Ski swaps: Bargain or boondoggle?

Careful shoppers can find great deals while uniformed buyers can waste money

Posted: Friday, October 25, 2002

It's hard to think about skiing when it's 40 degrees out and raining, and forecasted to be so for the next several days, but ski swap season is upon us.

The Kenai Central High School Sports Swap will be Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the high school cafeteria. Equipment and donations can be checked in today from 5 to 8 p.m. and Saturday from 8 to 10 a.m.

In addition to dreaming about whiter pastures, ski swaps give Nordic types a potentially cost-effective chance to gear up for the winter.

But Robert Johnson, who's been selling skis on the peninsula for over 10 years, said ski swaps also give opportunities aplenty to make money-sucking mistakes that are impossible to rectify.

"I'm not a super fan of ski swaps, but there are some deals out there," said Johnson, the ski manager at Beemun's Bike and Ski Loft in Soldotna. "In all honesty, if you are truly uninformed, I wouldn't trust your first choices."

Johnson said that every year, at least one person will come to him expecting him to work some magic with bad purchases made at a ski swap.

For instance, last year Johnson dealt with somebody who had touring skis that were too long, backcountry boots when they needed racing boots and poles that were too short.

"They picked it all up for about $60," Johnson said. "Every single bit of it wasn't used.

"It was a total waste, and it was somebody that couldn't afford to make a mistake."

But ski swaps don't have to be such a bad experience. Johnson said that using the right method can result in some decent results.

"If you absolutely don't know anything about skis, you have to depend on somebody with some sort of knowledge to help you out," Johnson said. "Most of the ski swaps are run by experienced skiers in the area.

"You just have to be willing to ask for help."

Johnson said a ski swap can be a good place to buy boots, especially for kids.

"A lot of kids outgrow boots before they wear out," Johnson said. "But skis, especially racing skis, are usually pretty worn out before they are sold."

On the flip side, Johnson also said ski swaps are a great place to get rid of boots that children have outgrown.

"There's a lot of great stuff in closets that never gets used," Johnson said. "I'd encourage parents to get in their closets and get stuff they're not going to use down to the ski swap.

"An old set of boots can be the difference between a kid being on the team and not being on the team. Also, if you can get $20 for an old pair of boots, it makes buying a new pair of boots easier."

Finding a boot that fits well is important, but there is much more to it than that. Each boot is designed for a particular binding system. If the binding system on the ski and the binding system of the boot don't match up, skiing is not possible.

First of all, Johnson said not to buy boots for a three-pin binding system. The boots have a plastic slab coming out of the toe area. On the bottom of the plastic slab is three holes that the pins from the binding fit into.

"That's an older system that's not readily available right now," Johnson said. "There's way better systems available right now."

Johnson said the two main binding systems are Solomon and NNN. The two are similar, but don't match. Plus, there are backcountry variations for both, so it's a good idea to bring the ski for which the boot will be used. Ask a knowledgeable person if both are compatible.

"It's real common for someone to buy a boot thinking they got a steal, and then finding out the boots don't match the binding so the boots are essentially worthless," Johnson said.

Things get even dicier when it comes time to buy a ski. There are a ton of choices out there: waxless classical skis, waxable classical skis, skating skis, combi skis and backcountry skis. Plus, there are different grades of quality for all of those skis.

If all this sounds Greek, Johnson said it's not a bad idea to just consider buying all the stuff new and getting help from a dealer. He said a waxless, classical touring package complete with skis, boots, poles and bindings, can start from $160 to $200.

"It's like comparing buying a new car to a used car," Johnson said. "With a dealer, you feel fairly safe getting the right ski you need.

"Sometimes, these deals at ski swaps aren't as good as people thought."

Johnson said it's common for people to buy things that almost will work at a ski swap, because there isn't a full enough selection to give them exactly what they need.

"Sooner or later, a person is faced with something they don't quite need," Johnson said. "That's where disappointments come from.

"They think it's a deal, so they think they have to buy it."

Disappointments also come from buying a ski for its color, price and brand name. Each manufacturer makes a plethora of different types of skis, so buying a ski for the manufacturers' name is a mistake unless it's the type of ski desired.

Johnson said ski swaps are a great place to pick up a rock ski. A rock ski is an older ski that is meant to be used for icy or spotty conditions. That way, the racing ski doesn't have to take that abuse.

"If I was a skier on a ski team, I'd probably drag my gear into a local retailer or coach," Johnson said. "I'd let them come up with specific ideas as to what to look for at the ski swap."

With poles, preparedness also is important. Classical skiers should get poles that measure up to between the armpit and the top of the shoulder when standing in street shoes on a hard floor. Skaters should get poles that measure somewhere between the bottom of the ear and the lower lip.

"Poles are like anything else," Johnson said. "Go in, ask for help, and don't expect something for nothing.

"Usually, you'll come out ahead."

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