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Ski Reviews

Carving vs. Frontside Skis—What’s the Difference?

Both get the job done on hardpack, but it comes down to this: Do you want a scalpel, or a machete?

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SKI’s gear experts are self-proclaimed gearheads and know pretty much everything there is to know about the best gear on the market. In our Outside+ exclusive gear columns, we help members understand the nuances of ski performance to help them make informed purchasing decisions. Join Outside+ to unlock the goods.

You know you need something narrower than 90mm underfoot for early season cruising, but which is best for the job: A true carving ski or a pair of frontside sticks? That depends on what type of skier you are and what you value most in a groomer-oriented ski. Both types of skis will get the job done on hard snow, but there are still pros and cons to each that may influence your purchasing decision. Let’s explore.

Get smart: How to buy skis

Ski Construction

Construction refers to how the ski is designed and what materials are inside the core that affect how the ski performs on snow.

Sidecut/Waist Width

True carving skis feature a more dramatic sidecut than frontside skis. Skis entered into the carving category at our annual ski test generally have a waist width of between 65 and 80mm, and usually feature a more pronounced hourglass shape. Frontside skis are slightly wider with waist widths around 80-90mm and generally speaking straighter from tip to tail.

Carving skis
SKI tester Matt Schiller shows off the bases and sidecut of a pair of Head carving skis. Photo: John Howland

Profile

Because carving skis are designed to stick to groomers like white on rice, they mostly feature a traditional camber profile with minimal (if any) rocker in the tip. This profile gives the ski maximum effective edge, which is what you want when you’re arcing on hard snow.

While frontside skis typically also have traditional camber underfoot, they tend to feature more rocker in the tip and perhaps even in the tail of the ski because these skis are designed to also hold their own in bumps and crud on the side of the groomed run. The tip (and sometimes tail) rocker makes frontside skis more versatile, but it also reduces the length of the ski’s effective edge, which means you sacrifice some stability and performance on hard snow, where you rely on your edges.

Related: Understanding Rocker vs. Camber Ski Technology

Core

Carving skis almost always feature some kind of metal in the core. Metal makes skis snappier, more reliable at speed, and stiffer, so you can really pressure a carving ski in the middle of the turn and it will rebound nicely for you coming out of the turn. Because of this, it’s not uncommon to find one, or even two, full sheets of metal in a carving ski’s core.

On that topic: What Ski Designers Mean by “Metal” and Why It Matters

Frontside skis typically also feature metal in the core, for all the same reasons listed above. But frontside skis also commonly have less metal throughout the ski and may only feature metal directly underfoot or along the sides to reinforce the edges. While metal makes a ski stable, stiff, and damp, it adds weight to the ski, and frontside skis are designed to be nimble and playful enough to tackle versatile terrain and snow conditions off the groomers.

Intended Use and Performance

Carving skis give it away in the name: They’re designed to rip down groomed terrain. Think of them as race skis that were made more accessible to the everyday skier and everyday skiing. Their narrower waist width promotes tipping on edge, and the more pronounced sidecut is designed to help skiers carve. As a result, carving skis are quick to transition from edge to edge, and while some have a longer giant slalom turning radius (around 18m), many have a smaller turning radius (14m) and a penchant for making short turns.

carving on groomer
Carving skis are the scalpels of skis, designed to be handled by experienced hands and make precise incisions. Photo: John Howland

Because they have more metal, more camber, and less rocker, carving skis are more reliable at speed and on hardpack than skis with less metal in their constructions and more rocker. But more metal can make carving skis burly and demanding, which means they may not always be accessible to skiers still working on their carving skills and technique.

Frontside skis can be just as reliable on groomers and hardpack, even with a little added tip rocker. But because frontside skis are typically a little straighter from tip to tail with a slightly wider waist, they don’t have the same innate carving capabilities as carving skis. You can still get frontside skis to carve, but it takes some skill and precision to get a frontside ski to bend the same way a carving ski does by design.

Read more: Can Wider Skis Hack It Back East?

That said, where frontside skis win out over carving skis is off the groomed. Because they do have a little more underfoot and rocker in the tip (and sometimes tail), frontside skis tend to perform better in bumps and crud than true carving skis. Rocker also makes a ski more accessible to novices and intermediates, since less edge makes contact with the snow, allowing you to pivot and smear a turn; carving skis with more effective edge make this more difficult.

In short: Carving skis are the scalpels of skis, designed to be handled by an experienced hand and leave precise incisions on the snow. A frontside ski is more like a machete—it’s still sharp and effective but requires you to be far less precise in your cutting.

Skier Type

In the end, deciding between a carving and frontside ski mostly comes down to your skill level and terrain preference.

Strong intermediates and above who spend all of their time skiing groomed terrain may want to zero in on a carving ski. If you are a skilled skier who enjoys precision and bounding from edge to edge as you hurtle down the fall line, a carving ski is the best tool for the job and will give you the kind of rebound and energy you’re looking for.

But if you’re still just learning how to tip your skis on edge, or want a ski that will allow you to dabble off-piste as well as carve up the groomed, then a frontside ski is the better option. A frontside ski offers more versatility and is likely to be more accessible to skiers who are still working on their carving chops.

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