Sports Equipment

Catch-22.5: Ski boots for small feet

I’m a petite skier with small, narrow feet. One of the most frustrating items to find is a pair of properly-fitting ski boots.

See, ski boots are an investment. The adage among skiers is that you date your skis and marry your boots. You can swap out skis regularly for different trends or snow conditions, or even own a few pairs (a “quiver”) if you’re particularly committed. But boots are a lengthy, frustrating purchase, often involving multiple rounds of fittings and customizations. Once you get them right, you should be able to wear them for years.

This is true for nearly all skiers, as no two pairs of feet are alike. But for us tiny-footed petite women, they can be particularly challenging to find. I went through a ski boot shopping odyssey over the past two years, and I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned, as it will hopefully be helpful to others in the same boat.

First, a bit of background: I’ve been skiing since childhood, but I don’t consider myself a particularly advanced skier. More intermediate-advanced; I ski everything on the mountain here in Quebec, but take me out west to the powder conditions on the big mountains, and I prefer to cruise the groomers. I wear a women’s size 6 / EUR 36 shoe, and I have narrow AA feet with even narrower AAAA heels. I also have low-volume, slightly flat feet.

Ladies, your ski boots are probably too big

Like most women who ski, I’ve owned several pairs of boots that were far too big over the years.

Hey, we’ve all been there, right? Part of the reason is poor salesperson training: The minimum-wage employees at the big box stores are there to sell what’s in inventory, not necessarily to make sure it fits. Part of it is comfort: Downhill ski boots are supposed to feel really tight out of the box, which can feel uncomfortable to beginners who don’t know what they’re supposed to feel like. Many people will simply ask for a bigger size because they don’t understand that. Part of it is that many boots come with thick, plush liners that take some time to “pack out”, so a boot that feels right in the store might start to feel too loose after a few days on the hill. And part of it is simply the industry’s male bias; fewer women’s ski boots are produced in fewer sizes, and shops will stock fewer sizes to avoid having extra stock in inventory.

See, ski boots, unlike street shoes, come in something called Mondo sizes. It’s a sizing system based on the centimeter measurement of your feet, and it’s — in theory, anyway — more standardized than American or European sizing. But if you’re not a skier, you’ve probably never heard of Mondo sizes. Few people know theirs offhand. And most conversion charts you find online are wildly wrong, especially for women. If you walk into a store and the salesperson asks you your shoe size and you say 6, and they pull out a size 24.5 boot, you may have no idea how wrong that is.

The proper way to measure your foot for ski boots is barefoot, measuring not only foot length but also width, volume and overall shape. A trained bootfitter is able to take all these variables into account and make recommendations that suit your feet. But finding a good bootfitter is like finding an oasis in the desert — and too many salespeople call themselves bootfitters without having the first clue what they’re doing.

To make a long story short, as an adult, I owned two pairs of too-big boots before seeing the light: A used pair of 25.5s (!!!) bought for peanuts at a liquidation centre in my student days, and a slightly better pair of 24.5s that were still far too wide and long for my feet. I wore those for years, never realizing that they were too big, because, well, most of us don’t. We just assume the problem is with our skiing, not with our boots.

Two years ago, I replaced those worn-out boots for a new pair, and was measured by a slightly more informed salesperson, who told me I should have been in size 23s all along. I invested in a very expensive pair of Lange low-volume boots in 23.5, which fit so much better than my previous boots that it was like night and day.

Unfortunately, even those were still too big on me, especially since I lost some weight over the past two years. I didn’t notice at first, until the lining packed out, and I started getting that all-frustrating heel lift again. I went back to the shop, and the salesperson, who meant well, suggested adding a pair of hockey socks with heel padding for extra grip. He never suggested sizing down, probably because he didn’t have any 22.5s in stock. The padded socks worked as a stopgap for a bit, but never really did the trick.

Catch 22.5?

After a year skiing in those 23.5s, I had to concede that I’d spent a fortune on boots that were simply too big. It was an expensive lesson, but one I was determined to chalk up to experience.

I took a chance and ordered the exact same boot model in a size 22.5 online at a different big-box store. Then I took them back to my shop to heat the liners and fit to my feet. After some work on them, they finally conceded that they’d been wrong to sell me the larger boots. I was able to resell my gently-used 23.5s on Kijiji, which took the financial sting out of it somewhat. But still.

Now, my feet are small but not that small. 6 is a perfectly findable size in most street shoe stores. For petite women with smaller feet than mine, finding ski boots can be an exercise in true frustration. Boots in size 22 or 21 are rare to nonexistent; a few companies make some, but most aren’t “true” sizes — especially the 21s, which are often just 22s with thicker linings. Once those pack out, you’re worse off than when you started.

Why are there so few small women’s boots? It’s a numbers game. For starters, the percentage of the overall market wearing a size 6 and below is fairly small and getting smaller each year. And because so many beginners buy their boots too big, the big-box stores catering to beginners don’t sell many of those smaller sizes. So they don’t order as many. This leads the manufacturers not to produce as many, because demand is so low. And we’re back to that old Catch-22… or, in this case, Catch 22.5.

A couple of manufacturers I’ve found do a better job on this front are Lange and Dalbello. But small women’s boots are really hard to find, and your shop may only stock one or two models. If they don’t work for your feet, then you don’t have a lot of alternatives.

Width and the flex conundrum

Let’s say you find the right length boot for your feet. Then what? Well, width is another variable. And if you’re a beginner or intermediate skier with narrow feet, I wish you luck.

See, the ski industry decided at some point in the distant past that the ski last — how wide or narrow a boot is — would be inversely correlated to ability. This means that beginner boots tend to come in wider lasts, and the narrower you go, the more expert the boot is. This may not seem logical — after all, expert skiers can have wide feet, and beginners can have narrow feet. But it makes a certain kind of sense when you remember that occasional skiers new to the sport may be looking for comfortable boots, while only experts are willing to put up with some pain in exchange for better performance and more control.

This presents a particular problem for petite skiers like me. Boot flex — how soft or stiff a boot is — is one of the key variables when it comes to buying ski boots. A too-soft boot will be noodley and not performant enough, especially for better skiers. A too-stiff boot, on the other hand, doesn’t allow you to flex it, and will make it hard to control your skis. This is especially true in the bitter cold Quebec winters, since, the colder the outdoor temperature, the stiffer the plastic of the boots gets. A boot that flexes fine in a warm heated shop may become unduly stiff when it’s minus-25 outside.

The problem? Narrow boots tend to be made for more advanced skiers, and therefore often come in only stiffer, higher flex ratings.

But, as a petite skier, the simple laws of physics mean that I won’t be able to flex a boot as much as a taller, bigger person would. Think back to your lever and fulcrum classes in high school: Longer legs will exert more flex force against the front of a boot than shorter legs will. Plus, I don’t weigh as much as a bigger person does. Heavier, more muscular skiers need a higher flexing boot than we smaller, lighter skiers do.

I suggest that petite skiers go down a rung on the ability level chart when estimating what flex rating they need in a boot. For instance, I could be considered an advanced-intermediate skier, but I’d look for an intermediate-flex boot because, with my short little legs and relatively light weight, I can’t flex a stiffer boot.

(Remember that flex isn’t an absolute term the way length is; it is highly relative and varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, or even from model to model. The above chart is just a rough guideline.)

So, what I need is a medium-flex boot in an extremely narrow width. Which is rare-to-nonexistent. And, while it’s often possible for bootfitters to punch out a shell to make a too-small boot bigger, it’s almost impossible to make a too-wide boot narrower.

Shorter legs, lower calf musles

Another issue with ski boots for petites is that our legs are shorter and, therefore, our calf muscles tend to start lower down. This is one of those weird quirks of anatomy that can actually really mess up the search for boots, because it actually results in the need for a wider boot shaft. Because the opening for the calf muscle, which starts a few inches higher on the leg for average-height women, actually starts lower down on our legs. Women’s boots tend to have shorter cuffs to begin with, as compared to men’s boots. But for us short-legged ladies, sometimes those just aren’t low enough.

This is a problem with all tall boots for petites, including street or winter boots. It’s especially a problem with ski boots, because of how rigid they are. Buckles can be loosened a bit, but if the boot shaft is too tight, there’s only so much you can do to make it better.

Some women have very narrow calves, and this isn’t an issue for them. But I’m not one of those women. My calves, while far from fat, are curvy enough that they require a wider-opening boot. So I’m looking for this weird unicorn of a boot: Small size, narrow foot, low volume, but wider shaft.

However, narrow-last boots also tend to have narrow boot shafts. This is true for advanced women’s boots, though they tend to at least be cut for female curves. It’s even worse when it comes to that standard alternative that almost every salesperson will suggest to a woman with small feet: Going to a junior race boot. Junior boots, while smaller, tend to be stiff, and have very narrow shafts, as they’re cut for kids or teens. Not ideal for a woman with a low calf muscle.

The upshot is, any boot that fits my foot will likely be too tight at the calves, cutting off circulation to my feet when they’re buckled up. No wonder I suffer so much from cold toes when I ski. (I highly recommend these toe warmers to fellow cold-toe sufferers.)

Other fit issues

In addition to having shorter legs and smaller feet, we petites are prone to all the same ski boot fitting issues as every other skier. Do you have bunions or hotspots? Are you bowlegged or knock-kneed? Do you have high, medium or flat arches? Do you get shin bang? These and many other issues can throw added problems into getting that just-right ski boot.

I’m “lucky”, I suppose, that the only real issues I face are related to having small, narrow feet and short legs. Heel lift is the bane of my existence; once I get that solved, the rest is pretty okay. But it may be worth working with a podiatrist or trained fitter to solve these issues; custom footbeds or orthodics can help.

Some boots to try

Boot models and sizes are constantly changing. So this isn’t meant to be a definitive guide by any means. It’s more of an assembly of my trials (and errors) of boot shopping these past couple of years. If you’re a petite skier looking for boots, here are a few places to look:

Lange

My current boots are these: Lange RX 80 LV in size 22.5, the only boots on the market (as far as I know) that have that magical combination of being low-volume, narrow, and softer flexing, The LV stands for low volume, by the way, and the 80 is the flex rating, which is about the softest on the market for a 97mm last boot. (If you find the 80s are too soft, these are also available in 110 and 130 flexes for stronger skiers, too.)

I have to say, I love these boots. I only have a few months on them so far, but they have completely transformed my skiing. I have so much more control than I ever thought possible. They don’t have any hotspots or pressure points. They fit almost perfectly out of the box, with only a little bit of tweaking. The shaft isn’t even too narrow to buckle.

The only downside for truly petite women is that they start at a size 22.5, which will work if your feet are size 5.5 or 6 like mine, but not if they’re much smaller. But other than that, these may be the only boots that could potentially give a good out-of-the-box fit for narrow-footed petites. Mine are last season’s model, but you can find the updated ones on sale at various retailers.

Tecnica

Tecnica follows slightly different sizing standards than other companies, resulting in boots that are slightly longer and narrower than the equivalent size in other companies. They offer medium- and low-volume boots in a performance fit with a narrow last, which start at size 22.5.

The Mach1 85 W LV is a narrow intermediate-to-advanced boot that I’d say is comparable to my Lange RX 80 LVs. The fit is a little bit different from Lange, so if you can find a place that stocks the low-volume models of both Lange and Tecnica in small sizes, it’s definitely worth comparing and contrasting. Personally I found I was getting a bit less heel lift with the Technicas, but the boot shaft had a narrower calf that didn’t work as well for my lower calf muscles.

Dalbello

Italian boot company Dalbello is well known among petite female skiers to be one of the forerunners of catering to smaller feet. They’re one of the first — and perhaps remain the only — company to offer a “true” 21.5 boot, as in, not a 22 that’s been made smaller with extra padding.

Not all their boots come in 21s, though; only a couple of models do. And they tend to be the more advanced, stiffer-flexing ones. So lighter petites may still struggle with them. But a good bootfitter can generally soften a too-stiff boot (the opposite is really hard to do). If you wear a size 4.5 or 5 shoe and are hunting for ski boots, Dalbello may be an option for you.

Junior race boots

Many bootsellers will suggest going to a junior race boot if your foot is mondo size 22 or below. There’s simply more selection in juniors in those ranges, especially if you need a 21.5 or below. And a race boot will be stiffer and more solid than a standard children’s boot, making it more suitable for a small-footed adult.

There are some drawbacks, though. Junior race boots can be very stiff-flexing and narrow-shafted — two petite problems I discussed earlier in this article. They also often don’t fit properly into adult bindings, leaving fewer options for skis. Even if you buy your skis flat and mount your own bindings, the weight range on junior bindings may be too limiting for petites on the higher end of the weight scale. Plus, race boots are designed to be less comfortable than recreational boots, which could be an issue for some skiers.

I’ve never had much success with junior boots, but as a size 22, I haven’t been forced to. If you have smaller feet than mine, you may have to give them a try for lack of options.

Custom insoles

One recommendation for narrow-footed women is to invest in custom boot liners. A pair of Intuition, Zipfit or Surefoot liners will custom-mould to your feet precisely, locking you into that boot like there’s no tomorrow. A well-fitted pair of liners can travel with you from boot to boot, locking down your heel to ensure no movement. Fans of these liners tout their many benefits over a stock liner, from comfort to performance.

There are some downsides, of course. Custom liners are expensive, and this is an expense you have to pay on top of the cost of the boot itself. They’re also very stiff; I tried Intuitions once in a shop and they made it impossible for me to flex even the relatively soft boot they were in. Us smaller, lighter petites with shorter legs may not appreciate that very much. They are also more prone to cold feet — again, a problem if you are already dealing with a too-tight boot shaft. Most of the women’s models start at size 22. And, of course, they don’t solve the problem of finding a boot in a small enough last in the first place.

Fully custom boots

Struck out on all other options? Got tons of money at your disposal? You can always go the fully custom route, working with a company like DaleBoot to get a unique, made-for-you ski boot… with an eye-wateringly expensive price tag attached, even by ski boot standards.

I admit I’ve never looked into this option very much. I don’t know of any place where it’s possible to have it done in Canada — maybe out west somewhere? — and it’s far, far out of my price range at any rate. But hey, it may be an option for you. If you try it, let me know how it goes.

A plea to the industry

For the ski equipment manufacturers out there: I understand profit margins, supply-and-demand calculations, and the need to focus on the more popular sizes. I really do. It’s a tough business that you’re in, and the technology required to manufacture ski boots to fit so many different human feet is astounding.

But on behalf of smaller women everywhere, I implore you: Please don’t ignore us! We may be short in stature, but we make up a significant proportion of the market, and we want the same options that are available to our taller, bigger counterparts. Education is a key component: You’ll sell more of those 22.5 and 21.5 boots if you invest in educating skiers as well as boot-sellers, so that more women are wearing the proper sized boots.

Please help us end this Catch-22.5!

1 thought on “Catch-22.5: Ski boots for small feet

  1. Thank you for this blog—it helped me understand ski boots in a new way. I bought the Lange boots and LOVE them. Thank you!!!

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