Words by Matt Coté
Disclaimer: This review is for boot nerds and presumes knowledge of some basic ski boot jargon and history.
Let’s start with this: I’m old. I turned 40 this year, and though I still ski 80 days a season, it’s mostly backcountry, and mostly in powder. Next, I’m not very big. I hesitate to call myself small only because technically I’m average, but at 5’7’’ and 155 pounds, I do get the impression I’m smaller than at least most of the people I ski with.
Why does that matter? Because I just, for the first time in my life, downgraded to a less stiff boot. But read on, because there’s nuance to that.
I’ve always been in the stiffest touring boots I could find, And when Dynafit’s Mercury came out circa 2012, I was in heaven. I know what you’re thinking: this was actually the less stiff version of the company’s flagship Vulcan—I opted for the Mercury only because I needed to punch over my ankles and I couldn’t do that with the Vulcan’s carbon cuff. But there turned out to be a tangential advantage to having begrudgingly gotten the slightly “softer” boot. While a lot of people complained that flexing the Vulcan felt like “hitting a wall,” I loved the progressive feeling of the softer Mercury, which to me was perfectly comparable to the 130 flex Dalbello I used on the resort.
Now, fast-forward to the release of the Hoji 130 Free three seasons ago, and the opportunity to get a punch-able boot at the true top end of Dynafit’s stiffness range. Not to mention get rid of the extra tongue the Mercury required to make it charge (which was a pain on transitions), along with that annoying top buckle that would tear my pants and break off on rocks (the features of this brilliant boot are well-covered, so I’m not going to dive into that here: the three-piece design, zero play in ski mode, infinite stride in walk mode, etc.). With some work for my ankles, the new Hoji boot fit me super well, and the HOJI LOCK system was a dream that sped up transitions and gave me a way bigger stride while walking. Mostly.
There were some annoying nuances. From the beginning, the lower of the boot was so stiff that when I toured, the unlimited travel of the cuff meant I wedged against the V shape of the lower—rather than bottom out, like I did with the Mercury—and that constriction wore all my shin hair away. The problem is the shell is so stiff it doesn’t flex open when someone my size walks in it. What’s more, the lower shell would lever and dig in when I was skinning on sidehills. None of these were deal-breakers, and I adapted to each in exchange for the overall package of the boot. But what I never could get used to was the way it skied: Frankly, it felt like a cast, and I began to understand what everyone had said about the Vulcan. It was just too stiff.
In turn, I had to over-anticipate bumps and absorb everything with my upper body. Still, since I was skiing powder most of the time, that was fine, most of the time.
But then, enter the Hoji Free 110.
Now, before we go any further, here’s this fact: flex index is not standardized across brands, or even different models of boots within brands, and is a problematic benchmark. Boots all have different characters that can’t be summed up by a number. That said, within versions of the same model, the difference between two flex ratings at least gives you a relative sense of one versus the other.
I have always felt the Hoji Free 130 skis more like a plug boot (i.e. race stock, somewhere up around 150), than a progressive freeride offering. Knocking 20 whatevers off its flex rating seemed about right to me, even if that also came with an equivalent downgrade to my ego, knowing I was using a 110. But once I got over that, the Hoji 110 singlehandedly solved every problem I had with the 130s. Being able to flex and absorb terrain has made me feel twice as strong, and the boot also walks better, as the softer cuff is more accommodating to movement. What’s more, the 110 doesn’t at all feel like a downgrade in terms of power, it simply adds that bouncy, progressive feeling I was completely missing with the 130. The Hoji Free 110 in fact feels, to me, much closer to the 130 flex of the Dalbello I still use at the ski hill (and love), and my old Mercury which—though it transitioned between walk and ski super clumsily—always skied like a dream.
My conclusion is this: Most people probably don’t need the Hoji Free 130, the same way most people don’t need a plug boot, and the 110 shouldn’t scare off self-styled “chargers.”
But, there is still a case for the 130, and that’s body size. My really big friends who use the 130 are able to flex it, and don’t have any of the above listed problems. If you’re heavy, or tall and have a lot of leverage, the 130 does become your better option. I don’t exactly know where that threshold is in terms of weight or height, but I would sum it all up as such: If you’re big and strong, get the 130; if you’re small and strong, get the 110; if you’re somewhere in between, maybe think about the new Radical, which is a 120 flex (and has an interesting new tongue, and flexion points built into the shell). The Radical is in fact Dynafit’s effort to address most of the issues I mentioned earlier, but it also adds a more spacious fit to the shell. I still prefer the low instep and tighter “performance” fit of the Hoji, and thus appreciate having the option to go down to the 110 in the same shell.
The Hoji Free 110 goes for $849.95 CDN, and you’re not too tough for it.