Today’s blog comes from Grace, who popped into my DMs to ask about men’s skis. I thought this conversation would be relevant to many other women besides just Grace, so I wanted to post the conversation in spot where others could benefit too. Here’s Grace’s note:
“Hi! I’ve loved reading your articles on women’s skis in the past. Do you have anything written about women using men’s skis? I’m thinking of getting some since they’re cheaper and less pink (🙄) than the women’s equivalent I’ve been looking at but it’s hard to find good guidance on if they’re actually that much different. I also can’t seem to find good information on how to mount them to make up for any gender design differences. Any helpful info would be much appreciated!”
So first of all, some skis are the exact same between men’s and women’s lines. Sometimes, they’re completely different. Regardless of whether a men’s ski has an identical or close match on the women’s side of the aisle, women should add them to their consideration set if it’s appropriate for their size and goals.
But to delve deeper, it helps to understand the two competing forces when it comes to women’s ski design. The first is that we’re different. Our bodies carry weight slightly differently. But there are also social factors. We’ve been the biggest segment of new skiers entering the market, so we’re more likely to be newer progressing skiers or adult learners. We buy less skis, meaning we’re expecting 1 ski to cover more of the mountain for us, and we ski them longer before moving to the next model, and it needs to accommodate our progression. We have internalized ideas about strength and skill, where we’re way less likely to consider ourselves expert skiers and seek out gear labeled as such. We’re attracted to different graphics. The second factor is that brands save a lot of money when things are the same. Men’s skis are the largest part of the market, so R&D starts there. Brands like sharing enough in common so that the R&D is faster and cheaper, they can share tooling, and they have flexibility if their forecast for certain market segments or certain models didn’t perform as expected.
Tooling is the most expensive part of the production process, so most brands try to keep the major shapes and components the same. However, there are a few exceptions. Exceptions tend to be piste oriented because they’re the stiffest skis in the market. They don’t need soft tips to plane in fresh snow or a moderate midsection that can still be flexed against soft powder. The Head Joy line used to include widths from 68mm up to 110, but later scratched everything above 85. Many of the other women’s frontside skis (think narrow waist, integrated binding) also have customized designs for women. For all mountain & wider skis, they keep most of the tooling the same, and adjust a variety of components to make them less demanding, and therefore more women friendly. Some techniques have been used consistently, while others have gone in and out of fashion as brands experiment with gendered construction:
- Metal used to be the marker of a men’s ski. Volkl offered a few options to the women’s expert market. Blizzard tried making a women’s version of the Cochise called the Dakota that sat on clearance shelves for years. But overall, people believed that women wanted something softer flexing and our feeble arms needed something lighter to schlep through the parking lot. Brands like Dynastar put titanal laminates on their men’s Cham series, and then used fiberglass for women. They also made men’s sizes of the fiberglass model and marketed it as the “High Mountain” series since it was a better weight for ski touring.
- Mount points are adjusted. Every ski has a sweet spot, and the bindings are usually positioned behind it, so when you lean forward in a skiing stance, you’ve shifted your body weight over the sweet spot. K2 has a group of women’s testers called the Alliance, and years ago, they found that their testers like more forward mount points. The reasoning was that women have lower centers of gravity, meaning we need to lean further forward to get it over the sweet spot. Plus, our boots tend to be shorter, so mounted the boot at the midsole still means we don’t have as much length of our foot in front of the mount point. K2 moved all of their mount points 2cm forward (which no longer holds true today). Many other brands moved theirs 1cm forward. I don’t have the stats for Fischer, but they really went ham. These two photos are their 2016 Ranger W 98 and the 2020 Fischer Ranger 96 Ti. During the mid-2010s, Fischer made their women’s models very light, bumped that mount point way forward, and got less-than-stellar feedback from reviewers. Mount points for both men’s and women’s skis from Fischer have shifted back over the years, but the change for women has been especially drastic:
- Changing the type of wood or the thickness of wood in the core is also an option to make a ski easier. For example, in the past, the Nordica Santa Ana line used poplar and balsa wood with 2 layers of titanal, while the Enforcers swapped in a poplar/beech combo. Likewise, brands can use the same wood and cut the wood core thinner so it’s more pliable. They already do this to account for sizing, so that the core of a 153 is softer than a 161, and both of those are softer than a 169 because taller people tend to weigh more. There’s also the fact that every piece of wood is going to be slightly different because every tree is unique. Some manufacturers will follow the same formula for their men’s 171 and their women’s 171, but put a women’s topsheet on the ones that are slightly softer. These changes can either be huge or subtle. When Blizzard came out with the original Sheeva 10 and Rustler 10, they were very similar skis, but the men’s didn’t sell as well and didn’t get very positive reviews. While there were lots of women customers who liked how easy and accessible the ski was, the men’s market was looking for more stability. So Blizzard added 300g to the next iteration of the Rustler and left the Sheeva alone. However, going back to the Enforcer / Santa Ana comparison, I demoed the Enforcer 110 in a 169 at a popular demo day where there’s usually only one of each model / size combos and everyone just takes each ski out for 2-3 runs. I asked the sales rep if there was any reason to wait for the Santa Ana to come back to the tent and if it was that different. They said there was no need and that they rode quite similarly.
- When light skis became the market trend in the mid-2010s, skis inevitably got softer, and more brands than ever started using the same construction for men’s & women’s lines. DPS has designed their lines that way for a long time, if not since their beginning. The Rossignol Soul 7 saw lots of success with unisex construction and gendered graphics. The original QST line followed this logic as well. Not every brand and model is sticking to unisex design as the lightweight trend peters down, but on the other hand, some brands are trying unisex design on burlier skis and offering stronger skis to women than they ever have before.
So how do I know if they’re the same or not?
- Look at specs if they’re available. The ski’s dimensions for tip, waist, and tail are largely available in online stores. Some also add weight stats for every size. Are any of the lengths offered for both men’s and women’s models (like both carry sizes 164 and 172)? Blister Review’s another great source since they have mount points and more weight specs. (Usually the tested women’s model is 10-15cm shorter than the men’s. When they’re the same ski, they’ll be about 150-200g different).
- Are there any very fringe sizes? If the men’s sizes get abnormally short or women’s run noticeably long, this is a good sign that they’re the same ski. Niche ski sizes are a nightmare. Factories lose productivity every time they have to stop and switch the process. There just don’t seem like enough units to justify a totally unique K2 Reckoner 92 in a 149, nor for a women’s Sheeva 11 in a 188.
- Just because the numbers in the name don’t match, it doesn’t mean they’re different. A lot of brands scale width and length together, so the men’s line is wider than the women’s line, but at overlap sizes like a 172, they’re the same. Armada did this through their prior Invictus and Victa lines. The Atomic Backland 98 W and 100 are both the same (164s are 98 wide, 172s are 99, and 180s are 100). Head’s entire Kore line also does this. Elan’s Ripsticks get a gold star for being the most confusing with measurements. Their skis are the same across gender, other than mount point. But they measure men’s skis before pressing and women’s skis after so women’s skis get a smaller size label. I’ve been at stores and nested a women’s Ripstick 102 in a 170 right into a Ripstick 106 in a 172 and they match seamlessly. They also name the women’s skis after the shortest/narrowest size in the size run and the men’s after the longest/widest. That women’s Ripstick 102 in a 170? It’s actually about 104mm wide. Same for the men’s 106 in a 188. And the most bullshit part about it is that they fill out online spec tables like every size gets the same width.
- Reach out to the brand. I’ve done this to confirm mount points for the Line Sick Day series and Atomic Backlands. It’s my #1 pet peeve. I don’t understand why this info isn’t public and the only logical answer I can think of is that they don’t want the men to find out we can drive the same skis.
If a men’s ski doesn’t have a women’s counterpart, should I consider it?
If it matches your goals, go for it. They tend to be skis on the more aggressive end of the spectrum, but that doesn’t make them out of reach. Volkl made one of its burliest skis – the Mantra 102 – the exact same for women as the Secret 102 and it’s sold well enough to stay in production for a few years straight. If women can drive those, they can drive a Bonafide or Cochise.
There’s also a huge freestyle-inspired side of the market that doesn’t have as much demand for women, especially over 100 in width. So if you like a buttery, surfy ski that lets you ski switch and feels balanced in the air, definitely consider men’s ski lines like the Nordica Soul Rider, Dynastar M-Free, or Volkl Revolt.
If so many brands are making similar skis, do women’s specific lines make sense?
To me, this is one of the most interesting conversations in ski design. On one hand, pop feminism of the 2010s really influenced ski marketing. The Black Pearl hit the market and became the bestselling ski model in North America. Women were joining the sport in record numbers and shifting the gender breakdown closer to 50/50. Coalition Snow was founded as the first women’s-only ski brand. And this was against the backdrop of society going through a Lean In, Girl Boss phase that filtered into the outdoors through initiatives like the women’s specific No Man’s Land film festival and the creation of REI’s Outessa program.
Some brands went hard on women’s specific marketing and women’s R&D. Blizzard’s Women to Women program was the blueprint. They really understood that women were buying less skis and that we needed them to do more for us across conditions and throughout our ski progression. The Black Pearls, Sambas, and now Sheevas hit that sweet spot of working for different ability levels and being versatile skis that do well in a variety snow conditions and spots on the mountain. Establishing that reputation pays dividends. When a woman walks into a store, the employee can fairly confidently hand her a pair of Pearl 88s by confirming that she’s not a never-ever beginner and that she spends a decent amount of her time on groomers. By doing something more unique for women, they also had extra room to do something different for men. They’re not working with a QST 92 where they have to compromise a men’s ski with what will sell to women. Their men’s Brahma and Bonafide are on the heavier, more demanding side of the market. And through the 2010s, this was a space that most brands weren’t jockeying for as they tried to chase the light skis trend. K2 and Elan have similar programs in place with the K2 Alliance and Elan W Studio. (I guess Rossignol also launched the “We Rise” initiative, but the only thing I saw them push was a women’s event for $450 before lift tickets so idk if they get credit).
But at the same time, the brands that were chasing the lightweight trend were increasingly making their design process unisex. Some smaller brands took it a step further and openly marketed the fact that their skis were the same. Faction’s specialty is in freestyle skis, and they don’t compete in the frontside category, so in 2019, they announced they were folding their men’s, women’s, and junior lines together and that they’d offer an additional, slightly more feminine topsheet. A skier riding a Dictator 1.0 in a 162 could choose between a blue and seafoam green topsheet option. Faction still had a unique women’s graphic so shops could merchandise them with the women’s skis, but they saved on R&D and manufacturing costs. Fischer smartly followed suit in 2021. I’m of the opinion that if you can’t commit to the research and resources to really make a great ski for women, the safest thing a brand can do is to give us the highly regarded, lauded ski from the men’s collection. They too offer 2 topsheet options per ski to maximize their odds of being merchandised for both men and women on the ski wall and appeal to gender norms. DPS launched new skis in 2020 and 2021 that eliminated their gendered lines and offered a single topsheet option. Startups Season Equipment and WNDR Alpine have been gender neutral from the get-go. Salomon’s dabbling in unisex skis with the new 85mm QST Spark replacing the QST 85 and Myriad 85 for beginnermediate skiers.
I’m very curious to see if gendered skis exist 10 years from now, at least on the all-mountain and powder side of the spectrum. On one hand, there are more and more brands offering unisex lines, and in Fischer’s case, heavily marketing that as a benefit. If it becomes a normalized part of ski shopping, brands can be successful at reaching women. (The early brands have already proven that you can market a unisex ski to men without them feeling emasculated).
On the other hand, stores and websites are designed by gender. It’s the first factor of differentiation that shops and sites ask you to make – more important than whether you’re looking for skis for a certain purpose, of a given length or width. Reviewers are mostly men, so they’re covering the unisex market and comparing it to other men’s skis. (I have way more info on the need for review parity here). Society will still have gender norms about what topsheets and ski names resonate with men vs. women. A lot has to change about the snowsports industry before we can really embrace unisex models.