*Disclaimer* I want to state that all of my reviews are opinions formed based on personal experience and are not meant to be an ultimate guide or reflect negatively on any of the companies or products I am discussing. I am only offering my opinions in the hope that someone might find my comments useful or offer their own suggestions in the comment section. Everything I have tested I have borrowed or bought myself - no sponsorships or anything like that. Like buying a high-end sewing machine, skate equipment needs to feel right to a skater, and what I like might not be the best for someone else. However, I have been skating a long time on a lot of different equipment, so I feel like I do have something valid to contribute to the discussion.
**Double Disclaimer** Boots are definitely something where it very much depends on the individual, their skating, their foot, and their price point. Having a properly fitted boot is very important to both the longevity of the boot and the health of the skater's foot. Don't buy large sizes hoping that your child will grow into them - buy a boot that fits and replace as needed. Used boots are always an option if you can find them in the proper size. Similarly, don't buy a boot intended for a world class athlete when your child is learning scissors. You can upgrade your boots as your skills develop - while boots should last a fairly long time, they won't last as long as the plate (or maybe even the bearings depending on your cleaning habits). The best investment is in a boot that fits both the skater's foot and their level and style of skating. This may not be the most expensive boot, or it could be a costly custom masterpiece. It just depends on the skater.
Also, a word on breaking in boots. If you get brand new boots (not used, but new-new) and they are made out of leather (as many boots are) they should feel just a bit tight when you first put them on. Leather does stretch a bit, so if the boots are perfectly comfortable right out of the box, then when they stretch out a bit after wearing them, they will end up being a slight bit too big. You should not put on brand-new boots and go out and try crazy things right away. Boots should have a break-in period, and you should break them in slowly. When I have followed Harlick's break-in advice (skate 4-6 hours with only two hooks laced, then 4-6 with 3 hooks laced, then go fully laced) I find that my tongues and the tops of my boots break in properly. If you lace them up all the way and try to skate, it forces the tongues down, and you get a painful crease on the top of your toes. If you gradually lace up the boots, it lets your skating and knee bend force the tongue forward, so it will curve with your leg as you bend. Too many skaters don't properly break in their boots and it causes pain and discomfort for the entire time they use them.
Since there are so many boot options out there (thanks mostly to the ice skating industry - ice skaters replace boots 2-4 times a year, so they spend quite a bit more than roller skaters who tend to keep boots for 1-10 years at a time), I am going to discuss what a skater should be looking for in a boot, then look at the different manufacturers.
Figures: In general, a figure boot should be fairly stiff because you don't want your ankle to move around too much while you are skating. You are trying to minimize motions and hold everything in place to create a smooth, perfect edge. You do want to be able to bend your knee forward during take offs and somewhat on turns, but in general you want a fairly rigid support. For skating the smaller loop circles it might be preferable to have a somewhat less stiff boot to get more bend, but I always solved this problem by not lacing the top of my boot all the way up - I would only use 3 hooks instead of 4. For most skaters the figure boot will probably be the stiffest boot you have. Figure boots tend to last a long time and so I would say that once a skater is done growing it is worth investing in a top of the line boot, since they will have it for many years. Also, many skaters will use old boots for loops and new boots for figures to help extend the lifespan of the boot.
Dance: Dance boots, at least for roller skaters, tend to be fairly soft. You want to be able to get deep knee bends and strong toe points to create a dramatic look on the floor. If a boot is too stiff it can be difficult to do this. For dance, the stiffness should very much depend on the height, weight, and ability of the skater. If a skater is using a boot for freestyle and dance (or dance and free dance) they might want it to have slightly more support, but in general you want only soft or medium boots for use in dance skating. Dance boots can last anywhere from 1-5 years, though I know some people who have used theirs longer
Freestyle: Freeskating requires a stiffer more supportive boot than dance skating, because the skater is landing difficult jumps and trying to balance during fast spins. I would say the range of support will vary the most in a freestyle boot - skaters just learning single jumps will do fine with a medium support, whereas skaters doing double and triple jumps will want extra support for their landings. Freestyle boots tend to wear out the fastest, but even then most skaters can get a couple years of use out of a single pair of boots.
With that in mind, let's take a look at where we can get boots:
Edea is one of the newer boots on the market, made in Italy and distributed by the same people as Roll Line, it has quickly taken strong hold of the skating market, with many world champions in both Ice and Roller using Edea.
Pros: These boots seem to last incredibly well. I know a skater who could destroy boots within 6 months, but was able to keep the same Edea boots for 3 or 4 years. So they seem to be a good investment. They are designed to use lightweight and breathable materials, and people who like to use them find them very comfortable. They come in a range of stiffnesses and styles, so there should be a style appropriate to every skater. Also, compared to some custom boots the prices are very reasonable, especially since they seem to last so long, and they have some boots at lower price points. This is quickly becoming one of the most popular roller skating boots, especially among younger skaters. It is probably the most popular boot for freestyle today, and is growing in popularity for dance, though I have not seen as many people make the switch to this boot for figures. This boot also seems to be quite popular world-wide, with many of the top skaters in other countries choosing Edea.
Cons: These boots only come in stock options, there is no custom boot. These boots can be "shaped" but it is a special process not like the heat molding that other boots can use, so you have to go somewhere that is specially equipped to do this process (Skates US can perform this). Also, because the boot is so stiff sometimes it can make the skater's leg line and toe point less appealing. And while there are a lot of skaters who have switched to these boots and are rather liking them, my observation is that people either tend to love them or hate them. Those who like them and make the switch don't want to skate in anything else, ever again, and those who try them and don't like them can't wait to get their old boots back. Personally I find the backs of the boots too high (even on the cut down models) and so I have never owned a pair, and am not likely to do so. However, I do know many people who swear by them, so again this goes back to individual fit and taste.
GAM boots are Canadian boot company and they are not used much in roller skating. I don't actually know anyone who has used them, but apparently they are a fairly popular ice boot? I don't really have much to say, due to lack of knowledge, but if anyone has any advice feel free to speak up in the comments!
Pros: It looks like there are many styles, the boots seem to be well padded, and they have a nice classic look to them. Google searches found them on sale at a few places, and the prices seem very reasonable, especially since these look to be made almost entirely out of leather.
Cons: These seem to be mainly an ice boot, and are probably too stiff for many roller skaters. Also, I don't know anyone who uses them or where to get them, so they might be difficult to find.
Graf is another Canadian company that mainly produce hockey equipment. In fact, they are so hockey focused you won't see any figure boots on their website, but you can still find them at online stores and rink shops. I knew someone who skated in Graf boots for many years. She had very narrow heels, and these were the only boots that were able to hold her feet in place until she got a full custom boot.
Pros: These boots are well made, nicely padded, and seem to hold up very well. They have a nice classic look to them.
Cons: They are hard to find, only come in a limited range of styles, and may be too stiff for many roller skaters. They are also fairly expensive, without any options available at a lower price point.
Harlick is an American boot company that create hand-crafted leather boots. Although they have stock options available, they really are much more of a custom boot company. Because of this, they can cater easily to the needs of every individual, and you really can create the ultimate boot of your dreams.
Pros: The customization options on these boots can let you get the perfect fit, stiffness, and style options you want. You can have a classic white boot or a crazy colorful boot with swirly designs. Harlick boots are used by skaters in all disciplines, but with the emergence of Edea these are now more favored by figure and dance skaters than by freestyle skaters (though many top freestyle skaters use Harlick boots as well). These boots hold up very well (mine have been going strong for over 5 years), and personally I find that they are the best, most comfortable boots I have ever owned. The company will even do refurbishments on the skates (replace tongues and padding that wear out) for reasonable cost, so that can be done to extend the lifetime of the boot even further. They are my favorite, so I am somewhat biased, but I really love them. They are handcrafted in California, and quality is really evident.
Cons: Yes, even though I love them dearly, there are many people who don't like Harlick boots, and so I feel I must at least present their opinions here as well. First of all, these boots are expensive. I admit it - I didn't buy them for years of skating because I thought the price was too high and I didn't want to spend that much money on a gamble. Of course, when I was going through 2 sets of stock boots a year, well, the cost adds up there too. So although they are expensive off the bat, I have to admit that as fas as cost per wear goes, these are probably the cheapest boots I have ever owned. And I have done much better in competition since buying them, so that is a point in their favor as well. So, yes, the expense is there, but if you are a dedicated skater then it is justifiable.
Some people don't like the fit. Fair enough. As with any footwear, if you don't like the fit, find another brand. I went to an ice skating pro shop that sold many different brands of boots and had them fit me and look at my feet (we told them up front that we weren't buying boots that day - just considering options, but they were more than willing to help us). The owner of the shop said my foot would probably fit best in a Harlick boot, and after that a Klingbeil. So, to be fair, I had a professional opinion before I bought my first pair of custom boots, and if you have access to someone who is knowledgeable and not biased, I recommend this before investing in any high-end custom boot. Since it is custom, you can't try it on until it is finished, so that can be something of a problem as well, and possibly why people who don't like the fit of Harlick boots are so loud in their complaints.
Some people think the boots are too tight when they get them. See my point about breaking in boots above - leather stretches, so I really do think it should be just a bit tight when you first try them on. Similarly, these boots come with instructions for breaking them in - if you don't follow them there will be weird fit issues with the boots. Just because you have been skating for 30+ years doesn't mean you get to skip the break-in process on new boots.
Some people did have problems with the boots separating at the heel, especially on freestyle skates. Most skaters who had this problems switched to the Edea boots, and I don't know anyone who has been having problems with this recently, but I did hear of quite a few incidents when I started skating. There is a warranty period on these boots, but it is not that long, so many skaters were upset over having to pay for repairs.
Everyone complains about the length of time it takes them to make boots - 6 to 12 weeks, even on stock options. Boots are built to order, so it is going to take a long time. Especially after they have large fitting sessions with many skaters placing orders. They tell you this up front, and I would rather they take their time and build my boot correctly than do a sloppy rush job. I think that (especially now that I sew) I have a greater appreciation for the time and effort that goes into handcrafting anything that is supposed to fit the human body (and, let's face it, fitting the foot makes fitting pants look like child's play), so this doesn't really bother me as much as it does other people. I mean, yes, I want my boots now, but I don't think it is a valid complaint to hold against the company.
Finally, because Harlick focuses mostly on custom boots and seems to sell mainly in the US (with most of their fittings happening on the west coast) it can be difficult to get a pair unless you can get to a fitting or trust the person who is fitting you.
(I realize my cons list is longer than my pros list, but since my personal opinion is that these boots are perfect and I won't wear anything else I didn't want to be too biased).
Jackson boots are another Canadian company, and they offer a wide range of styles and prices. I used Jackson boots for many years (the styles have been changed recently and what I used isn't produced anymore) but I had problems with their durability and eventually decided to switch to a different brand.
Pros: These boots have many styles, come in many widths, are easy to find, and are heat moldable to get a better fit for each skater. You can get a decent lower-end boot for a newer skater at a reasonable price, and the width options make these boots more favorable to people who have wide feet.
Cons: Most of the lower end boots don't seem to last particularly well (I had problems with the backs of my boots splitting down the reinforcement seam), the heat moldable material tends to hold on to foot odor much worse than the leather or Clarino lined boots I have used, and the higher quality boots are probably too stiff for many roller skaters. Overall I would say these are a good introductory boot, but I don't see many skaters using them at the higher levels, and it is hard to find a used boot because they get worn out before they get outgrown.
Klingbeil is another American based custom boot company. They are based on the East coast, and tend to go to have more fittings there than on the west coast, at least as far as I am aware. Their fitting process is a bit different from Harlick, but seems to give good results.
Pros: Most people who get these boots seem to love them. They say that they are perfectly comfortable right away and have minimal break-in time. Their production time is faster than Harlick, and they provide full custom options as well. The price is also slightly less, though once you get into custom boot options you are going to be spending a lot of money either way. Their fitting kit seems to be easy to use, even for someone who isn't incredibly experienced, and the boots seem to hold up well, though I have only seen them being used by figure and dance skaters, so I can't speak to how they will hold up to the rigors of freestyle.
Cons: As with other custom options, you have to wait for the boot to be made, it is costly, and you want to trust the person doing your fitting. I have heard some reports of boots coming in the wrong color (not sure if it was the company's mistake or the fitter's error), and most people (even those who swear these boots are perfect) seem to send the boots back once or twice for fixes. Some people who switched from Harlick boots did not like these as well, and some liked them more. I think it depends a lot on the shape of the skater's foot and what they are skating.
Riedell is probably one of the more popular boot companies, especially for beginning skaters. They offer more options for beginners than most other companies, but they also offer boots that will work for skaters at the world class level. Some skaters start out in Riedell and never want to switch to anything else, and others start there and then switch to other boots as their skating develops.
Pros: Riedell is very conscious of having an ice and roller market and has different lines for each. I know a world class skater who uses the Imperial for freestyle skating, and adult skaters who have gown up in 297s and won't use anything else. I have also heard that the 336 is a good all-around boot for a serious beginner. Some of the boots in their ice line would probably be most appropriate for figures, and they do offer custom boot specials. Their prices are fairly reasonable.
Cons: People tend to fit into Riedell boots very well or not at all. I started in Riedell boots, but because because they weren't very complimentary to the shape of my foot I broke down a pair of 297s in about 6 months and got painful blisters on my heel. The prices have gone up from when I started skated (this is true of all boots though - their prices follow the prices of the leather market), and a lot of the classic styles that were popular when I started (like the Silver Star and Gold Star) are no longer being produced. Most of their boot options are geared towards ice skating, so there isn't as wide a range of boots for the roller skating market.
Risport is another Italian boot company that makes a wide range of leather boot for ice and roller skaters. This brand seems to be more popular in Europe than in North America, though I have known a few people who skated on these boots.
Pros: These are well made boots that last a long time. I have heard that they are fairly comfortable but very durable. They have a nice leather construction, but seem to be adopting some new materials to make their boots lighter and stronger.
Cons: These boots can be difficult to find in the US, and I have heard that they can be fairly expensive due to import costs. One skater complained that they were far too stiff and never really felt broken in - they really do seem to be designed more for world class level skaters or for ice, but I have heard that they are a nice figure boot.
A few years ago Snyder plate company decided to design their own boot. It was fairly soft, and the bottom of the soul was completely flat (boots tend to be curved to fit ice blades, but roller plates are flat) and so was only useable for roller skating. I used it as a dance boot for about a year, and while it was nice, everyone who had one seemed to have problems with it.
Pros: Designed for roller skating, nice soft boot. It was a good dance boot, but not really suited to figures or freestyle. It would have been a decent boot for a newer skater.
Cons: The tongues always seemed to slide or bend in awkward ways for everyone, and most skaters only used the boot for a year because of this. I also know of a few people who had problems with the heel separating, and they just didn't generally hold up. They were also a bit expensive for the problems that the skaters experienced. I don't know if you can buy these boots anymore.
SP Teri is another one of the more popular boot manufacturers. I know a lot of people who skate on SP Teri and love them.
Pros: A nice, classic boot that is well liked by most people who skate on it. The construction is good and most people seem to be able to use these boots for many years. There are several stock options available, and custom boots as well. The stock boots come much more quickly than stock options from Harlick, which is appreciated by many skaters.
Cons: I haven't actually heard of any negative complaints with these boots, other than perhaps the price. I had a personal incident with a salesperson from the company who I felt treated me rather rudely, especially when I was inquiring about ordering custom boots, so I have something of a personal dislike of them and won't use their boots. It is nothing against their product, which is rather good, but more that I was offended and insulted and I don't want to give them my money. Most people seem to have fairly good experiences with the company.
So... whew. That is a lot of skating boots! There are many more options for boot brands and styles than there are for a lot of the other skating equipment we have discussed, but since fitting a foot can be difficult I think having these options is better than not having them. So, tell me - what boots do you all use? Do you have a custom or stock boot? Are you using the Edea, or one of the older boot companies? What is the most important factor - price, comfort, or longevity? Do you have a strong brand loyalty, or are you still trying to find your perfect boot? Discuss!