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Our team of female rippers has tested over 60 of the best all-mountain skis for women over the last 7 years, and recently bought 14 of this year's best offerings for a side-by-side comparison on the snow. We rode these skis all over the mountain while floating through dreamy soft powder, muscling through thick Sierra cement, plowing through crud and chop, and shredding smooth groomers. We gave special attention to how each ski performs in various conditions, taking into account the playfulness and the stability-at-speed of each ski. We also identify the best budget model, making it easy for you to make the right choice, no matter your price range.
Sidecut: 132-98-120 mm Available Lengths: 151, 158, 165, 172, 179 cm Length We Tested: 172 cm
REASONS TO BUY
Blasts through crud
Reliable and stable
REASONS TO AVOID
Not a lot of rebound
No stand-out characteristics
The Nordica Santa Ana 98 is the type of ski you could buy, throw in the rooftop box, and not have to worry about having enough space for the rest of your stuff. Instead of having to pack a ski for groomers and a ski for powder days, the Nordica provides you with an all-in-one option. The Santa Ana 98 performed particularly well in the crud, staying stiff enough to punch through anything the mountain threw at it. It also floats well in powder, feels stable at high speeds, can carve a mean arc, and pivots easily around a mogul field.
While we appreciated the reliability of this ski, we didn't experience any wow-factor and didn't feel a lot of rebound or responsiveness under our feet. That said, it took us everywhere we wanted to go at the resort and handled every snow condition, so there's something to be said for dependability. If you don't need something to excite you and want a single ski that can do everything well, the Santa Ana 98 is your match made in heaven.
Sidecut: 127-96-117 mm Available Lengths: 155, 163, 171, 175, 179, 183, 187 cm Length We Tested: 171 cm
REASONS TO BUY
Stiff and Stable
REASONS TO AVOID
Not ideal for lower-level skiers
Less flotation in the deepest powder
The Faction Dictator 2.0X is an ideal ski for the value-seeking ripper-chick. It loves to roll around at high speeds, providing outstanding edge-hold and stability, and carves a clean arc with the best of the skis in our test. In choppy snow and difficult conditions, the Dictator mounts a military coup, razing down everything in its path. Faction is offering a powerful ski for an affordable price.
The Dictator needs a highly competent skier to drive it precisely. This ski is not a great choice for beginner to intermediate skiers who are still gaining confidence; these skis are bossy. You need to tell them who is actually in charge rather than allowing them to rule with impunity. This ski also lacks the exceptional flotation in powder that some skis in our review boast. However, if you are a highly skilled and assertive skier who wants a dependable ski for a good price, look no further than the Faction Dictator.
Sidecut: 136-96-111 mm Available Lengths: 154, 162, 170, 178 cm Length We Tested: 178 cm
REASONS TO BUY
Great in all densities of powder
Fun accessible even to lighter, less powerful skiers
REASONS TO AVOID
Gets bouncy in crud
Slight tip flap at speed
Doesn't carve perfectly on the inside ski
We loved a lot about the Elan Ripstick 94 W, but the most impressive was its ability to keep trucking along, no matter how deep or dense the snow. Whether you're a hard-charging West Coast chick who sometimes skis heavier fresh snow with higher water content, or you're new to powder skiing of any variety, this ski gives you a full access pass to the amusement park. While this new Ripstick doesn't have quite the extreme rebound that caused us to issue the old version an award for playfulness, it still gave even the lightest of us a thrill with its spring-back.
The Ripstick has an unusual design which helps it perform well in the powder but means that it's not built well for making perfectly carved turns, particularly on the fully-rockered uphill ski edge. The large rockered tips that kept us cruising in deeper snow were also a bit floppy when brought to higher speeds on harder snow. In chunky, chopped-up terrain, the Ripstick wasn't the smoothest ride. However, the joy it gave us in powder and through its amazing poppiness all over the mountain made it one of our favorites, and the price tag made our wallets feel fine.
Sidecut: 133-96-119 mm Available Lengths: 156, 164, 172 cm Length We Tested: 172 cm
REASONS TO BUY
Pristine edge hold
Extremely adept carving ski
REASONS TO AVOID
Not versatile enough for moguls
Mixed success in crud
Dives in deeper snow
The Kastle FX 96 W has exceptional carving capability, particularly for a ski in this wider, all-mountain vein. The 16-meter turn radius feels vibrant and nearly always accurate; a combination of its edge-hold abilities and reliable rebound make for a truly joyful carved turn. Its edges seize hold of the snow and these tight jaws will not release until the rider demands. With a slightly narrower 96-millimeter waist, the Kastle moves rapidly and easily from edge to edge. For those who love to tip their skis on edge and arc clean tracks all day, the Kastle is an absolute dream.
The Kastle is strongly built and prefers to be set on edge, rather than to skid, so it isn't maneuverable enough to pivot easily through the bumps. In the crud, we found that if we could keep moving aggressively and use its keenness for edging, it was a dampened and solid ride. However, if we kept it flatter on the snow and tried to steer more, the ride was bouncier. This ski also performs well only in about 6 inches of powder, but it sinks slightly in deeper snow. The manufacturer's renowned power and stability translate into a markedly ideal carving ski, and combined with the width and rockered profile, give it some versatility in all types of terrain. The Women's Kastle FX 96 is the perfect tool for those who mostly want to shred crisp lines in corduroy, while occasionally dabbling elsewhere on the mountain.
Sidecut: 135-96-119 mm Available Lengths: 149, 156, 163, 170 cm Length We Tested: 170 cm
REASONS TO BUY
Very stable at high speeds
Great edge hold
REASONS TO AVOID
A bit stiff for lighter ladies
The Volkl Secret 96 is a versatile all-mountain ski with a penchant for speed and grip. We could take this ski anywhere, at any speed, and feel confident that it would maintain course and do so with style. Whether dropping into a steep couloir or mobbing down the groomer back to the chair, this ski had our backs and built our confidence. It feels as though it is a quality-made ski, not surprising from this manufacturer, and its construction remains steady all along the length of the ski from tip to tail. While it topped our charts for stability, it also performed well in nearly every other metric, making it an excellent choice for anyone wanting to ski the entire mountain in any condition.
The same qualities that make this ski so reliable at speed and in the steeps result in it being not particularly agile in trees or bumps. And while Volkl has made a concerted effort to construct the shorter skis a bit softer for smaller ladies, our testers found that even their appropriate length ski was fairly burly. We also missed the nearly perfect all-mountain all-rounder nature of the discontinued Secret 92, but most of us took our consolation in a very dependable and well-built ski.
Our team of experts put these skis through more than 75 individual tests to assess their performance across the board. We test products side-by-side to rank each pair of skis within each metric. These all-mountain skis represent some of the most popular models available, so a low score doesn't mean a particular pair isn't worth consideration. A low score only means that a certain ski didn't perform well relative to the rest of the field, and often, low-scoring models still shine in certain situations.
Over the past seven years, our team has tested more than 60 of the best all-mountain skis. Our experts have logged thousands of hours on snow testing skis, which helps them highlight every ski's strengths and weaknesses. We design our testing metrics to be both comprehensive and mutually exclusive and assign awards when a ski excels for a particular purpose. We balance performance and price to help you find the best value for your next one-ski quiver.
Our testing of women's all-mountain skis breaks down into six rating metrics:
Stability at Speed (20% of overall score rating)
Carving Ability (20% of overall score rating)
Powder Performance (20% of overall score rating)
Crud Performance (20% of overall score rating)
Terrain Playfulness (15% of overall score rating)
Bumps (5% of overall score rating)
Our two lead testers are industry professionals based in Mammoth Lakes, California, USA. Both come from a long history of ski instruction and personal passion for the sport, and each has different styles, preferences, and abilities, which helped us better understand each ski's advantages and faults.
Lead tester Renee McCormack holds a PSIA Level 3 certification and has been a ski instructor for the past fifteen years at Vail and Mammoth Mountain. Renee is 5 feet, 10 inches tall, and 140 pounds. She generally prefers a stronger, stiffer ski with a decent sidecut. She believes that an all-mountain setup should be capable in all conditions, including on-piste groomers, where we all end up spending portions of our day.
Hilary Roache grew up in Australia and has worked as a ski instructor in Vermont, Colorado, Utah, Austria, and New Zealand before finally settling in Mammoth Lakes eleven seasons ago. Hilary holds PSIA Level 2 and NZSIA Level 2 certifications. Hilary is 5 feet, 3 inches tall, and 120 pounds, so some of the women's all-mountain skis in our test sizes were on the bigger side for her. She enjoys skiing groomers and carving it up when she teaches, but her real passion is powder skiing.
Hilary and Renee will often put their students on the skis they're testing for GearLab to get a wide variety of feedback; they also offer the skis to fellow instructors, coaches, and skier friends to consider their thoughts. We believe that testing the same skis will multiple testers helps us provide better feedback.
Analysis and Test Results
You are probably a sensible person who only wants to own a single rockin' pair of skis that will take you anywhere on the mountain, any day. Here is the theory behind all-mountain skis: these are skis designed to take you all over the mountain through all types of snow conditions. Certain manufacturers will use different terminology for this ski category; they are usually dubbed "all-mountain" or occasionally "freeride."
Regardless, an all-mountain model strives to do it all — carve clean arcs on groomers, maintain stability at speed, withstand crud and bumps, and stay afloat in powder. The top-rated all-mountain skis are all capable of handling a wide variety of conditions, and they all emerged as high-performers within the women's all-mountain ski realm, where versatility is crucial.
Due to the "jack of all trades" nature of all-mountain skis, they are already a cost-conscious skier's ideal purchase. We know everyone is looking to stretch their dollars where they can, so we compared each model's list prices and total scores to lock down the best value-for-money purchases. The Faction Dictator 2.0X and the Elan Ripstick 94 W are both well-seated high-value choices. The Faction is a decently versatile option suited for high-level skiers who can reign it in, and the Elan is a powder hound and a wildly playful ski. The Salomon QST Lumen 99 is another powder-oriented option on the lower end of the scale. Conversely, if you're looking for something with more on-piste capabilities, then the Blizzard Black Pearl 88 is a good deal for a well-made ski.
The Nordica Santa Ana 98 is at the higher end of the group for cost; however, the value that it provides through its versatility will make it worthwhile for many. It is only slightly more expensive than the average, and its ratio of dollar-per-use increases if it means only purchasing one ski for every day of the season.
Stability at Speed
We want our all-mountain skis to make us feel like super-heroines while flying down the mountain instead of making tentative or unsure. We want to exert pressure on them, make them bend, and know they won't slip out from under us or chatter around at high speeds. To this end, we examined how each pair of skis performed at higher speeds. Do they offer a smooth and seamless ride, or do the tips flap incessantly? Can they keep their edge when carving through a fast, high-pressured turn, or do they tend to wash out? Are they dampening, softly absorbing bumps and uneven terrain, or do we get bucked around and launched out of balance?
This season, the Volkl Secret 96 takes the cake as the most stable competitor in the test, earning one of our awards for this metric. If you like to go fast and feel supported, the Volkl is a sure thing. The Faction Dictator 2.0X is another strong challenger in this metric, and both the Nordica Santa Ana 98 and the Kastle FX 96 perform nearly as well. Like Volkl and Nordica, many companies add carbon and titanal to increase stiffness – stability-focused construction led to success in this metric.
Most of the skis in the all-mountain division now have rockered tips, primarily intended to help the skis stay afloat in deeper, fresh snow. When skied on groomers at high speeds, these rockered tips often have the appearance of being unstable (as they flap their wings). The Coalition SOS has such extremely rockered tips that it becomes difficult for them not to flop when moving quickly on hard-packed snow.
However, some skis, like the Nordica Santa Ana 98, have enough sidewall underfoot that despite their slightly flapping tips, you still maintain enough edge-hold and stability underfoot. The discussion of edge-hold is also related to the carving metric. Like the Volkl Secret 96, some have carbon in the tips to help dampen the ride.
The weight of a ski can play a significant role in overall stability, and this becomes particularly apparent at speed. Depending on a ski's dimensions and the choice of materials laid up in construction, a ski can feel stable and reliable, wild and unpredictable, or somewhere in between. Unfortunately, it does seem common that when a ski is very stable at higher speeds, it also tends to be stiffer, heavier, and perhaps a little unwieldy for lighter, less powerful skiers.
Despite their difference in weight, lighter testers found both the Volkl Secret 96 and the Faction Dictator 2.0X to be more difficult to bend and maneuver. We all felt these two skis weren't particularly versatile and lacked agility. The Nordica Santa Ana 98 managed to break the mold - not only did our smaller testers have an easy time accessing both its steadiness and flex, but all the testers also agreed that it felt lightweight, agile, and fun in all types of terrain.
Some models, like the particularly lightweight Atomic Maven 93 C and Black Crows Captis Birdie, feel unstable at speed and flap crazily down the hill. Maybe designers are trying to make these skis lighter or softer for a female skier. Whatever the case, they are a less comfortable ride at speed, not instilling the confidence we desired to reach our maximum velocity threshold.
How easy is it to turn each competitor? Will the skis turn when requested, or do they prefer to go straight ahead? Can you tip them on edge, have them engage, and ride the rail? Do they stay engaged when you do? What is the turn radius, and does the ski feel like it wants to make a tighter or larger turn? These are questions we asked ourselves when assessing how well each of these skis carves a turn.
Models with a smaller turn radius are sometimes better at carving, but this is not a given. Turn shape and size are mainly products of a ski's sidecut, though they are also affected by the ski's flex pattern (the way it bends as you ski it). If a ski has an hourglass shape (wider at the tip and tail and skinnier underfoot), it will likely offer a smaller radius turn. Conversely, a ski with a straighter design from the tip to the tail, like the Coalition SOS, can result in a larger turn radius.
Another factor within the carving metric is a ski's agility when moving from one set of edges to the other. Edge-to-edge quickness is often a function of a ski's waist width (skinnier skis being generally faster to switch edges). Still, it's also related to the sidecut and the turn radius. Some skis will rock quickly over from one edge to the next, instantly engaging the new edge and initiating a new turn. Other contenders are a bit more sluggish. With an easy transition edge to edge and an ability to arc a turn, the Blizzard Black Pearl 88 was a contender for our top award in this metric. The next slimmest ski, the Black Crows Captis Birdie at 90 millimeters, was, in fact, quick from edge to edge, but we felt that its lack of grip strength and solid construction meant that we couldn't offer it high ratings in this metric.
Edge-hold within a turn is an important element of our carving metric. Can we trust the ski's edge to lock into the snow when we're railing turns? If we turn at speed, will these planks hold their course through the turn, or will they stutter or slip away? For superior edge-hold and bar-none carving capabilities, our winner for the best carving ski takes the cake. The Kastle's reliable grip throughout every turn gives it a landslide win in this metric. The Volkl Secret 96 also has excellent stability and edge-hold in its turns throughout a range of speeds. The Nordica Santa Ana 98 and the Faction Dictator 2.0X love laying down tracks and can easily hold an edge throughout the turn.
The Coalition SOS has the least amount of sidecut in our review by a landslide, and its 25-meter radius feels barrelling compared to the rest of the group. Interestingly, the Black Crows Captis Birdie and the Atomic Maven 93 C have shorter sidecuts and longer turn radii. Yet, with their soft nature and ability to bend, they turn better than much of the group.
The Icelantic Riveter 95 has a relatively tight radius at 16 meters, but the edges don't always stay engaged because its construction is not quite as solid as other competitors. Other skis with a longer turn radius on paper, like the Atomic Maven 93 C's 17.9 meters, can make a much smaller arced turn, particularly if they are softer and easier to bend. If you love shredding fresh corduroy and leaving two deep trenches in your wake, then it's critical to choose a ski that performs well in this metric.
If you've only ever skied on rental skis or skis less than 90 millimeters underfoot, then all of the skis in this review are going to blow your mind in powder. Most of them will make even the seasoned fat-ski chick feel like a superstar in the soft stuff. These boards all do a decent job of keeping you on top of the snow, therefore making powder skiing feel effortless (not an easy feat). In general, the wider the tips and waist, and the more rocker in the tips, the more the ski will help you float closer to the surface of the deeper snow, making it easier to maneuver as there's less resistance. Sometimes, the skinnier skis in this review were decidedly harder work in the powder since they sink within the mire — making it tougher to make that turn happen.
The Elan Ripstick 94 W makes powder skiing feel like flying through the clouds with the Amphibio profile that helps smooth out the turbulence. On the other end of the spectrum, both the Blizzard Black Pearl 88 and the Black Crow Captis Birdie tended to sink under deeper snow, making skiing more laborious. While all of the skis in our review are a huge step up compared to a standard rental ski or a race ski, there is an equally huge jump up to the next best type of ski in these conditions — a true powder ski (110 millimeters and above in the waist). When the snow gets deep, some of these all-mountain models just can't hang.
The shape of a ski's tip certainly plays a role in its keenness to float. By setting the widest part back from the end, more tapered tips seem to have a better glide in powder. Once again, Elan Ripstick 94 is a prime example. Thanks to their rockered and spatula tips, the relatively narrow waist doesn't inhibit its powder prowess at all. We were pleasantly surprised by their powder performance, even on the deepest days. The Salomon QST Lumen 99 shares the Elan Ripstick's tip profile and performs nearly as well in the deep. There are quite a few pairs of skis in this review that acquire floatation through their well-designed, wide tips, such as the Volkl Secret 96 and the K2 Mindbender 99Ti.
A ski's performance in powder is related to its waist width (wider = more floatation) as well as the amount of rocker it has in the tips. Additional rocker (the more a ski's tip turns upward away from the snow at a certain point along the length of the ski) helps a ski float without the addition of extra width. Rockered designs on skis like the Blizzard Sheeva 10 shift the contact area between the ski and the snow towards the center of the ski, effectively shortening the "skiable" length. This "effective edge" length is felt more on groomers, but a ski with an "early rise rockered tip" is likely going to feel shorter than expected for a given length. For instance, if you normally ski a 160-centimeter on-piste ski, you may want to consider getting something in the 170-centimeter range if you're buying something with an early-rise rocker.
The Coalition SOS has the fattest waist and some of the most prominent rocker of all the models in our review. Our winner in this metric, the Elan Ripstick 94 W, alternatively does not have a particularly wide waist nor an exceptional amount of rocker. It does have a very unusual design the manufacturer calls "Ambibio Technology," where there are dedicated left and right skis. The inside edge of each is built with regular camber to provide edge grip on harder snow. The outside edge has a fully rockered design, shaped like a banana, with each end lifting off the snow, allowing for more flotation in powder and agility in soft snow. Perhaps this rockered edge sets the Elan apart in its powder performance and makes it ski like a dream in the freshies.
For our review, we refer to "crud" as any version of variable snow (but not powder) on an ungroomed (or groomed too long ago to be noticeable) trail. Many days in springtime, the snow will be frozen sheets of ice in the morning and then forming giant slush waves by the mid-afternoon. But in mid-winter, you will sometimes find breakable crust in one spot and fun chalky wind-buff around the corner. Will your trusty toys blast through the irregularities, whether you're in soft or hard snow? When even the groomers are busted up, will you still feel like you're carving and crushing?
The Nordica Santa Ana 98 and the Faction Dictator 2.0X easily manage choppy snow like bullies on the playground, blasting through the rough terrain. They are both damp enough not to get tossed around in chunky snow, barrelling through it instead.
Other skis take an alternative approach to the chop, using their lightness and agility to skim the surface. The Elan Ripstick 94 and the Icelantic Riveter 95 use this method, but as it isn't as effective as the more aggressive tactic, they don't score quite as high in this metric.
The Salomon QST Lumen 99 tended to buck its riders in the crud, throwing unsuspecting testers into the back seat. We felt slightly disappointed by the Black Crows Captis Birdie in this type of terrain. It neither barged through it nor sucked it up, throwing us around and resulting in some minor humiliations.
We're evaluating how fun the ski is to use in this metric. This metric can certainly be a bit subjective from one tester to another and across skier-types as well, depending on your ability level, height and weight, and preferences for turn shape and size. Playfulness can also be a fairly simple measurement — do you have fun on this ski? Are you looking forward to taking them on the hill and playing around on them — riding switch maybe, or jumping off small features?
The ski's rebound is one element of playfulness that seems consistent throughout the models that excel in this metric. A ski with a nice rebound will release quickly and smoothly after you bend it (at the end of your turn), creating an energetic and exhilarating transition from one turn into the next. After you've pressured the skis through the turn and you let go, do they pop back and spring easily towards the next set of edges? Or are they listless and lack energy and responsiveness? Overall, a more traditionally cambered ski will tend to excel in this regard, yet we did find that the Elan Ripstick 94 (with a bizarre Amphibio-profile) had an exceptional rebound.
The Black Crows Captis Birdie gave all our testers, regardless of their size, a very exciting rebound and made it fun to ski within appropriate terrain - nothing too steep, deep, or choppy. One tester called the Icelantic Riveter 95 a bouncy ball of fun, given its propensity for popping in the air and springing easily in new directions.
The Salomon QST Lumen 99 stands out as a high-energy ski, in the same way, reacting quickly when our testers bent it and offering nice kick-back. Neither the Nordica Santa Ana 98 nor the Faction Dictator 2.0X are exactly "playful" in a conventional manner, but the feeling of confidence they gave us inspired us to attempt new stuff, which is always fun in and of itself.
Some skis, such as the Rossignol Black Ops W Rallybird Ti just felt like dead boards under our feet and didn't make us feel much joy while skiing them. This outcome was particularly disappointing in the case of the Rossi, as the old discontinued Rossignol Soul 7 HD W was one of the most responsive and playful skis we'd ever tested. Others, like the Blizzard Black Pearl 88, were reliable and strong but didn't have the spring to their step to make us truly gleeful.
Most skiers have a love or a hate relationship with them, but regardless, moguls are a fact of life while resort skiing. Even if you plan to avoid them at all costs, if you're skiing past noon, you'll often find yourself atop a pitch of bumps, possibly cursing the Olympic skiers who make them look so easy. Models with a tighter-feeling turn radius, such as the Icelantic Riveter 95, perform better in the tight, firm, evenly spaced bumps.
The Elan Ripstick 94 frolicked through the bumps and outperformed many of the other competitors in this metric. While we appreciated the Atomic Maven 93 in softer, smaller moguls, we wouldn't be thrilled to ski it through firmer Volkswagon-sized bumps. Despite its penchant for higher speeds and larger turn shapes, the Nordica Santa Ana 98 can still hold its own in a mogul field. Even our smaller testers found it manageable and quick in the bumps.
If moguls are only starting to form in fresh snow, it might be wise to choose a ski with better crud-busting capabilities, such as the Blizzard Black Pearl 88. It's also a hoot to feel the Faction Dictator 2.0X simply remold the mountain to its liking, basically just razing the bumps that accidentally got in its way. However, we would say that if you plan to spend any more than 5% of your time purposefully seeking out moguls, you may want to research more on-piste-specific models.
A Note About Versatility
We chose not to specifically rate the women's all-mountain skis on their versatility because the most versatile and well-rounded skis will naturally perform well across all of our metrics and rise to the top of the podium. The least versatile skis are the ones that tend to specialize in a particular zone, thereby making performance sacrifices in other areas.
The most versatile contenders in our review are the Nordica Santa Ana 98, the Elan Ripstick 94, the Kastle FX 96, the Faction Dictator 2.0X, and the Volkl Secret 96. The Nordica ski is particularly adept at high speeds and in crud but performs well all over the mountain as well. The Elan ski is a powder hound but also has wonderful frivolity, both on-piste and off. The Kastle ski seems born to carve with its incredible edge-hold and is also very stable at high speeds; it only lost some traction in the mogul metric. The Faction ski is a crud-buster and high-speed machine, but it also competes in softer snow and moguls. The Volkl ski has unrivaled steadiness at high speeds in any terrain, and while carving, it only misses a step when taken into tight bumps.
If you're seeking the perfect ski to handle whatever goods Mother Nature throws your way, we have you covered in this women's all-mountain ski review. Whether you're looking for planks to help stay afloat in soft powder, shred the groomers, or plow through crud, our top-ranked skis have the versatility to excel in all kinds of conditions and take you anywhere on the mountain.
If you're still skiing in your warped and scratched...
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