Before you're able to decide what kind of ski will work best for you, you'll need to consider your experience. Ability levels are generally divided into three categories: beginner, intermediate and advanced. Some ski companies recommend certain models based on ability. The following list is a good starting point:
Beginner skis, also called recreational skis, are ideal for beginners and skiers who enjoy slower speeds on easy to moderate terrain (greens and blues). Beginner skis are typically the most forgiving, but usually not ideal for fast, aggressive carving or skiing over more challenging terrain, such as black diamonds, moguls, terrain parks and backcountry.
Intermediate skis are ideal for more experienced skiers who feel comfortable at higher speeds and taking on most inbounds terrain, including greens, blues and the occasional black diamond. These skis are responsive yet still a little more forgiving than expert level skis.
Advanced skis, sometimes called expert skis, are for highly capable, confident skiers who are at home on steep, challenging terrain, including black diamond runs, moguls and backcountry terrain. Advanced skis offer more performance, but aren't as forgiving.
Not all ski companies classify skis according to ability level, which is why you’ll also want to familiarize yourself with the various types of skis. Most skis can be classified according to the type of terrain they are designed for. In the next section, we’ll explain the four most common types of skiing terrain and what to expect from each.
Inbounds terrain, commonly called piste, is a series of well-maintained ski runs that are part of a resort. Ski slopes and trails that fall within resort boundaries are typically groomed and monitored by ski patrol.
Although technically part of a ski area’s inbounds terrain, a terrain park is a separate area designed for freestyle skiing and snowboarding. Terrain parks include specially designed obstacles, such as jumps, rails, quarter pipes and halfpipes.
The term sidecountry is typically used to describe lift-accessible, off-piste terrain that is part of a resort, but may or may not fall within resort boundaries. For example, some ski areas allow skiers to hike to nearby bowls or side areas, which may then be connected back to groomed runs. Sidecountry areas may or may not be monitored by a resort, and therefore may contain avalanche conditions.
The term backcountry refers to unmaintained, unmonitored terrain that is not associated with a resort and therefore may contain avalanche conditions. Backcountry skiing is the best way to ski untouched powder and avoid crowds. However, it's the responsibility of skiers to be aware of the dangers and plan accordingly. For more information on backcountry skiing safety, check out our Avalanche Safety Guide.
Aside from your ability level, the type of skiing you plan to do most is the biggest factor in determining the type of skis you need. Although just about any pair of skis will get you down the mountain, some are much better suited for a certain niche. For example, if you're only planning to ski on well-groomed greens and blues, a pair of recreational skis will get the job done. However, if you want to split your time between the slopes and sidecountry, all-mountain skis are most likely your best choice. If you love spending hours in the terrain park, twin-tip freestyle skis are your best bet.
Recreational Skis (Beginner)
Many of the well-known ski companies, including Rossignol, Blizzard and Roxy, make recreational skis designed specifically for beginners. These may also be called "entry-level skis." Recreational skis are forgiving, easy to turn and designed for people who stay within resort boundaries. Beginner skis aren't ideal for carving at very high speeds or for more aggressive backcountry terrain.
All-Mountain Skis (Intermediate and Advanced)
As the name implies, these skis adapt well to many different types of terrain, from icy, inbounds conditions to fresh backcountry powder. All-mountain skis are designed to offer the most versatility. Generally, these skis have a wider waist than recreational skis or carving skis, but are still narrower than a full-blown powder ski. Skiers looking for the versatility to carve inbounds and sidecountry should go with an all-mountain ski.
Carving Skis and Racing Skis (Advanced)
These skis are easy to recognize by their narrow waist and aggressive, directional shape. Designed to carve at high speeds on hard-packed snow, racing skis are more rigid than all-mountain skis and not recommended for recreational use or beginners.
Freestyle Skis (Intermediate and Advanced)
Freestyle skis, also called twin tip skis, are designed to be lightweight and highly maneuverable, which makes them excel in the terrain park. They have a more symmetrical shape than other skis and also have an upturned tip and tail (called twin tips) to make skiing backwards and landing tricks easier.
Freeride Skis and Powder Skis (Advanced)
Designed to maximize flotation in deep, unpacked snow, powder skis and freeride skis have a minimal sidecut and are the widest skis available. Some powder skis may also have an "early rise" or rocker shape for additional flotation. These skis are designed for people who spend most of their time off piste in deeper powdery snow.
In the past, skis and bindings were usually sold separately and mounted by a ski technician. Over the past decade or so, integrated skis have become more commonplace. Integrated skis are sold with mounting plates and bindings that are specially designed and pre-mounted to allow uninhibited flex throughout the entire length of the ski.
Skis designed specifically for women are usually lighter and have a softer flex compared to unisex skis. Also, the bindings on many women's skis tend to be positioned farther forward to increase stability and make turning easier. Although women can certainly have a good experience with a unisex ski, some women find they have a better overall experience on skis designed specifically for women.
Basic Ski Anatomy
The front-most part of a ski.
Additional material may be added to the ski tip in order to protect it from damage and prevent delaminating. This is especially beneficial for backcountry and all-mountain skis that are used on more rugged terrain.
The front portion of a ski that is typically wider than the tail and middle sections of the ski. The wider, upturned design helps the ski float over lighter snow and power through crust and crud.
The narrowest part of a ski between the tip and the tail.
The portion of the ski where the bindings are installed. Mounting plates are common on skis that are sold with bindings as an integrated system.
The rear-most part of a ski. The size and shape of a ski's tail varies depending on the intended use. Most carving skis and powder skis have a slightly wider tail to provide added turning efficiency and flotation. A freestyle ski will have an upturned tail and nose, called twin tips, which makes skiing switch (reverse) and landing tricks backwards much easier.
Other Ski Terminology
The interior of a ski, usually made of foam or laminated wood.
The material on the underside of the ski, which allows it to slide on the snow.
The sharpened metal trim on either side of a ski's base that bites into harder snow and ice.
The slight downward arch of a ski when resting on a flat surface that enhances the ski's ability to maintain an edge during a turn.
Essentially the opposite of camber, rocker forms a concave arc, similar to the bottom of a rocking chair. Skis with rocker shape are excellent for deep powder because they provide enhanced flotation.
The amount of stiffness in a ski. A softer-flexed ski will perform better on soft, deep snow, whereas a stiff-flexed ski handles better on hard-packed snow.
Sidecut is the depth of the curve that runs lengthwise along a ski's edge. Sidecut depth directly affects turn radius. Carving skis tend to have a deeper sidecut, giving them a tight turn radius with less flotation. Powder skis tend to have a shallow sidecut, giving them a larger turn radius with greater flotation.
Measured in meters, the turn radius is the size of the smallest turn a ski will make when set on its edge. The smaller the turn radius, the tighter you will be able to turn (hypothetically). This number is based on a large imaginary circle that coincides with the arc created by the sidecut. The radius of this imaginary circle is related to the depth of the sidecut. In other words, a ski with a deeper sidecut is generally able to turn more sharply than a ski with a shallower sidecut.
A ski's sidecut dimensions are measured at the tip, waist and tail of the ski. Knowing these three measurements makes it easy to judge the skis' ideal uses. Most all-mountain skis have a mid-fat waist and a moderately wide tip and tail. Skis meant for carving and moguls tend to have a narrower waist. Powder skis have the widest waists.
It's very important to choose the right ski size for your weight, ability level and the type of terrain you'll be skiing on most often. Follow the steps below to get a better idea of what ski length to buy:
Step 1: Find the corresponding ski length for your weight.
Men's Ski Sizing Chart
Weight Approx. Ski Length 130-155 lbs. 160 cm 150-175 lbs. 167 cm 170-195 lbs. 174 cm 190-215 lbs. 181 cm 215 lbs. or more 182 cm
Women's Ski Sizing Chart
Weight Approx. Ski Length 100-125 lbs. 145 cm 120-140 lbs. 152 cm 135-155 lbs. 160 cm 150 lbs. or more 162 cm
Kids' Ski Sizing Chart
Weight Approx. Ski Length 30-40 lbs. 80 cm 40-50 lbs. 93 cm 50-60 lbs. 100 cm 60-70 lbs. 110 cm 70-85 lbs. 120 cm 90-115 lbs. 130 cm
Step 2. Subtract length based on your skiing ability.
Ability Level Subtract from Ski Length Beginner -20 cm Intermediate -5 cm Advanced -0 cm
Step 3. Add length (if necessary) based on the terrain you will ski most often.
Snow Conditions Add to Ski Length Groomed runs and hardpack 0+ cm Off-piste, soft snow, powder +5 cm
Note: The ski sizing charts above are intended to be used as a general guideline only. Some skiers may want to choose a slightly shorter or longer ski based on personal preference.
The role of bindings is to keep the boot in full contact with the ski and help absorb some of the shock and vibration. Bindings consist of toe and heel pieces, ski brakes and anti-friction devices. The toe piece is mounted to the front of the device and releases sideways. The heel piece holds the boot heel in place and releases upward. Ski brakes are prongs attached under the boot to the bindings. When the binding is released during a fall, the prongs extend downward to stop your skis from sliding away. Anti-friction devices are metal pads mounted on the ski under the forefoot that allow boots to slide easily in and out of the bindings.
Tension Release Settings (DIN)
Bindings are made with specific "DIN ranges", or tension release settings, that determine the amount of force needed to release boots from the bindings. (DIN is an acronym for the Deutsche Industrie Normen, a German organization that sets standards for binding release tensions. However, the term is generally used to refer to the release settings themselves.)
A lower DIN setting will decrease the amount of force required to make a binding release. A higher DIN setting will increase the amount of force required to make a binding release. Since beginners fall more frequently, it’s generally a good idea for them to use a lower DIN setting. As ability level increases (and the frequency of falls decreases), most skiers prefer to increase the DIN setting. Body weight also influences optimal DIN setting. For example, a lighter skier will typically prefer a lower DIN setting compared to a heavier person. Below are some general DIN setting guidelines based on skiing ability level:
- Beginner: 3-6
- Intermediate: 5-9
- Advanced: 6-12
- Expert: 12+
Mounting Ski Bindings
Although the type of binding you choose will affect the performance, the mounting location on the ski also makes a difference. Generally, the farther back the binding is mounted, the stiffer the ski response will be. For this reason, some advanced skiers may prefer to have their bindings mounted slightly farther back compared to a beginner. Many skis allow for slight variations in where the bindings are mounted. The ski manufacturer may also recommend a range of mounting positions, depending on the model of ski. If you buy skis that don’t have integrated mounting plates and bindings, a qualified ski technician should mount your bindings based on manufacturer’s specifications.
Fit is the most important thing to consider when buying a pair of alpine ski boots. It’s also important to be honest with yourself about your skiing ability. Boots designed for recreational skis will fit very differently than ski boots designed for racing. To begin with, there are three main styles of ski boots:
- Front-entry boots are the most common on the market. They open in the front like traditional boots and shoes, and feature buckle closures.
- Mid-entry boots open in both the front and the back for easy entry, exit and walking.
- Rear-entry boots open in the back and are designed for comfort and ease of use.
Ski Boot Construction
Ski boots consist of an outer shell and a liner that work together to offer support. The hard plastic shell offers varying degrees of support and "volume" depending on its intended use. Softer plastics flex more easily and are more forgiving. Stiffer plastics are more rigid, but give boots greater precision and response. The liner, made of soft foam that can be removed from the plastic shell, provides cushioning and helps regulate foot temperature. After a few uses, the liner will conform to the shape of your foot for a more custom fit.
Getting The Right Fit
Just as important as finding the right boot size is finding a proper-fitting boot. At first, your boots will feel snug. Keep in mind that the liner will compress up to a half-size over time. With a new pair of boots, your toes should just brush the end of the boot, but they shouldn't be crammed in. When you bend your knees, your heels should stay down in the boot. Here are some quick tips for trying on ski boots:
- Wear the same socks you'll wear skiing.
- Try your boots on in the afternoon when your feet are at their largest. (Feet swell slightly over the course of the day).
- Stand and walk around in the boots for a few minutes to see how they feel. If they don't feel quite right, a ski technician may be able to adjust the fit slightly.
- If you're purchasing ski boots online, be sure to follow sizing recommendations closely.
Check out our Ski Boot Guide for more information.
Don't underestimate the benefits of good ski poles. They must be strong for planting turns, lightweight so your arms don't tire, and flexible enough so they won't break during a fall. If you enjoy spending time in the sidecountry or backcountry, you might consider a pair of adjustable ski poles from brands like LEKI or Black Diamond Equipment.
Choosing Ski Poles According to Your Height
Height Pole Length 5'1"-5'3" 110 cm 5'4"-5'6" 115 cm 5'7"-5'9" 120 cm 5'10"-6' 125 cm 6'1"-6'3" 130 cm 6'4" or more 135 cm
Note: The chart above is based on approximations and should only be used as a general guideline. You may need slightly longer or shorter poles, depending on your own preferences.
How to Check Ski Pole Sizing
Take one ski pole and flip it upside-down, with the top of the handle resting on the ground and the tip pointing up. Next, grab the pole just underneath the basket. If your elbow is at a 90-degree angle (approximately), you've found the right size. If the angle of your elbow is less than 90 degrees, you may need a shorter pole. If it's more than 90 degrees, you may need a longer pole.
You don't have to ski the trees to appreciate the added security a helmet provides. Helmets from brands like Smith, Giro and Bern can prevent injuries and may even save lives. To find your approximate helmet size, measure around your head, just above your eyebrows. Check out our Helmet Guide for more information. You can also follow these basic tips:
- Your helmet should be snug, but not tight.
- The front and back edges of the helmet shouldn't move when pushed up; if they do, tighten the straps.
- There should be little or no gap between the top of your goggles and your helmet.
- The helmet should be positioned no more than one inch above your eyebrows.
If you plan on venturing into the backcountry, it’s important to be aware of the risks associated with exploring unmaintained terrain. It’s highly recommended that new backcountry skiers either take a course in avalanche safety or ski with an experienced alpine guide, and never ski alone. For more information on avalanches, check out our Avalanche Safety Guide.
Avalanche Safety Tips
- Avalanches most commonly occur on 30° to 45° slopes, and in a variety of snow conditions.
- Even in-bounds terrain can be hazardous. Learn to recognize avalanche danger signs.
- Research snow conditions and avalanche reports before you head out.
- Never venture into the backcountry or out-of-bounds terrain alone.