Ski Whisperer: Not Your Average Buyers’ Guide
Our Gear Guide takes a different approach than most. Rather than list and praise a selection of shiny new ski models and boots “suggested” by various manufacturers, we focus on evergreen fundamentals that should help you sort through the equipment jungle.
We do mention a few products as illustrations and we’ll expand many of these topics through the fall, but our intent is less to sell specific equipment than to provide solid guidelines for your own gear hunt.
Realskiers.com has more than four hundred and fifty 2012- 2013 ski reviews, but this column is not about reviews as much as it is about how to find the right ski, boot or specialty shop. Some of this will seem familiar to veteran subscribers, but even though it’s a new year, nothing has changed.
It’s all about the boots
We can’t beat this drum enough! Boots are so much the most important element of equipment that other elements of gear—including skis—are all but accessories by comparison. Assuming less than unlimited funds, we recommend an equipment budget with 50% of the total given to boots, fitting and alignment. If the boot is right, a reasonably skilled skier can manage on almost any ski; if the boot is not, no ski made will perform at its potential.
The No 1 technical barrier to expert skiing is the wedge and ill-designed, poorly-fit or non-aligned boots all but guarantee wedge turn-entry, no matter how many hours of lessons and practice. Good boot choice, fit and alignment will produce better results faster than any amount of private coaching.
Socks are more important than is obvious
Another really good way to guarantee bad boot fit (and cold feet) is to wear thick socks, or, even worse, several pairs of "cushy" socks. Thick socks allow the foot to move around in the shell, compromising precise control. Thick socks also reduce snow-to-foot-feedback and—this may be surprising to some—they "fill in" veins on the top and sides of foot and ankle, inhibiting circulation and creating cold feet.
We recommend very thin wool or blended socks, like the Eurosock Euro Ski Elite. They are relatively expensive, but cost less than half the amount of any lift ticket in North America and can prevent wasting lift money on a never ending string of cold feet and "bad boot" days!
Footbeds are trickyPoorly designed or badly made custom footbeds (aka orthotics) degrade comfort, balance and performance more than many skiers realize. Chief culprits, we believe, are rigid footbeds, like the Superfeet Kork® or Surefoot custom model. These kinds of footbeds lock the foot in an arch-high position, preventing the foot and ankle from making subtle muscle and ligament adjustments the human body has evolved over millennia to maintain upright balance. Given that skiing is a balance-intensive sport. it makes little sense to compromise basic balance capabilities of the feet.
Ironically, custom footbeds typically cost more than $100 and, in our experience, often provide less benefit than $30 off-the-shelf, self-molding products like Downunders® and Superfeet's Trim to Fit® models.
Shape is more important than brand
The ski industry seems bent on selling ever-wider skis to ever more skiers. Worse, shop employees, ski instructors and self-described "experts" in various forums seem to promote favorite models more than they attempt to discover an individual's skiing style and goals in order to suggest the right shape.
There is nothing inherently wrong with wide skis, by which we mean anything with a waist wider than 90mm,. but, and this is the key point, wide rockers are first and foremost for deep snow. Skiers who spend more than half the time on the groomed, or who are working on technical skills, won't gain much benefit by using these skis as primary tools. Wide skis are slower than narrow skis to come up on edge, less nimble in the fall line and reduce margin of error in bumps.
Anyone who relies on a single pair of skis should foremost seek out skis that are versatile. The most versatile skis avbailable are all mountain models with waists in the 75 – 80mm range and with turn radii in the mid teens. The farther one moves away from this mid point on the spectrum, the more specialized and less versatile the ski becomes. World Cup slaloms, with waists of 66-68mm, for example, are all but useless in deep snow. At the other end of the spectrum, ultra-wide powder skis, despite marketing claims to the contrary, simply do not perform well on groomed and hard snow or in tight bumps.
Rossignol Squad 7, full rocker, 120 underfoot, 29m radius
Head World Cup Rebels iSL, 66 underfoot, 11.5m radius
Kastle MX 83, 83 undefoot, 18m radius
Length is as important as shape
Two lengths of the same model from the same brand will ski more differently than the same length of similar models from different brands, even if one is a foam core and the other wood.
Period. End of story.
Binding placement and design are critical
Bottom line on this is fore/aft placement and the combination of boot ramp angle (the difference in height between heel and ball of foot) and binding delta angle (difference in height between brake pad and afd) have more effect on stance and overall performance than most would imagine. We have tested this extensively—details are available on realskiers.com.
Poles affect stance, balance, timing and technical competence
Good poles of the correct length will not improve, but bad poles, or poles either too short or two long will degrade technique in subtle ways.Weight should be as light as possible. If the pole is too heavy, it makes accurate timing difficult and tires the skier.
We recommend poles from Goode and Leki. Both sell models that are extremely light, fairly rigid with modest flexibility and that feature well-designed pistol grips, rather than dangerous platform grips, which can cause sprained thumbs. In the realm of ski poles, the honored adage that you get what you pay for is probably more true than for any other item of gear, except goggles.
Length is likewise crucial. Too long and the skier will either sit back perpetually or, maybe even worse, reach too far down the hill on steeps and in bumps. Either effect is disastrous for balance. Moreover, a pole that is too long will make an efficient arm-swing and pole-touch impossible to achieve.
Vision is the most important human sense
Like binding placement, the value of vision to enhance performance is not widely understood. Human brains devote the greatest percentage of their bulk to managing vision and to using sight to control balance and movement. Anyone accustomed to skiing in sunglasses that allow the eyes to water or in goggles with cheap, distorted, color-changing lenses will experience an immediate performance improvement by donning good goggles or windproof sunglasses with distortion-free lenses.
POC Helmet and Goggle
We’ll explore equipment elements in more depth through the fall, but this quick overview should help you avoid some of the more pernicious pitfalls.
Until next time, Happy Shopping and
Have Fun; Don’t Fall!