Skier Need To Know—Flat vs System Skis

two directions to fun in the snow…

Here we give an introduction to “system ski” vs “flat ski” setup, highlighting some advantages and disadvantages. This will help you make a more informed decision when in the market for a pair of skis, whether new or used. For more on ski bindings, see the “Skier Need To Know—Bindings” page. You may also want to check out “Skier Need To Know—Skis” and “Skier Need To Know—Ski Construction” for more details on ski styles, performance, and behavior.

A SYSTEM SKI is just that. Ski and binding are integrated into a single system unit on the ski at time of purchase. Ski and binding are designed at the same time to provide best performance when working together.

System skis are ideal for a beginner. Entry level skis will be lighter, more flexible, and therefore very forgiving. Bindings are designed to meet the needs of a beginning skier as well. Take your skills up to the expert level, and system skis contain metal that make them stiff and powerful. Accompanying system bindings are designed to withstand extreme pressures applied by ski boots, damp out vibrations, and transfer power to the skis. It’s a beautiful thing. 

For the beginning skier,

your best bet might be to choose a system ski. Reasons are:

  • System skis tend to be less expensive;
  • It is very easy to find soft, flexible system skis that are quite forgiving;
  • You will easily find narrow skis in a system ski set up;
  • If you change ski boots, having a certified technician adjust the binding is simple;
  • Because system skis bindings have a good range of adjustment, they will be easier to sell, or pass along to a sibling.

When just starting out, you want a narrower ski and a more flexible ski. These forgiving traits help you learn faster and help you build skills as a skier more quickly. For more advanced skiers, say after a year or two of skiing, you will be ready to consider the universe of ski types, as discussed below.

System skis are synonymous with carving.

And to carve, the ski must get up on edge. System skis keep the binding up higher off the snow. This provides better leverage for getting the ski on edge and biting into the snow surface (though there is a counter argument saying that lower on the ski provides greater stability and control). Using system skis as you begin learning how to ski will have the highest probability of seeing you progress in your skills quicker, and easier.

System skis are designed for use on the front-side, meaning the groomed slopes. That’s where they excel. If you spend most of your time on the groomers, and love, or want to love carving up the corduroy, then look no farther than a system ski. From here on in, I will simply refer to them as carving skis.

Carving skis come in a wide variety of widths and constructions. The stiffer the ski the more responsive it will be and the better it will be at slicing into the snow surface, and holding on through the turns. The narrower the ski the faster and easier it will be to tip into and out of turns. 

If you want the ultimate in carving, look to race skis. They are designed for high speed carves. And race skis hold tenaciously through the turns.

It is worth pointing out that many ski manufacturers have lately been producing system skis that utilize a ski from their flat ski selection. For example, a ski model ranging in width from 85mm to 110mm will have an 85mm ski available both in system and flat formats. The system ski offering allows a bit of savings as well as the flexibility of handing them down to a sibling to use, or an easier sale because the purchaser faces a binding adjustment rather than a remount.

So why make flat skis? Keep reading.

A FLAT SKI is just that. Flat. No milling or molding to predefine where and how the binding will fit on the ski. In fact, no binding is mounted on the ski at time of purchase. The ski binding is purchased separately. For more on ski bindings, see the “Skier Need To Know—Bindings” page.

For skiers beyond the beginner level,

flat skis open a broad diversity of ski choices. If you play in the park, frequent the woods, or want to effectively ski powder, you need a flat ski. Sure, you can do all these things on a system ski, but it’s less efficient, less effective, and often less fun. If you want to do back country or ski touring, flat skis are the only way to go so you can mount the proper bindings.

Flat ski set ups do tend to cost a bit more than a comparable system ski set up. But not by a whole lot. Another thing to keep in mind when going with a flat ski setup is that the bindings must be mounted by a certified technician using a specialized jig. Holes get drilled into the skis to mount the binding, which is then “glued and screwed,” for a specific pair of ski boots.

If you get new ski boots, and the sole length of the boot is very different from the pair used when the bindings were mounted, the bindings may have to be remounted. The new boot might fit, but it will put you at a different centering point on the ski for your stance, which might make the ski behave differently than what you want. In other words, things could get kinda weird.

To keep your stance true to what it was with the old boot, the bindings must be removed from the ski, the screw holes plugged, new holes drilled, and the binding remounted. There is a cost to having the bindings remounted. And, there is only so many times that you can do a remount before the integrity of the ski is jeopardized. 

While it’s unlikely you would change boots often enough over the life of a pair of new skis to impact ski integrity, it’s not impossible. This must be a consideration of course, when buying used skis. You need to know how many remounts the skis went through before you get them. If more than two or three remounts, you may want to think hard about about that purchase—you are on the borderline. If more than 4 remounts, you really should look elsewhere. No matter how inexpensive, these skis will be no bargain if the ski is unusable. The last thing you want is to have the binding removed and have the ski look like it was attacked by a flock of woodpeckers!

Given the extra cost, and the limitations imposed by having bindings that can only be adjusted to a limited extent for different ski boots without remounting,

Why even consider a flat ski setup?

Variety and performance is why. System skis tend to be focused on carving. Flat skis give you most everything else. Bumps. Powder. Woods. Park. Touring. Backcountry. Yes, flat skis can carve, though generally not as efficiently and effectively as a system ski.

Flat skis often are lighter in weight, making them easier to maneuver quickly in the trees. And if you play in the park, twin tips might be in order. You don’t often find twins in a system ski. For floating powder, flat skis come in widths bordering on ridiculous.

The binding of a flat ski set up almost always consists of separate toe and heel pieces rather than one long plate as seen in a system ski setup. Having separate toe and heel pieces allows the ski to flex differently under the boot, providing a feeling that the ski is more lively and has more pop.

This is when it pays to look over the “Skier Need To Know—Skis” page and assess what it is you want most from your skis while on the slopes. That will help direct you to the right set of skis.

And a final note on GripWalk, the new industry standard for ski boots. When considering new skis, you need to consider compatibility between boot and binding. Check the “Skier Need To Know—GripWalk” for more detail.

Now you need to stop into Avie’s Ski / Sports and chat with staff about your options. We can help you weigh the options and all those pesky tradeoffs. There is a “right” ski for you. You just need to take the time to find it. We can help. 

[updated October 2022]