The secret of perfectly fitting ski boots

Investing in a custom-fitted boot liner could make a world of difference to your skiing.

Nick Hammond has earned a reputation as one of the most sought-after ski boot fitters in the Alps.

Originally from Buckinghamshire, he studied finance in Canada before settling in Verbier in 1984.

Nick Hammond, boot fitter at mountain air, VerbierOne of the most important features of a well-fitting boot, he says – often overlooked by skiers – is the liner.

What is the liner and why does it matter?

Nick Hammond: The liner is the interface between your foot and your boot, just as your boot is the interface between you and your ski. It determines how well you are going to be able to ski.

If the liner is not shaped to your foot, you will probably tighten the boot to compensate. You are likely to clamp on some areas more than others, which will cut off circulation – you’ll get cold, your feet will go numb, which could mean lots of boot pain.

Which do you choose first, the boot or the liner?

NH: First we decide on a shell – depending on the level of your skiing, what kind of skiing you want to do, the shape of your foot and leg, your weight, and other factors. We then look at the foot in the shell; and depending on the amount of space around the foot and the qualities you want out of the boot, we look at different lining systems.

Which liners do you use?

NH: Here at Mountain Air we use either Zipfit, Strolz foam liners or Intuition thermo-mouldable liners.

Nick Hammond holds a Zipfit boot liner, Mountain Air, Verbier

Zipfit ski boot liner

Zipfit liners were developed by Sven Coomer, who is in many ways the godfather of ski boot design. At first he used silicone in the liners – but it’s heavy and conducts heat fast, so the boots ended up heavy and cold.

So he started developing liners with a paste that is made up primarily of oil and granules of cork; when heated, it goes soft and flows. It’s in shaped envelopes around the liner, and it moulds to your foot. As it gets colder it hardens, and stays in position.

With Zipfit we can remould the liner as many times as we like. We can even remould it to fit into a different boot. We find Zipfits often outlast the shell, and in a lot of cases we can re-use the liner in a second shell.

We reckon we are about the only shop offering them in mainland Europe. There are a couple in the UK, but most are in the States.

How do you fit them?

NH: We prepare the foot by padding the potentially sensitive areas. We heat the boot liner and the shell; put the footbed in the liner, and the liner on the foot. We then place the hot liner in the hot boot, and mould both of them to the foot. To speed up the cooling process, we stand the client in a box of snow.

There was a time when we used to microwave the liners to heat them up. Except we had some problems where they had metal shavings from the production, and I had a few catch fire, so I thought I’d give that game up.

Nick Hammond holds a Strolz boot liner, Mountain Air, Verbier

Strolz foam liner

And the alternatives?

NH: Before Zipfits we used mainly foam liners. We still offer them – ones by Strolz, the Austrian ski boot maker. These are hollow liners into which we inject foam to fill out the space between your foot and the boot; the foam then solidifies. You need a lot of experience to fit them, and even doing it as long as I have, you still make mistakes. And the trouble is, once you’ve made a mistake, you have to throw the liner away. They are also almost too precise: feet change.

A lot of people find it takes them a couple of days each time they go skiing to get back into them. Also, a foam liner can only be used in the shell you created it for; you can’t reuse the liners in a new shell. I don’t do nearly as many foams as I used to. I still make them for clients who are used to them, but I don’t generally put new clients in foam liners.

The system we sell most, though, is by Intuition. These liners were developed in Vancouver, and use a foam that we can soften by heating, and mould into whatever shape we want. The ones we offer have no tongue, just an overlap construction. It’s the warmest as well as lightest liner on the market. As long as the shell fits the foot correctly, it can be as precise as any other liner, but you can only remould it a couple of times, so it’s not really suitable to be moulded into a different shell. Its light weight and excellent insulation make it especially popular with female customers.

Nick Hammond holds an Intuition boot liner, Mountain Air, Verbier

Intuition thermo-mouldable liner

What should the liners feel like?

NH: When a liner is brand new, for the first few runs, the liner may feel too tight. But we suggest clients come back to the shop after skiing, and if they’ve got problems, we can then change the shape of the liner.

How long do the liners last?

NH: The Strolz foam liners have the longest lives. I’ve got people who’ve been in their Strolz liners for 15 years, and they are still perfect. I’ve got one Austrian ski instructor, and he did 1,500 days of skiing on a pair of Intuition liners, which I think is a world record. We reckon, though, that a liner has done its job if you have skied 200 days on it. That’s double what a normal liner would do.

Any tips on how to use them?

NH: The warmer the boot is in the morning, the better. It will be easier to get into, your foot will be more comfortable, and will stay warmer.

How did you learn your skill?

NH: There is no formal training facility for boot fitters. Most have learned by experience. I have no formal training at all – just 25 years of looking at feet, and not giving in. You take the view that you’ll do whatever it takes to make someone comfortable in a ski boot, and you don’t give in. If you’re as determined as that you’re going to find the solutions.

  • Nick Hammond works at Mountain Air in Verbier, and sees customers by appointment; it is best to call before travelling out to the resort. Book through Mountain Air (00 41 27 771 62 31; www.mountainairverbier.com). A pair of liners, including fitting, costs from CHF 250 (approximately £160) for Intuition (www.intuitionliners.com), from CHF 300 (approximately £195) for Zipfit (www.zipfit.com) and CHF 480 (approximately £310) for Strolz (www.strolz.at).
  • General travel information: the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com) and the Verbier tourist office (www.verbier.ch).
  • Train tickets from the UK to major Swiss cities are available through Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; www.raileurope.co.uk); onward travel within Switzerland through the Swiss Federal Railways (www.sbb.ch).

How to service a pair of skis

Want to ski better? And save money on your ski gear? You could start by servicing your own equipment.

Tom Lewis, instructor with the Warren Smith Ski Academy, prepares to service a ski

Tom “Scouse” Lewis prepares a ski for servicing

Tom “Scouse” Lewis, from the Wirral, is an instructor with the Warren Smith Ski Academy. While training to become an instructor, he learned to service skis at a rental shop in Courchevel, a habit he has continued ever since.

This is what he says about servicing his own equipment:

“Many people would ski a lot better if only they serviced their skis more regularly. If your edges are blunt, you lose a lot of grip – especially on hard pack, even more so on ice.

“You can of course take them into a shop to be serviced, but you will save money in the long run by doing the job yourself. Ideally service your skis at least once a week; if you do the job thoroughly, a pair of skis will take about two hours.

Set of clamps for ski servicing

Set of clamps for ski servicing

“First, make sure the ski is dry. Then, clamp it to your work surface. Use special ski clamps: these come in sets of three, to secure the tip, middle and tail of the ski. Don’t ever try filing an edge holding the ski in your other hand – it’ll be a disaster.

“Get rid of any surface rust on the edges using a burr rubber; a cork from a wine bottle would do the same job.

“Then move onto the files. There are many different kinds, ranging from coarse or bastard files (aggressive) to World Cup chrome files (fine) and diamond files (good for finishing the edges).

“To use the files, you put them in a side edge file guide (for doing the side edge of the ski) or a precision base file (for the base edge). You can adjust the angles between 85-90 degrees for the side edge or 0.5-1.5 degrees for the base edge.

“Shops normally sharpen the side edges to 90 degrees, but you will get much more control and grip from your skis if you go for 88 degrees – though this can feel quite aggressive, possibly too much for a lower-level skier. Any sharper, and you would have to service your skis again after a very short time.

Tools for servicing skis, from left: burr rubber, fine file, coarse file, side edge file guide, cleaning brush

Ski servicing tools (from l.): burr rubber, fine file, coarse file, side edge file guide, cleaning brush

“Start with the coarse (bastard) file, but only if the skis are in a bad state; then move on to the chrome files and finish with the diamond for a quality finish. Whichever one you are using, run it carefully down the length of the ski, applying a steady pressure. Always work in the same direction. It is important to clean the files after use, to keep them sharp; an old toothbrush will do just fine for this.

“Next, fill any small holes in the base with P-tex (a thermoplastic used to fill gouges or gaps in snowboards and skis). The black version looks like a stick of liquorice; buy a colour that matches the base of your skis. Light the tip, wait for the flame to turn blue, and then drip the molten P-tex into the hole. When it’s dry, remove the surplus with a plastic scraper.

“You can’t P-tex a hole that has gone through to the core: moisture will get in and rot it. In that case you need a patch put in – it’s best to get a professional to do that.

Tom Lewis, instructor with the Warren Smith Ski Academy, waxes a ski

Tom “Scouse” Lewis waxes a ski

“Finally, wax the skis. When the skis come out of the factory, they have little grooves in the base designed to hold the wax. Choose your wax according to the temperature of the snow. Try skiing on winter wax on a glacier in the summer, and you’ll hardly move.

“Melt the wax by holding it against the base of an iron – it doesn’t have to be a purpose-made one, an old-school travel iron will do, as long as it does not have holes in the base.

“Drip wax all along the base of the ski, and then smooth it out with the iron, covering the ski from tip to tail and edge to edge to guarantee the smoothest glide. Never leave the iron standing on the ski, it’ll melt the base, just as it would burn a shirt – it’s plastic. Keep it moving. Don’t believe people who say you can use candle wax – it doesn’t work.

“Finally allow the wax to dry, and scrape the base smooth with a plastic scraper. These have a notch in one corner, so you can also scrape the ski edges free of wax. Finally, use a soft horsehair brush to rub the wax into the base of the ski.

Ski servicing tools (from l.): iron, wax, brush; scraper is below

Ski servicing tools, from left: iron, wax, brush; below, craper

“Take a final look at your skis: the edges should look and feel sharp and silvery. Run your fingernail along the base; it should make a mark in the wax. You’re done!

“Every four or five services, take the skis to a shop to have them put through a grinder to create a new ski base structure. These small lines running down the base help reduce drag, like the tread in a tyre. Your skis need to ride on a film of water produced from the friction of your base and edges cutting through the snow. Different base structures are used at different times of year, depending on the temperature of the snow.

“To buy the tools you need for all this, including the clamps, costs about CHF 400 – 450 (£240 to 275) to in Verbier. Having your skis serviced in a shop costs anything between CHF 35 and 70. So, buying the equipment is an investment well worth making – and you’ll find your skiing benefits as a result.”

The secret of comfortable ski boots

Are rental ski boots killing your feet? It could be time to invest in a custom-fitted pair.

Is the pleasure you have skiing spoilt by the pain in your feet? Do you dread putting your boots on in the mornings? Do you have to clamp up them so tight to control your skis that you all but crush the bones in your feet?

I used to answer “yes” in each case – until I had a pair of boots custom-fitted three seasons ago, complete with specially moulded insoles. I haven’t had one blister since, my boots fit snugly, and my skis react to the slightest movement in my feet. I can confidently say I have never been so happy about any other ski equipment or footwear purchase in my life.

The fitting isn’t cheap – at Profeet in London, where I had my boots done, the process now costs £149.95 on top of the price of the boot – but this is money well spent.

The process begins with a biomechanical analysis. First you stand on a mat that maps the distribution of weight around your feet, both standing normally and in a skiing stance. The various colours on the computer printout show precisely where you need support.

The technician also videos your movements on a ski simulator – an adapted “Skier’s Edge” – to see how your skiing stance may be affected by tight, weak or dominant muscles.

The next phase involves making the customised insole. As you stand on a squidgy cushion, the insole is heat-moulded directly to your foot using high-definition plastics. The technician then makes use of the information from your pressure-mapping scan to shape a support out of a special foam (EVA) that will provide the maximum support.

I was astonished that my insole was so lumpy, with big bulges under the arches of my feet. The technician showed how, without these, the arches of my feet have a tendency to collapse – which in turn causes my knees to drop inwards, and my pelvis to tilt back. Standing on the new insoles, I felt the whole alignment of my ankles, knees and hips shift.

The final element in the fitting is the boot itself. I was surprised that I had no choice of model: the technician said that given the shape of my foot, heel, ankle and calf, he would fit a particular pair of Nordicas. As for choosing something that goes with your outfit – forget it.

He made a couple of tweaks to the boot, stretching the plastic of the shell to better fit the shape of my foot, before adjusting the canting – effectively ensuring a correct vertical alignment of the lower leg and the boot, for the skis to run flat.

I stopped short of buying a custom lining for the boot, as I was running short of funds – and the technician said I could fit one at a later date. In fact, I intend to buy them soon here in Verbier: while the boots fit my feet perfectly, I notice some play around the ankles, especially when I hit variable terrain – something that a purpose-made liner should correct.

Still, the boots have served me superbly well for two and a half seasons. I find that for the first hour of skiing I have to tweak the buckles a fair bit, but then do not touch them again for the rest of the day. So, if you ski in rental boots or ones that you have bought off the shelf, consider treating yourself a custom-fitted pair – it could be the happiest investment you make in your skiing career.

Tips

Socks Only wear one pair; donning two can create a variety of problems, from wrinkling and bunching to excess perspiration leading to cold feet. Invest in ski-specific socks with extra thickness on the shin, heel and other key areas – such as those made by Falke.

Buckling your boots If your boots are well fitted, they will not need clamping up like vices for you to ski effectively. Start with the power strap at the top of your boots, if you have one. Then fasten the top two buckles on your shin, tightening them alternately to bring your heel firmly to the back of the boot. Finally, do up the buckles over your toes and your instep: not tightly, otherwise you will constrict circulation, just enough to feel the boot wrapped around your foot. Finally, secure the power strap around your shin.

  • Profeet (020 7736 0046; www.profeet.co.uk) is located in Fulham in London. The fitting process costs £149.95; this includes biomechanical analysis, foot pressure mapping, moulding of insoles, boot adjustment and alignment. The cost of the boots is extra; Profeet says it will match the prices of other retailers.
  • Further information: the Warren Smith Ski Academy (www.warrensmith-skiacademy.com), the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com) and the local tourist office (www.verbier.ch).
  • Train tickets from the UK to major Swiss cities are available through Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; www.raileurope.co.uk); onward travel within Switzerland through the Swiss Federal Railways (www.sbb.ch)
  • Equipment rental through Ski Service (00 41 27 771 67 70; www.skiservice.com).

How to choose the right skis for you

The choice of skis on the market is bewilderinug – how do you find a pair to suit you? Some tips from Stéphane Bouet, ski guru at Ski Service in Verbier.

Stéphane Bouet, equipment expert at Ski Service in Verbier, adjusts a ski binding

Stéphane Bouet, equipment expert at Ski Service in Verbier, adjusts a binding

Should beginners buy skis?

It is much better to invest in a good pair of boots. If they fit well, they should last a long time – and let you try many different skis as your skiing improves. m

How long does a ski last?

It varies. Here we keep rental skis for three years. But if you ski every day, the ski is going to die in one season.

The flexibility of a ski changes with time. When a ski is new you hear a crack when you bend it. That is the wood in the core. Already after a few runs the ski is softer. It depends on how you ski, and the construction.

Also, each time you service the ski, the edges and the base become thinner. It’s like scraping butter off a block with a knife.

How are women’s skis different?

Women’s skis are usually a little softer and often a little thinner. The choice has grown enormously, and it’s a big part of the business.

Before, couples often came in the shop together; the man would be the more experienced skier, and he would give lots of advice.

Now we have many more women coming in on their own, choosing for themselves without a man trying to tell them what to do.

Stéphane Bouet, equipment expert at Ski Service in Verbier, examines a ski for flexHow do you know which ski to recommend?

We have a lot of experience, and we try all the skis each winter, but sometimes it is difficult to convince a customer to try what we recommend. In fact it has become harder, because of the internet. Many customers have spent hours researching, and know everything detail about the sidecut, the construction, the manufacturer’s recommendations – sometimes more than we do.

If a guy asks to rent a specific ski and it is not available I say, OK, I will book it for you for tomorrow – and often recommend something I think is better for him in the meantime. In the evening, when he comes back, it’s funny – he won’t say it was good, he says yes, well, maybe, and tells me why it wasn’t quite right, and insists on having his first choice the next day. And after that, he comes back and tells me why his own choice was better – even when he decides to buy or rent the one that we recommended. Strange.

What we do here is try to put everything in proportion. We look at how much a client weighs, how much experience they have, how many weeks a year they ski; and we try to balance what they have read with what they can do in reality.

In the end, it’s a personal choice. Two skiers can have the same height, same build, same ability, but will like different skis. The best thing to do is to try as many different skis as you can. Every time you come across a free testing at a resort, take advantage of it, try out as many as possible.

What do you look for in a ski?

Sometimes I compare skis with cars – like a four-wheel drive, or a race car.

Freeriding is like going off-road, so you want something with good suspension to take off in powder and cope with the bumps. The ski should not just be wider, to float above the snow, but also have a softer nose, and be stiffer in the tail.

A race ski is more like a race car. You want harder suspension in order to drive faster – so it should be thinner, harder and stiffer to give you more control so you can ride very fast. If the ski is too soft you will slide.

What size?

It depends on the ability of the skier. For a beginner, I recommend a very short ski – coming up to between the shoulder and the nose, to make it easier to turn. If the customer wants to buy, I recommend one that comes up to between the chin and the nose, because they will improve quickly.

Generally, a longer ski is more stable, and you can ride faster, but it’s also harder to control.

For a freeride ski, or an all-mountain ski, take one that is about as tall as you are. For a slalom ski, take one that is shorter – coming up to somewhere between the chin and the eyes.

I’m 1.81m tall. I normally take skis of between 1.78 and 1.82. If I’m riding powder, I usually go for a ski between 1.86 and 1.90.

Skis from the 2009/2010 season at Ski Service, VerbierWhat are the most popular skis here?

For Verbier, because of the great freeride terrain, it’s good to have an all-round ski. Something like the Scott Mission or Scott Crusade. Classic skis, 89mm wide under the boot.

The best-sellers have probably been the Scott Mission, and now the Scott Crusair – partly because a lot of the guides ride them. The Völkl Mantra and the Atomic Nomad are also classic Verbier skis. With many of these, you can also put touring bindings on.

And then, for the crazy big-powder days, you should have a really fat ski. They are so easy to ride, you think you’re the king. And that’s a problem, too. A few years ago, it was easy to find couloirs with no tracks; now everyone can go everywhere. That’s why Verbier is so popular, it’s easy to find crazy runs.

Stéphane Bouet, from Toulouse in France, began working with skis as a schoolboy, helping out at his uncle’s sports shop. He then taught skiing in the Pyrenees before travelling the world and finally settling in Verbier, where he works at Ski Service (00 41 27 771 67 70; www.skiservice.com ).