If you can see Mt. Baker, you are part of The Experience

Why are skis fatter in the PNW? Some insight from Backcountry Essentials

Skis at Chris Gerston's shop, Backcountry Essentials, in Bellingham.

By Chris Gerston

In the Pacific Northwest, and definitely in Bellingham, we seem to like our beers hoppy, our snow plentiful and our skis fat. We are in an oddball corner of the country that the national news outlets seem to forget exists. And that’s not bad. But, when it comes to ski gear, we might be setting trends for the rest of the country. Personally, I think we are lucky to live in a place where we have so many different varieties of skiing and a high density of wingnuts among us.

I meet twice per year with a company called the NPD Group, which collects sales data from specialty ski shops and aggregates it along with data from thousands of other stores, as well as chain stores and internet sales, to learn what the rest of the country is seeing or doing. The following data about national trends is from their summary of winter 2018-2019, as are the numbers I share from my own store, Backcountry Essentials in Bellingham.

I find it helpful to use a continuum of terrain to describe the various boots, skis, or bindings today. Alpine ski gear is made for inbounds only. Slackcountry gear is made for terrain accessible with the help of a chair lift, but is suitable for some hiking in addition to skiing inbounds. Backcountry, Randonee or alpine touring (AT), gear is made to access terrain by getting yourself out and back, and volcano gear is backcountry gear optimized for weight and up-hill efficiency for ski mountaineering adventures.

Of all the factors that indicate our area is distinct from the rest of the country, the percentage of sales by waist width stood out the most. In the ski world, the waist width or millimeters “under foot” is the quickest way to reference where a ski wants to go – skinnier skis are for groomers and fatter skis are for powder. Typically, in our neck of the woods, I recommend skiing about 90-110mm as your best all-around ski that can handle groomers, powder, inbounds, or touring; those widths accounts for 36 percent of all the skis sold in the U.S, 57 percent of sales in the West, and 89 percent of sales at Backcountry Essentials. Nationally, the biggest portion of skis sold is in the 80-90mm waist range, at 31 percent, but this segment is trending down nationally while 91-100mm skis is the only category


Don’t get me wrong, I think skiing is fun no matter what width you choose if it is right for you and the terrain you enjoy. Sometimes a narrower ski is better, especially if you love carving on groomers. But groomers are not always Baker’s strongpoint; the open gate policy to access the slackcountry and fresh powder, along with our deep snowpack, are the attractions for many local skiers. The tool of choice when seeking powder is a wider ski as our local sales show compared to the rest of the country. And this isn’t just the Baker area, as the west includes the Rockies and all of Cascadia.

The other major trend evolving from the backcountry’s influence on inbounds skiing is the improvement in ski boots. In the past 13 years, I have witnessed AT boots get stiffer, lighter and more efficient walk-modes in two full evolutionary cycles. Then, in part from how many ski patrollers started to use AT boots on duty due to comfort, both alpine ski boots and bindings started to change. The slackcountry boot offers alpine performance, AT comfort and a walk-mode, which either allows backcountry touring as an optional activity or at least to get across the parking lot without that wonderful, sometimes terrifying, heel-toe ski swagger.

It’s an exciting time in the ski industry as gear continues to evolve for a variety of skiers and all the terrain that we have available to us. The biggest tip I can share is to think of your skis, boots and bindings as a system that should make sense for the terrain you will be experiencing for at least 60 percent of the time.

Ski widthNationalSouthMidwestNortheastWestBCE
% of National sales100%9%19%34%38%.000001%
<70 mm9%3%17%11%6%0%

*Two ski models with bindings priced at $399 also influences this category. Without those two models, the 91-100mm and 101-110 would look more equal.