A Guide to the Different Kinds of Skis

Ski expert Thomas Harari overviews the different types of skis and the use cases for each.

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Whether you are an expert skier or new to the sport, you might know that there are a lot of different types of skis out there and that each has its purpose. There are dozens of different types of skis, made for varying terrain, speeds, and expertise levels. For those of us not competing, we typically prefer more versatile skis that have a mix of characteristics from different ski categories.

Basic Ski Lingo

To fully explain these types of skis, I must first define some ski lingo:

Rocker and Camber

For most of the time that skiing has been around, skis were 100% camber. Camber is good for skiing firm snow, holding an edge, and allowing for “snappy” turns. If you look at the ski from the side, camber would be concave in relation to the ground. Rocker (also known as reverse camber) is more like a water ski - designed to provide floatation in softer snow. If you look at the profile of the ski, rocker would be convex in relation to the ground. Today, most skis use a combination of rocker and camber in their designs, and how much of each will determine how the skis feel on the snow. This combination is called the rocker camber profile.

A graphic depicting a camber ski
A graphic depicting a rocker or reverse camber ski
A graphic depicting a rocker-camber hybrid ski

Waist Width / Underfoot

The waist width, or the width underfoot of the ski, is how wide the ski is under the boot (in millimeters). The waist width is the narrowest point of the skis. The width of the ski is one of the biggest factors that determines how a ski will perform. For example, a wider ski width will provide more flotation but lose some maneuverability.

Turn Radius

When a ski is put on edge, its turning radius determines how sharply it will turn. Skis with a short turning radius will be easy to turn, but may feel a bit "hooky" at higher speeds going straight. Skis with a longer turn radius will feel more stable but less maneuverable in tight turns.

Now for the Skis

Now that you know the important lingo, it’s time to learn about the different types of skis.

Race Skis

Racing skis are designed to hold an edge on firm snow at high speeds. They are not lightweight, as the extra weight of the ski helps it dig into the hard snow of a race course. Race skis have narrow waist widths for good edgehold, and zero rocker in the tip, meaning they will not float well in powder. Depending on what level or event you are racing, FIS legal skis with specific dimensions may be required. But if you aren’t participating in official races, there is probably a better ski out there for you.

A skier in a bright blue jacket cruising down a slope.

Carving Skis

Carving skis are designed to be more recreational than a racing ski. Some carving skis will have a bit of rocker in the tip for some float in fresh snow or a softer flex, but just like race skis, carving skis are designed for the hardpack. These skis will excel in firm groomed snow, and will feel like they throw you from turn to turn. If you spend most of your time on groomed runs, or live in a place where fresh snow is rare, this type of ski is great for you.

Backcountry Skis / Touring Skis

Backcountry skis are not typically used at a ski resort, will not see much hardpack, and definitely are not designed for groomed snow. These skis come in a wide range of widths and lengths for different purposes, and are generally designed to be lightweight for the uphill, but also perform reasonably well on the downhill. Most every ski used for backcountry skiing has an early rise tip at a minimum for float in powder (what we all backcountry ski for), but camber underfoot for good grip on the uphill.

A park skier jumping up with the back of his skis angled up towards the sky.

Park Skis

Park skis are designed primarily to hit jumps, boxes, and rails. These skis are made to ski backwards as well as they do forwards, as well as spin well in the air. This means that the tips and tails of the skis are typically identical, with the skier centered on the skis (twin tips!). If you can imagine a helicopter with lopsided blades, it probably wouldn’t spin well right? The same concept works with park skis. Park skis are also designed to withstand taking a beating on boxes and rails.

Powder Skis

Powder skis are meant to create float in soft deep snow (powder) and allow the skier to ride on top of the snow. These skis are much wider than any other kind of ski (and are sometimes referred to as “fat skis”), and will have at least a rockered tip and may be fully rockered. Powder skis are not going to ski well on firm snow due to their width, and will also not have the snappy feel of a carving or race ski. That said, powder skis have a certain cool factor that causes a lot of people to want to ski them everyday even when conditions are not optimal.

A skier in a bright red jacket walking in the snow carrying his skis and poles.

All-Mountain Skis

All-mountain skis are a combination of all of the above! These skis are meant to be able to do it all (or most of it), and be really versatile in all snow conditions. All-mountain skis are an extremely broad category, but typically come in a medium width and have a rockered tip. The majority of skis are advertised as all-mountain, and while that is somewhat correct, each all-mountain ski will perform best in specific conditions for a specific skier.

Cross Country Skis

Cross country skis (or Nordic skis) are much narrower, lighter, and built for traveling on flat ground, making them very different from all of the ski types listed above. These can be classified into two subcategories: Classic and Skate. Classic skis are skied by moving your feet in a forward motion, while Skate skis are just like how they sound, skied with a skating motion.

The Importance of Geography

Each region has very different weather patterns, snow conditions, and terrain options that make different types of skis more optimal. The big mountains and large snowfall quantities of the western US and Canada call for more rocker and wider skis. On the West Coast, wet, heavy snow makes stiffer powder skis a good choice, as they can handle the chop better. The firm snow and challenging terrain of the East Coast means that you will find a lot of all-mountain and carving skis there, but skis will in general need to be narrower and more oriented towards firm snow. In the midwest where there is really not much mountain terrain or powder at all (sorry…), most skiers will opt for a racing/carving ski, or spend their time in the terrain park with a park ski.

A gondola with colorful skis lined up on a rack outside of it.

As you can see there are a ton of types of skis out there, and lots of hybrid sub categories. Most recreational skiers will want a ski that works well in a wide variety of conditions and terrain. There’s lots of all-mountain skis that will ski powder and park, park skis that ski all-mountain, and carving skis that ski powder. Depending on your skill level, it may be better to have longer or shorter skis. This can also vary by model.

It can all seem very confusing, but when you break them down by width, sidecut, flex, and rocker profile, you can determine how each ski will do in different conditions. Shoot me a message if you want to know what skis will be the right skis for you!

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Written By
I work with college students at Montana State University in Bozeman Montana - just minutes away from Bridger Bowl, Big Sky, and countless backcountry opportunities. With so many new students needing gear each year, I have become a go-to-guy for help buying that first pair of skis or a specific upgra...

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