A woman skiing down a mountain

How To Choose the Right Alpine Skis

Photo: Louis Arevalo

If you’re in the market for alpine skis, rest assured that you’ve got options.

A ton of them. Enough that could easily overwhelm you—with choices between various materials and alpine (aka downhill) ski designs for every kind of terrain or snow condition. Honing in on your abilities and preferences is an excellent place to start. The good news: Buying skis is fun because skiing is fun, and anytime you’re thinking about skiing—well, that's fun too.

In this guide, you'll learn about:

  • Types of Alpine Skis
  • Materials and Design
  • How To Choose the Right Pair

Types of Alpine Skis

All-Mountain Skis

These skis will capably handle the full variety of terrain across the entire mountain, as the name implies. This highly versatile option is for the skier who wants a single top-to-bottom setup, for powder to hardpack and everything in between. All-mountain skis are designed with various rocker profiles and most have a "mid-fat" waist width. 

Powder Skis

If you are lucky enough to score deep snow, you'll be glad to have this ski specialized for the conditions with added width and plenty of rocker. Powder skis have a wide waist and a range of rocker profile options from full rocker to tip and tail rocker. 

Big Mountain Skis

For charging steep and technical lines, big mountain skis fall somewhere between all-mountain and powder skis. They tend to have a stiffer core for handling mixed conditions and speed. 

Freestyle Skis

Designed for terrain parks—and the skiers who want to take their park skills to the mountain—freestyle skis are often multi-directional twin tips and typically have a narrower waist, plenty of camber, and a unique flex pattern for jibbing features and “buttering” takeoffs. 

Carving Skis

With a narrow waist and big sidecut radius, carving skis make initiating turns easier from edge to edge. They are perfect for skiers who love fresh groomers or beginner and intermediate skiers learning to make turns. 

Women’s Skis

Women’s ski designs have come a long way over the years, with more options today than ever before. These skis are designed for a smaller, lighter skier, with smaller feet and hips. Women’s skis are typically softer and more forgiving in the flex. But female skiers who want a stiffer flex will have fewer women’s specific options, and many will opt for a smaller pair of “men’s skis.” 

Materials and Design

Core

The core of a ski is like its personality—it's the center that everything else revolves around. The materials used will determine the strength and flexibility of the ski. Avoid cheap plastic skis, and look for a wooden core. Ash and maple are commonly used for their durability, while poplar and aspen are lighter and more playful. 

But the core of the ski is not just wood. Most skis integrate a composite of other materials and layers that ultimately determine the ski’s performance, including:

  • Fiberglass: one of the most popular composite materials. It is strong and lightweight, and inexpensive. The material is highly responsive, making skis turn easily.
  • Titanium: the most robust core material and good for variable terrain. It's more expensive than fiberglass or a solid wood core. 
  • Carbon fiber: the most lightweight and highest performing core material. It is rigid, dampens vibrations but also flexes well enough for turning. It is also the most expensive core material.

Base

There are two types of ski base materials, and both use polyethylene plastic, commonly known as P-Tex. 

  • Sintered base: ground, heated, and cut into the base shape. A sintered base is the premium option because it is a faster, more durable base material.
  • Extruded base: melted into a mold, then cut and shaped into the ski base. The extruded base is a less durable and slower material, and is less expensive than a sintered base.
A woman hikes with her alpine skis Photo: Carl Zoch/Tandemstock

Sizes and Dimensions

Length

Skis are measured from tip to tail. The ski length should be chin to head height (in general, below the chin for beginners and below the head for more advanced skiers), though there is no specific formula. The proper size depends on ability, ski type and terrain conditions. 

Waist

The waist is the narrowest point of the ski and determines how well the ski handles various conditions. A wide-waist ski will float well in deep powder, while a narrow waist will initiate turns easier. 

Tip

At the front end of the ski, the tip initiates the turn. A broad tip floats better in deep snow and cuts through crud, while a wide tip paired with a narrow waist turns better on groomers. 

Tail

A narrow back end of the ski, or pintail, is best for carving turns. A wider tail is considered best for quick or tight turns. An upturned back tail, or twin tips, are for multi-directional or freestyle skiing. 

Sidecut Radius

The arc of the tip, tail, and waist make the sidecut radius, or turning radius. This measurement will give you an idea of how the ski turns. Generally, a ski with a smaller sidecut radius will initiate tight turns and is more common with all-mountain or carving skis. In comparison, skis with a larger radius will be better for long arcing turns, more common in powder or big mountain skis. 

Camber vs. Rocker

While some skis (like traditional race skis) that favor carving and edge control are  strictly cambered, many powder skis offer full rocker on the other end of the spectrum. Look closely at the side profile curvature of your ski, as most skis today fall somewhere in the middle, combining rocker and the ends, and camber underfoot. 

Camber

Skis traditionally have a camber, or a downturned arc (creating a visible arch underfoot), which flattens when a skier stands on it. This design runs most of the length from tip to tail, and when the skier initiates a turn, the energy transfers from edge to edge, making it ideal for maintaining control with mixed and icy conditions. 

Rocker

The upturned rocker, or reverse camber, is bowed up from tip to tail underfoot. Rocker allows skis to better float in deep snow, and to maneuver in technical terrain.  

Tip and Tail Rocker (Rocker-Camber-Rocker)

Skis with rocker in the tip and tail float in deep snow, but with camber underfoot, still hold an edge for variable conditions. This style is most typical in big-mountain and powder skis. 

Tip Rocker (Rocker-Camber)

These skis have a rocker in the tip to help float, though they are traditionally cambered underfoot and through the tail. This design is most common in all-mountain skis. 

How To Choose the Right Pair

The best way to select a pair of alpine skis is to hone in on what type of skier you are, the conditions you prefer to ski, and then try them out on the slopes. Many ski shops will let you try before you buy. To help narrow down the choices, ask yourself a few questions:

What’s my skiing ability? Your ski level will help determine the length, stiffness, and style of the ski. Beginner skiers might go shorter with more flex, while more advanced skis can be longer and stiffer. 

What type of terrain do I enjoy? Understanding your personal preferences will help narrow down the choices: powder skis, all-mountain skis, carving skis, or twin-tip skis.

What are the snow conditions that I ski most often? Conditions will help determine the rocker and camber. If you prefer groomed slopes, skis with some rocker in the tip and moderate camber will be ideal. Powderhounds will want more rocker for floatation.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

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