What do ski specifications mean?
Unless you’re immersed in the skiing industry (and maybe even if you are in the ski industry!) shopping for skis can feel dizzying. Every ski manufacturer’s site touts their revolutionary technology, all of which is spoken of in branded terms they invented to talk about their inventions. Talk to shop employees, and you might get an opinion tinged by their own bias toward their own favorite brand or ski. And if you’re shopping secondhand, as we’re so fond of doing here at Geartrade, the experience can feel even more like stabbing in the dark.
But if you know a little bit about what the “tech specs” or product descriptions mean, you can dig beyond the marketing speak and get a sense of what you’re looking at. Here are a few key terms to watch out for. It’s not a comprehensive guide, but it’s a start!
Fat skis, skinny skis, and in-between skis
A ski’s sidecut is a big determining factor in what it’s designed to do. It’s made up of three numbers: the ski’s width at the tip (or “shovel”), the middle (or “waist”), and the tail. These numbers are usually shown as a set of three, so if you see three numbers separated by a slash mark or other punctuation, that’s probably what you’re looking at.
Not only does the ski’s width predict how much it’s designed to either float on powder (on which fatter skis do a better job levitating) or bite into hardpack (where skinnier skis rule the day), but the difference between the ski’s wider points and its narrower waist plays a big factor in how tight of turns the ski likes to make.
Without getting too deep into our eighth-grade geometry textbooks, this is where we can explain turning radius, which you’ll see listed as its own number. The turning radius is the result of how shapely your ski is. Think: when it leans on its side, you have a wide tip, a narrow middle, and a wide tail forming an arc on the snow’s surface. If you keep the ski’s edge leaned on its side, it’ll naturally continue that arc shape on the snow’s surface to make a nice curving turn. Then, you’ll tip it on its other edge and make your arc turn the other way.
If the ski waist is very narrow in comparison to the tip and tail, it’ll form a tighter turn. This is great if you’re a beginner and want your ski to help you. If you’re a racer popping back and forth between methodical left and right turns, you may have a preferred turning radius in mind. Here in Utah, land of featherlight pow and huge sweeping turns, many powder skiers lean toward a ski with a larger turning radius (from a less dramatically hourglass shaped ski) and bomb big swoopy turns with a ski that’s inclined to do just that.
In general—and this is a broad generalization, given from the perspective of us Western pow people—a ski that’s under 90 at the waist is hardpack-crankin’ skinny, while a ski with a waist in the ‘90s is a medium, all-mountain width, and a ski over 100 veers into the fatter, pow-surfing category.
As you look at the ski’s turning radius, you can generally keep in mind that something under a 15-meter radius would make tighter turns, while 15-20-meter radiuses would make medium sized turns, and anything over 20 is a speedboating mofo.
Your ski as seen from the side: camber and rocker
While your ski’s width and sidecut are visible from overhead, its camber is what you see if you look at it from the side. You could set it on a table, squat down at eye-level to get a look at its profile, and you’d notice it’s not flat—it doesn’t make contact with the table’s surface along its entire length.
A typical ski would rest on the table near its tip and its tail, with its middle arching up away from the table. This is on purpose: your ski is made out of a nice bendy material that flexes under your body weight, biting into the snow as you press into a turn, and releasing as you pop up and unweight your turn. The ski’s camber profile tells you a lot about how (in our un-technical terminology) poppy it wants to be.
Many years ago, rocker was introduced as an inverse to camber, with the first rockered skis making contact with our proverbial table at their waist, and the tip and tail lifted upward off the surface slightly. These suckers were designed to sail over powder with tips that naturally created loft. Since those early days, most ski manufacturers have found some super-cool compromises between a fully traditional cambered ski and a fully rockered ski, blending some of the better elements of both.
Now, you might find a ski with traditional camber (upward arch) underfoot, but a rockered rise in the tip and tail for great powder maneuverability. It’s a nice best-of-both-worlds scenario, and every ski manufacturer seems to have their own take on how to shape it.
What’s at the core: a journey into the heart of your ski
What’s your ski made of on the inside, beneath its pretty topsheet graphic and its metal edges? Most ski cores are made of wood, with different wood types offering different strengths, flexibilities, weights, and responsiveness (much like a fine instrument—see, skis and violins have something in common).
You might see maple or ash in a very stiff, durable ski’s core, while poplar and aspen are light and playful and might be found in an all mountain or park ski. Meanwhile, paulownia and bamboo woods are light, which lends them well to touring skis. These woods might be custom-milled to be thicker in parts of the ski and thinner in others, or they might be blended in strips. Brands’ marketing materials are fun to geek out on here. Read what they mean when they talk about core materials, and especially pay attention to what a particular type or combination is intended to do.
In addition to wood, skis also typically have some other man-made material, like fiberglass, metal, or carbon fiber reinforcing the wood. Each has its benefits—fiberglass is very strong and responsive to your every move, while carbon fiber costs more but weighs less (not a huge deal inbounds, but very helpful if you’re hiking your skis uphill in the backcountry). Meanwhile, metal layers can add a “damp” feeling (No jitters! Softened vibrations! Smoothed-out chatters!) but it can add weight.
How’s it put together: ski construction
The next big question is how the ski manufacturer built your ski’s lasagna layers or “construction.” Typically, it’s cheaper and lighter for a manufacturer to stack their lasagna layers (wood, man-made materials, and glue) and wrap the top sheet over the layers. This is called “cap” construction.
A bit more expensive is “sandwich” construction, sometimes called “sidewall” or “ABS” construction too. It adds torsional rigidity and durability by incorporating a wall of protective material around your ski’s core, running down each edge. This bolsters it with extra durability and performance. It does add some weight and cost, which factor into your buying decision.
You might see a manufacturer refer to “semi cap” construction, which is a hybrid of the two approaches. This means they’ve just used sandwich/sidewall construction underfoot where it counts most (that’s where your body, the ski edge, and the snow surface all connect—everything else is just an extension of that). Elsewhere in the ski, near the tip and tail, they’d use cap construction to save on weight and materials.
Once you’ve evaluated your prospective ski’s specifications, you still have to decide which length to buy them in. You should have an idea of what ski length you gravitate towards, and if not, we have a guide for that!
Typically, longer skis would be ideal for taller people, heavier people, and people who wanna go fast and don’t mind steering a large “cruiser missile” type ride. Shorter skis are nimble and responsive, especially if you’re a smaller person or someone who’s still learning.
Men’s vs women’s models
Sometimes, the only differences between a “men’s ski” and “women’s ski” are the graphics and the lengths they’re sold in. (The available women’s lengths will be shorter.)
When brands do build a women’s ski differently than the corresponding men’s model, they typically adjust for a smaller, lighter user by making the ski more flex-y. That way, it takes less weight and force to press the ski’s edge into the snow and drive it.
That works just fine for women who are small, light, and/or beginner-intermediate in their ability. But, these gender generalizations are certainly limited and flawed. Not every female is a tiny Thumbelina who needs a ski that helps her twiggy little muscles flex it, nor is every female skier intermediate-level. Conversely, not every male skier is a large human, nor is every male skier an expert who needs stiff, long, aggressive skis.
It would be much better if skis were simply built and labeled for different sizes of people and different ski styles and skill levels. But, knowing how skis are currently gendered and labeled, you’re armed with information. You can also visit a manufacturer’s site to sleuth out any real differences between the men’s and women’s version and make an informed decision. If there are no differences, you can simply make your choice based on your preferred graphics and length.
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.
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