How To Buy Downhill Skis

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.