How Do I Choose?
First, think about your skiing style, ability, and terrain preference. Do you like to cruise groomers, or do you want to hit the steep off-piste runs? Do you like tight, snappy turns, or big, flowy arcs? Are you a quiver-of-one type of gal or do you want an actual quiver?
Most of our testers who ski 50+ days a year have a quiver that includes an all-mountain model for days when there isn't a foot of fresh powder. A typical quiver consists of a pair of early season rock sticks, an all-mountain pair (or several that have different specialties), and powder boards. To round out the quiver, throw in a backcountry pair!
The One Ski Quiver
If you plan to own one pair of skis, you'll want a setup that gets you down the mountain in comfort and style in all conditions. Depending on where and how you shred, it can be overwhelming to find a single setup that works for you. Our review finds your perfect plank and de-mystifies the buying process for you, speaking to skiers who want a quiver-of-one that can travel the entire resort.
The All-Mountain Category
All-mountain models are made for just that—skiing all over the mountain. Depending on the manufacturer you reference, this category can be called "all-mountain" or "freeride." These are resort models, but they should also transition from groomers to off-piste well. These contenders cover a huge range. In general, an all-mountain model strives to do it all: carving turns on groomers, remaining stable at speed, and floating in powder.
All of the products included in this review are female-specific. This means that manufacturers have taken into account female structure while they design. These models are often shorter, with softer flex, because women are typically shorter with less weight to throw around. This design makes them easier for most ladies. But depending on the manufacturer, a ladies' model might just mean a prettier top sheet and a shorter length. Other manufacturers deliver softer flex in an easier model. Many female experts buy unisex models because they believe there isn't a women's-specific ski that charges like the men's.
The Volkl Aura is an exception to this rule. It's the hardest charging model for women that we have found. Other female-specific features for '17-'18 include manufacturers making a concerted effort to lighten up their products while maintaining stiffness. Bits of added carbon in the new Rossignol Soul 7 HD Ws and Blizzard Black Pearl 98 create lighter-weight turning machines, like the new K2 FulLUVit 95 and super fun Elan Ripstick 94 W. We discuss what manufacturers do to gear their products to the female consumer in the individual product reviews.
These models were evaluated by testers from different backgrounds, from instructors to big mountain chargers to ladies who stick to blue squares. The models we tested belong at the resort. They're designed for use while lapping lifts and are not lightweight backcountry models. We compared them head-to-head in round-robin days and on a group testing weekend near Lake Tahoe. We also used them for months for both work and play at Mammoth Mountain, California.
We explain the details of our testing process in our How We Test article. Also, learn about who we are and how we came to a consensus on the opinions in this review. Plus, reference our bonus glossary of terms if you are bewildered about the numerous ways to describe snow conditions.
Designs vary in this category—some are more suited for staying on-piste but have enough width to handle themselves on soft storm-day snow, like the Head Great Joy. Others have fat waists and less sidecut for folks who prefer off-piste powder but want something that can ride groomers in between powder stashes. The Blizzard Black Pearl and Volkl Aura are competitors with this bent. These are your one-pair-quiver. Jill-of-all-trades planks, they are an excellent choice for someone who only has the budget or space for just one pair of sticks.
Ski manufacturers are masters of slinging jargon, made-up terms, and marketing lingo. In this article, we'll help you cut through the fluff and get to the heart of what it all means. Don't know what "Flipcore" or "AirTip" Technology is? Neither do we really --, but we know what's important when it comes to choosing the right ski for you.
If you spend most of your time at resorts, choosing the product, you will be spending all of your time on can be daunting. First, you need to decide what category you are most interested in. If you are spending all of your time on the groomed runs and trails, choose an on-piste or frontside model, which will be better at carving and making turns on hardpack. If you only plan to get out when it has dumped a foot or more of snow, you should purchase a powder model that will keep you afloat in the fresh.
If you want the best of both worlds, and want to cruise the groomed runs and get off the trails into the bumps and powder — an all-mountain model will be the best fit for you. Under the broad label of all-mountain, there are still many products to choose from. If you already know what size you want to purchase but are unsure which model to select, check out our full Women's All-Mountain Review.
What Style Should You Choose?
Though this review focuses solely on all-mountain models, there are numerous types of boards on the market. Here we briefly describe the various types so that you can see where the all-mountain models fit into the marketplace.
This category includes products that are a step down in width and a step up in side cut from the all-mountain category, and these are sometimes referred to as front side boards. These models are meant for women who intend to stay on the groomed runs all day and may want to play around carving tight turns around some bamboo — but have no interest in skiing the rough stuff. Fairweather skiers, this is the category for you.
Many experts reach for a big mountain model when they're going for a big day out. These are usually longer and stiffer and with lots of camber. They can plow through anything they're pointed at. Getting dropped off by a heli at the top of a mountain in Alaska to rip some spines? Get a big mountain pair.
This category has changed a lot in the last ten years. You will find these models with ever-increasing waist dimensions and rocker. They will always have greater than a 100 mm waist with a very short effective edge and lots of rocker. They are not the best on-piste and will often feel like snow-blades on groomed runs because so little of the edges touch the snow. If you are looking for a great addition to your quiver and anticipate a lot of pow-shredding, powder planks sure are fun in their element.
If you want to look like the dorkiest person on the mountain, get snow blades (Also known as Snoller Blades). Surprisingly, though, they're a great tool for learning bump skiing techniques as well as tricks in the park. Just make sure you sport an 80's onesie while on them and wear them through the lodge on your feet for bonus laughs. Do not take them out on a powder day.
Depending on the manufacturer, these can also be called freestyle or jib skis. A bit skinnier in the waist and usually center mounted for riding switch, park models are meant for, well, the park. Typically they are twin tipped and have a softer flex for softer landings. If you prefer hucking your meat off of jumps and rails all day, a park model may be for you.
Another growing market in the last ten years or so, backcountry models are meant to be taken outside of the resort. These come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but weight is one of the main concerns. If you are going to be hiking in the backcountry, you'll want a lightweight setup. They often have a lightweight core and are paired with a binding that allows the heel to be free for the climb up. Backcountry specific models often compromise the downhill performance slightly in favor of being lighter weight, so they are not recommended for resort skiing. Check out our and Backcountry Review for information about which ones perform best outside the resort boundary. We think the Icelantic Oracle 88 could be a good choice for the backcountry.
This is a completely different category that is not meant for the downhill at all. These models do not have metal edges and are much skinnier and lighter than any alpine model. They are meant to be taken to your local Nordic center and used on groomed trails. They are mounted with minimal bindings that allow your heel to lift as you stride or skate along.
Why Choose a Women's Model?
There is some controversy around women's specific skis, because many women are not interested in the "shrink it and pink it" method of product design, and are more interested in actual performance. Some manufacturers just make their women's version shorter and with more feminine graphics. However, for the most part, manufacturers do pay attention to women's needs, physiology, and abilities, and they have produced fine-tuned products that are genuinely more appropriate for females. Some details that are taken into consideration when designing a women's specific ski are: length, flex, recommended mounting point, and graphics.
Most women's specific models are made in shorter lengths, up to about 175-180 cm or shorter. We were surprised to find that we were on the longest length available of some of the models we tested. Shorter models are easier to turn and control, but typically do not perform as well at speed or in deep snow.
Women are typically lighter than men. When a ski has a very stiff flex, it requires a lot of power and weight to turn and dig into the snow. With generally less weight behind our power, women may benefit from a slightly softer product that they can throw their weight onto and rail into turns. Many manufacturers make women's versions in softer flexes than the male equivalent, and this is somewhat contentious with ladies that have advanced skills because they can turn and handle stiff models just like the guys. The Volkl Aura is the stiffest women's model we tested, and best suited for expert skiers.
Recommended Mounting Point
It is a fact that women have more posterior weight in their athletic stances (our center of gravity is lower around our hips, versus upper torso in men). Some manufacturers have realized this and have moved their recommended mounting points closer to the middle (lengthwise) to bring the greater posterior weight forward for better control. We noticed the difference when comparing where the bindings were mounted on other models with similar lengths. The K2 FulLUVit 95 bindings were much more central than on the Blizzard Black Pearls and perhaps because of this, we found the K2 much easier to maneuver. The Atomic Vantage 95 C also felt short, fun, and turny because the bindings are somewhat more centrally mounted, making turning easy.
OK, we know this is part of the "pink it," but we prefer the graphics on a women's version. They are usually flashy and/or clever. Most of us really like the K2 FulLUVit's graphics because they are flashy and bright.
Take it or leave it, women's specific models do exist, and for most female recreational skiers, the women's versions are an excellent choice to get you sliding on the snow. If you are larger, stronger, or much more aggressive than the average lady, you may want to go with a unisex model.
Things to Consider When Choosing Your Skis
You will need to assess your skill level realistically before choosing your ski. If you get one that is too advanced for you, the fun factor will go right out the window. If you get one that is too beginner, you will get bored and not be able to go into the terrain you want to go into.
Beginner/Intermediate: Are you still working on your pizza to french fry transition? Do you stick to the green circles and are working on blue squares? You should look for models with a softer flex, skinner waist, and on the short side in length. A ski with some rocker might help make turns easier.
Intermediate/Advanced: Are you working on getting down those black diamond runs and starting to venture off-piste and into the powder? You may be gaining confidence at speed on groomed or steeper runs. Consider a model that has a bit more waist width, medium stiffness, and is a bit longer. A rockered model will help you get more float and stability in the crud.
Advanced/Expert: You cruise with confidence all over the mountain. You like to charge big lines and cover ground at higher speeds. You are comfortable on bumps, crud, powder, and on piste. You want a stiff ski that is stable at speeds and holds an edge. You may be building your quiver, and have a skinner waisted model for carving and a fat pair for powder.
What length to choose is a complicated question, with no clear answer. Consider your ability and the speeds you prefer; the more competent you are and the faster you like to go, generally, the longer a ski you want — to a point. A good rule of thumb for length is when you stand the ski with the tail on the ground, it should reach anywhere between your chin to the top of your head. If you are a beginner or intermediate skier, go for around the chin height, as shorter models are easier to turn.
If you are an expert skier you may want a ski that reaches the top of your head, or even over your head. The complicating factor with most modern designs, especially in the all-mountain category, is that they often come with a lot of rocker, which means there is less efficient edge touching the snow, so they feel shorter and are easier to maneuver, even if they are longer overall. If the model you are purchasing has rocker, you may want to bump up a length from what you typically would buy.
If you look at your ski from the side in profile, does it look like a smiley face or a funky mustache? Rocker, or reverse camber, is how much the tip and tail raises off the snow when it sits on the ground, un-weighted.
Camber, which has been used in ski design for a long time, is what gives power in the turns and edge hold, and is used generously in carving-specific models. The amount of camber can be seen when the ski is on the ground un-weighted. The point where the camber touches the snow or ground is the length of its effective edge.
There are four profiles that are most common:
Full Camber: Historically, most models were full camber. This means that they have a large arc underfoot where the ski does not touch the snow until very close to the tip and tail. Many carving and racing models are still fully cambered for great edge hold and stability at speed.
Full Rocker: This is the reverse of camber, and creates a slight U shape from tip to tail. Fully rockered models typically have great float in powder because their exaggerated tip and tail lift allow you to stay on top of the snow with greater ease. Fully rockered models are also easy to maneuver because they have very little effective edge and so they turn on a dime. You will find full rocker in park and all-mountain models and in most powder versions. The Volkl Aura is the only product in this review that has full rocker.
Rocker/Camber: This is when rocker is added in the tip but still has camber underfoot. The advantage of tip rocker is that it makes it more versatile — it has more float, a shorter effective edge, and is easier to turn, but still has camber underfoot for added power and stability in turns when at higher speeds. These skis have no rocker in the tail, which is perfectly fine unless you're landing switch off cliff drops into powder (which we weren't). The Head Great Joy and the Icelantic Oracle 88 both have a rocker/camber profile.
Rocker/Camber/Rocker: This profile seems to be the most popular among the all-mountain models we tested, and is just as it sounds: rocker in the tip, camber underfoot, and rocker in the tail. This profile gives the ski added playfulness and float and still has the benefits of camber underfoot. The tail rocker, in addition to allowing you to land cliff drops switch in powder (if that's your thing), seems to add some silkiness to the back of the ski and allow for more easily smeared turns in the fresh stuff. Every other model we tested has this profile — the Rossignol Soul 7 HD W, the Elan Ripsticks 94, the Blizzard Black Pearl 98, the Dynastar Legend W 96, the K2 FulLuvit*, the Atomic WMN Vantage 95 C, and the Volkl 90Eight. The Elans take the rocker/camber/rocker idea another step further, with their Amphibio profile. It's hard to wrap your mind around at first, but the Ripsticks have a dedicated left and right ski; the inside edge (the one you're pressuring and relying on for edge hold) has regular camber for grip and stability, whereas the outside edge has more rocker further back from the tip and tail in an attempt to provide a smoother turn transition and forgiveness.
Unfortunately, there is no industry standard for measuring or qualifying how much rocker a ski has. Both the Rossignol Soul 7 and the Volkl 90Eights have rocker/camber/rocker profiles, but the amount of rocker varies greatly. The Rossignol has lots of rocker and are very easy to maneuver, whereas the Volkl did not, and we found them much more difficult to turn. Some manufacturers will give a percentage of rocker versus camber like 30 percent tip and tail rocker, 70 percent camber, but we find these numbers to be entirely subjective as well.
Depending on your needs on the slopes, shape can play an important factor in how your ski performs. Waist width, sidecut, and turn radius all determine the behavior of your ski, and can either complement or combat your style.
Sidecut: This is the overall shape of your ski. The waist dimensions relative to the tip and tail will determine the sidecut. Sometimes we just call this the shape. The more sidecut, or the larger the difference in waist versus tip and/or tail measurements, the carvier and more turny it will be. When it has a lot of sidecut, you will be able to get on your edges easier, and once you get on edge, the rest of the work is done for you. With less sidecut, the ski needs to be driven a bit more and prefers broader turns — this is easier to do for more advanced skiers. The Head Great Joy have the most sidecut in this review, with the dimensions of 141-98-124 respectively, making them the best models in our fleet for on-piste carving. The Volkl Aura has the least amount of sidecut at 132-100-118, and thus take more driving in tight turns.
Waist width: This determines how wide the ski is underfoot, which is generally in the middle or where the bindings are. The wider the waist, the more float you will have in powder, and the skinner, the easier it is to turn. The all-mountain models in this review have waist widths ranging from 88 mm-106 mm. On-piste carving models typically have a skinner waist width of 85 mm or less, and powder versions usually start at 110 mm or greater.
Turn Radius: Turn radius is meant to signify the natural turn shape and size of a ski, were it to be allowed to turn on its own without the driver having a say in when and where they wanted to go. The turn radius is determined by its shape and sidecut. Typically the more significant the sidecut, the shorter the turn radius is. For example, the Head Great Joy has a dramatic sidecut and the turn radius is 15.3 M, whereas the Volkl Aura has hardly any sidecut and the turn radius is 21.5 M. If you like tight, peppy turns, choose a model with a small turn radius. If you like big, flowy turns, then select a larger one. You will be much happier if you determine what the turn radius is and try to make turns that work with those parameters.
It is important to become familiar with the different types of construction and materials so you can decide the best balance of quality versus budget. Here we outline the typical construction types and components of a ski. As you may imagine, there are so many types of materials out there, and varying opinions about each one. We are just providing an overview for understanding.
Core: This is the meat and potatoes of the ski and what give it its flex and character. There have been many fad materials used to make cores, but wood is the classic and most reliable material. Most manufacturers use some combination of different types of hardwood in different parts of its product. Wood is the preferred core material because of its damping properties and rebound, but is usually the most expensive. All of the products we tested have wood cores of one type or another. Other core materials are typically made from some kind of foam or foam and wood combo. Foam is less expensive and lighter weight, but doesn't give as much rebound.
Composite Layers: These are all the other materials that go into a ski below and on top of the core and can consist of anything from fiberglass and epoxy to carbon. These layers add to the stiffness and stick everything together and we have been noticing an increase in the number of on-hill skis that have carbon in them for increased rigidity and torsional tension like the Blizzard Black Pearl.
Base: The base is exactly that — the bottom. Bases need to slide well on snow, but they also take a beating from running over rocks and ice. Manufacturers use ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMW-PE) for base materials, and bases are usually only about 1.5 mm thick. There are two ways of creating the base: sintered and extruded. The sintered method is typically found on high-end models. It is harder and accepts wax better. Extruded is just the opposite. It is challenging to find out what base type your ski has unless you contact the manufacturer directly and ask.
Sidewalls: There are two main types of construction for around the edges of your skis: sidewall or cap. Sidewall or "sandwich" construction uses an extra piece of plastic that runs the length from tip to tail along the edge with the top sheet on top and the base and edge on the bottom. Cap construction wraps the top sheet over the top edge, wrapping over the sides and meeting up with the bottom edge like it's wearing a cap. Sidewall construction seems to be the preferred method in high-end models, and most people believe it is a higher performing construction because the edges have better hold and the softer piece of plastic seems to have dampening qualities.
We have noticed during our testing that sidewall construction seems to be more durable than cap and that the cap models in our review seem to get more chips in their top sheet. It is quite common to see a hybrid cap/sandwich construction these days. This construction has the sidewall underfoot for performance but is capped at the tip and tail to reduce weight and cost.
Topsheets: These are what initially draws us to the ski — and proudly displays the manufacturer's graphics. The top sheet is usually made of plastic and is the waterproof layer that protects the rest of the ski.