How to Choose the Best Powder Skis for an Epic Snow DayPublished on 09/29/2023 · 19 min readCurated Skiing Experts dig into everything you need to know to find the best powder ski for you and your needs.
Photo by Suphagorn Nakmai
TL;DR: A powder ski is a ski that has an underfoot width of at least 105mm. For the deeper powder enthusiasts, skis closer to 110mm wide offer even more performance. And for those skiing the deepest zones, 115mm underfoot and wider provides the best floatation. Powder skis typically feature more rocker in the tip and tail, and are sometimes even fully rockered to add more flotation and maneuverability.
In 2009, Shane McConkey skied an Alaskan mountain face on a pair of water skis. In the famous shot, he takes three turns before sliding sideways down the spine of the mountain at 60 miles per hour. This shot inspired many aspiring 13-year-old skiers, like me, and revolutionized the sport of skiing forever.
Just a couple years after his legendary feat, I purchased a pair of K2 Hellbents skis from the Alpine Hut in Seattle. With the excessive 132-millimeter waist width and incredibly spooky top sheet, they unlocked terrain I never imagined skiing. Powder skis have allowed skiers to access terrain, land bigger tricks, and ski faster than ever before.
What Is a Powder Ski?
A powder ski has the unique ability to transform deep snow into big grins, loud hoots, and endless hollers. Powder skis give the skier added floatation in the snow by adding width throughout the length of the ski. Powder skis also provide more maneuverability in deeper snow due to changes in the ski profile and the sidecut. Finally, powder skis incorporate fun and unique shapes that are only possible in softer snow making powder days even more of a fun and unique experience.
The definition of powder skis differs based on location, skill level, the terrain you ski, and the other skis you have. Any given ski could be considered a powder ski by one person and an everyday ski by another. With all of these variables, I am going to lay out some parameters to define what a powder ski is.
A powder ski is…
- Not your only ski.
- Wider than a 105-millimeter waist.
- Has a substantial amount of tip rocker.
But, before we discuss how to choose powder skis, we have to talk about safety. Powder skis give us a special power to access terrain that we wouldn't otherwise. It just so happens that this terrain is often the most dangerous. Whether this terrain is resort-accessed “side country,” backcountry terrain, or the gnarliest run at your local ski area, there are many hazards. Make sure you have the proper equipment, experience, and formal education. Never ski alone, and always be extra careful when skiing terrain that is new to you.
Now that we have defined powder skis and are through my safety spiel, let's get into how to choose a powder ski.
What to Consider When Buying Powder Skis
There are many factors to consider when buying a pair of powder skis. Below are some of the questions that I think are best asked before choosing a pair of powder skis.
What Skis Do You Already Have?
Like I said above, a powder ski is typically not your only ski. How you choose your powder ski should depend on the other skis in your quiver. Your powder ski should be seriously different from your other all-mountain skis. Maybe you ski in Michigan and your main ski is an 80-millimeter carving ski. You start taking some trips out West and are looking for a powder ski because that carving ski isn’t working on the steep terrain of Jackson Hole. You don’t need a giant, 125-millimeter noodle, you just need something a little bigger than the carving ski. You might enjoy something around 105 millimeters underfoot, with a relatively moderate rocker profile in order to still have fun on the not-so-deep days.
As another example, if you ski all over the mountain but want something for those mega, “storm-of-the-century” powder days and your normal 100-underfoot ski isn’t doing the trick, you can go for something larger. A ski that is 118 to 124 underfoot is appropriate. When choosing a powder ski, make sure it is different from your other skis without having a dramatic difference. If your skis are really different it will take a long time for you to adjust your skiing to them each time you take them out.
Where Do You Ski?
When choosing a powder ski, you must consider where you plan on skiing. The snow in the Pacific Northwest is dramatically different from the snow in the Rocky Mountains.
Ski areas that are in a maritime climate (Washington, Oregon, California) obviously have much heavier snow in general. Heavy snow isn’t necessarily a bad thing—it builds the ski area base faster. It does a better job of covering rocks and often falls in high quantities. The downside of higher-density snow is that it is more challenging to turn. Turn initiation is harder as well as bringing around the tails and finishing the turn. A few skis that I think are appropriate for Pacific Northwest conditions are the Elan Ripstick 116, K2 Mindbender 116C, and Salomon QST 118.
Or, you could ski in climates where fresh snow is drier and fluffier. I ski mainly in Montana, and I like to joke about how I don’t need powder skis on the “cold smoke” days—when the snow is so light that there is no resistance on your skis, and you only feel the snow when it blows up into your face. While that is a joke, it’s true that you can get away with a much smaller powder ski in continental climates. You can also get away with less tip and tail rocker. Because flotation isn’t exactly necessary in blower powder, you can have a more moderate rocker profile, which doesn't punish you on the hardpack back to the lift.
Keep in mind where you will be skiing this winter when choosing your powder ski. In heavy snow, choose something softer with more rocker and more tip taper. In dry snow, go with something more moderate. While snow conditions change dramatically from region to region, a lot of powder skis are really versatile these days and will work in all of the locations you will be skiing. More than my 2012 K2 Hellbents, that’s for sure.
What Is Your Skiing Style?
Now that we’ve looked at where you ski and the rest of your quiver, let's discuss your style. A lot of skiers like to hit big jumps, throw tricks, and butter around. Some people, like myself, have a need for speed and find themselves going straight and fast. Maybe you’re somewhere in the middle. Maybe you are just getting into off-piste/powder skiing and you don’t want to have to ski tight trees or bumps yet. There is a ski out there for you.
If you find yourself focusing on the freestyle aspect and like to land backward (switch), you need a ski with a lot of tail rocker. Some good examples of freestyle-specific powder skis are the Atomic Bent Chetler 120, Faction Candide 5.0, 4FRNT Inthayne, and Moment Wildcat.
If you don’t like to land switch in powder, you can get more performance out of a ski with a narrower and stiffer tail. A stiffer tail and less rocker allow you to go faster, ski harder and more precisely, and work better on the hardpack. Some good options for aggressive powder skis are the Nordica Enforcer 115, Faction Dictator 4.0, and Moment Commander 118.
Different Characteristics of Powder Skis
A few key factors really distinguish powder skis from each other; ski profile, width, and shape.
Besides their added width, powder skis also differ from traditional skis in their rocker profile. Traditional skis have camber underfoot–essentially a rainbow arch off of the snow–which creates the “energy” and pop in the ski. Camber allows skiers to hold an edge at high speeds and gives them more performance in harder snow.
The opposite of camber is rocker, which looks like the arch of a smile. Also known fittingly as reverse camber, rocker is often incorporated just in the tip or tails of skis. and in the tip it is usually known as “early rise.” Like McConkey’s water skis, having the early rise in the tip allows for easier turn initiation on all terrain and makes soft snow much more maneuverable. Powder skis also have rocker in the tail, which impacts the way they ski (I’ll discuss below). Most powder skis have a rocker profile that is a combination of tip rocker, tail rocker, and camber while some forgo the camber entirely in favor of a full rocker design. Ski profiles can also vary significantly throughout powder skis.
The most popular skis profiles for powder skis are tip rocker, tip and tail rocker, and full rocker.
- Tip Rocker: Skis with only tip rocker—also known as rocker/camber skis—are great for keeping your tips up in the powder as well as maintaining edge grip when the snow is firmer. Often found in the narrower powder skis, this shape is the least maneuverable in the powder but is often better for performance on harder snow. Most are not just rocker/camber skis and have some amount of tail rocker, but anything with less than 15% tail rocker would fall into this category.
- Tip and Tail Rocker: Skis with tip and tail rocker—also known as rocker/camber/rocker skis—have a significant amount of rocker at the tails, similar to at the tip. By adding more tail rocker to the ski, the ski is more maneuverable and easier to pivot in the powder. This shape does shorten the effective edge and makes the ski less stable on firm snow. This design is found in most powder skis.
- Full Rocker: Full rocker skis—also known as reverse camber skis—offer the best maneuverability in deeper snow. However, by eliminating the camber underfoot, these skis lose lots of their versatility and control in variable snow conditions. For this reason, typically only the widest powder skis are full rocker.
The most obvious difference between powder skis and traditional skis is the added ski width. On powder days, one could easily mistake many skiers' wider skis as being a pair of snowboards with ski bindings attached to them. While this is clearly an exaggeration, powder skis—like my old K2 Hellbents–can easily double the width of some beginner skis! The added width of these skis gives them extra flotation in deeper snow and helps skiers successfully navigate the deeper snow. Below are three of the most popular widths of powder skis
105mm: If you are a skier who is looking for a soft-snow-focused ski, but will also be skiing mixed snow and terrain, then a ski around 105mm is likely the best choice for you. This width provides ample float in soft snow but still is manageable when skiing more firm or skied-out snow.
- Most versatile
- Great in powder or mixed conditions
- Less Floatation
- Won’t suffice on the deepest days
110mm: If you are a powder enthusiast, and looking for added floatation for the freshest tracks, then skis around 110mm will serve you even better. Skis of this width give even better snow displacement and are ideal for the deepest days at the resort.
- Powder focused
- Best performance in various types of soft snow
- Lacking hard snow performance
- Not wide enough for the deepest days
115mm: If you are looking for the widest powder skis, then skis at or above 115mm are for you! Specially made for the deep powder, these are often found in helicopters or snowcats on specific powder hunting missions. These skis are the hardest to maneuver in more firm snow and are therefore best for only the deepest days.
- Wide enough for deepest days
- Best performance powder
- Poor firm snow performance
- Too wide for variable snow
Powder skis also come in two distinct shapes with varying mount points—directional and freestyle.
- Directional: Directional skis are meant to be skied in one direction; forward. These skis often have a more rearward mount point for more natural tip flotation. Skiers who are traditional in their ski technique and who prefer to keep glued to the snow often prefer directional skis
- Freestyle: Freestyle skis are often meant to be skied both forwards or switch. They are designed for a better balance in the air, and often have a more centered mount point as a result. They also tend to have more tail rocker and a true twin tip for switch landings. These style of skis require more effort to keep the tips afloat however they are better in the air and for tricks as a result.
Features to Look Out for When Buying Powder Skis
While the ski industry always seems to bring new innovation and tech into skis, there are a few common terms used across ski manufacturers that are important to look out for when buying a pair of skis.
While powder skis are unique in their profile, their sidecut can also vary drastically. Traditionally, skis are widest in the tip, narrowest underfoot, and the tail width is somewhere in between. This provides ample grip in harder snow, and a traditional arc when bending the skis. Because powder doesn’t require a ski to bend to arc a turn, powder skis often break the rules of don't follow tradition when it comes to the sidecut.
Sometimes, powder skis even have what is referred to as a “reverse-sidecut” where the waist of the ski is wider than the tip and tail. This gives the ski superior flotation and a unique turn initiation. However, this design is rare in skis as many skiers prefer a ski with a traditional side cut for more versatility on days with mixed snow conditions.
The other main property of powder skis, which differs from your other skis, is flex. Powder skis are always softer than other skis while still being stiff enough to maintain stability. This is for multiple reasons. First, they have to be softer for us to ski such large planks. If we had a ski that was 118 millimeters underfoot, 185 millimeters in length, but as stiff as a race ski, it would be impossible to turn and you would have to straight-line everything. While that may be fun to some of us, not everyone is looking for that experience. Skis being soft also allows for more playfulness and forgiveness. If you start to get in the backseat, which is common when skiing powder, you won’t be punished by a stiff tail. You’ll be able to pop forward and regain control of your skis. Powder skis are softer, and it’s for a good reason.
Powder skis often have extra mass than their harder snow counterparts, so they are often designed using lightweight materials in an attempt to offset some of the additional weight–especially the swing weight at the tips and tails of the skis. Sometimes, this is as simple as using lightweight wood for the core. Powder skis often have a paulownia or poplar wood core for the best weight savings. Heavier woods like maple are used more sparingly.
Powder skis also supplement traditional heavier materials like metal for other light materials such as carbon for stiffness. Other times, it is strategically placed material or varying material thicknesses throughout the length of the ski to reach the perfect blend of stiffness or flex. Skis like Head’s Kore use Graphene for added stability and vibration damping. Some skis embrace innovative technology to keep the weight low, like the new 2024 Rossignol Sender Free 110 which uses an air tip to reduce swing weight and provides outstanding float.
Powder skis often incorporate other unique features and shapes that are not found in skis designed for harder snow as a way of adding to the performance in softer snow as well as improving their harder snow handling.
Swallow Tail: Some skis, like the Line Pescado, incorporate a swallow tail design for greater powder performance. Originally used on surfboards, and later brought to powder snowboards, the swallow tail design allows for the tails of the skis to sink deeper into the snow and keeps the tips of the skis afloat with less effort from the skier. This design gives the ski a longer effective edge so it performs equally as well on hardpack as in the powder.
Tip Taper: Tip taper is commonly used in powder skis. Tip taper is when the widest point of the ski is set further back, rather than being at the tip. By moving the widest part of the ski closer to the skier’s boot—typically where the ski contacts the ground before transitioning into rocker—and then narrowing the tip width near the front of the ski, the ski is easier to initiate in turns, easier in heavy powder, and great for speed control. Tip taper allows us to ski with skis that are longer than we normally would—which is ideal for deep, heavy snow.
Skis like the DPS Pagoda 112 RP incorporate a tip taper design and have a shorter turn radius for better carving on harder snow as a result. While tip taper is great, it also has consequences. Large amounts of tip taper can make a ski turn too easily. We call this “hooky.” On hardpack conditions, skis with a lot of tip taper feel much less stable and ultimately have a lower speed limit.
Tip Shaping: Oftentimes, skis use unique shaping in the tip to allow for better powder performance in softer snow. One example of unique tip shaping is the HRZN Tech Tip often found in Atomic Skis. Originally created for the Atomic Bent Chetler 120 by Chris Benchetler, this tip shape removes some material from the sides of the skis’ tip, tapering them down to a thinner material. By doing this, powder is pushed away from the tip at an angle, much like water on the hull of a boat. By removing swing-weight from the ski and increasing the tip surface area, these skis are better able to perform in softer snow. This technology has found its way through most of the Atomic Bent series of skis, as well as other series of Atomic skis like the Maven and Maverick.
Another technology that is sometimes seen in powder skis is a horizontal rocker at the tip of the ski. In Line skis, this is called 3D Convex and is incorporated in both the tip and the tails of skis like the Line Outline. Designed by Eric Pollard, this technology loosens the skis feel and offers better powder displacement. These tips and tails are also more inclined to plane and offer better powder performance as a result.
How to Choose the Right Powder Skis for You
Choosing the right powder ski and balancing the above features can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be! Now that you have a sense of the different types and features that exist in powder skis, it is time to consider the right powder skis for you. Below, I have described three primary “skier personas” when it comes to buying a new pair of skis. I have highlighted what they should look for based on their riding style and goals.
Johanna: New to Powder
Johanna lives on the East Coast and makes a trip to the Rocky Mountains once per year. She skis regularly and has a developed skill set, but she hasn’t had much experience in powder. She hopes that this year will be the season that she finally scores a powder day of more than 8” of snow. She is a directional skier, and she wants powder skis that will be the only pair she brings on her trip if the forecast shows snow.
Features Johanna Should Look For:
- A pair of powder skis with a width of around 105mm.
- Skis with tip rocker, as well as camber underfoot.
- Skis with a lightweight design
- A directional shape and rearward mount point.
Orion: Freestyle Skier Looking for a Pow Ski
Orion skis over 20 days per season at his local resort. He likes skiing the terrain park on days when the snow isn’t falling, but really wants a pair of skis that will allow him to bring some of his freestyle prowess into the snow. He already has a ski that is 100mm wide, so he wants something for the deeper days of the season.
Features Orion Should Look For:
- A pair of powder skis with a width of around 110mm
- Skis with tip rocker and tail rocker
- Skis with a more centered mounted point
- Skis with a durable design with a true twin tip tail
Chandler: Powder Diehard Looking for Float
Chandler has a once-in-a-lifetime heli-ski trip planned. She is heading to British Columbia in February and will be cat skiing for five days, followed by two days of heli laps. She is looking for a ski that will give her the most amount of floatation possible. She likes to ski hard and wants a ski that will allow her to do so. However, she is expecting to only be skiing in two or more feet of powder.
Features Chandler Should Look For:
- A pair of skis with a width of 115mm or above
- Skis with plenty of tip and tail rocker, or full rocker
- Skis with a rearward design
- Skis that are light enough to maintain maneuverability
Obviously, there are a ton of powder skis out there. Some of them are very different from one another, and some are confusingly similar. It can be really daunting and difficult to figure out where to start. When choosing your next powder ski, make sure to consider what other skis you have, where you plan on doing your powder skiing, and your ski style. The fact is, there are so many good powder skis out there and there is no one best powder ski. That is the reason why this is not a “Top 10 Best Powder Skis” article. There is not one best ski. If you pick a ski that fits your style and region and is the right category for YOU, you are almost guaranteed to enjoy it. Pray for snow, and get excited to load up the pow sticks. Please feel free to reach out to me or any other Skiing Expert here on Curated if you have any questions.