Where to skimp, where to splurge: Shop like a gearhound for winter
the ski bum tuning kit
There’s something quasi-religious about waxing your board or skis after the first snowstorm of the winter. It’s the preseason ritual of choice for many a ski bum, and unless you plan on challenging Mikaela Shiffrin to the gates, a homemade tuning kit is more than enough. Here are the basics.
■ Wax – An all-temp wax is fine for Colorado. One Ball Jay has go-to products for any season (it lasts forever and smells delicious), as do Swix and Dakine. A block costs about $25 at any ski shop and can last two or three seasons.
■ Iron – You don’t need a “waxing iron.” Seriously — any iron with a solid, pore-free base works just fine (just don’t use it on slacks again). Walmart sells them for $10.
■ Scraper – The wider, the better. Ski shops have them for under $5. Stick with plastic — you shouldn’t use a putty knife on a $500 board.
■ Metal file and gummy stone – If you don’t already own one, grab a medium-coarse file at any hardware store for under $10. Ski shops sell fine-coarse gummy stones for $7. When detuning, think of both like you’re sanding wood: large file to round edges and remove gouges, small file to fine tune.
■ Buffer – A clean cloth or dishwashing sponge. Simple enough.
It’s the curse of alpine addicts the world over: New gear is expensive — ridiculously expensive.
And that’s not just colloquial wisdom. Let the numbers do the talking: During the 2013-14 season, the trade group Snowsports Industries America reported skiers and boarders spent roughly $2.8 billion on hard and soft goods. It set an industry record after two seasons of declining sales, thanks in large part to hot gadgets like action cameras and the rising popularity of alpine touring.
Yet new playthings hardly account for the bulk spending. In the same season, one of the top-selling ski boot models, the Fischer Vacuum line, cost a cool $650, while its counterpart in the snowboard world, the mid-range Burton Ruler, was slightly better at $230 — still nearly enough to buy an iPad Mini.
Why all the talk about boots? It’s the curse: After that first snow, when all the seductive, brand-new ski gear calls out from loaded shelves, devoted powder hounds tend to cave in and drop $700 on yet another pair of boots (or bindings, or a board) when all they really need is a beanie.
But you know better, and so do the gear heads at local shops. After all, most techs and product buyers began as penny-pinching ski bums. Who better to lift the snow sports curse? Just keep your personal ability in mind — there’s no need to settle for sketchy gear when your tib-fib is on the line.
Where to skimp
Buying a brand-new board or pair of skis is like buying a brand-new car: You’ll get the warm fuzzies picking the exact model you want, right down to waist width and top-sheet color, but it’s the kind of luxury only a select few can afford each season. For the rest, that opportunity only comes around every five years. Or less.
Enter the world of demo gear, aka the used cars of the ski business. Each season, rental outfitters order a full fleet of the freshest, most enticing skis and boards from high-end brands (Burton, Salomon, K2, etc.), then put last season’s models on sale for half-off or more, plus bindings. The juiciest part: Most demo equipment sees fewer than 50 days on the snow per season. Talk about low mileage.
Now, demo-gear sales are far removed from dubious Craigslist ads — think of it as buying direct from a dealer as opposed to scrounging a junkyard — but Matt Carroll, general manager and hardgoods buyer for Double Diamond ski shop in Vail, still warns bargain hunters to be wary.
“A lot of times people find a great deal, but it might be a lower level binding than what their ability is,” said Carroll, who notes that even high-end demo skis are often paired with entry-level bindings. “That’s one thing to look for if you want to get the full package.”
For skis, give the bindings a once-over — look for the right DIN settings to complement your skill level — and then scour the ski base to check for large dings, base welds and edge separation. If you don’t like the total package, then move on to the next pair.
The same goes for snowboards, but the binding issue isn’t as pressing. Snowboard binders are far easier to switch out and, as with most riding gear, cheaper in the first place. That said, the components tend to break more easily, so opt for a new pair if you ride hard (100-plus days per season), or at least know how to repair simple parts like high-backs and ankle straps.
Where to splurge
There’s a reason no self-respecting shop makes a killing on demo boots. To tap the car metaphor again, boots are like license plates: mandatory, easily overlooked and due for upgrades at least once per year. Boots are also pricey — and getting pricier each season — but think on it: Would you trust your ankle to a flimsy thrift-store pair?
For a 25-year local like Carroll, stellar boots mean the difference between comfort and misery on the hill. He often sees customers cut corners with a cheap, low-level pair, even if they dropped a grand on bindings and skis.
It begins (and ends) with the fit. When trying on new ski or snowboard boots, Carroll suggests removing the liner to get a feel for the shell size. This gives a sense of the “true” fit. All liners pack out over time — technology can’t overcome the daily grind — so if a boot fits perfectly in the shop with a sock and liner, Carroll says it will be too roomy after only a few weeks on the slopes. Blisters and muscle cramps follow soon after.
On the tech side, boot pricing comes down to preference. The BOA lace system is a must for boarders who like a tight, no-fuss fit without cloth laces, while a slew of alpine boots now feature a “walk” setting inspired by alpine touring gear. Carroll says the feature is a godsend for staircases and parking structures, and he also finds it’s also wildly popular with ski club parents who spend hours camped at a snowy finish line. It’s a perk to keep in mind with the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships around the corner.
Alpine touring 101
During the past decade or so, alpine touring (AT) has won over a new breed of alpine adventurers. (The SIA report shows AT sales jumped 8 percent last season.)
Like freestyle skiing, the tipping point was the advent of modern equipment: sturdy “skins” made of grippy, removable fabric for uphill climbing, plus flexible boots and convertible bindings that stand up to the tortures of cross-country travel and steep lines. With the right setup, untracked portions of the sidecountry are at your fingertips.
But the right AT setup isn’t always cheap, even if you know where to start. Don’t let that squelch your plans. Dan Brewster, owner of Haute Route in Avon, a brand-new AT and mountaineering shop, has a simple piece of advice for newcomers: Play to your strengths.
“It all depends on your objective,” said Brewster, who reminds clients that AT gear is often less expensive than an entry-level mountain bike. “If you want to be out there for uphill fitness, a lighter setup would help. If you want to go out and ski big peaks with huge lines, weight might not be a huge concern.”
Once you pinpoint an objective, put boots on the top of your shopping list. Brewster likes a lightweight four-buckle design for AT excursions, with the perfect combination of flex and support to handle just about any terrain in the Vail area. Try the Scott Cosmos ($749.95) for men or the La Sportiva Sparkle ($649.99) for women.
Next on the shopping list are bindings. Again, decent gear isn’t cheap — ski manufacturers debut new technology like it’s going out of style — but Brewster says a “tweener” binding like the G3 Ion ($500) is ideal for beginners. It’s light enough for long tours and strong enough for deep, powder-filled lines.
For outerwear, layers are a must (just leave the tall tees at home). The Rab Strata jacket features the brand-new, highly breathable Polartec Alpha loft fill — it’s the only jacket on the market with the buzz-worthy material — and everything from pants to backpacks are now designed for AT treks.
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