Every few weeks, I get a question about kids’ skis from grown women. I get it, the sizes overlap. The costs are much cheaper. At face value, they look like the best bang for the buck.
Thank god these mostly come over email so I can write something more thoughtful than my initial reaction: a Michael-Scott-seeing-Toby-Flenderson string of No God, No God, No.
But first, there are a few exceptions. Kids’ skis may be a good choice for you if:
- That is the only way you can financially afford safe, modern bindings and well-fitting boots. Safety is priority number one. Boot fit is priority number two.
- You’re an adaptive skier, and the shorter lengths and softer flexes work best for your body.
- You’re under 5ft. tall and / or under 100lbs.
- You’re a small beginner skier planning to get less than 3-5 days per season. Your time on snow will be a bigger factor in your progression than the skis that you’re riding.
So why aren’t they a good idea for the rest of us? A few reasons:
- You are a lot different than the kids these skis are made for.
- Your purchasing goals are a lot different than mom and dad’s.
- Kids’ skis often have different construction and materials than adult skis.
- The R&D process is different for kids vs. adult skis.
You are different than a child.
Atomic targets their longest / burliest junior skis (like a 153-163 Bent Chetler Mini) to ages 8-13. What’s the average 13-year-old skier like? She’s a hair under 5’1 and weighs about 95lbs. She wears a Girls size 14 / Large or an Extra Small / 0 in Juniors. And her male counterparts aren’t any bigger.
Only 2% of adult women are under 100lbs. 5% are shorter than 5ft. There are very high odds that you’re bigger than the preteens for whom these skis were made. One of my biggest pet peeves is when brands market junior skis to “petite women.” I haven’t been on a scale in a decade, but I’m a J. Crew 2 Petite. I’m definitely small for a woman, but I’d estimate I’m still around 20-30% heavier than the target customer for junior’s skis. It’s like those notes are added by a man who has no clue how big women are. They just remember hearing their grandmother wax poetic about being 95 pounds on her wedding day and thus believe there’s high size crossover between grown women and tweeners. Are you buying from the children’s department for other purchases – ski boots, clothing, shoes? If not, you’re a somewhat common size for a woman and thus would likely do best on a ski made for women.
There’s also a good chance that you’re a better skier, especially if you’ve started venturing beyond the groomers. I know social media is on fire with tiny mic-ed up toddlers skiing trees and riding powder, but they’re the exception, not the norm. Seven seems to be a pretty magic age for snow sports. Kids are coordinated enough to get the sideways stance on a snowboard. Kids’ lessons for black diamond and double black terrain start to pop up, while younger age groups stick to green or blue groomers. Ski race and freeride teams accept kids into development programs since kids are finally ready to move beyond wedging and basic skidded, windshield wiper turns. Some kids will progress really once they hit 7. Around 1,500 kids under 18 are in a USSA race program; I’d ballpark a similar amount are involved in freeride teams. But the rest of the 2 million tweens will be in basic ski school or skiing with mom and dad, averaging 8 days per year. Therefore, when a junior’s ski targets kids 8-13, they have to keep it accessible to kids who are just recently coordinated enough to move past basic recreational, intermediate skills.
And that doesn’t even get into how our bodies grow significant muscle mass during and after puberty. It declines very slowly after 30 – the next time you’ll be weaker than an 8-year-old is in your senior years. You’re likely markedly bigger and stronger than a tween.
And even though some kids are heavier or stronger or more skilled on skis, brands are generally forced to cater to beginnermediate skills with their junior skis. The women’s market outnumbers the kids’ market at a rate of 5:1. So while Volkl makes 1 tweener ski, they have the women’s Blaze line for smaller and less forceful skiers, and the burlier Kenja and Secrets for bigger and speedier skiers. Plus they offer multiple widths for each line to let you really tailor your skis to the terrain and snow conditions you tend to ski.
Your needs for a purchase differ from mom and dad’s.
When parents shop for their kids, their buying needs have a few key differences that influence junior ski design and construction.
First, skiing as a family means a lot of stuff, and not necessarily the most capable hands to carry it. So brands often make design changes that sacrifice performance for lighter weight. Second, groms get about 2 seasons of use out of each setup. Parents want skis that are affordable, and long-term durability generally isn’t a priority.
Most adults ski their skis for ~8 seasons, and I’ve never consulted an adult skier who paid any mind to the weight of their inbound gear and whether it would be light enough to schlep through parking lots or across the base area village.
Those needs (softer / easier flex, lighter weight, lower price) and the additional tolerances (less durability, less performance) really change the way junior skis are made.
Junior skis use different construction and materials compared to adults
There are 4 major components that change between kids’ and adults’ skis:
- Core: Adult cores are almost always made from wood. Tweener skis have been moving to wood as well in recent years, but many still use foam. Foam breaks down much faster than wood and does little to dampen out vibrations at speed (even moderate speeds) or in variable snow. Foam is also soft in a “mushy” sense. Softer wood cores have a lot of elasticity; when you flex and release your ski, you feel the ski respond underneath you. Foam is not as responsive. It’s a popular choice for rental skis or kids’ skis because plastic / foam is much cheaper and lighter than wood. But even as more junior skis use wood cores, they usually use thinner cores for a softer flex. (Like the Volkl Yumi & Mantra Jr. look very similar at face value, but the wood technology for the Mantra Jr. is described as “sporty and agile,” while the Yumi’s is described as “durable.”
- Sides: When your skis are manufactured, they stack the layers of your ski: base, core, laminates, and then they have to finish it off and cover the tops and sides in material that seals out moisture and makes the skis look good, like your topsheets. In a “cap” construction ski, the sides are just extensions of the topsheet, like a big piece of fondant draped over the top and sides of a cake. But “sidewall” construction just puts the topsheet on top. On the sides, they use pieces of ultra-dense plastic. That plastic helps the ski hold an edge better in carved turns in icy conditions. It also makes the ski heavier, stiffer, dampens vibrations. They’re also more durable than capped sides. But on top of the extra weight, sidewalls are also expensive. Then finally, there’s a “hybrid” construction where engineers put sidewall on parts of the edge and cap on the others. This is most common on wider skis, where you want a softer and more playful feel for the ski, but you still need decent edge grip for icy entrances and riding groomers down to the lift. Hybrid construction is also becoming more popular in junior skis as more parents want a bit more performance with a small hit to weight and price.
- Bases: For bases, skis can either come with a “sintered” or “extruded” base. Extruded bases are the cheaper option, and they don’t take wax the same way that sintered bases do. That means less maintenance, but it also means they run slower. Which, if you’re not a speed demon, that might sound fine. But that also means you’ll hit more friction on slow cat tracks and spend more time pushing and skating through the resort. Sintered bases are higher performance and more durable and higher performance – provided you’re willing to keep up with regular waxing.
- Laminates: Most skis have fiberglass laminates, but adult skis also offer more variety, with carbon and titanal laminates that make skis heavier and more stable. Titanal in particular is expensive to laminate to the rest of the skis, which is why some skis, like the Santa Ana line, is so much more expensive than its junior companion. What if you’re really petite? Brands scale the amount of wood and titanal in their skis for each size, so a short ski with titanal (like the Volkl Secret in a 149) is made soft enough for petite women, so long as they’re advancing intermediates and above.
Here’s a snapshot of some junior skis and women’s skis from the same brands, comparing their construction. (Junior models on top, adult beneath):
Once you start to match the features of an adult ski, the price gap narrows. The Captis Birdie and Camox Birdie Jr. are almost the same ski (the Jr. weighs a smidgen less), and the price difference narrows to $30. I also think it’s important to note that the Camox Birdie is also marketed to girls ages 14-18, an older age group compared to most junior skis.
It is true that some skis do approach adult-style construction. The Nordica Santa Ana 95 S may not have all the performance features of the adult Santa Ana 93, but it isn’t too far from other adult skis. The construction elements largely match the Atomic Maven 86. I still recommend going with an adult ski, due to differences in the R&D process.
The R&D process differs between kids and adults.
I had a few inklings that the design process for kids might be less involved, so I asked my friend, Josh, the Brand Director for Season Eqpt, who formerly worked at Line Skis. He confirmed that they’re “bottom of the barrel, design-wise, with a few exceptions.”
I think some of this is due to the testing limitations for kids.
In adult apparel, we have fit models who try things on and test them for us in the office. Their measurements stay wildly consistent from season to season, and they know a lot about clothes and can give us really meaningful feedback. We don’t have kid fit models. They grow every day and don’t have a lot of experience speaking to apparel design. Not to mention, it’s a job, and child labor laws don’t make that easy.
There are also a lot more regulations about testing and product safety for children’s products (anything targeted to children under 12), which may make it more complicated to import and distribute prototypes of junior skis.
For adult skis, they have consistent groups of employees, athletes, and community members who ride prototypes and have the knowledge to give constructive feedback to design engineers.
Long story short.
If you want to learn the basics of how to slide around down green and blue slopes, some of the nicer, pricier junior models won’t hold you back. But if you want to learn beyond slower speed, skidded turns, adult skis have more performance features to get you carving your turns, skiing with speed, or venturing out beyond the piste for more advanced runs.