Six Things to Know Before Buying a Pair of Skis
Perhaps you’re fed up waiting in rental lines, or your aging gear has you coasting down the slopes on the alpine version of a rotary phone. No matter what your motivation, buying skis can be daunting. To demystify the process, we sourced pointers from two industry veterans who have sold thousands of pairs of skis over their combined 36 years in the business: Dawn-Marie Jackson, who manages Sport Thoma at the base of New Hampshire’s Waterville Valley, and Jon Crowley of Mammoth Mountaineering in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. If it’s time to hit the ski shop, here’s what they say you need to know.
Skip the Internet
Finding a reputable, brick-and-mortar ski shop is the most important step you can take to ensure you buy equipment that’s best suited for you. Ideally it’s a store near where you ski the most, says Jackson—that way, the staff can point you toward gear that’s optimal for the mountain’s weather and terrain.
How to know which shops are best? Ask the locals and weed out any salespeople that overwhelm you with tech specs. (That’s a better indicator that they’ve memorized the manuals, rather than truly knowing the equipment.) And don’t be surprised when a salesperson asks your weight (and be skeptical of one who doesn’t)—it’s a far more important indicator of what length skis you should be on than your height.
Don’t Assume You Need “the Best”
You’ll get your money’s worth from a four-figure ski purchase only if your ability is as top-notch as the gear. For the average recreational skier, it’s reasonable to spend $600 to $800 for a solid kit of new skis, boots, and bindings.
The exception: If buying American-made is important to you or you’re looking for a handcrafted product, you can spend upwards of $800 on the skis alone. For that, Wagner and Rocky Mountain Underground are two options in the growing boutique sector.
Prioritize the Boots
It may sound counterintuitive, but your boots are far more important than your skis. “You’re standing on a couple of sticks,” says Jackson. “Control, power, responsiveness—it comes from your feet.” If you’re not buying a bundled deal, this is the single purchase to prioritize.
A few pointers: Boots should fit more snugly than regular walking shoes, such that you won’t be able to tell where your boot starts and your foot ends. Try them on with the ski socks you wear on the hill, which helps prevent a common sizing pitfall. And find a good boot fitter, who can mold, melt, and tweak the fit as much as necessary. (The fitter might also recommend custom insoles, which are often well worth the money.)
Be Honest With Yourself
Do you aggressively zoom down the hill, or do you prefer a more timid pace interrupted by plenty of photo ops and hot chocolate breaks? Do you want gear that can grow with you as you improve, or are you just trying to get the best value possible? Are groomed runs your go-to, or are you more likely to be off hunting for pockets of powder in the trees? A good salesperson will ask questions like to these to determine the right length, width, and shape ski for you.
There are rules of thumb. According to Crowley, narrower skis that measure 84mm or less will perform better on harder snow (such as the icy groomers typical of New England), while fatter skis that are 85mm or wider are better on softer snow (think blue-bird powder days in the Sierras). All-mountain designs offer the versatility that their name implies, for those who split their time between different types of terrain.
Generally speaking, most nuances of construction are all but irrelevant for most recreational skiers. Plus, the market has largely conformed to a “rockered” shape, characterized by tips that rise gradually off the snow. It helps skiers ease into turns, keeps the ski floating in deep powder, and makes a smoother ride out of choppy terrain.
Try Before You Buy
In a perfect world, you’d demo three different skis—all on the same day, on the same terrain, and in the same weather conditions—to eliminate external variables and simply focus on what’s under your feet. “If you want the perfect ski, it’s really nice to have that luxury,” says Crowley. Think of this as an investment of time rather than money: Most shops charge a daily demo fee that can be applied toward a purchase.
Importantly, when testing new gear, don’t expect your old sizing to carry over to a new purchase. Just as with clothes, you won’t necessarily be the same size across different styles, and brand-specific size charts are based on factors that are subject to change like your weight and ability.
Finally, Don’t Stress
“This isn’t rocket science,” says Jackson. “We’re selling fun.”
And do yourself a favor, to help your gear last: At least once a season, spring for a tune and wax.