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 2020, 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. To complete your set-up, see our article on the best backcountry ski boots.
Weight: 6 lbs. 6 oz.
Widths: 99, 106mm
What we like: An ideal touring set-up: light on the uphill and fun on the descent.
What we don’t: Expensive and not great in icy conditions.
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 T106 C2 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 T106’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 Tour’s balsa core and carbon laminate make it a capable partner in most snow conditions. The only real qualm we have with the Wailer T106 C2 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... Read in-depth review
See the DPS Wailer T106 C2
A Close Second (For $300 Less)
Weight: 6 lbs. 3 oz.
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 HyperCharger 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 HyperCharger turns, pops, and carves at a high level. With mild rocker at the tip and camber underfoot the 106-millimeter waist, the HyperCharger is a true all-rounder. And at $795, it’s a fantastic deal among comparable backcountry skis.
What’s keeping the HyperCharger 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 powder as DPS models. The flat tails can sometimes catch in deeper snow—something that’s not as much of an issue with the rockered tails on the T106 above—and it’s a little less predictable in crud, too. But we have to come back to value: for under $800, you get a strong and thoroughly enjoyable backcountry ski with few downsides. It’s worth noting that Voilé also offers the SuperCharger, which has the same dimensions as the HyperCharger but uses less carbon and an aspen core for more weight (7 lbs. 3 oz.) and less cost ($695).
See the Voilé HyperCharger
Best Ultralight Backcountry Ski
Weight: 5 lbs. 3 oz.
Widths: 85, 95, 105mm
What we like: Light and surprisingly strong.
What we don’t: Narrow for season-long use.
Blizzard’s updated 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 reasonably stable through variable snow and its minimal camber outperforms expectations off-piste (this does make it a little more challenging to hold an edge, however). All told, 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-wide ski like the Moment Wildcat Tour below, the 85-millimeter width has its time and place. In the case of the Blizzard, it’s certainly not adept at deep snow (stepping up to the 95 or 105 would help in this regard). If weight wins out, however, and you want something sprightly that can get you through tight spots, the Zero G 85 is well worth a look.
See the Blizzard Zero G 85
Best Backcountry Ski for Powder
Weight: 7 lbs. 15 oz.
What we like: They’re a blast in powder.
What we don’t: Not as fun in other conditions.
Moment’s Wildcat 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 Wildcat 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. Moreover, the lighter Wildcat Tour adds a flickable nature to the fun and playful feel of the Bibby Pro.
With such a strong emphasis on powder, the Wildcat 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 Wildcat Tour
Best Hybrid Backcountry/Resort Ski
Weight: 6 lbs. 12 oz.
Widths: 88, 98, 108mm
What we like: A playful do-everything option.
What we don’t: A bit heavy for dedicated backcountry use.
The skis above have been built from the ground up for touring performance, but Armada’s updated Tracer line offers a satisfying mix of all-mountain and backcountry design. Their 108-millimeter ski is popular among soft-snow enthusiasts, but we prefer the slightly narrower and nimbler Tracer (and women’s Trace) 98 to keep weight down and elevate its hybrid nature. The ski has camber underfoot and Titanal reinforcements around the binding for impressive power and stability for resort days, but the lightweight construction and softer front end make it dance nicely in powder.
Trying to be everything to everyone does mean the Tracer 98 comes with a few compromises. For touring, it’s a little on the heavy side for its width, and it’s not a go-to ski for long missions. In addition, the lightweight design can be skittish in icy conditions and there’s 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 Tracer 98 is a fantastic choice.
See the Armada Tracer 98 See the Women's Armada Trace 98
Best of the Rest
Weight: 7 lbs. 0 oz.
Widths: 90, 109mm
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 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 T106 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 BMT 109
Weight: 7 lbs. 8 oz.
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 T106 C2 above. The Wailer may outperform it in powder and weigh less, but the Navis is a little sturdier on firm snow and saves you about $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 and REI are stocking a good selection this season.
See the Black Crows Navis Freebird
Weight: 6 lbs. 3 oz.
Widths: 85, 95mm
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 the mountain scene is an upgrade from the old all-white design.
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 5 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: 8 lbs. 0 oz.
Widths: 100, 112mm
What we like: Strong but reasonably light; amazing in powder.
What we don’t: Heavy and 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 Tour above and Alchemist that set them apart. The Alchemist is DPS’s current range-topping construction type, taking the old Pure3 and tweaking the carbon compound for better top-end performance and stability. Importantly, the ski retains the lauded 112-millimeter-wide Wailer shape and snappy 15-meter radius 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 A112 RP is a class above in terms of refinement and all-around abilities.
If the T106 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 ski. Further, 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 138 below for seriously deep snow.
See the DPS Wailer A112 RP See the Women's DPS Yvette A112 RP
Weight: 6 lbs. 15 oz.
Widths: 101, 111mm
What we like: Skis powder, bumps, and steeps well.
What we don’t: Doesn’t grip as well as other skis in icy conditions.
Icelantic has been on a nice run of late, and we particularly like their Natural 101 (and women’s Mystic 97) for season-long backcountry use. Its versatility is what makes it special: the Natural floats extremely well for its width, is pretty easy to manage in tight and steep spaces, and soaks up bumps very nicely. It even crosses over reasonably well to the resort, although we give the narrower Armada Tracer 98 above the edge in that respect. But with a three-year warranty and a competitive price of $749, the Natural 101 adds up to a very impressive touring design.
The ski is built to handle everything from mid-season blower pow to spring corn, but it does struggle some in icy conditions. Alternatives like the Voilé HyperCharger above offer more grip while undercutting the Natural in weight. At around 7 pounds for the pair, it’s not excessively heavy, but there are plenty of lighter competitors on the market. The upside to the Icelantic’s solid build—and arguably the brand’s strongest attribute along with its warranty—is that the Natural should hold up well to extended use.
See the Icelantic Natural 101
Weight: 6 lbs. 11 oz.
Widths: 88, 95, 105mm
What we like: Very durable build at an attractive price.
What we don’t: On the heavy side for a touring ski and a bit rough on choppy snow.
Taking the place of the Route in Black Diamond’s lineup, the new Helio Recon offers a more affordable alternative to the brand’s popular Helio series. The big point of differentiation is the core, with the Recon swapping the Helio’s carbon fiber for wood and fiberglass. The downside to the change is about a half pound of extra weight, but the Recon 95 still is plenty light for long tours at under 7 pounds for the pair. Plus, the wood core gives it a damp feel and a versatile ride that’s quite comfortable when mixing in the occasional day at the resort. Competitively priced at $650—a cool $200 less than the Helio 95—there’s a lot to like about the Recon.
In addition to being a little heavy for a 95-millimeter backcountry design, the BD Recon does have a relatively soft flex, which favors less aggressive skiers. Hard chargers and those wanting maximum downhill performance likely will want to stick with the Helio or an option like the Volkl BMT above. In addition, it’s a bit rough in choppy snow and can get pushed around more than we’d like. But overall, the Recon is a solid all-rounder that has a lot of appeal for those just getting into the sport.
See the Black Diamond Helio Recon 95
Weight: 7 lbs. 11 oz.
What we like: Impressive weight savings compared to the old Chugach.
What we don’t: Still heavy for long tours.
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 replacement 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 Beast 108 deserves a look.
Cutting weight will inevitably change the personality of a ski, and for those that liked the bulletproof Chugach, the Beast 108 may fall short. But it’s important to note that the 108 still is a substantial ski—for perspective, it weighs 1 pound 5 ounces more than the DPS Wailer T106 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: 4 lbs. 12 oz.
Widths: 84, 94mm
What we like: Superlight and nimble feel.
What we don’t: Not as stable as the Blizzard Zero G above.
Like Blizzard’s Zero G 85 above, the Elan Ibex 84 Carbon XLT is an ultralight design built for long tours and spring-time snow conditions. The Ibex’s calling card is weight: at 4 pounds 12 ounces for the pair, it’s the lightest backcountry ski on our list this season. But we appreciate that it isn’t a dedicated skimo design—the planks have a fairly natural feel and reasonably soft flex that is easy to control in tight spots. Clearly the 84-millimeter width isn’t made for soft snow (even the wider Ibex 94 doesn’t provide great float), but the Ibex is a good partner for ultralight trips and ski mountaineering.
Where does the Elan Ibex Carbon fall short? Aggressive pilots looking for a narrow ski likely will prefer the Blizzard Zero G line, which offers better performance on the downhill. In particular, the Zero G’s stiffer build is more stable at speed and through variable snow. But the Elan has the clear edge in terms of weight, saving you a significant 8 ounces for the pair. If shaving ounces is your main goal, the Ibex in a short length is hard to beat, but we prefer the more versatile Zero G in the end.
See the Elan Ibex 84 Carbon XLT
Weight: 5 lbs. 7 oz.
What we like: An ultralight powder ski.
What we don’t: Expensive and compromises stability.
La Sportiva’s Vapor Nano is unapologetic about its serious backcountry intentions. With a minimalist carbon fiber core and construction, the ski is impressively light at 5 pounds 7 ounces. For reference, that’s only 4 ounces more than the far narrower Blizzard Zero G above and 15 ounces less than our top-rated DPS Wailer T106. Further, the Vapor provides standout flotation with plenty of tip and tail rocker and only a small amount of camber underfoot. The result is a ski that excels on the skin track and rewards your work with a surfy, fun ride on the way down.
Priced at $1,299, the Vapor Nano is among the most expensive skis on the market, rivaling the high-end DPS options above. But that big investment doesn’t get you a one-quiver design: the ski is competitive with the Wailer Tour1 in powder but isn’t as confidence-inspiring in firm or chunky snow. Further, the ski’s large turn radius (24m) makes it a potential hassle for maneuvering in tight trees or down narrow couloirs (the upside is a lot of fun riding down open bowls). These complaints push the Vapor Nano down our list, but for those who can afford it, we still love its combination of weight and powder performance.
See the La Sportiva Vapor Nano
Weight: 5 lbs. 10 oz.
Widths: 80, 84, 88, 96, 106mm
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 they’ve kept things simple this season with a single line of Wayback and women's Talkback skis. Ranging from 80 to 106 millimeters, the medium-width 88 brings out its best qualities. The ski is easy to maneuver, handles chopped-up snow well, 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 unisex models.
We really like what K2 has done with their new, resort-focused Mindbender Ti line, but we feel the Wayback falls a bit short for the touring crowd. Most importantly, it lacks the fun-to-drive factor of our top picks. And at $650, 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 due to the soft and forgiving construction. 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. 6 oz.
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 last 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. It’s worth noting that Rossignol is discontinuing the 7 line after the 2020 season and will replace it with their growing Black Ops collection. Time will tell if the equivalent Black Ops model can live up to the Soul 7’s sparkling reputation.
See the Rossignol Soul 7 HD See the Women's Rossignol Soul 7 HD
Weight: 9 lbs. 1 oz.
Widths: 95, 107, 117mm
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 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 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 138 below is worth the splurge for Alaska-level terrain.
See the Atomic Backland 117
Weight: 7 lbs. 1 oz.
Widths: 93, 99, 105, 117mm
What we like: Lightweight all-mountain build that’s ready to tour.
What we don’t: Not for untracked powder.
Head’s Kore all-mountain ski took the market by storm a couple years ago 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 modest 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 too stiff and a little narrow for real powder, and it isn’t as fun to drive as a result. In addition, 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. Stepping up to the Kore 99 would help in some ways, but the ski’s very sturdy build limits its appeal to expert or pro riders.
See the Head Kore 93
Weight: 8 lbs. 13 oz.
What we like: Powder dreaming.
What we don’t: Way too wide for most skiers and conditions.
We debated adding the Lotus 138 to this group with the fantastic Wailer line already represented above, but this model is too good to leave off. To be clear, the Powderworks is an inherently limited ski, and we certainly hope that it isn’t a top consideration unless your uphill work often comes with some assistance from a helicopter. But for the kind of powder that makes it worth hauling 138-millimeter-wide sticks (think big lines in places like Alaska and British Columbia), the Lotus won’t let you down once gravity takes over.
What the Powderworks Lotus 138 Tour stands for is the ultimate expression of DPS’s soft-snow heritage. Simply put, the ski is a dreamboat slicing deep powder. And equipped with an innovative carbon and foam construction, it will remain composed at highlight-worthy speeds. With a comically long turn radius of 32 meters (the tip is only 8 millimeters wider than the waist), the ski is not meant for navigating anything tight, but the full rocker profile, surprisingly reasonable sub-9-pound weight, and damp set-up make it fairly easy to control despite the large dimensions. For the select few powder hounds that need a ski of this caliber, we can’t think of a better option than the Lotus 138.
See the DPS Powderworks Lotus 138 Tour
|DPS Skis Wailer T106 C2||$1,099||138-106-126mm||6 lbs. 6 oz.||99, 106mm||18m|
|Voilé HyperCharger||$795||140-106-124mm||6 lbs. 3 oz.||106mm||19.5m|
|Blizzard Zero G 85||$600||117-85-101mm||5 lbs. 3 oz.||85, 95, 105mm||21.5m|
|Moment Wildcat Tour||$779||141-116-131mm||7 lbs. 15 oz.||116mm||25m|
|Armada Tracer 98||$700||132-98-123mm||6 lbs. 12 oz.||98, 108, 118mm||18m|
|Volkl BMT 109||$1,199||134-109-119mm||7 lbs. 0 oz.||90, 109mm||22.4m|
|Black Crows Navis Freebird||$830||133-102-118mm||7 lbs. 8 oz.||102mm||19m|
|Salomon MTN Explore 95||$700||130-95-116mm||6 lbs. 3 oz.||85, 95mm||18m|
|DPS Skis Wailer A112 RP||$1,299||140-112-127mm||8 lbs. 0 oz.||100, 112mm||15m|
|Icelantic Natural 101||$749||132-101-117mm||6 lbs. 15 oz.||101, 111mm||21m|
|Black Diamond Helio Recon 95||$650||125-95-113mm||6 lbs. 11 oz.||88, 95, 105mm||19m|
|Dynafit Beast 108||$800||135-108-125mm||7 lbs. 11 oz.||108mm||22m|
|Elan Ibex 84 Carbon XLT||$750||118-84-103mm||4 lbs. 12 oz.||84, 94mm||18m|
|La Sportiva Vapor Nano||$1,299||130-105-120mm||5 lbs. 7 oz.||105mm||24m|
|K2 Wayback 88||$650||126-88-113mm||5 lbs. 10 oz.||80, 84, 88, 96, 106mm||17m|
|Rossignol Soul 7 HD||$750||136-106-126mm||8 lbs. 6 oz.||106mm||18m|
|Atomic Backland 117||$700||141-117-130mm||9 lbs. 1 oz.||95, 107, 117mm||19m|
|Head Kore 93||$650||133-93-115mm||7 lbs. 1 oz.||93, 99, 105, 117mm||16.4m|
|DPS Powderworks Lotus 138 Tour||$1,400||146-138-143mm||8 lbs. 13 oz.||138mm||32m|
- What Are Backcountry Skis?
- Uphill vs. Downhill Performance
- Ski Waist Width
- Ski Profile: Rocker and Camber
- Ski Shape: Sidecut and Turn Radius
- Core Materials
- Skins and Skin Compatibility
- Choosing Backcountry Ski Boots
- Choosing Ski Bindings
- 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 Armada Tracer 98, 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 and touring binding—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 Dynafit Beast or Moment Wildcat Tour. Or will you be doing long traverses or mountaineering? Then put weight above all else with the Blizzard Zero G 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 Icelantic's Natural.
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 Elan's Ibex Carbon XLT skis, which include waist widths of 84 and 94 millimeters. For the budget conscious, the K2 Wayback and Blizzard Zero G 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 and live in an area with decent snow, 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, one nice hybrid option to consider is the 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 more weight and just more ski to manage. However, “fat” alpine touring skis like the Moment Wildcat Tour and the Atomic Backland 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 138.
One thing on the mind of most backcountry skiers is the weight of their set-up. 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 117 (9 lbs. 1 oz.). All-rounder backcountry skis like the Armada Tracer (6 lbs. 12 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. Further, 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 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 the bottom of a boat 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 Salomon MTN Explore, have a mild rocker/camber/flat 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 how large or small of a turn a ski will naturally make. 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 (one exception is the balanced Wailer A112 that has a 15m radius). 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 A112 RP 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. And a final note on sizing: you can get away with a little longer ski that has more tip rocker, since there is less of the ski's surface area actually hitting the snow.
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 skin keeps you from sliding back on the uphill while "gliding" on flat or quick downhill sections.
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.
In terms of sizing, skins are typically sold either by width (Black Diamond) or length and width (G3 and Pomoca). For selecting the correct width, you’ll want to know the widest point on your skis, which is typically at the shovel. Then choose a skin width that is a few millimeters narrower (for example, choose a 110-millimeter skin if your ski is 113 millimeters wide). And if you choose a G3 or Pomoca skin, you’ll also need to select the length range that matches your skis. Once you have the sizing dialed in, the final step is to trim the skins to fit the sidecut of the ski, leaving the metal edge exposed (and in the case of the BD skins, trim the length as well). This whole process can be fairly intimidating for first-time backcountry skiers, and if you’re looking for more information on purchasing skins, we’ve found Evo’s “how to” guide to be a helpful resource.
To keep things simple, some ski companies like Black Crows 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. Black Crows Pellis skins and designs from La Sportiva and Dynafit are solid performers, but if the quality is in doubt, it might be worth purchasing a trim-to-fit model from Black Diamond or G3.
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 RS, 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 (Salomon's S/Lab Shift binding is one exception). Further, the release values are often not as accurate as true alpine bindings, which creates a big risk when skiing at higher speeds and on hardpack snow. But for regular backcountry use, tech bindings are a worthwhile investment, providing efficient skinning and fairly reliable downhill performance in variable conditions. For a deeper dive into this topic, see our article on tech bindings vs. frame bindings.
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.
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 Marker Baron.
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 Armada's Tracer 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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