Snow sports are a great fitness activity for the whole family if you have the right gear.

Just In Time! Winter Sports Gear Guide

Snow is piling deep on the mountain tops and the winter sports season is in full swing. If you’re thinking of heading for the slopes, you’re probably taking stock of what’s in your closet or garage, and what you need to pick up. With that in mind, here’s a quick guide to buying and renting winter sports gear. What to look for, what to avoid, and how to get the best deals.

Downhill Skis

Choosing skis can be a complicated business because they come in several categories suitable for different types of snow. The primary types include all-mountain skis, the most common type for groomed trails, all-mountain wide skis (also known as fats or mid-fats), which offer more stability for softer snow, and powder skis, specialized for powder snow. Skis are also 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. Sports Basement has an excellent rental service for skis and snowboards, so if you’re in San Francisco, make the nearest Sports Basement your first stop.


Snowboards come in two primary types, all-mountain and freestyle. Most people choose all-mountain boards, which are more versatile, suitable for both groomed trails and backcountry. They come in two types, directional meaning downhill only, and twin-tip, meaning they can go both directions as needed for switchbacks. Freestyle boards are lighter, shorter, and more flexible, best for more experienced snowboarders seeking additional thrills. A third type, called splitboards, can be split into two skis as needed for climbing and are for backcountry only. Like skis, snowboards come in sizes, shapes and weights designed especially for women and kids. REI has an excellent guide to choosing a snowboard, complete with a helpful video. Many REI stores across the country offer rental services for skis, snowboards and more.

Cross Country Skis

Beginner cross-country skis are typically a general-purpose type called compact touring skis. Beyond these, though, there are many different lengths and widths. Narrower longer skis are best for gliding on groomed paths, while shorter wider skis -often with a metal edge – are better for ungroomed snow. Shorter skis, also known as skater skis, give you more buoyancy on fresh snow and softer snow. Nordic Skier has an excellent guide to choosing cross-country skis.


Cool or not, helmets are very important for beginning and young skiers, for whom the injury rate is very high. Ask any emergency room doctor or nurse, and you’ll be told that their children and other family members wear helmets, or hear about i!  Many health organizations, particularly those representing head injury survivors, recommend that all skiiers and snowboarders, even those who are experienced, wear helmets. Here is the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons’ explanation on why helmets are important.

When choosing a helmet, fit is the most important consideration, because a loose helmet can move during an accident, preventing it from cushioning the head as well as it should. And of course if a helmet doesn’t fit well, it’s not comfortable, making it that much more tempting to take it off. Helmets come in two types, injection-molded and in-molded. In-molded helmets are lighter and slimmer, but injection-molded helmets are sturdier and offer more protection. Make sure any helmet you purchase bears a stamp stating that it’s certified ASTM F2040, the most common American snow helmet certification standard.


Gaining in popularity in recent years, snowshoes offer a simpler way to enjoy the beauty of nature in the snow. Most people opt for flat terrain snowshoes, which are the type you’ll typically find as rentals or on loan from lodges and hotels. Rolling terrain snowshoes, which have bigger crampons, are used by more serious hikers who want to venture into steep or icy terrain.

Sliding Equipment

Whether on a sled, toboggan, saucer, or inner tube, there’s no more lighthearted thrill than careening down a snowy mountain slope. In fact, as any northern state college student can tell you, even a cafeteria tray makes for fun in the snow. Sliding equipment is available in many makes and materials, from flimsy sheets of plastic to substantial wooden toboggans. Three criteria to keep in mind are weight, steering, and padding. Too much weight will prevent any piece of equipment from working correctly, and the more people you have on board, the more likely it is that someone will get arm twisted or an elbow in the face. Discs with handles, toboggans with ropes, and anything you can hold onto or steer is going to give the rider more control. Some sleds and toboggans also come with padding, which can help prevent bumps and bruises. Inner tubes with rope handles are among the safest rides, but make sure yours is made of sturdy rubber that won’t tear if it hits a branch or pop during a bumpy ride. has an unusually thorough buying guide for sleds and other sliding equipment.


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.