The lowdown on ski dimensions:
How to choose the right size, length, and type of ski.
If you’re in the market for skis, you’ll probably spend plenty of time researching which size and shape of ski is right for you--and you still may be puzzling a bit.
Fear not, as this guide can help clear it up. Unfortunately, there isn’t one simple recipe for ski size or length, but we can walk you through the main variables to consider, which will help greatly.
The right ski for you depends a bit on your ability level, what kinds of conditions you want to ski with this pair, and your body type.
How ski length affects your ride.
Through the magic of physics, longer skis will glide over the snow surface faster. Short skis are, by contrast, more agile and easy to turn. You’ll want to find a happy middle ground between these two. There’s no need to go with a 200cm-long pair of behemoth skis, nor do you exactly want snowblades (unless it’s the last day of the season and you’ve taken proper time to bedazzle them with puff paint). You want something long enough to go fast when you want to, but agile enough to turn. (Turning is quite important.)
As a very rough starting point, a happy-medium rule of thumb is to choose a pair of skis that are approximately nose height for you. You could go with something as short as your chin if you want more agility and turn-ability, or something as long as the top of your head if you’re prioritizing speed.
If you’re a particularly light-weight person, you may gravitate toward a shorter ski, as you simply don’t need the flotation help. If you’re heavier for your height, you may want a little more surface area to hold you up.
This handy chart helps to illustrate the length range you should consider accordingly:
How to choose a ski width.
You’ll notice as you ski-shop that ski widths are given as a set of three numbers (like 110/95/105). The first number refers to the ski’s widest point near its tip, the second number refers to the ski’s skinniest point at the middle (its “waist”), and the third number is the widest point of the tail.
If you think back to your geometry days, it makes sense that a ski with a curvy shape (a wider tip, skinny waist, and wider tail) will make nice tight turns when it tips onto its edge. The curved edge is like a segment of a giant circle, and when it carves into the snow while flying forward, it naturally takes an arching track.
So you can get a “curvy” ski with a narrow waist for lots of fast-schussing turns, or something with a wider (“fatter”) waist, which prioritizes flotation on powder more than tight turns. It makes sense: a ski with a wider middle, tip, and tail will take up more surface area on the snow. More surface area equals more flotation through both powder and crud. This will suddenly feel very important on your first two-foot-deep Utah powder day.
Many people want the best of both worlds, skinny and fat and turn-y and float-y. Ski brands have heeded this call with “all-mountain skis,” which are fat enough to float but have enough difference between the tip, tail, and waist to create a nice curved edge. If you want a “one-ski quiver,” this is probably what you’ll gravitate toward.
Ski manufacturers use a shorthand called “turning radius” to refer to just how turn-y and carve-y the ski is. (And how much difference there is in the width of the widest parts and the skinny middle.)
Rock on: what “rocker type” means.
Now that we’ve talked about a ski’s length and its width, we need to look at it from the side. If it’s sitting flat on the ground and you squat down to have a look at its side profile, you’ll notice the entire ski doesn’t touch the ground.
That’s because the ski manufacturers are accounting for how the ski will flex when you weight it by clicking into your boots. The ski’s profile (or “rocker type”) unweighted will tell you a lot about how it will ski with you on it.
- Camber or Flat. Camber is a slight upward curve in the middle of the ski and is used on most skis. It gives the ski spring and is best on groomed terrain and harder snow. Flat skis are better for pow and “buttering” turns and will be less lively.
- Tip Rocker curves up towards the tip of the ski, providing easier turn initiation in variable snow and powder. If you ski at an area that gets over 300 inches a year, a little tip rocker will go a long way.
- Tail Rocker curves up at the tail of the ski and gives you the ability to land backwards or ski backwards. Park skiers, kids, and people with a general fondness for landing switch will love these. There are several combinations of tip and tail rocker and camber types. The rocker/camber combo provides a good all-mountain type of ski, good for both powder and hardpack. There are multiple additional rocker types, including rocker/flat/rocker, rocker/camber/rocker, and flat/camber/flat, which typically mean your ski is more specialized for powder, hardpack, park, or some combination thereof.
Ski classifications: park, pipe, pow, backcountry, and do-it-all.
Park & Pipe Skis
Park and pipe skis are for those who spend the majority of their time in the terrain park. Traditionally, park and pipe skis have narrower waists with full camber profiles, but this category is incorporating more rocker patterns and different shapes to transition into backcountry jibs (play sessions).
Wide, stout, and steady, powder skis are poised to excel in deep snow as well as variable snow, wind-buffed snow, and crud. With wide waists and profiles built to float and cruise, powder skis are an excellent steed if you expect a variety of conditions, including (but surely not limited to) soft snow. Think of them as your heavy-cruising cadillacs. Typically these are over 100mm at the waist, and often have a bit of tip rocker so the tip of the ski soars over the surface rather than getting sucked into it.
As the name suggests, All-Terrain skis are designed as a jack-of-all-trades for skiing the entire resort. They’re designed to handle anything you throw at them, including powder, ice, groomers, steeps, heavy snow, and everything in between, but they aren’t necessarily a master of any one terrain or snow type. If you’re only going to own one ski to do it all, this is a solid choice. All-terrain skis generally have what we call “mid-fat” waists that range from 80-100mm. The key is to figure out where you want to spend the majority of your time on the mountain and what type of terrain you like to ski most. Go a little wider than you think; a typical “sweet spot” for an all-mountain ski is a 100mm waist.
Backcountry / Alpine Touring Skis
Also known as AT skis, these are designed for going uphill as well as downhill. These skis are typically constructed to be a bit lighter for their width, making it easier to pull them up the trail. Backcountry skis vary in width and weight, but if your pursuit is powder, don’t skimp on the waist for weight. If you’re more interested in covering long distances or skimo racing, go skinny and light.
Tell us how your ski selection process goes! If we love anything, it’s talking shop. We’re here to answer questions and join in the nerding-out party. It’s kind of what we do best.
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Beth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.