How To Choose Skis

The first step in selecting the right ski is knowing what type of skis there are to choose from. Once you know which type you’re after, it’s time to decide on a camber profile, turn radius, and comparative stiffness. Once you’ve figured that out, you’ll need to choose the right length. We know that can be a lot of information to gather and digest, so we broke down each section to make it easier to understand the specs provided by the manufacturer as you begin to look closer at specific models. Having this knowledge will make it much easier for you to confidently make a decision.

Jack Walzer | Deer Valley, UT | Photo: Eric Schramm

How to Choose the Right Ski for You

Determining your skill level is key to choosing the right ski. Ask yourself if you’re a true beginner, intermediate, advanced, or expert skier—and be honest with yourself. Purchasing a ski intended for an expert skier when you’re still learning to ski can slow your progress and result in a frustrating experience.

So what’s the difference between intermediate and expert skis? Beginner and intermediate skiers will want skis that initiate a turn with ease and are soft enough to be maneuvered easily. More advanced skiers will want a ski that is a bit stiffer for stability at higher speeds and versatile enough to handle an expanding appetite for more varied terrain. True experts will want more than one ski in their quiver—a carving ski for when it hasn’t snowed in awhile, a powder ski for the deepest days and side country excursions, and an in-between ski that can handle everything from groomers and bumps to secret stashes in the trees.

These are just general guidelines, of course. A long list of additional factors will influence your final decision including weight, strength, and personal preference. The only foolproof way to figure out the ski that’s best for you is to test several different models out on the slopes.

Types of Skis

It’s helpful to know how skis are categorized when you’re choosing between skis. While classifications like carving, all-mountain, all-mountain - wide, and powder are fairly easy to group based on waist width, there are also categories including touring, junior, and women’s specific that are an indication of the ski’s construction. While this won’t affect the majority of recreational skiers, it should be noted that there are also race stock skis, which are governed by FIS equipment regulations. Setting race skis aside, the following categories are what we use to define types of skis.

Stockli Laser AX. Image courtesy of Stockli.

Carving

If you mostly stick to groomed trails and want a ski that puts the emphasis on turning, this is your category. Carving skis are narrow underfoot (typically ranging from 64-80mm), torsionally stiff, and feature a lot of sidecut, meaning they transition from edge to edge quickly and confidently, and they hold an edge on firm snow. The narrow waist is an asset on groomed runs, but it becomes a liability in deep snow. With a radius of generally less than 16-17 meters, carving skis like to be on edge and in a constant state of transition. Keep these skis on the hardpack and enjoy the art of laying trenches.

K2 Mindbender 90Ti. Image courtesy of K2.

All-Mountain

These are your quiver-of-one skis. The dimensions and construction of all-mountain skis are designed to compromise in the name of versatility.

As a general rule of thumb, we classify all-mountain skis as any model with a waist width of 80-90mm. If you’re only going to own one pair of skis, this is your category—from groomed snow, to bumps, to light powder, to the inevitable runs of mixed conditions. In other words, for an average day on the slopes, these skis will provide the best overall experience.

Volkl M5 Mantra. Image courtesy of Volkl.

All-Mountain – Wide

This category could also be called midfat or western all-mountain. As a general rule of thumb, we classify wide all-mountain skis as anything with a waist width of 90-100mm. If we had to pick one differentiator between the all-mountain and all-mountain - wide categories, it’s that the wide versions are built to be skied aggressively.

Wide all-mountain skis adapt easily to powder, cut efficiently through chopped-up snow, and will even play nice on groomers. Just keep in mind that they aren’t quite as nimble as traditional all-mountain skis if you are sticking to the frontside.

Fischer Ranger 102 FR. Image courtesy of Fischer.

Powder

Powder skis range from 100mm on the low end to an astronomical 130+ mm underfoot, and most of them aren’t very happy in anything other than the deep stuff (especially the ones with zero camber or reverse camber underfoot). Almost all powder skis have some form of rocker (early rise in the tip and/or tail) to help them float and quickly initiate turns in deep snow.

While flotation is the #1 goal on powder days, it's also key to be able to actually ski in deep snow. That requires the right balance of camber, dimensions, and materials. It’s what keeps a fat ski floaty in powder, stable at speed, and not too one dimensional.

DPS 100 RP Pagoda. Image courtesy of DPS.

Touring

For a ski to be touring capable, all it technically needs is a touring binding. That said, a ski with heavy metal laminates is going to be miserable to tour with. What separates a touring ski from a similarly shaped alpine ski is the touring ski will typically be made with lighter weight wood cores, carbon over metal laminates, and shapes that allow you to tour efficiently uphill.

Volkl Kenja 88. Image courtesy of Volkl.

Women’s Specific

Women’s specific skis are comparatively lighter and more flexible, particularly near the tip, to account for women’s relatively lower body weight. Because women’s center of gravity is further back than men’s, women-specific skis feature a binding placement (and the ski waist itself) slightly closer to the tip of the ski to bring female skiers into a neutral position. Skis featuring a women’s-specific construction can be found in all of the categories above.

Fischer Ranger FR Junior. Image courtesy of Fischer.

Junior

From itsy-bitsy beginners to prodigious tweeners, junior skis are made for all sizes, skill levels, and skiing styles. These skis are built with an emphasis on both durability and skill development, meaning whether your kid gets them brand new or as a hand-me-down, they’ve been designed to help make skiing fun and productive.

Stockli Laser GS. Image courtesy of Stockli.

Race Stock

These skis are dedicated solely to racing and its related training. From FIS-norm World Cup skis to Masters and NASTAR “cheater” skis, this is your category if you’re racing competitively. It’s important to note that ski “type” in this category is governed by FIS equipment regulations for length, sidecut, and radius. That means a “slalom” designation isn’t so much a reference to the type of turn shape the ski makes, but rather a classification of its eligibility for use in FIS-sanctioned slalom competitions.

Choosing the Right Profile

For our purposes, we’re referring to the camber profile of a ski (think side view), as opposed to the sidecut profile (think top view). The camber profile of a ski is a major influencer of all facets of its performance: ease and quickness of turn initiation, edge grip, stability at speed, float in powder, etc.

Camber vs. Rocker

Rocker is actually just a (reverse) form of camber, but the two are now referenced as opposites of each other. Picture a ski laying base-down on the snow. The section(s) of the ski in which the vertical curve is pointing down toward the snow is cambered. The section(s) where the curve is pointing up, or away from the snow, is rockered. Most manufacturers measure their camber/rocker profiles in percentages to make visualization easier.

Camber directs energy down to the snow and provides enhanced power, dampness, and edge grip. Rocker wants to lift the ski up and away from the snow, providing better float in powder and allows for easier turn initiation.

In this day and age, few skis use only one consistent profile from tip to tail, opting instead to utilize a combination of camber and rocker to optimize the benefits of both. Typically, this takes the form of rocker in the tip (and often tail) for enhanced soft-snow float, easier turn initiation, and smooth release, and then camber underfoot for maximum edge grip and stability.

Types of Rocker

Tip Rocker (or “Early Rise”)

Tip rocker means the ski’s camber ends before the tip, bringing the contact point further back on the ski. Tip rocker is used to make turn initiation easier (the ski feels shorter and easier to turn), and/or reduce tip grab in soft or mixed snow conditions by keeping the front of the ski up and out of the snow.

Tip and Tail Rocker (or “All-Mountain Rocker”)

Tip & tail rocker means the ski’s camber ends early at both the front and back of the ski. This allows for easier in and out of the turn, enhances floatation in soft snow, and makes it easier to pivot or steer the ski in soft snow.

Full Rocker (or “Reverse Camber”)

Full Rocker means the ski has no camber at any point along its length. This is used primarily in powder skis as a way to enhance floatation. It is done at the cost of stability on hardpack and rebound.

Choosing the Right Radius

Classifying a ski’s radius as short, medium, or long is dependent upon an understanding of the proper length of a ski within its category. In other words, never choose a radius before you choose a ski.

That may sound obvious, but it’s easy to get hung up on radius. Wanting a long radius of 23m does not mean you should get that sidecut-heavy carving ski in a 190cm length. An all-mountain ski might have a 14m radius in the 155cm length, yet a 22m radius in the 185m length. The point is, radius is less about the number on its own, and more about the number in relation to equivalent skis.

Here’s how we generally classify radius, with the assumption being you’ve determined both the type of ski you want and its proper length:

Radius Guidelines:

  • 10-15m = Short
  • 15-20m = Medium
  • +20m = Long
A ski with a longer turn radius will perform best when making long arcs, while a ski with a shorter turn radius will excel at tight turns.Image courtesy of Volkl.

How is radius determined?

Radius is measured by the distance travelled downhill from start of turn to end of turn. Now it’s important to note that this measurement assumes a perfectly executed turn shape—edges engaged throughout, skis optimally weighted, flexed, and unweighted.

You will always be able to manipulate radius. A 12m carving ski can be straight-lined, or held in a semi-engaged turn, but you’ll get plenty of negative feedback from the skis in the form of edge deflection or chatter. The skis want to start/finish the turn, but you won’t let them. Conversely, a 22m powder ski can be manhandled into making a shorter turn, but the power required to do so will overload the ski with energy and buck you when released at the end of the turn.

Choosing the Right Flex

The flex (or stiffness) of a ski references the amount of force required to bend it. Your weight, strength, and ability influence how soft or stiff the ski will feel. That being said, different materials and constructions used by manufacturers result in different flexes between ski models. Metal laminates and core profiles directly influence a ski’s comparative stiffness, and manufacturers utilize them (or don’t) depending on the intended use and skier. There’s no industry standard for measuring the flex of a ski, so focus instead on the construction of the ski and its intended use to help determine its flex.

Construction of Soft vs. Stiff Skis

Foam/Composite Cores

Foam or composite cores result in skis with a soft flex. Foam or composite cores are typically used for junior and beginner skis.

Wood Cores

Wood cores (on their own) span the range from noodly to energetic, depending on who and what the ski is designed for. Few, if any, wood-only cores fall into the range of traditionally stiff skis.

Metal/Carbon Laminates

Metal, carbon, or other materials used as inlays or laminates are what provide the added stiffness, increasing dampness and energy to an endless variance of degrees. Both ultralight carbon touring skis and metal-loaded race skis can be described as “stiff.”

Use of Soft vs. Stiff Skis

Manufacturers make metal-less skis featuring wood or composite cores for a wide range of uses. Beginners may want a ski that requires less force to bend, so using more flexible materials ensures a softer feel underfoot. Certain powder-specific skis will also utilize a softer, lighter core to allow for quicker steering, mellower rebound, and a slashy, playful feel.

Stiff skis will always have some form of metal (or carbon) laminate in their core. This results in a stiffer feel, which translates to increased dampness and stability at speed, plus more energetic rebound to help propel you into the next turn. Stiffer skis can also be quite effective for heavier skiers who naturally generate more force on their skis.

Choosing the Right Length

There is no formula for choosing what ski size that is right for you. Beyond the obvious indicator of body height, factors like skier ability, weight, snow conditions, terrain, and type of ski should help you determine what length is right for you.

There are some guiding factors when it comes to ski length: shorter skis are easier to maneuver and make short-radius turns with, whereas longer skis offer more stability at higher speeds. Carving skis are shorter, skinnier, and have more sidecut; powder skis are longer, wider, and have less sidecut. Beyond that, choosing the right ski length always comes down to personal preference.

Here are three key considerations to help you determine what ski length is right for you:

Beginner / Intermediate / Advanced

Why does skill level matter? Basically, the better you are at skiing, the more you dominate your skis. Where a beginner is pushing their skis side-to-side in a constant battle to shrug speed, an advanced skier is driving their skis downhill in an effort to generate more speed. As such, initiating turns at slower speeds requires much more force (and balance since the turn is drawn out), so a shorter ski is easier to push around. Also, travelling at slower speeds does not necessitate as much focus on stability or dampness. That means you can turn to the easier/shorter ski without worrying about the chatter a more advanced skier would worry about.

Beginner – Skis come between the neck and chin.
Shorter skis are easier to turn at slower speeds and help promote proper skill development.

Intermediate – Skis come between the mouth and eyes.
This length balances maneuverability at slower speeds with stability at higher speeds.

Advanced – Skis come between the eyebrows and top-of-head.
With speed and power as the givens, this length provides advanced skiers with the extra edge length they need for stability.

Surface Area and Effective Edge

Choosing the right length within a specific type of ski requires an understanding of the concepts of a ski’s surface area and effective edge length.

The longer and wider a ski is the more surface area it will have, and the more material you’ll be working with underfoot, which will make it feel less maneuverable. For example, a 175cm carving ski with a waist width of 72mm has significantly less surface area than a 175cm powder ski with a 112mm waist width.

Effective edge is the distance between the contact points in the tip and tail of the ski when it’s on edge. Imagine straightening out the edge of a fully cambered carving ski with a lot of shape. While that ski may list a length of 165cm, the length of the (effective) edge once straightened will be quite a bit longer. Conversely, think about a powder ski with a lot of reverse camber and minimal sidecut. When that ski is laid flat on the snow, the points of contact will be much further back, resulting in a shorter effective edge than the listed length of the ski would suggest.

Skis with more surface area provide better float in powder, but also require more effort to maneuver. Skis with more sidecut will ski much “longer” than their listed length, while skis with more rocker will ski much shorter. In other words, a 165cm slalom ski that is “full camber” will ski like a 165, while a 165cm powder ski with full rocker will feel like a much shorter ski.

To further complicate matters, with the advent of tip & tail rocker, the effective edge can no longer be measured simply by holding the skis base-to-base. You must unload the camber (squeeze them together) to see where the tip and tail contact points end up. Usually, with tip and/or tail rocker skis, the effective edge will be significantly shorter than what you would have thought. But, that doesn’t mean you have to upsize. When the skis are turned on edge, you still get the engagement of the full length of the ski.

Terrain

One other component to proper ski length worth mentioning is the role terrain can play in your decision. Groomers in the Rockies are not the same as groomers in the northeast. Powder in the Pacific Northwest is not the same as powder in the Intermountain West. In other words, where you’ll be skiing most frequently will influence the right length ski for you.

For example, the tighter trails and firmer snow in the Northeast means the proper length all-mountain ski may be shorter than what is required for the wider trails and softer snow out west. The same goes for powder skis. The wide-open glades and bowls you’ll find in the Rockies warrant longer powder skis—stable at higher speeds and maximizing surface area for extra float in light, deep powder. On the other hand, the tighter trees and lower snowfalls in the Northeast may warrant slightly shorter powder skis that are optimized for quicker, more precise turns.

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