Ski season is here in Western Washington, so it’s a good time to talk about backseat skiing. Whether you’re feeling rusty at the start of the season or planning out your goals for the year, finding good form works wonders for both.
But before I dive in, a quick clarification. Form is optional. If you’re just out skiing to have a good time and slide around on snow, no one should make you feel less welcome on the hill for it. And likewise, there are lots of ways to be a good skier. Not all of them require great form. Even fewer require “grew up in a very competitive race program” perfection. If you want to race skimo or throw park tricks, pretty turns aren’t the #1 priority. I was blissfully unaware of form for my first 2-3 seasons and slid down hard things on forgiving skis. My progress was slower, but it made me feel happy and confident, and I’m not sure I would’ve fallen in love with the sport in the same way if I was self-conscious about what my skiing looked like. So if that’s you, I encourage you to close your browser or find another post of mine to read.
Moving on, what does “backseat skiing” mean? Most definitions I’ve seen are super vague, so this is what it means to me. Skis are like a fulcrum. They’re designed to have a sweet spot where you’re most in control and the ski has optimum responsiveness and performance:
The sweet spot isn’t like a marked place on the ski. But it’s a general way you want your weight positioned to get the best performance out of your gear.
If you transfer too much weight or force to the tips of your skis, you’ll feel like you’re going “over the handlebars.” It’ll feel like your weight is so far forward and that you’re flying downhill without much support in front of you to keep you in control. In soft snow, you might find yourself burying your tips.
When your weight is too far back and behind the sweet spot, you no longer have maximum control over your equipment. That’s backseat skiing.
Skis on the market have recommended mounting spots between -2cm to -12cm from the true center of the ski. Generally, skis mounted closer to center respond best to you when your body weight is centered or neutral. Skis mounted further back need you to lean forward to get your weight over the sweet spot. But that’s not a hard and fast rule. Some have huge sweet spots, where they respond equally well if you’re fairly upright or if you’re leaned far forward. Others have less versatility. Flex pattern matters too: some skis have softer tails that are still obedient and easy to steer when your weight is shifted backwards. Others feel downright impossible to ski from the backseat. Each ski has its own sweet spot. Your body has its own unique center of gravity depending on your height and weight distribution. Boots and bindings also come into play, since they have ramp angles that shift your weight forward, like a little pair of kitten heels. But as a general rule of thumb, most skis want you leaning at least a little bit forward.
Why do we end up in the backseat?
There are 2 key reasons we end up in the backseat:
- We’re nervous.
- Our gear isn’t serving us.
We’ll walk through each cause and what you can do about it.
Nervous Backseat Skiing
If we have the most control over our skis when our weight is forward, why would anyone shift their weight back when they’re scared and intimidated? It’s self-preservation. If I fall with my weight shifted forward, I’m going headfirst and face first. My noggin was not designed to withstand impact. If I fall in the backseat, I’m going to fall on my butt or my hips. Those places have a lot of padding and are cushy spots to fall on.
When we shift into the backseat, we send our skis out first, kind of like an exploratory mission. If they survive and stay upright, we let our body weight follow along for the ride. I really like how the industry calls good form “driving your skis.” The opposite of that is being a passenger. If you’ve ever felt like your skis have a mind of their own or that they’re impossible to control, you’re probably in the backseat. You’re not a driver, you’re a passenger. And Tesla’s already shown us that unmanned vehicles are pretty unpredictable.
The other term I really like to use instead of “backseat” is a “defensive position.” I never realized I was in the backseat for years because I hadn’t developed an awareness of where my body was on a ski and where it was supposed to be. But I knew I felt confident on groomers and I knew off-piste and powder skiing made me nervous. If you’re nervous, there are high odds you’re also backseat. It’s just human nature.
One of my bad habits is taking my first turn from the backseat. I’m trying to feel out snow quality and how my body’s feeling, and then I’ll use my momentum to pull myself forward. This takes more strength and coordination than simply starting forward. I’m also sacrificing control on that first turn, which is fine on mellow terrain, but is a factor I need to tackle for committing entrances. These were pulled from a video of my first run on a new set of skis, and you can see my first turn is very apprehensive, but once I realized I could trust my skis and the snowpack, my position changed. In frames 5, 6, and 7, you can see my backpack frame shift from pointing uphill (left) to downhill (right):
But if nervous backseat skiing is a self-preservation move, is it really such a bad thing? It’s complicated. People largely over-criticize backseat skiing. It’s part of the nasty elitism of ski culture. People poke fun at form to stroke their own ego. Skiing new and challenging terrain defensively can be a key step in being able to ski that terrain confidently the next time.
But consistency creates habits. Skiing in the backseat can make you feel most comfortable back there and make getting forward even scarier when you do try to improve your form. There are no rules for how much you need to push yourself form-wise, but I want women to have awareness and intention about their journey with form. No one ever told me I skied in the backseat most of the time. Ski reviews would say that skis were forgiving to “mistakes,” and I figured I didn’t need them because I wasn’t falling, so I wasn’t making mistakes. In hindsight, I wish I would’ve spent a little more time on terrain within my comfort zone, and that I would’ve tried to ski more confidently on terrain that only made me a bit nervous.
What skis should I look for if I want to break my backseat habit? Or what skis accommodate a cautious / nervous stance? There are 2 factors that will make you get forward on a ski: mount point and stiff tails. Expert skis like the Volkl Secret 102 or Blizzard Black Pearl 97 are mounted around -10cm behind the “true” center of the ski. And they’re very stiff skis that only have softness in the tips. Skis need to bend in order to turn, so you have to pressure that soft spot at the front of the ski. The mount point is far back, in the opposite direction, so you really need to have your weight forward to find the sweet spot. If you want a ski that’s going to force good form, look for one that’s a step up in tail stiffness and a more rearward mount point. (The folks over at Blister include stats for both of those). Likewise, skis that are noted as “unforgiving” or “somewhat forgiving” and “more directional” style of ski.
The Blizzard Sheevas are the opposite. They have a partial sheet of metal underfoot that tapers towards the tips and tails. The tips and shovels are still the softest part of the ski. Having your weight forward will make them feel most controllable. But the tails aren’t much stiffer. They’ll acquiesce when steered from a more apprehensive, rearward stance. The Sheeva is also mounted closer to center (-6cm from true center), meaning that you don’t need to lean as far forward to pressure the tips.
Gear-driven Backseat Skiing
If you seem to always be in the backseat, even when you’re comfortable and confident with the terrain, the issue is probably your gear.
Boots are the biggest culprit. Most skiers aren’t getting the fit services they need when it comes to their ski boots. Boots should fit snugly but not painfully. And the most important fit consideration is that they feel snug through the instep where it keeps your heel locked in place. If you heel can lift, we compensate by weighting them. Your heels will be much likely to lift with 100+ pounds of human meat bag on top.
But even well-fitting boots can need some tweaks. I had problems with my Atris Birdies when I first started skiing them with a touring boot. Touring boots tend to be very flat, which makes it easier to walk and skin in. Inbound boots tend to have more “ramp angle” where the heel sits a little higher than the toe, and it shifts weight into the balls of your feet, just like a high heel. I bit the bullet and nabbed a pair of inbound boots, and suddenly the ski became much easier to handle. Boots could also put you too far forward, giving you the “over the handlebars” sensation.
If you’re being forced in the backseat because of your gear, get to a bootfitter, stat. They can likely tweak your existing boots to either fix them completely or at least improve how they work for you. A fitter may recommend a different shell. If it’s something you can digest financially, it’s in your best interest to replace them sooner rather than later. Getting good at skiing and getting good at steering in oversized boots are two different skillsets.
How can I tell if I’m in the backseat?
You could post videos on Tiktok. Elitist trolls will be sure to let you know.
But there are other options that protect your self-esteem. Skiing might work your legs, but your arms are the best indicator of where your weight is shifted. Here’s an example. Stand up with your feet together and your arms “A-framed” beside you:
Shift your weight into your toes as far as you can, and then back into your heels. Shift back and forth and notice what your arms do. When your weight is forward, they naturally narrow in in front of you. When you’ve got weight centered or behind you, your arms stick out to the side or a little behind your torso:
Same is true for skiing. If I’m having a hard time steering my skis, I check in with my arm placement. If they’re sticking out to the sides, that’s how I know I need to shift my weight forward. If your arms are down by your side, that’s another sign your weight is back. Here are some shots from my first season when I was deathly afraid of gravity:
Compare that to my friend Nikki. She’s a trained racer, and an excellent example of form. Her arms are up at about waist level, and as she leans forward, the arms round forward. Every pole plant reaches forward, near the tips of her skis. Is it possible to get your arms up and forward while you’re in the backseat? Yes. Is it easy or natural? No.
So take lots of footy and lots of pictures and experiment with what makes your gear feel best. And post what makes you proud, even if there are a few (or many) backseat turns in the mix. It’s all a part of your progression.