Wondering if it’s time to grab yourself a pair of those sweet wide skis you’ve been eyeing in the lift line?
There’s a reason many of the best skiers on the mountain are rocking a pair of beefy planks. For skiing deep powder, big lines, and other types of terrain that advanced and expert skiers like to play on, there is no substitute for some serious ski underfoot.
But even for intermediate skiers, upgrading to a modern pair of wide all-mountain skis can help unlock the mysteries of advanced skiing. My own story is a perfect example.
I’ve been downhill skiing since I was a cute four-year-old in a puffy jacket, pizza-ing like my little life depended on it. But the long drive from my home on the California coast means I don’t usually hit the slopes more than a few weekends each year. Thus I arrived at adulthood a solid, consistent advanced-level skier but lacking the aggressive confidence of a Tahoe local.
I’m still working toward that aggressive confidence. But, there is one piece of gear that has brought me closer than ever before: my wide skis.
One snowy morning a few years ago, my husband and I drove halfway around Lake Tahoe to pick up a used demo pair of K2 MissBehaved skis from a small shop on the north shore. The sassy name and pink top sheet didn’t exactly suit my style, but once I got them on my feet it was love at first run. They made skiing easier and more fun. Along with persistent technique practice, they made me faster and more confident. In short, my new wider skis rekindled a stalled enjoyment of downhill skiing.
If this sounds like something you want, here’s a primer on why and how to try wider skis this winter.
Stay comfy and cozy while working on your ski technique.
Wide Skis For Beginners and Intermediates
Are wide skis only for advanced skiers? Not at all. In fact I would argue that for intermediate skiers looking to progress faster, they are one of the best tools out there (after working on your technique of course).
If you choose the right pair (more on that below), you’ll probably find that wide skis increase your sense of control and stability on all types of terrain. This means you’ll be skiing faster, harder, and having more fun in all conditions.
While there is no magic pair of skis that can automatically fix technique problems, I’ve found my solid and forgiving wide skis give me more room to experiment. They also respond really well when I do get my technique right, which is helpful feedback.
Worried about cost? Good skis don’t have to break your budget. There are plenty of mid-range options out there designed for casual skiers, and with a bit of looking you can pick up a used pair for a few hundred dollars or less.
Types of Wide Skis
Though “wide ski” seems like a straightforward concept, not all wide skis are created equal. We might think of skis as straight flat planks, but a lot of engineering goes into the details.
First there’s the width profile: how the width varies from tip to tail, and particularly at the “waist” – the middle part underfoot. This is generally described as sidecut. Wide skis designed to perform well in hardpack conditions typically have a narrower waist (more pronounced sidecut) relative to the tips, while those designed for powder are wider all the way through.
Then there’s rocker and camber: where the ski is flat against the snow and where it bows upward. Here’s a good explanation and some helpful diagrams for those interested, but it boils down to this: more rocker (front and sometimes also back) helps with float and is ideal for deeper snow, while less rocker helps with edge grab and is ideal for hardpack.
Next I’ll summarize the general categories of wide skis, what they’re best for, and some popular models of each type. Note that many ski manufacturers have lines of similar skis that vary in width profile and sometimes gender-specific focus. So if you find one that appeals in many ways but isn’t perfect, check to see if there’s a better fit in the lineup.
Powder Skis / Fat Skis
Powder skis / fat skis are the original wide skis, so let’s start with them. These skis are in their element on deeper ungroomed snow, ideally powder, but they’ll take crud too if that’s what the mountain gives.
They’re wide at the tips and also underfoot, with waist widths usually 110mm and up (sometimes a bit less on women’s models). They typically have a lot of rocker both front and rear to help with floating and maneuvering in deep snow.
Wide All-Mountain Skis
If you ski in a variety of conditions – hardpack, groomers, crud, powder – and want a single pair of skis to do it all, chances are you want wide all-mountain skis.
They’re a bit narrower in the waist (roughly 90 – 110 cm, a bit less on women’s models) and usually a bit less rockered than true fat skis, but will still hold their own in deep snow while easily holding an edge on hardpack. Sometimes they’re also known as “mid-fat” skis. Any type of skier, from intermediate up to expert, can appreciate the right pair of wide all-mountain skis.
Big Mountain Skis
Big mountain skis, or freeride skis, are similar in width to wide all-mountain skis or even powder skis, but with a hard-charging focus. You’ll see some of the same ski models described as both all-mountain and big mountain, but that “big” versus “all” is an important distinction. Big mountain skis tend to be stiffer and burlier than all-mountain skis, designed for ripping advanced and expert terrain at high speeds. They’ll enable strong skiers to do some serious shredding, but may just frustrate intermediates.
Standard All-Mountain Skis
These are the skinniest of the fat(ter) skis, with waist widths from roughly 80 – 95mm. In fact, these days they’re not really considered very wide at all. You could probably call these “normal skis.” On the narrower end of the range, they’re sometimes called carving skis and are best for groomed surfaces.
On the wider end of this range, you’ll find skis that shine on groomers and bumps but also transition well enough to the occasional off-piste adventure.
Wide skis for any terrain? Really?
It used to be that fat skis were only for powder days. It’s true, they do make skiing in powder much, much more fun. But as you can see from the various wide ski types discussed above, modern wide skis can be a good fit for pretty much all terrain and any conditions.
This is especially true of the wider range of “all mountain skis,” though as this primer on all-mountain skis points out, not all mountains are the same (and I am spoiled living in California).
For my exclusively West Coast skiing needs I found that switching to wide skis – even a pair that straddled the boundary between all-mountain and powder skis – made literally every type of terrain easier. Every. Single. Type. Including:
Groomers: The increased control and stability make me comfortable really letting it rip on smooth groomers when conditions are right. My speed-loving ski companions don’t need to wait as long at the lift line these days, yet I still feel like I’m skiing safely and under control.
Crud: You know, that heavy, chunky stuff that threatens to grab hold of your skis and steer them against your will. On my old skis I used to feel like every little bump could catch an edge and send me flying. But my wide skis, when I have the courage to let them, simply steamroll over the lumps and bumps.
Ice: Being basically the opposite of powder, I used to worry that wide skis would leave me skittering around on ice. Nope! Once again, wide skis to the rescue. Again, the stability and long edge with less sidecut (my new skis are also longer than my old ones) give me more contact with the snow and more control than my old skis when things get slick.
Bumps: It seemed intuitive that my longer, wider, heavier skis would be harder to maneuver in the bumps. Imagine my surprise when I realized they actually helped my mogul skiing, making it easier to control my speed while choosing an aggressive line. This was pretty much the final step in my conversion to singing the praises of wide skis. Note: if you’re an advanced skier who already carves up the bumps then this may not be true for you.
Wide Skis for Women and Smaller Skiers
My wide skis are significantly heavier, longer, and wider (duh) than my old intermediate-level sidecut model. I’m a 5’5″ woman with a small build, and my K2 MissBehaved skis are 159cm long with a waist of 102mm. This is a bit longer than the recommend length for my height, but I was between lengths and sized up since I’m a reasonably experienced skier. Basically, my skis are burly.
This makes me feel like a badass when I heave them over my shoulder and do my ski boot hobble – I mean swagger – over to the lodge after a long day of hard runs. But, when I first got them I worried they would be controlling me instead of the other way around. Fortunately this was never a problem, for a few reasons.
First, modern ski engineering means that even beefy skis can be surprisingly maneuverable. Different models are designed for different styles and ability levels, and it’s easy to find a wide ski that’s designed to be fun even for intermediates and/or less physically strong skiers.
Second, I have wide skis designed specifically for women. This can mean a lot of things, but for companies doing it right it’s more than just girly colors and lighter weight. Differences in material and center of gravity also factor into making skis more responsive for female skiers, whether they’re a strong expert or tentative beginner.
Tips for Choosing Wide Skis
The only downside to the popularity of wide skis is the difficulty in choosing between so many good options. How to narrow it down? Here’s some advice.
Choose a ski for your common conditions. Most casual skiers will want an all-mountain ski, which will be slightly narrower than those designed for pure powder and can be enjoyed in pretty much any conditions.
Choose a ski designed for your ability level. Are you an expert who can command a stiff ski, or do you want something a little more responsive? You can usually tell from manufacturer descriptions and personal reviews which direction a given model leans. That said, don’t be afraid to reach up to the next level if you plan on progressing.
Choose the right ski length based on your height and ability. Here’s a helpful guide.
Consider other features. Do you like halfpipes or backcountry expeditions? Then you may want twin tips or climbing skin rivets, respectively.
Renting or Demoing Wide Skis
Finding the perfect ski can be a personal, know-it-when-you-feel-it type of experience. If you have the opportunity, demoing a pair for a day – either the exact model you’re interested in or at least one with similar specs – is well worth the cost.
Most ski resorts have gear rental programs, but these are often focused on more affordable beginner and intermediate options. You might need to look specifically for a “demo program,” designed to let more experienced skiers test out higher performance gear.
Sometimes you’ll get a discount if you demo a pair of skis and then decide to buy from the same shop. Or, you can simply take your newfound experience with wide skis and go look for a great deal elsewhere.
Good Deals on Wide Skis
It’s true, a shiny new pair of skis can be expensive. Here are some ways to get the best deal possible.
Buy used. Skis are a great item to buy used, because they rarely wear out and people like to “trade up” every few seasons. Hunt for deals on GearTrade, REI’s gear exchange, Craigslist, eBay, used sporting goods stores like Play It Again Sports, or ski shops.
Wait for sales. If a shiny new pair of skis appeals, you can still avoid paying full price if you’re even just a little bit patient. Many retailers, both online and physical stores, offer seasonal sales. Particularly good deals can be found on models from the previous season, which are probably still totally awesome – skis just don’t go out of date that fast.
Have you switched to wide skis yet? Do you love them as much as I do? Let me know in the comments below.
If you’re gearing up for ski season, you might also find these helpful:
Hiking resources in your inbox?
There’s more where this came from! Sign up here for occasional emails full of inspiration and information about backpacking and hiking.
Share the Adventure
If you found this article helpful, please consider sharing so more people can benefit from it: