The ski market is absolutely overwhelming these days. There are so many manufacturers now that it can be hard to keep track of them. They all claim to have the best skis every year, and they are competing for your hard earned money by claiming to have the newest technology, the best reviews, and to be the only ski you should ever buy. There are fat ones, skinny ones, short ones, tall ones, some that go backward, some that spine, some that fly, some that are soft, some that are stiff…BUT, they all seem to want to achieve the same purpose of sliding down the mountain, so why so many different shapes and sizes? How do you know which one is best for you? People who are new to skiing can probably hop on any entry level model and have a good time. However, as your skills progress, you will demand more from your skis and will be seeking certain characteristics that will fit your skiing style the best.
Our review focuses on all-mountain models, which are the most versatile category of alpine skis. We rigorously tested our 10 chosen models this season, and have gained some excellent perspective on what makes an accessible and truly all-mountain ski. We even branched out and included several skis from smaller "boutique" manufacturers, and although it was tough to choose from such a large pool of excellent skis, we feel that we picked the best 10 out there.
Overwhelmed yet? In this article, we'll share some of the insights we gathered from our season of putting these planks 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 that skis are expensive and storage space is limited, and having a 20 ski quiver is not practical. This article will go over the basics of construction and design while giving some advice about what to consider when buying a new pair.
So Many Choices
While this review focuses on the broad category of all-mountain contenders, we thought it best to give you a general overview of skis you might run into when searching for the perfect pair. Take a big deep breath, relax, and join us on our journey through the ski industry.
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 like aspen and poplar and some pretty space-age technology like "magic carbon fingers". 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 while delivering amazing performance for skiers who test the limits of what is humanly possible on a couple of pieces of wood.
Your skis are definitely the most prized piece of your kit for hitting the slopes. In simple terms, they are just two planks of wood attached to your feet that allow you to slide down a mountain, but when you look back at old pictures of your dad on his 230cm straight skis and compare them to your brand new all-mountain shaped skis, the value of new technology and design is clear. They are a common conversation starter on the chairlift. "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 crucial because every skier has a different style and although a ski may get great reviews, there may be a pair that more closely fits how you like to ride.
Although some of us dream of a pile of skis, each with their own special circumstances for when they come out, like one for powder, one for groomers, one for spring, one for bumps, one for the park, one for dropping cliffs, 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 unless you have loads of extra cash and a gear room the size of the Tesla factory. 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 and is truly what our testers were looking for while pushing these skis to their limits. We are searching for a model which will handle early morning groomers, powder days, and the almost bulletproof conditions found weeks after the last sign of a storm or under the snow guns.
Our advice in pursuing a single pair that can do it all is to be very honest about what conditions you encounter most often. We all like the think we are the next Candide Thovex, but in reality, most of us just want to have a good time with friends while pushing ourselves to get a little better each day.
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 Rossignol Soul 7 HD 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. You'll notice a few of our favorites from last year made the short list, but our testing revealed that the Black Crows Damon is the most versatile and most acclaimed model in this review for the purpose of all-mountain use.
All-mountain models are what is 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. This year, we were fortunate enough to test a wide range of skis that are applicable to many different skier types. 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-hards, 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 but in slightly different locations. We collaborated on testing methods and shared some snow days with the ladies involved. We even swapped skis (see Lesia on the Men's skis in our photos)! 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 may not ski as aggressively as their male counterparts. Many women use men's versions and absolutely love them, but there are important design considerations that make women's specific models more approachable and enjoyable for most females. Ladies, don't be afraid to take a Men's model out for a spin…you may be surprised at just how much you enjoy them!
Modern powder 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. Also, because of their wide waist and typically long length, they can be hard to transition edge to edge and make quick tight turns on. If you have the extra cash and a penchant for collecting, or you live full time in Hokkaido, Japan, you should consider a pair for the deepest days of the season.
For a more in-depth look at Men's powder skis, check out OutdoorGearLab Men's Powder Ski Review. The pictures alone will have you dreaming of your next pow day.
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. All of these models tend to favor an aggressive tune and are truly designed with one theory in mind: if you aren't first, your last.
Twin tipped, narrow, and frequently abused, park planks are intended for big jumps, rail features, half pipes, and other manufactured terrain features. 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. Think Freeride World Tour or Warren Miller movies.
Backcountry skis are intended for human-powered excursions into the mountains. Although technically any ski could be turned into a touring set-up, most backcountry specific skis are fairly 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 backward. For long days of touring, it is not advised to lug around your resort pair unless you have legs of steel or are just a glutton for punishment. Dedicated in-bounds models perform better going downhill, but will slow you down when it comes to climbing 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. Think back to Norway absolutely dominating on these in the winter Olympics. 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? No! In the world of skiing, there are actually very specific tools and designs for different applications. Many models are specialized for a particular set of conditions and are intended for very specific activities, such as racing or Nordic skiing. 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 very pricey puzzle. If you had the choice, wouldn't you prefer to have one pair that you could just pick up and go every day you went to your local hill without thinking twice? For the more experienced and die-hard folks, it's a relief to be able to head to the mountain in the morning and knows you will have the right pair throughout the day, no matter where your travels take you because as we all know, the mountains are ever-changing. 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
You should be familiar with the overall design, construction, and material used in a ski, and as always, we're here to help. By building an understanding of the bits and pieces that go into a design, you'll be more informed before reading specifications and deciding what might be suitable for your needs. Continue reading below about design considerations and specifications to consider when purchasing your next pair.
The basic components are pretty much universal to any ski on the market. The materials used and their construction are part of what sets apart quality, durable models from cheaper versions. In our Best of 2018 review, you will often hear us reference the construction and materials and how observed they affected its performance.
When trying to create an all-mountain ski, manufacturers are faced with many trade-offs. A lightweight ski may not be as stable and one that is heavier. Using stiffer materials may make the ski heavier, but more consistent and powerful. Adding a bunch of rocker might make the ski more surfy and fun, but could take away from its carving performance and stability. Life is all about finding some sort of balance between work and play, and making skis is no different. It is truly a challenge to create something that can handle anything and everything Mother Nature (and man) can throw at it. Props to all of the companies we tested for creating truly all-mountain skis!
The top sheet forms the top layer — it's what you see when you look down while cruising downhill or riding the lift back up and is sometimes what sets you apart from everyone else. It is usually made of some sort of composite material, but some manufacturers have sacrifice weight to use a combination of more durable materials. 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 top sheet is where the graphics live. Nice graphics are a treat to look at, and trust us, this year we have some wild ones, but try not to judge a book by its cover. Graphics don't improve performance.
The sidewall, like the top sheet, 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 top sheet and side wall. Cap construction is used commonly on foam core models.
A combination of both types is becoming popular and tend to provide the best of both worlds.
The core of the ski is one of the main components that make each ski unique. 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, but the foam is losing its popularity rapidly. 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. With advances in modern ski technology, most manufacturers are shying away from foam 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. They can also be tuned to specific degrees, depending on your general use of the ski and the conditions you normally face. 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 most damage or scratches and then flatten the base again using a base grinding machine. In a lean season, like 2017-18, your bases might take a beating. Be sure to treat your shop tech well!
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 explicitly marketed 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. Place your skis base-to-base to get an idea of how much camber your skis have. Generally, the camber is found directly underfoot, but some ski companies have been playing with positioning it further away. 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 Blizzard Rustler 10 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.
You can also see the rocker in your skis by placing them base-to-base. 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 because that might take years, 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 (see the Black Crows Daemon or Volkl Mantra).
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.
Most modern all-mountain skis contain a blend of camber and rocker, as a mix between the two often leads to a very versatile ski.
The Black Crows Daemon 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 truly honest with yourself 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
For some reason, it has become cool to ride skis that are quite long in modern terms (190cm+), but a great 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 but tend to be far less forgiving and favor an advanced skier.
Soft flexing models are better suited to bouncing around and are more forgiving. By reading up on each model's specifications, you can look for materials and design characteristics that contribute to stiffness; i.e., wood core vs. foam core; full metal sheets vs. no metal; and lots of camber vs. rocker; carbon fiber elements; etc.
Heavier models can be a chore to carry to the lifts and tire your legs out on the chairlift. 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/or 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 backcountry 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. A wide waist can make the ski feel slow when transitioning between turns. 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 about 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.
For you old school skiers, don't be scared away by the rocker. Embrace the rocker; it is your friend. While not practical for every application, a bit of rocker can improve your skiing and widen the grin on your face
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 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 the 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.
In a season like our testers experience, getting a professional tune on all of our skis often was crucial to completing our reviews. Damage to the bases and edges can greatly affect the performance of a ski and make it handle uncharacteristically. Our skis had a strict tuning schedule and we recommend the same for yours. Most ski techs love beer, and building a solid relationship with them will make your season even better!