Novices can hop on nearly any ski and have fun, particularly on easy-to-turn all-mountain skis.

Expert-level skiers can fine-tune their performance by paying attention to subtle differences in sidecut, rocker and flex.

No matter your skill level, however, it’s important to match your skis to the terrain and snow conditions you typically encounter.

Types of Downhill Skis

In general, you’ll see skis referred to as all-mountain, all-mountain wide, powder, backcountry, and twin tip / freestyle (primarily for the terrain park and half-pipe).

All-Mountain Skis

Best for groomed terrain, or a mix of groomed and powder. Sometimes called carvers, all-mountain skis are suited for all age groups, both genders and any experience level. Narrow waists, up to 85mm, deep sidecuts, and rockered tips make them easy to turn. They hold an edge on groomed routes and hard snow, and high-end models can satisfy performance expectations of expert-class skiers.

All-Mountain Wide

Best for groomed runs and powder. These skis can handle it all. Sometimes also called mid-fats or fats, these skis have wide waists of 84mm-105mm, which enhance flotation in soft snow without sacrificing too much agility on groomed slopes. They efficiently cut through sloppy snow and provide stability in crusty, variable snow.

Powder Skis

Best for powder, backcountry and occasional groomed runs. As the name implies, these skis perform best when skiing deep powder snow. Sometimes called super-fats, powder skis typically have waist widths of 110mm and higher for men’s skis and 100mm and higher for women’s skis to provide flotation and a surf-like, playful feel. Most feature a fully rockered profile to further boost flotation, enhance maneuverability and keep edges from catching. Be aware that they’re not built for precise turns on groomed runs, but they are absolutely the best choice for a memorable day when the powder is deep.

Skier Enjoys Fresh Powder on the Endeavor Run at Copper Mountain - OutThere Colorado
A skier enjoys fresh powder on the Endeavor run at Copper Mountain. Photo Credit: Christian Murdock

Backcountry Skis

Best for untracked wilderness terrain, powder and groomed runs. Backcountry skis open the wild, untracked areas of a mountain to you. With the help of climbing skins, you can ski uphill to reach fresh, untracked snow and then remove the climbing skins to enjoy the ride down. With this freedom comes the responsibility of acquiring the mountaineering and avalanche awareness skills necessary for ensuring your own safety.

Skis are lighter than alpine gear, which is advantageous when climbing. They feature waist widths of approximately 80mm-120mm: Narrower waists make turning easier when skiing hard snow; wider waists work better in powder. Backcountry skis can be used for telemark or randonee skiing; the choice depends on what style bindings you put on the skis.

Women-specific skis

These are typically lighter, softer and/or shorter, making them easier to maneuver than comparable men’s skis due to less energy being required to flex a ski a given distance. This minimizes fatigue without compromising performance. Bindings on women’s ski are usually mounted a little farther forward on skis than men’s bindings, another adjustment to accommodate a women’s lower center of gravity. This enhances a female skier’s balance, stability and responsiveness.

Kids’ Downhill Skis

It may make sense to buy clothes that kids can “grow into,” but that strategy does not pay off for aspiring young skiers. Equip them with skis that are a good fit for their current size. For the very young (younger than 6), tips in general should not quite reach their chins (or be 6 to 8 inches below the tops of their heads). For youth (younger than 12), tips should touch a part of their middle or upper face. Kids can always ski a shorter ski but may have problems with a long ski. When in doubt, go short.

Skier Walks From Lodge at Monarch Mountain - OutThere Colorado
A skier walks from the lodge at Monarch Mountain amid heavy snow. Photo Credit: Christian Murdock

Sizing Downhill Skis

Choose ski length based on your weight, height, skill level and terrain preference.

Height: In general, with ski tails on the ground, tips should touch you somewhere between your nose and eyebrows. This may vary based on your ability level and terrain preference. Kids? For the very young (under 6), tips should not quite reach their chins. For youth (under 12), tips should touch a part of their face. Talk to an salesperson to help you choose the ski size that will best meet your needs.

Weight: Skiers with larger frames often are good candidates for either longer skis or wider skis. Extra mass provides leverage for turning longer skis; extra surface area can also help distribute weight.

Experience: Shorter skis appeal more to novices because they’re easy to turn. Veteran skiers will often choose their size based on the type of turn they want to make. Shorter skis usually have a smaller radius or quicker turn. A longer ski will have a longer radius or wider turn.

Terrain: If your favorite hill is dominated by narrow, twisty trails, look at shorter skis. They’re better at quickly maneuvering into tight turns.

Skier Casually Jumps a Fence at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area - OutThere Colorado
A skier casually jumps a fence at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. Photo Credit: Michael Ciaglo

Downhill Ski Dimensions

A ski’s dimensions are determined by measuring (in millimeters) its width in 3 places: at its 2 widest points, the tip and tail, and at its narrowest, the waist. Tip/waist/tail measurements are usually separated by slashes and displayed as, for example, 131/98/119.

Tip: Also called the “shovel,” the tip initiates turns. A wide tip (roughly 120mm and higher) floats more easily on soft snow. On hard snow, wider tips matched with narrower waists create a ski best suited for short-radius carved turns.

Waist: Of the 3 dimensions, waist width is the most critical. Narrow waists allow you to establish an edge sooner, resulting in speedy, usually nimble skis that are ideal for groomed runs. They can also shift from edge to edge more quickly. Wide waists deliver more surface area (more area to make contact with snow), which makes them preferable in soft snow and powder.

Tail: The back end of a ski helps sustain turns and usually matters more to fast-turning experienced skiers. (Their usual preference: wider tails.) When carving tight, rapid turns, a wider tail resists sideways skids and sustains speed. Others may prefer narrower tails, which are better for wide, sweeping turns.

Sidecut radius (or turning radius): Skis with low turning radius numbers (low to mid teens) are better for making tight, short-radius turns. Higher numbers (upper teens and beyond) indicate skis better suited for long-radius turns and fast descents.

Downhill Ski Camber / Rocker
Camber: Many skis offer a continuous, downturned arc (or bow) that runs for much of the length of the ski. When a skier stands on a ski, it flattens due to the skier’s weight. At that point the entire length of the base can provide stability and the ski’s metal edge can initiate turns. As a skier moves from turn to turn, camber provides the energy for a ski to snap back from turns, creating a sensation of “liveliness.” In short, camber is the built-in spring that makes a ski lively.

Rocker: Rocker is essentially the opposite of camber, and is sometimes known as reverse camber or negative camber. The side profile of a rockered ski resembles the upturned rails of an old-school rocking chair. On a flat surface, the midsection of a rockered ski will rest on the ground while its tips and tails rise off the ground much earlier than they do for a cambered ski. Rocker offers improved flotation in powder and offers greater maneuverability.

Downhill Ski Bindings

Integrated bindings: A popular choice for many all-mountain skiers, in particular, are skis with bindings packaged together by the manufacturer. These bindings are often desirable because they tend to flex more naturally, facilitate better edge-hold and allow easy turning.

Nonintegrated bindings are still favored by many intermediate and advanced skiers seeking specific performance features or higher DIN release settings.

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