Soft Sell

Soft Sell Boot Pic J

Bootmakers have gone soft. Three of them-Salomon, Rossignol and Kneissl-have introduced models that marry hard plastic chassis with ultra-soft materials and non-traditional latching systems. A fourth, Dolomite, is selling a soft boot in Japan that will be offered next year in the U.S. What makes these boots viable is shaped skis, which require far less forward pressure than skis of old.

Each of the manufacturers is pushing the envelope in a different way, but the concepts are similar. Traditional hard plastics are still used through the spine and sole areas. But in front-over the top of the foot and up the shin-the stiff stuff has been replaced by cushy materials, such as leather and textiles or ultra-soft plastic. Closure is achieved not with rigid buckles but by using speed lace systems and ratcheted straps.

"It's good to see out-of-the-box thinking," said Gleason. But do they work? Surprisingly well, actually (especially the Dolomites and Rossis).

But it depends on how hard you expect to push them. Testers found they worked well on groomers. "Laterally, they hold an edge fine," said Scholey. But in tough terrain, he and others missed the forward support they're used to. Perhaps for more advanced skiers it will be a matter of adapting. And for hard-charging experts, it's hard to imagine a soft boot that will ever offer enough support. But for relaxed recreational skiers who simply aren't willing to let aching feet mar their experience, the solution is here. And it's soft.