How to Buy Skis: Tips from an Insider

How to Buy Skis: Tips from an Insider

Published by Brion O'Connor

Finding the Right Skis for Your Style.

Skis have changed dramatically in the past two decades. I recently dug out my classic K2 KVC Comps – pearl white with neon pink highlights – and my first thought was: How did I ever ski on these beasts? And the fact is, I loved those skis. Which just proves how far ski technology has come since I brought those K2s home in the late 1980s.

Today, it's next to impossible to buy a bad pair of skis. But it's far too easy to buy the wrong skis. That's because skis, like skiers, run the gamut, with different price points and different performance points. Ideally, you want the ski that best reflects your style, and your ability.

To determine several guidelines, we once again consulted with Chris O'Donoghue, Kulkea's national sales manager. With more than two decades in the industry, working in both retail and directly with the manufacturers, O'Donoghue is an expert at matching the ideal ski for every skier. Much like buying ski boots, O'Donoghue understands the right ski can make a world of difference.

When Do You Need New Skis?

First, though, determine whether you need new skis. Many skiers don't realize the physical forces at work on the boards. While all skis are designed to perform, the sheer physics involved mean that your boards have a limited lifespan.

"A ski has an average life of about three to five years," said O'Donoghue. "Skis are just a bunch of layers. It's wood, and foams, it's plastics, it's epoxies, resins and fiberglass, all built layer on layer. Most skis built today are laminates. Which means the bottom layers are always longer than the top layers, and every time the ski flexes, all those layers sheer on each other.

"Over time, the core is fine and fiberglass is fine, but the adhesion of the layers to each other breaks down, and the ski doesn't have the same spring that it used to have," he said. "It'll get you down the hill, but you won't have anywhere near the power transmission or the energy boost that you get when you rock back and load the tail of a ski, exploding out of a turn. That stuff fades."

We refer to that phenomenon as skis getting "banged out." That's exactly what happened to my KVC Comps. So how do you know when it's time to upgrade?

"You'll notice it when you grab your skis, and squeeze them together when they're base to base. You can feel it," said O'Donoghue. "If you have to push hard to get the skis to go together, you've got life in them. If you squeeze just a little bit and they go right together, there's no spring in the ski. And that spring is important. That's the ski retaining its shape, which means it has life."

Which Ski is Best for You? Start with two simple questions.

"What I ask most customers is, 'Where do you want to go? What do you want to get out of it?'" said O'Donoghue. "Twenty years ago, we spent a lot of time making sure skiers didn't get in way over their heads. Because if they bought too much ski, they'd work way too hard, they'd get really frustrated and tired, they would not have a good time. And the only association they're making is 'I spent $1,000, and I'm dying out here.'

"Today, skis are like a Porsche 911," he said. "You can take any driver, stick them behind the wheel of a 911, and they can drive it. That fear element is gone. But are they getting the full $90,000 benefit out of it? That's the big question."

"And that has to do with where you're going to take it, and how hard you're going to push it," said O'Donoghue. "So we swing that conversation to, 'Where do you want to go (skiing), and what are your expectations?' Depending on that, skiers are realizing they don't need as much ski as they think they need."

Aside from terrain parks, where freestyle skis reign, destinations include traditional "alpine" (groomed runs at lift-served areas with varying levels of difficulty), "backcountry" (untracked, potentially unstable terrain without lifts or patrols – just you, your skills and the mountain) and "sidecountry" (lift-accessible backcountry terrain just beyond resort boundaries, typically accessed through marked gates).

"Much crossover now occurs between these styles, and some skiers regularly migrate between groomed slopes and riskier, off-piste terrain," said O'Donoghue. "Many skis are engineered to perform well in either environment."

Ski Cut and Ski Size

To get an idea of how much ski you need, O'Donoghue suggests the following metrics: Width, side-cut, length, construction/sidewall, and metal vs. non-metal.

"The first thing you have to look at with a ski is its width," he said. "There are multiple width profiles out there, anywhere from the low 70s at the waist to 100 millimeters. The wider the ski gets, the more it floats, the more varied terrain it will handle, the more versatile it gets. But the tradeoff you get is you give up precision, quickness, carving ability, to a degree."

For more performance, consider skis with more pronounced side-cut. "The next big issue is the difference between how wide the tip is and how wide the waist is, from one ski to the next," said O'Donoghue. "If there's more variation, the deeper the side-cut, the sharper turn the ski is capable of making."

"Narrow waists allow you to establish an edge sooner, resulting in speedy, usually nimble skis that are ideal for groomed runs. They can also shift from edge to edge more quickly," he said. "Wide waists deliver more surface area (more area to make contact with snow), which makes them preferable in soft snow and powder."

Another factor is ski length, which is determined by skier height (in general, with ski tails on the ground, tips should touch between your nose and eyebrows), weight (skiers with larger frames are good candidates for either longer skis or wider skis, since extra mass provides leverage for turning longer skis), and experience (shorter skis appeal more to novices because they're easier to turn, while veteran skiers will choose their size based on the type of turn they want to make).

Construction also plays a role. Skis with a "torsion box" – a wood or foam core encased in a fiberglass wrap, impregnated with epoxy – are preferred by more aggressive skiers, though it might create a fractionally heavier ski. In general, it resists twisting, creating a more rigid ski and improving edging.

With cap construction skis, the top layer (usually fiberglass) spans the core from one edge to the other, creating a rounded ski top. "Cap offers a more forgiving feel and results in lighter skis," said O'Donoghue. Conversely, laminate (or sandwich) construction features horizontal layers of various materials, such as wood and/or foam, stacked atop one another and glued together.

Ski Anatomy Cross Section

Sample cross section anatomy of alpine skis.

Ski Sidewalls

"Vertical sidewalls provide more direct transfer of energy, thus accommodating more precise turns and more ambitious skiing," said O'Donoghue. "Slanted sidewalls are more forgiving."

Finally, there's the metal vs. non-metal debate.

"Adding metal into the ski adds dampening. It's still the best way to dampen the ski for high speed," said O'Donoghue. "If you're a skier on hard surfaces and you want to go fast, then you need to think more about metal. And the price of skis comes from the quality of the metal you put in the ski.

"Look at a Völkl, and the way they keep the weight of the ski down at the high end is milling really high-end titanal alloys into that ski," he said. "It's thinner metal. It's machined differently, and that's what you're paying for."

If there's one major caveat that O'Donoghue has, it's the ever-popular "Demo Day." These events, where manufacturers descend on a particular ski area en masse to showcase their latest products, seem like a consumer's dream. Not so fast, said O'Donoghue. There are simply too many variables on the slopes, including the snow and weather conditions that day, to make the best decision.

"Demoing skis is like taking a car for a test drive," said O'Donoghue. "You take out a Honda, and then you take out a Lexus. You might detect subtle differences in the vehicle. But really, from a track performance point of view, you have no idea of any significant differences. The reality is that the dealer is doing it because they want you to establish ownership with the vehicle before you get back to the dealership, so that you're more likely to buy the car. It's all designed to create an emotional bond with the product."

However, on mountain Demo days are a great way to test skis without a commitment or emotional attachment. Consider it a mission, be objective and be patient. Once you've identified where you want to go and what to get out of a ski, demoing a pair or three of skis in the same day is a great way to inform your selection. Similarly, the options and quality of on-mountain rental skis has improved significantly over the past decade. Rent a ski that meets your needs and the day's conditions. After some runs if you don't like the way it skis head back to the shop, share your feedback and trade into another pair.
In short, be smart, and find the right ski for your skill level by doing some research, discussing choices with a ski professional and put them to the test. This approach will pay big dividends.


Related Articles:

How to Buy Ski Boots: Tips from an Insider.
Getting Ready for Ski Season.
Printable Ski Gear Checklist (PDF).
Prepare to Ski.

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