Gear up for a great season on the snow

 

It's nice to look good on the slopes, but it's more important to have the right equipment. Killian Fordeexplains what to look for and, overleaf, how to stay safe

It's basic physics: snow landing on a warm surface will turn to water. So all your ski gear has to be waterproof. This may seem obvious, but thousands of Irish skiers and snowboarders heading away this season will still pack heavy woollen gloves and thick cotton tracksuits, seemingly determined to prove science wrong.

To compound these challenges other snowheads will borrow boots, buy blunt and worn second-hand skis online and pack their swimming goggles. Even cycling and hurling helmets will accompany us pasty lowlanders to the Alps, Pyrenees, Rockies and Appalachians this winter.

With a basic alpine snowsport holiday costing €1,000, that €40 you saved by borrowing your brother's ski boots will seem like chump change at the end of day two, as you stare down at your numb, swollen feet, purple from the lack of circulation.

But it's not just economising that can ruin a snow holiday. The temptation to overestimate your ability and experience might lead you to buy or rent inappropriate gear: stiff boots designed for racing, long skis made for experts and snowboards suitable mainly for tricks, not learning. Even a slight exaggeration could result in bindings being set that are too low for your weight.

Fashion can be a seductive diversion from your needs. Those yellow boots may look fantastic with your matching shade hat, but they may not match your size or ability. Remember your skis, board and boots will spend most of their time covered in snow. So when you're thinking about buying or renting equipment, aesthetics should be at the tail end of a checklist topped by fit, comfort and ability.

Ill-fitting boots, oversized skis, undersized poles, cheap goggles, thin gloves and helmets not designed for snow and ice can all lead to a spoiled trip and bruised body.

Fashion gods, why punish us?

SNOWBOARDING and skiing are perhaps the coolest sports around, so there's a lot riding on what's hip on the slopes. This year's trends might be enough to give you nausea, however, and not from the altitude. "In terms of clothing we're definitely back to the 1980s with a bang, especially in snowboarding," says Kieran Creevy, snowboarding and technical buyer for Great Outdoors. The colours are eye-bleedingly bright this year, and, according to Creevy, "every brand has at least one showcase one-piece suit".

Yes, you read that right: one-piece ski and snowboarding outfits in luminescent colours. Fashion gods, why must you punish us so?

The outfits are proving quite popular in European resorts, but with Ireland a few years behind the Continent when it comes to what's in the stores, there's still time to avoid that Babygro look.

As Creevy admits, you want to be quite, eh, confident to carry off a one-piece snowboarding outfit in shocking pink, and this look is definitely for those who have the riding skills to match. Nobody wants to plummet down a slope in Day-Glo green and be labelled as having all the gear and no idea. The big advantage is that one-piece suits mean "no snow in your jocks", says Creevy, and there is a definite move away from the baggier clothing that has dominated the snow parks.

Some of the outfits are seriously tight and fitted, echoing the skinny-jeans indie-rocker look that is ubiquitous on the high street. Designers are also using a lot more Gore-tex, with customers looking for more waterproofing in their clothing.

Creevy says a select few customers will be coming in to pick up the latest in piste fashion, though. "There is a core group of snowboarding customers who know the piece that they want since May. They know the size and fit and they come in with exact specifications. This is probably 20 of my customers a year who are taking four months to get the product. But these people are going for at least three to four weeks of the year, with maybe a week or two in Europe in winter, another trip in spring and maybe a trip during our summer to resorts in Argentina."

If you want to be cutting edge, here are some choice pieces:

• DC Glow in the Park Only the bravest would don this blinging piece of madness. Made from waterproof, breathable photoluminescent fabric, it absorbs sunlight during the day so you can glow on the piste at night.

• Eleven is a Swiss-based brand that is tearing up the fashion stakes with its wacky Japanese-inspired prints.

• Burton has collaborated with Playboy for a series of risque clothes and boards. The Ronin Lovejacket looks like any other outerwear, but things get a little hotter with the lining's prints. Likewise, the boards are somewhat, ahem, revealing.

What you'll need if you're heading off to ski or snowboard, where to buy it and how to make sure you pick equipment that's up to the job

Boots

Anyone can ski or snowboard down a hill. It's turning and stopping that are difficult.

Your feet steer your skis, and good boots will make a difference.

Donal Fennell of the Irish Association of Snowsports Instructors says that even people who are going on a once-a-year holiday should get their own boots. "A pair that are fitted properly and are comfortable will enhance your ability, confidence and mobility in the snow."

Renting at the resort is a sheep-dipping process. The staff are overworked, underpaid, have heard it all before and want to get you in and out. Towards the end of the season the boot moulds will have been stretched and rounded by a dozen different feet and invariably will be too big. You end up compensating by tightening the clips, leading to numb toes.

A great boot is one that enables the smallest movement of your foot to have an instant effect on the ski. Getting your foot snug is the next trick. The difficulty lies in finding boots that are tight enough for solid control but not so tight that they bind your feet.

Help is at hand from boot fitters. Located in many of the mountain villages and resorts, they will measure your feet, find the most suitable boot shell, then shape a mould for you.

Nevada Sports in Tignes, in the French Alps (00-33-4-79065154), FallLine Bootfitters in Chamonix (00-33-4-50472889, www.falllinebootfitting.com) and Precision Ski (00-33-4-79419158, www.precision-ski.fr), in Val d'Isère and elsewhere, all come recommended.

Closer to home, says Fennell, "the guys in Great Outdoors know their stuff". The shop, on Chatham Street in Dublin (01-6794293, www.greatoutdoors.ie), will have an expanded range of Rossignol and Salomon boots from October. For snowboarders it will have Burton, Forum, DC and Vans boots.

Onboard, in Creation Arcade in Dublin (01-6728767, www.onboard.ie), stocks Flow snowboard boots.

It's practically impossible to buy a bad pair of ski boots in Ireland - the brands you'll find are all world leaders - but it's easy to buy boots that don't fit, so take your time, try them all on, take advice and purchase the ones that feel right.

If buying is not an option, go to the rental shop when it's quiet, don't let the staff rush you and insist on trying on a few pairs. Some shops, late in the season, will rent new boots they have been unable to sell; just ask.

Expect to pay€250-€500.

Best buyAny of Rossignol's All Mountain boots. Available from Great Outdoors in Dublin and Macski in Belfast (048- 90665525, www.macski.com) - and, from next month, the new Snow+Rock store, at Dundrum Town Centre in Dublin (see next entry).

Skis and boards

Unless you ski or snowboard several times a year, stick to the rentals. Neal Collins of Directski.com points out that the cost of transporting skis and boards has become prohibitive.

"Aer Lingus and Ryanair charge €60 a round trip, tour operators €15. They are awkward to lug around, and the shapes, styles and technology change quickly."

He adds that in resort shops you can hire a "great pair of €700 skis for €50".

High-street skis are designed to be useful on all terrains. Length and durability still vary a lot, however. Shorter skis are lighter and faster-turning than longer skis. They are also slightly slower and less stable.

Less flexible skis are more suitable for advanced skiers.

If renting, choose skis that reach your neck if you stand them up and that have tapered middles, as this helps with turns and carving. Check that the edges - the strips of steel embedded on either side of the skis or board - are sharp. You should end up with a scuffed thumbnail if you run it along them.

Also check the underside of the ski or board, to make sure it has not been pockmarked by stones, branches, other skis or lift equipment. If temperatures in the resort are high and the snow heavy, ask the shop to rewax the skis or board before you take them away.

If you really want to buy before you go, Great Outdoors (details as before) will be selling 10 models of Rossignol and Salomon skis, including twin-tip skis for the very adventurous or ambitious.

Snow+Rock (www.snowandrock.com), the British chain that aims to open at Dundrum Town Centre next month, says it will stock a wide selection of brands, including Scott, Head, K2, Fisher and Völkl, with Burton and Ride snowboards.

Expect to pay€430-€800.

Best buysSalomon X-Wing 6 skis (€495 from Great Outdoors; details as before). Nitro Mystique snowboard (€428 from Onboard; details as before).

Ski poles

Even with 20 years of skiing experience I'm still not entirely clear about their purpose. You can tell a pole is the right length if your elbow forms a right angle when you hold the pole with the tip on the ground.

Expect to pay€25-€120.

Best buySalomon Artic (€37.50 from Great Outdoors, details as before).

Goggles

With these it's all about fogging - that is, how to find a pair that doesn't fog up. Goggles should be well ventilated, double lensed and offer 100 per cent UV protection - and fit your face properly - if you want to be able to see the mountain you paid a fortune to visit.

Scrimping is unwise. A €10 pair will probably be as useful for snowsports as flippers are for ballet. To reduce fogging, keep your goggles on your face even when you are in covered lifts, don't wear so much head and face gear that your forehead sweats, and shake off - don't blow - any snow that gets on the ventilation holes or inside lenses.

Expect to pay€30-€80.

Best buyBollé goggles (from €35, available from Matthews of Cork, 021-4277633,  www.matthewsofcork.com).

Gloves

Cheap gloves equal wet and cold hands. The North Face and Spyder make warm, comfortable gloves that look great. Great Outdoors (details as before) and 53 Degrees North (Carrickmines and Blanchardstown, 01-2149352 or 01-8249156, www.53degreesnorth.ie) in Dublin and Macski in Belfast (details as before) all stock a huge choice of colours, sizes and materials.

Expect to pay€60-€100.

Best buyHestra Leather Classic C Zone (€80 from 53 Degrees North, details as before).

Helmets

It's probably only a matter of time before helmets become mandatory. Ski schools now insist on them for under-13s, and many rental shops will provide free helmets with boot and ski or board hire.

Kieran Creevy of Outsider magazine says: "Irish retailers report a steady increase in sales of helmets. It's mainly adults buying for their children, but even with a five-to-one child-to-adult sales ratio, helmets are becoming more popular for all ages."

Happily, the past few years have seen helmets become lighter, more comfortable and less obtrusive.

Expect to pay€60-€150.

Best buyQuiksilver Pulse range (£49.99 from www.rxsport.co.uk; delivery free).

Socks

Ballsport stockings will not do. They bunch up, can't absorb enough perspiration and are padded in the wrong areas for the pressure points in snowsports. Socks need to come up your knee, be strengthened under the sole and shin, be tight on the leg and be breathable.

Expect to pay€25-€40.

Best buyIcebreaker Skier Lite (£18, or about €23, from www.macski.com; free delivery on orders over £75, or about €95).

How to make sure you come home in one piece

YOU PROBABLY SPEND 51 weeks of the year in a sedentary, temperature- controlled, sea-level environment. Your exercise is limited to shuffling between your bed, kitchen table, car seat, office chair and sofa. Your body is in hibernation, your muscles redundant and your senses dulled.

Suddenly you're 3,000m up in subzero temperatures, commanding your limbs and joints to help propel you down a mountain. It's not exactly a contrast that nature intended.

Skiing can bring other challenges, too. Bigger, faster lifts mean that resorts that used to have big queues, such as Meribel, in France, Zell am See, in Austria, and Verbier, in Switzerland, now have to police the slopes to make sure that, with so many people on the pistes, nobody goes too fast. Rush hours, particularly to and from ski school, are now common.

Combine all of this with cutting-edge skis that can seduce their users into overestimating their ability and injuries and accidents are common.

Here are some tips to help you return home in one piece.

Exercise

Condition your muscles before you go. Cycling and walking up and down stairs - at home or on a machine at the gym - are perfect. Warrensmith-skiacademy.com has excellent online videos for exercising and pre-slope warm-up.

Lifts

It's not the icy black run or the snowboard park that's statistically the most dangerous place on the mountain. The top of the chairlift, as you get off, is where accidents are most likely to happen. Prepare yourself when approaching the top by ensuring your poles and sticks aren't tangled up, clear the lift, then fix your gloves, hat, backpack and goggles.

Tuition

First-timers and anyone who hasn't skied for a long time should take a lesson or two before going away. As Michael Kelly explains on page 8, practising on an artificial slope in Ireland could remove a couple of days of frustration and have you skiing blue runs from the moment you arrive. Trying to learn from experienced but unqualified friends tends not to work. The Ski Club of Ireland's artificial slope in Kilternan, Co Dublin (and the one at Craigavon Golf Ski Centre, in Co Armagh; 048-38326606,  www.craigavon.gov.uk), offers well-priced learn-to-ski packages with certified instructors. See  www.skiclub.ie.

On the piste

Those little bunny hops can do your knees serious damage. You should never jump on skis or a board on to a flat or a gentle slope. Intermediate instructors will be happy to show how to "catch air" so you don't blow your knees. Losing control at high speed is what causes the most serious injuries. If you feel yourself leaning back, that's your brain saying slow down.

Irrespective of level or ability, always slow down on a crowded piste. The single biggest cause of death in snowsports is from avalanches. Disaster movies have them as billowing waves of white, snapping trees and crushing mountain huts. The reality is that mini avalanches of shifting snow, over areas the size of a typical front garden, are the killers. Never ski off the groomed piste alone, and if you are caught in an avalanche try to "swim", to stay on top of the moving snow.

And finally

Look up the slope before you cross a piste, and remember that those in front of you always have right of way.