Choosing the Right Ski Equipment, From Bindings to Boots

If you’re one of those skiers who still insists on using gear that’s been in the back of your garage since the 1970’s, you might want to consider trying the new technology this year. I know, I know, you’ve thought about trying new skis “one of these days” but you still can’t quite talk yourself out of just one more year on those beloved, rust-covered Heads. Well, that approach could actually be keeping you from enjoying one of the best ski trips of your life.

Back in the ’60’s and ’70’s, skis were long, heavy tug boats that towered over your head. The bindings were precarious contraptions that bordered on being dangerous; once in a while they’d even release. And your leather boots gave you just a little more support than your Converse basketball shoes. Well, all of that has changed.

Shaped Skis
Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to find a pair of skis that are not “shaped.” Conventional skis are a thing of the past. The term, “shaped”, refers to the hour glass design that all contemporary skis have. Based on the shape of a snowboard, shaped skis are wider in the tip and tail (front and back) and narrower at the waist (the middle). When you tip moving skis onto their edges, the skis turn themselves. But are all shaped skis alike?

Like most other types of sports equipment, shaped skis come in a variety of designs; most notably the length of the skis and their dimensions. If you’re just learning to ski, choose a shorter ski that’s easier to maneuver. Beginning female skiers should use skis no longer than 130-140 centimeters (skis are usually measured using the metric system). Beginning male skiers can start out on 140-160 centimeter skis. The general rule of thumb is, the taller and heavier you are (these usually go together, don’t they?), the longer the ski you should use. If you’re just starting out, you need to have a shorter ski; one that is easier to turn and doesn’t go quite as fast. As you become more experienced, try moving up to a longer ski. Longer skis are generally more stable at higher speeds, although they’re more difficult to turn.

The dimensions of the ski at the tip, tail and waist determine the “sidecut.” Skis with very broad tips and tails and a very narrow waist are said to have a lot of sidcut; skis with less difference between the tips, tails and waist have less sidecut. The more sidecut a ski has, the sharper the ski will turn.

Skis also come with varying degree of “flex.” Flex relates to how soft a ski is or how much it bends under pressure. Generally speaking, you want a stiff ski if you ski predominantly groomed, hard pack runs. If you like to ski powder, off-piste (off the main runs) and other varying conditions, you want a softer, more flexible ski.

Bindings
Bindings are the safety mechanisms that hold the ski boot onto the ski. Sometimes, this is a good thing, sometimes it’s not. Back in the early days of skiing, there were only a few different types of bindings that you could mount on a pair of skis. They were usually very crude mechanisms that “were supposed to” release your boot in the event of a fall. They worked some of the time: part of the time, they would prematurely release when they shouldn’t have. Part of the time they wouldn’t release unless you hit them with a sledgehammer. The good news is that bindings have come a long way since then.

Most contemporary bindings are actually “binding systems” that integrate directly with the skis. Often times, you buy the ski and the bindings as one package instead of separate components. Contemporary ski/binding systems allow the equipment to move together, while holding the boot to the ski, preventing premature releases. Always select a binding system, whenever possible.

Boots
At the end of the 1960’s, leather boots gave way to ankle-high plastic boots. Boots made of plastic offered greater support and control of the skis, but were like putting your foot in a vise. Since those days, plastic boots have come a long way and offer infinitely more control and comfort. A relatively new concept is the “soft boot.” Soft, as it turns out, is a relative term.

Soft boots combine the comfort of the older boots with the support of the new ones. Soft boots are made with a rigid plastic shell on the sides to offer support and control during turning, with a softer material in the center for flexing the ankles forward. Soft boots are great for the beginning skier, but can limit the performance of advanced skiers.

Should I rent or buy?
Good question. Generally speaking, if you ski less than 10 days a season, rent your equipment; all of it. If you only ski 10 days a year, you’ll enjoy the convenience of not having to lug around your skis and boots through the airport, maintaining them, etc. But, if you typically ski more or have very specific equipment requirements, you’ll probably want to buy your own skis and boots.

Equipment also changes dramatically from one year to the next. Unless you’re prepared to trade in your equipment every two years or so, you’re better off renting. The one exception is boots. If you are at least an intermediate skier, regardless of how many days a year you ski, you should own your own boots. Owning your own boots allows you to have them custom fitted with personalized foot beds and liners. This can make a tremendous difference in how you ski and will eliminate all of the hassles with rental boots you experience the first two days of your vacation. Look for the spring or fall sales at your local ski shop. You can save up to 50% on the previous year’s equipment. And one last thing. Never rent your equipment at home. Instead, always rent your equipment at your destination. And the closer to the mountain, the better. If you end up having problems with either your boots or your skis, its easier to jump off the mountain, swap out your gear and get back to skiing. You can’t do that if you rented your boots back in Cleveland.

Toughing it out with your old equipment can put a damper on your skiing vacation. If you haven’t tried the new equipment, you owe it to yourself to give it a try!

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