How to Choose a Powder Ski
Ski expert Jake Mundt digs into everything you need to know to find the best powder ski for you and your needs.
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 all the 13-year-olds, like me, and revolutionized the sport of skiing forever.
Just a couple years later, 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. They had the added advantage of scaring small children on the chairlift. Powder skis have allowed skiers to access terrain, land bigger tricks, and ski faster than ever before.
What is a powder ski?
Powder skis have specific properties that make them proper powder skis. They are different from other skis in many ways, besides also being wider. The main feature that distinguishes a powder ski is the rocker profile. Traditional skis have camber underfoot, which creates the “energy” and pop in the ski. Camber allows us to hold an edge at high speeds.
The opposite of camber is rocker. We also call this “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 early rise in the tail, which impacts the way they ski (I’ll discuss below). All powder skis have a rocker profile that is a combination of tip rocker, tail rocker, and camber.
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. Powder skis break the rules of don't follow tradition when it comes to the sidecut, and it seems that anything goes. Some powder skis have what is referred to as “reverse-sidecut.” This is when the waist is wider than the tip and tail. This gives for the best flotation and a unique turn initiation. We will discuss tip taper below, but that is another example of varying sidecut and ski shapes.
The other main property of powder skis, which differs from your other skis, is flex. Powder skis are always softer than other skis. 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 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.
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 a rock 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 107-millimeter waist.
- Has a substantial amount of tip rocker.
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 other skis do you have?
Like I said above, a powder ski is 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 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 steeps 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 110 to 115-millimeters underfoot, with a relatively moderate rocker profile in order to still have fun on the not-so-deep days. Some good options for you are the Nordica Enforcer 110, Moment Commander 108, and K2 Mindbender 108 TI.
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.
The good news is that ski technology has accommodated these common problems. 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. The pros are: it is way easier to initiate the turn, the skis turn easier in heavy powder, and it makes for great speed control. Tip taper allows us to ski with skis that are longer than we normally would—which is ideal for deep, heavy snow.
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 taper is crucial for turning in deep, heavy snow. A few skis that I think have a significant amount of tip taper but are still appropriate for Pacific Northwest conditions are the Elan Ripstick 116, K2 Mindbender 116C, and Salomon QST 118.
If you ski in a climate where snow is drier and fluffier, tip taper might not be so important. 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.
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 do either of those. There is a ski out there for you.
If you find yourself focusing on the freestyle aspect and like to land 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.
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 Ski expert here on Curated if you have any questions.