RealSkiers: Why Your Next Boots May Have a Hike Mode
I suppose if you’re part of a publicly held company, your brand has an obligation to pursue every possible profit opportunity. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so a market niche attracts the maximum number of entrants.
This phenomenon helps explain why your next pair of ski boots may very well have a so-called “hike mode,” a latching mechanism integrated at the junction of the lower shell and upper cuff. Engaging this device allows the boot to hinge more naturally in stride, a feature one would deploy whenever the on-snow experience more resembles walking than skiing.
It’s a nifty feature, and one that’s been around for years, popping up in places as disparate as the convenience-driven recreational boot market and the hard-core backcountry, hut-to-hut ski community. A decade ago, the number of models available with this feature was commensurate with the population of skiers who actually might use it.
All Shell Shapes
As a look through the today’s boot market would reveal, the hike mode has now infiltrated every shell shape, every last variety and every flex index below 140. (To take a gander at America’s top models, check out the boot roundup on realskiers.com.)
It’s interesting to imagine an America where half of all skiers hiked, the backcountry as busy as a beehive, and lift-serviced ridgelines streaming with skiers so accustomed to climbing that they sing as they stroll along.
This magical place may exist somewhere, but it bears little resemblance to most Americans’ ski life. This is not to say that robust percentages of locals at big mountain resorts aren’t avid hikers, but the culture of climbing hasn’t expanded as fast as the number of boots ostensibly being produced to serve it.
In other words, boot makers are building more hike-mode (HM) models than America is producing hikers. At this point, the attentive reader might interject, “So what?” After all, what’s the harm in having a feature you aren’t going to use?
The problem is that any boot that is truly well adapted for uphill travel will suffer some demerits in the downhill department, and visa versa. Not only does flipping a switch not entirely transform a hiking boot into a full-fledged alpine boot, the very presence of said switch is the root of the problem.
Cut Boot Spine?
No one has fashioned a way to cut the rear spine of a boot in two, then reassemble it so it can be decoupled on a whim, and still have all the support and energy transmission of a monoblock lower shell and an uncorrupted upper cuff.
This doesn’t mean that for some skiers the tangible benefits of a walk position may outweigh any trade-offs in performance, which may be imperceptible to the target skier. So I’m not saying HM boots don’t have their place; but by being every place you look, more people will be getting this feature when what they should be getting is a boot that will help their skiing.
Another major factor contributing to the proliferation of HM models is the overall downturn in the worldwide ski equipment market. When times are tough, the need to renew a product line is as intense as ever, but resources are scarce. Adding a hike mode to a product segment is a relatively inexpensive way to freshen the line without massive investment in R & D.
When I was working in product development at Salomon, back in the days when the brand was a marketing juggernaut, we went from making no boots in 1978 to being the worldwide number one boot brand in dollars by 1985. Salomon pulled off this coup by reducing the number of shell sizes to 8, the number of models to 9, the number of colors available per model to 1, and a lot of sharing of tooling, parts and packaging.
Plug Every Nook
Today’s ski and boot brands have to chase shrinking sales while plugging every conceivable cranny in the market with a specialty product, or exactly the opposite scenario from the one that once made Salomon so successful. In some product categories, like alpine bindings, it’s impossible to be profitable without producing hundreds of thousands of units.
While the unit threshold is to some degree lower with boots and much lower for skis, the principles of improving profitability by reducing the complexities of product development and manufacture do not.
Even if a product has a terrific manufacturing margin on a per piece basis, when the number of pieces you can sell has been cut in half, you still have the same lofty margin but nonetheless have half as many dollars running through the till. Staff has to be reduced, production has to get sharper and marketing budgets that once sustained a stable of athletes and a dozen media outlets shrink to invisibility.
But as long as there are still skiers willing to procure new ski gear, brands will strive to survive and be compelled to compete. Which is why we see the current concatenation of hike-mode apparatuses on the backside of so many boots, even though their eventual owners’ longest hike of the day will be from the car to the base lodge.
Photo: Boot in hike mode (realskiers.com)
Follow Jackson Hogen at RealSkiers.com.