Each February for the past ten years, Outside and Mountain magazine have met up at Snowbird, Utah, to test skis. This year we met with reps from 25 ski companies and set out to test dozens of new models. Over three days, our testers sample as many as 18 pairs of skis each. For this review, we’ve focused on skis that performed well in a wide range of conditions and terrain types. Our favorite pair of skis for all-mountain use, Völkl’s M5 Mantra, was one of the most versatile skis in this test, equally as comfortable on hardpack as it is in fresh powder. Here’s a deep dive on the M5, plus six other models more specialized to either hardpack or powder but with the versatility to perform on any day.
Best All-Mountain Ski
Völkl M5 Mantra ($ 700)
Völkl has been building and revising a ski called the Mantra for 12 years. This year’s version, the M5, is brand-new, and we think it’s the best new ski of the year. Over the past decade, the ski industry has tried to turn every ski into a powder ski, and in keeping with that trend, the Mantra grew steadily fatter and more rockered. In reality though, most all-mountain skis need to rip groomed or packed snow about half the time, and fat, heavily rockered skis aren’t great at that. The new M5 reflects this understanding. Its sidecut is a bit deeper, it has camber underfoot, and its 96-millimeter waist is now four millimeters narrower than last year’s version. These changes give the M5 more rebound on hard snow and let it glide better and maintain more contact with the snow while up on edge.
What makes it stand apart from others in its class is its physical construction. Völkl is famous for building damp, stable skis with wood cores sandwiched between two sheets of titanium alloy. For the M5, Völkl developed what it calls Titanal Frame, a sandwich setup with the metal installed around the perimeter of the ski’s fore and aft sections, shedding weight from the center line. As a result, the M5 is a modest but noticeable 50 grams lighter in each ski compared with its predecessor. Meanwhile, the tip has some carbon fiber, consistent with current industry trends, which makes it a little easier to initiate turns.
Out on the hill, the M5 was the most versatile ski of the test. It’s damp, meaning it doesn’t chatter or transmit vibrations, but still lively. It floats in resort powder but carves like a ski built for hardpack. “It’s lightweight and precise at the same time,” said one of our testers. “I expected it to carve well, but I was surprised by how well it runs off-trail. Any skilled skier could excel on it. The sweet spot is huge.” Dimensions: 134/96/117
Best All-Mountain Ski for Aggressive Skiers
Blizzard Bonafide ($ 700)
Last year, Blizzard introduced a freeride line of skis designed to be surfier and more playful than its line of all-mountain freeride skis. The Bonafide, with its longer effective-edge length and deeper sidecut, is part of the all-mountain line, and we thought it remained fun in deep snow while becoming noticeably more stable on hardpack.
Like the M5 Mantra—and just about every modern all-mountain ski—the Bonafide has carbon fiber in the tips to reduce swing weight, and its profile includes both rocker and camber. The difference between these skis is power output. While the Mantra accommodates a wider range of skier types, the Bonafide is built for skiers who charge hard. You either need to be big, fast, or both for this ski to perform. “You can go full tilt off-trail or on,” said one tester. And while plowing through chunks of unruly snow, said another, “the Bonafide is a cruel steamroller.”
The Bonafide is built with a beech and poplar core and two sheets of titanium alloy. We’d recommend it as a daily driver for skiing in the West, where we’d expect to use it 70 percent of the time off-trail, slashing turns in chalky alpine snow or using those lightweight rockered tips to pivot through loosely spaced steep bumps. On trail, it arcs a fun GS turn, but even with the added sidecut, it’s not an all-day carver so much as an all-day high-speed cruiser that can really lay it over in a turn. With a 98-millimeter waist, it’s not a powder ski, but it’s a pretty good one-ski quiver if you live in a place where the snowmaking equipment only comes out in the fall and if you’re willing to sacrifice a little performance on the truly deep days. Dimensions: 135/98/119
Best All-Mountain Powder Ski
Kästle BMX105 HP ($ 1,149)
The first thing to address about the BMX105 HP is that it’s at least $ 300 more expensive than the average ski in this category. That fact left a few broke ski testers wondering how they’d ever buy a pair. According to Kästle, the sticker price reflects a high level of handwork, and the materials come out of an elite race-room shop in Austria (HP stands for high performance). Kästle constructed the BMX105 HP with silver fir and beech cores instead of cheaper woods, and the bases are cut from the same sintered graphite that World Cup athletes run. (Sintering means baking a powder into a solid.) Even the sidewalls and edge material are spec’d from high-grade stock. Ultimately, that should produce a long-lasting ski that delivers energy return and stability after other skis have gone soft and dead. We’ve put three years of hard skiing on a pair of Kästles with this same build, and they’ve shown no loss of life.
But durability wouldn’t matter if the BMX105s didn’t ski well, and they did, earning the second-highest scores in our all-mountain powder test at Snowbird. The Hollowtech tips (swing-weight reduction again) make them nimble, and the big-turn radius (21 meters in the 181-centimeter length) lets you run them in breakable crust and weird alpine snow without feeling hooky. Said a tester: “Ripped everywhere and was super forgiving even while it displayed no speed limits. It’s easy to initiate turns, and it doesn’t mind if you want to drive the tail through the transition. You could ski it in a big-mountain comp or just cruise around.” So who should buy it? Anybody with resources, first of all. But especially people who spend most of their ski days at big western resorts that see ample snowfall, like Fernie, Jackson, the gems of Little Cottonwood, and Squaw Valley. Oh, and that person should be adept at avoiding rocks and keeping their gear well honed for the long term. As for body types, the 105 has range: our biggest, strongest, and fastest skier had it as his top pick, as did a lightweight tester who prefers to slash rather carve his turns. “Stable at all speeds, but slices and dices pow in the trees, too,” said a tester. “If you like a ski that never gets bucked around, look here.” Dimensions: 134/105/123
Best All-Mountain Frontside Ski
Rossignol Experience 88 Ti ($ 750)
Rossignol’s redesigned Experience 88 Ti is a top pick if you live and ski in New England, or even Summit County, Colorado, during a dry year.
We liked former versions of the Experience line, but it had grown dated, largely because of an extended sidecut that brought the widest part of the ski to the very tip. That made for fun carving, but off-trail that much sidecut made the Experience line tough to handle. The fix: taking a cue from its 7 Series powder skis, Rossignol built the new Experience line with subtle tapering in the tip and tail. With the new design, it’s actually more fun to rip around on groomed snow, and it’s way more nimble off-trail in variable snow and terrain, which allowed testers to butter and dump speed or redirect to a better line.
The ski has been improved with what Rossignol is calling line control technology (LCT). LCT is a central rail that reduces the counter flexing of the ski at the apex of the turn, smoothing out the ride and boosting edge grip. Another update includes new dampeners made from a viscous compound, which we thought may have added to the 88’s ability to hook up and hold on. “Perfect carving on-trail,” said a tester. “It absolutely rails turns, but the flex is smooth and accessible, and you can sluff the tips and tails around if you need to bail out.” As for who should buy it, the door is open. It’s a one-ski-quiver tool for the biggest chunk of the market, but if you already own a pair of fat skis (over 100 millimeters underfoot), the new 88 will complete your quiver and make days with packed snow all that more fun. “This ski rips,” said a tester. “So easy to get up on edge, but you can slink through bumps and trees, too.” Dimensions: 140/86/130
Best Backcountry Crossover Ski
Black Diamond Boundary Pro 107 ($ 749)
It’s been awhile since a ski from Black Diamond has impressed our testers. Recently, however, BD shifted its ski production from China to Blizzard’s factory in Austria, and the quality of the finished product improved fivefold.
The Boundary Pro 107, which was redesigned with a poplar core, has a comfortable sweet spot—you can easily find the center of the flex—coupled with a damp but lively ride and solid edge hold. (The same could not be said of previous BDs.) We’re featuring the Boundary Pro here as a backcountry crossover ski because it’s lightweight enough for touring and because of its shape. The more you ski off-trail, the less sidecut you want, as deep sidecuts get hooky in weird wind- and sun-affected wild snow. In the 184-centimeter length we tested, the turn radius is a long 20 meters. But here’s the thing: the Boundary Pro’s ample tip and tail rocker, abetted by tapering in the same zones, made it easy to pivot and smear at will. These are vital qualities in the backcountry, where the tightest trees are often the only safe way down. On hardpack, you can check turns with confidence, but you can’t settle into a deep arc. It’s a touring ski for folks who care far more about shredding than setting uphill speed records. We’d pair it with a Salomon Shift binding (the best crossover binding ever built) and ski it all day long in places like Revelstoke or Silverton. “One of the top off-trail skis of the day,” said one tester. “Loose and slinky in tight places, damp and easy to steer in the wide-open alpine, tons of rocker and taper for surfing pow.” Dimensions: 138/107/123
How We Test Skis
Typically, around 25 ski manufacturers bring their entire fleets to our annual test, which means more than 250 pairs of skis. For three days, testers grab skis from a rack, quickly adjust the bindings, skate to the lifts, burn a lap on varied terrain appropriate for the category, swap skis, and repeat, all the while taking notes. This happens up to 18 times a day, for something like 100,000 vertical feet of shredding. It usually dumps powder on us, which is the best perk. Back at the home office, we pour a mountain of data into spreadsheets and tabulate winners and losers.
How to Choose a Pair of Skis
Buying skis can be confusing. But it gets easier if you read the above reviews and ask yourself two key questions:
Am I adding to a quiver or replacing the daily driver that I ski on 80 percent of the time?
If you’re looking to round out a quiver, you’re probably in the market for a specialty ski built wide for powder or thin for carving turns on hardpack—skis that are beyond the purview of this review. Such skis excel in very specific conditions but tend to flounder in routine all-mountain conditions. But if you ski a ton, pure powder and pure frontside skis can really liven up your ski action. If you’re looking for a one-ski quiver, it’s time for question two, which is a two-parter.
Where do I ski the most, and what are my favorite conditions?
How you answer these prompts determines whether you’re in the market for an all-mountain powder ski (around 105 millimeters underfoot), an all-mountain ski (around 95 millimeters), or an all-mountain frontside ski (around 85 millimeters). These versatile skis are all built similarly, but they’re distinguished by waist width and depth of rocker. If you live near a steep and deep resort like Alta, Alpine Meadows, Jackson, or Mammoth, and ski off-trail most of the time, a chubby all-mountain powder ski with a healthy dose of rocker might be your daily driver. If you live in a place with moderate snowfall (Summit County, Colorado, we’re looking at you), then look for an all-mountain ski, one that’s a touch skinnier and with less rocker, which will let you mix up on-trail and off-trail skiing. And if you live where machine-groomed hardpack and chalky tree skiing is more common than bottomless blower—say, the East Coast—you should start with all-mountain frontside skis with just a hint of rocker and a waist width that makes for easy and powerful edging. They’re still all-mountain skis, they just let you better rip carved turns, bumps, and tight trees when you aren’t storm skiing.
What to Look for in Skis
Back in the day when everyone skied on modified slalom and GS skis, stiffness was often the deciding factor in ski selection. Today, though, unless you’re either extralarge and powerful or petite and laid-back, almost all recreational all-mountain skis are built with a round-turn flex that’s accessible to most skiers. (Meaning you don’t need to actively muscle them to get them to arc turns.) Think you need a softer or stiffer ski? Before you change models, consider changing lengths. See the next entry.
Thanks to a smart blend of rocker, taper, sidecut, and new materials, modern all-mountain skis are stable but lively, surfy but powerful, and dynamic but not demanding. A side benefit to all that innovation? We can ski them shorter than skis made 15 years ago. But don’t throw out all reason in the process. Ski-size charts like this one are a good place to start, but while they’re close to spot-on for easy-skiing intermediates, they tend to run five to ten centimeters short for aggressive experts. Also know that flex patterns (stiffness again) typically change with length, so if you want a stiffer ski, you might want a longer ski that’s designed for a bigger skier, too, and vice versa.
Sidecut is the hourglass shape of a ski. When you put a ski on edge and bend it into a carved turn on packed snow, the depth or radius of that sidecut helps to determine if you’re going to make a short (14-meter) turn or a long (20-meter) arc. Counterintuitively, in powder, bumps, and trees, less sidecut can make for quicker turns: in those conditions, you aren’t carving so much as pivoting or floating your turns, and in soft snow, less sidecut helps a ski cut loose. In general, though, opt for more aggressive sidecuts if you live for arcing race turns on groomers, and opt for less cut if you prefer to ski off-trail in soft snow. Backcountry skis typically offer the least amount of sidecut, because excessive hourglassing can cause the ski to catch unexpectedly in weird backcountry snow.
It’s subtle on most skis, but rocker is that three-dimensional shaping reminiscent of the upturned nose of a surfboard or the hull of a rodeo kayak. Just a hint of rocker makes it easier to tip an all-mountain ski on edge to carve turns. Deeper rocker, meanwhile, helps float a ski to the surface of soft snow and gives a ski a surfy or slashy feel in powder. As with width, you want more rocker for pure powder skiing and less rocker for pure carving, where it can make a ski feel less stable at high speed.
All skis are getting lighter these days, and in general we think that’s a good thing. Women are now able to run gear that’s proportionally more in line with their body weight. In-bounds skiers who hike for their turns benefit from skis that are easier to shoulder. Backcountry skiers obviously need lighter skis for touring uphill. And slightly lighter skis can feel more playful off-trail in soft snow. But unless you’re a ski-mountaineer racer, buying skis based solely on weight is a bad idea. Eventually, shaving weight comes at the expense of stability and dampness, and many skiers know that feathery backcountry planks tend to skitter on resort hardpack. And of course, even the heaviest wood and metal skis don’t feel heavy when you’re riding lifts and going 45 miles an hour on groomers. If you rarely hike, weight isn’t much of an issue.