Freeride skis for dummies
Freeride skis changed a bit over the past twenty years. The freeride ski of today is very different than the skis they were using to ride powder in the nineties or even back in 2010. Back in the days, the word 'freeride' didn't even exist. It was just off-piste. Not that long ago (I'm getting old) I was skiing pow on Atomic ATC's of more than two meters in Tignes. Width under the foot about 60 mm and a radius of about 50 meters. Rocker? Well the only rocker you had became visible when you skied straight into a mogul. Salomon introduced the X-scream Series, which had more the look and feel of a freeride ski, but was still only 66 mm under foot. The Pocket Rocket was the ski that really brought 'powder to the people'. Much wider than regular skis and therefore much more float. Skiing powder became easy. Over the years, a lot of types of skis has been added to the freeride segment. Every brand has a complete line of different models. One ski great for big lines, the other perfect in the trees. There's so much to choose from. So the question is: how do you find the perfect freeride skis?
What's really important?
In the end, it is important that the ski that you choose fits you and meets your expectations. That's nothing new so far. You should test some skis on real snow, to really feel how they ski and behave in different snow conditions. We explain why sidecut, width, rocker and camber are critical when choosing a ski. And you should really 'feel' the ski. That almost sounds philosophical (it is actually), but although specs are really important, you should trust your ski at all times. But anyway, let's talk about the more tangible things!
Is fatter really better?
There was a time when the skis seemed to get fatter (as in: wider) each season. And it was called progress. However, fatter is not always better. The rule of thumb is simple: the fatter the ski under the foot, the more float. But a ski that's too wide should compromise. Think about stiffness, rebound, sidecut, transitions, that kind of stuff. Skis wider than 115 mm between the bindings are really only interesting on days when it's ultra deep.
- Everything up to 85 mm: great for the groomers
- 85 mm - 95/100 mm: allmountain ski
- 95/100 - 115 mm: freeride/powder ski
- Everything above 115 mm: deep, deep days
Of course, you could discuss this listing for hours, but the fact is that almost everyone agrees that the ultimate one-ski quiver (one ski that can do anything) fits in the 95/100 - 115 mm category.
What about the sidecut of a ski?
Those long matchsticks from the nineties had a sidecut of about 50 to 60 meters. A pure slalom ski has a sidecut of around eleven meters nowadays. You can ski really nice, short turns with those skis. Freeride skis, however, have a sidecut that's higher than normal skis that are used on groomers. That makes sense, because a low sidecut won't really help you when skiing powder. Honestly, it's quite annoying actually when the snow is hard. Most freeride skis have a sidecut of over 20 meters.
What about camber?
Camber is as old as skiing is. Put your ski flat on the ground and you'll see that the tip and tail will hit the ground, but there's a slight arc in the middle. That's camber. When you ski, you're pushing the camber down, making sure the edges will hit the snow and the sidecut of the ski helps you to turn. When you come out of the turn, the pressure is gone for a short period of time and the ski 'pops' back into his normal shape. Almost all freeride skis have a normal camber, but there is a lot of difference. For example, some models have only camber below the bindings (such ski's don't perform that good on hard snow, but perform great in soft powder) or some have the opposite of camber (such as the K2 Hellbent). This is called reversed camber.
Tell me more about rocker
Rocker is actually the opposite of camber. The tip and/or tail of the ski are raised pretty early. This automatically means that the camber in the ski is smaller and the ski has less edge hold. When you make a turn with a ski with a lot of rocker, less edge hits the snow, compared to a ski with little rocker. The advantages of a lot of rocker skis are that the ski is really easy to turn and it generally has more float in powder. It probably won't surprise you that many skis today have a mixture between camber and rocker. The most versatile skis have a rocker-camber-rocker profile. A ski with a lot of rocker and less camber is great for skiing in the trees (more float and easy turns), but if you want to ski big lines and hard snow a ski with less rocker and more camber is perfect (more stability and control).
What about construction and materials?
Several layers of materials determine the liveliness of a ski. There are many different materials put into a ski, but real quality skis always have a wood core. This is stable, vibrant and durable. And of course there are different types of wood. Bamboo for example is strong, light and very lively. The wood is placed in vertical slats in the ski. The type of wood and its thickness provides different flex patterns. Beech and poplar wood is generally more lively and ash and pine wood is a bit stiffer. Other layers are added to enhance the performance, such as carbon, titanium or fiberglass. These materials provide extra stability and cushioning. Different types of elastomer are also often used. This is the very basis of building skis. Again, everybody has their own preferences, so get out there and do some testing, so you can really feel what a stiff tail does when you're hucking a cliff.
The sides of the ski, the so-called side walls, are also important in the development of the ski. They protect the core of the ski against impact and moisture from outside and bring the energy that you put on the ski directly to the edges. The two best known sidewalls are the sandwich and cap constructions. The sandwich construction is the oldest and most famous of the two. The sidewall is an angle of 90 degrees with the base (or at a small angle to save weight) so that the impact of rocks and other stuff you might hit on the mountain decreases.
What about length?
A freeride ski generally is longer than a ski made for groomers. Stability and float are very important and a longer ski simply offers you more of that. As a rule of thumb you can keep your own body height, but it's different for everyone. Some want a ski a bit longer, others a bit shorter, also depending on how they want to use the ski. Don't let the long skis scare you. Remember that a part of the ski barely touches the snow because of the rocker.
Have fun choosing your freeride ski. Of course it ultimately depends on your level, condition and expectations what will suit you best!