The Best Backcountry / AT Ski Boots of 2017
With so many options out there, finding the best pair can be difficult. We researched over 60 top models and selected the best 10 to test side-by-side for 100+ hours. We reviewed randonee-style boots, comparing them both side-by-side as well as individually out in the field to find out which is the best for overall touring, which offers the best value AT, which performs best for hard-charging downhill as well as which is ideal for mega-big missions. To figure this out we compared overall design, materials, fit, flex and liners, and broke it down into six easily digestible comparison categories along with important considerations. No matter the adventure, we've got something for you.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Backcountry Ski Boot
Dynafit TLT7 Performance
The Dynafit TLT 7 Performance wins our OutdoorGearLab Editors' Choice for best alpine touring boot because it combines nearly the best uphill performance with downhill performance that exceeds expectations. The TLT 7's 55 degrees of cuff touring mode range of motion, lowest weight in our test, and low friction flex helped make it one of our favorite touring boots. Combine that with ski performance that will get most skiers through most terrain in most conditions, means it's worth everyone's consideration. Icing on the cake for the TLT 7 is the ease of transitions. In a rare move, we granted two Editors Choice awards. As we compared boots and agonized over the scoring metrics, it became clear that two boots would share the highest scores, well ahead of the rest of the pack. Interestingly, these two boots are fairly different from one another. As you compare the TLT 7 to the Salomon Mtn Lab, consider your own apprehensions about your backcountry boot purchase. Are you concerned for the uphill performance, primarily? If so, the TLT 7 is your call. The TLT 7 tours almost as well as a randonnee race boot and skis downhill as well as your average, "typical" AT ski boot. That is high praise and a testament to how far BC ski gear has come.
Excellent freedom of movement
Easy to use
Limited crampon capability
Not the warmest of warm
Read full review: Dynafit TLT 7 Performance
Best Overall Backcountry Ski Boot
Salomon Mtn Lab
Overall, the Salomon Mtn Lab comes awful close to the performance scores of the TLT 7. Essentially, they are tied for the top mark. With AT ski boots, compromise is the name of the game. The ideal shoe would climb like a trail runner and descend like an alpine race boot. These attributes, however, are mutually exclusive. In optimizing one, the designers have to compromise the other. As technology advances, and with the best products available, these compromises are ever reducing. In the case of the Salomon Mtn Lab, it skis almost as well as an alpine, resort boot and tours as well as your average AT ski boot. This is unheard of, and oh-so-appreciated. Consumers apprehensive about compromising downhill performance now have a touring boot choice that performs well on the way down while serving very very well on the way up as well. The MTN Lab tours like an average touring boot, and skis downhill like the best around. The TLT 7 skis downhill like an average touring boot, and tours like the best around. You have great choices.
Serviceable touring performance
Read full review: Salomon Mtn Lab
Best Bang for the Buck
Dynafit Radical CR
With the uphill performance of Dynafit's much more expensive boots and serviceable downhill performance, the Dynafit Radical CR is a great entry to the field at $550. You can buy other AT boots for similar price but those do not tour nearly as well as the Radical. Like Dynafit's other boots maybe the biggest downside is there is a little more "fiddle factor" to get used to these boots, but also like the rest of their line, after a few days of touring you'll get it figured out. The Radical CR is also quite heavy, as compared to boots with this level of downhill performance. At this downhill performance level, for instance, the La Sportiva Spectre 2.0 is a pound and a half lighter, but $200 more. In the end, for new consumers looking for a good deal, the Radical has a great range of cuff motion, durable construction, and serviceable up and downhill performance.
Easy to fit
Decent tour mode
Heavy on the up and flexible while skiing downhill
Read full review: Dynafit Radical CR
Best AT Boot for Ski Mountaineering
Atomic Backland Carbon
The best boot for huge days and ski mountaineering objectives. The Atomic Backland Carbon is a slipper among ski boots. It feels improbably light and nimble with more range of motion than we think most folks have flexibility for. The Backland Carbon, in some respects, is similar to the Editors Choice Dynafit TLT 7 Performance. When looking at our entire test roster, they both fall into the ultra light category. The TLT 7 skis downhill better, and is a little lighter. The Atomic, though, has a lower-friction uphill mode, has components that can be stripped off for lower weight, and can be used with normal step-in automatic crampons. For these reasons, it steps away from its close competitor when the objectives are more in the ski mountaineering realm. Lastly, setting it apart but narrowing its appeal, the Backland Carbon is the widest fitting boot we tested. Of all the lightweight backcountry ski boots we've ever used, the Backland Carbon has more internal volume. For those with wide feet, this is a good place to start your boot selection and fitting process.
Light and excellent touring mode
Thin materials are cold and require balanced skiing skills
Read full review: Atomic Backland Carbon
Top Pick for Hard Charging Downhill Performance
Lange XT Freetour 130
The Lange XT FreeTour 130 was our Top Pick for best downhill-optimized AT boot. For someone who spends most of their time riding chairs or other mechanized access it is a more comfortable boot for short tours, boot packs and sidecountry touring. It is one of the only boots available that will work with tech style touring bindings AND with resort alpine bindings (the resort bindings must be WTR compatible). Even certain human powered users should consider the Lange. Our lead test editor and full-time backcountry ski guide is considering them for day-to-day guiding, where comfort, downhill performance, and warmth have great value. We chose the Lange over the similarly constructed Tecnica Zero G Guide because the Lange skis downhill a little better and has a more forgiving fit. The Lange seems to fit many feet straight out of the box, while the Tecnica seems to require work for more users.
Excellent downhill skiing
Limited uphill and foot-travel performance
Read full review: Lange XT FreeTour 130
Analysis and Test Results
We tested all of these boots over the past couple years and garnered a wide range of feedback from outdoor professionals, local ski shops, mountain guides, patrollers, ski instructors and more. We compared them both side-by-side as well as individually out in the field while using them how we expect you'd use them and reported our findings below. We compared and scored them in size categories described below.
Uphill Touring Performance
Range of Motion
Range of motion of the alpine backcountry ski boots we tested range from more than you need (67 degrees) to a minimal 20 degrees, with most boots being in the 40-55 degree range. To be clear, we are talking about the forward and rearward hinging of the boot cuff, relative to the lower boot shell, all while the boot is in its touring mode. We measured this cuff range ourselves, using a standardized, repeatable method. We largely found the manufacturers reference to be close to accurate. Five years ago most boots had around 30 degrees range of motion but with design improvements the range of motion has increased dramatically.
With that said, there are diminishing returns on additional cuff range of motion. For example, most people don't need more than 50-60 degrees, you just aren't striding that far and your ankles don't have that much range naturally. We do think that 40 degrees of motion is WAY BETTER than 30 degrees and users will instantly notice this critical difference. You'll notice the difference going from 40 to 60 degrees and it feels better, but it isn't a deal breaker. Backcountry ski boots with around 20 degrees of range or lower like the Lange and Tecnica have a good walk mode for an alpine boot, but a poor walk mode for a randonee boot and these boots perform comparatively poor for all-day ski touring.
The best touring mode ranges in our test were found on the Dynafit TLT7 Performance, Atomic Backland Carbon, Arc'teryx Procline Carbon Lite, La Sportiva Spectre, and Dynafit Radical CR. Interestingly, the Scott Cosmos II is among the lightest four buckle boots we tested, but its cuff range is surprisingly small. We expected it to be greater than the 32 degrees we measured. For what is basically an alpine boot, the 22 degrees of range of motion in the Lange XT FreeTour isn't bad. Only when skinning on flats and in scrambling terrain did we really notice the limited range of motion of any of the backcountry ski boots tested here.
Special mention, as it pertains to cuff range of motion, must be made of the Arc'eryx Procline Carbon Lite. As noted above, the normal fore-aft range is admirable. On top of that, it has intentional and real lateral flex in tour mode. For tough skinning, scrambling, and even technical climbing, this lateral motion is interesting and worth considering. For most normal ski touring and ski mountaineering, it isn't a huge deal. For technical climbing though, this can be a game changer.
Range of motion is easily quantified and, once past that 35 degree threshold, makes a huge difference in one's touring efficiency. The tougher part of the equation, and arguably more important, is the friction within that range. Plastic flexion, liner binding, interference from ski/walk mode hardware and cuff rivet tension all inform the ease with which a boot's cuff flexes through its range of motion. The best backcountry ski boots approach zero interference within the range of motion. It is difficult to describe what creates friction, but it seems to be a combination of plastic thickness, ski/walk mode construction (pin-in-bar systems have more friction. Bar-less systems have less), and liner density, especially in the ankle flexion zone.
The ultralight backcountry ski boots we tested have the least friction. The Procline Carbon Lite, the TLT 7, and Atomic Backland Carbon are all in a class of their own. Among those, the TLT 7 has more friction than the other two. At the other end of the spectrum are also the heaviest boots. The Tecnica, Lange, Fischer, and Salomon have fairly significant friction. Interestingly, the Scott features sub-optimal cuff range but better-than-expected friction amounts. Both the La Sportiva Spectre and Dynafit Radical feature cuff ranges (basically 50 degrees for each) that rival those of the ultralight boots, but have considerably more friction within that range. It is when looking at the tour mode of the Dynafit Radical that one finds the limitations of this budget product. The great range is appealing, but the friction is just too great to be truly above standard.
To be perfectly clear, we tested the cuff range and friction with each of the boot cuffs completely unbuckled. All AT boots tour better with the cuff buckles and velcro straps completely undone. This makes a good fit even more crucial. If you need the upper buckles secured for a comfortable fit, you will be significantly compromising the touring efficiency.
We tested and compared all these boots both while mainly ski touring but also scored some mileage on chair lifts. Downhill performance is how well the boot helped us ski down, and as a whole, stiffer boots performed better in our testing.
Overall Flex and Stiffness
Generally speaking, everyone wants, or at least thinks they want, stiffer boots, however, depending on your skiing ability, personal body weight and skiing style: ski boots can easily be too stiff and will work against you instead of helping you while skiing down.
For example, most 120 lb people won't benefit from a 130 flex boot, they won't be able to absorb bumps as effectively as someone who has just a little more ankle flexion. On the other side, a 225 lbs 6'3" user will need a stiffer boot even at an intermediate ability because they just have more weight and leverage to flex the boot.
A Note on Flex Numbers
First, let's be clear regarding alpine touring boots and traditional downhill/alpine boots in that there is no official standard that exists across all manufacturers. This comes as a surprise to many, who thought those numbers (the flex index) was a standardized scale, but this is not the case. Individual companies test boots and rate their models relative to one another. Therefore, comparing different flex ratings within one manufacturer's range makes sense and will give you an accurate comparison about their relative stiffness. However comparing flex index numbers between different companies is a different story and isn't fair to yourself or the boots.
For example, one 130 flex AT boot might be stiffer than a 120 from another company but it also could be softer. Basically, use these numbers as just a rough guideline to helping you choose boots. Don't get too hung up on the numbers themselves. Even within the shop while trying boots on, the stiffness can feel different. How tight your boots are buckled and how a specific boot fits could be enough to make up a small difference in manufacturer flex ratings.
Our testers flex tested the stiffness of all the boots in our review, side by side indoors, and also did our best to test them one at a time while skiing multiple laps in varied terrain, all with the same skis (Incidentally, most testing was done using our Editors' Choice Volkl BMT 94 backcountry ski) in order to eliminate variables. Our testers agreed the two stiffest boots were the Lange XT FreeTour and the Tecnica Zero G Guide. The Salomon Mtn Lab was not soft, but noticeable softer than both of these boots and comparable to the Fischer Transalp Vacuum TS.
After that, the next stiffest boots down were the Scott Cosmos. We'd say that the Scott Cosmos represents the middle of the pack, as well as presenting a downhill performance that virtually no one will complain of. Just slightly softer than the Scott Cosmos, in a class of boot that technically proficient skiers should be able to use in any terrain and conditions, are the Dynafit TLT 7 and the La Sportiva Spectre 2.0. The Arc'teryx Procline Carbon, Dynafit Radical CR, and Atomic Backland Carbon share roughly comparable, and relatively minimal, stiffness quotient. However, each brings other attributes that balance things out for them.
Forward Flex Pattern
In actual ski use, absolute stiffness is only part of the equation. For the most part, all else equal, stiff boots ski better. However, when comparing similarly stiff boots, we further differentiate by examining the subjective sense the skier gets from the forward flex pattern. Fully rigid boots, especially when pressing shins forward, are actually impossible to ski. One needs some degree of forward motion. The best boots flex easily at first, maybe in just the first degree of travel, and steadily meet greater and greater resistance. This resistance should ramp up steadily and smoothly, in what we call a "progressive flex".
Lightweight, stiff materials, especially carbon fiber and other types of fiber glass, constructed into "three piece" style boots (lower shell, upper cuff, and tongue) offer less progressive flex than "overlap", two piece boots (lower shell and upper cuff. No tongue on the shell). The best flexing boots we tested are those overlap boots at the heavy and less-touring friendly end of the spectrum. Tongue boots can be made to offer a modicum of progression in their forward flex. It is for this attribute that the Salomon Mtn Lab stands out. It isn't a ton stiffer than the bulk of the pack, but that forward flex has a progressive quality that closely simulates that achieved with an overlap shell. Tongue boots are lighter and tour better, so the pursuit of progressive flex in a tongue boot is many boot manufacturers goal.
Forward Lean Adjustments
Some of the boots we tested feature at least two forward lean positions and some of the boots in our review had the option to tweak that forward lean forward or backward depending on personal preference. As a whole, backcountry skiers don't need as much forward lean as resort bound skiers because folks in the backcountry are typically skiing a little slower, turning more, skiing more variable snow and have a backpack on. So the 16-20 degree forward lean is typically enough for most users, especially because most alpine touring bindings have more ramp/delta angle (toe is lower than the heel) to make up for the boots lack of aggressiveness.
There is a pretty big range in boot weight among Alpine Touring boots on the market. The heaviest boots we tested were the Lange XT at a stout 7 lbs 10 ounces, the lightest was the Dynafit TLT7s at a scant 4 lb 8 oz. There was a time when we were testing AT boots weighing over 10 pounds. For the ski performance they deliver, the Langes are amazingly light. The Dynafit TLT7 brings average downhill performance at the lightest weight we've ever reviewed.
For durability and all around use, provided you do not need class-leading downhill performance, you should be able to keep your pair of boots under 7 pounds. The fact that Salomon, with their Editors' Choice Mtn Lab gets alpine-like performance into size 26.5 boots that weigh under seven pounds is a benchmark that should be celebrated. These low weight marks have a price. Literally. The Best Buy winning Dynafit Radical CR is the second heaviest boot we tested, with downhill performance exceeded by boots a little more than half their weight.
Ease of Use
We compared how each boot was in normal use, including how easy it was to buckle, how easy it was to switch to touring mode and ski mode as well as ease of entering and exiting the boot.
Entering and Exiting:
Generally speaking, boots with tongues, or three piece boots, are easier to get into than two piece boots, or boot that feature an "alpine wrap". Among the three piece boots, we found the low-cuffed, super flexible ultralight boots easiest to get on and off. The La Sportiva Spectre 2.0 opens wide, while the close competitor Scott Cosmos II is the hardest three piece boot to get into. The Lange and Tecnica, predictably, are hardest to get in and out of. We wouldn't choose these boots for expedition or multi-day use - where you'll be getting in and out while in a tent. With the overlap touring boots, remember though that you can activate the walk-mode for greater ease in getting them on and off.
We compared how easily each buckle was to operate as well as how durable they are. Our favorite buckles were on the Salomon Mtn Lab and Scott Cosmos because they were super easy to use, even with gloves, and durable. We were initially skeptical of the super-simplified buckle system on the TLT 7. All functions, from lower boot tightening to ski/walk mode, are accomplished with a single upper cuff buckle. It takes some getting used to, but it is streamlined, fast, and stays out of the way of damaging rocks while walking. The buckles of the La Sportiva Spectre are rather unorthodox, presumably to save weight. They also feature a learning curve, but are totally fine. There is something very satisfying about the positive snap of the very standard buckles on the overlap cuffed Tecnica and Lange boots.
Most of your backcountry ski day will be spent going uphill. Another good portion is downhill. Many people love these things, and love of one or both of these things is what draws people to backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. Another large chunk of your day is spent in transitioning between the two. That isn't nearly as fun. Therefore, it is nice when equipment makes it easy to get through the transitions without much drama. Your boots will have two modes, and switching those modes involves buckles and adjustments. The best transitioning boots make this process easy.
The Editors' Choice Dynafit TLT 7 far and away leads the pack. Once you have buckled into tour mode, there is one lever and one optional, fast power strap move to tackle. The one lever tightens the boot around your cuff and locks cuff to lower boot. The strap is a cam-lock style that cinches tight, and pulls loose with a single tug. No other product in our test matches this. The next closest competitor is the other Editors' Choice winner. The Salomon Mtn Lab has two main buckles, a ski/walk mode lever, and a similar cam-locked power strap. To go from walk to ski mode (and vice versa), the user manipulates the cuff buckle, the ski/walk lever, and the power strap.
Contrast these Editors' Choice winners with the Top Pick award winners, that complicate transitions in two very different ways. The Atomic Backland Carbon features a total of three buckles and a power strap and an interchangeable tongue. To go from uphill to downhill mode the stored tongues must be removed from one's pack, inserted into fully loosened boots, and then all buckles and straps must be resecured. The Lange XT FreeTour 130 has four buckles and a power strap, all of which usually require adjustment between up and downhill mode.
The Tecnica Zero G Guide, the La Sportiva Spectre 2.0, the Scott Cosmos, and the Best Buy Dynafit Radical CR all have buckle and transition set ups much like the **Lange*. The Fischer Transalp Vacuum is similar, except that it has one fewer buckle.
Comfort and Fit
Comfort is a little relative as each person has a different foot shape, width, and size, but we did our best to compare boots for touring and downhill comfort as well as how each liner affected fit. Our test team represents a variety of foot shapes, all in size 26.5. In years of comparisons now, it seems that our lead test editor has feet that are right in the middle of the road. They aren't super wide, nor super narrow. It is comparative, qualitative assessment, largely based on the experience of our lead testers, that we report. With length fixed at 26.5, for test and comparison purposes (in some cases, given the different shapes and volumes of different models, we might opt to size up or down for our own use), we compared rough estimates of the boot's volume and additionally noted toe box, overall volume, and heel pocket retention/volume. We also commented on general impression of width, though volume is actually a better metric.
The Salomon Mtn Lab, Tecnica Zero G Guide, and Arc'teryx Procline Carbon Lite fit on the narrow, low volume end of the spectrum. The Lange XT FreeTour, Dynafit Radical CR, and Dynafit TLT7 are neutral in fit. The Scott Cosmos II and the Atomic Backland Carbon seem to be higher volume than the others. Special mention must be made of the Fischer Transalp Vacuum TS. The Fischer starts with a pretty neutral fit, but it is made of special plastic that is far more readily adjusted than the plastic used in the other boots. It can be easily "heat molded" to accommodate a wide range of foot shapes and issues.
After fit, there are comfort concerns. Fit is king, but there is one major non-fit-related comfort criteria we looked at. In order for some boots to get lighter, materials in both shell and liner have gotten thinner. Thinning the liner serves two major purposes. First, it is less material. Therefore it is lighter. Additionally, and less obvious, but the thin shell materials offer better support when they fit closer to your foot. Any shell material offers better support when it is close to your foot, but thin shell materials need that performance attribute more. In the end, some liners are thinner than others. For bony feet, no matter how well you fit the boots, thin liner boots are more prone to cause pressure points. The ultralight La Sportiva Spectre 2.0 and the Top Pick Atomic Backland Carbon seemed especially prone to this, causing bruising on the ankle bones of two testers each.
We find it surprising how seldom the insulation value of ski boots is mentioned in other online reviews. Skiing regularly takes place in cold conditions. Your boots should accommodate that. With a wide range of construction styles and materials, we found variation in the warmth of the boots we selected for review. Basically, thicker liners and thicker shells make for warmer boots. More material between your warm foot and the cold outside slows the transfer of heat. What this means is that there is a pretty clear correlation between the weight of the boots and the insulation value. Of course, fit matters, but that can be adjusted. The other thing that matters is the "density" of the liners. Softer foam in the liners seem to feel warmer.
The ultra light boots are the least insulating, while the beef boots are the warmest. A notable exception is the Scott Cosmos II. It is the lightest four-buckle boot in the test but the liner is thick and fluffy. These liners may very well "pack out" with time, losing both support and insulation value, but they offer warm protection when new.
After determining the kind of days you plan to be spending in these boots, and where, other factors will also need to be considered. Fit, material, and performance are just a few important factors making this purchase a hard decision to make. Using this review, we hope to give you a clear idea of what boots will best suit your needs.
— Jed Porter
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