Buying ill-fitted ski equipment can be costly

Posted: Friday, October 27, 2000

Buying the equipment for skis is pretty much like buying the equipment for anything else. Be prepared, or be disappointed.

The initial step into a ski shop or ski swap can be pretty intimidating. Lined up on the wall in every direction are skis, poles and boots of every imaginable color and style made out of everything from bamboo to space-age fibers.

But Penny McClain, the chair of the Tsalteshi Trails Association and an assistant ski coach at Skyview High School, said walking into a ski shop or swap with a little knowledge can make walking out with the right equipment a snap.

"The bottom line is you need to know what kind of skiing you're going to be doing," McClain said. "People who don't know anything about skiing could end up with expensive skis they won't use.

"The wrong equipment can make skiing miserable."

There are four main pieces of equipment every skier needs -- skis, bindings, boots and poles. Like anything else, they vary in price. McClain said a complete package can go anywhere from $150 to $500.

Here are her suggestions on how to get equipped.

n Skis

Skis are as specialized as fishing rods. Just as anglers select a rod and reel according to what they will be fishing for, skiers must select a ski that will fit the type of skiing they will be doing.

If they don't, skiing will be an awkward experience akin to flipping a coho fly for reds with a halibut rod.

McClain said there are basically four types of skiing -- classical skiing on groomed trails, skate skiing on groomed trails, backcountry skiing and telemarking.

In the classical technique, skiers stride and glide forward in a motion that resembles walking. Skating involves a motion with footwork that resembles that of an ice skater or in-line skater.

Backcountry skiing involves heading off of groomed trails and onto rugged terrain with varying snow conditions. Telemarking is pretty much like alpine skiing, only with a loose heel.

Those with no experience on skis will probably want to do classical or skating on trails before heading off to dodge trees in the backcountry or cascade down mountains.

"Backcountry skis have metal edges," McClain said. "They're heavier, and they're expensive. They don't do well on trails because they are too wide.

"Those who plan on skiing on trails should not get them."

Those who choose to classical ski on groomed trails next must decide between waxless and waxable skis.

With both, the basic skiing motion stays the same. When skiers kick, the midsection of the ski is pushed to the snow. Here, something is required to create traction to push the skier forward.

In a waxless ski, that traction is provided by a pattern of scales in the midsection of the ski that grip the snow. In a waxable ski, a wax is applied to the midsection to provide the traction.

When deciding between the two, a general rule is that a waxable ski means better performance, while a waxless ski means more convenience.

"No-wax skis are nice because you can just head out the back door and go ski," McClain said. "Plus, you don't have to know how to wax to ski.

"But wax skis can give you a better, longer glide."

Plus, there are conditions, like icy snow, where the scales aren't very effective but wax can be effective. However, on days when the snow conditions are constantly changing, waxable skis can be a nightmare.

"No-wax does not mean perfect all of the time," McClain said. "Probably, for most of the winter they should be fine."

There are two more factors to consider when choosing between a waxable or waxless ski.

First, find out what skiing partners or other family members are using and strongly consider using the same style. If they have waxable skis, it could be hard to keep up with them using waxless skis. If they have waxless skis, they might grow impatient waiting around while somebody else waxes up.

Second, a waxless ski will make a grating sound as it slides across icy or packed snow. Waxable skis tend to result in a more pleasurable auditory experience.

Once the classical skier has decided to go waxable or waxless, it's time to find the right length of ski. The general rule for this is simple. Stand up, raising one arm above the head. The length of the classical ski should be the distance from the wrist joint to the floor.

Exceptions to the rule can be caused by weight of the skier or stiffness of the ski. A heavy skier might want a slightly longer ski, while a lighter skier might want a shorter ski. That's why it's always important to get competent help, whether at a ski swap or ski shop.

If getting the ski at a swap, closely check it for cracks or areas where it has been glued. A good place to check for cracks is the tail of the ski, which often is damaged by clunking the skis down on a hard surface. If a ski is cracked or glued, don't buy it.

Also, check the bottom of the ski for gouges. If the bottom is rough, ask an expert if it is reparable.

Skaters want a ski that is 10 to 15 centimeters shorter than a classical ski. All skate skis are waxable skis. The weight of the skier also is important here, so if there are experts or sales representatives around, ask their advice.

Finally, for those who just can't make up their mind whether to classical or skate ski, there are combi skis, which should be about 5 or 10 centimeters shorter than classical skis.

"If they're playing with the idea of skating or classical, but don't want to spend a lot of money, they can go for a combi ski," McClain said. "It's good for beginners trying to decide what they like.

"If they have a lot of fun doing either technique, they can always wait a few years and upgrade."

n Bindings

There are two basic types of bindings -- the three-pin binding and the toe-clip binding. Classical skiers can go with either binding, while skaters must go with the toe-clip binding.

In the three-pin binding, there is a rubber slab extending from the toe of the boot that remains fixed to the ski. In this method, the flex comes from the boot, not the binding.

"The three-pin binding seems to restrict the foot," McClain said. "Plus, the binding sticks out over the edge of the ski and can rub on the grooves in the trail."

With the toe-clip method, the tip of the boot attaches to a binding that flexes, meaning the boot doesn't have to do as much flexing. McClain said most skiers prefer this type of binding, with the main exception being backcountry skiers.

There are two types of toe-clip bindings. In a step-in binding, the skier doesn't have to manually secure the boot in the binding. In a manual binding, the skier must do the securing.

"The step-in is cheaper and they work OK," McClain said. "The manual binding is better and a little more expensive. Step-in bindings squeak and can freeze up. Manual bindings are sturdier."

n Boots

Once the type of ski and the binding are selected, the process of elimination makes finding a boot a relative breeze.

Naturally, the boot must fit the binding on the ski. Boot-and-binding systems are far from universal. For instance, there are Rottefella NNN I and NNN II bindings. Alpina and Rossignol make boots for the bindings, but NNN I boots don't fit NNN II bindings, and vice versa.

The best way to avoid a disaster purchase is to bring the ski and binding and make sure it fits the boot before purchasing the boot.

Next, the style of skiing the boot will be used for determines the type of boot that will be purchased. Classical boots have a flexible sole, while skating boots have a stiff sole and higher ankle support. Combi boots have a cuff that is removable for classical skiing.

Finally, get a boot that fits comfortably from the get-go. Skiing boots are tough, so they're not going to break in like a hiking boot. If the boot is rubbing a skier the wrong way at the shop or swap, the boot should not be purchased.

Ski boots are well insulated, so at most the skier will need two pairs of socks. Remember, a tight boot restricting circulation to the feet can cause numbness just as easily as the cold can.

n Poles

The process of elimination also makes poles easy to select.

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 to the bottom of the ear.

"There are no combi poles," McClain said. "Skiers doing either technique with the wrong length of pole will develop bad habits."

At a ski swap, carefully check a pole for any cracks or imperfections, especially at the handle or near the basket. Fiberglass or carbon poles can easily break, while aluminum poles can bend. If the basket is broken, talk to an expert to make sure it can be replaced.

"If there is anything I would have them buy new, it's poles," McClain said. "They're not that expensive. If they're buying them used, make sure they talk to someone who really knows what they're looking for."

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