How to Choose Backcountry Skis
Backcountry skiing is hugely popular, and for good reason.
Earning your turns opens up a plethora of new terrain, while freedom from the lift promises solitude and the untracked turns that come with it. The transition from the resort to the backcountry is a big change in any skier’s career, and with it comes an array of new gear. The biggest piece of the puzzle: how do you choose backcountry skis?
Technically, any ski can be used as an alpine touring ski. However, many ski brands have turned their attention towards crafting better touring-specific models dedicated to improving your experience in the backcountry. These skis tend to be lighter-weight and feature more progressive shapes, allowing them to outperform some of the downhill-dedicated competition in a backcountry setting (read: skis made entirely of metal with huge turning radii).
Let’s dive into some top-level things to consider when researching backcountry skis:
WHAT ARE YOUR BACKCOUNTRY SKIING GOALS?
Everyone’s backcountry experience is different, and as a result, the “ideal ski” varies from person to person. Two things that need to be considered before choosing a ski are location and application: where are you skiing and how do you ski?
Are most of your days going to be spent choking down champagne pow in the Wasatch or do you turn to touring only after the lifts have stopped spinning for the season and the snow has warmed up? Is your main objective to log long days, covering as much terrain as possible, or are you looking to huck every cliff in sight? The answers to these questions will guide you as you make decisions about the length, width, shape, and weight of your new backcountry ski.
If you’re looking to cover long distances, conquer ski mountaineering objectives, compete in randonée races, or spend time on glaciers in the summer, you’ll want a narrow ski, roughly 80-95mm at the waist. Because these skis are narrower, they will be lighter and more nimble while ascending, allowing you to travel further, faster. The downside of these skinny skis is that they will not float as well in fresh snow.
Wider skis—95-115mm at the waist—will do much better in powder or variable snow. With greater width comes stability and superior flotation when the slopes get steep and the snow gets deep. With the added material of wider skis comes additional weight, making the skin up more challenging, but this is a sacrifice many skiers are willing to make for a better experience on the way down.
ROCKER VS. CAMBER
The profile of a ski is just as important as the ski’s width. Profile = the amount of rocker and camber the ski has. Most modern touring skis utilize one of two profiles; either a full traditional camber or a hybrid camber/rocker. It is uncommon to see a touring-specific ski with a fully rockered profile.
Full camber touring skis tend to be narrower underfoot to help the ski maximize its contact with the snow. Having more surface area in contact with the snow improves grip on the climb and helps the ski hold an edge in firm conditions, making these skis ideal for skimo missions, rando races, and snow-based transportation.
Skis sporting a camber/rocker hybrid profile have camber underfoot and rocker (or early-rise) in the tip. Some of these skis may have flat tails and others may have rockered tails. These skis tend to be wider and more focused on the descent. The rocker will increase the ski’s ability to float on top of the snow and make them more nimble in the crud.
Ski length doesn’t change too much between touring skis and traditional alpine skis. Since skis with rocker/camber have a shorter effective edge (the amount of ski that is actually in contact with the snow) than fully-cambered skis, you can get away with longer skis (this will help with stability at speed). If you’re planning on doing a lot of uphill racing and don’t care as much about the ski’s downhill performance, getting a shorter ski will help you save on weight and increase maneuverability.
Ski length is also a personal preference based on how and what you like to ski. If you live in Vermont and love skiing tight trees, then a shorter ski with more maneuverability might be what you want. If you’re tackling steep wide-open slopes in Utah, a longer ski for that stability at speed might suit you best. Find what you like and go with it!
One of the biggest differences between backcountry touring skis and traditional alpine skis is the construction of the skis themselves. Touring skis utilize lightweight materials like carbon fiber, beech, poplar, and bamboo to cut down on weight and help you save energy for the descent. The drawback is, generally, that the less a ski weighs the less stable it is in variable conditions (read: it will have a harder time cutting through heavy snow or ice chunks).
Keep in mind the lightest ski isn’t always the best if you’re looking to have a ski that does well in a variety of conditions. It all depends on what you want the ski to do (i.e. are you willing to sacrifice some of the fun on the descent to save weight for the uphill). If having fun skiing through the crud is important to you, then going with a heavier ski could be preferable. If your focus is going uphill as fast as possible and you don’t care so much about the ski down, then buying the lightest ski you can find is great. Again, it all comes down to personal preference and what you want your touring adventures to be.
TYPES OF BACKCOUNTRY SKIS
The variety of types of backcountry skis to choose from can be a bit overwhelming. To help bring some organization, we'll break up the ski types into three categories: Skimo/Fitness, Backcountry, and All Mountain/Resort.
Now let’s drop in…
SKIMO / FITNESS TOURING
With the growing popularity of uphill skiing for fitness and the expanding opportunities for competitive backcountry ski racing (Skimo), the availability and prevalence of these skinny sticks at your local shop are not surprising.
Built for speed and efficiency in the skin track, these skis fall into the narrowest shape/profile and lightest construction/weight category of backcountry skis. category. Having long-turning radii and flat profiles, they track well when skinning and hold a surprising edge at speed. These skis usually weigh under 1000g thanks to:
Utilizing carbon fiber for increased dampening and edge hold
Shorter sizes (typically between 150cm and 171cm).
However, not all skis in this category are uphill-only skis. Quite a few brands have jumped fully into the fitness-touring realm, offering lightweight, slimmed-down versions of their popular backcountry skis for folks looking to make it easy on the up and still have a good time on the way down. These will handle similarly in the skin track and pick up some of the more enjoyable downhill traits of their heavier counterparts, including heavier wood cores, multiple radii sidecuts, and the occasional metal stringer.
To label a ski as “backcountry” is a somewhat vague statement, since any ski could be considered one if you take it into the “backcountry”. But rather than dilly-dally with semantics here, we’ll use this as a broad category.
Skis designed for backcountry use are going to take design and construction cues from both ends of the spectrum: Incorporating lightweight materials and constructions from their skinny cohorts built for the skin track, and blending them with the fun, playful shapes and profiles of their downhill cousins.
This blending leaves to the skier the choice of how exactly it’s all mixed together, resulting in a lot of “one-ski-quiver” taglines. Ask yourself how you ski, and what kinds of terrain you ski in, and this will help you narrow down the multitude of mixtures. East Coast backcountry skiers tend to prefer tighter turning radii and narrower shapes compared to their big-skied West Coast counterparts—simply because of the terrain.Skis like the Ultravector from Voile and the Wailer 106 Tour1 from DPS utilize the cap construction and carbon fiber layers from the skimo world and incorporate them into big mountain powder hounds. Built to be light and nimble for all-day, multi-lap outings, they make long approaches and steep boot packs a breeze by keeping the per-ski weight under 1500 grams. Playful profiles and multi-radius shapes allow for smearing, slarving, and carving your way through your private powder playground after you’ve passed everyone else on the skin track.
The only downside to this niche in the spectrum is a sacrifice in variable conditions. Cap constructions don’t offer quite the same torsional stiffness that a true sandwich and sidewall-built ski will have, meaning the cap-construction skis can’t get pushed around as well in the crud.
Jumping up a bit in weight and with increased downhill performance, skis like the Black Crow Camox Freebird, Black Diamond Helio, and G3 Roamr incorporate a full or semi- sidewall construction with metal reinforcement plates around light wood cores to up the torsional stiffness and downhill performance while still keeping ski weights under 2000 grams each. Their traditional profiles and shapes are meant for big mountains and technical ski descents from Alaska to the Alps. This category of skis provides confidence when riding a spine, making jump turns down a cut-up couloir, or hunting for powder stashes at your local haunt.
Still playful and fun in the soft snow, these will be equally at home spinning some lift laps when you’re working on your early season legs before the woods fill in and you leave the lifts behind. While not purpose-built powder hounds or hardpack chargers, these skis fit that middle ground of not-too-heavy, not-too-light, quiver-of-one pretty solidly.
ALL MOUNTAIN / RESORT
To call the skis in this category, “Resort” is also a bit of a misnomer. They are not true “resort” skis (which would only be system skis or downhill/gs race skis) but merely have the greatest amount of critical factors carried over from their downhill racing ancestors. We’ll instead refer to them as “all-mountain” skis henceforth since they seem more suited to that nomenclature.
These will be much heavier than a “backcountry” inspired ski; typically falling above the 2000g line due to full sidewall construction, metal layers in their sandwich construction, and denser wood cores. Shapes and profiles will vary across manufacturers, but most will love to be up on edge at high speeds, cutting through chop and chunder, popping off of features, and wreaking general havoc on any terrain they encounter.
So banging out huge days of uphill vert will be more challenging with these heavier skis, but you will have a much more enjoyable time when the snow gets variable and the trails get steep. Perfectly at home anywhere, you can’t go wrong with a ski in this category if you spend a lot of time riding the lifts and don’t mind exploring the backcountry with a little extra weight on your feet.
Diving into skis that fit into this category, the Blizzard Rustler/Sheeva series and the Fischer Ranger line both have deep roots in the downhill race world, and they carry that over to these all-mountain skis with full sidewalls, metal sheets, and dense core woods. Flatter profiles and less exaggerated shapes provide ample stability at speed and in variable conditions, but let loose and keep it playful when you want to do more than carve up the groomers. Not always forgiving skis, these can sometimes get the better of you if you get a little sloppy or too far in the backseat since they’re on the heavier side.
Skis like the Liberty Origin or Salomon QST ditch the metal sheets for a denser, more playful core wood and composites; keeping the stability and dampness, but shedding some of the weight and bringing them back into a more moderate realm of control at speed. Confident and composed in the crud, but more lively and playful underfoot, a great option for folks that want to ski the park, rip groomers, or hit that powder stash. While still an aggressive and capable ski, without that layer of metal you won’t be arcing out GS turns at Mach speed quite as confidently.
As with any piece of technical equipment, each ski is tailored to a specific type of user in certain conditions, so do your research and decide what it is you need in a ski before asking around for advice. Our staff spans the spectrum of skiers and riders at all ability levels: park rats, skimo racers, cliff droppers, former racers, knuckle draggers, and free-heelers. So ask us those questions, and we’ll be able to help you narrow down your list to the ones that will fit your needs. With a huge selection of skis covering the whole spectrum too, we’ll be able to find the golden ticket to your skiing dreams.
Thanks for reading, now go outside and enjoy some fresh turns with Mother Nature.