Ski Categories 101: Start Haus Ski Buyer Guide

All mountain skis, big mountain skis, freeride skis, powder skis – there are so many types of skis today it can be a little overwhelming when shopping for a new pair – which skis are best for you?

But with the right information, it can be that much more exciting – they variety means you’ll be able to find just the right pair.

So let’s start going through some categories – as you go through from top to bottom, you’ll progress from skis best for hard snow and groomers to skis best for powder and soft snow.

All Mountain Skis

This is a catch-all category that everybody wants, but the truth is, all mountain means different things to different skiers. So this category is probably the most important to get right. An all mountain ski for someone who likes to tackle every trail from top to bottom may be narrower and stiffer, while an all-mountain ski for someone who goes from the groomer to the trees and off the backside may be fatter and softer. So let’s make it a little easier, breaking all-mountain skis down further.

Hard Snow Biased All Mountain Skis: These skis are usually on skinnier side, designed for speed and carving when the snow is firm. That usually means a width of 75 to 85 mm underfoot, a stiffer construction with some metal layup construction and a deeper sidecut. That all adds up to exceptional grip, stability and a damp ride that doesn’t chatter or flap around at speed. These generally have a full camber profile, though some tip rocker is making its way into the category. All those traits that pay off on the groomer can take their toll in mixed snow or soft snow conditions, however, making it harder to ski the bumps or trees.
Example: Nordica FireArrow 84 EDT or K2 Rictor

Fifty-Fifty All Mountain Skis: These skis really try to be all things to all people, using a medium width (85-90ish mm underfoot), medium flex and a blending of shapes that makes them a jack of all trades, but master of none. A little wider than the hard snow biased ski, a little softer, and may bring in some of the new rockered or tapered shapes to facilitate quick turning and float in soft snow.
Example: Rossignol Experience 88 or Blizzard Magnum 8.5 Ti

Soft Snow Biased All Mountain Skis: Lighter, more nimble and generally characterized as more playful compared to the firm snow ski’s hard charging attitude,  these skis are usually wider (90-100 mm underfoot) and a little softer still. Often this category loses the metal laminate and will bring in more rocker and taper to play in the powder, crud, bumps and trees. They’ll still dig into the groomers when you carve your way back to the bottom of the lift and may have all the hard snow performance a western skier needs.
Example: Salomon Rocker2 90 or Line Prophet 98

So you’ve got to set your priorities. Do you live for lighting the groomers on fire, or do you dive into the trees, looking for any leftover powder stash you can find? Do you ski in high snowfall areas out west, or do you ski the east? There will also be a few anomalies out there – skis that are both wider and stiff, or narrow and soft.  If you’re still not sure, contact one of our experts – we’re glad to help.

Big Mountain Skis

Big Mountain Skis can be anything from an overgrown all mountain ski to just shy of a powder ski, and they can work for anyone from the person looking for their first powder ski to someone who flies down Alaskan spines and drops cliffs. Here we’re getting into a 100-110 mm underfoot width range, and in most cases at least a little rocker and or taper to improve powder performance. Skiers who put in a lot of days out west may use these as there everyday skis, sacrificing some firm snow ski-ability for more versatility on the powder days they live for. They’re also a great choice when the day may start off as a powder day, but as the snow gets chopped up by skiers and you find yourself wanting something more versatile than a pure powder ski. Many big mountain skis also tend to be a little stiffer than pure powder skis.
Examples: Volkl Gotama or Armada TST

Powder Skis

Here’s a category that’s definitely one ski in a multi-ski quiver. If you want a dedicated ski for those epic storm days, look at skis at 110 mm and up underfoot with plenty of rocker and maybe some taper to give you the float to plane through the powder and the surfy feel to slash turns in the soft stuff. There’s nothing like one of the newer powder skis on a day with 18 inches or more – it’s effortless and it feels like flying. And unlike the first generations of this new category, they won’t leave you stranded if you come across some firmer snow. As the shapes become more refined, even the fattest skis can still tackle the tracked out final stretch back to the chairlift – but you don’t want to rail groomers on them all day.
Examples: Volkl Shiro or K2 Sideseth

Helpful terms:

Flex: When we talk about softer or stiffer, we’re talking about the ski’s flex. Overall flex, or tip-to-tail flex, is generally a matter of preference and what you want to do with the skis. A stiffer ski requires more weight or strength to bend through a turn, but they won’t wash out or chatter at high speed. Softer flex will easily bend and quickly turn in bumps, variable snow or powder, making the ski more playful and more forgiving, but won’t give the edge hold of a firmer ski on icy snow. Torsional flex refers to the tendency for the ski to twist when you’re up on edge – less torsional flex is good for railing high speed turns, more is better for those who butter there turns, sliding the ski tails around.

Damping or Dampness: This one confuses some people, but it’s basically shock absorption in car-speak – the skis ability to absorb bumps and vibrations. A stiff ski may not vibrate as much, but without good dampening it can be pretty harsh in rough snow. The tradeoff to good dampening can often be extra weight, and in turn the ski may feel less nimble or lively – but some great skis are able to balance the characteristics.

Rocker: Rocker is all the rage these days. It’s basically turning the ski tip or tail up before it normally would in a whole variety of lengths and to different degrees. The effect is multifaceted. First, tip rocker helps the ski plane up in powder or crud so the tips are less likely to dive, helping you float on top. It also reduces the skis contact area with the snow, making the ski effectively shorter when flat, meaning quicker to initiate a turn and quicker to finish. Lastly, on firm snow, a rockered tip is less likely to catch. Tail rocker further shortens the contact patch of the ski, and makes it easier to release the ski out of a turn. Great for slashing turns in powder. Some skis have continuous rocker from tip to tail, making them really pivoty and surfy in soft snow. All this comes at the expense of camber, but many skis blend a bit of both for a well-rounded performance.

Camber: Camber is the opposite of rocker, and what all skis had before rocker. It creates even pressure along the length of the ski to really grip firm snow, and gives you the rebound to pop out of a turn and go into the next one. These days you can pick anything from a fully cambered ski for the best edge grip to a ski with a rockered tip and camber underfoot for better all-around performance to fully rockered powder surfers, and everything in between.

Taper: Years ago, ski shape was all about sidecut, which meant the narrowest point of the ski was under your boot, and the ski got wider in the tip and tail. Now, on the heels of rocker technology, taper brings the widest point away from the tip and tail. That does a few things. The shorter distance between wide points can shorten the turning radius for quicker turns, it can keep the tip of the ski from “hooking” in variable snow, instead efficiently cutting through deep snow, and it can lighten the tip and tail for a quick, easy to pivot feeling.

Still have any questions? Contact our experts, we’re here to help!

3 thoughts on “Ski Categories 101: Start Haus Ski Buyer Guide

  1. Pingback: Volkl RTM 84 Review - New School Carver | Start Haus

  2. Pingback: Start Haus Ski News - Tahoe Ski News Jan. 11 | Start Haus

  3. Pingback: Start Haus Ski News - Tahoe Ski News Dec. 18 | Start Haus

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *