How to Choose the Right Ski

Have you ever been overwhelmed with the variety of skis out there to choose from? What’s the right ski for me? How will I know If I’m going to like this ski? How do I go about choosing the right ski?

Take my friend “Alan”. Alan is a family man living and working in the big city. He and his wife have 3 kids ages 6, 18, and 20. For years, Alan and his family have rented a ski chalet to ski weekends up in the mountains.

Way back in the day when he skied on 215cm straight (not too shapely) slalom skis (what??) up to today’s modern ‘shaped’ skis, Alan has seen his assortment of ski shapes and sizes.

So the question is, when it’s time to purchase a new pair skis for Alan and his family members, how does he go about choosing the right skis with all the choices and options out there?

What Skis to Choose?

“Skis are like cars. SO many to choose from with SO many options.

Andrew Elsdon

Important Things to Consider


Skier Type

When it comes to choosing the right ski, choosing what type of skier you are is a good place to start. As Alan walks into his favourite ski shop, the ski-specialist behind the counter will ask about his family’s ski ability. “Are they beginners, intermediate, advanced, or expert? “ Alan mentions he’s looking to purchase skis for his entire family and wants to match the ski with the skier. Two adult recreational skiers, one teen park & ride skier, one young adult racer, and one junior beginner. The retailer has his work cut out for him.

Alan has a pretty good idea of where each of his family member fit on the spectrum of ability. A beginner skier is someone just starting out and unfamiliar with all their equipment. Choosing the right skis (and other equipment) is important here because we want to make it super easy for this beginner skier to be able to manoeuvre the skis without getting tangled up.

An intermediate skier is someone who is skiing under control and somewhat cautious or timid in their approach. Moderate speed on Blue-Runs. This skier will want something that enables them to advance quickly up the learning curve but nothing that will hinder their progress. Intermediate skiers need a ski that will flex easily but not too soft.

Advanced skiers have mastered the basics and are becoming more comfortable at moderate speeds. They’re able to maintain a solid technique on advanced terrain in most snow conditions. Ski stability and grip could be important here because the Advanced skier is skiing at higher speeds on more challenging terrain.

Expert skiers have the ability to ski in control in all snow conditions. They ski with a consistent strong technique. They’re looking for a stable ski that’s performing at a high level for the conditions and category of skiing they’re doing. Skiers at this level are now adding multiple skis to their quiver and the intent to use each of their skis for specific use (race, powder, all-mountain, etc)

Having the ability to determine the level of Alan’s family skiing and matching them to a type of skiing and terrain they’ll be skiing on will dramatically improve their control and performance on the mountain.


Category of Skiing

Choosing the right category of ski can quickly narrow down Alan’s choices.

After determining the skier types in the family, the clerk begins to narrow down the choices even further. The selection of skis on the wall to choose from can look overwhelming at the best of times. Knowing the different category of skiing can really help. All-mountain, Big-Mountain Free Ride, Race, Park & Ride, Powder are some of the categories now a days that skiers fall into. Long gone are the days of choosing a ski based solely on the ‘length’ or ‘stiffness’.

Today, ski technology has advanced so greatly that manufactures have listened to what different skiers want in different conditions and applications. Why would we want a narrow carving ski if we’re headed to the deep powder of Alta in Utah? Why would we need the wide ski for just starting out on the beginner slope.


Carving Category

Most skiers once becoming advanced to expert begin to ski in a full variety of conditions and terrain. Some skiers like to carve and cruise on groomed runs. This ski choice will require specific geometric attributes with a specific sidecut for carving a certain turn radius.

The carving category of skier would be primarily on groomed runs for high-speed arcs. The ski category here is meant for grip, speed, and precise tuning. This ski would be a narrower waist-width and pronounced sidecut.


All Mountain

Others are all about the All-Mountain experience that includes a variety of terrain all the time. From bumps to glade skiing, groomed to off-piste slopes, this skiing category has to be a hybrid to most conditions. The type of ski here would have to work well in most conditions and a “go-anywhere” type of ski.


Big-Mountain / Free Ride

Other more brave souls have the ability to go Big-Mountain /FreeRide where their needs are very specific from tree skiing to big air cliff jumping. A stable ski for the steeps and high speed vertical. Higher speed, big turns on long, steep verticals with some cliff drops


Park & Ride

Perhaps you’re a Park & Ride skier wanting to hit the park jumps and rails. These skis have to be able to maneuver quickly and are generally shorter in length.

Formally this ski category was called ‘twin tips”. This ski would generally be shorter, narrower with symmetrical binding mounts for easier spins and switch (backward) riding.


Powder

If you’re lucky enough to have access to the back bowls of your resort, one ski type that dreams are made of would be Powder skiing. The ski choice here is very specific and suited for floating on top of the snow.

The main aim of this type of ski category is to have a ski that ‘floats’.

I remember a time where I was skiing at Nakiska and my short friend was on very narrow skis in the powder. This narrow ski characteristic was Not Good in the powder as she was not ‘floating’ and was actually suffocating under the snow. – Yikes!

Andrew Elsdon

Race

If Race is your category, your ski choice is going to become very clear according to FIS rules and guidelines for racing in a Slalom, Giant Slalom or Speed event. The Racers require a performance ski that is grippy, sharp turning and will perform at speed.

This category of skiing requires a ski that is stable at speed and has a specific tuning for optimal grip in the race course.


Backcountry / Touring

For alpine touring out of area or unmarked, unpatrolled areas, this requires a ski to be uphill mobile and lighter weight. Just take a look at some of the climbing involved and views in the backcountry.

Backcountry with Pam and the Gang on the Bonnington traverse
Pam with backcountry ski gear.

By focusing on the ski category, Alan can begin to narrow down the choices for each of his family members. Ultimately, his family will be involved in this stage of choosing the right ski category.


Ski Characteristics

Geometry

A ski has different geometric attributes that enable it to perform different functions. The terms we use to describe a ski and their function can be interesting when it comes to choosing the right ski.

Why are the characteristics and shape of a ski so important when choosing? The geometry of a ski has much influence on how the ski performs for the skier. The characteristics of a ski include turnability (rocker), grip (Sidecut, waist width), speed (length), turn shape (radius) stability at speeds (stiffness), how much effective edge exists (camber), and much more.

Camber

The camber (convex) of a ski allows the ski to grip and rebound for the skier. It’s the profile shape of the ski that shows a raised centre when the ski is laid un-weighted on the ground.

Rocker

A Rocker is the upward shape of the ski. Rocker can be seen as “reverse camber” shape that is off the ground when the ski is lying flat. In today’s world, a Tip Rocker is found in almost every ski. A good rocker makes the ski more maneuverable and helps make it float through powder.

A full rocker ski represents a banana shape when laid on the ground, designed for maximum flotation in deep powder snow.

SideCut (Tip/Tail Width vs Waist Width)

Sidecut is ‘shape’ of the ski when we compare the difference between the tip width to the waist width and the tail width. The larger the sidecut, the shorter the turn-radius of the ski. Imagine a two-by-four (2×4) piece of wood that you put on a 45 degree edge and push down the slope. It would go straight. Take now a shaped ski with sidecut, and tilt it on it’s edge and push it down the hill, the ski would already have a natural turn built into the shape.

SideCut dimensions provide a specific turn-radius to each ski. One measure is to look closely at the Waist-Width to determine how much turning ability the ski will have. Generally speaking, the smaller the waist-width, the shorter the turn radius.

Overall Length & Effective Length

Waist Width

Flex

The flex of soft/stiff characteristic of the ski plays a role. Choosing a stiffer ski can aid a heavier more aggressive skier. A softer ski may be easier for a beginner but it does lack responsiveness.

Very Soft skis are more forgiving and easier to learn on for beginners. Soft skis require little energy and technique for control. They’re easier to control at slower speeds. Medium flex skis are stable at speed and easy to control at slower speeds. Ideal for powder skiers. A stiff flex is responsive at high speeds and more suitable for advanced skiers. Very stiff skis are great for aggressive fast skiing and more suitable to racers.


Characteristics

One of the characteristics that Alan is asking himself is: “Do I want speed, turn-ability, carving focus, floating

Some of the terms we use to describe the ski have very specific influencing factors when it comes to skiing. The narrower under the foot, the more grip and carving capabilities; the wider under the foot, the easier it might be to turn the ski. “Waist Width” has a big influence when choosing the right ski.

A general rule of thumb is the deeper the snow, the wider the waist. A wider waist will help the skier float on the powder and allow more stability in the difficult conditions like crud and chop.

General Rule of Thumb:
… the deeper the snow, the wider the waist.

Width under Foot (Powder. Serious powder skis tend to be wider, and generally longer, than piste skis. … Some very specific powder skis also have a reverse sidecut, looking more similar in shape to waterskis than traditional racing skis. This means the tip and tail are narrower than under the foot.)

Skier TypeWaist-Width (MM)
Race60mm-70mm
Beginner70mm-80mm
Carve80mm-90mm
All-Mountain85mm-95mm
Big-Mountain90mm-105mm
Park & Ride (Jibs)85mm-105mm
Park & Ride (Jumps)80mm-95mm
Powder105mm +

The Environment

Knowing the skier types and ski characteristics is one thing, but adding a few more details about the environment in which Alan and his family will be skiing most of the time can aid in the choices.

In choosing a ski, we must ask ourselves is this a specific-use ski or an all-round ski? What conditions or environment will this ski be used for? – … mostly icy / hard-packed conditions such as race-specific use? Will this be a ski for mostly groomed or perhaps ungroomed packed powder? Will it be used primarily for crud or chop type conditions (off the groomed trails)? If we’re lucky enough, choosing a ski for strictly powder skiing would be a great problem. Powder skis are very specific with unique characteristics such as wider with more rocker.

Asking what are the typical conditions going to be and in what climate (East or West) is always a useful question.


Test Drive

Once Alan has completed his research about skier type and ski category, it’s time to really find out personal preference by venturing out to the local mountain for a test drive. By searching out the local mountain’s schedule for Demo Days and booking some time to test out the options, Alan can finally determine what’s best for him and his family.

Bring your all your gear and don’t forget to bring your credit card in order to sign-out your skis for those test drives. Once you have narrowed it down, you’re ready to purchase.

“Skis are like cars. SO many to choose from with SO many options. That’s why we Test-Drive ‘em !”

Photo by Håkon Sataøen

Summary


Now that Alan has done his research and knows what category and ski characteristics he’s looking for along with a scheduled ski test at his local Demo Day, Alan and his family should be comfortable in choosing the right ski for each member of the family.

Take Away

  • Know the skier’s ability and level of skiing
  • Understand what Type of skiing is to be done
  • Knowing a little about the Ski Geometry can help
  • Have an idea of ski category and the benefits
  • TEST DRIVE the skis at your local Ski Demo Day !

Good luck Alan !


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