Skis: What You Need to Know

It may seem like rocket science. But if you learn how to decode some basic information about gear, it goes a long way in helping you find your perfect setup. Here’s your key.
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It may seem like rocket science. But if you learn how to decode some basic information about gear, it goes a long way in helping you find your perfect setup. Here’s your key.
Skis: need to know thumb

Understanding Dimensions › We know how intimidating numbers can be. But nothing tells you more about a ski than its tip, waist and tail measurements. They illustrate what terrain a ski is best suited for, as well as how forgiving it may be, so pay attention.

Waist Width:

Narrow waists (under 85 mm) are quick and grippy, built for groomed.

Wide waists (100-plus mm) surf the deep. Anything in between should be versatile for all.

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Taper: Subtract the tail width from the tip width, and you have the taper. The greater the taper, the easier the ski will be to skid. (Big rockered skis, for example, often have a very narrow tail for easy steering and smearing.) A low taper number means the tail sticks to the turn, making the ski better for carving on hardpack.

Tuning matters › Some of the product managers who tune our test skis are World Cup caliber; others, well, aren’t. It makes an astonishing difference in how the skis behave. Have a shop tune your skis—or learn how to do it yourself— every seven or so days on snow. Most shops file a standard two-degree side-edge bevel and a one-degree base bevel. Eastern experts may want a more aggressive three-and-one; Westerners, a looser one-and-one. You’ll ski better, guaranteed. 

Sidecut radius › There’s a fancy formula that translates a ski’s dimensions into its sidecut radius, but all you need to know is this: The number tells you how turny the ski is. The higher the number, the longer its preferred turns are. It’s like an instant snapshot of a ski’s personality. Example: Head’s Supershape Titan, in Men’s Hard Snow, has a radius of 13.5 m at a 170-cm length, which means it’s more of a slalom ski than the longer-turning 18.3 m Rossi Avenger 82 Ti. Longer skis usually prefer to make longer turns. This number, in meters, refers to the radius of the circle the sidecut arc would make if you were to fully extrapolate it. Most models have the same tip, waist and tail dimensions regardless of length, which means the radius gets wider as the skis get longer. In other words, longer skis usually make longer turns. But brands like Salomon and Atomic adjust their dimensions in order to maintain an equal radius across all sizes.

Price › We provide the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) for each ski, but chances are your actual price will be lower. Shop around. Ski-town shops may be more expensive, but the employees are much more likely to know their stuff, and the convenience is often worth it. Look for shops that do it all—bootfitting, tuning, mounting. The staffs are better trained, and if your gear isn’t quite right they’ll be the most likely to work with you until it is.

Sizing a ski › It depends on the type of ski—hard-snow carvers should generally be shorter than big-mountain powder plunderers—but in general, experts’ skis should stand at or above the eyebrow, intermediates’ at the chin. If the tips are rockered, the ski has a lower contact point with the snow, so you may want to go up five cm or so.


James Heim wishing he were on belay. Location: Last Frontier Heli-Skiing, BC.Check out our suggestions for good gear for steep skiing.The first rule of skiing steeps: Don’t take off your skis. I was 11 years old and I still remember the name of the trail at Big Sky, Montana: Snake Pit. My family was on its first Western ski trip. I wanted to outperform my brothers, so I suggested this steep, rocky glade. Two turns in, panic struck. I inexplicably took off my skis, stacked them across my arms like firewood, stepped downhill, and slipped. I tumbled down hundreds of vertical feet, somersaulted, slammed my knee into a stump, and screamed like a dying rabbit. My parents consoled me by buying me a black-diamond Snake Pit pin from a Big Sky gift shop that I promptly stuck on my school backpack.The second rule of skiing steeps: Know how to self-arrest. And know that self-arresting is difficult without your skis on. When you fall, you’ll most likely be on your side. If you’re not, twist yourself around so your skis are perpendicular to the fall line. If you fall headfirst, roll over so your skis end up downhill, below your body. Now dig your ski edges into the slope as hard as you can to stop. If you lose your skis midtumble, kick hard with the toes of your boots and claw with your hands until you create enough friction to stop.The third rule of skiing steeps: In order to prevent a dangerous collision with trees or rocks, scope out your line carefully before you drop in. Note the locations of dangerous features such as cliff bands, trees, and lift towers so you have a clean run-out if you fall. Find your line and follow it to the bottom. And whatever you do, don’t panic the way I did. All you’ll end up with is a banged-up knee and a lousy pin.

Skiing Steeps: Everything You Need to Know

On steep slopes, the risks are higher—if you fall, it’s harder to stop. But so are the rewards. Pitches tilted past 40 degrees can be thrilling if you overcome your fears and tackle the terrain confidently. Learn how to self arrest and more. —Hillary Procknow