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How to Choose an All-Mountain Ski

Ski it All from Coast to Coast

What is an “all-mountain” ski, and is it the ski for you? It’s very name implies maximum versatility, but despite what manufacturers claim, no single ski can really perform well in all conditions on all terrain. The key is to find out what “all mountain” means to you, and go from there.

Keep an Open Mind

Aiming to make purchasing easier for the customer, ski manufacturers place their products into categories so that in theory, you as the consumer will have an easy time shopping for skis, or boots, or outerwear. But while categorizing gives you a good jumping-off point, it isn’t going to just present you with the perfect solution. One person’s ideal all-mountain ski won’t necessarily be another’s. Don’t get frustrated, though. Picture a field of fresh, new-fallen snow, untouched by preconceived marketing notions. Ahh … now doesn’t that feel better?

Now that your mind is clear, let’s address the concept of an all-mountain ski the way it should be addressed: from a personal perspective. The phrase “all-mountain ski” effectively translates to “a ski that will perform adequately all over the mountain in all conditions.” While this is nice in theory, you still need to consider the personal aspect: you want a ski that matches your skiing ability and that will meet your needs in the conditions and terrain you ski most of the time.

Where and What do you ski?

The easiest way to select your own all-mountain ski is to categorize yourself, rather than the ski. Are you an Eastern, Midwestern, Rocky Mountain, or West Coast skier? Do you travel a lot to ski and want a pair that will work in multiple locations? Do you ski bumps? Trees? Groomers? Once you’ve figured out where and how you ski most of the time, you can turn to the virtual wall of skis in your head and start selecting a pair that will work for you.

Let’s divide all-mountain into a few sections, ones that you can then more or less match to your skiing style, preferred terrain, and most-encountered conditions.

The Eastern Hardpack / Midwestern Hardpack / Western Groomer Ski:

This ski will spend 85% of its time dicing up the steeps of Sugarbush and Killington, ripping bumps on Winter Park’s Mary Jane, crushing groomers at Afton Alps, or maching the perfect corduroy of Deer Valley and Heavenly. Relatively narrow underfoot at between 85 and 95 millimeters, it affords great grip for carving high-angle slopes and agility for maneuvering the peaks and troughs of mogul runs. Skiers who prefer a locked-in feel and powerful turn exit should seek a longer ski in this range, with a flat tail, a sidecut that matches their preferred turn radius, and traditional camber to keep the entire edge pressed into the snow. Those who like trees and bumps can move a little wider in the waist to add stability, add a twin tail and some tip rocker to prevent hooking, and choose a multi-radius sidecut to increase versatility.

The Coast-to-Coaster:

This ski might have a mailing address east of the Mississippi, but it finds itself on a plane at least once a year headed to Jackson, Tahoe, or Colorado’s Summit County in hopes of a massive snowstorm. It has to be ready for two feet of fresh, solid ice, and anything in between, making it a true jack-of-all-trades but hopefully a master of a few. At between 95 and 100 millimeters in the waist with a rockered tip, it might not float as well as the big boys but it can hold its own in powder, and its mid-fat dimensions make it a blast in choppy, cruddy conditions. A multi-radius sidecut means it can arc GS turns down the groomers or dodge aspens in bumped-up glades with equal ease. While it might struggle on a huge three-foot-plus dump day or chatter a bit on glare ice, that’s what demos and rentals are for, right?

The Western Native:

Whether its owner grew here or flew here, this ski was born and bred between the Sierras and the Rockies. Almost definitely the “middle child” in a quiver of carving, backcountry touring, and powder-specific skis, it is still the one that sees the most days on the snow, and as a result it has to make do with whatever conditions present themselves. At between 100 and 110 millimeters underfoot, it can carve a groomer when asked and make a decent show of short mogul runs, but it prefers to seek out pockets of soft snow left behind by the weekend tourists. Stiff enough to bust crud and remain stable at speed, but not burly enough to be called a “big mountain” ski, it probably has some tip rocker and an upturned or rockered tail—unless the guy or gal standing on top of it believes in working hard for the money.

A Word About Construction

As you look through skis, you may notice that ski construction tends to fall into two categories: cap and sidewall (sometimes referred to as sandwich). Actually, there are three if you count hybrid construction, which combines these two.

Cap construction ‘caps’ the ski’s core material with a contiguous cover, creating a full casing over the ski’s core. This construction style reduces overall ski weight, particularly in the tip and tail, resulting in a playful, not-too-stiff ski that turns with little effort. These skis in general cost a little less to make, so you’re going to pay less for them.

Sidewall construction sandwiches a ski’s core material between two ‘walls’ of structure running along the side of the ski. This rigid construction style promotes durability and stability, but is usually heavier than cap construction. A sidewall-construction ski may be harder to turn (heavier, more stiff) but will be more stable than a cap-construction ski at high speeds.

Many manufacturers now offer a hybrid construction, called “half-cap” or “semi-sidewall” (kind of a glass half full/half empty kind of thing) that features a little of  both; this gives you an ideal combination of the torsional rigidity of a sidewall combined with the weight and cost savings of a cap.

What does this mean for you? If you’re looking for a lighter, nimbler ski, go with cap. If you’re a hard charger or are just plain hard on your equipment, sidewall may be the way to go. Or, you can go hybrid if you’re a little of both.

Read more about ski construction

Summary: Defining the All-Mountain Ski

  • Type of Skier: Beginner to expert looking for a do-it-all workhorse.
  • Terrain: Back bowls, tight trees, moguls, groomers, ankle-deep pow―you name it.
  • Waist width: Medium-width waist to balance between hard-snow grip and soft-snow float. It also depends on conditions; 85-95mm is better for harder snow, 95-105mm will be better for soft or variable conditions.
  • Sidecut & turning radius: Medium-radius (17-22m) or multi-radius sidecut that makes it easier to carve a variety of turn shapes.
  • Profile: Traditional camber, often with some form of rocker, usually early-rise tip (aka directional rocker) and possibly some tail rocker, which further eases handling and turn initiation in variable conditions.

Get to Browsing

Now that you have some idea as to where you fall on the broad skiing spectrum, you can look with a fresh and (hopefully) more informed eye on the offerings in your local shop or from your favorite online retailer. While you will definitely find many excellent options under the All-Mountain category, don’t be afraid to look beyond the naming convention for your perfect do-it-all ski. And remember: just like life, no ski is perfect everywhere and all the time. If you hadn’t figured it out by now, this is how people get hooked on collecting skis. If you find the perfect all-mountain ski for you, that’s awesome.  If you find yourself amassing a quiver and quickly running out of closet space, we want you to know that you are not alone and that there are groups and organizations that can help.


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