Why are women’s powder skis so long?

The reader question train just keeps truckin’. Today’s question comes from Liz, about women’s powder skis:

Hi! Question for you. Do you have any data breakdowns of women’s “powder skis” that are 110 or wider underfoot and the length options available? I’ve been doing a little bit of digging and am finding the options are pretty limited. Is there any performance reason powder skis wouldn’t come in lengths shorter than 165 (K2 115 mindbender) or some companies a 176 (black crow anima birdie, coincidentally also the shortest length the mens anima comes in…)? I know DPS makes the Pagoda tour 112 in a 158, but of course a man once told me a powder ski is “115 underfoot or wider” 🙄

I get a variation of this question almost once a week, so I thought it would be best to turn it into a post. And I think it makes the most sense to address the question in reverse order. So to begin:

What makes a ski a “powder” ski?

I’ll go ahead and say it: I don’t think that guy knows very much about skis. Surface area (and therefore waist width) matters, but it’s not the thing that makes a ski float. You want a lot of rocker on the tips of the skis to plane up and stay on top of the snow and moderate to soft flex that you can bend even on low density snow. You might want a rearward mount point that puts less weight and pressure on the tips of the skis. You might want tapered, pointy tips that look aerodynamic or hydrodynamic. Just like air and water, these tips flow cleanly and efficiently through powder and are less likely to catch and edge.

Fat skis tend to have more of these features, but 115 is not some magic number where design and construction drastically change. Narrower skis can have a lot of these elements.

As a really drastic example, my first ski was a Dynastar Cham 87 W, the pink guys on the far left. An 87mm width usually means that a ski is designed for mostly groomer use with a little all-mountain versatility. But I got really lucky with the Chams. They still have that “boat hull” or “elf shoe” tip shape that helps them plane and float well, which came in handy chasing my (at the time) brand new, much better boyfriend around on powder days. All time best pow ski? No. But a clear example that waist width alone does not a powder ski make? Absolutely.

Why are powder-oriented skis so long?

Long story short: it’s that rocker we just talked about.

Every ski has an “effective edge,” which is the portion of the ski that’s in contact with the snow. The effective edge has the biggest impact on how long a ski feels.

Rocker is not part of the effective edge. It’s part of the ski’s measurement, but it serves a different purpose. The effective edge is the part that provides stability and support when you ski. Rocker’s job is to plane in soft snow.

I think of it like jeans. Are my high waisted jeans longer, end-to-end, than my low-rise jeans? Yes.

But the rise length and inseam length serve different purposes. And I have to pick a longer pair of jeans (from waist to cuff) in my high-waisted pants to get the same fit experience that I do with a low rise pair.

Same goes for skis. If I’m going to ski a ski with little rocker, the effective edge makes up almost the entire ski and I should choose a shorter size. If I ski a ski with a lot of rocker, I need to pick a longer size to get more effective edge. Here’s a look at two skis from K2. On the left, there’s the K2 Disruption MTi Alliance, which is the one of the stiffest, most aggressive piste skis they make, with rec-league racing or ex-racers in mind. On the right, there’s the Mindbender 115C Alliance, a ski largely made for powder skiing. As you can see, the difference in effective edge is stark:

 So how do I pick the right size?

When manufacturers make skis for women and decide on sizing, they think about this, the height distribution of their women customers:

Whether a ski has a long effective edge or a short effective edge, they’re going to make ~3 sizes that serve a big chunk of the bell curve. If the ski sells really well, they might add a 4th, 5th, or 6th size to serve the business at the far margins of the bell curve.

So for me to find the right ski, I need to figure out where I fall on this chart for my own height and then factor in my ski preference.

This is easier to show in practice than in theory, so let’s do a little exercise. We’re going to size me for carving skis. I’ve never owned one, don’t know my sizing, but I can get clues from my height and the rest of my quiver.

I’m 5’-3.5” or around 162cm, which makes me right at average height. Unless I’m extremely new to the sport or extremely talented, I’m probably going to do well on a middle-ish size.

But we can also factor in my preferences for other skis. Here’s a list of skis I’ve had or skied recently where I mark my preferred sizes:

Most of my preferences are in the middle, or the 3rd of 4 sizes. So that should help inform where I fall in a groomer ski. Here are some options on the market and their sizing:

If we look at the options in that same “a little longer than center” length, most are right around 160, plus or minus a few centimeters. Also, note where the skis top out – around 170. It’s not that brands force short gals to ski groomers and tall gals to ski powder; we just need different lengths for what we ski. The same happens on the men’s side of the aisle. Men’s powder skis max out in the mid-190s. Their expert groomer skis top out at 180.

If you are able to shop women’s skis pretty easily for your all mountain ski, and you’re landing on sizes in the 150s, you’ll probably fit well on most fat (110+) skis in the smallest size. Most of these only come in 3 sizes since volume for fat women’s skis is incredibly slow, but there are a few exceptions, like the Blizzard Sheeva 11 or Coalition Snow La Nieve.

  • Voile Hyperdrifter in a 154
  • Blizzard Sheeva 11 in a 156 / 164
  • Coalition Snow Rafiki in a 157
  • Coalition Snow La Nieve in a 157
  • DPS Pagoda 112 in a 158
  • Blizzard Spur 125 in a 159
  • K2 Pontoon 130 in a 159
  • Pandora 110 in a 162
  • Icelantic Maiden 111 in a 162
  • Armada ARW 116 in a 165
  • Mindbender 115C Alliance in a 165

But what if I already struggle with finding short all mountain skis?

If you’re under 5 foot, you’re under the 7th percentile for height, several standard deviations away from the mean. Manufacturers might consider you a fringe size that is hard to serve, especially for low-selling skis like women’s models in the 110+ range. You probably ski an all-mountain ski like the Black Pearl 88 or Ripstick 88 since they drop into sizes in the mid-140s.

The Sheeva 11, Rafiki, and La Nieve carry over from the prior list since they all offer 4 size options. But if we consider slimmer skis, you can still find good shapes for powder, even if they have a bit less surface area. Here’s the Pagoda 100 (which comes in a 153) vs. the Pagoda 112. There’s a smidgen more rocker on the wider version, but both have huge shovels that make them a powder slaying tool.

These are the narrower skis that are great in powder and ski shorter due to their tip and tail rocker:

  • Moment Bella in a 152
  • DPS Pagoda / Pagoda Tour in a 153
  • Icelantic Maiden 101 in a 155
  • Liberty Genesis 106 in a 156
  • Coalition Snow SOS in a 157
  • Armada Trace 108 in a 156
  • Line Sir Francis Bacon Shorty in a 145 or 155. I really don’t like grown adults on kids’ skis – I’ll write that piece in the coming weeks – but for very, very short women, this is a solid option.

But what about the Anima Birdie? It comes in only 2 sizes and bottoms out at a 176.

There are a few exceptions to the sizing process above, and they’re all fake women’s skis. The Anima Birdie, Armada ARW 106 UL, and all Faction skis marked “3.0x” fall in this bucket.

They’re unisex skis, but the manufacturer wants the credit for making a women’s ski and an extra spot on the wall on the “women’s” side of the aisle. Most of them either completely overlap sizes, or there’s only 1 added size for the women’s size run.

If there aren’t at least 2 sizes smaller than the smallest men’s option, it’s not a ski that’s going serve the majority of the women’s market. They’re making that 1 extra size to capture women like me, the high percentage of women around average height, because there’s economies of scale and our height makes us profitable targets.

Are powder options getting better or worse for short skiers?

Worse.

Women’s ski options are generally getting longer, especially for wide skis. I think part of that is because stores are finally grasping that women need skis that come up past their collarbones.

But it also ties back to cuts made in the name of profitability. Brands have cut their widest powder skis. The ones that remain have seen a reduction in the size run. Models like the Volkl Blaze, Salomon Stella, Head Kore, and Rossignol Rallybird are just the men’s line with 1 extra size tacked on to the end. And options like the Kore and Rallybird aren’t even that tailored to soft snow skiing.

On one hand, I get that they’re slow-moving sizes. But on the other, brands can’t just settle for “riders must be 5’3” to ski powder.” Below is a comparison between the shortest / widest ski offered by brands in the 2010s on the left vs. the 2020s on the right. Petite women’s options are getting longer or narrower, if not both. And in case you forgot, Asian and Hispanic women both average 5’1” in height, meaning women skiers of color in particular have fewer tools available to them.

So in short, add Craigslist to your list of options if you’re looking for short women’s skis. And as more and more brands consider unisex sizing, be sure that we’re not letting them leave our petite friends out to dry.

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