An Expert Guide to Carving Skis
Ski Expert Luke Hinz explains what specifically makes a ski a carving ski, how carving skis work, and a step-by-step of how to carve turns on the mountain!
When you walk into a ski shop, it can be downright mind-boggling to process the vast array of different skis lining the walls. From wide skis to skinny skis, from twin tips to flat tails, and from race skis to all-mountain skis, it can be difficult to know where to begin when looking at new skis. One category of specialty skis that often gets overlooked (literally, because they are so short) is carving skis. Carving skis have carved out (pun intended) a small niche in the skiing world due to their prowess on groomers. In this article, we dive into what constitutes a carving ski and what to look for if you are in the market for this type of ski.
What Is a Carving Ski?
In the ski world, carving skis tend to be more approachable and user-friendly versions of slalom skis. Whereas race skis are extremely stiff and extremely narrow, race skis tend to have a more forgiving flex and can run a bit thick in the waist and tips and tails to give the ski some more all-mountain quality as well. And while most race skis have straight camber running throughout the ski, some carving skis can have rocker in the tip, meaning that the tip rises ever so slightly from the surface of the snow, in order to make initiating turns a bit easier. But make no mistake: Carving skis tend to be intermediate to advanced ones meant for very precise turns on groomed runs and hardpack, otherwise known as piste skiing.
Due to their construction, they are generally not meant to be skied off trail, such as in trees or steeps, as their narrower profiles can get bogged down in more variable snow, and their stiffer materials do not lend them to being playful in soft snow. Instead, carving skis are meant to stay on groomed trails, where they can be driven hard and fast or skied easily and slowly. If you think of racing skis as Formula 1 cars and all-mountain skis as SUVs, then carving skis are closer to high-end, street-legal sports cars: They are high octane, have plenty of horsepower, but are definitely not made for off-roading.
Like most skis, carving skis begin with a solid wood core that gives the ski flex and pop between turns. Some more toned-down carving skis aimed at intermediates may have a composite core that makes the ski more user-friendly, but a full wood core is used for the most part. Once the wood core has been laid, many skis incorporate a stiffer material over the wood to give the ski strength, stability, and more of an edge hold. This material is usually a metal of some sort, most often Titanal, but newer skis also use Graphene and Carbon Fiber, materials that stiffen the ski without adding substantial weight. These materials are what give carving skis impeccable performance on hard snow, ice, and corduroy.
As stated above, carving skis tend to have a much more narrow waist, typically in the 70-80mm width. This makes the ski incredibly quick edge-to-edge when transitioning between turns. Along with the more narrow profile, carving skis often have much more pronounced sidecuts, meaning that the ski widens considerably from the midpoint of the ski to the tip and tail. As we will discuss below, this design explains why carving skis are so much more nimble and quicker to turn than other skis.
And besides the sidecut and waist width, the most important part of a carving ski is the camber profile. What exactly is camber? If you lay a ski down on the ground, you can visibly see camber as the tip and tail of the ski touch the ground, then the ski arches up to the midpoint of the ski. The ski is naturally arched! Just like a sidecut, this profile makes carving skis so precise and quick to turn. It also allows the ski to maximize the amount of edge gripping the snow, leading to a much stronger edge hold overall.
As a rule, carving skis tend to have much shorter turning radiuses than other skis. As stated above, many carving skis are more approachable race skis. So if you imagine ski racers in the Olympics making short, quick, tight turns through slalom gates, you can understand why race skis must react to a higher tempo of change than other skis. Carving skis are much the same, built to transfer quickly from one edge to the other and make shorter, tighter turns than longer, wider skis. This tight turn radius, combined with the natural camber of the ski underfoot, propels you from one turn to the next. A shorter turning radius leads to much quicker and more agile turns and can even lead to the skier picking up speed from one turn to the next.
If you take one glance at carving skis, you quickly realize that they tend to be much shorter in length than other skis, such as powder skis or all-mountain skis. Carving skis can look pretty wimpy next to some of the larger skis on the market, but make no mistake: There is a ton of power wrapped up in those petite packages! One of the reasons carving skis have a short turning radius is because they are on the shorter end. Also, a shorter ski is easier to flick around than a longer ski, making them so much faster edge-to-edge.
There are a handful of carving skis that are more akin to GS skis and are better at making longer, giant slalom-style turns at higher speeds. So if you are looking for a ski that will carve at high speeds, it's best to go with a longer ski. But if you want a carving ski for tighter, more agile turns, you will want something that is shorter and more nimble. Generally, you want a carving ski to reach between your chin and your nose. So if you are looking for a carving ski, don’t be afraid to go short!
How Does a Carving Ski Work?
Now that we’ve got all the components that make up a carving ski, how do they come together to make that ski so darn fun?
It's important to understand the fundamental way that a ski carves. For generations, skiers used long skinny skis, and instead of carving, they pivoted with their heels to push and slide the tail of the ski and initiate a turn. The rise of parabolic skis and sidecut radius changed all of that. You no longer have to push and pull a ski through a turn; instead, the ski now does much of the work for you. The ski's sidecut is clearly visible if you tip a ski over onto its edge. The tip and tail edges touch the snow, but the middle of the ski does not. So how does the ski turn? Simple: Apply some pressure to the middle of the ski—in this case, the weight from the skier, and the ski flexes naturally, with the middle of the ski sinking until it also makes contact with the snow. At this point, the ski is in a natural arc position, and the ski’s tail will follow the ski’s tip through that arc.
You can often see the result of this on any given early morning at a ski resort when the runs are freshly groomed and brimming with corduroy just begging to be skied. A competent carving skier will lay seamless tracks down a trail, often resembling railroad tracks if they are precise enough. It's important to investigate those tracks; they are indicative of how a carving ski should work when properly utilized.
How to Carve Turns
So now you’ve decided those carving skis do, in fact, look pretty fun, and you want to try out carving for yourself. So here’s how to begin:
1. Find a Nice, Wide Open Blue Run
You want something steep enough to get some momentum but not too steep that you are trying to shed speed. And find a wide run, so you don’t need to worry about running into anything or, most importantly, anyone!
2. Roll Your Knees
Remember, a carving ski is built to do a lot of the work for you; you need to set it on edge. Roll your knees and ankles to the side you are turning, carefully keeping your knees over your toes. This will roll the ski onto the edge.
3. Apply Pressure
The more pressure you apply to your ski, the tighter it will turn. It will also create more friction between your edge grip and the snow surface, leading to better traction and stronger edge hold. Ideally, you should apply the same pressure to both skis through your boot and into your bindings. But when you are just starting, it is more important to apply pressure to your downhill or outside ski.
4. Use Your Hips!
You will often see expert carving skis completely laid out over the snow surface, with their hips nearly touching the snow. This doesn’t just look cool; it creates the most extreme arc in your skis, leading to an incredibly tight turn. In this position, gravity is your friend, so be sure to keep your speed up.
It's all about the knees and pressure. Unweight your skis, which will soften your turn, then slowly roll your knees to the opposite side, driving through the front of the ski to engage your next turn. As you roll onto the opposite edges, gradually apply pressure again to arc the ski beneath you. From one turn to the next, it is important to separate your upper body from your lower body. While your knees drive from one direction to the next, you should always point your upper body downhill.
It never hurts to take a lesson when in doubt, especially for something as precise as carving technique. But no matter whether you are a beginner or an expert skier, carving on the slopes is an incredibly fun way to experience the sport of skiing. As always, please feel free to reach out to my fellow Curated Ski Experts or me for any assistance in finding the perfect carving ski for you!