How to Buy Skis

Buying skis can feel overwhelming! Ski expert Thomas Harari breaks it down—here are seven questions to ask yourself when buying skis.

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There are lots of different types of skis out there, but there is a specific type of ski that will work best for you. Don't know where to start? Answer the following questions to help point yourself in the right direction.

1. What is your most recent pair of skis (if you own skis)? Are there specific characteristics that you feel they are missing?

Since you are on the hunt for new skis, I’m going to assume that there is something you are unsatisfied with about your old skis or the skis you have been renting. Do they not float in powder? Fail to hold an edge on ice? Not work well in the terrain park? Look as cool as your friends’? Or maybe you have been renting and want some skis of your own.

Regardless, it is helpful to analyze what you don’t like about your previous skis, and what features you want in new skis. As a ski expert, I find that many people want powder skis, but depending on what their previous skis are, their definitions of “powder ski” are very different.

2. Where will you be skiing?

Snow-dusted mountain scenery

Different geographical areas get very different snowfall and weather patterns, which means that certain types of skis will work best there. The West Coast (Washington, Oregon, California) gets large quantities of wet, heavy snow, but also has temperatures that hover around freezing, making for a lot of thawing and refreezing of the snow. This means wide, stiff powder skis are ideal for those powder days, but something narrower or more groomer-oriented will be much more enjoyable for those freeze/thaw cycles.

The Rockies get light, dry snow, and while it does come in big dumps, it’s not typically as deep as on the West Coast. Since the snow is lighter, you are more likely to feel crusty old snow under the powder (dust on crust). This means that your powder skis might not need to be as wide, but you also rarely ski true ice.

The Midwest doesn’t get much snowfall, so the conditions are very firm. Most skis in the Midwest will be relatively narrow to provide good edgehold on hard snow and ice.

The East Coast gets a wide variety of snow conditions, but is most commonly very firm. This side of the U.S. does get powder, but most people in the East will choose to ski a narrower ski for good performance on ice, and just make it work in softer snow or potentially have a second powder-oriented ski.

3. What kind of terrain do you like to ski?

A close-up on corduroy snow texture

The type of terrain you spend time on will help determine what skis are best for you. There are lots of skis that are versatile and can ski a lot of different terrain, but if you don’t ski the terrain park and get park skis, you could find better performance from something else. If you mainly ski groomed runs and like arcing smooth turns on the corduroy, a carving ski may be the best bet for you. If you primarily ski the terrain park, there are skis for that, but if you split your time between the park and the rest of the mountain, there are awesome options meant to do both well! If you plan to ski mainly off-piste, there are great all-mountain skis, but all-mountain is a very broad category.

4. Get to know the major factors that determine how a ski performs.

A woman sitting in a camping chair holding a coffee and reading a newspaper next to a set of skis and a sled in a green, grassy summer field.

Rocker / Camber For most of the time that skiing has been around, skis have been 100% camber. Camber is good for skiing firm snow and holding an edge. It also enables the ski to make “snappy” turns. Rocker (also known as reverse camber) is more like a water ski—designed to provide flotation in deep snow. Most skis today are made from a combination of rocker and camber, but how much of each will determine how a pair skis. This combination is called the rocker camber profile. A lot of skis will come with a rockered tip even if it is meant for firm snow or ice.

Waist Width / Width Underfoot The waist width or the width underfoot of the ski is how wide the ski is under the ski boot in millimeters. A wider ski width will provide more flotation, but lose some maneuverability. 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.

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 high speeds going straight. Skis with a longer turn radius will feel more stable, but less maneuverable in tight turns.

5. What length should I get?

You’ve probably noticed that there are lots of charts on the internet with very wide ski length ranges for your height. Length varies a ton from ski to ski, but as a general rule, skis with more rocker should be longer for the same person than a full cambered ski would be. A rockered ski has a lot of tip and tail that don’t touch the ground and therefore make the ski feel shorter.

Length should be chosen based on your height, ski type, and the kind of terrain you find yourself in. As someone who lives in Bozeman, Mont., and primarily skis Bridger Bowl with lots of tight terrain, I am cautious not to get skis that are too long. When I ski at Big Sky occasionally with big wide open faces, I could very easily ski way bigger skis! Keep in mind that rental skis are typically really short. They have no rocker and are designed to be very easy to turn, so you may notice that your rentals are far shorter than what is recommended for your height. In general, experienced skiers will typically use longer skis, while beginner skiers will use shorter skis.

6. Bindings are just bindings right?

A skier bombing down a groomed slope

There are three major factors that determine what bindings you should get for regular alpine skiing:

  • Brake Width: Brakes need to be equal to or up to 15mm wider than the ski underfoot. If you purchase a ski that is 98mm underfoot, a 100 or 110mm brake will fit well.
  • DIN: Different bindings have stiffer springs in order to have a higher release setting, or DIN. Depending on your height, weight, boot size, and ability level, you may need a binding with a higher DIN setting. Expert skiers typically will not be skiing with low DIN bindings.
  • Sole Compatibility: Different boots have different soles, but the majority of soles are flat, or are labeled as GripWalk. Most every binding will fit a standard flat sole, but if you have GripWalk soles, look for bindings labeled as “GW.”

7. How do I get my bindings mounted?

You may be an experienced carpenter, but this is not a job you want to do yourself. Take your skis, boots, and bindings to a ski shop and have them mount them for you. They will perform tests to make sure that your boot releases correctly. This typically costs $30-$50, but sometimes is a bit pricier in locations where there are fewer ski shops.

As you can tell, picking out the right skis is no easy task, and there is a ton of gray area in almost every decision. Remember that once you narrow things down to a few different pairs, each one will ski a bit differently, but you will be able to adapt—a few millimeters here or there won’t make it or break it. If you need help in your ski search, just shoot me a message!

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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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