Anyone who has endured the chaos of a rental shop during a resort’s peak season understands the value of owning their own pair of skis. In addition to saving you from being corralled through a seemingly endless line only to get sub-par gear, having your own skis is wonderful precisely because they’re yours. A personal pair of skis means that you’re using gear that caters to how you like to ski, where and when you most often ski, and the nuances of your body, drastically improving the control, speed, agility, and sheer fun of the sport.
The best skis – like the Rossignol Experience 86 TI, our top pick – will let you ski everywhere, floating on powder, powering through crud, and carving on groomers with ease. But we also focused on sport-specific skis like those for powder or the backcountry, as well as skis for freeriding, intermediate, beginners, and teenagers.
Even to the initiated, decoding the variables on different downhill skis can become overwhelming. To help navigate the many elements of a ski – their length, width, turn radius, weight, and profiles – we spoke with Pete Petrofvski, director of skier services at Colorado’s Keystone Resort, for sage advice on what all those specs mean.
Rossignol Experience 86 Basalt Skis
Why We Love It: It’s playful, fast, and fluid in all snow conditions.
What to Consider: The 86-millimeter waist makes it solid for all sorts of resort skiing, but those who search for the deep stuff may want a wider ski to help float.
Designed to handle the entire resort, the Rossignol Experience 86 TI will resonate with expert-level skiers looking to conquer the mountain regardless of the conditions. It boasts a Drive Tip tech feature that makes transition from crud to groomer to powder smooth and free of chatter, working with the full sidewalls for a clean turn initiation. The sidecut provides solid edge control to capitalize on a skier’s technique and allow them to charge downhill with confidence, while layers of titanal absorb vibration and improve power transfer so every ounce of your energy counts. A PEFC-certified poplar wood core also gives it sustainability cred and makes the ski playful and fun, with an all-terrain rocker profile that provides plenty of pop. Although this is an extremely well-rounded pick, if your ski days primarily consist of particularly deep powder, we recommend considering a wider ski for more buoyancy. Still, this is one of the most versatile skis on the market, and powder hounds with plenty of vertical under their belts are sure to appreciate the smooth control it offers.
Price at time of publish: $850
Lengths: 167, 176, 185 centimeters | Dimensions: 132 millimeter tip, 86 millimeter waist, 120 millimeter tail | Radius: 14, 15, 16 meters | Ability level: Advanced to expert
Black Diamond Helio Carbon 115
Why We Love It: The Helio Carbon 115 provides a lightweight, powerful ride that’ll float in deep powder and easily cut through uneven snow.
What to Consider: If you’re looking to ski side-country or at the resort, the 115-millimeter waist may be a bit of overkill when trying to find an edge on groomers.
Weighing in at just less than seven pounds (for the 177-centimeter model), the Helio Carbon 115 from Black Diamond is light enough to handle big expeditions into the backcountry without sacrificing any performance. A mix of carbon fiber and engineered paulownia wood at the core, the lightweight ski comes with 5-millimeter, full-perimeter beveled ABS sidewall for confident edging, dampening any vibrations for a smooth ride through powder or crud. At the tip, you’ll find a low-rise semi-rocker profile that helps conquer uneven terrain along with a full rocker at the tail to improve flotation — a feature that’s reinforced by its 115-millimeter waist. Black Diamond even integrated a skin-clip tab to help secure your equipment.
Price at time of publish: $950
Lengths: 177, 185 centimeters | Dimensions: 143 millimeter tip, 115 millimeter waist, 125 millimeter tail | Radius: 24, 25 meters | Ability level: Intermediate to Expert
Salomon QST Blank Ski
Why We Love It: Wide under foot and built with a generous rocker profile that works with camber under the boot, the QST Blank is playful, floaty, and just plain fun to ski.
What to Consider: The full sidewalls help find an edge, but you’ll have to work a bit when carving on groomers.
Powder skis require plenty of float and control as you bounce from pillows to pow, and the Salomon freeride QST Blank provides just that thanks to its 112-millimeter waist, a camber profile under foot, and early rise at the tip and tail. The ski is also plenty playful — Salomon has lowered the widest point of the ski and lengthened the rocker profile to let you pop and turn with aplomb. Poplar sits at the core for stability, while a layer of carbon fiber improves strength without adding additional ounces. And any unexpected chatter is lessened by the cork “damplifier,” which works three times better than the more common Koroyd. The ski can also be paired with the brand’s SHIFt setup for backcountry touring.
Price at time of publish: $800
Lengths: 178, 186, 194 centimeters | Dimensions: 137 millimeter tip, 112 millimeter waist, 126 millimeter tail | Radius: 16 m | Ability level: Advanced
Elan Ripstick 96
Why We Love It: Ready to float in powder, carve on groomers, and blast through variable conditions, the Ripstick 96 makes the entire mountain your playground.
What to Consider: Some may not love the neon yellow and green color.
Ready for any type of snow condition, from dipping into the sidecountry to ripping the groomers the Elan Ripstick 96 provides a lightweight solution to exploring the entire mountain. Amphibio Carbon Line Technology adds serious power and speed with precise control on variable terrain. The 94-millimeter waist is wide enough to float on powder but still narrow enough to find an edge on the front side with SST sidewalls that boost power transfer on each turn. Skiers praise the Ripstick for being fluid, fun, and easy to initiate, with a playful profile that both grips the snow and also provides a bit of bounce.
Price at time of publish: $700
Lengths: 164, 172, 180, 188 centimeters | Dimensions: 133 millimeter tip, 94 millimeter waist, 108 millimeter tail | Radius: 15.5, 16.2, 18, 19.5 meters | Ability level: Advanced to expert
Dynastar M-menace 90 Skis
Why We Love It: The price alone makes the M-menace 90s worth considering, but the ski doesn’t skimp on features required for a reliable all-mountain ski.
What to Consider: If you focus on groomed runs, the 90-millimeter waist may be too much, and some may prefer a more aggressive rocker profile or a bit of camber for stability.
Even without its low price point, the M-menace 90 Skis from Dynastar would still win accolades. Factor in the cost and it’s a no-brainer for budget-conscious skiers. Designed to work on both groomed runs and powder, it boasts a poplar core that’s been reinforced with fiberglass to provide resistance, elasticity, and precise control, along with a cap construction to make the ski lighter and more forgiving. And, unlike some all-mountain freeride skis, it has only a modest rocker profile at the tip, which provides softness and tolerance in the curves, so that the entire length of the edge contacts the surface to help carve efficiently and smoothly.
Price at time of publish: $430
Lengths: 130, 140, 150, 160, 170, 180 centimeters | Dimensions: 188 millimeter tip, 90 millimeter waist, 108 millimeter tail | Radius: 10, 13, 16, 19, 23, 27 meters | Ability level: Advanced
Best for Intermediate
K2 Mindbender 89 TI
Why We Love It: The freeriding Mindbender 89 TI responds intuitively and will work with you as you improve, providing access to the entire mountain and even occasional forays into the sidecountry.
What to Consider: If you value playfulness over precision, this may not be the best choice.
Intermediate skiers need something that lets them explore the variable terrain of the entire mountain, and that’s where the K2 Mindbender 89 TI excels. It comes with an all-terrain rocker profile that will help you navigate moguls, trees, groomers, powder, and the inevitable chop. It’s agile enough to quickly find an edge on hard pack, but (at 89 millimeters) it’s just wide enough to float on powder. It leans toward the more precise end of the flex spectrum, which means the ski will deliver high-level performance as your skills improve, with a mix of aspen and maple at the core, the former for flex, the latter to absorb impact and assure solid energy transfer. It also comes with K2’s Titanal Y-beam Tech, which places Y-shaped prongs over the edges of the shovel to deliver precise, powerful turn initiation.
Price at time of publish: $700
Lengths: 164, 170, 176, 182, 188 centimeters | Dimensions: 130 millimeter tip, 89 millimeter waist, 114 millimeter tail | Radius: 15.4 meters | Ability level: Intermediate
Best for Beginners
Atomic Maverick 86 C
Why We Love It: Approachable for the novice skier but robust enough to perform well as your skills improve, the Maverick 86 C uses a combo rocker/camber profile to make the ski playful, along with an angled sidewall to easily find an edge.
What to Consider: If you dream of skiing deep powder, you may want more width underfoot.
Most first-time skiers log their initial several hundred vertical feet at a resort on a pair of rental skis, which is a lower-cost way to become oriented to the sport. So when they’re ready to graduate to ski ownership, they should look for a ski that’ll grow with their skillset. That’s what you get with the Maverick 86 C from Atomic. The all-mountain ski is approachable for beginners but will also fit intermediate-level skiing as you progress over the seasons. The 86.5-millimeter waist hits the sweet spot between floating and finding an edge quickly to improve transitions on groomers, and the combo rocker/camber profile (15 percent rocker at the tip, 75 percent camber underfoot, and 10 percent rocker on the tail) make the skis responsive, playful, and easy to control. Made of wood, fiberglass, and carbon, the ski won’t weigh you down, and it does a solid job of absorbing chatter, finding purchase on ice, and cutting through crud.
Price at time of publish: $499
Lengths: 153, 161, 169, 176, 184 centimeters | Dimensions: 120 millimeter tip, 86.5 millimeter waist, 103.5 millimeter tail | Radius: 14.2, 15.5, 16.9, 18.2, 19.5 meter | Ability level: Beginner, intermediate
Best East Coast
Volkl Kendo 88
Why We Love It: The Kendo 88’s construction affords three turn radii in a single pair of skis so that you can intuitively turn (sharp and tight or across the entire run) with ease, and it’s ready for the always variable conditions of the East Coast.
What to Consider: The 88-millimeter waist provides some float, but this is not a powder ski.
Every skier goes to bed with dreams of powder dancing in their mind, but the cold realities of the East Coast often leaves those wishes unfulfilled. Instead? Dense hard pack and occasional sheets of ice. So, it’s best to arm yourself with a ski like the Volkl Kendo 88. This versatile ski comes with a 3D Radius Sidecut, which combines three turn radii (a tight 16 meters in the middle and more open at the tip and tail) to support both tight and wide turns on hard pack, while tailored carbon tips provide precision for optimal control. And if you’re lucky enough to see the white stuff falling, an 88-millimeter waist does provide a bit of float.
Price at time of publish: $691
Lengths: 163, 170, 177, 184 centimeters | Dimensions: 129 millimeter tip, 88 millimeter waist, 123 millimeter tail | Radius: 16 meter | Ability level: Advanced
Best for Kids
Black Crows Camox Jr
Why We Love It: Made for aspiring teenage skiers to explore the entire mountain, the Camox Jr comes with a forgiving flex and just enough width in the waist to float on loose snow.
What to Consider: Younger skiers may need a shorter ski, though the Camox Jr does come in five lengths.
Built for skiers ranging from 14 to 18 years old but still approachable to skiers that are a bit younger, the Camox Jr from Black Crows has a forgiving flex to accommodate less experienced skiers, with a classic camber/double-rocker profile that makes turning easy and provides plenty of playful pop. A turn radius that varies between 14 and 16 meters makes it easy to turn tightly, and the long sidecut will help you find an edge and keep it, even on unforgiving surfaces, with a 90-millimeter waist that provides the right degree of float for charging through powder.
Price at time of publish: $365
Lengths: 139.3, 149.3, 157.3, 164.2 , 171.1 centimeters | Dimensions: 132 millimeter tip, 86 millimeter waist, 120 millimeter tail | Radius: 14, 15, 16 meters | Ability level: Beginner
Best for Speed
Why We Love It: Long in length and skinny at the waist, the RX12 is built for max speed, agility, and control — a race-worthy resort-friendly ski.
What to Consider: Given its singular focus, this isn’t the ski to use to explore the entire mountain or dive into deep powder.
If your love of the sport consists of ripping laps on groomed runs as fast as you can push your skis, go with the racing-specific RX12 skis from Kastle. Built with the brand’s Hollowtech construction, the RX12 is all about generating massive speed — and maximum control and stability at those high speeds. In many ways, it’s a resort-friendly super-G ski, ready for carving on hard-pack with confidence thanks to a turn radius that ranges from 14 to 17.5 meters, which is short enough for tighter turns, but it really excels on wide, arching lines. As you’d expect from such a focused design, the ski doesn’t come with any rocker profile, simply a traditional camber silhouette that keeps your skis grounded and an overall thin waist (65 millimeters) to keep every run fluid.
Price at time of publish: $1,399
Lengths: 215, 218 centimeters | Dimensions: 112 millimeter tip, 65 millimeter waist, 100 millimeter tail | Radius: 14, 17.5 meters | Ability level: Advanced
Wagner Custom Skis
Why We Love It: Working with Wagner on a custom ski means you’ll get the perfect equipment for how and where you enjoy the mountains, and their designers really hand-hold you through the experience.
What to Consider: It’s more expensive than stock skis.
Approaching the specifics for a custom ski can be daunting given the seemingly limitless options, but Wagner Custom demystifies the experience. Simply schedule a time to talk with one of their dedicated ski designers via their website, and they’ll walk you through every decision. The call includes queries about how you like to ski, where you most commonly ski, your overall skill level, and which skis you’ve loved — or hated — in the past to help them hone in on a customized ski that’ll have the perfect length and width dimensions. They’ll also help you navigate the confusing array of different materials — wood types, kevlar, and other products — that they’ll use to craft the perfect ski. And once all those decisions are made, you get to dive into designing your top sheet, working with an in-house graphic designer to create a pair of skis that look as good as they perform. But don’t worry — if deciding on a graphic for your skis feels equally overwhelming, the brand also has a solid library of house graphics and 12 gorgeous wood veneer topsheets, hand-finished pieces of actual wood that’ll age gracefully.
Price at time of publish: Prices varies
Lengths: Varies | Dimensions: Varies | Radius: Varies | Ability level: Varies
Tips for Buying Skis
Understand the specs
At first glance, the variable statistics for a pair of skis can be overwhelming. But once you know the basic terms, you’ll understand how they indicate a ski’s performance in a variety of conditions. “Ski specs for width are provided in millimeters, while specs for length are provided in centimeters,” says Petrofvski. A ski’s width indicates how well it skis in different types of snow, with wider skis providing more float on powder and narrower skis helping you find an edge quickly on groomers. Ski lengths used to be quite long before shaped skis really took hold of the market, and now most advise you look for a ski that’s somewhere between your chin and slightly above your head.
The turn radius, measured in meters, indicates how quickly you can get the ski on edge and complete a turn. In general, the smaller the number, the tighter the ski will turn.
You’ll also often see information on a ski’s profile, specifically camber and rocker. Camber describes the shape of a traditional ski, which arches upward slightly underfoot to elevate the midsection, creating springiness and pop. Rocker inversely refers to the rise in the ski at the tip and tail starting close to the bindings, which makes the ski float more easily in powder, provides more agility, and works well in snow parks. Most modern skis offer a combo rocker/camber/rocker profile, which really delivers the best of both worlds — a ski that’s playful and that easily adjusts to variable terrain.
Consider where you’ll ski
Snow — both in the amount that falls and the quality of snow covering the mountain — varies widely across the country. The East Coast is notoriously plagued with frigid temps that create ice, crud, and hard pack on the slopes; the Rockies and most of Utah benefit from more pillowy, powdery conditions; while the West can get loads of heavy snow or bulletproof hard pack mid-season. And skis have been designed to respond to those variables. For Petrofvski, it mostly comes down to how wide your ski is at its center (or waist), which corresponds to how well the ski floats in powder and how easily you can find your edge on hard snow. “Skiers who frequent resorts in the Rockies, like Keystone, or in the West usually see more frequent snow days and therefore typically prefer a little wider ski (90 millimeters underfoot or wider) to allow for some more float on powder days. Skiers who frequent resorts in the East or Midwest typically prefer skis that are a little narrower (under 90 millimeters underfoot) for better edge grip in hard-pack conditions. Skiers that are fortunate enough to frequent resorts that average more than 500 inches of snow per year will typically have skis that are at least 100 millimeters under foot or wider.”
Consider the ski size (length, width, and weight)
“If you see a ski spec that shows 128-88-110, it is always referring to a part of the width of the ski, so these numbers are all in millimeters,” Petrofvski explains. ”The first number refers to the width of the front of the ski (also known as the shovel), the middle number is the width at the middle of the ski (or underfoot), and 110 refers to the width at the back of the ski (or the tail). The larger the numbers, the wider the ski and the better the ski floats in powder. The smaller the numbers, the narrower the ski, making it easier to carve.” In terms of ski length, target a ski that would reach your chin, or slightly above your head. Shorter skis are typically easier to control, and are great for beginners, while longer skis afford faster, more aggressive skiing, work better off piste, and have a more variable rocker/camber profile.
Frequently Asked Questions
What size of skis do I need?
For ski length, Petrofvski advises you to choose based on your skill set. “The best rule of thumb for beginners is to find a ski that comes up to your chin when you stand it up in front of you. Intermediates should look for skis that come up to their nose and expert skiers will make the decision based on the performance they are looking for out of the ski.” Shorter skis afford more control and work well for beginners, while longer skis (measuring to just above your head) support a more aggressive skier style with greater speed and more minute control, typically with a larger turn radius. In terms of ski widths, those who ski in loose, deep powder should go wider (90 millimeters or more) for the added float, while hard-pack skiers should go narrower to help find an edge quickly. Most alpine, resort-centric skis weigh around 6 to 9 pounds, but if you fatigue easily, a lighter ski is a solid option.
When should you replace a pair of skis?
“The general rule is a ski will start to lose its integrity after 150 to 200 days of skiing, depending on how hard you ski them,” says Petrofvski. “If you are a hard charger and go from first chair to last chair every day, they may need to be replaced sooner. Conversely, if you go up for a couple of hours 10-20 days per year, those skis could last you a lot longer.” Selecting a ski with durable materials like carbon fiber or kevlar also lengthen the life of a ski.
How much should you spend on a pair of skis?
Be prepared to drop at least $450 for a pair of quality skis, though most hover around $700 to $800 — and that’s often without a pair of bindings. Yes, that’s expensive. But unlike rental skis, you get a really high-quality pair of skis that cater to your needs — how you like to ski, where you like to ski — and that’ll last several seasons, saving you from the cost and hassle of renting skis every time you hit the mountain. If you’re looking to test drive a few pairs of skis before making a commitment, look for demo days at various resorts, where brands let you try out a few pairs to help get some real time experience on the skis before you decide which to buy.
How do I wax a pair of skis?
Having a fresh coat of wax on your skis makes you go faster as it promotes the glide on the surface of the snow, and it also makes turning and controlling your skis much easier. To do this at home, you’ll need a long, wide surface (or work bench) to place your skis, rubber bands to hold up your ski breaks, a block of downhill ski wax, a waxing iron, a scraper, and brushes. After you’ve secured your skis to your work surface (via clamps, ideally) and pulled back the brakes to expose the smooth bottoms of your skis, hold the block of wax against the hot surface of the iron to create a small stream of melted wax on the length of your ski, then place the iron down and move it down the ski to spread the wax, keeping the iron in constant motion. Once the wax has been applied, let it dry and then use the plastic scraper at an angle, pushing from tip to tail to remove the extra wax and create a thin new layer of wax. Then, brush the new surface from tip to tail to create an oily, glossy look. If you have the space and equipment, it’s a relatively easy way to keep your skis in solid shape, but if not, consider going to a ski shop to get a fresh layer of wax applied, a treatment that often also includes the sharpening of your skis’ edges.
Why Trust Travel+Leisure
Nathan Borchelt is a life-long skier, making annual trips to the resorts of Colorado as a child, and has skied all over the United States, Canada, South America, Europe, and Japan. He’s also been rating, reviewing, and writing about ski and outdoor/travel gear for decades, with a particular fondness for the many minute variables in a pair of skis. In prepping this round-up he looked at both professional testing feedback as well as verified customers, and he also interviewed Pete Petrofvski, director of skier services at Colorado’s Keystone Resort, on what a skier should consider when buying a pair of new skis.
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