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The White Stuff: What's new in women's ski equipment

Be thankful if you###re too young to remember the days of strapping on heavy, ill-fitting men###s skis and boots for lack of equipment designed for women. Today###s women-specific skis and boots make turning easier while delivering an enhanced technical experience and comfort level on terrain and snow of all types.

"Ten years ago women###s skis were really just men###s skis in a softer flex with a pretty paint job," says Dan Fox, director of operations for Christy Sports, a ski and board shop with more than 40 locations throughout the Rockies(www.christysports.com.) "The forward mounting position has been completely redesigned along with the sidecut to fit the mounting position. Construction materials are also different. For instance, the Gamma line from Volkl is 20% lighter and softer than the men###s skis. Men###s skis use four wooden stringers that run the length of the ski, while in the woman###s ski every other stringer is a carbon fiber material so it###s lighter and softer. The mounting position has also been moved forward, helping to initiate the turn."

That line and K2###s T:Nine series, named after the Title IX act requiring parity in women###s and men###s athletics at educational institutions, are top sellers, notes Fox. The K2 skis also have an adjusted sidecut and use a different mold from the men###s skis to accommodate a lighter skier and improve performance.

The upshot? Women don###t have to work as hard to initiate a turn because the ski is built for a skier weighing from 90 to 170 pounds versus 160 to 240 pounds for a man. In addition, the ski design adjusts for the fact that women###s anatomy gives them a tendency to sit back further on the heels.

"Previously, one of women###s main complaints was that their tips seemed to just dance around on the snow. By moving the mounting position forward, you###re centered and the weight shifts to the tip of the ski. You keep contact with the snow more consistently and the lighter-weight ski allows you to jump into the turn," says Fox.

Boot technology has also been adapted to women###s needs and anatomy. The most welcome news for many women may be that boots are now 15% to 20% warmer than previously. Tecnica makes a boot that can be plugged into the car lighter on the way to the ski area so it is heated and molds to the skier###s foot every time. All boot makers offer liners that when heated conform to the foot.

Boots### characteristics vary so any foot can be fitted. Salomon###s boot is great for a higher instep and a larger forefoot, notes Fox. Nordica tends to run slightly narrower with a tighter ankle, while Tecnica offers a happy medium between the two.

Heel lifts and custom insoles help the skier get forward, staying in the same plane as the hill and initiating the ski more easily. The ramp angle inside the boot has been increased to get the skier into the correct athletic stance. Women###s boots also are cut lower than are men###s to avoid the large pad pressing into the calf muscle. "Women generally have a wider forefoot and a narrower heel," says Fox. "The woman###s boot in a D width with a pretty narrow right angle in the heel area is just amazing. If your boots aren###t snug, your skis won###t turn worth a darn."

Questions to ask before buying

Probably the best way to test out skis before buying is to demo a pair from a ski shop. Another great way to review equipment is to take a woman###s ski clinic and talk to the other women and the instructor about their skis. Instructors generally are quite willing to take a participant into the ski shop and discuss the best choices for her after seeing her abilities out on the slopes.

Fox notes that it###s often difficult to find a woman salesperson when shopping for hard goods such as ski equipment. Nevertheless, ask the salesperson if he or she has skied the different products being recommended. "I###ve skied every woman###s ski we offer," says Fox. Does the ski tend to make an easy round turn or a long fast turn, and how does that match the buyer###s needs? If the skier is focused on powder and moguls, a softer flexing ski will perform better. Most important, says Fox, don###t understate your ability to the salesperson. Knowing if you###re a groomed terrain-type skier versus someone who wants to ski the moguls more often will allow the salesperson to sell you what you need.

Ski quality and type can also be gauged to some extent in terms of their cost. Equipment priced at about $250 is designed for intermediate skiers, while a higher-end ski satisfies more aggressive skiers. A good ski without bindings will cost anywhere from $300 to $500, while integrated ski and binding systems range from $375 to $700. Fox notes that $250 to $425 is a good price range for boots; below that figure the boots generally won###t feature upper cuff adjustments.

With comfort and technical issues conquered, women have no more excuses! Get out and have fun on the slopes!