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Each fall, all the big ski and outdoor magazines release their annual ski buyer’s guides showcasing the top skis, boots, and bindings for the season to come. There are standout models and hard to miss favorites, but what does it all really mean? And, is this a reliable way to purchase skis? We caught up with a few industry experts to understand how the review process works, what goes into a review, and how to navigate the information presented in this year’s buyer guides.
Each spring, each major ski magazine — and a website or two — invites a bunch of excited skiers to hunker down at a ski resort to test skis anywhere from four to six days. Typically, these are top-drawer skiers. It’s safe to assume that everyone there can crush the most advanced terrain on the mountain. Skis are pushed to their limits. The goal is to ride each ski in everything from deep powder to perfectly groomed corduroy, and by a variety of testers (in practice, a few days in spring may not produce a really broad range of snow conditions).Outside those basics, each publication has its own process for testing skis. We know first-hand that the ski testing process is fun as hell, and that the people doing it are awesomely fun to ski with. The dubious side of the ski test is that the time frame for testing is short, and the conditions and terrain may all be the same. It’s hard to fully understand what a ski is capable of in a few runs on the same mountain in similar conditions in a matter of a few days. In order to really test a ski, you would want to ski it in all types of conditions throughout the winter — especially in crappy inconsistent snow, where you really rely on a ski’s versatility.
It’s hard not to get excited about winter while reading gear guides, plus, most reviews are eternally positive. We get it, skiing is fun (especially when you get to rip around the mountain with your best friends), but is it realistic that all the skis reviewed have no negative qualities to them? Probably not. But, remember that ski magazines aren’t in the business to hurt anyone and if they don’t have something nice to say, they probably won’t say anything at all. For more on this subject, check out our gear guide reading tips below.
We hate to say it, but the great days of rigorous ski testing could be over. In an ever-changing advertising landscape, magazines are under more pressure than ever to get along with their advertisers and create good-will. This fall, when you get home and are ready to kick your feet up with a cold beer and digest the latest and greatest in ski design, consider our top tips for getting the most out of a gear review:
Know yourself, and be honest about it. This is a fundamental piece of the puzzle when selecting any gear, no matter the season. It doesn’t matter how well a ski stands up to its competition if it isn’t the right fit for you. Are you an aggressive skier? Are you strong? Perhaps you are a little bit lazy (at least compared to the guy on the chair next to you)? Do you arc turns or simply smear down the mountain? Do you ski mostly groomers? Do you head in for a beer when the skiing turns crusty? These are all important elements to choosing a ski that will perform best for you. Remember what kind of skier you are when reading through reviews.
Be honest about your fitness level and the conditions/terrain you actually ski in. Sure, you did that one awesome thing that one time years ago, but what (and where) will you actually be skiing this year? Don’t forget that the ski testers and the reviewers are great skiers, and unless you’re a triathlete, they’re almost certainly stronger than you are. Want to get stronger for ski season? Learn more about that here.
Look for ski tests that publish data. If you see data, which could include ski test cards, numerical data, numerical ski rankings, charts, etc., you can sense that the reviews are more legitimate than reviews without supported data. At least, a data set tells you that the ski was tested by a group of skiers rather than just one guy.
Ski testers have different styles of skiing. As an example, an ex-ski racer could be partial to skis that are stiffer and make smooth transitions down a groomer, whereas a freeskiing competitor may lean toward skis with generous float. Try to get to the bottom of who is testing the ski and what kind of skier they are if you want to hone in on their advice.
If the review sounds a lot like the manufacturers’ description, beware! When reading through the reviews, ask yourself, “Does this pass the sniff test”? A good review will use first-hand knowledge of the ski and won’t be afraid to describe what they honestly thought of the ski’s performance.
Read through a lot of reviews in the magazine (and other publications) to help you decide if the reviewer is out to please readers — or advertisers. Don’t just read one set of reviews. Read several to get a general vibe and understand if the reviewers are going out of their way to leave out the negatives and neutral qualities of the gear. A magazine that sells advertising doesn’t want to diss a product — so the mediocre stuff tends not to get written up.
From the various reviews, can you pull out articulate performance details? Don’t forget to compare these to your skiing. When reading the review, ask yourself “Is there any tangible detail on how this ski actually performed, or was it all clichés?”
If a ski gets good reviews across three or more publications, that suggest it really does outperform in its category. If a ski tests really well in one publication and is kind of iffy in the others, suspect that the positive review may be based on a very narrow set of conditions — or some kind of testing bias.
As a generalization, wide skis are fun in powder conditions. It’s what happens outside the powder conditions that should be considered. Time and time again, we hear that a ski was so fun, playful, and “the best” in powder. So, what else can it do?
Look for skis that have a big sweet spot (these skis may be described as forgiving or versatile). It’s likely that these skis will accommodate a broader range of skiers and more skiing abilities.
Ski magazines don’t typically test low-end models. The manufacturers typically make their high-end and best equipment available for the ski tests. So, you won’t see a lot of affordable models or lower-end gear in the magazines.
A ski that works well for a group of strangers could very well not work for you. For this reason, we strongly recommend being your own tester. Ski towns have a multitude of ski shops with hundreds of demo skis. Take a morning or afternoon and test a variety of skis. It will help you understand what you personally do and don’t like. That’s far more valuable than a review in a ski magazine.
The ski buyer’s guides, while fun to read and a quintessential piece of fall nostalgia, should be read with a grain of salt. The testers and their editors don’t know what kind of skier you are, nor the kind of terrain you ski in, nor where you live, nor your fitness level, nor your physical profile. The alternative to this year’s gear guides is, of course, custom skis. Learn more about our process here.
Editor’s Note: Don’t fret, there is an alternative. From what we understand, the guys at Blister Gear Review have spent the last seven years creating an alternative to the ski publication review process. They don’t accept marketing or advertising dollars from any gear companies they review which takes a lot of the misrepresentation out of their reviews. Their all-inclusive reviews note the positives to a ski’s performance, but also tackle what the ski does poorly. They can do this by skiing up to 15 days on a ski before they review it. In our opinion, they are publishing the most rigorous ski reviews today.
Wagner would like to thank Jonathan Ellsworth of Blister Gear Review and Joe Cutts, former manager of the Ski Magazine ski tests, for their expert opinion on how to navigate gear reviews and how the process works. Their opinions and knowledge on the matter, coupled with our own (some of our staff have been ski testers in the past), allowed us to put this article together. Cheers Jonathan and Joe!