From Carving to Powder: How to Choose the Right Ski

If you’re just getting into skiing, the terminology can be confusing. We take a selfish pride in explaining confusing things, so sit back, read on, and learn about ski categories.

The Obvious

Let’s say you’ve literally never been on skis before in your life, and you’ve just opened a catalog, gear guide, or web page in hopes of figuring out the sport. The ski categories prescribed by retailers and manufacturers stay relatively consistent year to year, and for the most part, the skis themselves do fit into those roles. But what do carving, park and pipe (a.k.a. freestyle), all mountain, powder, big mountain, and backcountry (a.k.a. alpine touring or AT) mean? Those are the six main categories, so we’ll break down the definitions here in brief.

Carving Skis:

Skiers who spend almost all of their time on groomed slopes trying to perfect a graceful, high-speed arc employ carving skis to help accomplish the task. Carving skis are the recreational descendants of slalom and giant slalom racing skis, with a pure focus on speed, edge grip, and precision turning. With narrow waist dimensions and radical sidecut shapes, these skis create an amazing experience on hardpack, but those same attributes mean carving skis are rarely more than adequate on anything but smooth, groomed trails. If you plan to spend all of your time inbounds and 90% or more of that on groomed trails, or you’re getting into skiing with the goal of learning to race, a carving ski is what you want. Carving skis will literally teach you more about the dynamics of skiing fast than any other ski out there, but their specific and limited nature is not for everyone.

Park & Pipe / Freestyle Skis:

All the young kids are doing the backwards skiing with the baggy (or tight, depending on your generation) pants, and they’re doing it on park skis. Formerly known as “twin-tips,” park skis were originally just short, light, narrow skis with the tails turned up to make landing tricks easier in early snowboard terrain parks. Now the freestyle terrain park is an industry all its own, and it’s the reason for skiing’s recent resurgence as the fastest-growing snow sport in the world…and park skis have their own category. These skis still have “twin” tails, and usually more symmetrical dimensions and mounting points, in order to make switch (backward) riding easier and balance weight distribution for spins and rails. Aside from that, their relatively narrow dimensions and predictable shapes make them similar to some carving or all-mountain skis. While park and halfpipe skiing seems like a very specific activity that would require specialized gear, you’d be surprised at how many skiers are out there all over the mountain on so-called “park skis.”

All-Mountain Skis:

We’ve discussed all-mountain skis in another article, but in short, the term “all mountain” is at best confusing and at worst misleading. All-mountain skis can range from slightly modified carving skis to slimmed-down powder skis to tamer versions of big-mountain skis. Essentially, an all-mountain ski can be any ski you like, so long as it works for you most of the time in most of the conditions you ski. The prototypical all-mountain ski, however, has a medium-width waist to balance between hard-snow grip and soft-snow float, with a medium-radius or multi-radius sidecut that makes it easier to carve a variety of turn shapes. Many, if not all, modern all-mountain skis will also include some form of rocker, which further eases handling and turn initiation in variable conditions. While the category itself is vague, many of the skis within it can be excellent choices for all-around “one-ski-quiver” seekers or first-time buyers. However, the wisest choice is to keep an open mind, analyze your ability and skiing style, and determine your preferred or predominant terrain and conditions—then you’ll find out what “all mountain” means to you.

Powder Skis:

The name says it all: these skis are for deep days, with their primary focus being flotation and maneuverability in soft snow. With that said, powder skis range in size, shape, and character, from extremely wide to just wider than an all-mountain ski, from soft and noodly to stiff and straight for high-speed stability. Many western skiers choose some form of powder ski as an “everyday driver,” thanks to the versatility provided by innovative rocker profiles and a desire to have extra girth at the ready in case of a storm.

Big-Mountain Skis:

Expert skiers who like to ski fast in steep, technical terrain need skis that can handle the pressure, and therein lies the reason for the big-mountain ski category. A true big-mountain ski is like a cross between a powder ski and an old-school race ski, built to remain rock-steady at high speed but made wider to improve handling in variable and uneven snow conditions. While many manufacturers tout their widest skis as big-mountain skis, not all really qualify in our opinion. If you’re a powerful, expert skier, and you need an appropriate ski for your skill level and athletic ability, a big-mountain ski will open doors and take your skiing to the next level. If you’re none of the above, well, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Backcountry / Alpine Touring Skis:

While any ski can theoretically be used in the backcountry, the recent explosion in alpine touring’s popularity has spawned a whole subset of ski gear specifically designed for this side of the sport. Backcountry/alpine touring skis range from super-svelte trekking and ski-mountaineering styles focused primarily on uphill mobility, to more freeride-focused models that offer the same massive dimensions and innovative rocker profiles as the newest inbounds powder skis. Regardless of purpose, most backcountry skis employ lighter-weight construction than their inbounds brethren, and offer touring features like notches in the tip and tail for attaching climbing skins. Along with low weight comes some sacrifice in another areas, usually in the ski’s ability to remain damp and chatter-free on hard snow or to resist impact damage to the base and edges. Therefore, if you’re not planning to spend the majority of your time hiking for untracked lines, you might be better off sticking with a “resort” ski.

The Not-So-Obvious

If you’ve read through all of the category descriptions above, you’ll notice that most of them include some sort of disclaimer about variations within each category and the pitfalls of placing boundaries around a ski’s uses. That’s the not-so-obvious, and also the most difficult, aspect of choosing a ski, because along with the uncertain nature of ski categorization, every skier has his and her own opinion, not to mention ability level, favorite terrain, and preferred conditions. One friend will tell you she loves skiing powder on her so-called “carving” skis, and another will boast that he can rip moguls all day long on his big-mountain boards. The important thing is not to let anyone tell you which skis are right or wrong, because it all boils down to personal choice. Choosing your own skis is an individual experience, and while reading and researching will help with your decision, time on the snow is the most reliable way to determine what kind of ski you need or want. The best advice we can offer is to go demo a variety of skis or attend a free demo day at your local hill, where you can try different brands, different models, and different lengths within each model to find the one that works for you. When you find the right one, you’ll know, at which point you can join the ranks of opinionated and passionate skiers as you educate your friends on why yours are the best skis to ever come out of a press.

 

Video Transcript

Hey, everyone, this is Wyatt from Backcountry.com, here at the beautiful Alta Ski Resort and I’m here to walk you through how to choose the right ski.

So we’ve broken down the skis into three main categories: all-mountain, big-mountain freeride, and touring. Now, the lines definitely go way deeper than this, but this is a good jumping-off point to finding the right ski for you.

The all-mountain category is a very versatile group of skis that can accompany a wide-range of skier abilities. So the underfoot widths can range anywhere between 85-95 and 105mm. Now those skis close to the 85mm will be best suited for you know, the hard snow conditions while anything closer to the 105mm underfoot will be better for you know, the soft snow conditions and it’s also pretty good for any variable terrain out there.

So another important aspect of all-mountain skis is the camber profile. And it can range anywhere from say this Nordica Fire Arrow, which is all traditional camber which is great for that east coast groom running for hard snow conditions, or this Armada ARV which has a little bit of tip-rocker in it which is great for that west coast soft snow, getting more float and just getting into more variable terrain conditions. So remember, the all-mountain category due to it’s wide versatility, this’ll be a ski more used for your daily drive or for whatever you want to do out on that resort.

Moving along, we’re going to go to the big-mountain freeride skis which are a little bit more nichey due to the fact that they’re made a little bit for soft snow conditions and for bigger steeper lines. So remember with big-mountain freeride skis you’ll be charging hard in most conditions. You’re definitely going to see a wider ski underfoot. It’s going to start at around 100mm at the most narrow, and it’s going to go around 125mm at the widest. So as you can tell these skis were meant for deeper snow conditions, the west coast conditions if you’re going to be doing any cat skiing or heli skiing, definitely these are the choice.

The differences in the camber profile is you’re going to see more rocker added into the ski overall. Now it breaks down a little bit more into the different types of rocker you’re going to see in each ski: one is the directional tip-rocker which is more for those hard charging skiiers. Another is the hybrid profiles which is rocker in the tip and tail for more of those you know, gibberish types who want to get into soft snow, and you’ve also got the full rocker which is for that sweet, money, blower powder performance. So to finish up on the big-mountain freeride line, these are primarily made for expert to advanced skiiers looking for the deepest turns and the biggest lines out in the western US and British Columbia. Heck, getting off a cat and even a helicopter because these skis are pretty burly and can carry a lot of weight. But if you’re looking for that ski that doesn’t have a lot of weight and you’re schlepping yourself up a skin track, you’re going to want to look for the touring category.

With the touring category weight is the biggest factor as you’re going to be schlepping yourself up the skin track and earning your turns. Thankfully the manufacturers have helped you out by adding lighter weight materials into the wood core. Beech, poplar, bamboo, heck, they even added carbon [] so that it’s an easier ascent on you.

Also you’re going to see a similar camber profile as you see in the all-mountain. Anything from completely traditional to a little bit of tip-rocker for float to a hybrid tip and tail rocker with camber underfoot for a little bit more of that versatile performance. The camber profile you’re not going to see in the touring category is a full rocker. The reason for this is it’s difficult to attach a skin to that particular profile, and if you do get a skin attached, you won’t get much traction out of it. So what you’re going to want to look for in a touring ski is either precut skins or a custom tip and tail attachment like this Dynafit.

So that’ll wrap things up for the all-mountain, big-mountain freeride, and touring categories. So remember we’re just skimming the surface here. If you want to find out more, please visit us online at Backcountry.com and call or chat in. Our knowledgeable Gearheads will be willing to help you out to find the right ski for you.

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