Both skiers and snowboarders use a combination of boots and bindings to secure their feet to their snowboard or skis. Your boots keep your feet warm, protect your feet from hard objects and – when attached firmly to your bindings – allow for the precise transmission of commands from your body to your skis or board.
Bindings can be engaged and disengaged enabling you to quickly transition from walking to riding. While some forms of skiing and snowboarding use the same kind of boot/binding combination, typically, different bindings are used for snowboarding than those used for skiing.
Designers and manufacturers have taken the ski boot a long way since its humble beginnings as a simple leather boot. Leather straps and steel buckles were initially used to fasten the boot tight keeping snow from getting in. Manufacturers have played with a number of designs with different entry points to try to increase stiffness (which affords greater control), while also producing a boot that could fit a range of different body types.
Plastic was used for the first time in the 1960s and revolutionised the way ski boots were made. They were suddenly much stiffer and no longer prone to getting soaked through by the snow. Plastic has remained the most popular ski boot material since, the major differences in design being the way in which the boots were made to be entered. Almost all ski boots use a combination of buckles and straps to keep them firmly closed. The most popular types of boot these days are ‘front entry’ and ‘three piece’ boots.
Front entry boots open at the tongue of the boot. The tongue pulls out and down allowing the skier to slide their foot in against the solid back cuff of the boot. Front entry boots remain popular to this day because of the simplicity of their design and the precise control they provide. Front entry boots, however, do not accommodate for the largest range of foot shapes and sizes meaning the plastic outer shell sometimes has to be physically reshaped in order to fit some people.
Three piece or ‘open throat’ ski boots are like front entry boots in that the tongue folds open, but they also have an additional moving section: the rear cuff. This means they open at the front and the back making them even easier to get in and out of and are also more flexible making them ideal for some types of skiing such as mogul racing or freestyle riding.
Ski bindings originally consisted of a simple leather strap or animal skin into which the rider could slide their boot. They have gone through a huge number of changes over the years with advances in technology. There are two main varieties used today: the alpine ski binding and the Nordic ski binding.
Alpine Ski Bindings
Alpine ski bindings are the most popular today and are more than likely what you will use on your first trip up the mountain. Alpine ski bindings attach the boot to the ski at the toe and the heel. The skier steps into the binding by first sliding their toe into the mechanism and then pushing their heel down firmly. This will activate the binding, locking the boot firmly to the ski.
Alpine ski bindings are designed to disengage releasing the ski boot when they are put under a certain amount of sideways pressure (or torque) when the skier falls. Your ski bindings can be adjusted to change the level of torque required to open them. Advanced skiers will usually ride with a firmer binding; beginners may need their skis to pop off more easily if they are falling a lot as this reduces their chances of injury. Alpine ski bindings also have a brake system consisting of two metal prongs that dig into the snow when the binding is not active so as to stop the ski running away down the mountain.
Nordic Ski Bindings
X-Country bindings and telemark bindings are designed very differently from those used in alpine skiing. Telemark and cross country skiing are Nordic forms in which the skier lifts their heel off the base of the ski, helping them to walk more easily, and to perform the characteristic lunging turns that make telemark skiing so instantly recognisable. The way in which Nordic ski bindings are designed has changed drastically over the years.
Cable bindings consist of a cable that loops around the heel of the skier’s boot pulling it forward into the straps or clasp at the toe. The big problem with this system, however, was that the skier’s boot was unable to detach from the ski if they fell. If your ski tips dug into the snow on a fall, your foot would twist violently as the ski tried to stay where it is while you kept going.
In 1937, Hjalmar Hvam designed the first safety ski binding for cross country and telemark skiing. Hjalmar had recently broken his leg and realised that it might have remained intact if his boot had been released from its binding. Safety binding systems have been adopted over time, especially by telemark skiers who travel at much higher speeds than cross country skiers. Cross country skiers still utilise the cable binding as they travel at lower speeds and the risk of injury is less even if their skis do not detach.
Compared to skiing, snowboarding is a relatively modern discipline. Most forms of snowboarding use a different kind of boot construction to those used by skiers. Snowboarders do not typically require the rigidity that skiers need in order to hold their lines down the slope due to the fact that their riding position is side-on to their direction of travel versus forward facing. Snowboard boots are usually made of softer material than the hard plastic outer shell that ski boots use. There are two types of standard snowboard boots, ‘soft boots’ and ‘step in’ boots.
Soft boots are the most popular form of snowboard boot. They do not attach to the board via a mechanism, but rather are strapped to the board at various points creating a firm even connection with the base of the board. Soft boots are favoured by many snowboard styles as they are flexible and comfortable to walk in, keep your feet warm and protect you from hard objects on the slope.
Step-in boots are used in conjunction with step-in bindings, and must match in order to function properly. Step-in boots use a metal hook at their base to attach directly to the binding itself – closer to the way an alpine skier clips into their bindings.
Alpine (or ‘free carving’) snowboarders and monoboarders use a different system from other snowboard styles altogether. They are closer to being ski boots than snowboard boots. They are usually made from hard plastic providing a more direct transfer of command to the board due to their rigidity.
Boots and bindings need to fit closely in order to maintain perfect control while riding down the slope.
Strap-in bindings work in conjunction with soft boots. They come in a number of configurations, but the basic idea is that they fasten your boot to your board using a number of straps that secure it firmly at different key points around the boot. Strap-in bindings are used by everyday freestyle snowboarders, slope style and competitive riders, too.
Step-in bindings grew to popularity as a new and alternative way to attach your soft boots to your board. They have become less and less common over the years, however, due to manufacturers focusing on strap-in and various other innovative forms of binding. Each company uses a different system that works in conjunction with their boots. Some developed systems similar to those used on clipless pedals used for cycling. Many are no longer in production at all, but are often provided as rental options on and off the mountain.
Plate bindings are used by alpine snowboarders, boarder cross racers and monoboarders. Plate bindings are used together with stiff boots similar to ski boots to achieve tight carving turns and make fine adjustments to your line at high speeds. The main difference is that snowboard bindings of this type will not release the board if you fall. No one wants a runway snowboard missile taking out their fellow snow enthusiasts….
Whereas ski bindings only ever face the rider forward down the fall line, snowboard bindings can be adjusted through a range of configurations affecting the rider’s balance and their ability to perform certain manoeuvres.
There are three main binding angles that are used to this day: Forward, Alpine and Duck stance…
We will begin with duck stance because it clearly has the best name of the three.
Duck Stance forces the rider’s toes to angle outwards away from one another and is the most popular stance assumed by freestyle and slopestyle riders. This allows the rider to maintain an even balance when riding both forwards and backwards (or switch). Duck stance has the added benefit of keeping the rider’s toes inside the edge of the board. If the rider’s feet are angled perpendicular to the board they are at risk of toe drag which can cause you to fall if you are carving hard at high speed. The angle of the bindings can be adjusted to account for the rider’s experience and the style of riding they perform the most.
Alpine Stance is used by boarder cross and casual riders who prefer to spend their time travelling in one direction; on their edges, fast. The binding angle forces the riders to face forward dramatically, between 50° and 70° of the board meaning they maintain excellent balance and control while carving.
Forward Stance is used by a number of different styles as it allows for good turning control, and can also be ridden switch – although this is much more difficult for new boarders than if they are positioned in duck stance.