By Stephanie Flack

Any experienced rider will tell you that, above anything else, boots will make or brake your riding. They are the most significant piece of equipment you will buy, above a board, bindings, clothing, whatever. Therefore, they must be selected with care and thought, not purchased on a whim. This season, I've set out to find the perfect snowboard boots. What follows is an attempt to infiltrate the vast amount of misinformation and rumors that exist about trying on and buying this most essential piece of gear. Included are some of the more important, as well as basic, considerations that should go into buying boots. With the help of information on the web, the advice of several sales people and a few sporadic calls to boot manufacturers, here's what I've found to be the basic factors in boot decision making:

Education. Nothing is more critical. If you've ridden before, you may already have an idea of what you're after. If you're new to the sport, however, start your quest for the perfect snowboard boots by reading as much as you can, trying on as many pairs as you can and asking questions. Going into a store without having the slightest duct knowledge or knowing what kind of questions to ask is not the ideal way to buy boots. Although sales people can be extremely knowledgeable, if you don't know what type of rider you are, what you're going to be riding and in what type of terrain, when a clerk starts asking you questions in order to determine what kind of boot you need, you may be more mesmerized more by their questions than by their "hey brah! — what's up rad dude" articulation. So for starters, get armed with as much information as possible, then go out and try on as many boot styles and brands as you can. It will amaze you how much you will learn by just comparing the fit and feel of several boots. Going in blindly and making a decision based on what a sales person prefers or will be riding this season can result in your severe unhappiness, not to mention a hefty charge on your credit card that you have little to show for. So try on boots, yes. But, teach yourself along the way. And lastly, don't buy the first pair of boots you try on because they are last year's style and the shop is having a killer sale.

Comfort. Short and sweet: It is a must. Don't fool yourself into believing you will grow into your boots or that they will fit better over time. While it is true that boots will conform slightly to your feet, these are not leather loafers and you will not be wearing them to prep school. From the time you take the day's first steps into virgin snow until the time you finish your zillionth run, these boots will not leave your feet. Love thy boots. Love thy comfort.

Fit. Think back to when you went shopping for new shoes with your mother when you were little: your toes should come very close to, but not rub against, the end. When switching from heel-side to toe-side, your feet are going to slide forward a little in your boots and you don't want to constantly smash your toes. To grade overall boot fit, several companies recommend actually strapping into bindings while wearing your prospective new boots. Simply slipping snowboard boots onto your feet and prancing around the store for a few laps won't create the same stance or forward lean that a pair of bindings and a board will. With boots properly laced and secured in bindings, try to pull up your heel. Does it move? Can you stand on your toes inside the boots?If so, try on a different pair. Remember, the less movement (without sacrificing comfort), the better. When you try on boots, you want the boots to fit snugly without any gaps. Lace the boot up and pull the laces tight. Do the two rows of eyelets on either side of the boot's tongue meet in the center or outer two-thirds of the tongue? That is good. If they touch or overlap, the boot is too big. Boots will stretch slightly when you wear them a couple of times and boots that are too big will lose all tightening capability. On the other hand, if the eyelets don't cover the edges of the tongue when the boots are laced, they are too small on you. Snow will creep its way into any nook or cranny it can find. Find a boot that securely wraps around your foot and offers proper coverage.

Heel Lift. Heel lift, as mentioned above, is what keeps your foot in place whether freecarving, doing a switch 540 or boardsliding on a tree trunk. It is one of the most important details of proper boot fit. Little, or no, heel lift is what you are after. And, heel lift is precisely why companies like Burton, Vans, K2 and Airwalk make boots specifically for women. If you're a woman that has ever ridden in men's boots, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, grab a pair of men's street shoes right now. Try them on. They probably float on your feet and they probably would even if they were the right size. Why? Women have narrower heels than men. Their ankles are also, generally, skinnier overall and their calve muscles are lower on the leg. Women's boots address these issues successfully and I would not recommend any woman buy boots other than those specifically made for women. I've ridden too many days with my feet practically flying out of men's boots for me to even consider the idea again. Women's boots will mold better to your feet since bladders and insulation compensate for a woman's smaller bone structure. They will feel more snug and provide superior comfort than their opposite sex counterparts, I promise.

Insulation. The saying, better safe than sorry, never rang so true than with boot insulation. Personally, after heel lift, I consider insulation the key ingredient. Think about it. What part of your body gets cold the fastest, yet takes the longest to comfortably warm up again? It's your feet, particularly if you're a woman and conform to the vast majority of the female population. In the insulation game, opt for more. You'll be glad you did.

Consider your bindings. Although I don't have much experience with step-in bindings, for strap-in bindings,oose a boot with a well-padded tongue. The thickness of the padding in your boot is much more detrimental in determining how badly binding straps will dig into the top of your feet than a binding's measly padding. Leaning against a inch of padding on any binding for hours on end is not going to save your skin. Again, it's the boot. For the boot-binding relationship, follow this advice I read recently in a news group: "Bindings do play a role in foot comfort, especially regular strap-type models; however, a good choice of boots can make cheaper bindings comfortable while ill-fitting boots can never make any bindings more comfortable."

Materials. Materials vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Generally, leather anything tends to be the best quality. With boots, it's no different. Makers of leather boots claim greater boot durability and a longer life-span than boots made of other materials. However, most leather boots are going to be more costly and some riders say they seem heavier. Vinyl, as a material, is excellent at resisting abrasion, more so than nylon mesh. These boots also tend to be less expensive. When you think about the fact that most boots today are water resistant or water proof, boot material doesn't play as significant a role as some other details, although some companies would disagree.

Laces. As for the boot's laces: think long. The extra slack of laces can be wrapped around your boot for added support. Some riders wrap long laces around the heels of their boots. This helps prevent internal heel lift since it compresses the boot right over the heel. It also helps to have laces that are made of nylon. Some of the lower-end boot laces aren't. If this is the case, replace them. Nylon laces are more durable and they don't stretch. You'll see why this minor detail cuts down on frustration when your friends are struggling with their wet, soggy cotton laces.

Where to Buy. While you might not have given point of purchase an ounce of consideration, where you buy boots deserves some attention. If you are reading this, you probably already know the dangers of buying any gear, especially boots, at large, warehouse-like sporting goods stores. I just want to reiterate that wisdom. Sales people at jumbo-size stores are not going to know the ins and outs of the various boots and many of them, most likely, have never even been on a snowboard. (Unless, this store happens to be within minutes of a major ski town.) For all intensive purposes, steer clear of enormous, national retailers. Instead, seek out smaller shops that specialize in outdoor or winter sports, like skiing. Better yet find a shop that is exclusively geared toward snowboarders. You will undoubtedly find the sales people to be more knowledgeable and more experienced in all aspects of the sport. As stated previously, your sales person isn't expected to know everything. You have to take some initiative here but, once you've found a few shops, you'll know where you want to buy your boots. Don't be rushed or pressured into buying anything you don't feel absolutely rapturous about.

Price. Snowboarding, like the majority of worthwhile sports out there, is an expensive sport. Boots can easily cost two or three hundred dollars. Boards go for even more. And while you don't have to buy the manufacturer's pro-model boot, don't skimp just because you want to get a good deal. Too many boarders don't so much as wince when they plop down an arm and a leg for a board or a must-have jacket. Then, they practically pass out when they realize that boots aren't considered accessories. Although I sometimes hate to admit it, I find more and more of these adages to be true: You do get what you pay for.

Looks. Not to worry. If you're already into snowboarding and revel in a new pair of boarding pants or a jacket with the stripes in just the right place, you'll like most of the boots on the market too. If you're new to snowboarding, you may find the boots lack grace and elegance. They will seem bulky and a bit cumbersome at first. To lift your spirits, ask a salesperson to let you try on a pair of ski boots. You'll know you picked the better sport instantaneously.

Like the sport itself, boots are a personal thing. Making a wise decision about boots boils down to being informed. Fit, Insulation, Price and Looks - they are all important factors to consider. Choose carefully. And don't forget the all important element of comfort. As K2 vitally stresses, "You can put all the best features into a boot, but if it's not comfortable, you can kiss any and all performance good-bye."