprietary names. The boots come with liners that contain a filler material, which is softened by heat. Liners warmed by what Davies describes as "the world's smartest hairdryer" are fitted into the boots, in which the customer stands for as long as it takes for the filler to solidify (about 15 minutes).

Is this process as effective as the old and painful one? Logic suggests not, because pressurisation produces a liner that more closely follows the outline of the foot. But I would find out from experience. My challenge for Salomon was to give me boots to match the comfort and performance of the Strolz pair.

The match is a rather unfair one. In its quest for boot comfort, Salomon has made several innovations including "stepped" shell thicknesses, an adjustable ankle buckle and a smoother forward-flex system; but Strolz produces the closest thing to a bespoke boot that is readily available. Although it makes only three different shells, it also creates a "last" for each customer, a facsimile of the foot made with a wooden core that is customised with strips of padding. The shell is heated to make it pliable, and then molded around the last, to shape it. The result is a snug but comfortable boot, hard to get on in cold weather.

In the sudden cold snap a couple of weekends ago in Austria, my new Salomon boots got their first airing. They went on surprisingly easily. A friend on the same short glacier-skiing trip to Tyrol noticed the new-boot sheen. Had I, he asked, got used to the boots by wearing them around the house? No, I hadn't; but now, to my alarm, I remembered that I was told to do that with the first pair of boots I ever bought. The alarm faded quickly, because this unpreparedness would, I figured, be a good test of the custom fitting.

The boots passed the initial test. In a blizzard that lasted most of the weekend, ski conditions were difficult: high winds closed the lifts in the Stubai area. But my feet felt comfortable throughout, except on the day when I forgot to slacken off the buckles at lunchtime a failure which is itself indicative of comfort. The days were too short, though, to form a conclusive opinion, especially on the boots' performance. That must wait until after next month's trip to Canada. There's another factor, of course. Maybe the boots felt good because I tightened the top buckle first, located my heel properly, flexed the feet forward in the boot and only then closed the toe buckle, without over-tightening it.

Salomon Impact 8 boots (with custom-fit liners) cost 230; further information from 0800 389 4350 or at A boot-fit service at Ellis Brigham, including Conform'able foot-beds, costs 50

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Manager

    £50 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Mana...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits