Our review focuses on all-mountain models, which we believe are the most versatile category of alpine skis. After a full season of testing 8 all-mountain models, we gained some new perspectives on what it means to have one ski that does it all. After all, how often do you have 8 pairs at your disposal?
In this article, we'll share some of the insights we gathered from our season of putting these boards through the wringer. This article is targeted at people looking for one product that can do it all. Although it would be too easy to have a different model for every condition, we recognize this isn't practical for most folks. This article will go over the basics of construction and design and will give some advice about what to consider when buying a new pair.
So Many Choices
This review focuses on the broad category of all-mountain contenders. Here is the spectrum of other types on the market.
What Makes an All-Mountain Ski?
Skis have a long history as tools for transportation and toys for recreation in the high mountains around the world. Modern alpine models come in all shapes and sizes, with special design considerations for specific applications and conditions. The newest models on the market are made of some very traditional natural materials and some pretty space age technology. They may not look familiar if you left the ski world during the middle-to-late part of the 20th century. The shapes and sizes have changed dramatically. Modern design has met the needs of an evolving sport and has helped to make skiing easier and more approachable for beginners.
Your skis are probably the most prized piece of your kit for hitting the slopes. Think about it, they are the tools that allow you to slide on snow. They are a common conversation starter on the chair lift. "Hey man, what do you think of those? Where can I demo them?" And, a nice pair can be the envy of your friends. They are also one of the most expensive pieces of winter gear that you can buy. Special attention to buying the right pair for your needs is important.
Although some of us dream of a pile of skis, each with their own special circumstances for when they come out, like some for powder, one for groomers, one for spring, one for wind buff, and a second pair of each of those as rock planks for early season; this is pretty unrealistic for most of us. The goal of this review is to find the most appropriate model for all-mountain conditions. Albeit cliche, the term "one ski quiver" is apt for a true all-mountain pair. We are looking for a model which will handle early morning groomers, all but the deepest of powder days, and the not-quite bulletproof conditions found weeks after the last sign of a storm.
Our advice in pursuing a single pair that can do it all is to be honest about what conditions you encounter most often. Average it all together and find where you want your pair to perform best. For example, if you are primarily an on-piste skier and like to pin the throttle all the time, you may enjoy the Nordica Enforcer 93 as your day-to-day all-mountain toy. Powder hounds that only come out for the softest days of the year would probably detest that model and find the Salomon QST 99 to be a better choice. The good news is that there are versions out there that can handle most anything you throw at them, but some of your opinion of them will lie in your taste, style, and ability and the terrain and conditions found most often at your local resort. Our testing revealed that the Volkl Mantra is the most versatile and most acclaimed model in this review for the purpose of all-mountain use.
All-mountain models are what are featured in this review. For our purposes, we sought out products that should do many things well, and not specialize in any one type of terrain or snow type. In our minds, all-mountain models should be able to handle anything that is thrown at them, from early morning groomers and powder snow to afternoon bumps and firm snow long after the last storm. They have design features that help them to balance all of your on and off-piste needs. For the budget conscious and the 20 days and less a year crowd, it makes sense to have one pair that can do it all. For the die-hard fans, it's nice to know that you have a pair that can tackle the whole hill on any given day.
Women's Specific Models
The OutdoorGearLab Women's Review was done simultaneously with the men's review. We collaborated on testing methods and shared some snow days with the ladies involved. We even swapped skis! Their review will shed some light on the most versatile women's models out there and provide a thorough description of what is different about models designed specifically for females.
Like many products marketed to women, women's versions are sometimes just toned down versions of similar men's models, but with a more feminine name and some pink somewhere on them. Jokes aside, women's specific models are usually shorter and have a softer flex than men's models, because ladies usually don't weigh as much or ski as aggressively as their male counterparts. Many women use men's versions, but there are important design considerations that make women's specific models more approachable and enjoyable for most females.
Pow skis are wide and usually feature a generous amount of rocker. Both of these qualities help you stay on top of the soft stuff. These models want to float and play in deep snow, but can be a bit squirrely on firm snow. If you have the extra cash and a penchant for collecting, you should consider a pair for the deepest days of the season.
Like to go fast? Do you prefer a long, narrow, stiff pair that's designed for maintained slopes and icy race courses? Look no further than high-end race models. Race skis can be categorized for the type of racing to be done. Slalom models are short, have a small turning radius, and appear to be more shapely than their other racing brethren. Giant Slalom and Super G models are longer and straighter for bigger turns and higher speeds. Downhill models are stiff, stable at speed, and only like to turn when the speedometer is maxed out on big, long courses.
Twin tipped, narrow, and frequently abused, park planks are intended for big jumps, rail features, half pipes, and other manufactured terrain. They are appealing to the freestyle minded who are more driven by creativity than traditional performance. These models are typically center mounted to allow for going forwards or backwards. Twin tips are more loose in the turn than flat tails.
Long, wide, and stiff, big mountain models like to go fast, go big, and plow through the toughest terrain and conditions. These are an expert's choice for those who prefer big off-piste terrain and want something that can gobble it up. These models usually feature lots of camber, a wide body, and generous amounts of material to stiffen and toughen up the ski.
System skis are designed with a specific binding in mind and are purchased with the binding already in place. They are generally very adjustable but cannot be re-mounted with different bindings. Most system models are intended for the budget conscious person who prefers on-piste terrain. They can sometimes fall into the broad category of all-mountain, but usually aren't as versatile as some of their wider bodied, flat counterparts.
Backcountry skis are intended for human powered excursions into the mountains. These are lightweight! Top backcountry models weigh ½ to ¼ of some of the models in our all-mountain review. Models suited for the backcountry are used with specialized bindings that allow the heel to be freed for a striding motion and are fitted with climbing skins which allow for sliding forward but gripping backwards. For long days of touring, it is not advised to lug around your resort pair unless you have legs of steel. Dedicated in-bounds models perform better going downhill, but will slow you down when it comes to putting in vertical in a skin track. Reference our See our backcountry ski review for more info.
Cross-country models are made for the groomed tracks at your local nordic center. They are narrow and long narrower and longer than most alpine versions. In fact, they aren't meant to be used downhill like alpine models. They are harder to turn and most don't have any edges on them to slow down with. They can be broken down into two general categories: classic (or striding) and skate. Classic models use a kick and glide motion to move forward on flat and uphill terrain. Skate models use a skating motion not dissimilar to ice skating to propel you. They are both an excellent workout, but don't expect a similar experience to riding lifts and getting the reward on the way down.
Why Buy an All-Mountain Ski?
Isn't a ski just a ski? In the world of skiing, there are actually tools for every application. Many models are specialized for a particular set of conditions and are intended for very specific activities, such as racing. There are design characteristics that make some models more appropriate for certain circumstances.
However, skiing is an expensive activity and high-end models are just one piece of that pricey puzzle. If you had the choice, wouldn't you prefer to have one pair that you could just pick up and go, without thinking twice? For the more experienced and die-hard folks, it's a relief to be able to head to the hill in the morning and know you will have the right pair throughout the day, no matter where your travels take you. The good news is that there are models that serve the purpose of being well-rounded performers, no matter the conditions or terrain.
The Anatomy of An All-Mountain Ski
It's good to familiarize yourself with the construction of skis before shopping around for a new pair. By understanding the bits and pieces of what goes into its design, you'll be more informed before reading specifications and deciding what might be suitable for your needs. Read below about design considerations and specifications to consider when purchasing your next pair.
The basic components are pretty much universal to any product on the market. The materials used and their construction are part of what sets apart quality models from cheaper, less quality versions. In our Best of 2016 review, you will hear reference to the construction and how we felt it affected its performance.
The topsheet forms the top layer — it's what you see when you look down while cruising downhill or riding the lift back up. It is usually made of some sort of composite material. This plastic layer helps to protect the core and rests on top of other composite layers as well as epoxy, which all contribute to the stiffness of the ski. The topsheet is where the graphics live. Nice graphics are a treat to look at, but try not to judge a book by its cover. Graphics don't improve performance.
The sidewall, like the topsheet, also protects the core. Sidewalls are usually composed of a plastic material. Two primary sidewall construction designs are found on modern alpine models.
Straight sidewalls are typical for sandwich construction where materials are layered on top of each other from the base to the top sheet. Straight sidewalls are durable and contribute to the stiffness.
Capped sidewalls use a single piece that encompasses the topsheet and side wall. Cap construction is used commonly on foam core models.
The core of the ski is wrapped up in the rest of the material used for construction. High-quality cores are made from wood. Some models will use a few different types of wood for their different performance characteristics, whether it be lightweight species or stiffer varieties. Wood cores are generally preferred because of their ability to store energy and provide the pop that people look for in a quality product. Wood cores will also dampen vibration and hold up to use over time. Wood core models tend to be heavier and more expensive than versions that use a synthetic material for their core.
Some less expensive models use a foam material for their cores. The advantages of foam cores are that they are cheap and significantly lighter than their wood core relatives. However, foam cores sacrifice performance and durability for their gains in cost savings and weight. Foam cores don't absorb vibration as well as wood and will lose some of their stiffness over time. Higher-end foam core models use more durable materials and may integrate strips of wood to keep a stiff feel and infuse some of the unique performance characteristics of wood cores.
Metal edges provide the bite that enables us to control and stop on a slippery surface. Edges can be sharpened with a careful hand, using a file and a guide. The easiest and best way to properly maintain edges is to have a trained technician do it for you using a machine.
The base allows us to slide along the snow surface. This is the part that is almost always made from some type of plastic material. Not all bases are created equal. Some plastics used are harder than others and can sustain more abuse from rocks and hard snow. To save weight and cost, some manufacturers will have thinner bases than others. Bases are prone to scratching and gouging but are relatively easy to maintain. A trained technician at a tuning shop can fill in any damage or scratches and then flatten the base again using a base grinding machine.
For an excellent summary of modern ski materials and construction, we recommend reading this article.
Length is measured in centimeters. With experience, you will find what lengths are best for your height/weight, ability, skiing style, and terrain choices. Be advised that not all manufacturers measure length in the same way. The same advertised length in some versions may appear to be or feel much longer than other manufacturers. Ski size lengths can range from about 70 cm for small children to 190-200 cm for race models, expert skiers, and very tall adults. See our discussion about the right length below.
Width is measured in millimeters. The width is commonly measured at three points. First, the widest part of the tip; then at the narrowest part, underfoot; and finally at the widest part of the tail. Those three dimensions give you a picture of what the sidecut is.
One critical width measurement is at the middle, or underfoot. Generally speaking, the wider a model is underfoot, the more it will float in deeper and softer snow. This is mostly a function of an increased surface area. Therefore, products that are marketed specifically for powder conditions tend to have much bigger waist widths, between 110-130 mm.
Sidecut refers to the general hourglass shape of alpine models. It can also be described as the curvature of the metal edge running from the tip to its tail. For a visual aid, turn the ski perpendicularly on its edge and notice the gap between the sidewall under the binding and the ground. The sidecut of recreational models has become more dramatic over time. In general, the deeper the sidecut, the smaller the turn radius of that model.
The radius of the imaginary circle that would form if you completed the sidecut arc is the measured turn radius. The smaller the turn radius, the tighter the turns that model will naturally make. The length can affect its turning radius. The same model in a different length will sometimes have the same dimensions otherwise, with only its turn radius changing. In short, longer models have a longer turn radius and vice versa. Products in our all-mountain review have turn radii that measure between 16 and 25 meters. For example, the Volkl Mantra (132/100/118) has a relatively large 25.4 m turn radius.
Although difficult to measure outside of the traditional sort of kick-the-tires hand flex testing that is done on the shop floor, the stiffness of a ski is an important consideration in selection. Stiffness is achieved by using more core material, different glues and fiberglass layers, and stiffening materials like metal or carbon in the sandwich, and by varying amounts of both of these in certain parts. Stringers or strips of metal or carbon are also used to increase stiffness. Wood core versions tend to be stiffer than foam core versions.
Camber refers to the upward arching shape when placed flat on the snow surface with the contact points being close to the tip and tail of the ski. With cambered models, a person's weight when clipped into the bindings puts an even and concentrated pressure on the ski's edge. The result is predictable edge hold and more pop when turning. Stiff, cambered models perform best at high speed and in firm snow. The K2 iKonic 84 ti has camber underfoot, which provided plenty of energy when turning. The pop from the camber complimented the playful rockered shape, creating fun, energetic boards that were fairly versatile.
Think of rocker as reverse camber. The idea of using reverse camber in design can be traced back to one specific product, dreamt up by the legendary Shane McConkey in the early 2000s. The Volant Spatula borrowed the reverse camber idea from waterskis where the shape is used to keep them afloat in water.
There are different rocker profiles available, and manufacturers will use different terms to describe their proprietary rocker blends. Our goal here is not to describe all of the possible combinations and corresponding nomenclature, but rather to introduce a few concepts that will help to explain why rocker works. A fully rockered model has a gentle upward facing bend from the tip to the tail, with the contact point underfoot.
Tip rocker, or early rise tips, move the contact point back towards the center. Tail rocker moves the rear contact point forward toward the center. Rocker shortens the effective edge of any ski because it moves the contact/pressure point away from the tip and/or tail. By doing this, rockered models will feel a bit shorter than traditionally cambered models.
Unless you are fully flexed in a turn, a shorter, rockered model will not hold an edge as well as models with greater camber. However, by shortening the effective edge, turn initiation becomes easier and quicker. The shorter effective edge and easy turning qualities of rockered models allow you to get on longer and/or wider planks and maneuver them more easily.
Longer boards have more surface area, which is an asset in soft snow - where flotation matters. Wider models that are easy to turn on firm snow are versatile because they also perform better in powder conditions. Because of the turned up tip on rockered versions, they tend to want to float in powder and roll over crud better than a similar model without a rockered tip. Any amount of tip and/or tail rocker can be used in combination with camber underfoot. This gives you the beneficial edge control and energy/pop of a cambered model while still being quick and easy to initiate your turns like you were on a rockered version.
The Volkl Mantra is a fully rockered model featured in our review. We found that with this model, the more you rolled onto your edge, the more effective the edge became. Our reviewers noted it felt very true to size.
How Do I Make Sense of the Specifications and Choose the Right Ski?
With just a few design principles in your pocket you're ready to set out on your journey toward a new pair. Our advice for choosing a pair of all-mountain skis is to be honest about your style, ability, and what terrain you enjoy most. Don't necessarily buy into the hype from manufacturers regarding this or that being the latest and greatest one-ski-quiver on the market. Much of a product's performance will lie in your size, style, ability, and taste. Remember that while some aspects of the design can make it easier for you in certain conditions, staying true to your skills and ability is the most important bottom line for your enjoyment out there.
All-mountain models are tasked with balancing a huge variety of conditions and terrain. This is no easy job, especially when there are already designs out there intended for very specific purposes. We believe that a quality all-mountain model should be versatile above all. In regards to design, when choosing an all-mountain model you should consider size, stiffness, and weight as a starting point. Then consider the width, shape and camber/rocker profile.
The Right Length
A rough rule of thumb for choosing the correct length is to find a pair that stands between your chin and the top of your head when the tails are resting on the ground. In general, shorter lengths are easier to turn and are lighter. People with beginner and intermediate abilities will prefer shorter models. Longer lengths take more skill to turn and are heavier. Upper intermediate and advanced folks prefer longer models because they have an effective edge and are more stable at speed. Models with any amount of rocker will feel shorter because of the effect that rocker has on the amount of effective edge. Therefore, consider sizing up slightly from your typical length if you're buying a pair that is rockered in any way.
The amount of stiffness will affect how easily you can initiate a turn and maintain edge pressure. People that are lighter-weight and beginners will struggle to handle stiffer models. Advanced folks prefer stiff models because of their increased edge hold, especially on firm snow. Stiff models are also more capable of punching through rough terrain and variable conditions. Soft flexing models are better suited to dancing around variable conditions. By reading up on each model's specifications, you can look for materials and design characteristics that contribute to stiffness; ie: wood core vs. foam core; full metal sheets vs. no metal; and lots of camber vs. rocker.
Heavier models can be a chore to carry to the lifts and tire your legs out on the chair lift. They are, however, more stable at speed and more powerful for variable conditions. Lighter-weight models are not always softer flexing. Wood cores tend to be heavier than foam cores. Lighter weight people will prefer models that are also lighter weight. Folks who themselves are heavier and have more advanced skills may prefer models that weigh more. Anyone who spends any amount of time hiking or skinning in the side country or back country should consider lighter versions. If you're in the market for lightweight, performance backcountry models, take a look over How to Choose the Best Skis for Backcountry Touring, our Backcountry Model Buying Advice article.
The width at the waist is the crucial measurement for determining what type of snow and terrain they will perform best in. Wide models are better suited for soft snow and off-piste terrain. Narrower waists will handle on-piste terrain and firm snow better. If you are mostly off-piste and in soft snow, a wider waisted version will be the better choice for you. Folks who deal with firm conditions and stick to groomed slopes for the most part, should seek out narrow models.
Here we refer to a ski's shape, mostly in reference to its sidecut. If you make many small turns, a small turn radius will be a natural choice for you, to match your slope style. For big turns and high speed, a bigger turn radius will be more fun.
Smaller details in shape will also dictate how it feels to turn. Turned up tails will feel looser in the turn and it will be easier to release from the turn. Flat tails like to hook up and hold you in the turn longer. Tapered tails will also release more quickly from the turn. People who like to rail turns and stay on edge will appreciate flat tails. Those who slide turns and like to scrub speed quickly will feel at home on twin tipped models.
Besides the width, perhaps no other design characteristic will change the feel as much as its camber/rocker profile. Early rise tips with camber underfoot are a good choice for a combination of on-piste and off-piste terrain because they maintain some of the edge control of a cambered model with the easy turning capabilities that the rocker provides. Early rise tips will also help to keep them afloat in deeper and more variable snow. Fully rockered versions are recommended for more off-piste skiing, especially in soft snow. We think they are highly maneuverable in tight spaces and keep you on top of tough conditions.
If you make your turns more often on-piste or on firmer snow, then we suggest you seek out models that have less rocker. For those folks who seek out off-piste terrain and hunt for soft snow, consider the benefits of a more rockered version.
A Few Tips About Ski Maintenance
Ski wax helps them to slide more easily, faster, and smoother. Wax is rated for specific snow temperatures. The best wax is melted using an iron, spread on the base, and then scraped smooth. There are rub-on waxes that help you to glide better for a few runs, but rubs off quickly.
Sharpen your edges
Metal edges can be damaged by rocks and will generally dull over time. Dull or damaged edges don't track as well in turns and won't slow you down or stop as quickly. A metal file with a guide can remove burrs from your edges and clean them up nicely. Ski repair shops have specialized grinders that sharpen edges.
Get Professional Tunes
A base grind will help to flatten the bases, sharpen edges, and restore structure to the bases. Depending on snow conditions, the bases or the edges wear unevenly. A master ski tech can fill in the scratches on your bases, sharpen your edges, get the base flat again, and waxed up and ready for the mountains.