You’ve heard the saying, “try before you buy,” but how do you try skis? Where can you go to demo enough skis to get a sense of what works best for your ability level, terrain choice and favorite snow conditions? What should you do when you ski on a new pair of skis? When you try skis, how do you ultimately decide which pair you should purchase? Whether you took a hiatus from skiing and are looking for a one-ski quiver to up your game or you’d like to round out your quiver with a specific category of ski, the following tips will help you plot your best course of action to “try before you buy.”
Educate Yourself Before Demoing Skis
You may have seen an event at a ski area with colorful flags and tents from multiple ski brands. Chances are, this is an opportunity for retailers to try next year’s gear before deciding which brands and models to carry in their store. In a sense, ski shops “test” the gear before they sell it to you. Savvy shops have their finger on the pulse of what their customers ask for most, in terms of ski category, personality, waist width and lengths. That’s how they choose the skis that will adorn the precious real estate on the shop’s ski wall. Visiting your favorite shop (midweek is best) gives you the opportunity to talk to employees who may have already demoed the new skis that show up on the wall around Labor Day.
First, it’s important to understand that skis are often categorized by waist width. Retailers will typically ask you if you ski more groomed runs or off-piste. Then they’ll ask about your ability, turn size preference, and comfort speed. This helps them identify the range of waist width that best suits your desire. Manufacturers and media outlets can differ in category names, but generally skis are separated by waist width into race, frontside, all-mountain, and powder skis.
The best course of action is to use ski reviews or visit the websites of ski brands to narrow down your interests and familiarize yourself with any new terms or technology. (While this article focuses on skis, a lot of the tips shared here apply to snowboards or any gear you want to take for a test drive before spending your hard-earned dollars.)
Locate a Place to Demo
Now that you’ve familiarized yourself with categories, brands, and ski model names by talking to a retailer or reading some reviews, what next? “Consumers can demo skis in a variety of ways in 21/22,” says Henrik Lampert, North American marketing manager for Faction skis. “First off, I would encourage ski fans to contact their favorite brands directly, to inquire about consumer-facing demo days. For example, Faction plans to host a number of consumer demos from coast to coast. Alternatively, retail partners are generally well equipped and willing to offer demo experiences for prospective buyers. I encourage fans to contact their local retailers to explore demo possibilities.”
Contacting your local retail store, particularly if it’s located at the base of a ski area, is an easy way to demo skis. Many ski shops will subtract the cost of demoing skis off of the purchase price. Working through a resort retail shop allows you the opportunity to try several different pairs in one day. The benefit here is that the terrain and conditions stay consistent so that you can focus on the how the different skis perform.
Test Skis like a Pro
Professional ski testers ski on each pair of skis in a consistent manner to give each ski a fair test. If you’d like to test like a ski tester, then you should think like a ski tester.
First, ask the shop (or look up) who the intended consumer is for each model. What is the skier type: recreational skier, beer league racer, all-mountain explorer? Where is this ski designed to ski best and for whom?
Now take the ski out for a run. For the first 10 turns, note what your first impression is. How does the ski feel on your feet? Is it easy to skate over to the chairlift or does it feel cumbersome? When you get off the lift, does the ski turn easily underfoot? Can you figure out what kind of turn shape and speed the ski excels at?
As you make more turns down the run, think about the ski’s range. Is it narrow underfoot and loves slalom turns? Can it make a variety of turn shapes? What speed does it feel most stable at? Can you skid a turn? Try different turn shapes, speeds and even look for groomed and ungroomed snow to get a sense for how the ski performs. Feeling adventurous? Take the demo ski in the bumps or into the terrain on the backside of the mountain.
If you truly want to demo skis like a pro, write down your answers after you ski on each ski. Record the make and model, length, waist width and few thoughts about how the ski performs. Ski testers use test cards to rate each ski. They are testing specific characteristics such as edge grip, versatility, stability, and flotation. You can consider what characteristics you value most and rate them for each ski. For example, if you are looking for a frontside ski for primarily groomers, then prioritize the edge grip and short turn radius. If you want a frontside cruiser and enjoy making bigger turns at speed, prioritize stability, edge grip and rebound energy. If you are looking for a ski that can float through powder, rate flotation and maneuverability.
Consider the Key Factors of Ski Performance
Ski engineers have even stricter parameters when they test skis since they need to perfect each model before they even hit the market. They look even closer at characteristics such as flex, chatter, handling, turn initiation and turn exit. For example, some high-performance frontside or all-mountain skis have a progressive flex pattern—softer in the tip and stiffer underfoot. An engineer might feel the tip hooking up when entering a turn, which might mean the ski is too soft in the tip. If it’s a struggle to get forward and out of the backseat, that ski may be too stiff. Ultimately you want a ski that feels like a part of you, so if you’re struggling it’s probably not the ski for you.
Engineers experiment with sidecut since it’s the main geometrical detail that affects ski performance. Sidecut is the shape of the ski and defines the turn radius of the ski on the snow. Essentially the ski’s dimensions (tip, waist and tail) will create an optimum turn shape for that intended user. Bindings can also affect the ski’s performance, particularly at high speeds and on steep slopes, so engineers test skis using the bindings that are sold with that model, unless the ski is sold “flat” or without a binding. Skis sold “flat” happen more often with wider skis, since many frontside skis are designed as system skis, that is, with a built-in plate where the corresponding binding can slide on rails and attach for the best flex and performance.
Engineers know which construction elements affect ski performance. Construction materials, such as wood, fiberglass, titanium all inform the way the ski performs. Wood is one of the most-used materials in ski construction because depending on the wood, it can affect stability, liveliness, flex. Different categories of skis may use different kinds of wood for the weight or for performance outcomes. A race ski may have poplar and ash for stability and rebound, but a freeride ski may have beech or even balsa because engineers want stability without too much weight.
Skis will have some form of synthetic material in the topsheet or as a layer. Fiberglass provides rebound and torsional rigidity and can be found woven like fabric, which affects the dynamic behavior of the ski. Titanal is an aluminum alloy and typically used in high-performing skis. Metal adds weight and has a dampening effect, adding stability when speed increases and forces build. Skis without metal are usually lighter, softer in flex and more forgiving. Some women-specific skis have combinations of materials that can reduce some weight without losing performance.
Many models have rocker, which is created when the tip (and sometimes the tail as well) of the ski rises from the ground. When you demo a ski, you will notice that different amounts of rocker, or tip and tail rise, will affect the performance of the ski. On a freeride ski, tip rocker allows the ski to float in powder without the tip sinking into the snow. On a frontside ski, rocker helps the ski enter the turn, and that same feature benefits beginner skiers who are looking for an easy ski to control.
With your new tips on how to demo skis like a professional, you should now carve out some time to try different skis. Keep your eye on consumer demo event opportunities at your favorite resort. Build a relationship with a shop and ask them about shop demo days, or brand-specific demo days that are free and open to the public. Keep notes on the skis that you test and try to be consistent when testing multiple pairs for an accurate comparison. To really know a ski, you should test it in a variety of conditions—from early-season hardpack to powder. But a little bit of preparation and time will help you pick a ski that makes you happy on the slopes all season long.