Key Difference Between Narrow & Wide Skis? (hardpack vs powder)
The sizes and configurations of different skis that are currently available seem endless. Even when just considering the width of the ski there is huge variation. Why is this? Why are some skis so narrow and others so wide? What does this achieve?
The measurement of a ski width is taken across the middle of the ski, usually where it is narrowest. There is a huge variation in the widths from the narrowest competitive slalom skis at 65mm right up to the largest powder skis of about 130mm. Narrow skis have great cornering ability and acceleration, while wide skis offer the best support over powder.
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How Do You Measure The Width of a Ski?
The widths of skis are measured in millimeters and measurements are taken at the tip or front of the ski, the waist or underfoot in the middle (usually the narrowest part of the ski), and the tail or the rear of the ski. The convention is to write the measurements like this 115/90/107mm, where 115 is the tip, 90 is underfoot and 107 is the tail.
Over the past 40 years, ski design has transformed the shape of most skis to an ‘hourglass’ shape, with the tip and the tail being wider and narrowing to a slimmer middle or waist. This change in shape has been brought about by interest in carving as a way of cornering.
If you have ever looked at the range of widths of skis available, they start at a seemingly impossible 60mm and grow ever wider right up to 130mm. Other factors involved in ski design also seem endlessly variable, including length, width, shape, weight, and flexibility.
Unfortunately for manufacturers and skiers alike, these parameters are all independent of each other, meaning if you change one parameter you will probably also have to change another.
Narrow and Wide Skis
Skis are routinely characterized by their waist or underfoot width, with the narrowest usually being associated with competitive racing skis, for downhill slalom.
These skis with a waist of around 65mm give the skier incredible edge hold, very fast acceleration out of corners but at the same time a good level of stability. That being said such a high-performance ski is technically demanding, and only expert skiers will be able to get the best from them.
The extremely narrow waist ensures a tight turning radius, with the edges pushed firmly into the snow, which provides fast and tight cornering. As the skier exits a corner the flex in the ski is released as energy, catapulting the skier forward fast. A typical slalom race ski such as The Atomic Redster S9 has the following dimensions: 117-68-103mm.
At the other extreme wide skis with a waist or underfoot are more than 105mm are suited to powder conditions, where the width of the ski will help to support the skier from sinking into the low-density snow surface. Similarly, the extra width also helps to navigate chopped snow and wet conditions such as slush.
The downside of wide skis is that with their still wide waist it is difficult to force the edge of the ski down into the snow during a turn. This consequently makes the skis more suited to skiing mostly on powder and skiing just a few groomed runs. A typical freestyle ski such as Völkl Revolt 121 Freestyle Ski has the following dimensions: 143/121/135mm.
Choosing your Ski Width
It’s necessary to consider a couple of parameters to determine your ideal ski width:
The typical type of skiing and terrain you will encounter will affect your decision on the dimensions of the skis you buy. There is always a trade-off between a wider ski, which will give you better support in powder but less control and agility making turns on groomed runs. And vice versa.
Consequently, a good compromise between the two is the solution. If you plan on skiing all over the mountain, some groomed and some powder then a middle waist width is ideal. However, if you ski mostly on groomed runs a narrow waist is better, we can take advantage of the superior cornering.
If you plan on days in the backcountry with skins, then a middle waist width will be adequate to cope with the powder, but the skis are still light enough to carry.
Your ability to ski will affect the choice of an optimum ski width. Beginner skiers naturally spend most of the time on runs, improving their technique. Consequently, a narrower ski width will make it easier for them to practice cornering and laying the skis on their edges. As the beginner improves they also master the technique of carving, where a narrower width waist ski will be more responsive and easier to handle.
For a more experienced skier, a wider waist width offers better support over powder and adequate control through corners.
With constantly improving material technology and research, wider skis are becoming increasingly fashionable. Design technology is enabling the manufacture of skis that feel and operate like a ski with a narrow waist, while still able to ride effectively over powder.