We’ve come to Andy Filer to try and unpack some of the mystery around ski boot fitting. Anyone who’s had a day or – god forbid – a holiday ruined by poorly fitted ski boots knows just how important the process is, but very few understand what to look for in a ski boot or, perhaps more importantly, a good boot fitter.
Andy is the owner and sole practitioner behind The Boot Lab, a specialised ski boot fitting operation in the Melbourne suburb of South Yarra that now churns through as many as 500 appointment-only fits every season.
The explosion of his business, in his words, is proof that dedication to one thing makes you good at it.
“People trust it. You don’t confuse it with other things around it.”
“I’ve never tried to have the shop full of everything. When you go into a shop full of everything, they do nothing well. So I concentrated on one thing and made it paramount.”
Andy’s reputation as a boot fitter is one reason we’ve sought him out, but we’re equally fascinated by his connection with Japan and his history as a ski instructor and guide. Andy was doing seasons in places like Madarao, Shiga Kogen, Nozawa Onsen and Arai in the 90s and early 2000s long before they’d become household names in the ski world (outside Japan). In 2006, when he visited Niseko for the first time at the suggestion of a friend, he fell in love with the area and the famous Hokkaido powder snow.
In the evening he’d work as a boot fitter, while by day he worked on the ski slopes – initially as a ski instructor but later as a powder guide, showing his clients some of the best backcountry spots in Hokkaido. Places like Furano, Tokachidake and Asahidake.
His understanding of skiing as an instructor and guide is perhaps one of the reasons he’s become such a respected ski boot fitter; he understands the mechanics of a turn, the function of the feet and body, and the needs of the equipment.
It’s a background that has served Andy well in an industry where a lot of top boot fitters often come from podiatry, which he says can be helpful, but applied in the wrong way can do more harm than good.
“You don’t walk in ski boots”, is the blunt message that surfaces more than once through our discussion.
Andy is supportive of our aim to demystify a process that has often been referred to as a “dark art”, but concedes that it will be difficult.
“It’s hard for me to even put into words”, he says. “It’s just magic – it happens when it’s with each person. And everyone’s different.”
But after an hour of listening to Andy speak passionately about boot fitting and his past life in Japan, we notice some key themes emerging, which we’ve done our best to digest below.
What to look for in a ski boot fitter
If there’s a single takeaway from our chat with Andy, it’s that boot fitting is a skill developed over time and that, by extension, not all sellers will have the experience needed or even the right motive.
“Don’t buy ski boots on the mountain”, he explains.
“It’s seasonal, so they’re in business for three months of the year. Their stock is geared towards that. They’re busy for the opening and into the early season. Then they go: ‘shit, we’ve got to sell it all’. They don’t care. It’s just about ‘sell, sell, sell’.
“And having told you about my history in boot fitting, you can understand why it might be hard to find someone like me. Shops [with a high turnover] might need 10 of me for the season – and it just doesn’t exist.
“Beyond that, you’re looking for experience – someone who’s patient enough to look at your feet. Plus a fitter who knows the ski boots.”
Put your trust in the boot fitter to assess and select a boot for your foot
It’s important to try and drop preconceived ideas about colour, style, brand and price, because there may only be one of two boots available that work for your feet, and it’s the boot fitter’s job to identify these for you.
Andy conducts up to four boot fits a day so that he can give every client a full hour of assessment, but reveals that he often knows the correct boot within the first few minutes.
“My clients get a full hour so that they can try on all the right boots and know ‘it’s that one’. It’s definitely the best choice.'”
This is also where your boot fitter’s knowledge of the products comes into play, with a variety of brands on the market all with small but consequential differences.
“I can tell you Salomon fit short in length, Atomic fit long in length, then there’s everything in between. A 26.5 in one model is not the same as a 26.5 in another.”
Fundamentals of a good fit
It’s unlikely that a pair of boots are going to fit straight out of the box, partly because humans are “rad”, says Andy, and that we often have differences in size between feet.
He tells us that he aims to get the fit as snug as possible – less than a centimetre [to the front] on the biggest foot, so that the little foot isn’t “hanging in the wind”.
Andy also stresses that getting the right fit in the shop can feel tight and even painful.
“It’s got to be a glove. And in the ski shop that’s hard because it hurts.
“Companies know that the ski or snowboard boots pack out. If they make [boots] like a pack of lard, of course they’d feel comfortable initially, but it would move past that very quickly.”
He then explains that there are four main considerations in a good fit. Like all good fitters, he assesses a ski boot with his customer standing barefoot inside the shell (liners removed).
“You show the customer with their bare foot the top of the foot – the instep. It’s crucial in choice. It’s my number one, because you can’t fix the top of the boot, you can’t adjust it.
“You can adjust the width, but you can’t adjust the length very well either.
“So it’s the length, and the top and the flex. Those three points are paramount in my mind. And I don’t always talk about it to the customer, but I make sure I’m covering those bases.”
For the uninitiated, the “flex” of a boot is the ease at which it moves when you apply pressure on the front. Beginner boots typically have more flex, while boots made for advanced skiers are usually stiffer. But it’s not always that simple.
“If a 100 kilogram skier walks through the door and you put him in a beginner ski boot because he says he’s a beginner, he’s never going to be comfortable, because he’ll bend through the thing just standing in it. Let alone going down a mountain fighting G-forces and trying to turn a ski through terrain. He’s going to hate you!”
“And you see those people with their socks steaming in the sun and their boots off drinking a VB at lunchtime. They’re thinking ‘I’m never doing this again.’ But I can fix them.”
Use custom footbeds made for skiing, not walking
Andy is a proponent of using ski-specific footbeds in his clients’ boots, and has refined his own version through his 16 years in the industry. One of his biggest gripes, he tells us, is seeing ski boots fitted with orthotics made for walking or running.
“The human foot pronates and supinates as a way of absorbing shock. So you would have seen an orthotic which leaves the forefoot to walk. It’s floppy and soft at the front.
“Whereas, when you ski, it’s an advantage to be neutral. So you need a footbed that limits this natural range of motion to prevent sore points on the shell or a delayed reaction to the ski.”
“I’d say only 2% of the world do it [create footbeds] properly.”
Are footbeds a necessity?
“Many of my clients are rad skiers who can all stand on a plank of wood and do it well … without a foot bed. But it’s an advantage to be neutral and more comfortable in a well-fitted boot – and who wouldn’t want that?”
Give it time (it might be painful – at first)
It’s natural to have niggles and feel some pain, particularly early on while the liner is packing out and your legs and feet are getting used to being in ski boots.
“Skiing’s rad and it can hurt”, says Andy.
“If you talk to any good skier, they’ll tell you the first two or three days can hurt. You haven’t done it since last season and the muscles aren’t there … but on the third or fourth day, you’re like ‘right!’.”
And if you’re still feeling pain after a few days, which is not uncommon, you can go back to your boot fitter for adjustments – another reason Andy suggests finding someone close to home.
“Often my clients tell me ‘wow, they [the ski boots] were so responsive and so snug, they hurt a little bit, but I can ski better than I’ve ever skied. But I have pain here and here.'”
“And I say: ‘yeah, that’s what it’s like for me when I ski in my boots for [the first] three days’. But once we’ve made a few adjustments – boom! They’re in the same boot for the next four years.”
Develop a relationship with your boot fitter
Finding a good boot fitter is like gaining a good relationship with a GP, says Andy.
“You can always trust that person they know you, Like a good chiro, a good physio, a good ortho, a good bone surgeon … all those people don’t know you until they’ve made some changes.”
“Then you come back and you say ‘this didn’t work’ and [the boot fitter] will say – ‘ok, now this will work because that didn’t work’.
“In the end, though, I don’t want you coming back, I want you happy.
“You wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve had people ring me off a chairlift in New Zealand or Japan, because they’re that stoked.
“They say: ‘This is the best: I’ve been skiing for 10 years and you’ve changed my life.’
“It’s very rewarding”.
To learn more about The Boot Lab, visit www.thebootlab.com.au.