Rental Skis: What Level Ski is For Me?

by Simon Naylor | Updated: October 27th, 2022 |  Skiing Articles
Planning an upcoming ski trip and wondering what the best ski to pick at your resorts rental shop? Then this guide is for you. I'll run through everything you need to know about choosing the right rental ski for your ability. TLDR; Beginner skis are more flexible and turn easier at slower speeds. Intermediate and expert skis are stiffer and more stable at higher speeds and better for sharper more aggressive turns. A skier learning the foundations will be frustrated learning on a 'better' ski. 

What is the difference between the levels of Rental Skis?

There's is four main types of skis that you can hire at every ski shop:
  • Beginner Skis
  • Intermediate Skis
  • Expert Skies
  • Specialist Skis
Now let us find out what type of skier you are.

What Type of Skier Are You?

Beginner: you've never skied before. You've skied a few weeks/months/short seasons (or many years ago) and you're learning to parallel turn. Intermediate: you can parallel turn and hockey stop on either side. You're going faster and making shorter sharper turns on steeper terrain. You're exploring red (Europe) or black diamond (North America) ski runs. Expert: You can ski all over the mountain and confidently tackle steep or difficult terrain. You ski fast and turn at speed. You've skied for many years and/or off-piste. Read the full skier's ability chart Now we know roughly what level of skiing you're at, let's see what's the main difference between skis at rental shops

#1 Beginner Skis

These are for new skiers with no or little experience. They have a 'soft' flex rating which means the materials bend easily with little pressure or movement. This makes it much easier to turn at lower speeds. A beginner ski makes it much easier to learn the basic skills you need as a skier and to progress. Getting a 'better' or more advanced ski for a beginner actually makes it much harder to learn as the ski requires more speed, pressure, and weight transfer for it to respond. Beginner skis typically have a foam or very softwood core which allows for the softer flex. [caption id="attachment_1540" align="alignnone" width="800"]new skiers Photo by Nicki Pogue[/caption]

#2 Intermediate Skis

Intermediate skis are for skiers who have a season of skiing under their belt and have learned to parallel ski, hockey stop, and ski steeper terrain. Intermediate skis have a wood core for a stiffer flex (high flex rating) which helps the ski stay more stable at higher speeds and be more precise when turning at greater speeds. The ski will vibrate less at higher speeds and feel more stable underfoot. It will be harder for a beginner to learn to ski on an intermediate ski, but a better skier will benefit from this stiffer, more precise type of ski.

#3 Expert Skis

Expert skis are very stiff and typically have a metal construction or very hardwood for increased strength. These skis are designed to be used at speed with aggressive powerful turns.  You'll need to be a great skier to turn properly in expert skis, but the reward is a more stable and precise ski that won't vibrate at speeds. Expert skis may have more of a sidecut (the curvature of the side of the ski) This deeper sidecut makes for a short turn radius, for faster more aggressive turns which skiers are likely to use on steeper terrain (further reading). A beginner on expert skis would find it extremely hard to progress and learn the basic skills when using an expert ski. Key takeaway: If you're a new skier it is not beneficial to pay more for 'better' skis or overplay your ability - it will make skiing more difficult and less fun. expert skier

#4 Specialist Skis

These would be skis that are designed for specific terrain or types of skiing like powder, cross-country, or freestyle skiing. Specialty skis also come in a range of flexes and some can be split into beginner, intermediate and expert levels. The rental staff will be able to guide you to pick the right ski for what you plan to do. Here are some of the different types of skiing which often use specific types of skis:
  • Alpine
  • Cross-country
  • Freestyle
  • Telemark
  • Backcountry/Off-Piste
  • Nordic
  • Para-alpine
  • Ski Cross
  • Slopestyle
  • Ski mountaineering
[caption id="attachment_1705" align="alignnone" width="1024"]nordic skiing Nordic Skiers, Colorado[/caption]

Learning More About Skis

Here is a basic rundown of ski geometry and design and how they compare for different styles and abilities of skiing so you're armed with more knowledge next time you browse for skis to rent or buy.

Underfoot Width

Skis come in a range of widths that help perform in different types of snow:
  • For groomed slopes, carving skis generally measure under 75mm underfoot.
  • An all-mountain type of ski that can handle all types of terrain range from 75 to 95mm.
  • For off-piste backcountry skiers spending more time in powder, the type of ski ranges between 95 to 120mm.
  • While skis above 120mm are for big-mountain powder skiing to deliver excellent float.
Ski Type 🎿 Ski Width 📏
Groomers < 75mm
All-mountain 75-95mm
Off-piste 95-120mm
Deep-powder 120mm >


The sidecut of a ski refers to the curvature along the side. While most modern skis have an hourglass shape, different types of skis have a different shape to them. The sidecut is calculated by subtracting the waist width from the tip and tail width. So if you put a ski on its side you can see the gap from the middle to the floor as the sidecut depth. [caption id="attachment_1600" align="alignnone" width="1024"]ski family The famous hourglass sidecut on most groomer skis[/caption] The length of the ski and it's sidecut determines the turn radius - imagine a circle formed by completing the arc of the ski. A deeper sidecut makes for a smaller and tighter turn radius while a longer less sidecut ski takes longer to turn with an equal weight transfer. Of course, a skier can make any turn with any ski, the turn radius simply suggests the natural tendency of the ski to turn while in movement (further reading). Fatter powder skis tend to have a straighter sidecut because powder skiers don't need to rely on turning in hard snow as much and benefit from a greater float in deep snow (further reading).
Natural Speed 🕒 Type of Ski 🎿 Turn Radius ⭕
Fast Groomer 16m >
Medium All-mountain 24m >
Slow Powder Ski 40m >

What Is The Right Length Ski?

While the perfect ski length is up to personal preference, there are some guidelines you can follow to get an approximation. A great starting point is to pick a ski length between your chin and the top of your head. Advanced skiers or racers tend to have longer skis while short skis make it easier to turn (shorter turn radius). Ski length chart. [caption id="attachment_1643" align="alignnone" width="1200"]powder vs piste skis Salomon XMAX 10 Downhill vs QST 118 Powder Skis.[/caption]

Renting The Right Skis Boot?

Just like skis, ski boots have a range of flexes that suit different levels of skiing. Beginner boots have a softer flex while more advanced ski boots will be progressively more rigid. If you're heavy or strong for your size or a better skier then you'll benefit from a stiffer flex. If you're lighter or smaller or a beginner, then you'll want to go down to softer flex. The flex is really important as it allows you to bend the boot forward and transfer enough energy into the ski, so you can turn and stop more easily. In most cases, the ski shop will pair the boot to match the level of a ski that you've chosen. But as with skis, it's better to be conservative and to be a slightly better skier than your boots rating rather than being constrained by a 'stiff' boot. ski boot stretch

The Problem With Rental Skis

The problem with rental boots is that they all tend to be in a wide oversized fit, so if you have narrow or low volume feet then it will be more difficult for you to get the right fit. That's as well as the fact the ski boot liners have compacted over the season to their maximum volume rather than breaking-in to your foot shape. While a roomier fit might feel comfortable in the ski shop and walking to the gondola, your skiing will suffer because your energy will transfer to internal movement rather than to powering the ski. If you're interested, I wrote a whole guide on buying the right ski boot here, doing up your ski boots properly here, and all about boot stretching here

Should I Buy or Rent Skis?

There are many pros and cons to renting or buying your own gear, and it's worth exploring them before you take the plunge. Owning your own gear is more expensive and costs more to transport, but you benefit in many ways. Renting gear is more convenient in some ways, but does eat up your time waiting in shops and relying on the right gear to be in stock. Perhaps the biggest issue with rental gear is ski boots, which tend to be in oversized fits. So a great compromise is to buy your own boots and then hire skis. When it comes to ski clothing, I'm all in. It makes sense to buy your own as a) the rental costs add up over time; b) you get to wear your own gear that fits nicely; c) quality waterproof outwear will last decades and d) ski jackets are great rain jackets year-round. I discuss all the pros and cons to help you make up your mind in my in-depth guide: Buying VS Renting Skis: Unbiased Pros & Cons.

Final Thoughts

When hiring skis: It's better to wait until your good enough before trading up to a new level of ski rather than having a ski that is above your level and ability to control it properly. Good luck with your skiing adventures and enjoy the fresh mountain air. If you're ever in doubt, don't be afraid to chat with your ski shop and if the staff doesn't appear to have the time to speak to you, try another one. There's plenty to choose from and some will be much more receptive than others.