How To Choose Backcountry Skis

How To Choose the Best Backcountry Skis

If you made it to this page, we probably don’t need to convince you of backcountry skiing’s rewards—no lift lines or tickets or crowds, and plenty of solitude and raw winter wilderness. Plus the satisfaction of earning your turns. 

Whether you’re making the switch from resort skiing or just starting fresh, you’ll need to get equipped for the backcountry. That means avalanche safety gear (and know-how), of course, and the right skis, boots, and bindings. 

Backcountry skis, commonly known as alpine touring (AT) skis, let you free your heels for skinning, and lock them down for skiing. If you’re already comfortable downhill skiing at resorts, this is the way to go (the alternative is telemark skis, which require learning a new technique). But AT skis are not all the same. Here's how to choose the best ones for you. 

In this guide, you'll learn about:

  • Questions to Ask Yourself
  • Types of AT Skis
  • Design
  • Materials

Questions to Ask Yourself

Before you shop for AT skis, ask yourself a few questions to narrow down the choices and find the right pair for you. 

What is my skiing ability? 

Remember, there’s no ski patrol in the backcountry. Be honest with yourself about your ability level and goals when selecting a pair of AT skis. Are you an advanced skier who likes speed and steeps, and can handle skis to match? Do you prefer intermediate terrain and making a lot of turns? Like downhill skis, your ability level and skiing style will determine the shape of the ideal AT ski for you.

What snow conditions am I hoping to ski? 

Backcountry snow conditions can be variable, to say the least. Are you only going into the backcountry on powder days? (Fine, but you won’t ski very much!) Do you hope to ski all winter over a range of conditions and elevations? Or are you a spring skier looking for corn?

Where and how do I plan to use AT gear? 

AT skis are made to climb and descend, but where and how you use them will affect the style of your ideal ski. Are you hoping to ski the resort and the backcountry with one pair? Do you like steep slopes or low-angle glades? Do you want to go for long tours deep into the wilderness or short quick sidecountry trips? The weight of the ski will make a big difference when uphilling.

Photo: Emily Polar/TandemStock; (top) Stephen Matera/TandemStock

Types of AT Skis

Backcountry skiing provides an endless variety of terrain and snow conditions, and alpine touring skis are designed for specific purposes. As a result, there are more features and styles to choose from within each of these categories, but first, choose the primary type that’s best for you.  

Touring skis: These skis are lightweight and designed specifically for uphilling, traversing, and long travel days. Touring skis are narrower, have a thinner core, and use lighter materials to minimize weight and maximize travel efficiency. These skis perform fine in moderate downhill conditions, but will be more challenging to control in deep or variable snow and technical terrain.    

All-terrain skis: Most backcountry skiers want one ski to do it all. An all-terrain AT ski is the best compromise between a lightweight touring ski and an aggressive downhill ski. These skis climb well but are wide enough to ski powder in high-country couloirs and cut through crud in low-angle glades. 

Powder skis: If you’re chasing fresh powder above all, you'll want a ski to match. Powder skis are wider underfoot, longer tip to tail, and have more rocker. Powder skis are the heaviest AT design, and you'll feel it on the climb, but the reward comes in the downhill. 

Design and Features 

The design of an AT ski is just like a resort ski. The main difference is finding the right balance between uphill and downhill performance. Here’s what you want to consider. 

Weight: The lighter the better when climbing. But go too light, and the skis won't handle as well on the downhill. At the light end, look for models at around 3 pounds per ski.

Length: Backcountry skiers typically downsize the length of their AT skis compared to their resort skis. Since the backcountry isn’t modified or groomed, you'll encounter more tight trees and technical terrain. 

Materials and Construction

Core and structural materials: The core of a ski is like its personality—it's the center that everything else revolves around. The materials used determine its strength and flexibility. Most skis are made of hardwood and integrated with other materials for the ski's intended performance.

  • Wood is durable and provides natural “spring”, making it a great core material. Brands use different types of wood with different properties.
  • Fiberglass is strong, relatively lightweight, and inexpensive.
  • Titanium is good for dampening variable terrain. It's also more expensive than fiberglass or a solid wood core.
  • Carbon fiber is the most expensive core material but also the lightest and highest performing. 

Base: There are two types of base design, and both use polyethylene plastic, commonly known as P-tex.

  • Sintered base: Material is ground, heated, and cut into the base shape. This style base is considered premium because it’s more durable and faster.
  • Extruded base: Material is melted into a mold and then cut and shaped. This style base is less expensive than a sintered base; however, it's also considered less durable and slower. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

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