The Best All-Mountain Skis for Women

Our favorite models for everything from frontside groomers to sidecountry pow

Fortunately, women’s skis have mostly moved beyond the era of noodly lady skis with flower-spangled graphics. (Liam Doran/Tandem)
Photo: Liam Doran/Tandem Wome

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All skis—women’s or men’s—are designed with assumptions about who will ski them. Some common assumptions in the past: that smaller people couldn’t drive a solid ski, that women didn’t want to ski as hard as men, and that weight was directly related to athletic ability. And for years, women’s skis were just supersoft versions of men’s models, which led to advanced women skiers without a ski to match. Fortunately, that’s beginning to change, and brands are investing in female-specific molds and constructions. Women are often shorter and lighter than men, with smaller feet and lower centers of gravity. Those differences change when a skier pressures the tip of the ski and engages the edges and how much force she will need to throw the ski on edge, but they don’t mean she just needs a short, soft ski.

All-mountain skis are going to be the skis you reach for the most, on days when there’s a few inches of fresh snow and when groomers get skied out. Which, realistically, is most days on the mountain. Over the past two winters, I and a group of several dozen testers, who ranged in ability from average to expert, tried dozens of skis from 25 manufacturers, looking for boards that always felt solid. Five skis stood out, and I’ve written about them below.

Our favorite was the Völkl Secret. It’s comfortable in most snow conditions and types of terrain, solid at speed, big enough to float in soft snow, and edgy when conditions are firm. But most of all, the Secret is really, really fun to ski.

Our Favorite Ski  

skis
(Courtesy Völkl)

The Völkl Secret ($825)

Versatility is the Secret’s most notable quality. The Secret’s, well, secret is what Völkl calls Titanal frame construction: one full sheet of Titanal (essentially jacked-up aluminum) sandwiched between a horseshoe-shaped piece of the same material that runs along the edges, which gives the ski the rebound energy and power of a full-metal ski without the heft. It has lightweight carbon in the tip, which we found reduced swing weight but didn’t feel chattery or unstable.

The Secret is 92 millimeters underfoot and has a short, 16-meter turn radius in the 163-centimeter length. Some skiers found that it gravitated toward that size of turn, and if you spend most of your time in soft snow, you might want something wider, like the Elan Ripstick (reviewed below). But most of our testers thought it was intuitive to ski and easy to understand without being wimpy. The more you push it into railed turns or unforgiving snow, the more it performs, which is why we think it’s an ideal ski for a wide range of skiers.

Testers found that they could lean into the tip and lay the Secret over, or make mellow swish turns and still feel the ski respond under their feet. It’s not going to overpower you, but you’re not going to easily overpower it, either. “This ski could translate to any level, but experts will be able to take it up a notch and use it to its full potential,” said one tester. Another called it precise and powerful in all conditions, from stiff groomers to off-piste chop. It has a big camber pocket—when you lay the Secret on flat ground, the area under the binding will be raised up—which let it feel comfortable in a lot of turn shapes. It’s damp and stable without being dead, and most of all, it’s fun and intuitive to ski.

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Best Frontside Ski

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(Courtesy Blizzard)

Blizzard Black Pearl 88 ($599)

The Black Pearl 88 has been the bestselling women’s ski in the world for the past four years, and it’s on track to be the most-sold ski in history. You don’t get that much market traction without good reason.

It’s clear that Blizzard has put time, energy, and thoughtful engineering into its women’s ski line. In the Black Pearl, Blizzard moved the sidecut forward to help lighter skiers carve through turns, and it reduced weight without sacrificing dampness. The Black Pearl 88 has a core of beech and poplar wood, with two layers of fiberglass and a carbon frame, and except for a plate under the mounting points, it doesn’t have any metal. That mix results in a ski that feels unusually well-balanced both in terms of swing weight—it felt so natural on hill that some testers said they forgot about it—and how it manages different styles of skiing. You can lean into it and give it as much gas as you want on groomers, but it’s also stable at slower speed. The 159-centimeter length has a 14.5-meter turn radius, but, unlike some of the other skis we tested, it’s comfortable making other turn shapes. “It has a harmonic blend of flex and sidecut,” one tester said. Others noted that it was predictable in mixed conditions and had a big sweet spot in lots of different turn shapes.

At 88 millimeters underfoot, it’s skinnier than a lot of the other skis we lump into the all-mountain category, which means you lose some float when the snow gets deep or variable. Still, it more than makes up for it in chop or on groomers, where it’s stable, responsive, and not easily deflected. Some testers didn’t love the way the tip dove in deep conditions, so if you’re skiing deep, heavy snow on a regular basis—in the Northwest, for example—this might not be your ski. For almost anyone else who is looking for a frontside-focused ski, it’s hard to do better than the Black Pearl.

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Best All-Mountain Powder Ski

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(Courtesy Elan)

Elan Ripstick 102 W ($800)

For western skiers who spend a lot of time looking for freshies but want a ski that’s not just soft-snow specific, we found the Ripstick 102 to be extremely well-balanced. It was one of the widest skis we tested in this category, but it’s stable and maneuverable and didn’t take a lot of energy to initiate a turn. Testers said it was as easy to roll on edge as a skinnier ski, like the Völkl Secret, and energetic once it was there.

That versatility comes from the ski’s unique asymmetrical profile. They’re right and left specific, with more camber on the inside edge (this means a more effective edge for stability and grip, which we found handled well on steeper terrain) and increased rocker on the outside edge for better float in deep powder. A wood core with longitudinal carbon rods gives it torsional stability. “It’s damp and forgiving with an even, smooth flex,” one tester said.

Some skiers found the Ripstick a little sluggish in shorter-radius turns, but it was easy to butter and smear around in variable conditions and happy in wide GS turns, even on solid snow. At 102 in the waist, it’s not the fattest powder ski of all time, but the lightened-up 132-millimeter tip planes easily without diving, and we think that actually gives it more utility. Instead of a one-trick, deep-snow-specific ski, it’s a solid and versatile all-mountain model that just happens to float particularly well.

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Best Playful Freeride Ski

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(Courtesy Black Crows)

Black Crows Daemon Birdie ($980) 

One tester called the Daemon Birdie a “strong freeride charger.” Design wise, it is the most uniquely shaped ski we tested; it’s fully rockered without any camber underfoot, a design choice you’ll usually only see in fat powder skis. But the Daemon Birdie is only 99 millimeters underfoot, putting it right in all-mountain territory. It has a poplar core with a tapered Titinal plate at the binding mount point, making it light and flexible in the tip and tail but stiff underfoot and giving it a big sweet spot for variable-radius turns. The upshot of this design is that the Daemon Birdie is loose and playful, surfy in softer snow, easy to direct in crud, and well-suited to pivoty turns in bumps.

For skiers who come from a traditional race-bred background, it won’t be the most intuitive ski, and it doesn’t shine on firm groomers. And because of the elongated rocker, it can be hard to release the tails and break it out of turns once it’s on edge. In general, it benefits from being skied upright instead of driven through the tips like a race ski. But if your style is playful, it’s fun and nimble, easy to shut down or smear, and solid at speed in variable snow.

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Best Backcountry Crossover

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(Courtesy Salomon)

Salomon Lumen 99 ($599) 

If you expect to ski both lift-serviced and backcountry terrain, and you don’t want to be switching skis, we recommend the powerful and light Lumen 99. The Lumen 99 is built with a light poplar core and a laminate made of interwoven carbon and flax, with Koroyd in the tips. (Koroyd is a manufactured honeycomb-shaped material, which Salomon says reduces vibration.)

The resulting ski is light, tours well, and has enough dampness and stability to make both resort laps and off-piste terrain easy and graceful. It’s balanced underfoot and easy to push through the tip and tail. A long effective edge means the ski favors long radius turns but also keeps it from feeling grabby in the kind of variable, wonky snow you might find in the backcountry.

That said, one of our testers, a skier with a racing background, didn’t feel comfortable leaning into it at high speeds and found it floppy in firm conditions. “More of a soft-snow tool,” another said. But if you’re going to be splitting your time between the ski hill and the backcountry, the Lumen is capable on the downhill and relatively painless to schlep on the up. Paired with Salomon’s new DIN-certified pin binding, the Shift, it’s a one-ski option for skiers who want to spend time both in and out of the resort chasing untouched snow.

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Honorable Mentions

Fortunately, women’s skis have mostly moved beyond the era of noodly lady skis with flower-spangled graphics. A lot of brands are making really good skis, and sometimes picking a favorite feels like splitting hairs, though some brands are better than others. Industry wide, most engineers are still dudes, so we’re still trying to skim the cream off the top of the crop. But aside from our five standouts, a few others caught our attention.

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(Courtesy K2)

K2 Talkback 96 ($699)

A combination of paulownia, carbon, and titanium in the core keeps the Talkback light and easy to turn. Some testers found it skittery at high speeds and on hard snow, but if you’re focused on uphill skiing and finding soft snow, one tester called it a “one-ski quiver for the backcountry.”

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(Courtesy Nordica)

Nordica Santa Ana 93 ($650)

Two sheets of metal and a balsa-wood core in the Santa Ana are a lightened-up nod to Nordica’s racing heritage. They take some muscle to get into a turn, but once they’re there, testers said they were crisp and snappy with tenacious edge bite, especially in carvy GS turns. “You control them, and they give back,” one said.

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(Courtesy Atomic)

Atomic Vantage 97 C W ($499)

The most common adjective testers used to describe Vantage 97 was “smooth.” The poplar and carbon ski isn’t particularly poppy or lively, but it reliably busts through crud and consistently makes every turn shape.

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(Courtesy Line)

Line Pandora 94 ($499)

The Pandora 94 won favor for being mellow and solid. Directional rocker—three millimeters in the tip and two in the tail—means it planes well in soft snow and rolls out of turns easily, making it a good ski to help freeride-oriented skiers progress.

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How We Picked the Best Women’s All-Mountain Skis

We conducted this test over two seasons, beginning last winter when Outside ski testers Marc Peruzzi and Heather Schultz met with reps from 25 ski companies and tested dozens of models in Snowbird, Utah. This winter I expanded on that testing, sampling another eight pairs of skis while touring ski towns in the western U.S. We wanted to put the skis through a range of conditions, turn shapes, and terrain, and our testers come from a wide range of skiing backgrounds.

What to Know Before Buying Skis

All-mountain skis are going to be the ones you reach for the most, even if you already have a whole quiver. They’re the ones that are capable in conditions ranging from morning freshies to firm afternoon groomers.

For this review, we asked Tracy Gibbons, a former U.S. Ski Team member and the current president and hard-goods buyer at Sturtevant Sports, how she helps women select all-mountain skis. First, Gibbons says, she starts with a question from the movie Office Space: “What is it you’d say that you do here?” Do a little self-analysis, and think about utility before you think about what might be new and cool. Consider the type of terrain you like to ski, the terrain you aspire to ski, as well as the kinds of turns you tend to make—quick short ones, long cruisers, smears, or carves. If most of your ski days are in New Hampshire, it probably doesn’t make sense to invest in a fat ski right off the bat, and if you like railing GS turns, a soft freeride-oriented ski is going to feel like Jell-O underfoot. There’s no best ski, but there are skis that are better suited to different kinds of skiing, and there’s no reason to fight what you like.

Gibbons says that women have a tendency to understate their skills, so those questions are also a key to figuring out true ability level, which influences ideal ski length and stiffness. And there are some old myths that date back to the days of straight skis that she’s trying to break down, like the idea that beginners need tiny skis. “For length, I encourage gals to not go too short,” she says. “Skis that are too short don’t typically instill confidence and stability.”

A lot of people focus too much on weight, Gibbons says, which doesn’t make a ton of difference in all-mountain skis, especially if you’re predominantly skiing from chairlifts. Aside from superlight touring skis or metal race skis—neither of which we’d call all-mountain—weight won’t be the first thing you’ll notice in performance. “Physical weight of the skis and bindings may play a part in a decision, but it definitely shouldn’t be the only factor in selecting the right skis,” she says.

Gibbons says one of the trickiest parts of her job, regardless of a skier’s gender, is communicating how certain features of a ski will behave once the ski is on snow and how those features play out for the skier.

During the buying process, there’s also some common vocabulary that will help explain how design affects performance.

Camber: If you lie a ski flat on the ground, camber is the arch under the midsection. When you carve a ski into a turn, a cambered ski distributes the weight along the edge, increasing your effective surface. It’s like the suspension of your car; it keeps you in contact with the road.

Rocker: A fully rockered ski will only make contact with the snow underfoot when it isn’t weighted. When it is, it takes the shape of the runners of a rocking chair, which helps keep the tips from diving in deep snow but at the expense of lost edge contact on harder snow. Most skis these days will have a combination of camber and rocker in the tip, tail, or both to try to give the ski both grip and float. Rocker can also be called early rise, tip rise, or, confusingly, reverse camber.

Sidecut: The way a ski is shaped wider in the tip and tail and curved in at the waist allows for edge contact when you’re in a turn. That specific shape, the sidecut, dictates the ski’s turning radius, usually shown in meters. A ski with a longer and flatter sidecut will make bigger turns. Some skis these days will have a variable radius, thanks to tapered tips or different points of contact along the ski’s edges, which are designed to let the skier vary their turn shape.

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