OVER the last five years, ski manufacturers have been bulking up their freeride skis. Inspired by snowboards, manufacturers have produced skis that are fatter, easier to maneuver and, for the most part, sport twin tips.
What does this mean for you? First, fatter skis can be shorter, thus making them easier to turn, not only on groomed slopes but also in powder and heavy, wet snow. Another benefit is that fatter skis have more torsional stiffness: Loosely translated that means they'll carve better on hard snow and can be made softer longitudinally, making it easier to initiate turns.
But while fat is a big story for 2006, the best skis for the season aren't all fat. Park and pipe skis are more versatile and can take on the whole mountain. They're even pretty good in powder and soft snow.
In fact, this year's crop may be the best yet. How do I know? Because for more than a decade I've tested every ski on the market for my job as senior editor of Freeskier Magazine.
If you haven't tried a freeride ski yet, you owe it to yourself to do so this winter. Here's a selection of my top picks.
Lengths: 170, 180
Construction highlights: Wood core, sandwiched with vertical sidewalls, innovative fat shape.
What's to like: This is fat. At 140 millimeters underfoot, it's one of the largest skis available. But if you are a powder pig, it's the choice for the steep and deep. You'll have to look hard to find these skis, the Colorado manufacturer makes only a few hundred each year.
Lengths: 185, 193
Construction highlights: Wood core, sandwiched with vertical sidewalls for better stability at higher speeds.
What's to like: What a surprise from Nordica. The company essentially reinvented its ski line this year, and the experiment has paid off. The Blower is a directional big-mountain ski that is stable at speed yet nimble. It's a difficult combination to pull off, but the Blower proves that it is possible.
Line Prophet 100
Lengths: 172, 179, 186
Construction highlights: Wood core with cap construction for durability.
What's to like: Line, a small East Coast company, was one of the first ski manufacturers to develop twin-tip skis and is known for making great park and half-pipe boards. That's why the Prophet 100 is such a surprise. Line has a true all-mountain twin-tip that is amazingly versatile. It's one of the best skis for 2007.
Armada Pipe Cleaner
Lengths: 166, 171, 176, 181
Dimensions: 117/85/107@ 181
Construction highlights: Wood core, with vertical sidewalls, high performance, limited-edition racing base for speed and durability.
What's to like: If you like to ski park or pipe, then the Pipe Cleaner is worth a hard look. This ski is a true pro model and was designed with help from Armada's team, which includes Winter X Games gold medalist Tanner Hall.
Rossignol Scratch BC WRS
Lengths: 171, 178, 185
Construction highlights: Rossignol's WRS mini cap construction for added strength and reduced weight.
What's to like: French manufacturer Rossignol consistently makes good skis, but the Scratch BC WRS is truly great. This is a take-everywhere, do-everything twin-tip that is easy to ski.
Dynastar Legend Pro Rider
Lengths: 176, 186, 194
Construction highlights: Wood core, vertical sidewalls and a sintered base for durability and speed.
What's to like: For athletic skiers who like to go fast, the Pro Rider is a great directional tool that is equally at home on icy groomers and powdery bowls. The 186-centimeter length is highly versatile and fun. We'd suggest you stay away from the 194 length unless you are a true expert or are built like an NFL linebacker.
Lengths: 168, 178, 183
Construction highlights: Laminated wood core for liveliness and durability.
What's to like: Scott is known for its ski poles and goggles. And although the company's skis have been readily available in Europe, North Americans have been able to find them here only for the last two years. The Mission is an all-mountain ski suitable for the skier who likes a bit of everything: steeps, power, bumps, trees or wet snow. Because the company is still breaking into the North American market, the Mission may be hard to find, but it is worth the effort. The ski in the 168 length is a good fit for women who are advanced to expert skiers.
Lengths: 161, 169, 177, 185
Construction highlights: Wood core from trees that Volkl grows in the company's forest.
What's to like: Fun, lively, easy to ski -- apt descriptions of Volkl's Karma. The ski has been available for three years and is one of the best all-mountain park skis around. Don't be scared off by the ski's twin-tip. This is an amazing ski (in the shorter lengths) for women or lighter men, and you don't have to ski in the park or pipe to appreciate the ski's hard-snow performance.
Lengths: 163, 172, 181
Construction highlights: Vertical laminate wood core for durability and liveliness.
What's to like: Fischer is an Austrian company known for making serious race skis -- the kind that win World Cup events. That's why it's surprising to discover that they also make one of the best park and pipe skis for 2006-2007. The ski has a lot of pop and is lively and fun and is a performer outside the park, where it carves up the rest of the mountain.
Salomon Teneighty Foil
Lengths: 150, 158, 166, 174, 182
Construction highlights: Salomon's patented Monocoque Lite technology allows the company to make extremely light skis without sacrificing durability.
What's to like: Salomon's progressive design, with lightweight cores, cap construction and attention to manufacturing details, is on full display with the Foil. This is an easy ski to like. It's quick, lively and light. Excellent for park or pipe skiing, the Foil can also hold its own on hard pack or in wet snow. The only drawback is in powder, where the skis' 79-millimeter width isn't fat enough for the deep stuff.
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Sorting out the skis by shape
Skis come in a variety of lengths, measured in centimeters and listed here. The shape of the ski -- its footprint -- is measured in millimeters (listed here as dimensions) and has a huge effect on performance: The fatter the footprint, the better the ski will do in deep snow and powder; the skinnier the footprint, the more suitable it is for groomed runs or pipe and park skiing.