The Different Types of Skis Explained

Published on 12/21/2023 · 7 min readSki Expert Thomas Harari overviews the different types of skis and the use cases for each.
Thomas Harari, Ski Expert
By Ski Expert Thomas Harari

Photo by Nataliya Nazarova

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. But how do you find the right pair for you? These days, ski manufacturers put out a dizzying array 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. Simply put, a cambered ski will provide more edge grip during a turn, as well as build more energy in the ski as you arc it. Rocker (also known as reverse camber), on the other hand, is more like a water ski⁠—designed to provide floatation in softer snow, as well as deep powder 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.

Waist Width / Underfoot

The waist width, or the width underfoot of the ski, is how wide the ski is under the boot (in millimeters). These ski dimensions are one of the biggest determining factors in how a ski will ski. The waist width is the narrowest point of the skis. 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/sidecut radius, measured in meters, 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.

Different Ski Types

Now that you know the important lingo, it’s time to learn about the different types of alpine 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 edge hold and are fully cambered skis, 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.

Photo by Roberto Caucino

Carving Skis

Carving skis are designed to be more recreational than racing skis. 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 or groomers. 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 carving turns on groomed runs, or live in a place where fresh snow is rare, this type of ski is great for you.

Photo by Albe84

Backcountry Skis / Touring Skis

Backcountry skis are not typically used at a ski resort, will not see much hardpack, and definitely are not the best skis 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 alpine touring skis have an early rise tip at a minimum for float in powder or soft snow (what we all backcountry ski for), but camber underfoot for good grip on the uphill.

Photo by Gorilla Images

Park Skis

Park freestyle skis, also known as pipe skis, are designed primarily to hit jumps, boxes, and rails. These skis are made to ski backward as well as they do forwards, as well as spin well in the air when doing tricks. This means that the tips and tails of the skis are typically identical, with the skier centered on the skis and the bindings mounted directly in the middle (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.

Photo by Brian Finestone

Powder Skis

Powder skis are meant to create float and stability in soft deep snow (powder) and allow the skier to ride on top of the snow. These skis are much wider and have a bigger shovel (tip) 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 having a smaller contact point with the snow surface, and they 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 every day, even when they are hardly considered as piste skis.

Want to hear more? Check out the list of the best powder skis here.

Photo by Lukas Gojda

All-Mountain Skis

All-mountain skis are a combination of all of the above! These skis are meant to be able to ski the entire mountain, whether that be on-piste or off-piste, and be really versatile in all snow conditions. All-mountain skis are an extremely broad category but typically come in 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, whether they be a beginner, intermediate, or advanced.

Check out the top-rated all-mountain skis here.

Cross-Country Skis

Cross-country skis (or Nordic skis) are much narrower and lighter than downhill skis and are 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.

Photo by Parilov

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 U.S. 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 toward 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.

As you can see, there are a ton of types of skis out there and lots of hybrid subcategories. Most recreational skiers will want a ski that works well in a wide variety of conditions and terrain, but most of this is a personal preference. There are 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 skis versus shorter skis. This can also vary by model.

Finding the Right Ski for You

It can all seem very confusing, but when you break them down by ski length, width, sidecut, flex, and rocker profile, you can determine how each ski will do in different conditions. So before hitting the slopes this season, make sure to reach out to a Ski Expert here on Curated if you want to know what pair of skis will be the right skis for you!

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