Kids' Gear 2000: Child's Play

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The new season brings subtle changes to the world of junior equipment. What hasn't changed at all is the daunting task of finding the right stuff, since only a handful of ski shops nationwide offer a wide selection of junior gear.

What's your strategy? Shop early, for one. Store employees are less busy, and there's time to special-order, if necessary. And use the Internet: Manufacturer websites are good sources of information, especially on where to find their products.

The most common mistake made by well-meaning parents and coaches is putting lightweight juniors into high-end race gear, thinking the most expensive stuff must be the best. In truth, only the heaviest and strongest kids will benefit. Boots that are too tall and stiff and skis that don't flex only hinder development.

Among the skis we tested, we again found a bewildering array: from $700 race skis to $120 entry-level shaped skis. Geometries varied just as much-with tip widths measuring anywhere from 80 mm to 101 mm, and flexes ranged from quite soft to quite stiff. Our test proved that moderate shapes with relatively narrow tails work best for younger children, who need to be able to skid their skis easily to control speed. When they're ready to start carving, rarely before age 10, they'll benefit from wider tips and deeper sidecuts. If the shape is too extreme, it can be hard for kids to go straight (especially if they're leaning back, as kids often do), or ski bumps.

Is finding the right gear worth the effort? I once heard a friend lament that his son and daughter didn't like skiing. That surprised me...until I got a look at their ill-fitting gear. Only when she rented decent equipment did the kids change their minds. The lesson: Juniors will only learn to love the sport when outfitted with appropriate gear.

Once again we grouped the skis in five categories-All-Mountain Cruiser, All-Mountain Expert, GS Race, Slalom Race and Weekend Race-and carefully evaluated them during three days of testing at Winter Park Resort, Colo. We review only the best of the bunch. Each category is described below; find the one that matches your needs, and do your homework.