We get a lot of questions that go something like this:
“Hi, the [insert name of a particular ski] sounds exactly like what I’m looking for! I’m 5’9”, 180 lbs – should I go with the 184cm or 177cm length?”
There’s a good reason we get asked this a lot, because there is no truly reliable formula to determine what size of a given ski will clearly work best for you.
With so many different ski designs on the market, the correct ski size for you can differ quite a bit from one ski to the next. And it’s an important choice to get right, since the size of a ski plays a big part in affecting how a ski is going to perform, and whether it is going to work well for you.
(If you’re just starting out, and you’re unsure what kind of ski to look for in the first place, you might want to check out our 101 article, The Best Skis for Beginners, before continuing here.)
Skis no longer all have the same straight shape and fully cambered profile these days, so no chart will tell you your ideal ski length for every given ski based on a static measurement like your height or your weight. Those sorts of charts are barely of any help these days, but they’re out there.
One graph from a certain online retailer suggests that at my height – 6”2” – I should consider skis between the lengths of 175cm and 195cm. That’s pretty spectacularly unhelpful.
I mean, there is some truth to it in that I do get out on certain skis that are ~175cm long and others that are over 190cm long, but it doesn’t explain why I might opt for a longer or shorter length in given case.
In this Gear 101, rather than just throwing a graph at you, we’ll present some important factors to consider when you’re in the market for a new ski and need to pick a size. This information will be especially helpful if you find yourself stuck in between two lengths of a given ski, not sure whether you should (or why you would) go with the longer or the shorter size.
The topics mentioned below mainly have to do with the design and performance of skis that we discuss in our reviews, and as will become clear, the topics are all related—there will be some overlap in thinking / principles from one to the next.
Where to Begin? Establishing a Baseline
I’ve just said there is no-hard-and-fast rule to determine what length of a particular ski you should go with, as there are now plenty of reasons a person might opt for a ski that’s longer or shorter than they may have say, 10 years ago.
If we’re talking about a traditional, fully-cambered ski, since the introduction of parabolic skis, the general rule has been that your ski should reach somewhere between your chin and the top of your head; a beginning skier was told to go with a ski length that leaves the ski tip closer to their chin, and a more experienced skier would typically go with a ski that reaches closer to the top of their head.
There is still some validity to that system today in that it ought to steer someone away from purchasing at the ski swap either a pair of snowlerblades or a 218cm world cup downhill ski. But again, the rule assumes that you’re looking at a traditional, non-rockered, fully-cambered ski from about 1995. And if you’re shopping for a ski these days, you’re probably not looking at many non-rockered, fully-cambered skis. And even if you are, there are a number of good reasons why you might go with a ski longer or shorter than this older, overly simplistic system would suggest.
Rocker / Camber Profile & Effective Edge
Generally speaking, effective edge refers to the portion of a ski’s edge that’s in contact with the snow when you’re standing on the ski. In a sense, it’s a measure of how functionally “long” the ski is (i.e., how much of the ski is actually in contact with the snow when skied bases flat).
On a ski with “rocker” or “early rise” in its tip and/or tail, the edge (along with the rest of the ski) comes off the snow sooner than it would on a traditionally cambered ski of the same length.
(See our Rocker 101: A Brief History of Rocker + A Glossary of Terms for a more in-depth discussion of roker and ski camber profiles.)
Thus the total effective edge of a rockered ski is shorter than that of the ski with a traditionally cambered profile.
Caveat: technically, the effective edge of any ski is variable. For example, when you get a ski into soft conditions, some of the the edge and surface area on the rockered portion(s) of the ski will come in contact with the snow surface, lengthening the effective edge. And when laying a rockered ski over into a carve on firm snow, depending on the ski’s sidecut and the curve of the rocker in the ski, you may engage more of its edge than is in play when it’s gliding with its bases flat on the snow.
But, in general, a rockered ski will behave like a shorter ski on hard snow compared to a non-rockered ski of the same length, because you are skiing on a shorter edge as if you were on a shorter ski. So if you’re used to skiing a fully cambered ski that is, for example, 178cm long, but the new rockered ski you’re looking at comes in a 178cm length and a 187cm length, you’re probably better off going with the longer 187cm length. The 187s will feel more like your old 178s on snow, given their reduced effective edge.
Examples: I’m perfectly happy skiing the non-rockered Ski Logik Front Burner in 178cm length, in part because it is fully cambered. But I’m also comfortable skiing the 190cm Salomon Rocker2 108, which is significantly rockered, and I have no interest in skiing the shorter 183cm model of the Rocker2 for that reason.
In sum, the amount of rocker / effective edge a ski has is important to consider in conjunction with the actual material length of the ski. If you’ve been skiing a fully cambered pair of skis for years, and you’re looking at a new pair that has some tip rocker, think about the effective edge length of those skis rather than their material length.
Your old skis may have reached the bridge of your nose, and these new ones may reach over your head, but if you size your new skis the same way you sized your old skis, your new skis will feel too short, twitchy, and unstable.
Speaking of which…
Stability (“Dampness”) & Instability
Another factor to consider when deciding on what length of a ski to go with is how stable and planted it feels on snow. How stable or “damp” a ski feels are things that we always cover in our reviews. If a ski is especially stable and ‘damp’—i.e., it does not get twitchy or feel ‘noodly’ at speed or in bumped-up terrain—the more appropriate it may be to opt for a shorter length than you otherwise would.
Stability, can serve to counteract the sometimes de-stabilizing effects of a rockered ski’s shorter effective edge.
Conversely, if a ski isn’t especially stable at speed (maybe it’s quite light or has a lot of sidecut), but you’d like to get as much high-speed stability out of the design as possible, you might consider going for a longer length.
- A Note on the Insufficiency of the English Language – “Damping” vs. “Damp”
For the grammar police out there, we are aware that “damp” means that something is “not dry,” while an object (like a ski, for example) might have good damping properties—i.e., the ski is not twitchy or reactive, but stable, smooth, and … damp.
Language is a tool to be used, not a system of unbendable rules. That’s why dictionaries have second, third, and fourth definitions of words. So we use the word ‘damp’ to mean stable / planted / not twitchy / not reactive. We do not mean that the ski is kinda wet.