Backcountry skiing is enjoying a huge boost in popularity, 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 ski 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.
What’s a Day in the Backcountry Look Like to You?
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 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.
Skinny or Fat?
Chopsticks or waterskis? 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 70-90mm 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 nearly as well in fresh snow.
Wider skis—90-115mm 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. Obviously, with the added material comes additional weight, making the skin up more challenging, but this is a sacrifice many skiers are willing to make.
Rocker vs. Camber
The profile of a ski is just as important as the ski’s width. When we say “profile,” we’re talking about 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 under foot 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 is one thing that doesn’t change too much between touring skis and traditional alpine skis. Since skis with rocker/early-rise 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 skiing them a little bit longer. 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, especially when making kick turns.
Probably the biggest difference between touring skis and traditional alpine skis is the actual construction of the skis themselves. Touring skis utilize lightweight materials like carbon fiber, beech, poplar and bamboo to cut down on weight. This is done, obviously, to help you save your energy for the descent. The drawback is, generally, that the less a ski weighs the less stable it is in variable conditions. A lot of the techniques used to dampen skis add a lot of weight, and have subsequently been removed from many touring skis. As a result, the lightest ski isn’t always the best. It all depends on what you want the ski to do. There are some unicorns out there; skis that are both lightweight and reliable on the descent. These skis often come in at a higher price point—but for a good reason.
Making Skins Stick
Last but not least, you’ll want to make sure that whatever skins you get to go with your new skis actually attach to your new skis! Skins attach to the tip and tail of your ski. Many skis have plastic or metal caps on the tips and tails to allow for skins to be repeatedly applied while protecting the ski. Some companies like Dynafit and La Sportiva have started using their own proprietary attachment methods. In these instances, the skis have notches cut in the tips and tails and will work best with a brand-specific pair of climbing skins.