One of my favorite parts of fall is salivating over the season’s new skis, finally available for purchase, or at least ogling. I know what I like, and I know what to pine for. I also know I already have too many skis to justify buying new ones but… I can always dream.
For others, though, buying a new pair of skis can be an overwhelming experience. Ski construction has its own lingo, and it’s a lot for the uninitiated. As both a ski instructor and general lover of skiing, it really bums me out to see people gritting their teeth and dealing with skiing a ski they don’t like. It happens all the time. So this year, before you go out and purchase a phat new pair of sticks, read this buyer’s guide first.
Before actually joining the ski industry, I have had the experience of a salesman underselling my own ability and selling me equipment that definitely was not best for my style of skiing. At the time, I honestly didn’t know enough about the equipment I was looking at, and it wasn’t until much later that I realized how much better off I would have been if I did.
Salespeople, especially in the ski industry, are taught to take what their consumers say with a grain of salt, and, a lot of the time, they should. If you just tell them “I am an aggressive skier,” without any outside knowledge, usually you’ll be dismissed. There are a lot of people out that grossly overestimate their own ability, but certainly not everyone. This guide is not just designed to get you on the best pair of skis possible, but also to teach you how to get the people on the sales side to understand what you actually need, so you can get the pair of skis that fits you.
Like anything, buying skis is a process. It can start now and end three months from now. A pair of skis is an investment that can last a decade, if you’re patient and if you don’t have a ski buying addiction (like me), but to get there takes some research, and some effort. This guide is designed to help with all of that. Personally, having bought skis as both an educated and uneducated consumer, I find a high caliber guide to buying ski equipment elusive. The goal here is to provide you, the potential consumer, with a thorough and detailed process in order to make an educated decision without pushing you into buying a certain brand.
First, we will talk about the various parts of skis that identify them; the vocabulary you will need to be an educated buyer. Afterwards, we will delve into the buying process and how you can go about selecting a ski you want that will fit your style and budget. After reading, you can go forth and conquer. We all need new skis, let’s be real.
There are some very ski-specific terms to know that have important functions on how the ski functions on snow. Let’s run through the most important ones so that you know what the salesman/website is talking about, and sound smart as you browse the options.
“Camber” – Camber is the way a ski bends outward from the bottom, flattening to the snow when you put weight on it. This provides both bounce and control on your skis, and allows you to put more of your edges on the snow, providing superior edging in hardpack. All skis have camber, rocker, or some combination of the two (see diagram below)
“Rocker” – Rocker is the opposite of camber. Where camber allows the ski to grip a hard pack snow surface, rocker allows it to float in deep powder. “Rocker” is defined by the tip and tail curving up from the center of the ski, designed with water skis in mind. Because it doesn’t put as much of the edge on the snow, rockered skis usually ski much shorter than their length, especially on hardpack.
“CamRock” – A lot of skis have a combination of Camber/Rocker profiles, which a few ski companies have dubbed “CamRock.” Regardless of whether they use the name, this is defined by the combination of rocker and camber profiles. Some of these only have a front rocker (where the camber ends prematurely and the ski has rocker on the tip to provide some float but maintain versatility), and some others try to squeeze a camber and tip/tail rocker onto the same ski. Personally, I prefer the latter, which provides float and pop in powder (I tend to be a bouncy powder skier), and also gives pleasant grip on hard snow.
“Measurements” – There are four main measurements of a ski.
The first is overall length. Measured in centimeters, the length of a ski has a lot to do with how you can expect it to perform on snow. The proper ski length changes on preference, but as a guideline you want them to be between your chin and just above your head. Rockered skis will functionally ski “shorter” than cambered skis, because they don’t grip the snow as well, but in general, a longer ski means wider, slower turns. A shorter ski allows you to make quick turns. As an East Coast skier born in bumps and glades, I like a shorter ski that allows me to get myself out of any hairy situation with control. A lot of my west coast friends, raised on big, open, powder fields, enjoy a longer ski that they can lay down, make some big, arcing turns, and feel really stable at higher speeds.
The second is the tip width. This is the width at the widest point along the tip of the ski, usually referred to as the “shovel.” A wider tip usually allows more float, and can help initiate turns quicker by digging your edge in the snow before a skinnier ski would. This is always measured in millimeters.
The third is the underfoot measurement, which, as implied, is the width beneath your foot. Wider underfoot gives you better performance in powder. Skinnier underfoot is all about control on hardpack. The ski industry seems to have found a happy medium, with general “all-mountain” skis fitting into the 85-105 mm range that provides both hardpack control and decent enough float and stability off trail.
The fourth is tail width, which is the width at the tail, more or less the same concept as tip width, also measured in millimeters. The last three measurements are usually displayed together – for example, one of my skis has a profile of 125/98/115, meaning a 125 mm shovel, 98mm underfoot, and 115mm at the tail.
Together, these measurements do a lot to define a ski. You can tell a lot about how you might expect a ski to perform just through the numbers.
“Sidecut” – Sidecut is the combination of the three width measurements. I’ll spare you the technical details, but the function of sidecut is to inform the turning radius. More sidecut means a bigger difference between the width in the middle and at the tips and tails. A carvier (read: turnier) ski has more sidecut.
“Turn Radius” – the turn radius is a calculation based off of sidecut and tells you the radius (in meters) of a turn made on the skis simply by engaging and pressuring the edges. Larger turn radiuses mean a ski that can hold an edge well and be stable at speed. A shorter turn radius means a more nimble ski comfortable making shorter, quicker turns.
“Core” – The core of the ski is what fills in the gap between the base (bottom of the ski) and the topsheet (top of the ski), and it can have a major effect on the skis performance. Most cores are made up of a combination of laminate and different types of wood. Wood naturally differs in stiffness and weight, which can change a lot in your ski’s performance. Additionally, some skis have a sheet of metal added into their cores, which adds stiffness and stability at speed.
The Buying Process
All of the above is very important. Not only will using your vocabulary make you sound educated and gain you the respect of your salesman, but it will allow you to navigate towards what you actually want, rather than what the employee wants to put you in. A lot of people who work in ski shops will push people towards the skis they prefer, that fit their style rather than yours. And some of the people who work in ski shops just simply don’t know enough about skiing to help you. So the more knowledge you bring to the table, the better a result you will have with your ski purchase. What follows are the steps to go through in order to ensure that you get a ski that suits you, with minimal frustration and monetary investment. Not all of these steps are necessary; use your best judgment and do what you can.
- Figure out what you want.
This is the most important part of buying a ski. Skis today vary greatly in what they are built for, and making sure that you get the right ski for the right conditions is very important. Do you want a wide, floaty ski for crushing deep powder? Do you want a turny, carvy ski for laying down some serious turns? Do you want a stiff, crud-busting ski for taking on bumps and other off-piste conditions? Or are you looking for an “all-mountain” one ski quiver that attempts to do everything well (but nothing excellently)? From there, narrow it down. Read reviews, look at possible price points, figure out which one you think is the prettiest, or whatever your process is. A lot of people have preferred brands, and the better the skier you are the more difference you will notice between different skis.
- Do your research
The internet is an amazing place that offers a wealth of websites dedicated to reviewing outdoor gear. There are so many ski-centered sites out there, finding a slew of reviews is very easy. Make sure to check out multiple reviews of the skis you are interested in. Every skier is different, so every review is going to be different. No ski is perfect for everyone – read as much about how the reviewer skis as you do about the ski itself. Especially if you won’t be able to ski it before you buy it (or you’re looking at an unbeatable deal and need to pull the trigger), more research gives a higher likelihood you will be satisfied with your purchase.
- Ski it if you can.
This is an important step to consider. Unless you are looking at an unbeatable deal, ALWAYS try to ski your potential new sticks before you drop some serious cash. The only exception to violating this rule is if you have skied that company’s skis before and you have a good idea what they are going to feel like – all skis within a brand will be relatively similar by nature of similar construction, but skis between brands will differ greatly. Skiing them on the appropriate conditions they are designed for will give you the reality of your hopes and dreams. As an added bonus, most places will wipe the demo cost off of a new pair of skis, so you end up getting to try them for free. This is why previous research is important: you don’t have all day to spend swapping skis. Narrow it down, and go test them out.
- Try to get a deal.
Once you’ve got your dream skis picked out and you know it’s the pair you want, it’s time to go deal hunting. There are a couple strategies that you can use in order to make it easier on your wallet.
- Ask about previous years models. Most of the time, a ski doesn’t change that much year to year. Like with cars, there are minor superficial tweaks every year, but rarely are there true technological overhauls. Usually you can get the previous years’ model for around 50% off by the time the new season rolls around. Just make sure it’s the same ski underneath the surface.
- Ask if they’re selling demo skis. Most demo shops try to sell their inventory throughout the course of the season. Buying from a demo shop, you can usually get a reasonable price on skis with bindings already mounted on them. They aren’t the best bindings, but they’ll work and it’s a cheaper option than buying it new. The good part about these is that they are taken care of by pros and so you know you are getting a ski in top condition compared to buying used skis at a ski swap or on ebay.
- Scour the internet for deals. The worst anyone is going to say is no. It sounds terrible, but be transparent about it if you’re in the shop. It’s OK to say “look, I found this deal online. If you can’t match it I’m going to buy it there.” Most ski shops will try to match it or come close (often calculating that they can add a few bucks in return for instant gratification and no shipping charges). They don’t want to lose a sale, so do what you can to get the deal on the spot.
- If you don’t like ‘em, sell ‘em.
Sometimes a ski purchase doesn’t work out. Either you got a perfect day to test out your skis and they suck in other conditions, or that one run felt good but the fifth no longer does. Just like with everything, you’re not always going to be happy at the end of the day. But don’t give up! If you aren’t happy with your skis, it’s likely that you can sell them for near the price you paid. Through eBay, and gear swap sites like the Teton Gravity forums, you can recoup most of your cost and probably pick up a pair of skis you will actually like.
Quick Plug: Buy American
Everyone knows the big brands: Solomon, K2, Rossignol, Head, etc. While some of these were started as American companies, they all manufacture their skis today over in China, mostly out of foreign ingredients. One of the coolest parts of the modern ski movement is the plethora of small, American ski companies that have popped up over the last decade. Most of these companies press their skis right here in the USA. Including (but not limited to): Bluehouse, Faty-pus, High Society, Icelantic, RAMP, RMU (Rocky Mountain Underground), Voile, 4FRNT, Moment, and Parlor.
Based on that list, allow me to do a product plug for two companies I think totally rock. The first is Moment Skis (www.momentskis.com ). Based out of Reno, NV, these guys press their skis from 90% US-sourced materials, and have some crazy innovative designs. Most notably, their skis have squared tips which does absolutely nothing functionally, but is a really cool way to distinguish yourself from everybody else. In terms of actual ski design, they’ve been experimenting with what they call “triple camber” technology (it used to be called the “dirty mustache rocker,” but apparently that name was too racy for the world to take). The triple camber is one of the most fun and unique ski developments I’ve ever felt. Even a ski with tip and tail rocker that uses the triple camber can hold an edge like a racing ski; so well, it’s honestly a little scary.
I own three pairs of Moments (all purchased, although not at full retail), and I love them. They are made with an aspen and pine core, so are stiff enough to ride through gunk but have enough pop to be really bouncy in deep snow (I have never had more fun skiing powder than I do on my Moment Deathwishes). Best of all, they are made in the USA!
The other company I want to give a quick plug for is Parlor Skis (www.parlorskis.com). Made up of a bunch of cool dudes out of Boston, I got to hang out with them a bit at least year’s Boston Ski Expo. Their shtick is a completely custom ski, from bottom to top. You can choose which wood to be the core, add metal, and even create a custom topsheet! I haven’t actually skied on their skis (and they are far too expensive for me to buy), but they are all made in their Boston, MA shop and, as previously mentioned, can be completely customized. I have a hard time believing a ski that is “Custom to the Core” wouldn’t be awesome.