How to Choose an All-Mountain Ski
Looking for a single ski that will take you (almost) everywhere on the mountain? Read on for Ski Expert Matt B.’s take on what makes a great all-mountain ski and how to choose.
Do you have tons of money to drop on multiple pairs of skis (and bindings) that are perfectly dialed in for any condition you'll encounter on the mountain? No? Great! You're in the right place.
The all-mountain ski space is one of the most contested segments of the ski market. Companies live and die by the planks they produce in the 80-105mm range (waist width – more on that later), all with the promise of letting you roll up to the mountain, click into old faithful, and shred whatever terrain is looking tasty that day.
Actually choosing an all-mountain ski, though, is hard; you're always going to wonder what if I had gone two millimeters wider, or what if my ski profile isn't right for this certain condition, etc. Well, sometimes, just sticking with a decision is harder than making the decision at all – so don't worry if things get intimidating, that's why you (and I) are here!
What are all-mountain skis?
In theory, all-mountain skis are the holy grail for every skier: one ski that can take them anywhere on the mountain, from icy resort groomers to backside bowls loaded with fresh pow.
In practice, all-mountain skis do a lot of things OK and only a few things well.
So, what does it take to get the elusive "one-ski quiver?" Well, ideally, you'd get a ski that is narrow enough to have excellent edge hold and grip on hardpack; a ski that can not only arc a wide turn on groomers, but is also able to dump off into the trees and bumps along the side of a trail; and a ski that can "plane out" on top of the foot of fresh snow that fell last night while you were crushing aprés and poaching a hot tub.
(For anyone wondering, "quiver" is a colloquial term referring to your collection of skis; shot skis do not count, btw.)
Simple, right? I thought so. Anyway, let's get into the first ingredient in an all-mountain ski, waist width.
Waist a minute - what does ski width mean?
Just like pants, with skis, if you don't get the right waist size (or close), you're gonna have a bad day. Of all the measurements on skis, waist width may be the most important.
Waist width refers to the – wait for it – width of the ski directly beneath your boots. This is measured in millimeters, and for all-mountain-branded skis, is typically between 80 and 105mm. There are some exceptions, aka skis that ski "narrower" or "wider" than they really are, but in general, ski manufacturers focus on this range in the all-mountain category.
There are a number of other width measurements on skis, particularly the "shovel" (widest part of the tip) and tail. While these are important, it's the waist that's going to decide how nimble a ski will be, how well it will float in pow, etc.
The reason all-mountain skis come in the 80-105mm range is pretty simple. Basically, these skis' versatility should* allow you to:
- Maintain excellent traction on firm snow and icy slopes (looking at the 80-ish-mm range here)
- Give you the maneuverability you need to hit trees and moguls (looking at basically the whole all-mountain category here)
- Blast through crud and groomers at the resort (looking at the high-80s-and-above range here)
- Give you a fighting chance in soft snow and powder, though not a great one (looking at the 100-to-105-mm range here)
*I say "should" because some skis do better in some areas than others. All-mountain skis paint the world with a broad brush, which for most people is just fine.
A note on choosing the right ski length
Like I mentioned, ski length is probably second fiddle when compared to waist width. In my opinion, you'll find that it's a little easier to adapt to a ski that's a few centimeters short or long than it is a waist that's off. Some folks may disagree with this – I know some who do – and ultimately it comes down to balance. I just know that, personally, I would rather have my waist width dialed in than length. However, if you talk to our Curated Ski Experts no need to fret – we've got you covered!
P.S. – It's easy to buy a ski based on a size chart that uses height. I do not typically advise people to do this, because a truer measure is weight. Length affects a number of attributes in skis, not the least of which is stopping power. Simply put, you need more length and edge to stop heavier forces, so if you can, pick your ski length by your weight, not your height.
Business in the front, powder in the back
Within the all-mountain ski space, there's another fork in the road that further differentiates these skis, though, to be honest, it's more colloquial than anything, and chances are high you won't see this explicitly called out: All-mountain back vs. All-mountain frontside.
All-mountain back skis skew towards the upper limits of the category's waist widths, meaning they hover in the 95-105mm range underfoot. Basically, "back" refers to more off-piste runs, as well as trees and other variable terrain types. This also includes deep snow, so if you're buying an all-mountain ski and live in the West, stick to an "all-mountain back," which you can easily do by getting a ski in this range. Examples include the Blizzard Bonafide and Blizzard Rustler 10, the Atomic Vantage 97, and of course, the Nordica Enforcer 104, to name just a few.
Conversely, all-mountain frontside skis really shine in places like the East Coast, where powder is less frequent (and less deep, when it comes, and also pretty heavy!). Frontside skis prioritize carving, stability, and hard-snow performance. These skis make up the lower echelon of the all-mountain category, roughly 80-95mm underfoot. Examples include the Rossignol Experience 88, Head Kore 93, Nordica Enforcer 94, and the Salomon Stance 90, to name just another few.
A tale as old as time: Rocker vs. Camber
As we get into rocker versus camber, I want you to picture the letter "U." Basically, all skis have a profile that is either rocker, camber, or both – each coming with its own benefits and drawbacks, which I will lightly hit on below. Choosing between rocker and camber is an important decision, so don't leave anything to chance, and make sure to talk to your Curated Ski Expert for more information. Ok, think of that "U" again...
Rocker profile basically means the overall profile of the ski is shaped like a "U," meaning that throughout the length of the ski, the tips and tails arc upwards (more so than just the actual tips and tails; this is a macro sorta thing.) What this means is that the ski is optimized for a few things, including soft snow conditions, since it will keep your tips up and let you lean back easier; playfulness is off the charts, since you'll be able to butter and press with much less effort than a traditional profile; and super easy turn initiation.
Camber profile, on the other hand (which is more traditional in skis), is basically the opposite of a rocker profile (the "U" is upside down), which ups the stiffness of the ski, but also increases the "pop" when you really lean into a carve or launch off a jump. Camber prioritizes precision, edgehold, and speed, and is great for advanced skiers and intermediates who like to rip long, arcing turns, or anyone who spends most of their time on hard snow.
Nowadays, there's also a hybrid of the two, with some skis sporting both tip and tail rocker alongside camber underfoot – all in an effort to give you the best of both worlds. Does this work? Short answer: yes; long answer: not as well in either category as a dedicated rocker or camber ski, but most people won't really notice a difference.
How would you like your turns shaped?
As you look at waist width – along with shovel and tail widths – on skis, be aware that the numbers not only have a difference on how the ski skis, but also how the ski turns. A true carving ski, for example, will have a considerable difference between its shovel and waist widths (as well as the tail and waist widths); this is because in order to arc shorter, precise turns, you need a radial sidecut to push the ski over onto. Powder skis, for example, suck at short turns (and arguably, medium turns, too) because there's usually less difference in the shovel-to- and tail-to-waist widths. If you like to ski like Mikaela Shiffrin, you probably shouldn't get an all-mountain back ski – you're probably going to have a bad time.
All of this defines a skis turn radius – and if you're unsure about what dimensions or turns your current or prospective skis are sporting, talk to your Curated Ski Expert to learn more.
Materials, flex & skill level
Finally, I want to quickly gloss over some things to keep in mind when buying an all-mountain ski when it comes to materials, flex, and skill. This is not exhaustive, rather it’s a general overview of some things to be aware of:
- When it comes to materials, playful skis – as well as skis suitable for beginners and intermediates – typically are less "stiff." Many advanced skis today feature layered sheets of metal (e.g. layers of titanal, "ti") which help make the ski much stiffer. While this helps make the ski chatter less at high speeds and perform better on hard snow, it's much less playful and not great in deeper snow, where you want some "flex." Park skis, for example, often have full-wood cores, since this makes them much more snappy, poppy, and playful.
- Flex is a bit of a sliding scale for most all-mountain skiers; beginners should opt for soft-flexing skis, while advanced skiers can head to the stiff planks.
- Strong, light materials can make a ski feel like they have no metal in them but will feel much stiffer than expected. Many manufacturers these days are using graphene strands or a carbon chassis to help lower weight while maintaining stiffness.
If you have questions, ask me or another Ski expert here on Curated!
To help make everything we went through "real," let me use myself as an example. Living on the East Coast (#SkiTheEast), ice and boilerplate are a way of life and powder is a fleeting dream. Sure, I make a number of trips out West each year, but the bulk of my days are on this side of the Mississippi. So, when I was looking for an all-mountain ski, I knew I wanted to stick to the frontside category. Similarly, I am a playful skier, so I didn't want anything too stiff (ideally, no metal), and I like to ski trees and bumps, so a low "swing weight" was very important to me. Eventually, I chose the Head Kore 93, which I believed blended everything together perfectly (aside from durability, unfortunately) and I haven't looked back. They are plenty fine on trips out West (save for when we got 20" in Utah this year) while letting me make the most out of the bulk of my days out east.