HOW TO CHOOSE SKIS
If you’ve been following along here for a couple of years, you may know that I only recently started skiing. At age 31, when I moved to Utah, with nearby popular Alta Ski Resort, I decided the only way I would survive winter is to pick up skiing as a new hobby. It’s been a challenging, extremely rewarding experience, and now rather than dreading winter, I can enjoy 4 seasons of recreation. If you’re a beginner, I’m here to help, don’t miss my beginner tips for learning to ski as an adult.
When I first started skiing, I had no clue what I was looking for in a ski, let alone how to choose skis. Length, width, shape, camber. All of these ski specs were like a foreign language.
Now entering my fourth full season of skiing, and my third pair of skis, I have a much better understanding of how different skis perform and how conditions affect the kind of ski you want to be on. The point of this blog post isn’t to make you an expert on choosing skis, but to give you the basic background knowledge so you can go to the ski shop ready to ask questions.
In this blog post, we share information and tips on how to choose skis for your ability level and the terrain you plan on skiing most.
Quick and Dirty Guide To Ski Terms
Here are a few keywords to know before you walk into the ski shop:
- Rocker – The amount of rise in the tip and tail of your ski, great for powder and quick turns while staying balanced in the middle of your ski
- Waist – The area of your ski that is directly underfoot. Narrow waists allow the skier to dig in more when there are firm conditions (East Coast) and a wider waist affords more float to evenly distribute the weight, great for deep powdery conditions (West Coast).
- Turning Radius – This is calculated by the ratio of the width at the tip and tail versus the width at the waist. A smaller turning radius makes it easier to make tighter turns.
The Different Types of Skis
For recreational skiers, Downhill skis, which are also known as Alpine skis can be categorized into three different types of skis: On-Piste, All Mountain and Powder skis. This doesn’t include race skis, freestyle or touring, styles that are more specific to each sport. In general, whether you are renting a pair of demo skis at the ski shop or looking to buy your own pair you’ll be choosing from these three categories.
On Piste Skis
The term On Piste refers to skiing groomed trails on the mountain, so they are also referred to as On Trail skis. This ski will typically be more narrow with a good edge to help you carve into hard-packed snow. Go for an On Piste style of ski if you are a beginner or intermediate who likes to stay on groomed trails or ski primarily in the Northeast where it can be icy.
The All Mountain ski also has a name you can take literally. It’s the most versatile of the bunch and can handle different types of snow and terrain easily. It’s what we all ski on and recommend as something you can grow with. In addition to being a bit wider in the waist and tips, the ski will have more rocker to help you easily maneuver in different types of snow. The All Mountain ski is a great in-between option for beginners, intermediate and even advanced skiers who don’t just stick to one type of terrain or area of the country.
The Freeski is the best ski for floating through powder (on or off-piste), ambitious afternoons at the terrain park and of course, a day on the groomers with your friends. To put it more simply, the Freeski is pretty versatile but won’t fare well on hard-pack or icy slopes. It’s got a wide waist, rocker, and tips with a rocker in the tail and front tip (twin tips) that make it great for skiers of all levels who ski powder often. Recommended more for skiers out west in the Rockies or Pacific Northwest than the Northeast.
Insider Tip: Understanding Widths
Generally speaking, on piste skis tend to be narrower, while powder skis tend to be wider. The category definitions are different between manufacturers though, so the widths listed below may vary across categories depending on the brand. Remember what we mentioned before about the waist of a ski? Same goes here. Generally, a wider ski will be harder to get up on edge in hard packed or icy conditions.
Read our 8 convincing reasons for giving skiing a try this winter
Factors to Consider When Choosing a New Pair of Skis
Where you ski is the biggest factor in determining how to choose skis that will be right for you. If you are skiing groomed trails in the Northeast or like to ski the entire mountain out West you’ll want to choose a pair of skis that perform best in those types of conditions and terrain, regardless of your skills or ability. Think about what and where you like to ski the most and allow that to help guide you in the right direction.
Still not sure what ski works best for your terrain? Let us explain further…
Northeast – In the Northeast conditions are typically hard-packed, groomed trails. The snow isn’t very deep and it can get icy, so a ski designed for on-trail/on-piste will have a good enough edge to help you dig in and make clear turns. They also tend to be more narrow which allows better control of your skis, too.
West and Pacific Northwest – If you ski in the Rockies with frequent powder days and uneven terrain, or any other West Coast mountain for that matter, go for a ski that has a larger width and more rocker. Choose a ski to help you float, rather than sink, into the light and fluffy snow of this region.
Both – Are you a skier who doesn’t just stick to one type of terrain? Go for an all mountain ski that is versatile enough to handle any type of condition.
Second to terrain is your ability. If you are a beginner, don’t shy away from choosing beginner skis. It’s more important to ski on something that suits your needs now so that you can improve your level of stability, control, and confidence on the mountain.
Your ability will determine the flex and width of the waist that your skis have in addition to the terrain. A beginner ski has a softer flex, which is more forgiving for someone just starting out, plus a slightly narrower waist for better control and easier turns. Intermediate and advanced skiers should choose a ski with a harder flex that can withstand the force and pressure of more advanced or varied conditions and their level of technical skill and control.
Since men and women are built differently it’s better to ski on something that fits your anatomical needs. Men’s skis are made to withstand the weight and force of a hard-charging, aggressive male skier. Men’s skis can also function as unisex skis but the opposite is not true.
Women’s skis are built to match the anatomical needs of a woman’s build and stance. A good rule of thumb for beginners is to stick to your gender when choosing a pair of skis.
Meet other female skiers, check out my review of Alta’s Womens Ski Camp
Once you have narrowed it down to the brand and model of skis, the last thing you’ll need to choose is the right ski length. The ideal ski length varies depending on your ability, weight and height, preference, and the build of the ski.
In general, the length of your ski can be categorized two ways: chin level or head high. For most beginner and intermediate skiers, a shorter ski that measures about chin level is easier to turn, skis well on groomed trails, and are better for people who don’t plan on skiing fast and aggressively.
As you progress as a skier, you can graduate to a longer ski that hits closer to the top of your head. Longer skis are most stable with speed, making them better for aggressive, advanced skiers who tend to spend more time off-piste.
For reference, I’m 5’5” and 140 pounds and consider myself an intermediate skier. My groomer skis are 169mm long and my powder skis are 177mm long.
Insider Tip: Demo Skis First
A great way to figure out if you like the way a ski performs is to demo them. If you rent from the mountain’s ski shop, you can generally swap them out throughout the day, allowing you to try multiple pairs. If you find something you like, rental shops often sell their demo skis at a discount, making it a great way to get your first pair of skis at a discount. Every single pair of skis I own were purchased as demo skis, and you should also keep an eye out for end of the season sales, since rental shops typically try to sell off their skis to make room for new stuff the following year.
Our Favorite Women’s Skis
KRISTEN’S PICK: Nordica Santa Ana 93
I spend my winters at Alta Ski Area in Salt Lake City. The snow conditions here tend to be soft, fluffy, and rarely icy. I currently have two pairs of Nordica Skis, and which I choose depends on the current conditions. The Nordica Santa Ana 93s are my go-to on groomer days where I plan on staying on-piste. They are easy to turn and hold an edge, even on hard packed days, and they feel smooth and stable at speeds. They also perform well on moguls. These skis have given me a lot of confidence, and they are also a ski I can grow on.
Blizzard Black Pearl 98
The Blizzard Black Pearl 88’s won Ski Magazine’s Best Narrow All-Mountain Ski for 2019, and is a great option for women who want to stick to the groomers. I demoed last year’s model and found them to be stable, maneuverable, and a strong performer in icy conditions. The Black Pearls also come in a slightly wider version – 98 underfoot – which would be a better pick if you plan on skiing off-piste from time to time.
WIDE WOMEN’S SKIS
KATHERINE’S PICK: Rossignol Soul 7
I have a pair of Rossignol Saffron 7 skis that I ski on at every mountain and I wouldn’t trade it for anything! The Saffron 7’s are no longer made but Rossignol Soul 7’s are equivalent at 106mm underfoot. These are great All-Mountain skis that do well in all conditions like iced-out Northeast groomers or floating through five feet of fresh powder at Whistler Blackcomb.
WOMEN’S POWDER SKIS
KRISTEN’S PICK: Nordica Santa Ana 110
If it’s snowing out, these are my skis of choice. The Nordica Santa Ana 110’s are basically a wider version of the Santa Ana 93 that I mentioned above, so they feel very similar as far as ease of turning. The difference is this ski, with more surface area, floats in the deepest powder and remains stable as it cuts through bumps and crud. As a much wider ski, is harder to hold an edge when skiing hard-packed groomers. This is a great ski for women who live in places that receive big and frequent storms.