Ask just about any skier, and they’ll agree that the ultimate ski experience is to slash, float, and surf through deep, pillowy powder. But nothing will kill that buzz faster than the wrong skis—think narrow-waisted carvers that sink like stones under the snow and turn what should be heaven into a wet, frustrating hell. Enter the powder ski.
Fat skis have been around since the late ’80s, but it really was the development of modern sidecut (thanks, snowboarding) in the late ’90s that started the move to fatter dimensions in skis. Since turning no longer required shins of iron and quads the size of pot-bellied pigs, skis could be made wider without making them simultaneously harder to maneuver. Width became the new hot thing, and around 2006 skis simply exploded, going as wide as 140mm and beyond before people realized that human leg geometry actually has limitations.
Rocker hit the mainstream next, and ski designers did the same thing: took it to the extreme. Banana-boat profiles reigned in powder-heavy ski towns, giving gondola operators migraines and making the slopes look like a clown school on recess as the earliest adopters floated and slashed and smeared their ways downhill.
In the last few seasons, we have witnessed a slight shift back to center, away from super-duper-fat and hyper-rockered designs toward a compromising middle ground. Rocker is omnipresent, but not as exaggerated, and while the gigundo-fatties are still out there in limited numbers, optimal width seems to have settled somewhere between 105 and 120 millimeters, depending on where and how you ski. It’s here where you’ll find your new “powder” skis, so-called despite the fact that you will only ski them in powder when the powder is there to be skied. The best part is that if chosen correctly, today’s powder skis can be used effectively all over the mountain in almost all conditions.
The question of width is one of purpose and personal preference. Depending on the manufacturer, the definition of a powder ski now includes anything from 98mm-waisted models all the way up to 130mm and beyond, so the choice is yours. An East Coast skier who sees only a few powder days per year might want something narrower, in the 95 to 105 millimeter range, or 105 to 110mm if they want a pair of “powder-only” skis. Yes, Jay Peak is awesome and the storms there are the stuff of legend, but the fact remains that East Coast powder is relatively rare, so while a super-fat ski can be a blast in deep snow, the sheer width will make it a bone-rattling, teeth-chattering nightmare on ice (which is not rare). The slimmer the ski, the more control it will offer, not only outside the trees but in them; narrower skis sink deeper, which means they go slower, which means extra reaction time in tight woods. Go fatter at your own risk.
In the Rockies, which include not only Colorado but Utah’s Wasatch Range and Wyoming’s Tetons, extra width adds crucial float in the region’s ultra-dry “blower” pow. Some say it’s about getting down into the snow a little more, and that skimming the surface is denying oneself the experience of powder skiing, but others go as fat as possible, seeking the exhilaration of flying atop a cushion of cold smoke. While the ski industry seems to be retreating from the insanely fat dimensions that were omnipresent a couple of seasons ago, the rule in the Rockies is still around 110mm and wider for a true powder-day ski. Your opinion, however, is valid and may vary. Feel free to discuss.
Moving west again into the coastal weather patterns of Tahoe and all the way up to British Columbia, overall design becomes just as crucial as width. This is the birthplace of rocker and reverse sidecut, which came about because the region’s denser, heavier powder can keep even the fattest skis from making a fluid turn. Therefore the question of surface area becomes less critical than the ability of a ski to maintain maneuverability, and while having 130 millimeters underfoot might be amazing for the first few morning runs, a surfy rocker profile and releasable shape will serve you better as the day progresses. As further experiments with ski design keep changing perceptions of float, maneuverability, and stability, the skiers on the west coast will truly reap the most benefit.
So what’s rocker again? That’s another article in itself. The short story of rocker is that lifting the tip and tail of a ski away from the snow makes it more maneuverable in powder, because powder acts much more like a liquid than a solid. This was some mind-boggling stuff in 2002, but now that ski designers realize rocker offers as much value on the horizontal axis as width brings to the vertical, every manufacturer is using rocker in various ways. Tip rocker helps a ski plane faster and aids turn initiation in all conditions. Tail rocker makes a ski easier to “release” from a turn, allowing it to slip sideways and control speed. While too much rocker can hurt performance, for the average skier the result is better powder handling from narrower skis, and therefore more versatility for all conditions and terrain from a single pair.
Here’s our recommendation of what you should be skiing, depending on how and where you ski.
Choose a narrow (95-105mm) powder ski that has tip and tail rocker for maximum maneuverability, or just tip rocker for better hardpack performance. Go fatter if you have a quiver of sticks and lots of cash, or if you can take weekdays off from your glassblowing apprenticeship to hit the hill when it nukes.
Average skiers should seek a wide (115-125mm) ski with tip and tail rocker for deep powder days. The more rocker you have, the easier it’ll be … until the snow gets choppy. Big-mountain experts should choose skis with metal laminate layers and tip rocker, or no rocker at all, because rocker is for beaters.
Skiers not employing tip and tail rocker in the Sierras and Cascades will learn quickly how to go straight downhill on powder days, which could be considered a benefit if you’re trying to beat the masses back to the lift line. Anything from 110mm to 120mm underfoot is ideal; go over 120mm and you’re just showing off, until you break a leg in someone’s bombhole.
Visitors can treat the dry, frigid Alps as they would the Rockies. Look out for crevasses because liability lawsuits are non-existent and nothing is marked. Japan gets deep like the Sierras wish they did, so bring rocker. It’s your own personal powder playground, albeit a very expensive one.
If you’re going to Alaska, you probably don’t need us to tell you anything about skis. If you do, you should probably give us your ticket to Alaska and we’ll tell you what we think when we get back.