An overview of ski essentials for high school skiers and ski parents, new and old.
As we barrel from high school cross country running season right into Nordic season, it's time for an all new set of skiers getting into the basics and new JV and Varsity athletes looking for an upgrade.
See our checklists at the bottom of the page for a quick reference to information and products described in the article.
Whether a brand-new skier, a rising Varsity star, or anything in between, having the right gear in your kit and the right layers in your wardrobe heightens your enjoyment of skiing and improves your performance on the racecourse.
For new skiers (and new ski parents), it is integral that you’re well equipped to learn this healthy and exciting lifelong sport. Better yet is knowing why you’re investing so much into this new sport.
For skiers looking for an upgrade, knowing what benefits you’re looking for, and where to find them, will put you on the right track to shaving off seconds and squeeze more fun out of your time trials and races.
Down to the Basics
Many High School teams in the Midwest will have racers new and old pursue both Classic and Skate skiing. Without getting too deep into the mechanics of the two styles, you’ll find health benefits and great racing in both. Overall, classic skiing is often easier to pick up but harder to master, while skate skiing is often a faster, higher-intensity technique.
Regardless of ski style you’ll need 3 basic pieces of equipment as a new skier.
Skis (and bindings)
You’ll need to have some sort of vessel to ski on, a ski will do! Many skis of either technique are bundled with a binding. If a ski isn’t bundled with it, Finn Sisu staff are happy to find a binding to match the skill level and price point of the ski. Most high school skiers will need a pair of skis for both Classic and Skate technique.
Our entry-level skis of both the skating and classical variety give new skiers a more forgiving fit as they learn the nuances of ski technique, build up endurance, and get comfortable on snow. Entry-level skis differ from some of the race-oriented models in a few aspects: weight, quality of base materials, and top-end speed. New skiers may find higher-end skis steepen the difficulty curve, but with the right guidance they will get more out of those skis.
Skiing is an upper AND lower body sport, and as such, poles are your connection to upper body engagement and further leverage to propel you down the trails. Skate poles and classic poles differ in one key aspect: length.
Classic poles traditionally come up to the height of your shoulder bone (or about 83% of your height), which gives you the range of motion to properly stride up hills. Skate poles usually come up to the height of your upper lip (or about 90% of your height), giving you more leverage for the more dynamic aspects of skate skiing. You’ll find most models of poles are available in lengths long enough to accommodate both techniques.
Note this general rule of thumb for poles: The stiffer the pole, the less energy you waste.
Our checklist has slightly different price ranges for skate and classic poles. That difference is due to skate poles benefitting from stiffer (and usually slightly more expensive) materials. The longer the pole, the more it will flex, wasting energy that would otherwise propel you down the trails. A stiffer pole will flex less, so generally we will recommend a stiffer skate pole for prospective racers.
Finally, boots! Ski boots of either technique are usually the most important piece of equipment or apparel when it comes to your comfort on the snow. A well fit boot can make or break your ski experience.
When it comes to new skiers, we often recommend a combi (combination) boot. Combi boots bridge the gap between skate and classic skiing, working on both styles of skis. They offer the stability of an ankle cuff to support you while skating and the flexibility under the sole of the boot to free up your foot while striding as you classic ski.
Note: While there are combi boots that do a good job for both classic and skate skiing, combi skis and poles don’t exist. Skate skis and classic skis seek to accomplish very different things mechanically, as do the poles at different lengths.
For new skiers, sometimes the hardest aspect of the sport is learning how to balance the cold of a winter sport with the exertion (and sweat) of an endurance activity. We have snow whether it is 25 °F and sunny or under 0°F, cloudy, and windy.
So how do you deal with those weather swings?
Layering. A simple answer with, ironically enough, many hidden layers.
Layering focuses on balancing your core and extremity temperatures and sweat with the outside cold. You’ll generally have base layers, outerwear, and gloves & headwear that make up your apparel balance. Everyone is different, so everyone's balance will be different.
Base Layers (and maybe some mid layers too)
Having a variety of base layers will help you accommodate your own tolerance to the cold and sweat production while exercising. The best way to find your solution is to have two to three weights/styles of top base layers, one to two styles of bottoms, a smattering of nice wool hiking/nordic socks, and a specialty wind-blocking base layer called a wind brief.
Base (and mid) layers come in a variety of materials, but you’re best off using a wool or synthetic layer. If you have any experience in other sports, you’ll know how bad cotton is at wicking sweat and absorbing odor. Stay away from cotton.
Having a few specialty options, along with peppering in tech tees and other garments probably already in your closet, helps give you the resources to find your own balance of warmth and moisture-management with your base and mid layers.
For new skiers, outerwear is much simpler thanks to the strong foundation built by your base layers. Outerwear generally encapsulates your jacket, pants, and ski boots.
Oftentimes high school Nordic ski teams offer their athletes team jackets, usually as a free rental for the year. Finn Sisu offers a variety of athletic jackets for athletes without team jackets. Medium-weight synthetic tech jackets are a great cover layer, offering wind protection and insulation over your base layers.
Ski pants are sometimes available to high school athletes through their teams, but less often than jackets. If you don’t have team pants, synthetic tech pants help lock in necessary warmth and vent off sweat. Many tech outer layers (jackets included) provide wind stopping front panels and joints, with venting on larger areas where sweat accumulates like your back and bottom. These layers make warm-up, training, and post-race bus rides more comfortable and enjoyable.
Gloves & Headwear
The final piece of the puzzle applies the same approach that base layers do—you find your own balance. Gloves and headwear cover your extremities and are the most impacted by poor circulation and ill-fitting ski clothing.
Having a variety of glove types and weights based on your own needs ensures safety and comfort while skiing. A good rule of thumb is to buy a glove that is a bit heavier/warmer than you think you need at the start of the season. If you overshoot you have something for that surprise -10°F windchill practice or your walk to school. Keep making adjustments until you find what styles work for racing, training, and off-trail activity.
For headwear, figure out what you race, practice, and rest best in. If you find yourself overheating with a casual beanie on, try using a synthetic skull cap or headband. If you can’t manage to stay warm, consider upping the weight, doubling up with a neck gaiter/buff, or finding a hooded jacket that works over a slimmer hat.
Speaking of neck gaiters, these little tubes of synthetic or wool can make or break those cold days. A great utility piece, neck gaiters (or buffs) help cover your neck and also fold into headbands, ponytail-friendly hats, and more.
If you’re committed to the sport for the long-term, you’ll be looking for upgrades to your equipment, training, and recovery.
Often, the first upgrade for skiers graduating from “new skier” status is to upgrade their combi boots to dedicated skate and classic boots. Generally, a dedicated skate boot is stiffer and contains lighter materials, replacing softer plastic cuffs and soles of combi boots with carbon-injected plastics and exclusively carbon-fiber parts. These withstand the lateral movements and forces of skate skiing better.
Upgrading your classic boots will shed the cuff of the combi boot in favor of greater freedom of movement. This allows you a more complete kick and sheds the added weight.
You’ll also find yourself reaching for more race-oriented skis. These will generally be flexed a bit more aggressively, contain higher quality base materials, and weigh less than introductory skis. There are also more ski choices at the mid- to high-level of race skis at Finn Sisu. With more options we can find the specific ski best suited to your needs.
Upgrading poles often comes with the territory of growing high schoolers. What we do most of the time at the shop is have high school racers that outgrow their poles upgrade their skate poles. Usually, the old skate poles will be of a height that can be used for classic skiing or need a little trim to get to a proper classic pole length. We have a variety of options for stiffer and lighter poles as you move up the ladder! Come by and check out your options anytime.
One further upgrade is more of a quality-of-life upgrade: boot covers or over-boots. As you start shedding weight by upgrading your boots, you might feel the brand-new race boots are bit colder than the well-insulated combi options. An over-boot is there to over some wind blocking for those frigid warmups and cold distance ski workouts. Decidedly worth it for the serious racers!
Check these Checklists!