The Perfect Ski Width for the East Coast Backcountry

The search for the perfect-width backcountry ski can leave East Coasters feeling a lot like Goldilocks. Some skis are too wide, others are too narrow, and finding one with a waist size that’s “just right” seems impossible. If you’ve been dreaming of a ski silhouette that cruises uphill, shreds downhill, and can tackle the Ice Coast’s notoriously variable conditions, here are some thoughts.

Credit: Tim Peck

What is Ski Width?

For the unfamiliar, ski width is a measurement of the ski at its middle in millimeters—also called underfoot or the waist—and is generally the narrowest point on a ski. A ski’s width at its waist is almost always included in a ski’s nomenclature, from superskinny cross-country skis to portly powder planks.

Because skis are typically hourglass shaped, it’s also common to see a ski width measurement using three numbers, such as 138-106-124. In this format, the first number is a ski’s width at the front (at its widest point), the middle number is the width at the waist, and the last number is the width of the tail (at its widest point).

Credit: Tim Peck

Too Wide (115+)

We’ve all seen the super-sized planks the pros use in the TGR and Warren Miller movies and thought, I want those! And there’s no denying super-fat skis are fun on the deepest days—their large surface area provides an abundance of floatation and lets you surf on top of the snow. However, on average days, super-fat skis can elicit comments like these skis are too heavy, it’s too hard to hold an edge, and it’s too tricky to turn. 

So, unless you’re getting flown to the world’s best powder stashes or chasing storms from region to region, super-wide rides are pretty impractical as a primary driver for East Coasters. Skis with 115+ mm waists underfoot are best left to the powder professionals, those living in dreamy destinations, or as a secondary pair tucked away in your gear closet for the deepest of days in the Greens, Whites, and ’Daks.

Credit: Tim Peck

Too Narrow (85 and under) 

Skinny skis are all the rage in Europe—of course, so are skin suits and listening to techno at après. And they also call backcountry skiing “randonee” and groomers “pistes.” Here in the Northeast, it’s far more likely that a skier will choose a ski that is too wide, than one that is too narrow—likely because a certain portion of the population thinks that bigger equals better.

Less width generally equates to less weight, which makes narrow backcountry skis easier to tote around on long tours (like Mount Mooilaukee or on the auto road of Mount Whiteface) and are great for control in tight trees like those of the GBA when the snow isn’t that deep. They are also great for the rando racers in your crew. That said, getting caught with skinny skis when the snow is stacking up can suck the joy out of even the best pow day and leave skiers uttering remarks like it’s too deep and my skis are sinking, it’s too much effort, and going under the snow instead of on top is too slow.  

Credit: Tim Peck

Just Right (90 to 105)

Too-wide skis are no fun in anything but soft snow and skinny skis are outgunned when the going gets deep, which makes the sweet spot for the waist width of an East Coast backcountry ski somewhere in between the two. Skis in the 90 to 105 waist range (sometimes called a mid-fat ski) provide a nice blend of the attributes of both fat and narrow skis.

A ski that is “just-the-right” width will have enough surface area to keep you floating on those rare Northeast days when the snow is measured in feet, not inches. They also are easy enough to skin with that you won’t shy away from all-day tours or multiple laps and can shred through New England glades even when the snow is more frozen than fluff. You can even bring them to the resort for an uphill lap or two without attracting strange looks from the lift.

Finding a sweet spot within this “do-it all” range is very skier-specific. For those looking to move faster on the uphill or ski more groomers than couloirs, a ski with a width at the lower end of this range (90-95) is best. Skiers prioritizing the “down,” by contrast, are likely to prefer the range’s higher end (i.e., 105 underfoot).

Quiver 

Not to ski shame anyone—there is nothing wrong with fat or skinny skis—they’re all fun to ride. In fact, having a quiver of skis (of all sizes for all conditions) is an awesome luxury if you can afford it. After all, the correct number of skis to own is N+1—that is, the number of skis you own plus one. But if you can’t own a collection, a mid-fat ski is a great compromise for those looking for one ski to do it all.