Every fall, after the first dusting of snow hits the Cascades, I start getting emails about skis from women. They learned to ski last season on rentals and now their skiing involves a lot more French fry than pizza, and it’s time to commit to the sport. I love it. To me, it ranks up there with prom and graduations, engagements and all those other life milestones. It’s like the shop tech handed back my first pair of freshly mounted skis and said “I now pronounce you a skier,” instead of just someone who skied on the occasional family vacation.
The problem is that process is super overwhelming. There are over 150 all mountain skis on evo’s website, and that only compounds once you toss size into the equation. If the only thing you’ve skied thus far is whatever the rental staff handed you, it’s definitely a lot to navigate. But there are a few key tips to finding a winning first setup:
- Your skis are just a small part of the equation. Just about any intermediate, all-mountain ski with a reasonable width for your mountains (high 80’s to 100mm at the waist for WA) will get the job done for building confidence on the groomers and starting off piste exploration. Don’t get too hung up on reviews, what your friends ski, or boutique brands get a lot of hype. Find something less than a decade old that’s a few cms shorter than your height and put the difference towards additional lessons (not just that beginner day package), lift tickets or season passes, and good boots. You’ll get much better bang for your buck in terms of progression, which means less frustration and more fun. If you’re really committed to getting out almost every weekend, I’m a big advocate for a pair with a track binding or demo binding since your first skis will probably be a short-term affair and you can recoup more of the cost when you sell them in a season or two for something longer/fatter/stiffer. For used setups that show signs of wear (rusty edges, or bases that look faded or foggy), I recommend taking them by the shop for a tune up and they’ll add some life back into the skis. You can also have them test the bindings to make sure they’re functioning safely.
- Has boot shopping resulted in one of the following: buying and selling 3 different pairs of boots, tears (pain or frustration both count), or entertainment of the idea to quit skiing completely? No? Then you probably haven’t found the right boots. There’s a saying in skiing “date your skis, marry your boots” and it’s because getting a solid bootfit is about as easy as finding long term commitment on Tinder. Oh, but yours fit so comfortably? It’s probably your new plushy liner. They hide a multitude of sins that only become apparent after a month or two of skiing in them. But the guy at the store put your foot on a cold, metal slide-y thing and told you they would work? A) That slide-y thing is a brannock device and it’s not the best indicator of what size boot you should actually be in. B) The guy at the shop could be a boot seller whose job it is to get a lot of people in decent boots. And during the early season rush when the wait can last hours, they need to do it as fast as possible. Boot fitters are a different story. They’re more experienced and have more tools in their arsenal to provide a truly customized fit. Some shops, they’re the only ones who ever chat boots with a customer. Others, it takes a special appointment or extra fees to work with them. Try on at 2 or 3 shops – you won’t know if you’re getting great service if you have nothing to compare it to. Ask to try a smaller size until you know for sure the smallest option that isn’t painful. Buy that one. When the liner starts to pack out, you’ll still have a solid shell fit. Don’t believe me? Type “ski boots too big” in the Craigslist search bar and see what comes up. Tight in one or two spots? Ask about punch work, don’t just size up. I swear, walking other women through the buying process is 99% “YES GURL” and the balance is telling them not to buy those boots yet. It takes an investment – whether time, money or both. But finding the right pair of glass slippers is a game changer for your skiing. Likewise, skis are usually easy to re-sell at a discount, but it’s hard to get people excited about buying your stinky ski boots.
- If you have tiny feet, you deserve a hug. For context, I’m a 7.5 or an 8 and I wear a 23.5 boot, which is maybe a tad tighter than some like their boots to fit. For some brands, this is the smallest shell size they make. To cheat out a 22.5, they put a smaller liner in the 23.5 shell. If you’re smaller than a 6 and fall into a 21.5, your options look like toy ski boots for dress up games. Most very small-footed women end up in a junior race boot, or Dalbellos, which is the only brand has a few models down to a 21.5. And even for brands that do carry the 21.5s and “true” 22.5s, it’s hard to find the stores that stock them. They are admittedly slower moving sizes, so some shops would rather invest their inventory buys in the more average sizes and either don’t carry them, stock only a few models, or make them online only where you have to put down a $400 charge on your credit card just to try them on.
- “Heat moldable” isn’t as miraculous as it sounds. Speaking of boots, most brands will tout that the liners are heat moldable, or in some cases the shells are too. These are not substitutes for a proper shell fit. They’re micro-adjustments. Think about how much better your hiking boots, running shoes, or climbing shoes feel after 5-10 days in them and the leather and insoles start to really conform to your feet. Heat molding does that.
- Understand that your skis aren’t going to perfect all the time, in all conditions. Ski construction, especially in the all-mountain category, is a game of compromises. Aspects that work for groomers tend to be the opposite of those that work for powder. The things that work for bump runs and tight trees are different than the ones that work for wide open runs. Maneuverability and stability are at odds with each other. The skis I’ve loved the most are the ones where we’ve spent the most time together. There’s nothing better than knowing you can trust your skis – even if that means you also trust them to struggle in select conditions.
- That being said, if you hate them all the time and it’s not getting any better after a handful of days, move on. Some skis are really polarizing. If you feel like your skis are setting you back and time on the hill isn’t helping you figure it out, dump them. I skied a pair of the balsa version of the Faction Agent 90Ws for a month where I was suddenly struggling on blues and blacks and developed a lot of knee pain that never got better. I took a big confidence hit and thought I was a really shitty skier, but realized they were just really shitty skis (my favorite review for them lists 1 pro and 5 cons for their performance. Or the one that said it was good for straightlining – just not at high speeds). A new pair of skis might not turn you into a better skier overnight, but they also shouldn’t make you consistently worse. Don’t let it get to your head. I sold my Agents and recouped a measly 20% of the original price. In hindsight, I wish I had just burned them. It would’ve been much more satisfying after taking a pretty big confidence hit.
- Even after you’ve got your setup, dabble in demos once a season. It’s not always obvious when you need new skis. For a long time, I thought I was just a slow and cautious skier since I was always the caboose coming down the mountain. I didn’t understand that some of it was due to the fact that my skis were 10cm shorter than my height and had the most ridiculous rockered tips that made them ski even shorter. My personal speed limit was largely a reflection of my skis. It took a lot of pushing from my boyfriend, who both really believed in my potential and was also extremely embarrassed to be seen with a total Jerry, but demoing some longer options really made me realize what I was missing. Lots of shops do demo rentals, but I’d really advocate for the spring demo days at Crystal and Alpental, or a personal demo day at an on-mountain shop. That way, you get the chance to try several pairs out and aren’t stuck with a dud for an entire ski day. For an on-mountain demo, pick a less busy time like a weekday so can count on accessing their full inventory. Try at least one option that intimidates you, whether for the length, width, or ability ratings. Women have a tendency to underestimate our own ability levels, so if you’re only exploring the skis that fit your comfort zone, you might be missing out on a really great asset for your progression. Also, be sure to take pictures of what you ski and take a few notes about your impressions. If you’re cycling through a few pairs of skis, it’s hard to keep track of which ones you tried and which ones are your favorites.
- Most ski reviews are bullshit. The major publications like Powder and Freeskier use a pay-to-play approach where features are largely a reflection of advertising dollars. There are a few reputable, more ethical review sites, but they don’t offer a ton of insight for the progressing intermediate woman. Outdoor Gear Lab is completely isolated from manufacturer influence, but stack ranks its lineup as if all skiers need the same characteristics from their skis and pitting odd combos against each other. Blister skews more towards the expert skier looking for a freeride or powder ski, and one that appreciates construction-oriented information, like tip splay and mount point stats and understands how that’s going to influence the feel of a ski. Otherwise, reviews for women’s skis tends to lack nuance, like “these wide ones weren’t great on groomers” or the ever-insightful “these were fun!” The best content is posted on realskiers.com and is unfortunately behind a paywall, but they at least separate them into categories for power & finesse skiers, so you can have an idea around which skis work for heavier and more aggressive skiers and which ones fit if you’re light for height.
- Trust the people who ask you a lot of questions. I get a lot of amusement from ski forums, mainly from a pattern that pops up season after season. Someone buys a ski, raves about it, recommends it at all times, to everyone, indiscriminately. Three months later, they’ve sold it and make sure to tell everyone what they didn’t like about it. The people you should listen to should rave about lots of skis for lots of reasons, and really understand the offerings that are out on the market and which ones match up to certain ski “personas.” Whether it’s a shop attendant or a friend, if you’re not getting barraged with questions about where you ski, how often you ski, which trails you’re confident on and which ones stretch you, and what your goals are, what skis you’ve tried, in what lengths, and what you’ve thought about those, you’re probably not getting the best advice.