Does the Waist Width of Your Skis Matter?
Ski Expert Adam St. Ours explains why ski waist width matters, how waist width effects the performance of a ski, and how to choose the best waist width for you!
The waist width of your ski is important since different widths offer varying amounts of control and maneuverability. The waist width is your ski’s width when measured in the middle, under the ski boot (referred to as underfoot).
All other factors being equal, a narrower ski will be quicker and easier to transition from one edge to the other edge when turning. A wider ski has more surface area to stay on top of softer snow and will generally provide increased stability.
I wish I could say that it’s a matter of picking a width number based on the type of terrain you typically ski, but it’s not that black and white. The devil is in the details and ski manufacturers use many different components and construction techniques that affect how the skis react and perform in different situations. That’s where I come in as a Ski Expert and help educate my customers about the pros and cons of each different type of ski and suggest options that best suit their needs. Let’s get into it!
Things to Consider
Narrow skis for carving groomed runs, wide skis for deep snow. It’s that simple, right? Well…not so fast, my friend! As I said above, there are many other factors that go into the construction that affect the ski’s performance on snow beyond just the intended terrain type. What we find most ski manufacturers do, when they offer wider model skis, is that they tweak other attributes to allow for better performance in deep snow.
Flex, also known as stiffness, is how much a ski resists bending to force. A stiff ski will power through inconsistencies in the snow easier and be less likely to get deflected. This is important because if you wanted a ski that’s good at carving and chose a ski that’s narrow but overly soft, it won’t be stable at high speeds due to the high forces created. The ski will be flexing too much whenever you hit a bump or other inconsistency in the snow.
Conversely, if you want a ski for soft snow and choose something too stiff, even though it may be sufficiently wide, the stiffness will make it sluggish and hard to turn in the 3D environment of soft snow.
Ski stiffness can be adjusted and fine-tuned using a combination of different wood core materials, along with additional materials such as metal, carbon fiber, and graphene.
Dampness refers to the ski’s ability to absorb vibrations while skiing, providing a more smooth or plush ride. A damp ski will feel planted to the ground and remain in contact with the snow more, whereas a less damp (or lively) ski will transmit more vibrations and force from the snow, up through the ski boot to the skier. This is sometimes referred to as “chatter” and can make the tip of the ski vibrate up and down, almost in a flapping motion. Think of the suspension of a luxury sedan versus a finely-tuned race car. One will be smooth, even over rough terrain, while the other more jarring. It is up to the skier to decide which one is better, and it all comes down to personal preference of feeling and experience. There is some correlation between ski width and dampness since a wider ski will have more surface area and is generally more stable than a narrower ski, all other things being equal. However, it’s almost never that simple and straightforward, based on the other factors listed below.
This is the shape of the ski from the side, either when placed on the ground or up against the other ski base-to-base. For many years, all skis featured a full camber profile, meaning they bowed slightly upward when unweighted; so when a skier stands on them, the tip and tail press into the snow. In 2001, pro skier Shane McConkey created the Volant Spatula after experimenting with water skis in deep Alaskan powder. They were the world’s first fully rockered ski, named such because they look like the rockers of a rocking chair. Probably the single biggest innovation in ski technology over the past 10-15 years is the combination of rocker and camber, allowing a narrower ski to perform better in soft snow and a wider ski to carve easier, creating a ski that is capable on both hard and soft snow.
Ski length is another important factor since it's an easy way to increase the surface area of a ski—and therefore the float—while keeping the waist width the same. All other things being equal, a shorter ski will be easier to turn, especially at slower speeds and a longer ski will be more stable, especially at higher speeds. So it's common for a beginner skier to want their skis to measure up to about their chin, for easy turns while learning. While an advanced or expert skier skiing off-piste would want their skis to come to about the top of the head. An intermediate skier could be anywhere between the two, depending on a lot of the other factors.
Freestyle skiing is a very broad term to recognize a more playful style of skiing, often associated with jumps and various tricks on and off features such as rails, boxes, and jibs, both in and out of the terrain park. There is no set rule for waist widths for freestyle skis, and there are freestyle skis offered in as broad a range as any other ski category. Just like I've discussed, it depends on the individual preference of the skier. Generally, park skis and pipe skis tend to be narrower like a carving ski, since deep or heavy snow is as likely to be encountered. This precision helps carve from one feature to the next.
Determining the Correct Waist Width
So what width is good for you? Well, it depends. There is no hard and fast answer, and it will be different for each person based on their preferred terrain and ski style, as well as the ski dimensions they’re considering. Generally, the market has consolidated around these ski width categories:
- 65-80mm - Skis under 80mm are almost always intended for carving on mostly groomed snow. Some of them feature rocker in the tip for easy turn initiation and some soft snow capabilities. This is also the most common width range for beginner skis since a narrow waist makes the skis easier for learning to carve turns and beginner terrain is almost exclusively groomed smooth.
- 80-95mm - This range is the start of all-mountain skis that feature some rocker in both the tip and tail and can handle most conditions you’ll see on the mountain. It is on the narrower end of the all-mountain spectrum and is popular for the skier who mainly skis on the front side of the mountain, skis a mix of groomed and ungroomed terrain, and most Eastern skiers who see more hard and variable snow conditions outside of plain-packed powder.
- 95-105 mm - Wider all-mountain skis in this range are still capable both on and off groomed runs but are generally intended for more time in soft snow than on hard snow. These skis have larger rocker and are generally softer than the more narrow options. They could be good soft snow or powder skis for Eastern skiers or daily drivers for Western skiers who ski a mix of on and off-piste, due to the better flotation that the surface area provides.
- 105-115mm - Skis in this width are essentially versatile powder skis. They are meant for people who want high performance in soft snow, with little to no care for their performance on groomed runs.
- 120mm+ - These are the true dedicated powder and big mountain skis, intended for use only when the snow is deep and the slopes are wide open. Best used when backcountry skiing in a high snow area like the Rockies or heli-skiing in Alaska or British Columbia—places where flotation is a vital function.
How Different Waist Widths Affect Performance
Now that you’re familiar with what goes into choosing an appropriate waist width on a ski, we can look at the implications of how different waist widths affect ski performance.
If Your Ski Waist Width Is Too Wide
If you’re skiing on a ski that is too wide, it will be difficult to get the ski up on edge in a carve. The angle that is created between your leg and the edge of the ski is too large to overcome, and you end up “slarving” or “smearing” your turns, meaning that you turn while keeping your skis relatively flat without engaging much of the edge of the skis. While this style of turn can be effective at times, in the long run, it is inefficient, especially at higher speeds. Intermediate and more advanced skiers can overcome this limitation to some degree, which is why generally expert skis are wider than beginner skis.
In addition to being unable to get the ski up on edge in a carve, if the ski is too wide a waist width, it is very likely that it also features too much rocker and is too soft for the intended conditions. Those factors also have a significant impact on the skier’s ability to get the ski on edge.
If Your Ski Waist Width Is Too Narrow
Being on a ski that is too narrow for the given conditions can be exhausting. The number one issue that arises is that the ski will not have a large surface area to float and stay on top of the snow. This makes it hard to turn, and your skis can feel like they are stuck in the snow, like being on railroad tracks. Decades ago, when narrower waist widths were common, skiers adjusted for this by skiing in a very active and dynamic style, performing jump turns and using the camber on their skis to bounce up and down. Just like the smear turns I mentioned above, this can be effective at times, but overall it is very inefficient.
There are construction and profile characteristics that are common in narrower skis that also make it more difficult to ski if the conditions warrant a wider ski. Usually, these are camber skis, with little to no rocker, which would hinder turn initiation in deep snow.
As you can see, there is a lot that goes into picking the right ski waist width. That is why the best thing you can do is speak with a Ski Expert like myself. From beginner skiers just starting out, to advanced skiers looking to update their gear, I can help sort through all the pairs of skis and present you with the ones that fit your individual situation, and help explain the pros and cons of each so that you can make an educated decision. Click my profile below to start chatting with me today!