As summer winds to an end and kids are balefully gazing at “Back to School” ads, those of us who are total skiing addicts celebrate the end of summer by hitting the pre-season ski sales. I confess that I seldom miss one of these events even if I don’t need anything. However, with a couple of kids to equip, it is a rare year when my shopping list doesn’t have anything on it. For skiing families, pre-season sales and swaps can be a godsend. I am not the greatest bargain hunter in the world - one of my instructor friends has that title - but I have done well enough over the years to feel qualified to offer some tips.
Before going into specifics about different kinds of equipment, there are some general rules that seem to help. The first is a bit of a no-brainer and is important for sales and swaps - get there early. With ski shop pre-season sales, the name of the game for the owner is inventory clearance. If the shop rats and store staff haven’t gotten to it yet, the good stuff goes early. Rule number two is to plan ahead and have a good idea of what you want. If you want a legitimate reason for not having thrown out your old ski magazines, the pre-season sale is it. Dig up those buyer’s guides and give them a read. If you have actually demoed some skis - as if anybody gets much of a chance to do that - all the better. Put together a “hit list” and hope that you get lucky. Even if you don’t, the education will put you in a position to be flexible. Rule three is to be relentless. If you are willing to put the time in, there are plenty of shops out there that will be having pre-season sales. Visit as many of them as you can. If you have the time to be relentless you can also afford to be patient. If you don’t see anything that grabs you at one sale, see if you get lucky at another. Also, if the shop doesn’t sell an item in August, it won’t put it in a dumpster in September. Of course, swaps are a different story because once the swap is over, it’s really over. As a general rule, exceptional deals on skis or boots for adults are rare at swaps. For children’s equipment and clothes, swaps are the mother lode.
This is probably the first year that there will be any kind of selection of shaped skis at the pre-season sales and swaps. Shaped skis will not, as one goofy magazine article implied, make you an expert in a day. However, they are easier to ski, generally much more forgiving and can do anything a conventional ski can and more (unless you are a racer or a total mogul animal). If you have good basic skills, you will feel a difference and probably enjoy them. If you go for shapes, remember that you should go down about 10 centimeters in length from what you would ski in a conventional ski. Some shaped skis also have different personalities at different lengths. If you are at a sale rather than a swap, ask the salesperson. Talk to the salesperson about more than length - tell them how you ski, where you ski, what level of skier you are and let them help you make the choice. Ask them to compare the ski you are interested in to another one they stock. If the answers are vague, go look at something else and try to tag another salesperson later.
At swaps, you are much more on your own. Beware of skis with bindings that are more than 10 years old as ski shops won’t adjust them and they probably won’t do you any good. (A lot of swaps won’t let people put bindings out that are that old or will require the sale tag to note that the bindings are obsolete). Check to see if one of the skis is bent by separating the skis so the brakes unlatch and putting them base to base. Step back a little and see how the tips (and tails) diverge. If one seem to head outward faster than the other, the ski is bent. Check the edges for rust - a little is ok - and for how much meat is left. If a new section of edge has been spliced in buy something else. Nobody who skis much in the east can avoid having gouges in their bottoms, but if the bases show evidence of a huge weld or patch, the ski could be damaged deeper than the base. Camber, which is the “rise” in the middle of the ski that occurs when it lies flat with no weight on it, is harder to check. Modern skis don’t lose their camber very easily but can lose their spring if they have been skied to death. Overall wear is as good an indication as any here.
When buying for kids, junior skis are the best choice until they get to be around 120 pounds. If you don’t see a mammoth growth spurt coming on, don’t be afraid to buy a little longer ski to allow some growing room and try to stretch use out to two seasons. Between the low cost of kids skis at swaps, the generally lower price of new junior skis and special lease or trade in programs at some shops, you should be able to get skis around the right length as needed without breaking the bank. With a child who is just learning how to ski, I wouldn’t go longer than a ski that is longer than the child is tall. As skills and ability increase, they can certainly use a longer ski and tolerate a little extra length in anticipation of growth.
There is no single piece of equipment that is more important than your boots. If your boots don’t work for you, nothing is going to work for you. Don’t buy a boot because it is the “hot” boot or because of the color or because it is easy to take on or off. Buy the boot that fits, has the right flex and has the features you need. Work with a salesperson whenever possible and give them enough information to help sell you the right boot. Unless you are very much a beginner, avoid rear entry boots (they disappeared for a reason) and go for a traditional overlap boot. Beware that the size marked on a boot is a rough estimate (very rough for some boots). Believe what your feet are telling you, not what the label on the boot says. If you wish, you can check the shell size by pulling out the liner and standing in the shell. With your toes touching the shell in front you should have about one half to three quarters of an inch clearance between your heel and the shell (about one finger and certainly no more than two.) Replace the liner and try the boot on. The boot should be snug, perhaps very snug, when you first put it on. Buckle the boot and stand up and flex your knees forward to seat the heel. At this point you should be able to wiggle your toes a bit. If you can graze the liner with the tip of your big toe, the length is about right. In the back, your heel should be firmly fixed in the boot. Spend some time in the boot, standing or walking with your knees and ankles flexed as if you were skiing. This also allows you to check the flex - although the boot will be a lot more flexible in a warm shop than it will when skiing. The boot should start to feel better after a few minutes. Remember that a boot will never, ever get tighter as you use it. Don’t buy one that is as comfortable as a bedroom slipper the first time you wear it.
When buying boots at a swap the condition of the liners and the boot will tell you how much use the boot has had. Remember that unless the to boot appears to be brand new, the liners will have already packed out to somebody else’s foot and ankle. The boot had better be comfortably tight and feel pretty good or you will be out of luck.
Ski swaps are a boot gold mine if you have pre-teen kids. Junior boots with hardly any wear are usually abundant. Keep in mind that kids, with the exception of junior racers or legitimately strong skiers, do better with a softer boot rather than a stiff one. Try to coax your kids through the fitting process and be forewarned that your child may like a boot that isn’t right. Don’t trust the little darlings to be truthful about fit. Take the liner out and check the shell size. Have the kid wear the liner like a shoe and check the fit as if it was a shoe. Then put the liner in and have them wear the boot. Follow the steps outlined above and keep your fingers crossed.
With children, buying large presents a dilemna. You certainly don’t want to discover the boot you bought in October is too small in January. If this makes you nervous, buy a little large. Just don’t expect a pre-teen to get more than one season out of a boot. If you don’t find anything at a swap, ask your favorite shop if they have a lease program or a similar arrangement for junior equipment. A lot of shops do because today’s junior skier is tomorrow’s adult customer. Again, you can probably find an affordable way to get equipment that fits.
Pre-season sales present a great opportunity to pick up bindings at a considerable savings. Bindings tend to change incrementally rather than have one year’s bindings represent a huge technical advance over the previous year’s. Last year’s binding will probably work just fine, and cost less.
If your budget is limited, what you spend should be controlled by what you need. If you have noticed the little numbers on your bindings you know that these are for the DIN settings. To grossly oversimplify, the DIN setting corresponds to the amount of force needed to release the binding (which should be less than the amount of force needed to transform your leg bones into bread crumbs) and is set according to height, weight, age, and skill. DIN settings are higher for more advanced skiers because they can, and will, put higher loads on the binding without actually falling and the consequences of the binding releasing when it shouldn’t can be nasty. Beginners need lower DIN settings because they fall more often, fall differently, and are not as likely to suffer premature release. Less weight means less force and thinner bones, so smaller people get lower DIN settings.
Whatever you buy should have the appropriate range of DIN settings for whoever you are buying it for. Race models have DIN settings that top out at 12 to 15. Most bindings have a maximum DIN setting of 10 and lower priced models in the same line may have an upper limit of 8. Conventional wisdom is that bindings perform better and more predictably when they are not adjusted to the extremes of their ranges. So your goal is to avoid a binding that is going to be cranked up to the top of its scale and be closer to the middle of its range. If you are shopping for your 12 year old and you don’t expect them to be using the binding when they go to college, you probably don’t need to buy an adult race binding. A less expensive binding may provide plenty of protection. If you are 22 years old, weigh 220 pounds and ski in mogul competitions when you are not serving as the NASTAR pacesetter at Jackson Hole, the mid range binding with a maximum setting of 8 is not a good choice.
If you recently had your bindings checked and accurately calibrated for your existing bindings, you have a ballpark for what your DIN should be. If you don’t know, or you are buying for your spouse, child, etc., talk to a salesperson and provide them with information about the age, sex, size, skiing ability and skiing habits of the intended user. They should be able to tell you if a model you have in mind will fit the bill.
Teaching and skiing every weekend, I buy poles cheap and often. Others believe that lighter or better balanced poles really make a difference in their skiing. Whether you get el cheapo aluminum shafts or graphite shafts, you do want to get the length right. Pick up the pole, flip it over and grip it just below the basket. With your upper arm at your side the angle between your upper arm and your forearm at the elbow should be about 90 degrees. Some of the higher end graphite poles have grips that can be moved up or down the shaft an inch or two. Otherwise, remember that either you or a shop can cut a pole that is a little long but can’t stretch one that is too short. Younger children, especially kids just starting out, are better off without poles until they are intermediate (beginning parallel) skiers. If you get poles for your youngster, expect the following: a.) they will only last a season, b.) the likelihood that they will get lost increases logarithmically with the number of times you go skiing, c.) a pole or poles WILL be used to poke the skis, clothing, or person of the nearest available brother or sister.
Accessories like goggles, locks, gloves, etc. don’t neccessarily have model years. This limits the incentive shops have to unload them, so massive price cuts are unlikely. Gear bags, binding covers and ski bags with logos and graphics do have year-specific styles so keep an eye out for them.
Try to snag some spring gloves if you need them - it’s not so easy to buy them cheap in February.
I’ll limit my comments to male teenagers because that is all I have. Male teenagers are prone to the natural urge to have the hottest stuff. After all, if you ski in race boots and have racing bindings on your full bore conventional sidecut race ski, you must be a hot skier. Aside from cost, this is yet another situation where your kid KNOWS he is ready for something that is really for adults. Your teenager may very well be a really hot skier and have skills commensurate with super stiff boots and skis. If he/she is in a race program then they will need that stuff (the coach will probably provide guidance on what to get). Maybe your kid is not a racer but is otherwise quite good and needs a high performance ski. However, a 130 pound intermediate who is on stiff skis and in stiff boots is not neccessarily going to get a benefit from this kind of equipment - there is a real risk that neither skis nor boots will flex enough to allow him to stay in balance. For the younger or smaller teenager, think seriously about getting equipment appropriate for their size and skills. If you think they are ready for a “hot” ski get a pair. Boots are another story. Stay away from the race boots unless you are quite sure that your child is good enough, big enough and strong enough to be able to use the boot rather than have the boot use him. There are plenty of good boots out there that are not bricks and plenty of skiers, adults and teens, skiing really well on “all mountain” or “soft race” boots.
Even though it may feel ridiculous carrying skis or a wool hat in August, remember that you’ll be skiing before you know it.
Otto Matheke is a PSIA certified Level II instructor at Ski Liberty, where he has been teaching since 1993. A graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont, Otto also works as an attorney with the U.S. Department of Transportation.
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