You’ve finally made up your mind. After ogling hundreds of pairs of skis in the lift line, you’ve decided to take the plunge and buy a pair of skis. Maybe you’ve been renting skis and want to own pair. Maybe you’re updated skis you’ve had for a while. Or maybe you’re adding to quiver. Whatever the situation, the hard part is sorting through different types, brands, models and sizes. So where do you start?
Decades ago, skis were long and wooden without much choice in what you got except for length. Ski lengths and the weight of skis have shortened as the decades have passed. If the challenge was very few choices in the old days, now skis come in different lengths, widths, weights, flex patterns, and sidecuts.
What is a sidecut?
Sidecut refers to the general shape of the ski. You can view the shape, often in hourglass design, by viewing the bases of the ski. With most skis, the tips and tails are significantly wider than the waist. Ski shops will commonly ask customers what range of waist width they are looking for. The narrower the waist (as often found in race skis, frontside skis, carving skis), the tighter its “turning radius” or the how sharp the ski can turn.
Types of skis
The definition of a narrow ski changes from region to region, country to country. For example, in Europe, it’s common to find skis in the range of 60-70 mm underfoot classified as carving skis. North Americans tend to classify narrow skis as falling from 70-80 mm underfoot. East coast or mid-West skiers in North America tend to ski on more hardpack conditions and thus favor carving or frontside skis.
Mid-fat skis are the bridge between narrow and wide skis. Mid-fat skis are designed to carve short to medium radius turns and handle both groomers and cut-up snow. They tend to run between 85-98 mm underfoot. Skis within this range of waist width are also known as all-mountain skis. Skis with waists over 100 mm underfoot are typically classified as powder skis because the wider surface area underfoot allows the ski to float more efficiently in soft snow.
Women’s and men’s skis
After identifying your ability level (beginner, intermediate, expert) you should consider what kind of terrain you ski. Then you can look at specific categories (again, designated by waist width and intended performance) such as women-specific skis, race skis, all-mountain skis, freeride skis, freestyle skis, park and pipe skis and powder skis. Remember that the ski you buy should be based on your skiing ability and what type of skiing you enjoy.
Manufacturers offer at least several length options for each model. Note that the shorter the ski, the faster it will turn, but it may be more unstable at higher speeds. The longer the ski, the better it will track at high speeds but the less responsive it will be in tight turns and somethings a ski that is too long means the skier struggles to find the balance point or sweet spot. In the old days, customers were told to reach up their arm and fold their wrist over the ski’s tip to see if it was the correct length. These days, ski shops use the “third eye” (intuitive perception) as a marker, fluctuating above or below according to ability level, ski type and whether the ski has a significant amount of rocker (or reverse camber, visible by laying the ski flat on the ground and observing where the entire ski lifts off the ground, typically in the tip or the tip and tail).
If you’ve just learned how to ski, the best choice (and most affordable) is a pair of skis designed for beginners. These models are made with the same materials and care as higher-end skis, but are generally lighter weight, softer and easier to maneuver. They’re sold in shorter lengths so that they’re easier to turn and stop. You can upgrade later.
For intermediate skiers
Intermediate skiers may gravitate to all-mountain skis. All-mountain skis are designed to handle almost all on-piste conditions plus some off-piste conditions as well. These models often have a rocker in the tip which makes it easy to initiate the turn. They’re designed to handle equally well on ice, groomed runs, and in light powder snow. Budget-minded people looking for one pair of skis often go with all-mountain skis because of their versatility around the mountain.
If the entire mountain is your playground, look at freeride skis. Designed to handle all types of snow conditions, freeride skis can lay down arcs on freshly groomed blue runs, cut-up crud off-piste or float through powder. Typically wider than all-mountain skis, they are designed for exploring the entire mountain. Some freeride skis have a playful personality while others have a more directional, aggressive personality.
Ever since the long-ago freestyle tours, magazine stories, Warren Miller movies and the Winter X Games put the emphasis on freestyle skiing, freestyle skis have been gaining popularity. Freestyle skis are designed for take-offs, landings on jumps, park and pipe features, and for going forward and backward. They are typically lighter and shorter than other types of skis with twin tips. Unlike traditional skis that are turned up in the front, freestyle skis have tips and tails that are turned up in the front and the rear to accommodate skiing backward as well as forward.
Racing skis are appropriate for the highest caliber skiers on the mountain. These skis are designed for responsiveness and speed. Slalom skis have a tight turn radius for quick turns, while GS skis have a larger turn radius to make bigger arcs with speed. Racing skis are generally more expensive because they feature high-end technology. They have a stiffer flex pattern to be able to hold turns at high speed. Recreation or town league racers can find skis that are softer versions of World Cup level race skis. The flex will be more friendly for the general racer, but the model will have reliable edge grip and bases designed for speed.
Powder skis are the fat skis on the mountain. Fun skis, too. Wider than other types of skis, powder skis are designed for off-piste skiing and floating through bottomless powder snow. Nearly all powder skis have some amount of rocker in the tip and tail, which aids in flotation. Full rockered powder skis have no camber underfoot and are simply designed to do one thing: Float. Be aware, however, that fully-rockered skis are not designed for hard snow performance. The majority of powder skis have a combination of camber underfoot and rocker in the tip and tail which results in more versatility since the camber underfoot allows the ski to perform on hardsnow and not just powder.
Most ski companies offer unisex skis and women’s-specific skis. Sometimes, the difference between unisex and women’s skis are only length options and topsheet designs. However, many women-specific models have unique construction attributes that set the skis apart. It’s common for women-specific skis to have a binding mounting position slightly forward than a unisex skis, which helps women find the balance point of the ski. Women’s skis often have a slightly softer flex, which makes the ski easier to bend. Women’s skis may have a lighter construction than the comparable unisex model, which again makes the ski easier to flex and easier to maneuver for women who often are shorter and weight less than men. Of course, not all women are made the same. Just like jeans, there are many choices out there designed to work for different skier types and terrain choices.
New technology has significantly changed the way we all ski over the past several decades and by all accounts, finding the right ski for you will make your day on the slopes better. There are opportunities to demo skis or try them before you buy. Talk to a ski shop staff member to see what skis they offer for demo-ing. Shops will often take the demo price off of the sales price of the ski if you decide to buy it. Some shops offer demo days where you can try multiple pairs of skis. Inquire about demo days ski shops or ski resorts.