The ski market is overwhelming these days, and everyone claims to have the best ski ever every year. There are fat ones, skinny ones, short ones, tall ones, some that go backward, some that spin, 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?
Our review focuses on all-mountain models, which are the most versatile alpine skis. This article targets people looking for one ski that can do it all since skis are expensive and storage space is limited, and having a 20 ski quiver is not practical.
We rigorously tested the skis that we review and gain excellent perspective on what makes an accessible and truly all-mountain ski. In this article, we'll share some of the insights we've gathered from our season of putting these planks through the wringer. This article will go over the basics of construction and design while giving some advice about what to consider when buying a new pair.
Where to Start
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 to 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 your terrain and style preferences together to 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 Blizzard Rustler 10 a better choice.
The good news is that there are versions out there that can handle most anything you throw at them, but your opinion of them will lie in your taste, style, ability and the terrain and conditions at your local resort. Our testing revealed that the Volkl M5 Mantra is the most versatile and most acclaimed model in this review for all-mountain use.
What Kind of 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 particular activities, such as racing or Nordic skiing. There are design characteristics that make some models more appropriate for certain circumstances.
While this review focuses on the broad category of all-mountain contenders, here is 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.
The goal of this review is to find the most appropriate model for all-mountain conditions. 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? The good news is that there are models that serve the purpose of being well-rounded performers, no matter the conditions or terrain.
This is what our testers look for, a ski that 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. An all-mountain model is designed to do it all — handle well when making turns on firm groomers and provide plenty of float on a powder day. The best all mountain skis perform well in ALL of our testing categories, not just a few. It is the epitome of versatility and is the right tool for a person who wants to own only one pair.
This year, we were fortunate enough to test a wide range of skis that work for many skier types. They have design features that help them 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 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. It includes women's specific and some unisex models.
Women's specific models are usually shorter and have a softer flex than men's models because ladies are usually shorter and don't weigh as much as their male counterparts. More aggressive women will need stiffer skis, and for that reason, many women use men's versions and absolutely love them. But the industry is getting better at recognizing women rippers and making women's specific skis burly enough for the hardest chargers.
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 forward or backward. Twin tips are looser 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. They are narrow and long…narrower and longer than most alpine versions. 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 use to slow down. 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.
Making Sense of Specifications and Choosing the Right Ski
First off, be truly honest with yourself about your size, style, ability, and what terrain you enjoy most. Much of a product's performance will depend on how you use it. 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.
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.
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.
The Right Length
Length is measured in centimeters. 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. For some reason, it's considered cool to ride long skis (190cm+), but it's not always the best idea. 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.
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. Beware, models with rocker (explained below) will feel shorter than they are because the rocker reduces the effective edge that contacts the snow. Consider sizing up slightly from your typical length if you're buying a pair that is rockered in any way.
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 important. Stiffness is achieved by using more core material, different glues, fiberglass layers, and stiffening materials like metal or carbon. Stringers or strips of metal or carbon are also used to increase stiffness. When you read up on each model's specifications, you can look for materials and design characteristics that contribute to stiffness. A wood core is stiffer than a foam core. Full metal sheets make a ski stiffer than one with partial metal inserts or no metal.
A ski's 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 and can be more stable at high speeds, 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.
Heavier models can be a chore to carry and will tire your legs out on the chairlift. On the flip side, they are usually more stable at speed and more powerful for variable conditions. Folks who themselves are heavier and have more advanced skills may prefer models that weigh more. Lighter weight people will prefer models that are also lighter weight. It's important to remember that lighter-weight skis are not always softer flexing.
Anyone who spends any amount of time hiking or skinning in the side country or backcountry should consider lighter skis. If you're in the market for lightweight, performance backcountry models, take a look over at our Backcountry Touring Ski Buying Advice.
Width is measured in millimeters. One critical width measurement is at the middle, or underfoot. A ski's width at the waist is the crucial measurement for determining what type of snow and terrain it prefers. Generally speaking, the wider a model is underfoot, the more it will float in deeper and softer snow. Narrower waists will move more quickly from one edge to another and 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 is the better choice for you. 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. Folks who deal with firm conditions and stick to groomed slopes should seek out narrow models.
Sidecut and Turn Radius
A ski's 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 the ski's sidecut. Sidecut refers to the general hourglass shape of alpine models. Shallower sidecuts result in wider turns. Deeper sidecuts are better at tighter turns.
A ski's turn radius is the radius of the imaginary circle that would form if you completed the sidecut arc. The smaller the turn radius, the tighter the turns that model will naturally make. The ski's length can affect its turning radius. The same model in a different length will have a different turn radius. If you make many small turns, a small turn radius will be a natural choice for you. For big turns and high speed, a bigger turn radius will be more fun.
Be aware that other shape details will also dictate how a ski feels to turn. Rockered tails will feel looser and will be easier to release at the end of the turn. Tapered tails will also release more quickly from the turn. Flat tails like to hook up and hold you in the turn longer. 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 a ski's feel as much as its camber/rocker profile.
Camber refers to the upward arching shape when you place the ski flat on the snow without weighing it. Place your skis base-to-base to get an idea of how much camber they have. Generally, the camber is found directly underfoot, but some ski companies have been playing with positioning it further away.
A cambered ski helps distribute your weight evenly and concentrates 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 provides plenty of energy when turning. The pop from the camber complimented the playful rockered shape, creating fun, energetic boards that were fairly versatile.
So what's rocker? Think of it as reverse camber. If you set a ski base down on the ground, the rocker is a smile. The camber is a frown. The idea of using reverse camber can be traced back to one specific product, dreamt up by the legendary Shane McConkey in the early 2000s, the Volant Spatula. It borrowed its reverse camber idea from waterskis where the shape keeps 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 (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. 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.
Tip rocker, or early rise tips, move the contact point back towards the center of the ski. 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. 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 orand tail. Because of this, rockered models 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 or wider planks and maneuver them more easily.
Any amount of tip or tail rocker can be used in combination with camber underfoot. 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. Combining the two gives you the beneficial edge control and energy/pop of a cambered model and quick and easy turn initiation. Here are some general rocker and camber recommendations:
- The Combo — 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.
- Full Rocker — Fully rockered versions are recommended for off-piste skiing, especially in soft snow. They are highly maneuverable in tight spaces and keep you on top of tough conditions.
- Less Rocker — If you make your turns more often on-piste or on firmer snow, then we suggest you seek out models that have less rocker.
- Embrace the Rocker — 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.
The Anatomy of a Ski
You should be familiar with the overall design, construction, and material used in a ski, and as always, we're here to help. When you understand the bits and pieces that go into a design, you'll know more about ski specifications and have an easier time deciding what might be suitable for your needs. The basic components are pretty 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 all-mountain ski review, we often reference each ski's construction and materials and how they affect its performance.
When designing an all-mountain ski, manufacturers face many trade-offs. A lightweight ski is usually less stable than a heavy one. Using stiffer materials may make the ski heavier, but also more consistent and powerful. Adding rocker might make the ski more surfy and fun, but could take away from its carving performance and stability. Life is all about finding a 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 can throw at it.
The top sheet is what you see when you look down at your skis. It is usually some sort of composite plastic material, but some manufacturers sacrifice weight to use more durable materials. This layer helps protect the core, resting on top of other composite layers, and epoxy, which all contribute to the ski's stiffness. 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 plastic. Modern alpine skis use one of three popular sidewall construction designs — straight, capped or hybrid.
- Straight sidewalls just look like walls on the side of your ski, they are typical on skis that have a 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 a ski's stiffness and edging abilities.
- Capped sidewalls use a single piece of fiberglass that raps over the top sheet and sidewall. Cap construction is used commonly on foam core models.
- Hybrid designs combine both types. It's becoming popular and tends to provide the best of both worlds.
The core of the ski is one of the components that make each ski unique. High-quality cores are made from wood. Some models use a few different types of wood to get a combination of performance characteristics, such a lighter or stiffer feel. Wood cores are often preferred because of their ability to store energy and provide the pop that people look for in a quality product. Wood cores also dampen vibrations and hold up over time. Wood core models tend to be heavier and more expensive than skis with a synthetic core.
Some less expensive skis use a foam material for their cores, but foam is rapidly losing its popularity. 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 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. Most manufacturers are shying away from foam cores.
Metal edges provide the bite that lets you control your skis and stop on a slippery surface. You can sharpened edges with a careful hand, using a file and a guide. They can be tuned to specific degrees, to suit 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. It's almost always made from some type of plastic, but not all bases are created equal. Some plastics are harder than others and can sustain more abuse from rocks and hard snow. To save weight and cost, some manufacturers have thinner bases than others.
Bases are prone to scratching and gouging but are relatively easy to maintain. A trained technician can fill in most scratches and then grind the base flat again. In a lean season, 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 this ski construction article.
Ski Maintenance Tips
You searched for them. You paid for them. You love them. Now take care of them.
Ski wax helps your boards slide more easily, faster, and smoother. Wax is rated for specific snow temperatures. Wax is generally 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 it wears 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 sharpen edges and flatten and restore the structure to the bases. Depending on snow conditions, the bases and 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!
Alright. That's all for us. We hope you feel ready to tackle the wild and wonderful world of all-mountain skis to find your dream pair.