So, you’re setting out to buy your first pair of skis. Maybe you’ll get them new, maybe you’ll ease yourself into it (and save some cash) with a second-hand pair. Whatever route you choose, knowing the basics will help you buy your skis with a little more authority.

Straight vs. Shaped

In the old days, way back before the mid-nineties, people skied on skis that looked straight i.e. the sides of the skis ran pretty much parallel to each other. The technical term for these skis now is “plank” (plāngk).

Modern skis are “shaped” and have sides that are curved in a waisted, or hourglass shape.

Anyone buying skis today will buy shaped skis. Unless you want to know how granddaddy felt on the snow, it’s that simple.

Ski Basics


Perhaps the single most important attribute to pay attention to. Put simply, longer skis are faster and more stable at higher speeds, shorter skis are more manoeuvrable and easier to turn.

The length of skis that will suit you will depend on your weight, height and level of experience. The heavier, taller and more experienced you are the longer the ski you’ll need.

Staff in some ski shops will tell you the ski should come up to somewhere between the tip of your nose and your eyebrows. With the more pronounced sidecuts (more on this later) on skis today, though, this is a little too generous and should be modified to somewhere between your chin and your nose.

If you’re a noob, don’t get dazzled with the idea of speed. Skis that are too long for your ability will be hard to control and you’ll spend more of your time falling than actually learning how to ski well.


The next thing the novice should pay attention to, and second in importance to length in its effect on your skiing experience, is the stiffness of your ski.

A stiff ski takes more effort to turn and control and is more likely to throw the inexperienced skier on a bump. Softer skis are more forgiving, easier to turn and will absorb those rutted Ruapehu slopes better.

Unfortunately, a newcomer will have too little exposure to different types of ski to judge stiffness. Aren’t they all stiff? So, if you’re on the mountain and can demo a pair, take them for a spin and see how they feel. Otherwise, ask the staff at your local ski shop.


The width of a ski is measured in three places: the widest part of the tip (or shovel), the middle (or waist), and the widest part of the tail. Consequently, you’ll see ski widths like: 117-70-109 where tip = 117mm, waist = 70mm, tail = 109mm.

Generally, the wider the waist of the ski, the more “floatation” it will provide. The narrower it is, the easier and tighter you’ll be able to turn. Skis designed for powder and soft snow will have wider waists. Those designed for fast turns and groomed trails will have narrower waists. For the general recreational skier, anything around 70mm, or a bit less, will be fine.

Sidecut and Radius

If you place your ski on the ground and look at how deeply the sides curve in to the waist, you’re looking at your ski’s sidecut. It should not be hard to grasp, then, that a ski’s sidecut is a product of the relationship between the tip, waist and tail measurements. The wider the tip and the tail, and the narrower the waist, the greater the sidecut.

What does it matter? Well, theoretically the deeper the sidecut the easier it is to get the ski “up on its edge” i.e. to make a carving turn. Also, the deeper the sidecut, the smaller the ski’s “radius” will be. As the radius is a measure in metres of the distance it takes the ski to turn, a smaller radius allows tighter turns.

This isn’t to say, though, that you should try and find the most extreme sidecut available. The right radius for you will depend on your skiing style. If you want to slice up the groomed, a smaller radius is good. If you like to open up with big sweeping turns on long steep runs, then a larger radius is required.

If you’re an average recreational skier, look for something that will accommodate a variety of skiing styles – perhaps a radius somewhere in the high teens or early twenties.

Types of Skis

The shaped family of skis is divided into various groups:

  • Carvers - for nice tight turns predominantly on groomed trails – narrow waist.
  • All-mountain skis – good versatility across a range of conditions, from groomed to crud to powder – slightly wider waists.
  • Mid-fat and fat skis - predominantly for powder – much wider waists.
  • Twin-tips – skis for tricks and the half-pipe – look like they’ve got two fronts.

In practice, a new recreational skier should be fine with either a pair of carvers or a pair of mountain skis.

Get Shopping

So, now you know what to look for, hit the shops and ask questions – ski staff usually love to share their knowledge. Choose a ski that’s right for you, not something an Olympic champ would use. On the other hand, keep in mind that with time your skiing will improve, so buy a ski that you won’t outgrow in a season or two.

And finally, try to pick a time when the store isn’t busy, you’ll get more attention. Shop when the sales are on and avoid buying skis on the mountain, the range won’t be as good and the prices can be higher.

Good luck and happy skiing!

Learn a little more here:

Buying Skis – A Basic Guide for the Inexperienced, 4.5 out of 5 based on 2 ratings

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