In the early 1990s I read a book called The Athletic Skier - essential reading for anyone interested in the art of fitting ski equipment - and realised that the comfort and performance of a ski boot only represents part of what being a great boot fitter is all about.
The ski and binding are obviously important components. Then there's the boot, the footbed, and crucial extra factor: the skier. To really do the job properly, to find the neutral skiing stance, the technician needs to know an enormous amount about him or her. The big question was: where do I go to go to learn more?
This led me to Masterfit University (www.masterfituniversity.com), an institution operated by the USA's leading boot fitters and stance alignment specialists. MFU focuses on all aspects of fitting ski equipment, emphasising the need to have a firm understanding of anatomy, mid-stance biomechanics, and the equipment.
What I found invaluable was the idea that, while you might be able to make someone comfortable, what is equally important is to address each skier or boarder's alignment.
If, for example, you have bow legs or a knock-kneed ski stance then you will automatically - and often awkwardly - adjust your skiing technique to get your skis to turn.
How many people have been an intermediate or advanced intermediate for what seems like an eternity? While ski technique can be taught, if you are not mechanically able to perform simple corrections in body position in order to maintain neutral balance, then you will be at a disadvantage next to someone who is better balanced.
The problem is that this can screw up the whole ski-like-a-god thing and instead make you ski-like-you-need-the-bathroom. It might be that you can overcome this to a degree, but there will be parts of your ski technique that suffer.
MFU says: "Stance alignment for skiers is the art and science of setting up the ski system - the footbed, the ski boot, the ski, and the bindings - to provide the skier with optimal balance. The key is to promote sound biomechanics in the three planes of movement".
So you can probably start to see that the boot is only one part of ski equipment and, if one or more parts of that equipment is not promoting correct biomechanics, then you're in deep trouble.
While this all might sound very technical, following a simple process for all boot fits will help you not only be more comfortable but also to ski better.
Let's take a look at Canting and Upper cuff alignment, both important parts of the boot fitting process that are too often overlooked and almost always misinterpreted. When shopping for new ski boots, knowing the difference between them and how they might benefit you will almost definitely help you choose the best product for you.
What is upper cuff alignment?
I have seen some people refer to upper cuff alignment as canting, even the manufacturers will stamp on the boot canting, but this is not an accurate description. In fact, aligning the upper cuff in a manner that forces the leg shaft into a non-natural position can be painful and cause problems at the knee.
Upper cuff alignment is so important because some people have an outward or bow to the lower leg (Tibia Varum) and others an inward or knock to the lower leg (Tibia Valgum). The alignment of the boot's upper cuff must match this bow or knock.
How do I know if my upper cuffs have been aligned?
This should have been done as part of the initial boot fit, as long as the boot has the facility - some boots are made without the ability to perform this adjustment. My recommendation is that you should only look to purchase a boot that can have the upper cuff aligned.
The preferred method for performing an upper cuff alignment is to remove the liner from the boot, place the customer's insoles inside the boot and make them stand upright.
Then have the customer assume their skiing stance and buckle the boots fairly tightly. There should be an equal amount of space on both sides of the leg; if not then the adjustments on the cuff should allow the tech to position the cuff so that there is a more even space around the leg shaft.
What is canting?
According to MFU, canting is a means by which boot techs change the angle at which the bottom of the sole meets the ski. It is meant to either allow someone to stand on flat skis, or is used to affect how the knee aligns over the inside edge of the ski.
There are several different ways that a qualified tech can achieve this, most common was the introduction of tapered cant shims under the ski binding. While this system was by far the most common, it has become increasingly difficult for techs to use this method. In the last few years ski binding systems in which the ski binding is an integral part of skis' construction have become the norm. Making under binding cants is therefore in some cases not an option.
In order to still offer this critical service most top US boot techs are now drawing on a technique developed at the World Cup level called Boot Sole Planing. Boot sole planning is a technique whereby the tech installs after-market lifts to the boot sole, then a 6" table router is used to plane the sole at the same angle as would have otherwise been achieved by using cant strips.
This method is rapidly becoming the norm in the US, but also has drawbacks. Most importantly it voids any manufacturer warranty, so make sure this is route you want to follow. Besides these two primary methods of canting, there are also in boot methods where prefabricated cant shims are used to create the desired angles. In my experience this method can cause internal volume problems, especially when there is a high degree of cant required.
How do I know if I need canting/cuff alignment?
Most people require a small degree of alignment and even more can benefit from the use of cants. Cants and proper cuff alignment can seriously help you to overcome many skiing deficiencies, so I suggest you find a ski tech capable of assessing your needs. If you are one of the millions of people who have difficult feet, then take a look at Daleboot: a cult custom-fit boot that hailed originally from Utah but is now having a big impact in Europe.
Daleboot offers not only a one-of-a-kind boot fit, but also the ability to cant each skier at the point of sale and at no additional cost. It's a very effective method of bypassing the need for boot sole planning and binding cants.
If you're out there pounding the powder today, put in a couple of turns for those of us boot and ski technicians who are hard at work indoors so that you can do that! Happy Skiing.