With the seemingly inexhaustible supply of proprietary ski profiles that debut every year, choosing the right profile can seem like a daunting task. Backcountry Expert Gearhead Bill Porreca breaks down your options.
The profile shape of a ski is a primary determinant for how a ski will interact with the snow, making profile an important feature to consider when selecting a pair of skis. While there exist a lot of variations of each, and every manufacturer has a different name for them, there are essentially four basic types of profiles: traditional camber, directional rocker, hybrid rocker, and full rocker.
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A “traditional” cambered ski features a convex arch underfoot that allows you to exert concentrated pressure on the edge of the ski as it contacts the snow. When you’re pressuring that edge, you’ll have a longer effective edge, or length of the ski’s edge that’s touching the snow. This makes a cambered ski excel on hard snow and groomers since it offers the most edge grip through the arc of a turn.
While many of us may have learned to ski on cambered skis, the precise technique required to initiate and complete carved turns makes these skis less than ideal for the first-timer. Traditional camber skis are going to appeal to racers, both young and beer-league, or anyone who enjoys going fast on groomed surfaces or regularly encounters icy conditions. Many freestyle skiers also prefer traditional camber for its sure edge-hold and greater pop.
Can you ski a traditional camber ski off- trail? Sure, people did it for years before rocker was invented, it’s just a bit harder. When you get into crud or powder, where you cannot carve or use a lot of edging, these skis will feel grabby. You will have to actually turn your feet more as opposed to just laying the skis over on edge. Since these skis want to be on edge, it takes some more finesse to do this off trail. In addition, cambered carving skis usually have a fairly narrow waist, which reduces their ability to float through softer snow.
Directional rocker, also referred to as ‘early rise’ or ‘tip rocker,’ is a profile that combines traditional camber underfoot with a more elevated front, or tip, of the ski. This design means the effective edge is going to be slightly shorter than it is on a traditional camber ski of similar length. While it may offer slightly less grip on hardpack, overall turn initiation is going to be easier, giving you a smooth and more effortless feeling coming into the turn.
Directional rocker is most commonly found in all-mountain skis due to their ease of use and versatility in different and changing snow conditions. They are more fun to ski off trail because the tip is less grabby and they pivot more easily. When you’re skiing crud the tip rocker will go over or more easily blast through chunks of snow. There’s still a lot of edge-hold because of the camber underfoot, and a strong exit on the turn since the tail is flat. They key takeaway from this ski type is that it is the most versatile camber design, thus most used by skiers looking for that “single quiver” setup for both hard pack and off-trail usage.
Hybrid rocker skis are rockered at both the tip and tail, with a touch of camber in between. The addition of tail rocker to the tip rocker design means that exiting a turn is going to be easier, too, giving a much smoother feeling through softer snow. Because there’s still camber underfoot, the ski still helps you apply and keep edge pressure throughout the turn; however, because there’s a shorter effective edge than directional rocker and traditional camber, you might feel less glued to the snow when trying to carve or just tip the skis on edge.
This increasingly popular profile can be found in all types of skis; its performance and feel will depend on the degree of camber underfoot and location of the contact points. Overall, I would recommend this type of ski to someone who wants a versatile ski and prefers softer snow off-trail. Depending on where and in what conditions you ski, it could be your everyday driver or act as a powder ski in your quiver.
When most people think of ‘full rocker’ they imagine the banana-like, “reverse camber” profiles of the recent past. However, the rocker profile has become much more refined lately, making it much more versatile and more capable in a range of conditions. Today’s full rocker skis are for the most part an extreme version of a hybrid rocker ski, with contacts points pushed closer to the midpoint of the ski and very slight camber or a flat surface underfoot. This long, low sweep makes it possible to actually get these skis on edge when needed, instead of just pivoting around a small contact point. But of course, it’s off the trails and in powder that these skis excel, keeping you on top of soft, deep snow and enabling easy turning.
The most versatile backcountry ski is directional rocker, with tip rocker, camber underfoot, and a flat tail. The tip rocker makes the skiing off trail a little easier, camber underfoot allows you to apply more pressure to the edge in steep icy situations and the flat tail makes skinning easier. Remember all the friction when skinning comes from the ball of your foot to the tail of the ski, so with a lot of rocker in the tail the true amount of skin contacting the snow is a lot less. The camber underfoot inherently applies more friction when you’re skinning. If you only expect to backcountry ski in fresh snow, you don’t need a ton of skin friction to get up the hill, in which case skiing a hybrid or full rocker ski is easier and more fun.
Think of it in terms of work and where you ski the most. If you ski on the groomers a lot you want to do less work, a carving ski with traditional camber is for you. With minimal tipping and rotating of the ski you are going to turn a lot easier to control your speed. If you ski mostly off-trail you want to be able to get on and off the edges more easily, which is why any amount of rocker makes off trail skiing so much easier. The more rocker, be it in the tip or tail, the easier it is to get on and off edges, but the harder it is on the groomers to turn the ski and control your speed.
But of course, you don’t need to figure this out all on your own. If you have any questions about which ski to choose for this season on the slopes, please feel free to contact me or anyone else on our team of Gearheads here at Backcountry.
Bill can guide you to the right pair of skis.