How to choose downhill skis

Choosing new downhill skis might feel overwhelming when you’re looking at all the different types of skis (especially if you’re a new skier or are shifting from groomers to powder). But finding your perfect pair gets a lot simpler when you know what to look for and how to narrow down your options. Whether planning for next season or looking to book last-minute Canada travel deals, has the most comprehensive hotel info and vacation packages for your next Canada ski trip.

When you’re choosing downhill skis, here are some things to consider:

  • Your skill level: What type of skier are you?
  • Where you ski: It’s important to match your skis to the terrain and snow you’re skiing.
  • Ski length: Learn what size skis to buy based on your height and weight.
  • Ski shape and stiffness: Camber, rocker, sidecut and ski flex affect how skis feel underfoot.
  • Choosing skis for kids: Growing kids mean there are a few things to keep in mind.

Skis for your skill level

If you’re a new skier just getting comfortable on green runs, then you’ll want different skis than an expert who’s hard-charging steep slopes. Use the skier types below to help you get started; you can sort skis by these ability levels on

For beginner skiers

New to skiing? If you’re working on linking and smoothing out turns on mostly green and blue runs, then beginner skis are a great place to start. They’re designed to help you link turns, and many have softer flex, which is more forgiving if you make a mistake. Also seek out narrower ski widths (measured at the waist, or middle part of the ski) and skis that have combined camber and rocker. The rockered tip and tail curve upwards slightly off the snow, so the skis feel shorter than they actually are to make turning easier.

For intermediate skiers

Confident parallel skiers that ski blue to black runs want skis to support their moves. If you’re working on carving and exploring groomers, powder and mixed terrain, you’ll want a bit more width and rockered tip and tail to help when you start dipping into powder. Skis for intermediates vary in their camber and rocker combinations, and are usually a slightly stiffer than beginner skis.

For advanced skiers (groomers)

Are black and double-back runs your thing? If you’re a confident, aggressive skier that carves with ease, look for Titanal, carbon or other similar materials that help absorb vibrations to deliver a smooth, stable ride at high speeds. Less flex and a longer body help you tackle a variety of terrain; a narrower ski in the 60–99mm range will make it easier to switch from one edge to the other when you’re carving. Camber and rocker combinations vary to suit your skiing style. These skis are generally very stiff to support you as you carve hard at higher speeds.

For advanced skiers (powder)

Confident, aggressive skiers that are all about powder, steep terrain, and tree skiing need skis to help float through deep snow. You want a fat (100mm+ width), long ski with a rocker tip, or better yet, a full rocker. If you’re thinking of getting into backcountry skiing as well as downhill skiing, look for carbon skis – they’re stiff but lightweight, so you get a fun ski without the weight penalty of a burlier construction. You may also want to check out our article on how to choose backcountry skis.

Where are you skiing?

Whether you’re hunting for the best skis for Whistler, want to ski powder in the Canadian Rockies, or need skis for eastern Canada (and east coast hardpack), you want to match your skis to your conditions. There’s a lot of crossover with skis, so many of them can be used in different types of snow and terrain, which gives you some flexibility. An important thing to think about is where you want to ski, not just where you can ski at present.

Skis for groomed runs

If you’re want to lay your edges on groomers and focus on your turns, look at carving skis for on-piste. Quick and responsive, these are good options for beginner to intermediate skiers who are graduating to and refining their parallel turns. Skis for groomed runs are generally up to 84mm in width; stick to the upper range of this (75–84mm) if you’re skiing slopes west of the Rockies due to the snow conditions.

Skis for mixed conditions

If you’re after one pair of skis to take you from powder to ice, cut through corduroy and bounce over to steeps, look for all-mountain skis for both on- and off-piste. These can hold their own through heavy snow to lighter drifts and hardpack too. They come in a range of shapes to match your ski ability. In western Canada, mixed conditions usually include everything from groomed to glades to tree skiing to morning pow that turns into chop. Skis in the 85–110mm width range are typically good for slopes west of the Rockies. In eastern Canada, mixed conditions typically range from groomed runs to tree skiing, so slightly narrower widths of 75–99mm are more ideal.

Skis for powder

If you freeride and like to seek out pockets of fluff at your local resort (and see yourself graduating to backcountry slopes), you need skis to help you float that are built for off-piste terrain. Wide waists are for powder skiing, and most have unique sidecut shapes that help them handle hardpack and mixed conditions. In eastern Canada, skis that are about 100mm underfoot with a rockered tip and tail would make great powder skis. For western Canada, think about the type of powder you’ll be skiing. In champagne powder near the Rockies, 120mm sticks will come in handy. For heavier coastal powder, you’ll want a slightly narrower ski width (110mm+ or so).

What size skis to buy

What size skis do you need? Height, weight and your ability level all determine your ski size. As a general rule, look for a ski length that’s somewhere between your chin and the top of your head when you stand next to the upright skis.

  • You’ll likely want shorter skis if you’re new or returning to skiing, if you want to make quick turns, and if you’re not into high speeds.
  • Longer skis are for generally for skiers that like to go fast, cover varied terrain, and are looking for twin-tips.
  • If you’re skiing powder, you’ll want long, full rocker skis for maximum float.

Ski size chart

The measurements below are a starting point, not firm rules – it all comes down to personal preference. Heavier and more experienced skiers should size up (longer skis), while lighter skiers should consider sizing down (shorter skis).

Understanding camber, rocker, flex and sidecut

Camber and rocker are terms used to describe the way a ski is curved or arched underfoot. It’s easiest to see these shapes when there’s no weight on the ski.

Camber: The tip and tail have contact with the snow when the ski isn’t weighted, and there’s an arch between these points. This helps you hold an edge throughout the arc of your turn, and they generally have softer flex.

Rocker (also called reverse-camber): Gives the ski more of a banana shape. The waist stays on the snow and the tip and/or tail curve or rise upward. This makes powder skiing easier because they give you float, plus they smear a lot more than cambered skis. But they lose performance on harder snow and don’t turn as well since less of the edge is in contact with the snow.

Combined camber and rocker: Results in skis that are somewhat old-time moustache-shaped. They help you hold an edge and give you a bit of float, and can give good maneuverability since they often feel like a shorter ski underfoot.

Ski sidecut and turning radius

If you look at a pair of skis from above, sidecut is the subtle curve of the ski from the tip to the tail. This curve helps creates the turning radius for the ski (the imaginary circle that would be made by completing the arc created by the sidecut) and affects how the skis turns.

Sidecut is calculated from the ski dimensions, which are written as three numbers (for example, 130-100-120mm). The first number is the widest part of the tip or shovel, the second number is the narrowest part of the ski, and the third is the widest part of the tail. The bigger the difference between those numbers, the deeper the sidecut and the shorter the turning radius. Skis with a very small difference between those three measurements are usually designed for powder skiing.

So what does all this mean?

  • If you want to carve tight, quick turns on groomed runs, then look for a short turning radius (deeper sidecut) around 16m.
  • If you want a versatile ski that helps you make easy turns while still giving you decent stability at speed, look for a medium turning radius between 16m and 22m.
  • If you like to charge down runs and make wide turns, look for a large turning radius (shallower sidecut) above 22m to keep you stable.

Over the years, ski companies have experimented with variations of tip widths, tail widths, sidecuts and even reverse sidecuts. Some recent development in ski construction and shaping can even make long skis feel like much shorter ones by bringing the widest parts of the skis (tip and tail) closer to the centre of the ski. As you become a stronger skier, you’ll get to know what ski shape you prefer.

What to know about ski flex

Flex refers to how stiff or soft a ski feels for turning. Softer skis (more flex) are great for beginners, lighter weight skiers, and terrain park skiers, as they’re easier to maneuver and hold an edge during a turn. Stiffer skis (less flex) give more support and reduce ski chatter at higher speeds. They’re better for advanced skiers who tackle varied terrain.

Choosing skis for kids

When it comes to buying children’s skis, you want to avoid choosing skis that “they’ll grow into.” Longer skis are harder to steer, which makes it tough to learn. It’s always possible to ski on shorter skis with comfort and control, but the opposite isn’t true.

For sizing kids’ skis, a good rule of thumb is youth skis should come somewhere between the child’s chest and nose. If your child is a newbie skier, lightweight for their height, and prefers turning over being speedy, then you’ll likely want to size skis around chest or chin level. If you’ve got a strong, fast ripper on your hands, or if your child is heavier for their height, you’ll want skis around nose height.

If you have a family of up-and-coming skiers, then new skis can be handed down to the next young shredder in line after the current skier has outgrown them. Since kids do grow quickly and are often beginner skiers, many families choose to start them out with rentals, used skis (check the MEC gear swap), or even local winter gear leasing programs in their communities. You can always visit us for promo packages of skiing.