Choosing The Right Ski: A step-by-step guide to finding the perfect pair

Posted by Jascha Herlihy on

Don't blindly buy your next pair. There's a better way to choose a ski than just guessing. . .

There are a million skis and even more ‘technologies’ out there. Digging through it all can feel like an endless task. I sometimes even have trouble trying to make sense of it all, and I of all people should know my way around: I own a ski company.

This is an important decision and will affect how well your winter will play out. Choosing the right ski means a more enjoyable time on the slopes, whether you’re on your once-a-year ski trip or out on the hill almost every day.

I’ll be the first one to tell you to go out and look at other brands, which you absolutely should. But, after talking with literally thousands of people, I know a thing or two about picking the right ski — and more importantly, not choosing the wrong one.

Here’s how to pick the right ski for you.

When deciding the right waist width for you, remember you're picking for the conditions you actually ride, not the one you wish you rode (that's what powder skis are for).

Keep in mind width is subjective: I know people who swear their 77mm sticks are 'powder skis' and guys riding 120mm underfoot as their ‘everyday ripper’. It all depends. Generally speaking, the wider you go, the better a ski will float in powder and the slower it will be in turn transitions on firmer snow, but here are some benchmarks of where to start:

Under 80mm — This is generally an on-piste specific ski. Great if you ski 90%+ hardpack groomers/on-piste.

80-90mm — Still hardpack oriented but with a little more forgiveness off-trail. Great for those who ski 75% or more hardpack groomers/on-piste.

90-100mm — This waist width is probably the most "versatile" of them all. It makes sense that this range is the most popular in the industry right now — wide enough to venture into softer snow, but still narrow enough to perform on hardpack. Great for those who ski 50% on groomers and 50% everywhere else (trees, powder, sides of trail etc).

100-110mm — think of this similar to the category above — only with a little more tendency towards softer snow. Modern day skis in this width range can still rip groomers and will have more float than something below 100mm. However, the greater width means there's more to move around.

Above 110mm — These are dedicated "powder skis". Made for soft snow. 90% powder/off-piste. 

Again, these are just benchmarks to use as a rough guide when starting out. The other attributes below will help narrow 

When we design skis, these 3 elements dictate a vast amount of a skis performance and feel on snow. Apart from waist width (above) these attributes will heavily play into the feel of a ski's performance.

 This could be a book in itself, but let me boil it down for you. I’m not going to use terms like “powder” or “all-mountain” etc. because everyone has a different opinion on what each of those skis should be. 

Instead, I’ll describe different attributes of a ski and what they are good for. All skis are basically a 'mix and match' of these characteristics - it’ll be your job to figure out what mixture you want. At the end of the day, there is no perfect ski. You can’t have your cake and eat it too (but you can get close).

Camber

Camber is how much the ski ‘arcs upwards’ in the middle when laid on a flat surface. The more camber a ski has, the more it tends to perform well on groomers/hard snow. Camber essentially dictates how much "energy" a ski has when turned on edge. Skis with more camber tend to feel and act "quicker turning" than skis with not as much camber. This is due to the increased area that is in contact with the snow. The more contact with the snow, the more responsive a ski generally is.

Rocker (Early Rise)

Rocker (also called early rise) is the exact opposite of camber. Think of the shape of the base of a rocking chair. Instead of the chair base being flat on the ground, the base is "rockered" enabling it able to literally "rock" back-and-forth. This is where the word is derived from.

The more “rocker” a ski has, the more they will naturally float in soft snow. They will also feel ‘looser’ and less connected to firm snow i.e. easier to smear around in and out of turns.

Compared to a full-camber ski, a ski with rocker will have less grip on groomers because more of the edge is suspended off the snow. A ski with rocker tends to be more forgiving but you’ll trade some of that snappy turning – "grip & rip" – feeling you get with a full camber ski.

Rocker, in most cases, increases the level of versatility of a ski in softer snow, especially when combined with camber underfoot.

NOTE: Early rise is generally considered a 'mild' form of rocker. For example, I would say many powder skis wider than 110mm underfoot are 'rockered' whereas most skis in the 90-108mm range have 'early rise', which is just less aggressive rocker.

Skis can have both camber and rocker. In fact, most modern skis have a combination of both.

A full camber ski will have the most grip and turn initiation on groomers, and early rise and rockered skis will have better float and feel 'looser' on hardpack. You just need to decide which is more important to you.

And again, you can't have all the benefits of grip from a full-camber ski and the float of a rockered ski — it does not exist.

Sidecut (Radius)

Sidecut is a skier’s term for how quickly a ski will turn. You might also hear the word "radius" to describe a skis sidecut.

Mathematically, "radius" describes the distance from the center of a circle or ellipse to a point on its circumference. So how does this apply to skis? All skis are designed using a circle (or 'radius') to define its sidecut. 

The lower the radius number, the smaller the circle and the “snappier” or "quicker turning" the ski will be. The higher the number, the more stable it will be when making larger, arcing turns at speed.

<13m - Slalom skis - super tight, short turns. 14-15m - Great for carving and on-piste, even when mixed with a little rocker/early-rise. 16-19m - Usually no longer considered a ‘carving’ ski. Can still perform on groomers but generally seen in skis designed for a wide range of snow conditions, especially off-piste. 20-22m - Typically freeride or powder skis. You’ll need higher speeds to carve well on a groomer. 22m< - Big mountain, large open bowls at high speeds. Emphasis on "BIG"mountain.

Of all ski attributes, length is the most straightforward.

A good starting point for ski length is for your skis to come up to about nose-height.

More often than not, this is the ideal length for you. Though, there are a few scenarios when you should size-up or size-down:

Size up a few centimeters if: You ski in deep snow or steep terrain (i.e. if you fall, you won’t stop until the bottom) often. This is more indicative of Western resorts typically. Your skis have some rocker to them. The more rocker a ski has, the more you should size up - a powder ski, for example, has the most rocker of any ski type, should be 7-10cm longer. For most skis out there with a "minor" amount of rocker (i.e. 'early rise'), an additional 4-6cm will be just fine. If you like a longer ski! (If you're not sure if you like a longer ski, then let me tell you: you don’t!) You're on the heavier side for someone your height. You're an aggressive skier.

Size down a few centimeters if: You’re picking a carving specific ski - i.e. doesn't have rocker or early-rise to it. This means more of the ski will be in contact with the snow, making it "feel" longer. You ski in tight trees often (I’m talking “I just can’t get enough of the trees!” kind of often) Less ski length will make the ski more nimble and easier to articulate in tight situations. You're on the lighter side for someone your height. You're relatively new to skiing. Shorter skis are easier to handle.

Now, remember this is all personal preference. I have some friends who ride a ski 5cm above their head - but they are 25 years old and ski more days than I do. I also know people who ride a ski below their chin because “they just like a shorter ski”.

At the end of the day, remember a few cm one way or the other won't make a big difference. Your body will adapt.

Stiffness is very tough to quantify since a ski’s flex pattern can vary greatly from tip-to-tail and even small intricacies will make a huge difference in ski behavior. The reality, however, is you don't need to know what “the tip is a little stiffer” or the “tail is soft” actually means. Any good ski is well balanced and a ski engineer knows how to keep people feeling good. Instead, the only thing you need to know is that a stiffer ski needs more energy to bend and will reward you for that extra effort in turns and control, while a softer ski, while easier to bend, won’t give quite the same energy back. What you give is what you get. Most skis fall within the middle range. Only a ski that is significantly softer or stiffer will be noticed by a tester and only then will they call it out. When we prototype skis for example, we dial in flex by changing the core thickness less than 0.5mm, which is about as thick as a grain of sand. That little bit will be the difference between an "ok ski" and a "great ski".

Need help finding a ski? We can help.

With so many options out there, we'll help you find the right one. Us. Real Humans. No robots 🤖