This 'How To...' page has been edited from Olly Allen's Off-Piste and Touring Ski Review 2015
Modern skis are very good but because of this there are a myriad of ski models with markedly different characteristics. This is the key when choosing a ski. You wouldn't try driving a sports car off road or getting the most out of a 4x4 round Brands Hatch, but some people expect one ski to cope with all terrain. Again using the car analogy, when I hire a car at the airport it takes me a week to get used to it. The first few days the engine gets thrashed, gears crunched and a few over zealous corner speeds end up with passengers reaching for the sick bags. Skis take at least a week or two to get used to, so testing them for a day won't give you the full picture. If you have done your homework then a day testing them is probably not necessary, especially as rating a ski is very subjective and tricky enough even for professional skiers like me. Doing your homework involves a fair amount of internet trawling, looking at key ski attributes like weight, length, width, flex, side cut, camber, construction, price and the most important for my wife - the colour!
1. Freeride / All Mountain: These are skis built primarily for downhill performance in all conditions. They are still light enough for short hikes back up but it's mainly about the downs. Freeride and All Mountain skis tend to be heavier, wider and stiffer. This gives them greater stability at speeds and in poor snow conditions i.e. crust, crud, slush and ice.
2. Touring / Free Touring: These are designed to be a blend of weight and performance. Not super-light (these are strictly for the lycra-clad race brigade) and not super floppy either. You can rack up the metres on the ascent, but still look forward to the downhill. The lighter the ski the more you'll get bounced around in the crud but will be whooping with joy on the uphill. So decide what you want the ski to do, bearing in mind that some skis sit in the middle of these two groups and perform adequately on both fronts.
This is a factor of your height, weight and ski ability. I ski on 170cm -175cm ski, I am 60kg and 168cm and work on skis from December to May. There are pros and cons to both sides of the argument but essentially shorter skis turn easily but are less stable at speed. That's why most pro skiers rip it up on 195cm skis even though many are hobbits like me! Go for a ski that is between nose and head height. Rugby players over six foot need to go long (185cm minimum). If you're a lightweight like me you might get away with less than 170cm if you just want to cruise around and enjoy the turns. The ski width can also affect your choice of length, so the wider the ski underfoot the shorter you can go.
The fatter the better! I wish it were that simple, again there are a few pitfalls to avoid. With touring skis anything over 100mm underfoot becomes annoying in narrow skinning tracks, adds to the ski weight and remember you have a rather fat piece of skin stuck to your ski creating a lot drag on the uphills. I'm pretty old-school and tour on around 80mm underfoot, most people these days go around the 90mm to 100mm mark. If you're fit but not a great skier choose the wider end and conversely if you're not that fit but ski like a Jedi go skinny! The width we're referring to here is the underfoot width of the ski in mm, which is the middle number of the three given, eg: 116-84-103 means that the ski ski is 84mm wide at it's narrowest point under the boot.
As a rule of thumb anything below 1700g per ski would fall into the touring category and anything above 1900g is a tad heavy for the uphill and ski touring. Having said this, I see plenty of people touring on very big fat heavy skis, this is fine, you just need to be that much fitter. Anything that sits in between these weights is one of those 'does everything OK' skis.
This is how much the ski bends when weighted during a turn and affects how it engages with the snow. Lightweight people need a softer ski, rugby players need stiffer planks. Most female specific skis are just the same as the male ski but softer in flex. Stiff skis on a light person are hard work to turn needing aggressive style. Generally it's a case of the lighter the ski the softer the flex, that's why heavy tall people on touring skis end up with their weight all over the place.
All skis have a width at the tip, tail and underfoot. The sidecut is a ratio of all these three; the wider the tip and tail the narrower underfoot the more aggressive sidecut and smaller turn radius. This is what makes the ski turn or 'turn radius'. It's printed on most skis as a number; 17m would be a ski that corners like a rally car, 25m would be one that corners like an oil tanker! If you want something that is easy to cruise around on, do nice turns, or you're a Euro-mincer in the powder then go short radius! If you like gunning it in straight lines or skiing steeps then a larger radius is better. Big skis with a long turn radius in tight trees is torture, be warned! Nowadays rockered skis allow the turn radius to be pretty good even on big skis (see next section for info on rockers).
This is how the ski is shaped in the vertical plane. All skis bend up in the middle and at the tip and tail if laid on their base. A 'traditional camber' is one where the front and back of the ski doesn't rise up until near each end. Nowadays lots of skis have a 'rockered' camber where the tip and tail rises soon after leaving the binding area. This allows a big ski to have a very short turn radius and gives it lots of floatation in the powder. Rockered skis are now becoming the norm for freeride, but beware of skis with a big rocker as they can be unnerving on steep ground as you loose quite a lot of running edge. Also, skins tend to bounce off rockered skis and again you loose quite a bit of traction as there is much less surface contact between the skin and snow.
Touring skis have lots of composite materials (carbon, foam, resins) in to make them light along with a wood core. Heavier freeride skis will also have some sort of wood core that adds to weight but allows a more progressive flex. Light skis have thinner base layers and edges so wont stand up to as much abuse as a heavy beefy freeride ski.
All manufacturers have skis in their range that are similar to the ski in a competitors range. Look for the ski attributes rather than the brand if you're on a budget. If you're not fussy about last years model or iffy graphics then it's possible to find a bargain, though choice of lengths can be limited.