Glossary of Ski Terms
There's no doubt about it: skiing is a lot of fun. But if you didn't grow up skiing, it can be pretty overwhelming and intimidating. The gear and technique are one thing, but on top of that is a bunch of lingo you've maybe never heard before. It's like a whole new language!
Well, don't fret. We've put together this basic ski glossary to ease you into the world of skiing.
Types of Skiing
Skiing isn't a one-size-fits-all kind of sport. There are a couple of main types of skiing along with more variations under those. Here are the basics:
Alpine / Downhill Skiing: The most popular kind of skiing, it is usually done at a resort. You ride up the mountain on a lift and then ski down a run. The object is to go fast and have fun. Downhill skis have a sharp edge and attach to a stiff boot at both the toe and heel. Variations of downhill skiing that you may hear about or see are backcountry skiing (outside of a resort), freestyle skiing (where jumps and tricks are the main objective), and telemark skiing (where the ski attaches only at the toe).
Nordic / Cross-country Skiing: Cross-country skiers cover flatter, more varied terrain, both climbing and descending. Also written as XC skiing, it is an excellent workout and is a fun (and less expensive) way to recreate away from the resort crowds in the winter. Cross-country skis are typically thinner than downhill skis and attach to a smaller, more flexible boot at the toe.
This ski terms glossary will deal primarily with downhill skiing.
When it comes to downhill skis, the basic equipment you'll need are skis, bindings, boots and poles.
Skis: Skis are generally made with a core of wood, dense foam or a composite of different materials. The top layer of the skis, called the "topsheet," is made of durable plastic or fiberglass. Ski bases are made of a low-friction, durable plastic called p-tex and steel edges. Many skis will also have intermediate layers of metal, carbon, fiberglass or other reinforcing materials around the core or beneath the topsheet to affect performance.
Ski Sidecut and Ski Width: Ski sidecut is defined by three numbers which indicate the tip (sometimes called the shovel), waist and tail dimensions of the skis in millimeters. For example, a ski could have a sidecut of 126-77-109mm indicating the widest part for the ski at the tip is 126mm, the narrowest part in the middle is 78mm and the widest part of the tail is 109mm. In general, wider skis are better for powder snow and narrower skis are better for hard snow or ice.
Ski Turning Radius: The turn radius of a ski is defined as the ideal radius of a perfectly carved turn and is measured in meters. For example, a ski with a 12m turn radius would carve in a circle with a radius of 12 meters without sliding at all. The turn radius is determined by the sidecut of a ski, so a ski with more sidecut (a greater difference between the widest and narrowest parts) will have a smaller turn radius and will make small turns more easily.
Ski Stiffness or Ski Flex: The stiffness of a ski is not defined by a specific value but is a major consideration in determining how a ski will perform. Soft flexing skis will be easier to turn at lower speeds and are generally preferable for less experienced skiers. Stiffer skis will be more stable and less prone to vibration at higher speeds and will be preferred by more advanced and aggressive skiers.
Ski Camber and Rocker Profile: Ski camber is is like the suspension system. When held base to base, the tips and tails of the skis will touch but the bases will not. This add springiness to the skis and ensures the edges always stay in contact with the snow so you don't lose control. Many modern skis also feature rocker which is early rising in the tips and/or tails of the skis. Rocker can make it easier to start a turn without catching an edge and increases flotation on powder snow. Typically, skis intended for high speeds on hard snow will favor more camber and skis intended for moderate speeds on hard snow or for use in powder will feature more rocker.
Twin Tip Ski: Many skis will feature what is called a "twin tip," meaning the tail of the ski is rounded and turned up just like the tip. This allows for skiing backwards, which is common among freestyle skiers. Many skis of all types nowadays will feature varying degrees of rounded and turned up tails, but if a ski is considered a "twin tip," it is generally aimed at more of a freestyle skier. In many cases these skis are perfectly accessible for all types of skiers, as well, so don't be turned off by a twin tip if the ski otherwise appeals to you.
Ski Construction: Not all skis are created equal. These are some of the common construction features you'll see when comparing one set of skis to another.
- Cap Construction: A ski built with cap construction will have a topsheet that wraps all the way over the side of the ski and meets the edge. This style of construction increases the durability of the topsheet, reducing dings and scratches but resulting in a less stiff ski than sandwich/sidewall construction. Most entry level skis and skis designed for terrain park skiing feature cap construction. These skis also tend to weigh less.
- Sandwich/Sidewall: A ski built with sandwich/sidewall construction has a distinct topsheet layer and stiff sidewalls. These skis tend to be stiffer and damper feeling to increasing edge grip and stability at high speeds. They tend to chip more easily than cap construction skis, especially when the skier crosses his or her ski tips while skiing. Many high-end skis feature sandwich construction in order to maximize performance.
- Hybrid: Some skis will combine aspects of cap and sandwich construction into a hybrid style. This type of ski will typically have sandwich construction in the area of the skis under the foot in order to maximize stiffness where it is needed most and cap construction in the tips and tails to increase topsheet durability and reduce weight. This style has become very popular in powder skis.
Ski Bindings: Fasteners that attach the skis to the skier's feet. These come in different varieties for adults and children. In addition, they come "fixed" -- with a very limited adjustment range -- and "adjustable or demo" style, which can adjust for a large range of boot sizes. Bindings are also referred to as "binders" or "clamps" occasionally.
- Ski Binding Brakes: Ski bindings are made to release from the skier's foot during hard falls to help reduce the chance of injury. When a ski binding releases, the brakes deploy in order to stop the ski from careening down the mountain and getting lost or posing a risk to other skiers on the mountain. When purchasing bindings, ensure the brakes are at least as wide as the waist of your skis and no more than 15mm wider.
- DIN Setting: The DIN setting (release setting) of your ski bindings are indicated by the dial window on the toe and heel sections of your bindings. A higher value indicates more force needed to cause the bindings to release during a fall. Larger or more advanced skiers typically ski with a higher DIN setting than smaller or less experienced skiers. Unless you really know what you are doing, it is inadvisable to adjust the DIN settings on your bindings by yourself. Consult a licensed shop.
- Integrated v. Flat Mount: Some skis come with included bindings mounted on a plate that comes pre-installed on the skis from the factory. These skis offer more adjustment range and a higher platform to increase edge grip. Other skis are sold "flat" or without bindings. In this case you would need to purchase the bindings separately and have them mounted on the skis. These bindings will typically be tougher and more reliable than integrated bindings but have a limited adjustment range since they must be screwed directly into the skis.
- Ski Boot Compatibility: For the most part, adult ski boots are compatible with all adult ski bindings, and children's ski boots are compatible with all children's ski bindings. The primary difference between adult and children's boot is the thickness of the toe tab. Many children's bindings produced nowadays feature adjustable toe height and can be used with adult or child thickness boot soles. Some boots designed specifically for alpine touring will not be compatible with typical downhill ski bindings. These can be identified by a rounded sole, knobby rubber treads and a ski/walk mode in the boot shell.
Ski Poles: Typically made of aluminum, fiberglass, carbon or a composite of different materials, ski poles are used to help balance, push through flat parts of the mountain, stand up after a fall, initiate turns, and maintain body position.
- Ski Pole Baskets: The plastic part near the tip of the poles designed to stop the pole from plunging too deep in the snow is called a basket. They are frequently interchangeable but not all baskets fit all poles.
- Ski Pole Grips: The handles or grips of the poles are generally made of hard plastic in cheaper models and more ergonomic rubberized materials in higher end poles. Generally speaking, grips should be chosen based on personal preference and do not make a big difference for most people.
- Ski Pole Straps: Pole straps go around the skier's wrists to prevent losing the poles during a fall. Pole straps should always be removed for chairlift rides to ensure the safety of the skier in case the pole gets caught up in the chair.
Ski Boots: Ski boots are perhaps the most important factor in determining the performance and usability of a ski package. Ski boots should be tight fitting but not painful in order to maintain control while skiing. There are several factors to consider when selecting ski boots.
- Mondo Size: Ski boots are sized on a scale called "mondo," which roughly equates to the length of the skier's foot in centimeters. If your foot is 26cm long, you will likely fit well in a size 26 ski boot. For more information, check out our Ski Boot Size Chart.
- Last Width: The last width (or just width) of a ski boot is the width of the foot it is designed to fit. Wider boots will be more comfortable but offer lower performance, whereas narrower boots will be less comfortable but offer higher performance. In broad terms, a boot over 102mm wide is considered wide, 100-102mm is considered average, and 99mm or less is considered narrow.
- Ski Boot Stiffness or Ski Boot Flex: The flex of most ski boots is measured on a relative scale ranging from about 50 to about 150 with lower numbers being more flexible. It is important to remember that flex ratings are not subjective, and there can be some variance in the actual stiffness of boots that have the same rating. Flex ratings are most useful in comparing boots from the same brand.
- In general, a flex rating below 80 is considered a comfort flex and is best for beginner skiers or those who value comfort over performance all the time. A flex rating from 80 to 100 will offer a balance of comfort and performance and is appropriate for most casual, intermediate skiers. A flex rating from 100 to 120 will offer high level performance appropriate for advanced to expert level skiers willing to sacrifice comfort to a degree. Boots over 120 flex will offer instant response and control but may cause significant discomfort by the end of the day.
- Ski/Walk Modes: Many boots will offer a ski/walk mode lever which will impact the stiffness of the boot shell. While it can be a convenience, it is rarely considered a required feature. Many entry level boots will lack this feature since they are relatively soft and easy to walk in regardless. This feature is more or less required on boots intended for alpine touring (walking uphill in a manner similar to cross-country skiing.)
- Binding Compatibility: For the most part, adult ski boots are compatible with all adult ski bindings and children's ski boots are compatible with all children's ski bindings. The primary difference between adult and children's boot is the thickness of the toe tab on the shell of the ski boot and bindings will be made to be compatible with boots of the appropriate thickness. Many children's bindings produced nowadays feature adjustable toe height and can be used with adult or child thickness boot soles.
- Alpine Touring Boots: Some boots are designed to only work with specific alpine touring bindings. The boots will either feature "tech toes" designed to work with pin style alpine touring bindings or a more standard sole designed to work with frame style alpine touring bindings.
One important aspect of skiing is the variety of terrains and the different types of snow you'll encounter. It's important to be aware of these so you can have fun and avoid dangerous situations. Thankfully, ski resorts are organized in a way to help you stay on runs where you feel comfortable.
Ski Slope Ratings: Resorts designate their ski slopes with the following ratings. These are clearly marked on ski resort maps and on signage at the tops of the runs.
Green Circle: The easiest slopes are marked with a green circle. They feature wide, low-angle slopes, groomed snow, slow speeds and well-marked obstacles.
Blue Square: Intermediate slopes are marked with a blue square. These slopes will be steeper than green circle runs, may require slightly more technical turning technique, and higher speeds. Obstacles on blue square runs are typically well marked and they are still groomed in most cases but you may encounter moguls once in a while.
Black Diamond: Advanced runs are marked with a black diamond. A black diamond piste will be steep, frequently require sharp turns, may include tree filled sections and is often ungroomed, meaning you are likely to encounter variable snow conditions, moguls and unmarked obstacles.
Double Black Diamond: The most difficult runs on the mountain will be marked with a double black diamond. Double blacks are for expert skiers only and will be dangerous for skiers to attempt if they are not sufficiently skilled. They are typically very steep, tend to be narrow, contain unmarked obstacles such as moguls, trees and cliffs and are rarely -- if ever -- groomed.
Orange Ovals: Terrain parks are marked with orange ovals. These areas are for experts only and feature jumps, rails and freestyle features.
Specific types of ski runs: While runs will be rated for difficulty, you'll also see descriptions of the variety of features you'll encounter on a run.
Bunny Hill: The bunny hill is a short, low angle run with a nice slow moving chairlift. This is the area to start at if you have never skied before as it will offer nice forgiving terrain to learn basic technique.
Bowls or Cirques: Wide open, concave mountain faces are often referred to as bowls. In general, bowls are more advanced parts of the mountain but can be prime terrain for finding powder.
Chutes or Couloirs (pronounced coo-lar): Narrow, steep runs between rocks or trees are called chutes or couloirs. These can be some of the most challenging and tense runs on the mountain. They frequently start with a cornice which is an overhanging shelf of snow that must be jumped off of to enter the chute.
Glades: Glades are runs that have not had the trees cleared from them. Skiing through trees can be very dangerous so it is advisable to only explore the glades when you are very confident in your control abilities.
Terrain Parks: Terrain parks are experts-only areas that contain jumps and rails for advanced skiers to use. Though it is tempting to ski through and watch people use the jumps, is generally inadvisable to ski through as a spectator. Some terrain parks can be safely skied through without hitting any of the features but you must be very careful to stay out of the jump landings and blind spots to avoid dangerous collisions. Many mountains will have a beginner park with smaller features for people to learn how to jump and grind rails with lower risk.
Types of Snow: Due to constantly changing temperatures, humidity and grooming, you'll find a variety of snow conditions on the slopes. Over the years, the following descriptions have evolved for the various man-made and naturally occurring features you're likely to encounter.
Groomers or Corduroy: Groomers or groomed snow runs have been run over with a snow grooming machine to smooth any bumps, compact powder and make a nice, consistent surface to ski on. Most beginner and intermediate runs will be groomed every night to ensure they are easy to ski for less experienced skiers. A freshly groomed run will have a familiar rippled pattern left from the grooming machine which leads them to be nicknamed "corduroy."
Moguls or Bumps: Moguls or bumps are naturally formed mounds of snow that develop as a run is skied over by many skiers. They can be tricky to traverse for inexperienced skiers as they dictate the location and size of turns required to traverse a run. These are common on some intermediate runs but are generally found on advanced or expert terrain as it is common to groom them out of more beginner focused areas.
Powder: Powder snow is freshly fallen, uncompacted snow which is coveted by experienced skiers but often feared by beginners. Depending on the depth of the snow it can be a mild challenge or a difficult ordeal to ski in powder. Depending on the grooming schedule, powder snow on beginner runs will often be groomed down to corduroy before the lifts open to allow beginner skiers to enjoy the day. Most runs will turn to moguls by the end of a powder day so get there early if you want to ski fresh lines. Regardless, there is nothing quite as beautiful as an untracked blanket of fresh powder as viewed from the chairlift on the first run of the day.
Crud, Chunder, Chop, etc.: There are a myriad of names for fresh snow that has been skied several times but has not yet turned to moguls. It can be very challenging to ski in this inconsistent snow but with practice it can afford some of the best leg exercise on the mountain. Keep your speed in check when skiing crud because slowing down is difficult to do once you get out of control.
Ice: The only people who really like skiing ice are racers and speed demons. With very little edge grip, turning and stopping on ice can be a big challenge. When conditions are icy, it is advisable to stay on runs you are comfortable with and pay close attention to your speed.
Basic Ski Techniques:
There is some specific terminology associated with skiing techniques that may not be familiar to a non-skier right off the bat.
Snowplow, Wedge or Pizza: When learning to ski, the first technique you will learn is called the snowplow position and is commonly referred to as doing a "pizza." In this position, the skis are held in a wedge shape with both inside edges sliding over the snow. This position offers good speed control and easy turning for beginner skiers. This position can be used to stop until you learn to hockey stop.
Traverse: Traversing is moving across the slope of the mountain rather than down the fall line (the direction a ball would roll.) Beginners will traverse across the mountain then execute a snowplow turn to move the other direction and traverse back across the other way.
Stem Christie: A Stem Christie or wedge turn is a turn that is initiated from a wedge position by putting all of your weight on the ski on the outside of the turn (while turning right, your left ski should be weighted.) Next, bring the inside ski parallel to the outside ski to complete the turn.
Parallel Turns: Once you have mastered the stem christie, it is time to learn a turning technique that can be used at higher speeds. In a parallel turn, you never enter the wedge position and instead you weight the outside ski while the skis are parallel to initiate the turn. It is best to transition from a stem christie to a parallel turn by reducing the amount of wedge you use during the turn progressively until your skis are parallel for the duration of the turn.
Carving: Carving is a type of parallel turn where your skis do not slide during the turn and follow a smooth arc instead. This type of turn will scrub less speed than a sliding parallel turn and is therefore a more advanced technique. You will use a mix of sliding parallel turns and carves throughout your skiing career.
Hockey Stop: As you could probably guess, a hockey stop is the typical method to stop and is more or less a very hard parallel turn where you end up perpendicular to the fall line or the run and slide sideways on your edges until you come to a stop.
Pole Planting: In order to maintain a proper body position while skiing, it is important to initiate each turn with a pole plant. Using the pole which will be on the inside of the turn, plant the axis of your turn in the snow and make your turn around that spot. This technique will encourage you to keep your weight forward, your knees bent and your shoulders square with the fall line.