There are a million options out there for snowboarding boots. They range wildly in price, styles, and fit just like regular shoes. But unlike regular shoes and boots, there are some features uniquely important to snowboarding boots. Controlling heel lift is one.
If your heels aren’t staying put in your boots, your riding will suffer. You will work harder than necessary. You will lose a lot of power transfer between your feet, your bindings, and your board. And you will not get the feel of transferring your weight and using your edges to turn because you will be using your toes to compensate. Because of this, the snowboarding industry has invested a lot of resources into creating different ways to pull your foot back in the heel pocket of your boot and hold your ankle in place.
There are harnesses, J-bars, dual lacing systems, and deepened heel pockets to name a few. Then there is my personal favorite the STR8 JKT by Salomon. They all work differently, but all have the same goal of locking your heel down. I have tried and owned a LOT of boots for my few years of riding, many more boots than many people who have been riding a lifetime because of this heel hold concept. I have very narrow heels and the rest of my foot is average, so even when buying regular shoes, heel slippage is an issue. When searching for snowboarding boots, it has become of the utmost importance to find boots that hold the heel down nice and tight without cutting off circulation to the rest of my foot.
J-bars are probably the most common method of heel containment. They are foam pieces that are shaped like the letter “J” and they are built into the liner of the boot. Some companies also offer J bars that stick on to the outside of the liner for people who find they need a little more support, especially as your boots “break in” or “pack out” as the snowboard industry refers to what happens to the liner starts to break down and compact over time resulting in the boots feeling bigger. There are varying degrees of padding in this J-bar area. Some are so aggressive that they can be painful and some are barely felt at all. Built in J-bars can be very effective. In my experience, the ones you stick on yourself are less effective. They are further away from your foot, so the impact is not usually as good as those that are inside right up against your foot. And they do not always stay in place, especially if you take your liners out.
There are also harnesses that wrap around liner pulling your ankle and usually your lower calf back in the boot, setting it firmly in the heel pocket. These can be excellent as well. They can be combined with J-bars to provide support and hold. For most people this is probably more than sufficient.
Many boots have dual lace zones for the shell. Many of these have one lace tighten area on the top of the foot, and the other to tighten from the ankle up. Some boots, like some models by Deeluxe, have one lace that tightens just that area on top of the ankle that will pull your ankle back and situate it properly in the heel pocket of the liner. The other lace takes care of the rest…the area on top of the foot and the calf. This is a good system, but by isolating that area on the shell, it is not as close to your foot so it’s not so much of a direct feeling. The yellow lace in the picture indicates the area that is controlled by one of the pulls. The grey lace is controlled by the other pull.
Then there is Salomon’s STR8JKT. This is a harness-type system, but it is localized to just on top of the ankle. It has its own lace and the only function of that lace is to tighten the harness and pull your foot back into the heel pocket and hold it there. That may sound like all of the other systems, but because the lace only controls that one very specific area, the tightness of that lace is specific to exactly what you need, specifically for heel hold. It is an excellent system for people who have heel hold issues without a lot of other concerns with the boot. Liners are not meant to be pulled really tight. The shell is usually where you make tightness adjustments. And even though my Salomon boots only have one lace on the shell that controls the whole boot, it doesn’t matter because the STR8 JKT is holding my foot in the exact place that it needs to be held. Check out this video from Salomon on how it works.
Regardless of what system your boots employ to keep your heel firmly in place while you ride, all that matters is that it works for you, your foot, and your riding. When you are just starting out and your riding technique is not dialed in, you might tend to use your toes more when you turn rather than using your ankles, knees, and hips to transfer weight as you turn. So while keeping your heel firmly in place is important for everyone, it is something to really keep in mind when you are first learning to ride. Stop by your local snowboard shop for help getting fitted for boots. They can show you some different systems, and you will have the chance to try them on and see what feels best for you.