Long gone are the days of picking a set of flat boards that are 1.5 times your height and sliding down the mountain any way you please. These days, the specs and options for skis are mind boggling. Oh, you don't ride a super reverse triple three dimensional sidecut x-fatty? What's wrong with you? Uh, what? Ok, I made up half of that but still, the options are overwhelming. There is a reason this site does not even start to attempt to review skis. There are too many. Here, we will break down the basics to help you pick your first (or second, or third) set of skis. My first skis were park skis. I have never ridden park style. I got them because they were pretty. Then I shredded up the powder on them. My short skinny skis made this harder than it could have been (I tended to sink). The lesson here is, any ski will work. Some will just work better than others. This article will focus on All Mountain/Powder skis; skis one might want to take in the backcountry. If you want race, park skis, or other types of skis, this article will be a little useless to you. 

I apologize, this article will be long. There is just so much information, even just touching on the basics. To help you out, here is a table of contents. Feel free to skip to a section. 

Length
Width
Stiffness
Sidecut
Rocker/Camber
Other Considerations

 

Length

Skis are measured in centimeters. Ski lengths typically range from just over 100 cm for small children up to just under 200 cm for very tall skiers. Length is easy to find for a set of skis: it will be marked clearly on the order form online or paperwork in the store. Often it will be printed on the ski itself. 

The right length ski for a skier is a function of the skier's height, weight, strength, and skill. Manufacturers typically have a chart suggesting a range of lengths for a given height. The chart is the best place to start when selecting a ski length. In lieu of a chart, you can just base it off your height. On the shorter end, you would want a ski no shorter than your chin. On the longer end, you would pick a ski not much taller than you are. For example, I am about 5'6". When I started skiing, I typically picked skies in the 165 range, about nose height on me. As my skill developed, I have sized up in ski length just a little to the 175 range.  

Each manufacture makes every ski they sell in a range of sizes. When looking at a pair of skis, you will see the section "length" listed on the website. It will typically have 4 or more sizes listed: ex 168 cm, 176 cm, 184 cm, 192 cm. Ski lengths are typically listed in centimeters. 

Typically, skis on the shorter end of your range are suggested for those newer to the sport. A shorter ski makes turning easier to initiate and complete. The drawback is that you have reduced stability at higher speeds and reduced float in deep powder. A skier who has mastered the art of turning will often opt for a longer ski for the benefits at speed and in powder. 

Width

Length was easy enough to figure out. Width is a little more complicated. Skis are not cut straight and therefore do not have a single width. In fact, depending on where you measure there are thousands of width measurements per ski. To make things simple, manufactures will list the three most significant widths: the widest part in the front of the ski, the narrowest part underfoot, and the widest part in the back of the ski. These measurements are in millimeters. For example, a ski width might be listed as 100/90/98. The numbers refer to the parts of the ski as shown below. 

 Ski width explained in a nutshell with my terrible sketch

Ski width explained in a nutshell with my terrible sketch

The main factor to pay attention to is the middle number, or underfoot width. The first and last numbers will be a function of other qualities of the ski, specifically the sidecut which plays a different role. Often the three width numbers will be listed somwhere on the ski, but not always. They will be listed on the website you buy them from or on the paperwork with the ski in the store. So, how do you pick a width? It is entirely up to you. In general, the narrower the ski, the less friction you will have, the faster you can go, and the more stable you are going fast. A wider ski will provide more float and control in powder. When it comes to width, the underfoot value is typically what is referred to. The underfoot value is also the important factor when you select the brake width for your bindings. 

There are differing opinions on what width constitutes an "all mountain" ski. An all mountain ski will perform ok to well in a variety of conditions but not excel at anything. For new skiers or skiers on a budget, a good all mountain ski will serve you well. As ski technology develops, all mountain skis, also called a "quiver of one", are getting better and better at doing it all. For the average recreational skier, an all mountain ski is all you will ever need. They make great backcountry setups that can tackle a wide range of conditions encountered in the backcountry while saving a few ounces that a true powder ski would cost you on the skin up. A powder ski will not perform on choppy refrozen snow or a groomer as well as an all mountain ski will should you find yourself in those conditions and only have one ski to pick from. My personal suggestion, if you are only going to get one ski set up for the backcountry or resorts, get an all mountain ski with a width in the range of 90-103 mm underfoot, with 95-98 mm being the sweet spot. 

If you really want to slay deep powder, some extra width underfoot will increase your float and control in these conditions. The drawback is the extra width adds weight and reduces the ski's effectiveness in almost all other conditions. I spent the first two years of my backcountry outings on a 95 mm underfoot all mountain ski and was fine every day except one. That day, we found deep fresh light powder and instead of slaying it, I just wallowed around in it. That was the day I decided to buy a second ski set up. I wanted to slay powder. I wanted face shots, not my face in the snow as I fell. If you are looking for a second set of skis or insist on only skiing on powder days, a ski with 103+ mm underfoot will serve you will. 

Depending on where you look, most sites differ in their suggestions for selecting underfoot width. This is my personal definition from 10 years of skiing with inappropriately width skis that is based on general industry sentiment. 

Snowbeastreview's ski width definitions:
Under 90 mm: Not covered in this article: race skis, park skis, skis for groomers. 
90-103 mm: All mountain skis
103+ mm: Powder ski

For your first set of skis, really, you could stop reading here. Pick skis sized appropriately for your height and intended riding style that got good reviews. The rest of the specs are a little more nuanced. 

Stiffness

Unfortunately, there is no standardized stiffness number or measure for skis in the industry at the time of writing. Each manufacturer has their own way of designating flex. Some manufactures don't even address the flexibility of the ski. There not a lot of information out there about ski stiffness. Luckily, stiffness is pretty simple to break down. If the manufacture addresses it, there is typically some sort of designation breaks down to something along the lines of flexible, middle flex, and stiff. 

A flexible ski will be more forgiving and will allow for tricks that might involve flexing the ski. These skis are said to have "pop" and be "playful". Light weight skis excel in the park where their flex can be the difference between nailing a trick and falling on your face. If you are a lighter weight person, a ski with more flex might work fine in some choppy conditions too. As a lighter weight skier, I really like flexible skis, but I get beat up on choppy cruddy days. At high speeds on harder pack, I feel my skis chattering like crazy. 

A stiffer ski will provide stability at speed. If you love to go fast, a stiffer ski will probably serve you well. These skis will give you a more stable ride over chop and will keep your teeth from chattering out of your head at speed on hard pack. A heavier rider will often appreciate the stiffness especially in powder. The drawback to a stiffer ski is that they are less forgiving; catch an edge and these skis will send you straight to your face. 

For an all mountain ski, a ski with flexibility towards the middle of the spectrum is a good place to start. If you find that you love the forgiveness that a less stiff ski offers and you enjoy buttering tricks once in a while, a ski on the less stiff side of things would probably serve you well. If you prefer charging fast lines over all types of terrain, a stiffer ski might suit your style better. 

Keep in mind that stiffness will also affect a ski's performance in powder. A stiffer ski will keep the middle of the ski from "sagging" as you float through powder. This might not be as noticeable to a lighter skier though. A more flexible ski will flex more in powder and affect the ski's handling characteristics in those conditions. 

Stiffness is a more nuanced quality that becomes more apparent to you the more you ski. Start with a ski in the middle of the spectrum and go from there as you learn your style. 

Sidecut/Turning Radius

A sidecut is the curved side of the ski. Its depth is affected by the waist measurements. A ski with a much smaller underfoot measurement in comparison to the tail and tip measurements will have a deeper sidecut than a ski with an underfoot measurement that is closer in value to the tip and tail measurements. A deeper sidecut means a smaller turning radius. The turning radius is a numerical measurement that defines how curved the ski is and how sharp the ski naturally wants to turn when you engage the edge. The two are essentially the same but are defined in slightly different terms. 

To explain the turning radius, imagine that the sidecut of the ski kept going to form a huge imaginary circle. The radius of the huge imaginary circle is the turning radius. The turning radius will be a value measures in meters ranging from around 10 m on the shorter end to over 30 m on the longer end of the range. See my beautiful sketch below. This huge imaginary circle is the path the ski will naturally follow when you engage the edge to make a turn. Like making short poppy turns? Get a smaller turning radius. Like making huge sweeping turns in open areas? Get a longer turning radius. 

 The turning radius in a nutshell demonstrated with my terrible sketch. 

The turning radius in a nutshell demonstrated with my terrible sketch. 

Similar to the stiffness of a ski, the turning radius is something that you develop a preference for over time. Unlike stiffness, it is a hard mathematical measurement that most manufactures list. Some only list it for one size of ski-it will vary some for the other lengths in those cases. Some manufactures list it only as "short, medium, or long" while others will give an actual numerical value. To complicate things, these days there are various iterations of more complicated sidecuts available. In general, these more complicated "3 dimensional sidecuts" tend to give you the best of all worlds and are not a bad option to go with. 

The turning radius has a greater impact on race skiers who are going at high speeds and need to make precise turns adapted to their particular race. However, it is still relevant to all mountain and backcountry skiing. A shorter turning radius will give you sharper, more controlled turns. Engage an edge and your turn starts in a hurry. This is great for weaving between crowds at the resort, or trees. A larger turning radius lets you make sweeping turns, great for wide open faces that you can let loose on. 

Keep in mind, a longer ski will by nature have a larger turn radius than a shorter ski. A 168 ski will have a shorter turning radius than the exact same ski in a 182 version. 

Turning radius is something that is a skier preference. Start with something in the middle of the range. If you find yourself frustrated that the skis seem to take forever to turn, maybe consider a shorter turning radius, If you find yourself on the flip side, aggregated that every turn initiation seems to send you rocketing into your turn in a hurry, try a longer radius. 

Rocker/Camber

10 years ago, most skis were traditionally cambered. Now, there is reverse camber, tip rocker, tail rocker, and somehow camber and rocker mean kind of the same thing but don't to confuse everyone even more.  A picture is worth a thousand words, especially in this case:

 Camber and rocker basics

Camber and rocker basics

First let's differentiate between rocker and camber. Camber is the arch of a traditional ski, a ski shaped like an arch where the unweighted ski contacts the ground only at the tips. Rocker is essentially another name for reverse camber. A rockered ski is shaped like a smiley face. Many skis today combine both rocker and camber by having a traditional camber in the middle but shaping the tips to mimic those of a rockered ski. 

Let's start with the traditional camber. There is a reason why skis have been made this way for ages: it works and it works well. Even with the developments in today's ski technology, traditionally cambered skis are far from obsolete. These skis provide maximum edge and base contact between the ski and the snow, making them very stable and predictable. They hold a solid edge in a huge variety of conditions. 

A fully rockered ski is shaped completely opposite of a traditionally cambered ski. They were developed to mimic the handling of water skis: a rockered ski will excel in deep powder and enhance float. Rockered skis provide stability in powder while handling like a shorter, more nimble ski on harder packed conditions. Because the tail and tip are elevated, they do not contact the ground when turning on hardpack, resulting in a ski that gives maximum float in powder yet still turns nimbly on harderpack.

After rockered skis were introduced, it wasn't long before manufactures introduced skis that combine the best of both rockered and cambered skis. Dubbed as "mustache skis", these skis are advertised as having "tail" and/or "tip" rocker. These skis will be cambered underfoot but flatten out and rise earlier than a traditionally cambered ski. Instead of just the very tip of the ski being curved up, a significant portion of the ski rises at the tail and the tip. These skis will not provide as strong of a bite while turning as a traditionally cambered ski or have as much float as a rockered ski. They do an effective job of combining the best of both worlds and make excellent all mountain skis.

At the end of the day, rocker and camber is a personal choice. A ski with a tip and tail rocker is a good starting point for a beginning skier still developing their style and wanting to explore the best of both worlds. However, if you're an accomplished water skier, you might feel more at home on a rockered ski. A traditionally cambered ski is also a great option; there is a reason that skies have been made this way for years: it works. 

Other Considerations

As you look at skis, you will undoubtably notice that there are a multitude of other characteristics listed for skis. These are arguably less important than the characteristics I have already discussed here. Below are a few of the more notable characteristics you might encounter. 

Weight: Ski weight is a significant factor for some skiers while others more or less ignore it. A heavier ski is more weight and will fatigue you faster. However, a lighter ski often will not be as stiff as a heavier ski. Many people just choose to work through initial fatigue and get stronger; some don't like the added struggle and opt for a lighter ski. Weight is a personal preference a skier may or may not decide is important to him or her. 

Core: The core is the material that the ski is made of. Skis are many layers of material pressed together starting with the base, the part you ski on, and ending with the topsheet, the part you see when you are skiing. The guts of the ski are the core. Different materials can affect the responsiveness of the ski. This is a very nuanced factor, however. The majority of skiers probably will not notice much difference between one core type to another. 

Twin Tip: Some skis curve up only in the front and are flat in the back. Others curve up in the front and the back, these are called "twin tips". If you are the kind of skier who skis facing forwards only, then a non twin tip ski is great for you. If you like doing tricks and sometimes ski backwards, a twin tip ski would be better. One draw back to a twin tip is that the standard clip on most skins tends to slide off the rounded shape of a twin tip. Keep this in mind when selecting a twin tip ski for your backcountry setup. 

Skin Compatibility: There are skins that can be cut to fit virtually any ski. There are others that are made to fit a specific ski. Some skis come with holes in the front that accept certain types of skin attachment types. A skin made to fit a certain ski will fit well and avoid some of the fitment issues that the one size fits all skins might have. If this is something that is important to you, look for a ski that has a skin made to fit that model.