Buying ski equipment - descent into the nitty gritty.
Proper ski fit
Choosing a ski that fits is important whether you’re racing or having fun in the woods. Matching the ski flex to your weight is critical for good kick and glide in classic skiing, and ski stability and speed in skating. Many new skis have sizing charts based on weight and/or height. If no sizing chart is available, you could use as a starting point an old rule of thumb that classic skis should be your height plus 4-8 inches (roughly a little below the wrist when standing with arm extended straight up) and skate skis your height plus 2-4 inches). This is a starting point only - your skis don't much care how tall you are, and what matters is how they distribute your weight on the snow. Different skis of the same model and size can vary widely in their flex characteristics, and it is worth testing whether a pair of skis fits you before buying (Note - this is not relevant for Lollipop skiers, but becomes important for older skiers transitioning to waxable classic skis). There are three practical ways to flex test:
• Have the store do it for you. Some ski sellers (usually for high-end gear, but sometimes for low-mid range too) will ask your weight, height, and if they're thorough your skiing experience/goals, and predominant skiing conditions. They'll then check flex-testing results on their inventory to pick the best skis for you. Remember that they're picking the best skis from what they have in stock. Stores that sell to a lot of racers and have large inventory usually do a fairly good job. If you're buying online, it's worth calling to talk to someone who knows the inventory (often a past/present ski racer who gives it to you pretty straight) and can tell you how many pairs they had to choose from and how good a match they've found. Other stores may not flex test, but many new skis are factory-tested and come with a numerical flex rating - in kg, this should be around 120% of the skier's body weight for skate skis (ranging to 130% for kids < 70 kg and 110% for heavier adults), and 55% of body weight for classic skis (up to 60% for light kids and 50% for heavyweights). This helps to make better-matched pairs, but is generally no substitute for empiric testing. If you're shopping locally, and have an option to stand on the skis and see for yourself before buying, then do! (see below)
• Test board. Ski shops like Park Ave Bikes have a test board to check how the ski flexes under your body weight. Do this before you buy the skis, so you know you're getting a pair that's right for you. You'll put the skis on the test board, and stand on them (make sure toes are lined up where the binding pin will be - usually at the balance point of the ski). They'll ask you to weight the skis in several ways (1- evenly on both feet, 2- on one flat foot, and 3- on the ball of one foot) and will move a slider under the ski to see where pressure is being applied to the ground. This will identify the wax pocket on classic skis (have them mark it for you once you've found skis you're going to buy), and check whether skate skis are too soft or stiff (read below and see this video for details). If a knowledgeable salesperson is doing it, this is a great method. If in doubt, read/watch and judge for yourself (don't worry about matching the exact numbers in the video, ballpark is OK as long as the trends from one position to the next are consistent).
• The Paper Test. If you're looking at used gear, or buying from a store without a test board or cross-country ski expertise, you can approximate a test board with an assistant and a piece of paper (normal thickness) - a tried-and-somewhat-true method to see if your skis are in the right ballpark:
- Stand on your skis (toes at binding pin, or balance point of an unmounted ski) on a flat, smooth surface (a hardwood floor, a table/counter top, or even a firm smooth carpet will be better than nothing - do not try on asphalt, rough tile, uneven floors, shag carpet, etc).
1. With weight evenly on both feet (and feet flat), slide the paper under the ski beneath your foot and see how far it slides in front and in back before pinching between the ski and floor.
2. Do the same with all weight on a single foot - first with the foot flat (weight evenly between heel and ball of foot)
3. Repeat with all the weight on the ball of the foot.
For classic skis, the zone identified in #1 will be the wax pocket (where kick wax is applied) - this should extend from the heel to about a boot length in front of the toe. When moving to one flat foot (#2), the zone should shorten somewhat (especially at the front) but should remain open under the foot and a little ahead (this will keep kickwax off the snow when gliding on one ski). With all weight on the ball of the foot (#30), the wax pocket should be closed (fully compressed against the floor) and you should not be able to slide the paper at all (for some skis there may be a small section that remains open toward the front of the wax pocket - OK as long as the part under the foot is closed). If you can't close the wax pocket with weight on the ball of the foot, the ski is too stiff and you'll never get good kick. If the wax pocket does not open when shifting weight toward the heel (or on both feet) the skis are too soft and will not glide as well. For most skiers, it's better to err on the softer side.
• Keep in mind that without a very flat/smooth surface, the distances above will be inconsistent. Try several times with the ski in different places, and focus on the area under the foot and just in front. If you can consistently close it with weight on the ball of the foot, and open it when shifting back or to 2 feet, you're doing OK. Wait for a perfectly flat surface to mark kick zones (we'll do this at an early season practice).
For skating skis, it's less important to define the distances but you should check to see that there's a gap between ski and ground with weight on both feet, on a single flat foot, and ideally a small gap when on the ball of one foot (allows for some pop when you push off dynamically). If you compress the middle of the ski too easily, your foot becomes the pivot point and the ski is very squirrelly (unstable in the glide, and hard to control in turns). If you can't flatten the ski (almost), the tips and tails plow through the snow and bog you down (especially on uphills). If you're a glutton for this kind of stuff and want details on ski pressure distributions for different snow conditions, read here.
What brand of skis should I get? This is much less important than overall fit, and there are a lot of good brands so feel free to look around for the best deal. That said, different brands do tend to have a different feel to the ski (and this evolves over time for all of them). The Ford Sayre Bill Koch Club (Hanover, NH) has a very nice guide to gear selection - scroll down to "Ski Brand and Price Point Selection" for a description of different brands (they all sound good). The other topics are great too.
Just Have Fun Skiing. Buying skis has potential to become a complex and ridiculously expensive process but remember that no one has ever qualified for an Olympic team based on their results at a Bill Koch festival. The name of the game is fun, and "good-enough" skis that fit properly are perfect. If someone has hand-me-down skis that they loved to ski on when they were your size, then they're probably worth a try.
Ski Manufacturers and Sizing Charts
Nordic Skier Sports Sizing Charts (all in one place but see manufacturer for more up-to-date).