How To Choose AT Skis

In the wide world of touring skis, there are a plethora of options available for you to choose from: From full custom creations and one-off models by small manufacturers to the endless rows of colorful planks lining the walls of your local ski shop.

What options are out there?

The plethora of skis located in our store along the wall

Frankly, it’s a bit overwhelming. And what really makes them any different? This one is a millimeter wider underfoot and that one has a slightly shorter rocker profile, but otherwise, they look identical. All these details make the decision of which ski is right for you even harder; before you even begin to factor in the opinions and pressures of your ski partners, industry trends, and the salesperson pitching you your next setup.

After you’ve finished reading this, you’ll still need to make the game-time decision of which touring ski fits your needs. But hopefully, we’ll be able to throw a little light on the subject and help guide you to the right spot on the spectrum. We’ll be traveling from the pixy sticks of “Skimo Racing,” through the broad range of “Backcountry” boards, to the more “Resort” oriented planks at the other end.

Because of the infinite differences in ski design and construction, we won’t be digging too deeply into the technical aspects of each ski, but instead touching on the critical factors that make one ski better suited to part of the spectrum of skis than another. Broadly, those factors are lumped into two categories: Construction/Weight and Shape/Profile.

Now let’s drop in….

The Spectrum:

spectrum of skis ranging from skimo to resort from left to right

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 category. Having long turning radii and flat profiles, they track well when skinning and hold a surprising edge at speed. By utilizing carbon fiber for increased dampening and edge hold while shaving grams with micro-sidewall construction and shorter sizes (typically between 150cm and 171cm) they typically weigh under 1000g each and are the lightest construction/weight category.

Dynafit DNA on the left and Voile on the right

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 back 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 possibly metal stringers.

Backcountry Touring

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.

Ultravector on left and DPS tour 1 on right

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 downsides 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 these weight weenies can get pushed around in the chop and mank once all the freshies have been taken. This shouldn’t be too much of an issue, though, since you’ll be out where your tracks are always first, and the snow is always soft.

Black diamond Helio, Black crows camox freebird, G3 roamer 100

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 ski 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 perfect 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. They 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, you won’t be banging out huge days of vert, 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 more time riding the chairs, but enjoy getting out after the goods on a powder day too.

Blizzard, Shiva, Ranger mens and womens from left to right

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 still let loose and keep it playful when you wanna do more than lay trenches. Not always forgiving skis, these can sometimes get the better of you if you get a little sloppy or too far in the backseat. They’re perfect for those retired racers and lifelong skiers who are looking to keep it seriously casual.

Salomon QST on left and Liberty Origin on Right

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 come on in and 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.

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