As a heads Up, this is not an extensive list of newest backcountry skiing gear, but rather a recommendation on the type of gear to get and an explanation of other versions out on the market. This is basically a jumping off point for gear recommendations. My philosophy in the backcountry is that you need to prepare for the uphill, where lightweight is the priority, and downhill, where performance and fun is the priority.
Backcountry specific skis, do they really exist? Yes. Are they different than resort downhill skis?Technically yes. In here I will try to break down the difference between those types of skis and what else you should look for when buying skis for backcountry skiing. Because at the end of the day, there is no such thing as the perfect, one-quiver, do-it-all ski for backcountry skiing. If there was, there wouldn’t be an entire industry based around this. The main goal when looking to buy skis is to find the perfect balance related to your skiing priorities. For example, if want to go fast uphill, then you’ll need the lightest ski possible. But the lightest skis will be narrow and perform horribly on the downhill. So as you can see, it’s a balancing act.
Flat out, every ounce counts, when it comes to backcountry skis, which is why manufacturers go for the highest strength to weight ratio materials. Even though wood is already very lightweight, like Ash, Maple, Poplar, and Aspen, they tend to use even lighter woods like Paulownia and Bamboo for backcountry skis. And they even trade off the common, durable fiberglass composite layers with Carbon Fiber to reinforce the wood core. Most high end backcountry skis on the market today will have some carbon fiber used in its construction, which has some of the highest strength to weight ratio on the market.
Ski Profile & Design
The backcountry skis tend to follow the current market trend, leaning towards powder ski design. Being realistic, most backcountry missions in the mountain west will be on top deep, powdery snow, requiring bigger ski widths and more float to stay onto of the snow. Unless you’re only prioritizing the uphill, then the ski design will be skinny/narrow and with a profile that hasn’t changed much since the 80s.
As I mentioned, is the main focus for backcountry skis. There are endless resources online where people primarily focus on the weight of their gear (we call them weight weenies). Weight is going to be directly proportional to the length and width of the ski, so it’s hard to make too many apples-to-apples comparisons. An ultra-light setup for long days in the mountains, like the Black Diamond Helio Carbon 88s can weigh as little as 5lbs 15oz for the pair. A traditional backcountry ski that would be more universal, would be the Black Crows Navis Freebird which weight 7lbs 8oz for the pair. A traditional, resort ski, for comparison like the Salomon QST 98 weighs 9lbs 2oz.
A common adage in the mountain community is, “A pound on the food, is like three pounds on the back.” So even though these are all relatively light weight, on a big day in the mountains you will want the lightest weight skis on your feet. Because remember, its not just the ski on you foot. You still will have the weight of the boots (~3.5lbs), bindings (~1.5lbs), and skins (~1lb) for a total weight of nearly 10lbs on each foot at the middle tier gear level. Want to go lighter? That’s gonna cost you some serious $$$.
Performance (Uphill vs Downhill)
If you’re not having a good time skiing in the backcountry, then it doesn’t matter which gear you have or how much (or little) money you spent to be there. Once you get into backcountry skiing, you’ll have to make a decision about priorities. Do you want to go uphill fast, or with ease, and ski for your life on the way down because you have a pair of wet noodles strapped to your boots? Or, do you want to lug up some massive logs, so that you can rip down the mountain like you’re a Red Bull Athlete? Or, do you want to be like most people and fall somewhere in the middle of those two extremes?
In short, performance will come out of a few main characteristics of the skis that were previously discussed. To make this simpler when looking at skis and trying to decide which ones are for you, always compare them to your resort-specific ski. If the ski you’re looking at is the same dimensions, but lighter, then you’re off to a great start. Skis that have under 90mm waists (also referred to as the width), are will not perform as good in deep snow, but will be better for those spring days. Skis that are shorter than your resort ski will lighter and will help you out skiing those technical spring lines deep in the backcountry. I personally ski on skis with 105mm widths and love the size and the performance they provide in both deep and firm snow. And because I live in Utah, I look for skis that have higher performance in powder. But I know these skis would do terrible on the hard/icy glaciers found on the Pacific Northwest volcanoes.
Last, but not least, the price. This is solely up to you, and how much you are able to spend on your setup. There is a ski out there for every budget; however, weight is unfortunately inversely proportional to price. The lightest skis cost the most because of all the reasons we touched on above. The standard, these days, for a great backcountry ski is $800. Higher end skis can cost as much as $1,300. It is rare to see a backcountry specific ski fall below $600 without weighing as much as a typical resort ski. My recommendation would be to go to a ski shop and buy a pair of used, high end, lightweight skis if you’re looking to get started into the sport.
Well there you have it, a not-so-comprehensive guide to understanding backcountry skis and where to get started when looking to buy a pair of skis. Just remember, you’re out there to have fun. Pro-Tip, if you talk with any backcountry skier, they will all tell you the same story about their first backcountry ski setup. They all just used a resort ski, with a heavy binding (or Alpine Trekkers), and a resort ski boot which easily could weigh 20lbs on each foot. It doesn’t matter where you start, as long as you stay safe, and have fun in the backcountry.
Additional Resources and Review Links
My name is Zachary Kenney and I’m an adventure filmmaker & photographer. My passion is to tell stories that will hopefully motivate you to go live a more adventurous life. Whether that is to experience the view from the summit of a mountain, or wandering through a new town on a road trip. Currently based out of Park City, UT.