Every skier is drawn to different parts of the mountain. Some are inevitably lured into the vertical chutes lined with jagged rocks. Others want nothing more than a safe outing on smooth groomed terrain to build fundamental skills. The range between those two skiers is immense.
The spectrum of skis is as varied as the people who will ski them. From the first-timer to the all-the-timer, ski companies design something for everyone. It’s just a matter of matching the right ski with the right skier. That’s the goal of this guide.
Types of skis: If you’re new to skiing, you may be surprised to learn that there are a lot of different types of skis. Skis are purpose-built tools for all kinds of mountain conditions.
All-Mountain: These are the jack-of-all-trades of the ski world. While they may not be quite as good in a specific situation as their specialized counterpart, All-Mountain skis are popular for their versatility and high-end performance through changing snow conditions and terrain. Most all-mountain skis have a somewhat narrow waist, measuring 85 millimeters or less under foot, and really love fast groomed terrain.
All-Mountain Wide: Much like all-mountain skis, but wider under foot, these skis are designed to float more and tend to work better on powder or chunky crud than their thinner counterparts. They are often a little slower carving and come into their own at high speed on steep angles.
Powder: Powder skis are made for the best of days, when six or more inches of fresh snow blankets the ground. Powder skis are wide from tip to tail and while many powder skis also provide a reasonable degree of performance on hard packed snow, these skis really come into their own when the going gets deep.
Twin Tip: Twin tip skis are at home in the terrain park. Twin tips are designed with forward and backward performance in mind as well as edges that will hold on pipe and park features. Designed with weight in mind for aerial maneuvers, some twin tips are fun, versatile skis all over the mountain. The mid-ski stance designed into many twin-tips will turn off some skiers.
Race: Race skis are what you’ve seen carving around gates during the Winter Olympics. Race skis are extremely specialized, with different models designed for different races such as slalom, giant slalom, super g and downhill. That’s not to say a race ski can’t be fun on the mountain. Because of their stiffness, stability and in some cases, quick turning, race skis can be a blast for the skier who wants to blaze down steep groomers and rack up a lot of vertical feet in a day.
Telemark: While some skis are designed as dedicated to this style of skiing, the binding and boot system is what really defines telemark skiing. In telemark, the heel is not attached to the ski. These bindings can be mounted to most downhill skis. Most telemark skiers choose a lightweight, versatile ski.
Uses: Skis are also designed for specific uses. Some allow skiers to not only descend, but also climb and tour areas that are not served by ski lifts. These skis are optimized with specialized binding systems outside the scope of this guide. Learn about bindings here. (link)
Alpine: These are skis designed for downhill skiing. Alpine skis vary greatly and most other styles of downhill skis could also be classified as alpine.
Alpine Touring: Usually lighter than your typical alpine ski, alpine touring skis have full metal edges for use on downhill terrain. They often have attachment points for climbing skins, which help skiers ascend steep terrain by providing friction with the snow.
Backcountry: The backcountry is anywhere not easily accessible from a ski resort. This is basically the mountain wilderness. Backcountry skis tend to be wide at the waist (more than 85mm) to provide floatation over un-groomed powder. Backcountry skiing can be very steep or over moderate terrain, but there is very often climbing involved. For this reason, backcountry enthusiasts often choose light skis for climbing.
Side country: The side country can usually be accessed from a ski area but is out of bounds and rarely patrolled or maintained. Side country skiers use a variety of skis but often choose bindings and boots that allow at least a little ankle movement, or travel, forward and backward for climbing and traveling.
Ski Mountaineering: Also called Randonee, Ski Mountaineering is a type of racing in which skiers climb and descend marathon-length courses over rugged mountain terrain. Ski Mountaineering equipment is extremely light and highly specialized.
Important Note: Backcountry, side country and ski mountaineering require advanced skiing ability and knowledge of avalanche danger. They also require the use of specialized safety equipment such as avalanche beacons, probes and shovels and a solid understanding of the risks involved in backcountry travel.
Experience Level: A nine-level ranking system can be used to classify skiers from absolute beginner to expert. While ability level does play a role in ski selection, many modern skis can be used by people with a wide range of abilities. Beginners should keep in mind that they will not be beginners forever and can leave some room to grow into a ski.
Tech Speak: Jargon and numbers are everywhere in ski marketing materials for good reason; they actually help guide you to the skis you seek and can give you a window into how they will perform. Some of the more common you will find are:
Sidecut radius: The sidecut of a ski is what makes it turn. Look at any ski from the top down, and you will see some degree of an hourglass shape. This is the sidecut, known interchangeably as its radius. The sidecut or radius is determined by the size of circle that would be created if the arc of the hourglass shape were extended until it returned to itself. Sound complicated? It’s not. All you really need to know is, the smaller the number, the quicker the ski will turn.
Length: This important ski attribute is part art, part science. The rule here is that the tips of the skis should reach somewhere around your eyes when the tails are on the ground. That said, skis only respond to weight and torque, which directly correlates with a skiers weight, not height. Heavier skiers often ride a little longer ski than a lighter counterpart.
Experience should also be taken into consideration, with inexperienced skiers choosing a slightly shorter ski and experts often opting for a little extra length.
Finally, it is important to keep in mind that shorter skis are easier to manage in tight terrain like trees and bumps, as well as in the air. Big, open terrain is easier to rocket down on slightly longer skis.
Flex: The flexibility of a ski is observed in two different directions, from tip to tail (longitudinal flex) and from side to side as in twisting (torsional flex). While there is no industry standard measure of flex, you will notice that different skis will have very different flex profiles. A stiffer ski will usually carve well and handle high speed with little chatter and lots of stability. A softer ski will be more forgiving in bumps and sometimes provide a more playful feel.
While some skiers prefer a stiffer or softer ski, it is more important to focus on the skis purpose and other attributes when shopping for a new ride.
Width: The width of a ski affects its performance in many ways. It is measured at the front, middle and back of the ski. Most skis will show these measurements in millimeters listed on the ski separated by hyphens, such as 112–95-100.
Camber: Camber refers to an arc formed under the ski when it is set, bottom down, on a flat surface. When you stand on a cambered ski, it flattens out while putting more pressure on the tips and tails, effectively spreading the skier’s weight over a larger area and improving the performance of the tip and tail edges. Most skis will have some degree of camber.
Rocker: Rocker is the opposite of camber. A full rocker ski will bow away from the snow, making it hard to carve but easy to slide sideways on a ski. Some park and pipe skis, as well as some powder skis, have a full rocker. Many great skis have rocker in the tips, also known as “early rise,” as well as in the tail.
A combination of camber, usually under the mid section of the ski, and rocker in the tips and tails, is a very popular and effective style of ski that marries two technologies for good performance over a variety of conditions.
Effective Edge: This is the edge of the ski that actually bites into the snow while turning. Most ski companies do not include information about effective edge in their literature although some do, and other call it something else.
Construction: Skis are made in one of three ways. Traditionally and most commonly, skis use laminate construction. Cap construction and torsion box construction are two alternatives.
Laminate: Almost all skis are made with several layers of material sandwiched together with a resin (glue) and squished together under high pressure. They will include a core material, base material, top sheet with graphics and sometimes inserts to strengthen binding areas, reduce vibration and stiffen tips and tails. The sidewalls of laminate skis are usually made of strong plastic inserts.
Cap: In cap construction, the top sheet of the ski, usually fiberglass, runs from edge to edge over the top of the ski, forming rounded edges on the topside of the ski.
Torsion box: Torsion box skis use a single piece of seamless material to wrap the core entirely. Some manufacturers claim a torsionally stiffer, lighter construction from this type of ski.
Core Materials: The majority of skis are made with wood cores. These are made of boards that are laminated together and then cut by a band saw to create a thin composite of wood strips the length of the ski.
Different core woods used include poplar, pine, paulownia, ash, fir, maple, beech, birch and more. A trend in small ski manufacturers is to use wood harvested from beetle-killed pine trees from the Rocky Mountain region as an ecologically friendly material.
Other materials, such as aluminum, foam, Kevlar, fiberglass, carbon fiber, titanium and even air are used as cores or core additives.
Base: There are two types of bases used in the construction of downhill skis, sintered and extruded. Sintered bases are found on high-end skis, provide more durability and hold wax well. Extruded bases are softer and do not hold wax as well but are less expensive.
Top sheet: Thin plastics are most often used as the top sheet of skis. Fiberglass and carbon fiber are also used as the top layer of ski construction. Some skis add a hydrophobic top sheet to keep snow from sticking and adding weight to the ski. Regardless, the most important job of the top sheet is to protect the graphics of the ski. Looking cool doesn’t hurt.
Bindings: While bindings could easily fill a full article of their own, they are mentioned here briefly for general guidance. Here are a few terms to know.
DIN: This number, which you will get to know over time, determines how much pressure it takes for your boot to release from the binding. Generally, less experienced skiers use a lighter DIN setting. If you are a beginner, defer to the experience of a ski technician to set your DIN.
Alpine: The standard for downhill skiing at lift served areas. They allow heel entry. They will also release during falls and the DIN can be adjusted according to they style and experience of the skier.
All Terrain: Also known as AT bindings, these allow the skier to release the heel for climbing and flat skiing.
Tech: Tech bindings are not compatible with most alpine ski boots. They are designed for extremely light weight and offer a significant advantage for climbing in ski mountaineering.
Integrated bindings: Many skis come pre-fit with integrated bindings. This adds value for the consumer and matches the ski with a binding that is well suited to its style and performance characteristics.