downhill-skis-how-to-choose

Choosing the right downhill skis primarily involves matching your terrain preferences (Groomed slopes? Off-piste? Park-and-pipe?) with the appropriate ski (All-mountain? Backcountry? Twin tip?). This article is designed to help you connect those dots.

All variations of downhill skiing are addressed here:

Alpine: Groomed runs with varying levels of difficulty at lift-served areas; traditional skiing.

Backcountry: Untracked, potentially unstable terrain that involves no lifts, no patrols, no snowcats, no warming huts—just you, your skills and the mountain.

Sidecountry: Lift-accessible backcountry terrain that lies just beyond resort boundaries. Should be approached through marked gates. Skiers often must hike back to a lift.

Much crossover now occurs between these styles, and some skiers regularly migrate between groomed slopes and riskier, obstacle-dotted off-piste (pronounced PEACED) terrain. Many skis are engineered to perform well in either environment.

Shop REI's selection of downhill skis.

Comparing Skiing Styles

The quick way to narrow your choices: Choose the kind of terrain you most commonly ski and locate what types of skis could work for you.

Alpine: Takes place at lift-served ski areas; skiers' heels remain locked into bindings at all times.

Backcountry: Takes place in wilderness zones outside of patrolled commercial ski areas. If no lifts are available, skiers climb to high points on their own power (often aided by climbing skins attached to their skis), then descend through trees, drops or whatever the mountain presents. Heels are not always locked into bindings. Backcountry skiing is divided into 2 main styles:

  • Randoneé (also called alpine touring or AT): During downhill runs, randoneé boot heels lock into bindings, but during climbs they float free for efficient uphill movement. When descending, randoneé and alpine skiers execute turns using identical technique. Randoneé gear resembles alpine equipment and performs the same, but it usually weighs less.
  • Telemark: Heels never lock into bindings. Whether climbing or descending, telemark skiers use a free-heel technique similar to cross-country. Tele skiers make short- and long-radius turns with 1 heel up while keeping their downhill leg in a flexed-forward position.

Backcountry skiers must possess such mountaineering skills as avalanche assessment, route-finding and navigation.

Important: All backcountry and sidecountry skiers should avoid traveling solo and must always carry vital emergency items—an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe. You might consider an airbag pack, too.

Park-and-pipe: Constructed terrain parks (with jumps, pipes, rails and other obstacles) where skiers perform tricks and aerial acrobatics.

Freeride (or "big mountain" skiing): When a mountain's natural features (particularly very steep, off-piste slopes) are used as a terrain park for jumps and stunts.

Freestyle: This term's usage can vary among skiers. Many equate it with mogul skiing combined with aerials, often performed in a competitive environment. Others use it more generally to describe tricks performed in a terrain park or on powder.

Comparing Ski Types

REI sorts its ski selection as follows:

All-Mountain

All-mountain ski

  1. Best for: 1) Groomed runs (all levels, including moguls); 2) a mix of groomed runs and powder.
  2. Waist width: Up to 85mm. Sometimes also called carvers. Narrower waist gives skis an hourglass shape, which makes them easy to turn.
  3. Pros: Excellent edge-hold on groomed routes or hard snow. Nearly every skier, novices and up, can have fun on easy-turning all-mountain skis.
  4. Cons: May not fulfill every high-performance demand of skiers with specialized interests (such as deep powder, park-and-pipe).
  5. Bindings: Most are available with integrated (custom-matched) "systems" that flex naturally with the ski and accommodate easy turning. Some are available flat (without bindings) for skiers seeking customization.
  6. Summary: Suited for all age groups, both genders and any experience level. By far the most popular ski type on the market. High-end models can satisfy performance expectations of expert-class skiers.

Shop REI's selection of all-mountain skis.

All-Mountain Wide

Powder ski

  1. Best for: The skier who wants to ski all over a mountain, both on groomed runs and off-piste, and wants a single ski to handle it all.
  2. Waist width: 84mm-105mm. Sometimes also called mid-fats or fats. Skiers get enhanced flotation in soft snow without sacrificing too much agility on groomed slopes. Wides can bust through crud (chopped-up snow) and slush with greater ease than narrower all-mountain skis.
  3. Pros: Wider waist adapts easily to powder, efficiently cuts through sloppy snow and provides stability in crusty, variable snow.
  4. Cons: Not quite as nimble in turns as narrow-waisted all-mountain skis.
  5. Bindings: Most are sold flat (nonintegrated), but a few come integrated.
  6. Summary: Aimed primarily at fans of powder who also ski the groomers. Twin tip skis in this category are constructed primarily for directional skiing (mostly forward, sometimes switch); the design of the twin tip tail allows skiers to adjust their turn shape more freely.

Shop REI's selection of all-mountain wide skis.

Powder

Powder ski

  1. Best for: 1) Deep, light snow; 2) powder fans who sometimes end up on groomed runs; 3) sidecountry or backcountry.
  2. Waist width: 101mm and higher. Sometimes called super-fats. Powder skis are all about creating lots of surface area to maintain flotation in the steep and deep.
  3. Pros: Virtually unsinkable in bottomless fluff. Most include "rocker" technology that creates an early upward arc (or rise) at tip and/or tail sections to further boost flotation and keep edges from catching.
  4. Cons: Not built for precise maneuverability on groomed runs.
  5. Bindings: Most, but not all, are sold flat (nonintegrated).
  6. Summary: As the name implies, powder skis perform best in powder, though advanced skiers can use them anywhere on a mountain. For most skiers, powder skis occupy a specialized place in their quiver of skis.

Shop REI's selection of powder skis.

Backcountry (Randoneé or Telemark)

  1. Best for: 1) Untracked wilderness terrain; 2) powder; 3) groomed runs.
  2. Waist width: 78mm-102mm. Narrower waists make turning easier when skiing hard snow; wider waists work better in powder.
  3. Pros: Best overall for backcountry excursions. Skis are lighter than alpine gear, which is advantageous when climbing.
  4. Cons: If you never ski in the backcountry, consider other alpine ski types.
  5. Bindings: A growing number of skis are suited for multiple disciplines, and the choice of the binding is up to the owner.
  6. Summary: Opens the wild, untracked areas of a mountain to you. With this freedom comes the responsibility of acquiring the mountaineering skills necessary for ensuring your own safety.

Shop REI's selection of randoneé skis or telemark skis.

Twin Tip/Freestyle

  1. Best for: 1) Park-and-pipe; 2) groomed runs; 3) powder.
  2. Waist width: 80mm-122mm. A few wide-waisted models are targeted at skiers who devote time to powder play in addition to their park-and-pipe activity.
  3. Pros: Designed to hold an edge in a pipe, handle well in powder, provide stability when skiing in reverse (i.e., riding switch) and soften impacts when landing jumps. In most cases, their performance compares favorably to all-mountain skis.
  4. Cons: Designed to be skied while centered on the ski, which traditional skiers might find odd.
  5. Bindings: Most are sold flat (nonintegrated), but some could be integrated.
  6. For tricks: Upturned tips front and back simplify tricks. Tail rise makes it easier to ski backwards.
  7. Summary: Skis designed for ambitious fun-seekers who ski fast, do tricks and enjoy pushing the limits. They have a unique look, yet offer a variety of shapes and sizes that deliver performance in a terrain park or anywhere on the mountain.

Shop REI's selection of twin tip/freestyle skis.

Twin tip skis

Note: Racing skis also exist, but due to their limited audience REI does not carry any models.

Shop for skis in person at your nearest REI store.

Skier Ability Levels

When evaluating skis, don't spend too much time sweating the traditional classifications—beginner (Type I), intermediate (Type II) or advanced (Type III)—that have long influenced the ski-selection process.

Ski technology has progressed to a point where nearly any novice 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 flex or sidecut. For most skiers, though, it's more important to match your ski to the conditions you ordinarily seek out.

The following 3 factors—dimensions, sidecut and length—are most likely to influence your selection.

Ski Profile 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. They indicate how skis will react to your movements and identify their most appropriate use.

Ski profile

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 usually prefer narrower tails, which are better for wide, sweeping turns.

Tip/waist/tail measurements are usually separated by slashes and displayed as, for example, 131/98/119.

Sidecut Radius (Turning Radius)

Sidecut radius top view

This ski spec, known interchangeably as sidecut, sidecut radius or turning radius, indicates a ski's turning ability. Bottom line: The smaller the number (measured in meters), the quicker a ski will turn.

Sidecut is the arc or curve created by the edge of a ski. Imagine if that arc was extended until it formed a circle. A line drawn from the center of that circle back to the edge of the ski determines a ski's sidecut radius.

Skier turning radius

Skis with low turning radius numbers (low to mid teens) are better for making tight, short-radius turns (though they can make longer turns just fine). Higher numbers (upper teens and beyond) indicate skis better suited for long-radius turns and fast descents.

For example, many all-mountain skis have a deep, curvy sidecut that forms an easy-turning hourglass shape. The result: a low sidecut radius number. Powder skis, meanwhile, have a shallow sidecut and a higher number. Though less nimble in turns, they float well on soft snow.

Ski Length

These factors can influence your choice of ski length:

Height: In general, with ski tails on the ground, tips should touch you somewhere between your nose and eyebrows. Big-mountain skiers sometimes prefer longer skis and may choose skis that extend above head height. 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.

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. See the Specs tab on REI.com product pages for manufacturer weight recommendations.

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.

By evaluating these specs (dimensions, turning radius, length), you can potentially identify a ski type well-suited to your preferences. If you are an avid skier who enjoys a variety of experiences, you might want 2 or 3 skis targeted at specific terrain.

Summing up: The 3 factors just described are typically the most important pre-purchase considerations most ski shoppers ponder. The attributes described below are more subtle details, often of interest only to very demanding skiers. Nevertheless, it's all good info to know.

Ski Flex

Flex can refer to 2 regions of a ski:

Longitudinal flex: How much bend a ski permits lengthwise (from tip to tail).

Torsional flex: How much twist a ski permits (essentially side to side).

Some skiers will argue that flex is an important consideration, as important as profile dimensions, sidecut or length. Regrettably, it is a specification not provided by all ski manufacturers and can be difficult to locate during research. Because ski-makers do not consistently calculate and report ski flex, REI.com does not include flex in its online ski specs.

Years ago, a ski's longitudinal flex could be estimated by flexing the ski by hand in a store. Today, new materials and construction technology has made it difficult to accurately evaluate flex in this manner.

Accordingly, REI advises skiers to not fret much over flex. As a general rule, a high-performance ski will exhibit more torsional stiffness, allowing it to better hold an edge at speed. Various materials are sometimes added to a ski also help reduce (dampen) vibrations, providing a smoother ride at high speeds.

Ski Camber and Rocker

Camber

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 “livelieness.” In short, camber is the built-in spring that makes a ski lively.

Rocker

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 skis.

Virtually all skis these days feature some variation of rocker. For a closer look at the technology, see the REI Expert Advice article, Rocker for Skis Explained.

Ski Construction

Ski makers use a variety of constructions to make skis durable and lightweight. The various techniques, including hybrids of 2 or 3 construction designs, result in performance variations so subtle that only the most discerning skiers can detect any difference.

The pros and cons of construction methods have been debated for years without clear consensus ever being reached. Manufacturer claims are often contradictory, leaving shoppers puzzled. For the great majority of skiers, the type of construction used in skis should rarely influence a purchasing decision.

Construction Types

Here is a brief overview of the options:

Torsion box: A core (usually wood, sometimes foam) encased in a seamless fiberglass wrap or sleeve, then impregnated with epoxy. In general, it resists twisting, creates a more rigid ski and is believed to provide good edge-hold. It is sometimes preferred by more aggressive skiers, though it may create a fractionally heavier ski.

Cap: The top layer, usually fiberglass, spans the core and reaches from one edge to the other. Unlike other construction types, cap construction creates a rounded ski top. In general, cap offers a more forgiving feel and results in lighter skis.

Laminate (sometimes also called a sandwich): Horizontal layers of various materials are stacked atop one another and glued together, usually starting with a base, then fiberglass (for reinforcement), metal, the core (wood or foam), more fiberglass, then a topsheet. It often appeals to fast skiers who stick to groomed slopes. Skiing on hard snow at high speeds often benefits from metal, and metal (which in general yields a stiffer ski) is most easily applied in a laminate construction with sidewalls.

Sidewall: The surface (usually plastic) found on skis using laminate construction. Vertical sidewalls are believed to provide more direct transfer of energy, thus accommodating more precise turns and more ambitious skiing. Slanted sidewalls are more forgiving.

Core Material

A ski's core sits atop a base, beneath a topsheet and between 2 metal edges. The base is the foundation, the spine, of a ski. It influences the degree of stiffness a ski exhibits and the type of "feel" a skier experiences. All modern materials perform well; rarely is one recommended over another.

Common core materials:

Wood: Durable. Usually more expensive. Exhibits a responsiveness and sound that many skiers find attractive.

Foam: Low weight, consistent flex.

Composite: Combines various woods or foams to achieve a desirable balance of weight and feel.

Base

Base is the material on the underside of a ski which allows it to slide when waxed. A common material used is ultrahigh molecular weight polyethylene (PE) or UHMWPE. One reason: PE with a higher molecular weight results in a harder base. Admittedly, a harder base permits less wax absorption, but this downside is offset by its high damage tolerance.

Bases offer 1 of these 2 designs:

Extruded: Less expensive; easy to repair; low-maintenance. On the down side: May underperform in very cold or wet conditions; does not hold wax for long stretches.

Sintered: Strong; dependably holds wax; preferred by fast skiers. However, it's expensive, tougher to repair and requires frequent waxing to avoid signs of oxidation.

Twin Tip Tapers

Taper matters if you are interested in skiing backwards while on twin tip skis. Here's how tapers differ:

Standard taper: The tip is a bit wider than the tail, resulting in the ski initiating more naturally in the forward direction.

Bidirectional taper: The tip is still wider than the tail, but the difference between the 2 is less than on a directional ski. This allows the skier to easily move in the forward direction, while also gaining a more consistent switch ride.

Symmetrical taper: Tip and tail are equal width, thus lending equal potential and ease to both forward and switch skiing. To maximize performance, mount bindings in the absolute center of the ski.

Women's Skis

Women's skis

Women-specific models 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.

Thomas Laakso, Ski Category Director at Black Diamond, suggests picturing a man and woman of equal weight. Because a woman's frame ordinarily carries its center of gravity (Cg) lower than a man's, the distance between a woman's Cg and the ski (the equation is mass times distance) is smaller. Therefore a smaller load, or force, is exerted on a woman's ski.

"So to get a ski to flex a given distance to create the appropriate arc that mates up well with the particular sidecut radius, you just need to have a softer and often lighter ski," says Laakso. "Men have a higher center of gravity. That means they carry their weight farther from the ski. More distance equates to a higher force acting on the ski. So the man and the woman could be skiing on skis with similar end-designs, but the man's ski will likely be stiffer and probably a little heavier."

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' 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.

As stated earlier in the section on length, for the very young (under 6), tips in general should not quite reach their chins (or be 6 to 8 inches below the tops of their heads). For youth (under 12), tips should touch a part of their middle or upper face. Guidelines in this area often vary. Perhaps the most informed experts on the topic are those parents who have observed their child's abilities in snow.

Kids can always ski a shorter ski but may have problems with a long ski. When in doubt, go short.

Shop REI's selection of kids' skis.

When to Replace Skis

Two factors can influence this decision, says Mark Swindel, devoted skier and manager of REI's Salt Lake City store.

Technology

"Are your skis 7 years old or older?" Swindel asks. "If so, it's pretty likely technology has passed you by. With all the new designs, shapes and materials being used in skis today, newer skis are easier to ski and just a lot more fun. There's no reason not to ski on older skis, but you might find the experience to be more enjoyable on newer designs."

Feel as though your skills have peaked on a particular model? A new ski may snap you out of stagnation mode and kick you up another level.

Wear

"For a recreational skier who skis about 5 times a year, that person's skis could last forever, although ski technology will inevitably change," Swindel says. "On the other hand, a hardcore skier who's skiing 30 times or more per year may change skis every 1 or 2 years.

"At some point the edges on a heavily used ski can no longer be kept sharp, or it has taken too many whacks from rocks, or the base has been filed and stone-ground so many times that there's just not enough material left to tune," Swindel says. "If you want a responsive ski, you probably need a new one at that point."

Another sign a ski is past its prime: Its camber will diminish and the ski, unweighted, looks flat or near-flat when lying on the ground.

View a list of the REI.com 2013-2014 downhill ski assortment (PDF).

Ski Bindings

Bindings are the performance link between your boots and your skis, the device that makes you "at one with the ski."

A popular choice for many all-mountain skiers in particular are skis with integrated bindings—skis and 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.

For details, see the REI Expert Advice article, Downhill Ski Bindings: How to Choose.

Contributors to this article: Snowsport specialists Rob Yushack, Jon Iltis and Mark Swindel of REI Salt Lake City; REI snowsport product information specialists Joel Oerter and Joe Pasteris; Thomas Laakso, Ski Category Director, Black Diamond; Ben Wallace, U.S. Sales Manager, K2 Skis; Ron Steele, VP of Sales/Hardgoods, Rossignol.