Learning the ins and outs of ski equipment can save you time and money in the long run.

Ski Buying Guide: What You Need to Know

For the first time in years, the Sierra Nevada mountains have a strong snowpack in time for the holidays, and totals are decent in the Rockies and Wasatch as well. But that also means more people are headed for the slopes, meaning rental shops can run low on sizes and styles. If you’re thinking this is the year to invest in your own gear, here’s what you need to know to choose skis, whether you’re looking for cross country, skate, or downhilll skis.

Cross Country Skis

Also called Nordic skiing, cross-country skiing is growing faster in popularity than any other type, and is the perfect place to start for those new to winter snow sports. If you plan to start with groomed trails, such as those available in cross-country ski parks, you’ll want to start with in-trac skis, which don’t narrow as much in the middle for better balance. If you’ll be blazing trails over un-groomed snow, off-trac skis are shorter and wider so you don’t sink in as much. Some cross country skis come with a metal edge to help you dig into the snow and hold a position. See this guide from Snowlink for more tips on choosing cross-country skis.

Downhill Skis

Downhill skis come in a dizzying variety of styles for all levels of expertise and for a variety of snow conditions. For this reason, your first stop should be a professional mountain shop, where qualified staff can advise you on the best equipment for your current needs. For groomed trails, most people choose all-mountain skis or carvers, designed for icier snow. These come in several widths, with wider (so-called fats or mid-fats) being better for softer snow. There are also powder skis for – you guessed  it — fresh powder snow and backcountry skis designed for untracked snow.
Skis are categorized by age and gender, with smaller and sometimes lighter sizes for women and kids. If you’re a beginning skier, renting is the way to go, so you can see what you like, what’s comfortable, and get a sense of the most popular brands and their price ranges. A great guide on how to choose skis is available from REI while Powder magazine also publishes a comprehensive  buying guide.

Skate Skis

Suddenly gaining in popularity thanks to recent Olympics, skate skiing is a faster, more aggressive type of cross-country skiing with a longer, faster glide. Unlike other types of skiing, you pick each ski up off the ground with each stride, then push off as you put your ski down. Skate skis are therefore  shorter, lighter and narrower than traditional cross-country skis since they need to be easier to lift.

Melanie Haiken writes about health, wellness and fitness for national magazines and websites. She specializes in discovering and reporting the latest research on diet, nutrition, fitness, weight loss and other health-related topics. Her award-winning stories have appeared in Fitness, Shape, Health, Forbes, and other respected magazines. She also contributes health stories to numerous Kaiser Permanente newsletters and other publications.