So you’re trying to buy skis…
The point of this article is to help you figure out what size and type of ski you really need.
I feel like buying skis used to be simple. If you were a beginner you bought skis that came up to your nose. Intermediate they were the same height as you and if you were an advanced skier, you just bought the longest damn things you could find.
Now? Now it’s complicated. You need to consider length, which varies with ski geometry, you need to consider the width, and you need to understand what all those ski geometry buzzwords actually mean.
On the plus side, skis are also, for very possibly the first time in history – actually good. You can go to the store a just buy some skill, it’s unbelievable. Skis can now turn crazy fast and with zero effort, they weigh nothing and they’re stable in chop and speed.
The purpose of this guide is not to tell you what specific ski to buy, it's to help you figure out what length and width of ski you should be looking at for a particular model – some skis you want a little long, some a little shorter, some fat, some narrow.
Here’s Phil’s guide to what all if it actually means these days.
But first, some caveats:
- This is mostly related to back country skis and maybe all mountain resort skis. I haven’t looked at resort skis in ages.
- This is my opinion only.
- I have biases. Lots of them.
- Be honest with yourself about how and what you ski.
- It’s generally preferable to get a ski that is too short or too soft, than the other way around. Expensive, top of the line gear is worse for a novice skier than something really basic. The features that make a ski perform best when nuking 80km/h off a cliff make them suck at 5km/h trying to pick your way through the trees.
Decoding the Buzzwords
Okay, here’s what words mean when related to skis. Some of this is obvious, some less so.
- Length – Long = Floaty/Stable; Short = Turny
- Width – Fat = Floaty; Narrow = Turny, good edge holding on hardpack and ice (which is key for side-hilling)
- Tip Rocker/Early Rise Tip – More floatation without increased stability, maintains maneuverability, helps with turn initiation, probably the biggest improvement in skis ever
- Tail Rocker/Early Rise Tail – More floatation without increased stability, but can cause tails to wash out in a turn, more drift turns than carve them - if you ski lots of powder and want a ski that pivots as easily as possible or know and love McConkey Turns, look for an early rise tail. If you want something that initiates turns well, but has a bit more stability mid-turn, look for a more traditional tail.
- Effective Edge Length - The magic of early rise tips and tails comes from both the easy turn initiation and release due to the pre-curved shape, but also from the fact that the effective edge length is decreased. If you hold a pair of skis with early rise tips back to back, the point at the tip where they touch is much farther down the ski than on a traditional ski - they have a shorter effective edge length. This is a big part of why longer skis with early rise ski similarly to shorter traditional skis.
- Camber/Full Rocker – Camber and full rocker are opposites. A cambered ski curves down under the boot (put it on the floor and there’s a gap between the middle of the ski and the floor. A rockered ski is a big smiley face. Camber helps keep pressure on the edges on hardpack. A fully rockered ski is a pretty powder specific thing.
- Stiffness – Stiff = mid-turn and high speed stability – once you’re in a turn, you tend to stay in that turn, ski can have more pop – ski rewards you for putting energy into it, but can be tougher for lazy skiers if there’s no rocker to help with turn initiation; Soft ski = easy turn initiation, but doesn’t handle speed or crud as well, can get knocked around. You are best off comparing between skis in the store. Brace the tip and then tail against your foot and then flex it each way. A soft tip makes for easy turn initiation, but is really prone to getting knocked around at speed, really good for beginners. A soft tail makes staying in the turn easier, but you can get stuck in it as the ski lacks ‘pop’ to get you out.
- Weight – Light skis are easier on the way up and can be easier to turn; heavy skis blast through curd and tend to be damper.
- Dampness – A damp ski doesn’t vibrate or buzz in choppy, icy conditions – a desirable trait that back country skis traditionally suck at due to their low weight. This is probably the biggest focus for new materials and designs at the moment.
- Titanal – Aluminum.
- All Mountain – you ski more than groomers. Jack of all trades type design.
- Novice – You haven’t been skiing more than a few times, but you can do an easy, mellow day on easy, mellow terrain. Anything tougher than a green circle would be a disaster.
- Intermediate – You can survival ski through the trees, but your happy place is probably 20-30 degree slopes with maybe a few Christmas trees in there for fun. This is the vast, vast majority of ACCers, regardless of how long you’ve been skiing.
- Advanced – You can ski anything short of major cliffs or big pillow lines
- Expert – You charge. Everything. All the time.
- One ski quiver – Some people, like me, have a whole quiver of different skis for different conditions. Some people have a one ski quiver – one ski that does it all.
Step 1. Your Base Length
The way I look at skis is that each person has a base length and then sizes up or down from there depending on ski geometry, skier skill and intended use. The idea of sizing skis based on your height is, to me, total BS. Your ski has no clue how tall you are. What it does know, is how heavy you are. A 160cm, 60kg skier exerts the same basic forces on a ski as a 180cm 60kg skier.
My breakdown of base lengths is:
Skier Weight Base Length (cm)
<54kg (120lbs) 150
54-64kg (120-140lbs) 160
64-77kg (140-170lbs) 170
>77kg (170lbs) 180
Nice and easy right?
Okay, now we start rolling in the buzzwords.
Step 2: Buzzword Math
Welcome to Phil’s Magic Formulas for sizing a ski.
First we start with length What we’re going to do is start with your base length, and then add or remove length based on the buzzwords in the ad copy and your personal preferences.
If the ski has an early rise tip: +5cm
If the ski has an early rise tail: +5cm
If you want a ski that is a bit easier to turn: -5cm
If you are an advanced or expert skier: +10cm
If you are a novice skier: -10cm
If you are looking to save weight on the way up: -5cm
Next we look at width:
For general back country use, 100mm is the sweet spot these days. This gives you a good combination between float and ability to side-hill the skin track
If the ski is 80% for groomers: -20mm
If the ski is for ‘all mountain’ or ski mountaineering use: -10mm
If the ski is your ‘one ski quiver’: +/- 0mm
If the ski is for when the snow is DEEP: +10mm
If the ski is for when you’re packing a snorkel: +20mm
So You’ve Got Your Ideal Dimensions, Now What?
Once you’ve got the ideal dimensions, take a look at what’s out there and start looking at weights.
Ski mountaineering sticks: lightest thing you can find, you’re willing to sacrifice performance on the down for speed going up. BD Helio 95, DPS Wailer 99 Tour 1, G3 Synapse, Voile Vector
One Quiver Ski dedicated to ski touring – go light, but not crazy. A few years ago, this would have been nuts. DPS Wailer 106, BD Helio 105, G3 Findr 102, Voile Super Charger
Skis for the Deep to super deep: DPS Lotus 120, Voile V8, G3 Empire 115, 4FRNT Renegade
The great thing is, that there’s basically no skis that suck anymore. If weight really matters to you, go for the lightest option in the class you’re looking at. If you want something that can bust through the crud, get something a little heavier.
Okay, let’s look at how this comes together by looking at a few case studies based off of friends of mine who I have decided need new skis. Names changed to protect the innocent.
Advanced Skier Looking for Lightweight, Early/Late Season Skis
First up, let’s consider ME since I’m shopping for new skis right now (like always). I’m looking for a light weight ski to double as my ski mountaineering sticks and my early season skis. I’ve got skis I pull out when the snow is super deep, so I’m erring on the lightweight, narrow (for me) end of the scale.
At a slightly portly off-season weight of 71kg, my base length is 170cm.
I’m an advanced level skier, so I probably want to upsize by about 10cm right off the bat which takes me to 180cm. I definitely want an early rise tip for the easy turn initiation and float, so that takes me to 185. Early and late season comes with a lot of picking your way through the trees so I want something manoeuvrable, so I’m going -5cm and we’re back down to 180. I’m also looking to save some extra weight because these are what I am going to be using on long traverses, so I’m knocking another 5cm off so we’re down to 175cm.
For width, I’m going with 100mm. I might be tempted to go a bit narrower if they were going to be dedicated to ski mountaineering, but I want something I can pull out for boot top powder as well and I like skis on the fatter side in general.
So, I’m looking for a 175cm ski, or 180 if I go for something with an early rise tail. For width, I want something around 100mm. These aren’t hard and fast numbers. Width I’d consider +/- 5mm and for length I’d consider +/- 5cm in length.
I often ski reasonably quickly, so I’m going to look for something that’s at least somewhat stiff, especially considering I’m going short for light weight and turnability. I’m going to look for buzzwords like damp, early rise/rocker and lightweight. I’m going to compare the weights of the skis in equivalent lengths and go with something that’s on the lighter end without being the absolute lightest thing out there since I don’t want to sacrifice all dampness and crud-busting ability.
Advanced Skier Looking for One Ski Quiver
Catherine is looking a new one ski quiver.
Historically an advanced skier, she’s coming off a couple of off seasons and is looking for an easier-skiing ski that will be easier to turn and more forgiving as she gets back into the swing of things.
Her base length is 150cm. Early rise tip and tail, so +5cm for each looking for something easy to turn for navigating tight trees, so -5cm, but an advanced skier so +10cm. So Catherine’s all-around back country ski should be somewhere in the 165cm length the width should plop her somewhere around 100mm. If she’s going for something with less of a tree skiing focus, length would go up it by 5 cm’s to 170.cm
Intermediate Skier Looking for an All Mountain Resort Ski
Karen has been skiing for a season and snowboarded before that. At this stage, she’s really treading the line between Novice and Intermediate, but thanks to her snowboarding history, she’ll be comfortably in the intermediate category by the middle of this season so we’ll target that for now. She’s looking for a ski to take to the resort to continue to build her skills. She can get down most things that aren’t too steep, but is definitely looking for a ski that won’t murder her.
Base ski length is probably 160. Karen wants easy turn initiation, so is looking for an early rise tip (+5cm), maybe an early rise tail (+5cm), and a bit easier to turn (-5cm). So she’s looking for a 160-165cm ski.
It’s an all mountain ski, so she’s looking for something around 90mm under boot.
Intermediate Skier Looking for a Ski for Shredding the Pass
Sebastian is a solid intermediate, likely hitting advanced in the next season or two. He’s got a one ski quiver at the moment, but is looking for something that can really take advantage of a Rogers Pass storm cycle.
Seb’s base length is 170cm. +5cm for early rise tip, +5cm for early rise tail, so the ideal length for Seb is 180cm.
For width, Seb wants high fat – something in the 120mm neighbourhood gets you boatloads of floatation while still being manageable edge to edge.
The goal of all of this is to help you narrow it down so that instead of blankly staring at a great big wall of skis, you can research a small number of skis before you show up at the shop. Nothing here is a hard rule – just something to give you a rough idea of what to look for. Like your skis long? Go longer! Like your skis fat? Go fatter! This is just the mental math I do when someone is asking me what skis they should buy.
We’ve looked at our case studies, now each person just goes and picks the ski that looks the prettiest, or has the best reviews online or hits the most buzzwords that they think applies to them. You can’t mess up at this point as long as you’re going with a reputable brand. Honestly, I haven’t seen a ski that sucked at what it’s designed for in ages.
Grumpy, cantankerous, wildly opinionated and so much more! Getting really tired on skis is what makes me happy.