January 01, 2003
The Great Ski Boot Pain Conspiracy

The Great Ski Boot Pain Conspiracy.

They say that the ski industry has been in a slump for a decade. One reason is that the sport is incredibly expensive: for an overwhelmingly large share of the population, the same amount of money spent on another recreation (save sailing, or possibly centrifugal bumble-puppy) would lead to more enjoyment. If you are looking for a sport designed to sell gear--poles, skis, boots, socks, ski pants, sweaters, parkas, gloves, hoods, helmets, lift tickets, x-rays, orthopedic surgery services--here it is.

But there is a second, and I think more important reason: the great ski boot pain conspiracy.

In order for you to obtain the finest control over your skis, the sides of your ski boots need to grip the sides of your feet and ankles like a vise. The smallest movements of your bones and muscles must be transmitted to the boots and skis. This means no space between boot and sock, no space between sock and skin, and enough compression of sock and skin that there is no "give" in those layers either.

This is damned uncomfortable. Until you have skied enough for your brain to think, "Well, this is kinda normal," alarm bells keep ringing in your head. And if you are unlucky enough to develop creases in your socks (and you know you have become an expert skier when you have figured out how to keep your socks crease-free) your feet feel not just discomfort but severe pain.

Thus the beginning skier's most common thought out on the slopes is, "God! My feet are uncomfortable!" And the most common thought after skiing is, "God! It feels good to get my feet out of those ski boots!"

This is not a way to make beginners enthusiastic about the sport.

This is also totally pointless. Beginning and intermediate skiers do not need to have expert-level control over their skies. They have no clue what to do with expert-level control. They would be much happier--and would ski no worse--with a looser boot fit based on making sure that, first, their feet are comfortable.

So why do those who fit ski boots in ski-rental counters at ski resorts all across the nation fit beginners' boots as if they were about to take a double-black-diamond run? It's a triumph of professional standards--this is how boots should be fit--over common sense and simple human utility. This is a common pattern in human affairs: authority over some realm of human activity is delegated to a community of experts; the experts then follow the (internal) logic of that particular realm rather than the (external) logic of what the realm is for; and it ends badly for all.

Posted by DeLong at January 01, 2003 03:21 PM | Trackback

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A relating point - sort of - but concerning non-tariff barriers to trade in skiing equipment.

Skiing became a popular indigenous leisure pursuit and tourism generator in Japan in the early 1980s leading to increasing imports of skies manufactured in countries with well entrenched ski tourism industries, mainly in Europe. In the mid 1980s, the Japanese government proposed introducing a novel technical standard for skies which would have had the effect of curbing imports of skies.

This was not a new trade barrier, it was officially said, but because research had established that snow in Japan was substantively different from other places and therefore skies used there needed to be made to a new technical specification. But then those were the times when the French government decided all imports of video cassette recorders had to be channelled through a dedicated customs post located in Poitiers, an inland city in central western France.

Posted by: on January 1, 2003 04:51 PM

I am a good skier, and I once had a set of Dynafits custom-foam-fitted to my feet. The Dave's-Insanity-Sauce-style logic was, of course, that as an expert I had become accustomed to normal boot pain, and I wanted to amp things up to become an even better skier.

The result: by mid-morning most days the pain had mounted to the point that I would collapse by the side of the trail. Once I reached that crisis point, however, my feet usually gave up and let me ski the rest of the day.

Of course, I would also break into a cold sweat just at the thought of going skiing.

Posted by: Paul on January 1, 2003 05:20 PM


>>I once had a set of Dynafits custom-foam-fitted to my feet<<

Wow. That is hard-core...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on January 1, 2003 07:11 PM

This "common pattern in human affairs" nicely describes the modern history of English Studies, as well.

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden on January 2, 2003 04:29 AM

If you don't like ski boots, go get some softy snowboard boots. They are MORE comfortable and cheaper. If you want to wear hard shell boots, spend some money and get custom boot liners from Raichle Thermoflex.

Posted by: Bob Macaraeg on January 2, 2003 08:05 AM


>>If you don't like ski boots, go get some softy snowboard boots. They are MORE comfortable and cheaper.<<

Indeed, these factors--comfort and cost--may be the reason that snowboarding is eating skiing's lunch as a steep-slope winter sport.

Posted by: Brad DeLong on January 2, 2003 10:52 AM

It seems like there is the same phenomenon in skiing as there is in software, that the "experts" generally dictate how things "must" be done, in a way totally inappropriate to novices. Most software makers long ago concluded that they couldn't sell simple packages to beginners, because beginners went to experts to ask what they should buy, and the experts recommended the complex packages that they liked.

The pain this inflicts on novice software users is more psychic than physical, however.

Posted by: Curt Wilson on January 2, 2003 12:16 PM

Just to be contrarian, I'd like to add my own little
datapoint. A week ago, I rented boots for the first
time in a few years (sorry, I don't remember the brand),
and they had adjustment knobs in the front and back
(toe and heel). As a result, I enjoyed my first pain-free skiing ever.
All hail the march of technology!

Posted by: Brian Dillon on January 3, 2003 07:31 AM

this is kind of old actually... rossignol has introduced soft boots.. and beginner and intermediate boots ARE MUCH SOFTER AND LARGER... they're made of softer plastic, have more insulation (or have insulation), use easier entry and exit methods (rear entry), compress less (less buckles with fewer adjustments)... now there are alwayssome idiots in the fitters.. but the industry isn't as stupid as you would make them seem paul... er brad

2 things to help out.. get boots fitted by a good ski shop (sure feet is awesome)... wear boot around the house to pack down the insulation and stuff (no blisters or anything from breaking them in under high stress)

experts (racers and such) frequently ski barefoot with minimal insulation and cushioning, in boots with almost no flex, extreme built in lean (cuse you can't force the boot forward, it must therefore keep you there), and so tight that circulation is essentially cut off... people have been known to ice down thre feet to be able to get there boots on....

of course ski racers are idiots, as downhill goes upwards of 100 miles an hour, and people have been nearly torn apart (brian stemmle broke his pelvis and practically everything else after a fall) from crashes....

Posted by: Libertarian Uber Alles on January 3, 2003 03:54 PM

I'm under the impression that there are also significant torque issues which prevent boots from being much less tight -- old style skiers had softer boots, and in consequence, they broke their legs a lot.

Posted by: Jane Galt on January 13, 2003 12:41 PM
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