It all begins with the walk from the parking lot. Klomp, klomp. To me, wearing hard alpine ski boots is something akin to walking in cement overshoes. Let's just say that they aren't often worn for ballet lessons. After affixing 42 assorted buckles, the ordeal begins. By the second run my brain is giving me cold, painful hints that something isn't right down there. By lunch my feet are begging for relief. All I want to do is get those things off! Pain builds character, right? Can I just ski barefoot, please? There's got to be a
I have often looked on at snowboarders with envy. They get to wear those comfy looking soft boots and I'm stuck with cold, hard, 50 pound clodhoppers. But, wait, who says that I can't wear them too? Will the ski police haul me away?
With those thoughts began my skibike soft boot experiment.. I decided to try it out using an expendable pair of skis. I chopped off a pair of well used alpines to the standard 55cm length and sealed the tail, no point in making an expensive pair of production foot-skis look like swiss cheese. I then picked up a set of durable Nidecker bindings. Snowboard bindings are wider than standard alpine clamps, so a riser had to be fabricated to get them elevated high enough off of the ski. Without it, the ski could not be put on edge without grounding the binding. After considerable pondering, I decided to use 1" plastic composite blocks cut from decking material. Of course, all ski bindings are elevated, and measurements indicated that boot to ground height was only about 1/4" higher than usual, to accommodate the extra width. I then mounted them to the skis with four screws at the corners. This can be kind of tricky with cut-offs, since they are very thin and the screws could pull out under stress. For this reason, (on cut-offs) I recommend coming up from the bottom of the ski and countersinking the screws. On production skis, this is not necessary since they have the necessary thickness. But, drill stops are a must, lest you commit the sin of drilling through the ski bottom. Should that happen, don't tell anyone, and fill in the hole with a petex candle. That way you won't be stopped for having ventilated skis. Next, I mounted the bindings to the blocks with 5 screws. Whala, soft boot foot-skis..
Of course the question was, will they work? Standard soft boots are not suitable for normal alpine use as they do not provide sufficient support for the precision edging required. With skibikes, though, the bike-skis do the work and the foot-skis are secondary, primarily used for balance. Therein lies the great test..
I picked up a pair of good quality used snowboard boots at a local shop for $40. If these are indicative of the norm, you'll need to buy a size or two larger than your normal shoe sizing, as they seemed quite short. With my big feet, I had to adjust the binding straps all the way out to fit the boot. It's important to get the boot heel compressed to the far rear of the heel cup.
Ok, here goes.. Actually, I could probably end the story here. It was kind of anti-climatic. I didn't notice much difference from hard boots as far as riding performance. The snowboard booties offered surprisingly good support. There was a slightly looser feel in some situations that I quickly adjusted to. Tail-braking was excellent. I quickly forgot that I was involved in an experiment and got down to the task of having fun. That pretty much says it all. What I did notice was the discomfort, or specifically, the lack of it. My feet said aaaaaahhh... Warm and comfy. And the walk from the lot was a joy. They were easy to carry, as the rear of the binding folds forward allowing the long strap to swing towards the rear for hand transport.
The next trial was utilizing regular street snow boots. I have a pair of what were called "moon boots" in their day. Wrong choice. They're like big pillows. Ultra comfortable, but they allow your feet to move around inside. In particular, this characteristic created a very strange feel while "skating" in lift lines. It made it difficult to get the foot-skis to "edge", so propulsion was limited and awkward. The first run felt pretty strange as well, very loose. But, that being said, I adjusted and rode all afternoon with them. They worked ok in powder, woods runs, and even moguls. Where I noticed a particular deficiency was on icy, irregular groomed slopes at higher speeds. Because of the foot-play, the skis would excessively oscillate, also making any corrective edging difficult. These problems are a direct result of the wrong boot choice. Multiple pairs of socks would have helped. Strapping the boots tightly is essential. Snowboard boots are the preferred choice because they are wider and thus fit the binding better, they offer firm internal support, and have a stiffer shell. However, I believe that a quality pair of snow boots, hiking boots or virtually any kind of boot that is water resistant, warm, with a snug, supportive fit should work out ok for general recreational use. I'll update this article after I've tried a pair with those characteristics.
In summary, the grand experiment was a success. Utilizing snowboard boots, there's no downside. They're heaven to walk in, warm and super comfortable. When is the last time you said that about your hard clodhoppers? Count me in as part of the SkiBike Soft Boot Revolution!
Addendum 2006: Since writing this article, I sustained an ankle injury which, in typical fashion, has not healed entirely. So, in order to achieve the absolute maximum support, I am currently wearing ski boots again. But, I have discovered a reasonable compromise in the new "soft" ski boots that are now available. They are sort of like a snowboard boot with a rigid frame built around them. I have found them to be very warm and comfortable, while offering the ankle support that only a ski boot can. Unfortunately, they are still heavy with a rigid sole, so walking is a chore. Klomp, Klomp. Oh well...