Do You Need a Women’s Ski? Advice From Backcountry Athlete Ingrid Backstrom
Skis today are labeled as skis and women’s skis. So if you’re a woman, do you need a women’s ski? This is a question I’m often asked. The straight answer is no, you do not need one. The not-so-straight answer looks into how, for most women, a women-specific ski can have the potential to help your skiing in some unexpected ways.
Above Photo: Backcountry.com Athlete Ingrid Backstrom slaying some powder.
Photo Credit: Re Wikstrom
The Right Fit
Let’s anthropomorphize for a second (mainly so I can use that word, because it’s awesome), and think of each ski as an individual, with different qualities and characteristics—possibly even a personality—and certainly with different sizes and strengths. The ideal ski for you is the one that best complements your own size, strength, and ability, while giving you whatever “other” qualities you value the most.
The size and the strength of the ski can mainly be summed up by the length, width, and materials the ski is made out of. I try to match the physical characteristics of the ski I use to my own, starting with the baseline things I know for sure: I’m 5’4” and my weight usually stays about the same, I’ve been skiing pretty hard for a long time, and I raced for a while. Based on those things, I know I like a length in between 175cm and 184cm, a waist width between about 105cm and 120cm, and a stiffness that varies between wood core with carbon laminate to wood core with two sheets of metal laminate. Learn more about ski construction here.
Within those parameters, the ski I want can vary depending on the time of year. For example, the early season (November/December) and summer skiing in South America (July/August) are times when I haven’t skied in a while, so I know my leg strength is lower than my peak mid-winter strength. That’s when I want a ski at the shorter, narrower end of my spectrum with a softer construction. I choose a women’s ski for those times because it fits perfectly into my needs—usually a Volkl Kiku in a 177cm. During the peak of the season when I’m feeling strong, I’m more apt to be on a 184 Katana or Shiro. This could be called a men’s ski, or just a ski that happens to be longer, wider, and stiffer.
Terrain and Ability
When you’re choosing any important companion with whom to enjoy the winter, it’s not just the size and strength that matters. (Skis, ladies, we’re talking skis.) Here’s where the personality comes in, which we can mainly talk about in terms of the shape and bend of the ski, also known as the sidecut and camber. What type of terrain and snow do you mostly ski—groomers, powder, crud, or all of the above? What kind of skier are you—mellow and cruise-y and on the ground or aggressive and stomping airs?
For crud and groomers, skis that tend to perform best have some type of more traditional sidecut for carving and slicing through the snow, stiffer construction, and either a little bit of camber or full reverse camber. This is confusing, but bear with me and I’ll try to explain camber. Traditional race skis are made with camber, meaning that if you set one down on the snow, it would make a very slight rainbow shape over the snow. That way, when you are turning and putting all your power and gravity into the ski, it snaps back at the end of the turn and accelerates you into your next turn. Think pulling on a bow and arrow and releasing to let that energy go. Reverse-camber skis, if you set one lightly on the snow, would actually be the opposite—the tip and tail would rise up a bit (or a lot) while the middle of the ski would be on the ground. If the reverse-camber is the same angle throughout the ski, it still carves on groomers as the edge maintains contact with the snow when you turn.
For powder and backcountry and some spring skiing, when the snow is soft, skis that tend to perform better are fatter, softer, and have reverse camber and sometimes reverse sidecut or varied sidecuts. This helps you float in powder and make graceful, effortless turns rather than hard, choppy turns. Reverse sidecuts (wider in the middle than the tip or tail) and varied sidecuts (wide in the tip, narrow for a bit, wider under the bindings, then wider again at the tail) are almost strictly designed for powder and soft snow (nice corn or crud), although some skiers just get used to them and ski them all the time. For my backcountry ski when I’m hiking, I’m often on a women’s ski as they tend to be a bit softer and shorter, and I know I’ll be skiing smooth snow so I want skis that will be a bit more maneuverable, playful, and fun.
Women’s skis, in other words, can allow you to feel the ski and truly experience the different features of it. YOU are turning the ski, pushing your weight into it and feeling it respond, getting forward and using your power rather than just going for a ride and letting the ski ski you. With a women’s ski, you can work on your own skiing—play with body positions and get forward in your boots, pop off of little airs, flex your boots and skis and notice how they react—rather than sitting back, clenching your quads, and hanging on.
Of course, clenching quads and hanging on is fun too. When I want to ski fast, hit airs, and use a big, stiff ski to help maximize my power, I’m most likely on a “men’s” ski, but that’s only because women’s skis typically aren’t made in those lengths.
To find the ski that’s right for you, play around—try different skis. Demo or borrow skis that are long and short, women’s and “men’s.” Start nice and easy on a groomer when you’re trying a new-to-you ski, and make notes. Try them in different conditions.
Keep in mind that women’s skis can provide a variety of subtleties and features in addition to being those sturdy everyday workhorses you depend on. But don’t limit yourself to women’s-only if they aren’t quite providing the strength and power you need. As with life in general, it helps to try to look past gender definitions.