Part Two: A Ski for All Conditions

January 7, 2009

Have you ever seen someone getting off a plane or bus picking up a bag full of skis and pondered… why do they need three pairs when most of us get by with just one? It’s a question that leads us into part two of our four part series: Understanding & Choosing A Ski. This part of our series will focus in on four major varieties of skis, and where each of them excels.

It’s only recently that mainstream skiers have come to see the importance in understanding and taking advantage of the variety of skis manufacturers now offer. For years, most mainstream skiers went the route of buying equipment that is ambiguous in its intended use. These skis (often labeled “all-mountain”) do well enough in everything from deep snow to hardened groomers, but don’t really excel in any one area.

But times, they are a-changin’. Each year it seems as though more people realize that there’s a ski out there suited to where and how they like to ski, or how they think they like to ski. Head out to Whistler after a 10cm dump and you’ll see some skis that are wide enough to resemble snowboards, and rightly so - that’s what they were designed for. Then, take a ride out to any eastern resort where it hasn’t snowed for 3 weeks, and the icy trails glint in the sunlight from the lift line. You are likely to see nearly as many powder setups as you did at Whistler, even though their owners won’t enjoy skiing on them nearly as much.

What I urge, is that you educate yourself and fall into neither one of these traps - don’t buy something that neither excites nor challenges you just because you aren’t sure enough of your ability or what else you should buy. At the same time, don’t fall in love with something that would really only do you any good on two or three days out of the season when you are likely to encounter those conditions. Read carefully and think honestly about where you ski, how you ski, and what below is likely to suit you best. Then, find a demo and go out to try them. Just do it.

All Mountain

All mountain skis, as you’ve read above, are somewhat ambiguous boards that comprise some of the characteristics of everything you see below. They have enough width to them to float over the top of a few inches of snow (but not through a big dump), they are just stiff enough to feel stable at moderate speeds, yet are flexible enough to get you through a bump run - even though they do neither particularly well.


Freeride skis are a step past an all mountain ski, but still maintain some level of ambiguity. These skis are typically wider than an all mountain ski (heard the term “mid-fat”?) but not as wide as a backcountry ski, and they often sport some amount of sidecut. They excel in deeper snow, but are light and nimble enough to be just as at home in a park.


I’ve used the term “carving” to capture a pretty broad range of skis, but they all have several common characteristics. Whether it’s a racing ski or somethiing a lot more casual, carvers typically are stiffer, slightly heavier skis with a very dramatic sidecut that makes them excel at high speeds, on hard snow, and in tight turns. One bonus to the dramatic sidecut is that many carvers have very wide tips and tails, allowing them to provide some measure of flotation when the rider hits softer snow, even though that simply isn’t what they were designed for.


Backcountry skis are suited for true powder junkies who spend the majority of their time in deep, new snow. They are primarily characterized by their width and length - these big skis cover a lot of surface area to distribute the rider’s weight over a large area, keeping them on top of the snow. They often have little or no sidecut because it isn’t needed for turning or grabbing an edge. These skis can also do quite well in crud and slush, but are very difficult to operate on hard snow and ice.

While many people would break these categories out even further to include labels such as cruisers, freestyle, alpine and racing, I find that these four groupings do a pretty good job of describing the major varieties of skis. In the next part of our series, we’ll examine some fundamental characteristics that apply to each of these groupings - things like sidecut, dampening, and flexibility, and the materials & manufacturing techniques that affect these characteristics.

Links to This Series