Long-Term Review: The Best Skis, Period
We’ve been testing skis for decades. These are our all-time favorites for groomers, backcountry bowls, and everything in between.
For the last ten winters, Outside has teamed up with Mountain magazine for its ski testing. Every year we take upward of 250 new or updated models through their paces. Most of those skis don’t earn the right of inclusion. The following selections, though, are among our favorites. Read on to narrow your shopping.
How We Test
Our ski test begins with about 25 manufacturers bringing their demo fleets to a set location. Most recently, that testing has gone down at Colorado’s Steamboat Resort. Between all the different categories of skis—all-mountain, all-mountain powder, all-mountain frontside, etc.—and multiple lengths of each model, reps have to get hundreds of pairs sharpened and waxed each night and then haul them to our slope-side test corral. This year we had eight men and eight women testers (women try out both gender-specific and unisex models). Testers grab skis from racks, burn a lap on varied terrain appropriate for the category, swap skis, and repeat. On the lift, testers fill out scorecards, ranking the planks on up to six criteria, like stability, carving, floatation, and surfability—the ability to slash turns and dump speed. This happens up to 18 times a day, over three days, resulting in something like 100,000 vertical feet of cumulative shredding. Back at the home office, we pour a mountain of data into spreadsheets and tabulate winners and losers.
How to Use These Reviews
Our short-form print reviews are intended to make your buying decision easier, by giving you the highlights of the best new and updated skis each year. But the long-form reviews—what you’re reading now—reflect the best offerings on the market, whether they’re new or old. Here we’re focusing on all-mountain skis. We’ll also help you learn some basic ski terms, dive deep into how materials affect performance, and, ultimately, give you a better understanding of what categories of skis and ski constructions you favor. Starting your shopping with that type of working knowledge is better than falling for marketing.
Our reviews include ratings of stability and surfability on a scale of one to ten (the highest possible score). Use these to get a quick sense of whether a ski favors directional charging or a loose and slashy style. Naturally, since these are all-mountain skis, they all do both well, but all skis have their own feel. If you know the category of ski you’re looking for, click directly to it in the menu below to get the lowdown. If you’re not sure, or if your interest falls in numerous categories, we suggest reading through each review.
All-Mountain Powder Skis
All-mountain powder skis typically feature waist widths between 100 and 110 millimeters underfoot. That amount of girth allows a ski to float in the type of real-world conditions we find at ski resorts, where new snow falls on top of a solid base. Yes, brands sell fatter skis, but those behemoths are better off in the bottomless backcountry snow you find on heli-ski and snowcat trips. In-bounds, all-mountain powder skis are just as fun, and you can carve elongated turns on firmer snow 30 percent of the time, too.
Nordica Enforcer 104 Free ($850)
Turn Radius: 18.5 meters (179-centimeter length)
Camber profile: Camber and rocker
Best For: Hunting leftover powder after a storm
The recently launched Enforcer 104 Free is a mere four millimeters wider than Nordica’s revered Enforcer 100—a small design change that would be tough to feel on snow. But despite the fact that skis of this slightly larger waist width are now our top picks for everyday skiing in the Rockies and the coastal ranges, the Enforcer 104 didn’t win our accolades on that fact alone. It’s our ski of the year because of its versatility. Midfat skis that excel at both carving on hardpack or pivoting and slashing in untracked powder are rare. The new 104 is an exception. The Nordica engineers back in Austria set out to enhance that loose and surfy feel while maintaining the brand’s famous crud-busting and high-speed-bashing guts. The linchpin was getting the material in balance. Counterintuitively, to make the 104 more playful, designers placed more wood in the tip and tail. That move defies industry trends, but Nordica likes the dampening and rebound properties of wood, and so do we. Lightweight balsa eliminates much of the weightier ABS material (the same plastic you see in sidewalls) it had inserted in previous versions to dampen chatter. Cutting weight from the tips and tails was vital, in our opinion. All skis that have done so in recent years have jumped in our standings. When you improve the swing weight in that way, the ski takes less effort to pivot in a powder turn. We found that the new 104 is quicker, looser, and more playful off-trail than the traditional Enforcer line. But it didn’t gain those attributes at the expense of stability. There are two layers of metal that sandwich a hardwood core under the hood, meaning the 104 handles like an Old World super-G ski when you want to haul ass in wide-open terrain. But now, in strange wind-crusted snow or crud, the 104 takes less muscle to unweight and move around. The effect is furthered by a new carbon-fiber “chassis”—a layer of carbon that beefs up the core—that saves grams over traditional fiberglass. “This ski just rips,” said a tester. “I’d ski it all the time out west.”
Salomon QST 106 ($900)
Turn Radius: 22 meters (181-centimeter length)
Camber profile: All-terrain rocker
Best For: Everyday soft-snow ripping out west
Salomon took the loose and lively QST 106 and gave it a touch more burliness. It’s easy to just add metal to a ski to get that feeling, but you tend to sacrifice playfulness when you do that. So Salomon turned to its recently updated C/FX superfiber, a weave of carbon and flax in fiberglass that performs like metal without the weight penalty. That new weave features twice the carbon as the old blend and—our take—maintains the light and lively feel that we turn to Salomon for. The other cool upgrade that our testers noticed on snow was the smooth and powerful ride. To do that, Salomon used what it calls a Cork Damplifier—perhaps the best marketing name for cork we’ve ever heard—because cork is three times more chatter stifling than that honeycomb-polymer Koroyd you’ve seen in skis and bike helmets. The cork and the carbon make the new QST 106 damper. But don’t mistake that for a dead feelling. The QST line is still built for people who love to hunt leftover powder in the trees and favor energy return over pure stability. This ski pops out of powder and floats off natural hits on the best of days, but you’ll notice the upgrades when conditions get firm, and going faster is how you salvage the day. The new QST is also still lightweight enough for shouldering on the boot-pack or mounting the brand’s Shift binding for a crossover setup to ski in-bounds and out. All of which is to say that if you like the old QST, you’ll like the new version even more. That’s by no means a universal truth in ski design. Many a brand has ruined the playfulness of a ski in misguided attempts to add stability. But in the QST 106, those infusions of carbon, flax, basalt (another material that acts like a metal) on the core, and cork in the tips boosted the full-speed stability without sacrificing that playful ride quality. At Steamboat, the new 106 didn’t waver at 30 miles per hour. If you charge on trail more than you surf powder, you might be a Nordica 104 customer. But if you like to slash and pivot on soft-snow days, then the QST 106 is still your daily driver. Our largest and strongest off-trail tester was impressed: “Great feel in the powder,” he said. “It’s pivoty and floaty, but now it’s stout enough to stand on when you’re really hauling.”
Nordica Santa Ana 104 Free ($850)
Turn radius: 16 meters (165-centimeter length)
Camber profile: All-mountain rocker
Best for: In-bounds powder skiing with the ability to carve on demand
Expert-level skis today are much more widely usable than they were years ago. The more you push such skis, the more they give back—as long as you’ve picked the right length/flex—but they’re still forgiving enough that you can make mistakes. Old skis in this category would get unruly real quick if the pilot didn’t actively control the edges or the rebound. Nordica set the benchmark for accessible or latent power in 2019 with the Enforcer 104 Free. Like the Enforcer, the women-specific Santa Ana 104 Free is looser and more playful than any skis Nordica pressed before. “This new 104 didn’t ask anything of me—it just methodically started arcing turns on every type of snow and terrain,” said one of our most seasoned ski testers. “It’s the smoothest-flexing ski of the category and the snow contact was unwavering.” That ease of use might seem surprising for a wood-and-metal build. But Nordica’s designers layered in just one tailored sheet of metal instead of the standard two full sheets. Santa Ana is a one-ski quiver if you live out west and ski off-piste a lot but still like to carve turns between storms. “So many people will love this ski,” said our women’s test director. “It makes every turn shape, and the flex is open to all body types.” Note: because flex is tied to length, size accordingly. Our smaller testers struggled with the 172.
Rossignol Blackops Sender Ti ($900)
Turn radius: 18 meters (178-centimeter length)
Camber profile: Powder Rocker
Best for: The best in-bounds day of the season, plus all manner of big-mountain skiing in between storms
Don’t be put off by the name: any advanced or expert skier can now handle a top-of-the-line all-mountain powder ski like the new Sender Ti. It’s surfy, stable, and powerful enough for the hardest-charging skiers, but you can back off and noodle around too. Ultimately this balance all boils down to flex and feel. Skis don’t need to be excessively stiff, nor do skiers need to be excessively burly anymore. The sidecut, rocker profile, and taper do much of the work for you, allowing for a loose, playful ride off-piste and, yes, even a carved turn back on trail with just a slight roll of the ankle. A slew of skis perform like that now, but the Sender Ti is a standout—it won top honors in the all-mountain powder (also called freeride) category in our 2021 Winter Buyer’s Guide. At 106 millimeters underfoot, it’s fat enough for the deepest powder days at most resorts. But it’s also burly enough for hardpack skiing, with a light-but-lively paulownia-wood core backed by two sheets of titanium alloy and vertical sidewalls for increased edge hold. (Rossignol also offers a lighter Sender without the metal, for $700.) A rubbery, vibration-eating viscoelastic helps the Sender To track smoothly while boosting edge hold, lending a silky feel. But don’t be intimidated by all this power and heft. Another new twist in ski design, which the Sender Ti’s designers mastered, is that each length is flex-tuned for the size of the skier who will likely pilot it. That makes all that power accessible. “No matter how fast or slow you’re moving, you stop thinking about the ski and focus on your line,” said one tester.
Fischer Ranger FR 102 ($799)
Dimensions: 136/102/126 Turn radius: 18 meters (177-centimeter length)Camber profile: Powder/Rocker/TaperStability: 9Surfability: 7Best for: Light snow and fun corduroy carving between storms
The difference between the unisex and women’s versions of the Ranger FR 102? The woman is pink. But although Fischer did shrink it and pink it (extending the size range of the pink ski to accommodate smaller riders), there was no dumbing down of this ski for women. Fischer took a position here, declaring that women deserve the same performance as men, and that you get that performance by picking the right length (and therefore flex) for you, no matter your gender. Both the pink and blue skis come in lengths up to 191. “Skis don’t care which bathroom you use,” says one Fischer rep. Some of our testers, both male and female, were on board with that. “My favorite Fischer ever,” said one longtime reviewer. “It’s super intuitive—nimble in short turns and loose in powder, with stout edge grip.” On the other hand, our lightest testers complained that it took muscle to shut the ski down. (Granted, they might have been outgunned by the 170-centimeter-long test pair.) Still, despite the nicely balanced flex and the weight savings of a carbon tip, the 102 FR is ready to rip. Two sheets of titanium and full sidewalls encourage any dedicated pilot to achieve new levels of performance. So who should buy it? “It’s a go-to for strong, expert, hard-charging western resort women,” said our women’s test director. “Keep it in wide-open terrain and you’ll ski at pro-level speeds.”
Without question the most versatile skis on the market, our all-mountain group features midfat planks with waist widths that typically range from 90 millimeters to just over 100 millimeters. Why do these skis matter? If the conditions are right, they’re just skinny enough to make carved turns on groomed, packed snow fun for the entire day, but they’re still chubby enough to float in all but the biggest in-bounds powder days. Look here if you only plan to buy one pair of skis and not build out an entire quiver. All-mountain skis excel at 50 percent on-trail and 50 percent off-trail skiing. We focused most of our reviews on this all-important category.
Völkl Mantra 102 ($825)
Turn Radius: 21.4 meters (184-centimeter length)
Camber profile: Tip and tail rocker
Best For: Cold, high-elevation snow
For the 2018–19 season, Völkl reengineered its wildly successful Mantra, renaming it the M-5. The M-5 was a smash hit. For 2019–20, Völkl has released another engineering wunderkind of a ski in the new, fatter Mantra 102. The chassis of the skis is the German brand’s Titanal-frame construction. Instead of just sandwiching a ski in layers of titanium alloy, Völkl cuts out the center of each piece of metal with computer-controlled machines; that metal, in turn, gets laminated into the ski just beneath the topsheet. The result? You get the power and ride quality of metal (think damp) but save many grams. And because that precision-cut metal is predominantly over the edges, you boost edge penetration on hard snow at the same time. All of this is especially crucial with wider skis like this one, which can get heavy fast without some design creativity to cut weight. Carbon tips reduce the swing weight still further. That construction translates to a ski that hooks up and holds on when you’re tipping it over on hardpack at any speed but is also loose, surfy, and playful when you head off-trail in search of soft snow. The versatility of this ski is only boosted by Völkl’s 3-D radius sidecut, which essentially means that the ski has three turn radii (most skis have one), so that it’s easier to vary turn shape. The digest version of how that works: rockered skis need multiple sidecuts because, unlike fully cambered skis, the amount of edge making contact with the snow changes drastically as you tip the skis over into a turn. Trust us, it feels right. Given the 102-millimeter waist width, which excels at both floating and carving, we found the Mantra 102 to be one of the most versatile skis in the test. “Amazing grip on icy morning groomers, but you can butter them into and out of turns all day long, too,” said one tester. Look here if you ski out west and like arcing turns on groomers but don’t want a second pair of skis for powder days.
Atomic Vantage 97 Ti ($850)
Turn Radius: 19.1 meters (180-centimeter length)
Camber profile: All-mountain rocker
Best For: Perfect corduroy on trail and perfect packed powder off
Atomic’s silky yet powerful Vantage 97 Ti is built with the Austrian brand’s new Prolite construction, which sheds serious grams. In layperson’s terms, Prolite is Atomic’s attempt to make skis lighter without sacrificing edge penetration and torsional rigidity, via a completely reengineered construction process. In the case of the Vantage 97, that means instead of full sheets of metal to boost dampening, the company produced a complex material weave, complete with a titanium alloy called Titanium Tank Mesh. Rebound and liveliness come courtesy of a carbon-infused “energy backbone” that acts like a stringer in the ski, boosting energy return. Full sidewall construction (no cap construction on this model) adds to the edging power. On the hill, that translates to a ski that just seeks out the fall line, whether that means you’re carving short swing turns on corduroy or slinking your way through bumps. The lively feel adds to that quick, edge-to-edge response. “This ski just dives into fall-line turns and loves to be skied dynamically,” said a tester and former Olympian. Our testers also praised the Vantage 97 Ti for its unwavering edge hold, which is pretty surprising for such a light ski—but that sensation is now an Atomic staple. Our only gripe? At high speeds, lightweight skis like these can feel drifty at times, especially when you’re hitting frozen chunks. You need to actively edge the 97’s to lock them in. It’s worth the extra attention. “The more you drive these Atomics, the more energy they return,” said a tester. And that just makes for fun skiing. “A ski this easy to ski shouldn’t have this much edge hold, but the 97 does,” said another reviewer.
Elan Black Edition Ripstick 96 ($1,000)
Turn Radius: 18 meters (181-centimeter length)
Camber profile: Atypical. Read our review.
Best For: Carving off-trail on chalky snow
The Black Edition is the souped-up version of Elan’s do-it-all Ripstick 96. This model comes with more carbon in the layup, which adds zippy energy return when you want it. That means the harder you bend the ski into turns, the more the ski comes alive. Not that it’s hard to ski, though. Elan’s Amphibio profile adds more rocker to the outside edges, which transition effortlessly from turn to turn, and less rocker to the inside edges, for more effective snow contact, letting you power through turns from tip to tail. But the tech story doesn’t end there. Carbon-fiber tubes about the diameter of a pencil are embedded into the wood core before the ski is pressed together in a mold, resulting in this unique Elan ride quality that makes for easy skiing when you’re cruising but ever more dynamic power when you push the ski into turns. Compared to the Atomic Vantage, the ride quality is plush, like a long-travel trail bike (the Atomic is more reactive, like a cross-country race bike). The resulting performance can feel like you’re on autopilot—albeit a fun and dynamic autopilot. “Best on-trail performance of any ski in the category,” said a tester that loves making deep Euro-style carves on corduroy. “It rips at all speeds, from mellow to charging. Uncanny how easy it is to ski.” Better still? The Ripstick allows for easy changes in turn shape, too. You can jump on it for short swings or let it run in big sweeping arcs. Just keep it up on edge. Like many modern skis loaded with technology, it’s stable as hell when the sidecut is engaged but can get a little flighty when you run it straight. Regardless, add all those performance attributes to a ski that’s 96 millimeters underfoot, and you have an everyday western tool that most of our testers would use most of the time. “These skis live up to their name and just rip,” said one. “You can haul on them, but they’re effortless to shut down and scrub speed, too.”
Völkl Women’s Secret 92 ($825)
Turn radius: 17.9 meters (170-centimeter length)
Camber profile: Tip and tail rocker
Best For: Packed powder off-trail. Machine groomed on trail.
“Lively, with tons of pop from turn to turn,” said one tester. Those same words appeared on nearly every test card. Carbon tips lighten the swing weight without sacrificing front-end integrity for hard chargers who like to drive the ski. Just enough tip and tail rocker make turn initiations a breeze and make smearing your way through chopped powder less work and more play. Camber underfoot and a full wood core is what adds to the pop, but that 92-millimeter waist width is a factor, too. It’s just skinny enough for dynamic carving. A triple sidecut (three subtly different shapes along the edge that would be invisible to the untrained eye) aid in turn-shape versatility, so depending on how much you want to tip the ski over, you can pivot turns underfoot, slalom-turn the hell out of your run, or open it up into cruisey GS turns. One of the secret weapons of this Völkl ski is an internal Titanal frame—the same as the Mantra 102—that runs the perimeter of the ski, fortifying edge grip and strengthening flex to add turbo to your turns the more you hit the gas. That construction lets the Secret 92 hang on at high speeds like an old-school race ski, while still offering the playfulness of modern gear. With nary a negative, one tester thought the flex might be too burly for intermediates, and a couple of reviewers noticed a glassy sound and feel on hardpack, although it didn’t seem to affect performance. Others thought that that “glassiness” (a brittle, almost hollow sensation) added to the ski’s crisp feel. “Delightful energy, and easy to ski on hard or soft snow” was another rave review.
Rossignol Experience 88 TI W ($750)
Turn radius: 15 meters (173-centimeter length)
Camber profile: All-terrain rocker
Best For: Groomers—70 percent of the time
One of the skinnier skis in our all-mountain test, the 88-millimeter-waist Experience naturally favors energized linked turns on machine-groomed snow. Built in the same mold as the unisex Experience 88 TI, but a skosh lighter, it’s nearly as formidable as the unisex ski, while offering a more manageable ride for lighter pilots. One tester’s remark: “It’s a virtual leg saver that will have you charging all day.” Equipped with a cool honeycomb polymer in the tip, like the Soul 7 HD W (the brand calls it Air Tip), the ski has a lightweight and forgiving nose, which makes diving into turns a breeze. The new version of that Air Tip adds dampening and better integrates with the forebody of the ski, serving up a predictable flex pattern, while the Titanal power rail that runs the length of the core absorbs chatter and beefs up stability as it increases energy return. One tester commented that it’s “great for aspiring carvers, who can quickly release the edges if they speed out of their comfort zone.” This ski clearly favors groomed snow, but there’s enough rocker here for surfing back-side stashes or dodging through trees in third-buckle-deep powder. Much loved by testers of multiple ability levels, the Experience 88 TI is a great progression plank for intermediates just learning to put it up on edge or for experts who will push it to its limits without worry of it breaking away.
Head Kore 93 W ($750)
Turn Radius: 15.4 meters (171-centimeter length)
Camber profile: Tip and tail rocker
Best For: Spending half your time on trail and half your time off
Kore isn’t German for “core,” it’s an abbreviation for Koroyd, a honeycomb polymer baked into the core of the ski that keeps the 93 W light and strong. Unlike Rossignol, which places honeycomb in the tip, Head incorporates it in-line in the core to knock down vibration, which moves through skis in waves. Think noise-cancelling panels but for mitigating the chaos of midday chop underfoot. On the hill, that translates to a smooth and silky ride quality that offers more grip and stability than you would think such a lightweight ski could deliver. Our test cards were full of words like damp, quiet, and clean. One tester likened that chatter-free ride quality to “a bullet train on rails” as it hugs the terrain. But it’s not a bear to handle either. Offsetting the dampness, graphene (the thinnest, lightest, and strongest element known to man) in the tip and tail adds pop over moguls and liftoff over billowy piles. The attributes speak to the ski’s versatility. It’s just as at home on hardpack at high speeds as it is exploring in the trees. But it lends itself to quick-footed skiers that like to work in the fall line. Testers loved the overall firmness of the flex, but a couple of lightweights found the tail to be a touch stiff. One of our experts said, “It’s a seriously stable ski that gets down to business on groomers and in bumps.” The Kore 93 W also accommodates a range of skiers. Like the best of modern skis, you settle into the belly of the turn without having to figure the ski out and shift your weight accordingly—the flex and turn shape feel natural. And staying glued to the snow, even on such a lightweight ski, will give you serious confidence. The 93-millimeter waist width means it can act as a one-ski quiver on both coasts and in much of the Rockies if you spend half your time on trail. And don’t be afraid to ski it aggressively when the mood hits. The harder you drive the Kore, the more it gives back.
All-Mountain Frontside Skis
All-mountain frontside skis tend to feature underfoot waist widths of 80 to 90 millimeters. Those slighter dimensions let these dynamic planks enter and exit turns with less effort while offering more edge grip on hard snow. Look here if you ski 70 percent of your time on machine-groomed snow, no matter where you live, and tend to ski bumps or firm snow when you venture off-trail. There’s also growing evidence that skis of these waist widths transfer less torque to your knees, saving wear and tear.
Stöckli Laser AX ($1,249)
Turn radius: 15.9 meters (175-centimeter length)
Camber profile: All-mountain rocker
Best for: Arcing laydown turns when it hasn’t snowed in ages
Rocker and taper made off-trail skiing way more approachable for the masses, but that shouldn’t mean we ski only on powder days. The Laser AX is a reminder of that. It’s precise like a race ski but nowhere near as demanding: you don’t have to be a 220-pound former racer to pilot it. Instead, it’s built specifically for North American skiers who want to carve but don’t want to battle with their skis if the snow is a bit soft. (That 78-millimeter waist is wide by Swiss standards.) But just because it’s a bit fatter for packed powder or softening spring snow doesn’t mean it’s not fully juiced. The AX offers loads of energetic rebound. That’s in part because there are no bells and whistles. Stöckli prides itself on not chasing trends, preferring to stick with traditional sandwich construction. With so much hand work and proper material-curing times, it takes up to 12 days to produce each pair of Stöcklis—compared to six to eight hours for boards from bigger brands. Once you learn to trust the high edge angles, you’ll leave deep tracks in fresh corduroy. But unlike a race ski, it can dump speed effortlessly. The flex is approachable and the ride is stable whether you stomp on the accelerator or back off of it. “You can lay this Stöckli so far over in a turn that you’re dragging your knuckles,” said one tester. “Unlike on lesser carvers, you can do that at top speed.” Another tester remarked that these are “probably the most dynamic skis of the day. You can crank out short-swing turns or run them long.” Note: the turn shape might be a bit short for some folks. Size up if you want a bigger arc.
Völkl Women’s Kenja 88 ($775)
Turn radius: 16.8 meters (170-centimeter length)
Camber profile: Tip and tail rocker
Best For: East Coast all-mountain skiing
We thought last year’s introduction of the much loved Völkl Secret 92 would be hard to beat, but the German brand stepped up with the all-new Kenja 88, which incorporates the same construction as the Secret 92 into a more frontside-appropriate ski. (The Stöckli is great for people who love ripping carved turns on groomers above all else but don’t want to swap skis if it snows six inches. The Kenja, or unisex Kendo, is great for those who like skiing groomers, bumps, and chutes.) Here, the computer-machined titanium alloy forms a frame around the perimeter of the topsheet, adding power where you need it and shaving grams where you don’t. Carbon tips reduce the swing weight for easier pivot turns. And full vertical sidewalls boost the edge penetration on hardpack. “Ex-racers or carving purists will love the traditional feel of this ski, from tip set to tail snap,” said one reviewer. Although the construction is inherited from World Cup engineering, the wood-laminate core and complicated layup—it takes a lot of handwork to put all the pieces together—offer race-level-precision edge hold on a far more manageable level. Experts can hang these way out from under them, while aspiring carvers can work on increasing their edge angles without feeling like they’re pushing their limits. One tester called them “confidence boosters” for the edge hold they offer those who fear loss of control on unexpected slick surfaces. The edge grip only adds to that confident ride. But as easy as they are for advanced and expert skiers to pilot, there’s an engine under the hood, too. “Don’t underestimate their power,” said a tester. “Just because they’re light and fun doesn’t mean you can’t wail turns.” Off-trail there’s enough rocker here to make the new Kenjas easy to pivot in glades and bumps, but there’s not enough width for powder days that are deeper than the third buckle on your boots. Still, the light carbon tip and slight tip and tail rocker make smearing turns or shutting down speed plenty forgiving. A 3-D sidecut (three different turn radii that match up with your edging angles) means the Kenja isn’t limited to one turn shape. We found that it transitions seamlessly from long cruiser turns to snap-turn fall-line skiing without thinking.
Backcountry Crossover Skis
As skis have almost universally grown lighter, the distinctions between backcountry skis and resort skis have blurred: thus, crossover skis, which are simply skis that we’ve found work well in both worlds. Waist width is still paramount. If you plan on blowing up powder all day, then look for all-mountain powder-ski widths greater than 100 millimeters underfoot. If you tend to ski in low-tide conditions on chalky steeps, start with waist widths between 90 and 100 millimeters. Weight matters, too. If you tour a lot, look for lighter skis. If you tend to only tour out of areas after riding lifts to the uncontrolled backcountry, then burlier skis perform better, thanks to their increased stability and bashing power on the down.
Scott Slight 93 ($800)
Turn Radius: 16.2 meters (180-centimeter length)
Camber profile: Tip rocker
Best For: Hike-to-bowl laps
Aptly named for its swing weight but not for its performance, the Slight 93 is an ultralight crossover ski well suited to hiking for sidecountry turns at your resort or touring the backcountry after moderate storms. Paired with Shift or Kingpin bindings, this lightweight setup is an ideal grab-and-go ski for in-bound uphillers or backcountry skiers looking for a starter ski—it even has skin-attachment slits at the tip and tail. One tester noted, “It’s a perfect width for early-morning hikes in the spring and surfing the velvety surface corn.” A lightly tapered tip gives it just enough rise for buttery turn initiations and an overall smeary playfulness. And a full-length lightweight wood core—no inserts here—makes for a smooth and predictable flex: big bonuses in weird backcountry snow. Ample rocker in the tip lets it float to the surface in powder and allows you to pivot the Slight with very little effort. On the test hill in Steamboat, we found that the Slight makes equally fluid long and short turns, but as one tester noticed, it favors medium turns. Carbon stringers run its entire length, boosting torsional rigidity for bomber edge hold while adding liveliness, all while keeping grams to a minimum. The full wood core adds consistent flex and keeps it from getting rowdy in the chop. One caveat: a tester thought the Slight “lacks beef at full throttle off-trail.” For that, Scott has a bigger, 100-millimeter version of the ski.
Fischer Women’s My Ranger 102 FR ($700)
Turn radius: 17 meters (168-centimeter length)
Camber profile: Tip and tail rocker/twin tip
Best For: Surfing backcountry snow
“A legit crossover ski for hiking in-bounds or skinning into the wild to surf the pristine,” said one tester about the My Ranger 102 FR. It was only a few years ago that a true in-bounds and out-of-bounds ski was more dream than reality. But the weight-shaving movement by traditional alpine brands has changed all that. To do that in the My Ranger 102 FR, Fischer built around its time-tested Air Tec TI wood core, which features channels of air between traditional vertically laminated wood. That starting point offers the predictability and quiet ride of wood minus some of the mass. Yes, that feature was originally targeted at resort skiers, but it’s just as relevant for the type of crossover skiers that have gravitated to Fischer’s Ranger line. Lighter-weight planks also make for easier in-bounds hikes, too. But to be clear, this is no noodle of a backcountry ski. The TI in the name stands for titanium alloy. And in the 102, a full sheet of it gobbles up chatter and amps the energy return when you flex the ski deeply. One of our testers, who is also a pro instructor, said, “This ski exudes confidence the more you put the hammer down.” A subtle twin-tip design adds a more playful and surfy feeling at the end of the turn and makes slashing turns or dumping speed in unconsolidated backcountry snow easier to pull off, so it’s gentler for aspiring powder skiers just delving into touring. And at 1,850 grams, it’s only 200 grams heavier than a dedicated touring ski of this girth, but the full-figured silhouette and ample rocker mean it’s perfectly suited for charging in wonky backcountry snow. A carbon nose also minimizes both the swing weight (for easier pivot turns) and the weight farthest from your body (for easier skinning on the uptrack). We’d mount it with a crossover binding, like the Shift by Atomic and Salomon or a Marker Kingpin. “It skis like a supersize carver wrapped in a powder-ski body,” said a reviewer. “I’d ski it every day, at the resort and for ski tours, too.”
Pure Backcountry Skis
If you’re entering the backcountry from trailheads, not ski resorts, and spending big days climbing in excess of 5,000 feet, then dedicated backcountry skis still have their place. They’re lighter weight—under 1,600 grams is our benchmark—which adds up to a lot of energy savings over the long haul. But well-designed backcountry skis also feature less sidecut. That hourglass shape delivers the carving sensation on groomers but can make skis hooky and unpredictable in unconsolidated backcountry snow, especially when a crust forms. Because backcountry skis are already light, women shouldn’t feel constrained to hunting down women-specific backcountry skis.
Blizzard Zero G 105 ($960)
Turn radius: 23 meters (180-centimeter length)
Camber profile: Tip and tail rocker
Weight: 1,530 grams
Best For: Western ski tours
Our testers considered Blizzard’s original Zero G 108 the best backcountry ski ever made. It was light enough for long days of touring, but it ripped nearly as well as a full-on resort ski on the way back down. Incredibly, the new Zero G 105 is better still. It got lighter, for one thing, thanks to what the brand is calling Carbon Drive 2.0: a new three-dimensional carbon frame and feathery paulownia wood core. This construction shaved 200-plus grams from the pair. Traditional sidewalls make for powerful edging on cold and chalky alpine snow, since the ski has no caps. And a new sidecut—the tips and tails flare out just a bit more—produces a more playful ride on spring corn in the backcountry. It still stretches out a 23-meter turn radius, though. The flex pattern is also smooth and consistent, giving the 105 a feel similar to autopilot, which is a positive in the backcountry. Predictable skis tame unpredictable snow. In our experience, it’s easy to pull weight out of a ski and call it a backcountry tool. What’s hard is retaining downhill performance. At 1,530 grams, the Zero G 105 could still outperform many of the skis in our all-mountain powder test. “It’s noticeably lighter on the uptrack,” said a tester, “but while it doesn’t carve quite as nice on groomers, it also performs better in the backcountry conditions it was designed for on the way back down.”
How to Choose a Pair of Skis
Buying skis can be confusing. But it gets easier if you read the above reviews and ask yourself two key questions:
Am I adding to a quiver or replacing the daily driver that I ski on 80 percent of the time?
If you’re looking to round out a quiver, you’re probably in the market for a specialty ski built wide for powder or thin for carving turns on hardpack—skis that are beyond the purview of this review. Such skis excel in very specific conditions but tend to flounder in routine all-mountain conditions. However, if you ski a ton, pure powder and pure frontside skis can really liven up your ski action. If you’re looking for a one-ski quiver, it’s time for the next question, a two-parter.
Where do I ski the most, and what are my favorite conditions?
How you answer these prompts determines whether you’re in the market for an all-mountain powder ski (around 105 millimeters underfoot), an all-mountain ski (around 95 millimeters), or an all-mountain frontside ski (around 85 millimeters). These versatile skis are all built similarly, but they’re distinguished by waist width and depth of rocker. If you live near a steep-and-deep resort, like Jackson; Alta, Utah; or Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows or Mammoth Mountain, California, and you ski off-trail most of the time, a chubby all-mountain powder ski with a healthy dose of rocker might be your daily driver. If you live in a place with moderate snowfall (Summit County, Colorado, we’re looking at you), then look for an all-mountain ski, one that’s a touch skinnier and with less rocker, which will let you mix up on-trail and off-trail skiing. And if you live where machine-groomed hardpack and chalky tree skiing is more common than bottomless blower—say, the East Coast—you should start with all-mountain frontside skis with just a hint of rocker and a waist width that makes for easy and powerful edging. They’re still all-mountain skis, they just let you better rip carved turns, bumps, and tight trees when you aren’t storm skiing.
Plus: A note about unisex and women’s skis
For many generations, ski shops just sold skis. It was a gender-neutral deal. But starting about 30 years ago, models specific to women began popping up on the racks. At first they were just cosmetic changes (i.e., pink), but over time, heeding the input of women skiers, ski executives, opinion leaders, coaches, and instructors, manufacturers shaved weight from women’s skis and even adjusted the inner materials and the sidecut to best serve the women’s market. Today, although there are still skis that are “women specific” in graphics only, nearly every manufacturer offers a full line of purpose-built women-specific skis. As with unisex skis, some are built for experts and some are built for intermediates—the industry doesn’t really build beginner skis anymore, since modern skis are so easy to handle—but they’re all designed with women in mind. In general, the theory was that women weigh less than men and carry that weight differently. So the industry decided to produce skis that come in shorter lengths and are lighter, softer, and cut differently, to be proportionate to women’s bodies and make for easier turn initiation.
For years the women-specific trend was seen as a positive development, and for skiers who are lighter or ski at slower speeds and tend not to flex a unisex ski deeply enough to execute a carve, it certainly is. But the empowerment of women athletes and the simple fact that not all women ski or are built alike also has many strong women skiers dismissing women-specific skis. These skiers, including a few of our testers, argue that they don’t need softer planks or different sidecuts. The sentiment is not universally applicable, but we agree with them. And we’re not alone. At the World Cup level, there aren’t really men’s and women’s skis, just skis of different lengths.
Our take? If you have the power and the skill, no unisex ski is beyond you. But don’t discount high-end women’s skis either. Contrariwise, if you like lighter skis and find that you flex women-specific skis better, why wouldn’t you continue buying them? Just know you have options.
What to Look for in Skis
Back in the day when everyone skied on modified slalom and GS skis, stiffness was often the deciding factor in ski selection. Today, though, unless you’re either extra-large and powerful or petite and laid-back, almost all recreational all-mountain skis are built with a round-turn flex that’s accessible to most skiers. (Meaning you don’t need to actively muscle them to get them to arc turns.) Think you need a softer or stiffer ski? Before you change models, consider changing lengths. See the next entry.
Thanks to a smart blend of rocker, taper, sidecut, and new materials, modern all-mountain skis are stable but lively, surfy but powerful, and dynamic but not demanding. A side benefit to all that innovation? We can ski them shorter than skis made 15 years ago. But don’t throw out all reasoning in the process. Ski-size charts like this one are a good place to start, but while they’re close to spot-on for easy-skiing intermediates, they tend to run five to ten centimeters short for aggressive experts. Also know that flex patterns (stiffness again) typically change with length, so if you want a stiffer ski, you might want a longer ski that’s designed for a bigger skier, too, and vice versa.
Sidecut is the hourglass shape of a ski. When you put a ski on edge and bend it into a carved turn on packed snow, the depth or radius of that sidecut helps to determine if you’re going to make a short (14-meter) turn or a long (20-meter) arc. Counterintuitively, in powder, bumps, and trees, less sidecut can make for quicker turns: in those conditions, you aren’t carving so much as pivoting or floating your turns, and in soft snow, less sidecut helps a ski cut loose—meaning it won’t feel as hooky. This is especially noticeable in snow with a layer of crust on it.
In general, opt for more aggressive sidecuts if you live for arcing race turns on groomers, and opt for less cut if you prefer to ski off-trail in soft snow or just favor pivot turns over carves. Backcountry skis typically offer the least amount of sidecut, because excessive hourglassing can cause the ski to catch unexpectedly in weird backcountry snow.
It’s subtle on many skis, but rocker is that three-dimensional shaping reminiscent of the upturned nose of a surfboard or the hull of a rodeo kayak. Just a hint of rocker makes it easier to tip an all-mountain ski on edge to carve turns. Deeper rocker, meanwhile, helps float a ski to the surface of soft snow and gives it a surfy or slashy feel in powder. As with width, you want more rocker for pure powder skiing and less rocker for pure carving, where it can make a ski feel unstable at high speed.
All skis are getting lighter these days, and as a rule, we think that’s a good thing. Lighter skiers are now able to run gear that’s proportionally more in line with their body weight. In-bounds skiers who hike for their turns benefit from skis that are easier to shoulder. Backcountry skiers obviously need lighter skis for touring uphill. And slightly lighter skis can feel more playful off-trail in soft snow. But unless you’re a ski-mountaineer racer, buying skis based solely on grams is a bad idea. Eventually, shaving weight comes at the expense of stability and dampness, and many skiers know that feathery backcountry skis tend to skitter on resort hardpack. And of course, even the heaviest wood-and-metal skis don’t feel that way when you’re riding lifts and going 45 miles an hour on groomers. If you rarely hike, weight isn’t much of an issue, and it can be a benefit when bashing power.