Unlike their lift-assisted alpine cousins, backcountry skis have two jobs: getting you uphill efficiently while retaining enough power to make the downhill worth the effort (and fun). The good news is that material and construction technologies are growing rapidly with the recent boom in the sport’s popularity, and many of today’s alpine touring skis are impressively polished and a treat to drive. Below we break down our top backcountry skis for 2017-2018, which range from lightweight models for long tours and mountaineering to hybrid skis that can pull double duty on the skin track and at the resort. For more background information, see our buying advice and comparison table below the picks.
Weight: 6 lbs. 6 oz.
Other widths: 99, 112mm
What we like: An ideal touring setup: light on the uphill and fun on the descent.
What we don’t: Expensive and not great on firm snow.
The backcountry ski market has exploded in recent years with a seemingly endless array of options, but for true powder hounds, DPS Skis stand out from the rest. The beautifully crafted Wailer Tour1 puts together the brand’s strongest traits: the ski is impressively lightweight at 6 pounds 6 ounces for climbing, has a great shape for smooth operation on the downhills, and a premium construction that’s built to last. These skis are made for soft snow, but in the 106-millimeter waist—as well as the slimmer 99—they’re also surprisingly versatile.
The Wailer 106’s price at over $1,000 might make it a quiver of one by necessity, but we think it’s worth the steep fee. As expected from DPS, build quality and materials are top notch and the Tour1’s balsa core and carbon laminate makes it a capable partner in most snow conditions. The only real qualm we have with the Wailer 106 Tour1 is that it truly is a lightweight backcountry model and can be out of sorts at full tilt on a groomer. And for those unwilling to compromise on power, see the even stronger (and pricier) DPS Wailer Alchemist below.
See the DPS Skis Wailer 106 Tour1
Weight: 7 lbs. 3 oz.
Other widths: None
What we like: Fun factor and great all-around performance at a good value.
What we don’t: DPS gets the nod for powder.
Utah-based Voilé has a strong reputation for building backcountry dream machines, and the SuperCharger is their best effort yet. What stands out in the touring world is its natural feel and performance—unlike many skis that lose a little personality and fun as they drop weight, the SuperCharger turns, pops, and carves at a high level. With a mixed but somewhat mild rocker at the tip and tail and camber underfoot the 106-millimeter base, the SuperCharger is a true all-rounder. And at $695, it’s a fantastic deal among comparable backcountry skis.
What’s keeping the SuperCharger off the top of our podium? For one, the Voilé has a little more hard snow bias than its width implies, and the ski isn’t as effortless in deep powder as DPS Skis. They’re also 13 ounces heavier than the Tour1 above, which can be a difference maker on long tour days (although their weight still is very competitive overall). But we have to come back to value—for under $700, you get a strong and thoroughly enjoyable backcountry ski with few downsides.
See the Voilé SuperCharger
Weight: 8 lbs. 1 oz.
Other widths: 85, 92, 106, 118mm
What we like: A great hybrid backcountry and resort ski.
What we don’t: A bit heavy on the uphill.
The two skis above have been built from the ground up for touring performance, but Salomon’s QST line offers a satisfying mix of all-mountain and backcountry design. Their 106-millimeter ski is popular among soft snow enthusiasts, but we prefer the slightly narrower QST 99 to keep weight down and elevate its hybrid nature. The ski has a single layer of Titanal for impressive power and stability for flying down the hill, but the softer front end dances nicely in powder.
Trying to be everything to everyone does mean the QST 99 comes with a few compromises. For touring, the weight of over 8 pounds makes for a bigger effort in getting up the hill, and it’s certainly not a go-to ski for long missions. More, the soft front does have a tendency to chatter at Mach-looney on firm snow (although most alpine touring skis will do the same). But for folks transitioning from the resort to the backcountry or wanting to split their time evenly between the two, the QST 99 is a fantastic choice.
See the Salomon QST 99 See the Women's Salomon QST Lumen 99
Weight: 7 lbs. 3 oz.
Other widths: 90, 122mm
What we like: Light but likes to charge.
What we don’t: Doesn’t like crud.
Starting with the Katana released a few years ago, the backcountry-specific offerings from Volkl’s V-Werks line have pushed the boundaries on weight and downhill performance. Just looking at the BMT 109 gives you an appreciation for the development process: the top of the ski is multi-layered with a raised spine running the center and covered in gorgeous carbon fiber. The super thin edges belie the ski’s capabilities—this is a serious, big mountain charger. And the fully rockered design floats, slashes, and moves with ease through everything from powder to technical terrain.
Similar to the DPS Wailer Tour1 above, the superlight BMT 109 is best in serious backcountry conditions. The light front end can get knocked around through crud, although it outperforms expectations on hardpack and at the resort. Another area of concern is long-term durability with such a thin build. But take care of it—and leave it behind on those questionable early season days—and you’ll find little to dislike about the BMT 109.
See the Volkl V-Werks BMT 109
Weight: 8 lbs. 1 oz.
Other widths: 99, 106mm
What we like: Strong but reasonably light; amazing in powder.
What we don’t: Very pricey.
Some may feel that DPS gets a little too much attention in the backcountry ski world, but it’s premium builds like the Tour1 above and all-new Alchemist that set them apart. The Alchemist is DPS’s newest range-topping construction type, taking the Pure3 from last year and tweaking the carbon compound for better top-end performance and stability. Importantly, the ski retains the lauded 112-millimeter wide Wailer shape that turns and powers through just about anything. For discerning backcountry skiers in areas that see consistently good powder and want a smooth and very capable driver, the Wailer 112 Alchemist is a class above in terms of refinement and all-around abilities.
If the Tour1 above was pushing the price envelope, unfortunately the $1,300 Alchemist line is out of reach for many backcountry skiers. But it’s one of those instances where price matches performance, and we see little reason for backcountry enthusiasts to balk at this new ski. More, unlike most models of this width, the upgraded Alchemist is fun just about anywhere—even for the occasional resort day. The 112-millimeter model is the widest from the Wailer line and plenty of ski for most, but check out the Lotus 124 below for seriously deep snow.
See the DPS Wailer 112 Alchemist See the Women's DPS Yvette 112 Alchemist
Weight: 5 lbs. 8 oz.
Other widths: 85, 105, 116mm
What we like: Superlight for long tours.
What we don’t: Not as stable as the skis above.
The picks above are designed with balance in mind, but for extended climbs, long traverses, and mountaineering, a superlight ski is ideal. One of the best models out there for 2017-2018 is the Black Diamond Helio 95 Carbon. As the name implies, the ski combines extensive use of carbon fiber with a light balsa flax wood core to achieve an impressively low 5-pound 8-ounce weight (173cm length). Importantly, the ski still is a hoot on the downhill with its 95-millimeter width offering quick reflexes in dicey terrain and enough flotation for moderately deep powder.
The Helio 95’s focus on weight does come with a couple downsides. For one, the ski isn’t super stable at speed on firm snow even with the added strength from the carbon construction. In addition, it’s more prone to getting knocked around by crud or rough snow with the lightweight tip. But for deep backcountry explorations or if you need to carry your skis on a steep ascent, the drop in weight is well worth the tradeoff. For even less weight and faster turning in spring conditions, BD also makes a Helio 85, and deep pow seekers will prefer the Helio 105 or 116.
See the Black Diamond Helio 95 Carbon
Weight: 7 lbs. 15 oz.
Other widths: None
What we like: They’re a blast in powder.
What we don’t: Not as fun in other conditions.
Moment’s Bibby Tour is the lightened and tour-afied version of one of our all-time favorite powder skis: the Bibby Pro. At 116-millimeters wide and with a rockered profile and early rise tip and tail, the Bibby Tour is unapologetic about its powder-loving ways. It’s an effortless performer that has proven to be surprisingly adept at cutting through trees or flowing through narrow shoots. More, the lighter Bibby Tour adds a flickable nature to the fun and playful feel of the Bibby Pro.
With such a strong emphasis on powder, the Bibby Tour probably shouldn’t be the only ski at your disposal. Even at a reasonable 8 pounds for the width, the wide footprint means the ski isn’t as suitable as others for long missions. And the ski is totally out of place on firm snow and ice, so be sure to have confidence in the forecast and conditions before heading out the door. Get it right, though, and you’re almost guaranteed to have a big smile on your face.
See the Moment Bibby Tour
Weight: 7 lbs. 1 oz.
Other widths: 105, 117mm
What we like: Lightweight all-mountain build that’s ready to tour.
What we don’t: Not for untracked powder.
Head’s new Kore all-mountain ski has taken the market by storm this season with its stiff yet superlight construction. And it’s this focus on weight cutting that puts the Kore on the backcountry ski map. Head uses a creative mix of light and strong materials—specifically Graphene, Koroyd, and carbon fiber—along with a poppy wood core to deliver strong but fun performance. And at a versatile 93-inch waist, the Kore can pull double duty on non-powder backcountry days as well as all season long at the resort.
The Kore undoubtedly is a fantastic all-mountain build and isn’t out of place on a skin track, but there are better touring-specific options out there. The ski is a little stiff and narrow for real powder, and isn’t as fun to drive as a result. More, its 16.4-meter turn radius makes it great in tight spots, but it isn’t as adept at big sweeping turns in the soft stuff. Those wanting better deep snow abilities should look to the 105 or 117-millimeter versions of the Kore at the penalty of more weight.
See the Head Kore 93
Weight: 7 lbs. 5 oz.
Other widths: None
What we like: A solid touring all-rounder.
What we don’t: Availability can be limited (but it’s getting better).
With their home nicely situated in the Alps in Chamonix, France, Black Crows has strong alpine and backcountry roots. And although they’ve only recently entered the U.S. market, their Freebird touring skis have quickly become a staple in areas like Jackson Hole. We like their jack-of-all-trades Navis Freebird best, which at 102-millimeters wide is a very versatile ski. It’s competitively light for the climb up and easy to strap to a pack, but punches above its weight on the descent.
For the price, the Navis is a suitable alternative to a ski like the DPS Wailer Tour1 above. The Wailer may outperform it in powder and weigh less, but the Navis is a little sturdier on firm snow and saves you almost $300. Because Black Crows still is relatively new to the scene in the U.S., it can occasionally be tricky to track them down. But more local shops are starting to carry the brand, and online retailers like Evo are stocking a good selection early this season.
See the Black Crows Navis Freebird
Weight: 8 lbs. 6 oz.
Other widths: None
What we like: Surfy powder fun.
What we don’t: Heavy and not super well rounded for season-long touring.
Rossignol doesn’t have a foothold in the dedicated touring market like many of the brands above, but its Soul 7 ski is no stranger to remote backcountry lines. This 106-millimeter freeride ski has a near-universal reputation for fun in the deep stuff, and for this season, Rossignol redesigned their open AirTip to stiffen it up at speed. The ski now feels a little more planted on firm snow but no less enjoyable for surfing atop powder fields.
We love the Soul 7 HD, but it’s certainly not a dedicated touring model. The ski weighs a hefty 8 pounds 6 ounces, and its Labrador-like personality isn’t built for spring corn or icy and dicey descents. But for areas with consistently good and deep snow—and if you don’t mind hauling a little extra weight on the way up—the Soul 7 HD is a nice backcountry option.
See the Rossignol Soul 7 HD See the Women's Rossignol Soul 7 HD
Weight: 5 lbs. 3 oz.
Other widths: 95, 108mm
What we like: Light and surprisingly strong.
What we don’t: Narrow for season-long use.
Blizzard’s Zero G line reaches as wide as 105 millimeters, but we love the performance and value from their thin 85-millimeter version. Obviously the narrow build cuts weight, and at 5 pounds 3 ounces, it’s an ideal partner for very long treks or ski mountaineering. But what’s most impressive is how confidently the 85 tackles technical terrain. The ski is stable through variable snow and its 19-meter turn radius makes it a little friendlier in the backcountry compared with the Kore 93 above. The Zero G 85 is well equipped for either first time backcountry skiers or as a nice ultralight addition to an enthusiast’s arsenal.
If we were to choose a single ski, however, the Blizzard Zero G 85 wouldn’t be it. On the opposite end of the spectrum from a super versatile ski like the Moment Bibby Tour above, the 85-millimeter width has its time and place. In the case of the Blizzard, it’s certainly not adept at deep snow. If weight wins out, however, and you want something sprightly that can get you through tight spots, the Zero G 85 is an interesting ski.
See the Blizzard Zero G 85
Weight: 6 lbs. 6 oz.
Other widths: 87mm
What we like: Versatile geometry.
What we don’t: Not a great performer in variable conditions.
Dynastar’s popular Cham 2.0 has been replaced for 2017-2018, but its ultralight touring sibling remains. The Mythic has been out for a few years but we think hits a great middle ground in terms of design. The 97-millimeter waist is ideal for many backcountry skiers, and it’s competitively lightweight at 6 pounds 6 ounces for the pair. For extended climbs, multi-day backcountry trips, or whenever weight wins out, the Mythic is a solid choice.
The Mythic once was an ultralight star, but new offerings from DPS, Volkl, and others have pushed the ski down our rankings. Its construction shows signs of stripping weight, and performance in variable conditions is less predictable as a result. More, the $900 price tag feels expensive in this field. But the Mythic is no slouch powering through fresh snow and hardpack and undoubtedly a joy on the ascent; we just think there are more well rounded options.
See the Dynastar Mythic 97
Weight: 7 lbs. 11 oz.
Other widths: None
What we like: Impressive weight savings compared to the old Chugach.
What we don’t: Unproven long-term durability.
The original Dynafit Chugach made a big splash in the backcountry market when it was released a few years ago. Here was a ski that was set up for touring, but kept some of the heft, and a lot of the stability and trustworthiness, of a big mountain rig. The new model follows the trend for lighter weight—at a very solid 1-pound savings—without giving up too much in terms of downhill strength. With the same basic shape and rockered design as the old Chugach, the new Beast 108 deserves a look.
Cutting weight will inevitably change the personality of a ski, and for those that liked the bulletproof Chugach, the new Beast 108 may fall short. The jury is still out on long-term durability with this new model, but it’s important to note that the Beast 108 still is a substantial ski—for perspective, it weighs 1 pound 5 ounces more than the DPS Wailer Tour1 above. As such, the DPS and others are the preferred option for long tours or mountaineering, but if you need a solid partner for a sketchy descent, it may be worth hauling the extra weight.
See the Dynafit Beast 108
Weight: 6 lbs. 3 oz.
Other widths: 85mm
What we like: Impressive stability for the weight.
What we don’t: Makes you work in powder.
Salomon’s MTN Explore 95 is another solid ski that aims to balance uphill and downhill performance. We like the ingredients: 95-millimeter waist, semi-stiff construction, and weight-saving measures like Koroyd in the tip of the ski to reduce chatter. On the slopes, it’s a nimble carver on firm snow and can dance in the trees but doesn’t get out of sorts at speed, even with a strong driver aboard. Some may prefer more inspiring graphics, but at least the white color should help reduce snow build up.
You do pay a small weight penalty for the extra downhill stability of the MTN Explore 95, as many skis in its class come in under 6 pounds. But its weight is nothing to scoff at and we suspect the majority of backcountry skiers would admit five or so extra ounces split between skis isn’t a major downside. It’s also notable that the 95-millimeter width is as wide as the MTN Explore line goes, so deep powder seekers will need to look elsewhere.
See the Salomon MTN Explore 95
Weight: 9 lbs. 1 oz.
Other widths: 95, 109mm
What we like: Great price for deep powder performance.
What we don’t: Too flexy for aggressive skiers.
For a super wide powder ski at a darn good price, check out the Atomic Backland FR 117. With plenty of generous rocker at the tip, this ski is thoroughly capable for those days with snow dumps measured in feet, but surprisingly buttoned down with camber underfoot and a light rocker in the tail. It’s a far cry from the all-rounders at the top of our list, but the Backland FR 117 is just too much fun not to make an appearance here.
The Atomic Backland is very impressive for the price, but those hitting big-time lines may want a little more ski. It’s fairly soft for this segment and won’t react as well to inputs from hard skiers. On the other hand, it’s friendly and playful for floating a wide and deep bowl. This middle ground certainly has an appeal for freeride powder touring, but the DPS Lotus 124 below is worth the splurge for Alaska-level terrain.
See the Atomic Backland FR 117
Weight: 5 lbs. 10 oz.
Other widths: 74, 82, 96, 104mm
What we like: Light and easy in spring conditions.
What we don’t: Not as versatile or as playful as the skis above.
K2 has a proud backcountry heritage with skis like the Coomba (previously the Coomback), but for 2017-2018 they’ve kept things simple with a single line of Wayback skis. Ranging from 74 to 104 millimeters, the medium width 88 brings out its best qualities. The ski is easy to maneuver, can take a beating when raked over rocks and debris, and is very light at under 6 pounds for the pair. Another feather in the Wayback’s cap is the wide range of lengths available—very few manufacturers offer short 160 and 167-centimeter models.
We really like what K2 has done with their all-mountain Pinnacle line, but we feel the Wayback falls a bit short for the touring crowd. Most importantly, they lack the fun-to-drive factor of our top picks. And at $850, you’re not seeing any major cost savings either. To be fair, the Wayback is a dependable and a solid option for spring missions or even beginning backcountry skiers, but the Blizzard Zero G, Salomon MTN Explore, and others at a similar width and weight strike us as better touring options.
See the K2 Wayback 88 See the Women's K2 Talkback 88
Weight: 8 lbs. 10 oz.
Other widths: None
What we like: Powder dreaming.
What we don’t: Too wide for most skiers and conditions.
We debated adding the Lotus 124 to this group with the fantastic Wailer line already well represented above, but this model is too good to leave off. To be clear, this is an inherently limited ski. And we certainly hope it isn’t a top consideration as a single-quiver tourer unless your uphill work comes with some assistance from a helicopter. But for the kind of powder that makes it worth hauling 124-millimeter wide sticks, the Lotus won’t let you down once gravity takes over.
What the Lotus 124 Alchemist stands for is the ultimate expression of DPS’s soft snow heritage. The ski is a dreamboat slicing deep powder. Equipped with the impressive carbon fiber core of the Wailer Alchemist above, it will remain composed at highlight-worthy speeds. For the select few that need a ski like this, we can’t think of a better option than the Lotus 124.
See the DPS Skis Lotus 124 Alchemist
|DPS Skis Wailer 106 Tour1||$1,099||133-106-122mm||6 lbs. 6 oz.||99, 112mm||18m|
|Voilé SuperCharger||$695||140-106-124mm||7 lbs. 3 oz.||None||19.5m|
|Salomon QST 99||$600||138-99-120mm||8 lbs. 1 oz.||85, 92, 106, 118mm||19m|
|Volkl V-Werks BMT 109||$1,199||134-109-119mm||7 lbs. 3 oz.||90, 122mm||22.4m|
|DPS Skis Wailer 112 Alchemist||$1,299||141-112-128mm||8 lbs. 1 oz.||99, 106mm||17m|
|Black Diamond Helio 95 Carbon||$830||123-95-113mm||5 lbs. 8 oz.||85, 105, 116mm||19m|
|Moment Bibby Tour||$769||141-116-131mm||7 lbs. 15 oz.||None||25m|
|Head Kore 93||$650||133-93-115mm||7 lbs. 1 oz.||105, 117mm||16.4m|
|Black Crows Navis Freebird||$800||133-102-118mm||7 lbs. 5 oz.||None||19m|
|Rossignol Soul 7 HD||$750||136-106-126mm||8 lbs. 6 oz.||None||18m|
|Blizzard Zero G 85||$600||116-85-100mm||5 lbs. 3 oz.||95, 108mm||19m|
|Dynastar Mythic 97||$900||133-97-113mm||6 lbs. 6 oz.||87mm||17m|
|Dynafit Beast 108||$800||135-108-125mm||7 lbs. 11 oz.||None||22m|
|Salomon MTN Explore 95||$700||130-95-116mm||6 lbs. 3 oz.||85mm||18m|
|Atomic Backland FR 117||$700||141-117-130mm||9 lbs. 1 oz.||95, 109mm||19m|
|K2 Wayback 88||$850||126-88-113mm||5 lbs. 10 oz.||74, 82, 96, 104mm||17m|
|DPS Skis Lotus 124 Alchemist||$1,299||149-124-139mm||8 lbs. 10 oz.||None||23m|
- What Are Backcountry Skis?
- Uphill vs. Downhill Performance
- Ski Waist Width and Terrain
- Ski Profile: Rocker and Camber
- Ski Shape: Sidecut and Turn Radius
- Core Materials
- Skins and Skin Compatibility
- Choosing Backcountry Ski Boots
- Choosing Ski Bindings
- Boot to Binding Compatibility
- Backcountry Ski Advice for Beginners
For those who want to explore beyond the crowds and lift-served terrain, backcountry skis (also referred to as alpine touring skis) are the ticket. Designed to skin uphill efficiently and handle variable downhill conditions, there are a wide range of alpine touring ski options for everything from deep powder to springtime corn. But their defining feature—and what differentiates them from inbound skis—is a shared emphasis on trimming weight. This focus does make them less powerful and often less durable than a pure downhill ski, but the tradeoff is worth it for covering ground in the backcountry.
It’s equally important to understand that not all capable backcountry skis are specifically referred to as such. From our list above, the Salomon QST 99, Rossignol Soul 7 HD, and Head Kore 93 are considered all-mountain or freeride designs. But their reasonable weight and prowess in most conditions makes them completely viable as crossover options. There often are a few extra considerations for making the conversion to backcountry use—including choosing a universal-style skin—but it’s a good idea not to limit your search only to skis that have been defined as “touring-specific.” And if you’ll be splitting time between the resort and backcountry, a lightweight all-mountain ski is a great answer.
This is perhaps the trickiest factor in selecting a backcountry ski: choosing between saving energy on the uphill and maximizing downhill stability and performance. Logically, trimming weight by choosing a narrow and thin ski to make life easier on the skin track decreases comfort and power on the descent, so it’s good to start by defining your priorities and your preferred style of touring. Are you looking for short uphills for rowdy freeride descents in powder? Go with a substantial downhiller like the Salomon QST or Moment Bibby Tour. Or will you be doing long traverses or mountaineering? Then put weight above all else with the Black Diamond Helio Carbon or a similar ski. The good news is that there are an increasing number of options that strike a good 50/50 balance, including DPS’s Alchemist collection, Black Crows’ Freebird line, and Voilé’s SuperCharger.
85mm to 100mm
Unless you’re doing summer ski mountaineering or logging miles of approach in the backcountry, 85 millimeters should be just about the narrowest and lightest backcountry ski you need. With improved rocker designs in recent years, narrower skis in this width range achieve reasonable float in variable conditions while maintaining snappy edge-to-edge movement. The smaller size and weight also make them ideal for technical mountaineering, as we see in Black Diamond’s Helio Carbon skis, which include waist widths of 85 and 95 millimeters. For the budget conscious, the Blizzard Zero G 85 and 95 are great options in this range as well.
100mm to 110mm
Skis with a waist width between 100 and 110 millimeters are what we consider to be “quiver killers.” In other words, if you’re going to buy one pair of backcountry skis, these are it. More and more companies are releasing skis that hover around the 105-millimeter mark, many with impressive versatility both out of bounds and at the resort. While not specifically designed for backcountry skiing, two nice hybrid options to consider are the Salomon QST 106 and Rossignol Soul 7 HD (106mm wide). Skis of this waist width are narrow enough for spring touring but really shine in the winter months when there is potential for deeper conditions.
These skis are made to shred serous pow. In most cases, they are specialized for deep snow with exceptional float. On the downside, this also means larger turning radii, more weight, and just more ski. However, “fat” alpine touring skis like the Moment Bibby Tour and the Atomic Backland FR 117 are incredibly fun on the downhill and will cater to those who live for days of cold smoke. Only buy a backcountry ski of 115mm+ if you plan on skiing regularly in deep conditions or Alaska-type lines that require a big, powerful ski like the DPS Skis Lotus 124.
One thing on the mind of most backcountry skiers is the weight of their setup. And as you can see in the comparison chart above, ski weights can vary quite a bit, from the ultralight Blizzard Zero G 85 (5 lbs. 3 oz.) to the burly Atomic Backland FR 117 (9 lbs. 1 oz.). All-rounder backcountry skis like the Voilé SuperCharger (7 lbs. 3 oz.) land in between these extremes.
Materials and construction are notable factors in the weight of a ski. Skis built with carbon fiber will be lighter than their fiberglass counterparts. More, different types of wood cores yield differences in weight (see the section below on “Core Materials” for more information on this topic). Some manufacturers cut back on the sheer amount of material, eliminating metal edges on parts of the ski that rarely engage the snow. This technique, in addition to honeycomb-like cutouts, reduces swing weight in the tip and tail of the ski (found in Rossignol and Salomon skis, for example). Head’s new Kore 93 is bereft of a topsheet and has a carbon construction, making for a remarkably light ski.
Weight also is tied directly to a ski’s length and width. Obviously, shorter and narrower skis will have less material and therefore weigh less. But before you go real skinny and short, keep in mind the ideal length for your height, weight, and ability level, as well as the ideal waist width for your intended conditions. And as we covered in the section on Uphill vs. Downhill Performance above, your preferred style of touring will push you to a ski that is light, heavy, or somewhere in the middle.
Rocker and camber are design techniques that apply to the curvature of the ski. Camber is the traditional profile that makes the ski convex in relation to the snow, with direct contact points spread widely near the tip and tail. Rocker is a more modern technique that looks akin to a water ski with early rise in the tip and/or tail—picture a banana. Most backcountry skis on the market today have a combination of rocker and camber in their profile, with camber underfoot and rocker in the tip and sometimes the tail.
Camber and rocker affect a ski’s performance greatly. More camber underfoot helps with edge control in steep terrain and can increase stability at higher speeds. Rocker in the tip increases float and the ski’s ability to power through crud and variable conditions. A little rocker in the tail can be helpful when navigating technical sections, allowing the ski to ride backwards without difficulty and reducing the risk of catching an edge. Unless you are planning on switch landings in powder, a flat or semi-flat tailed ski will work well in the backcountry.
When looking at ski profiles, remember that when skinning up, the surface area of the ski contacting the snow directly affects the amount of uphill traction. As a result, a heavily rockered ski can limit your contact points and make climbing more of a chore. Some of the strongest climbers, like the Black Diamond Helio 95, have a mild rocker/camber/rocker design for excellent grip without giving up much in terms of downhill performance.
Let’s keep this one simple: the sidecut profile of a ski affects the turn radius. Most backcountry skis are loosely based on a traditional sidecut. This means the ski gets narrower as you move from tip to waist and then wider again from waist to tail. The more concave the sidecut is, the shorter the turn radius (listed in meters). Skis with short turn radii of less than 17 meters often are less stable when straight lining at speed but have greater agility in technical terrain. On the flipside, a ski with a wide turn radius will be comfortable with smooth arching turns but may be reluctant to dance quickly in the trees. Personal preferences on skiing style and conditions will lead you in one direction or the other, but the majority of our favorite alpine touring skis above have a turn radius of 18 to 22 meters.
While experimental construction with carbon fiber and other lightweight materials are prevalent among current backcountry skis, wood cores remain the standard due to their unmatched feel and predictable rebound. There has been a shift, however, to lightweight woods like balsa, paulownia, poplar, and ash from heavier and tougher woods like aspen and maple. To combat stiffness and durability problems from this change, the rest of the ski is often beefed up with carbon, Titanal, or a similarly light but strong material. At the high end of the market, you will find all-carbon cores (or a carbon compound) such as the innovative Alchemist construction from DPS Skis. The Wailer 112 Alchemist does an admirable job emulating the feel of a wood core with fantastic stiffness for the weight.
Due to such variety in how skis perform, there is no longer a standard way to choose a ski length. In a pinch, however, here is a general rule of thumb to get you started: Your ski should be within 5-10 centimeters of your height. Less experienced and less aggressive skiers will be happiest with a slightly shorter ski. This decrease in length will make the ski stable at low speed, more manageable, and nimbler. Strong skiers with tendencies to go hard and fast will want a little more length for high-speed stability and to avoid overpowering their gear. As mentioned above, a shorter ski in the backcountry will have less ascending weight but decreased ability descending in the hands of expert-level skiers.
Skins are what allow backcountry skiers to climb in mountainous terrain. These devices attach to the ski by way of tip and tail clips and skin glue, which adheres temporarily to the base. The side that is in contact with the snow is similar to animal fur, hence the term “skins.” When attached, the ski slides uphill but not downhill, allowing the skier with a touring binding to walk up an incline.
With the exception of plastic skins made by Fischer, most skins are constructed with mohair, nylon, or a mohair-nylon hybrid. Generally, nylon skins provide greater uphill grip but less forward glide than mohair. If you’re new to backcountry skiing, a nylon skin is a great option to start with, while more experienced backcountry skiers would be better off with a hybrid or mohair skin. These options provide greater glide and efficiency over long distances. Many mountain professionals choose skins based on personal preference or brand loyalty, but you can’t really go wrong with a Black Diamond or G3 skin, as long as it has the right material type for you.
Skins are sold in length ranges, so as long as your ski length is within the listed range you should be fine. If your ski happens to be at the limit of the range, make sure it’s the top end—it’s better to be too short than too long. Once you have chosen the correct length, you will need to trim the skins to fit the sidecut of the ski, leaving the metal edge exposed. Your skins should come with a cutting tool specifically for this purpose. Some ski companies offer pre-cut skins to match their skis, meaning that the skin fits the shape of your ski perfectly right out of the box. While this is convenient, be sure to investigate what kind of skin the company is providing before purchasing. You don’t want to compromise too much on quality just for the sake of convenience.
Boots arguably are the most important piece of ski equipment. Similarly to skis, touring boots can be categorized by their strengths and weaknesses. Boots with better downhill ability tend to be heavier and have a less-sufficient walk mode for the climb up. Lighter boots with a greater range of motion in walk mode will provide less control and comfort on the descent.
Right off the bat, it’s best to establish whether you want a lightweight-oriented boot, a downhill-oriented boot, or something in the middle. For the greatest level of control, make sure your boots are powerful enough for your ski of choice. A flimsy boot paired with a stiff, burly ski wastes its performance potential. A really nice backcountry-specific boot that provides solid power transmission is the Scarpa Maestrale, the unspoken standard of the alpine touring community. They also are warm and should be very comfortable provided they are fitted correctly. And we cannot stress this enough: the most important aspect of your boots is fit. An extremely well equipped boot that’s not fitted correctly for your foot is going to perform worse than a lesser boot that fits extremely well.
With a few exceptions, there are two basic categories of backcountry skiing bindings: frame bindings and tech bindings (also known as pin bindings). Essentially, a frame binding is a traditional alpine binding mounted on a rail that releases at the heel for skinning. Frame bindings are heavier, less efficient for climbing, and can be cumbersome. However they offer arguably better downhill performance and are a good option for people who mainly ski the resort but get out of bounds on occasion. Atomic, Marker, and Tyrolia offer some great frame bindings if this type of skiing suits you.
Tech bindings are far superior in terms of backcountry efficiency due to their lighter weight, and have improved significantly in the past few years. Options like the G3 Ion are increasingly user-friendly and reliable while saving 2 or more pounds for the pair compared to a frame binding. We cannot recommend tech bindings for heavy inbounds skiing, however, as the metal-on-metal contact wears down on firmer resort conditions, resulting in a short lifespan. But for regular backcountry use, tech bindings are a worthwhile investment, providing efficient skinning and fairly reliable downhill performance in variable conditions.
For the no-compromise big mountain skier, check out CAST Touring. This solution essentially is a modified Look Pivot alpine binding with a toe piece that can be interchanged with a tech toe. While transitions with this system are a little more difficult and they’re certainly not cheap, the downhill performance and reliability are fantastic.
If you remember anything from this article, make it this sentence: your bindings must be compatible with your boots. Many skiers, including ourselves, have learned this the hard way. It’s imperative that before you drill holes in your brand new skis, check compatibility with the manufacturers. And here are some basic guidelines to get you started:
- Tech bindings such as those manufactured by Dynafit require your boot to have tech fittings or metal hardware in the toe and heel.
- Some boots are made with a “Walk-To-Ride” sole (WTR), which requires a WTR-compatible frame binding.
- Frame bindings require boots with a DIN or WTR sole.
- A few boot models are made with DIN soles and tech fittings, or WTR soles with tech fittings, making them compatible with both frame and tech bindings.
Whatever you choose, ensure your boots work with your bindings before purchasing—and especially before mounting.
For resort skiers looking to explore out of bounds and get some exercise, welcome to the family. Backcountry skiing may seem intimidating and expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. Don’t let anyone tell you any differently.
First off, get educated. We strongly recommend rewarding yourself with some backcountry skiing equipment only after signing up for an avalanche education course. Check out AIARE, read Snow Sense, and sign up for a class. Money is better spent on education than equipment. Not only will a course provide potentially life-saving and highly useful information, but also a chance to get familiar with your gear in a safe and low-pressure environment. Now that you’ve done that, we can discuss the fun part: gear!
Starting with boots: if you absolutely love your current downhill boots, the cheapest option is to continue to use them in the backcountry. If they have a walk mode, that’s an added bonus. If new boots are within your budget, see a boot fitter who sells backcountry boots to ensure you’re in the right boot for your foot shape and size. Look for something that has well balanced uphill and downhill abilities, such as the Scarpa Maestrale.
Working our way down to bindings: if you know that you want to backcountry ski and are sure you’ll love it, consider a tech binding. If you’re unsure about how much you will enjoy backcountry skiing, start with a frame binding. They’re heavier but easy to learn to use, can be skied inbounds regularly, and are usually cheaper than tech bindings. A great option among frame bindings is the Tyrolia Adrenalin.
Finally, we have skis and skins. For the budget-conscious, a good first step is simply mounting frame bindings on your current resort skis, so long as they are not groomer-oriented. An all-mountain ski with a waist width of at least 90 millimeters should work just fine. If you have the money for another pair of skis, choose something that can ski the resort well too in case you don’t get out there as much as you’re thinking. In addition, a hybrid-style ski will be more comfortable for those used to resort models. Consider Salomon’s QST line if this type of ski suits you. Once you choose a ski, find skins that fit said ski so you can cruise uphill. I’d recommend nylon skins for those with little to no backcountry experience as they have greater uphill grip than other options.
A Note of Appreciation for Cottage Ski Brands
The beauty of the backcountry ski industry as it currently stands is that small ski companies still have a legitimate shot at building a loyal fan base. The sport is somewhat young—particularly within the mainstream—and a good number of skiers are willing to pay premium dollars for premium products. As such, there is a cottage industry of sorts within the backcountry ski world of smaller companies building skis that excel in their local environment (plus, many of the ski brands listed above are somewhat young). A few examples include Prior Manufacturing out of Whistler, BC, Wagner Custom Skis from Telluride, Colorado, and Praxis Skis on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe. Many of these brands offer varying degrees of customization for anything from the topsheet design to the construction of the core. For the discerning backcountry skier, that can be a pretty enticing option.
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