The Best Backcountry Skis of 2017
What are the best backcountry touring skis? To find out we put the most highly regarded products through an extensive multi-year test. We have selected 10 of them to present here. Over hundreds of thousands of vertical feet we evaluated for touring efficiency and downhill enjoyment. We tested each product on different types of snow and with different riders. We considered safety, efficiency, and fun while assessing each product for weight, stability, and performance in different types of snow. In the end, we had clear winners and a handful of products that are excellent, but just a little edged out by the competition.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
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Analysis & Test Results
Backcountry skiing is a fun and growing sport. Choosing equipment to enhance your experience is a daunting proposition. The right equipment is a joy to use and quickly becomes an extension of your body. Chosen poorly, backcountry specific skis are difficult, strenuous, and downright dangerous to the user. Our full review covers all you need to know to select the right skis for your pursuit. To learn more about the factors you should consider when buying a backcountry setup, reference our Buying Advice Article.
We narrowed a rapidly expanding field of skis by selecting those intended for use in moderate to steep backcountry terrain, designed to be general purpose mountain tools, and of moderate width, relatively speaking. Shapes and designs vary, but all of our tested skis are lightweight, forgiving of a variety of snow conditions, and sized between 88 and 109 mm underfoot. Just like with our All-Mountain Alpine Ski Review, we targeted general purpose equipment for this review rather than specialty products.
It is imperative that we clarify some terminology and usage. The equipment we reviewed is built for climbing up steep mountains and skiing back down them. We tested by doing exactly that. We climbed hundreds of thousands of vertical feet, usually on climbing skins with dedicated touring bindings and boots, and skied right back down. In this setting, whether in our testing or your ultimate application, both excellent and poor snow is encountered. Fatigue accumulates. We tested all the skis with modern, tech-style alpine touring bindings, boots, and technique. This style of skiing and equipment allows the user to climb with heels free, and descend with them locked. All of these skis can also be used with telemark equipment and technique, but this style is less popular. We did not test skis with telemark bindings.
The equipment we tested is not suited to flat or rolling terrain, though it is often pressed into duty there for approaches and exits. If you tour flat valley bottoms, lighter weight equipment is better. Mainly because of weight and durability compromises, we do not recommend most of the skis we tested here for extensive resort skiing. If you occasionally visit resorts for practice, backcountry access, or socializing, these skis can briefly suffice. However, if you ride long, hard days of lift-served skiing, you need proper alpine ski gear. Fortunately, most people have their resort gear first, and a backcountry setup as their second (or third, or fourth) set of skis.
Even within what we in the US call "backcountry skiing," there are stylistic and preferential differences. It could be said that backcountry skiing encompasses all that happens outside of resort boundaries. Whether the skier reaches that terrain on skins, via technical climbing, on a ski lift, or inside a snowcat or helicopter, the snow conditions are similarly untamed. We tested skis for what the rest of the world calls "ski touring" with occasional forays into, and references to, "ski mountaineering." Ski touring is the subset of backcountry skiing where one climbs the entirety of non-technical slopes under his or her own power, and skis back down.
Criteria for Evaluation
In first narrowing the field, and then testing what we chose, we have learned a great deal about what constitutes a great backcountry ski. We also learned that there are an amazing number of great products on the market. Backcountry skiing is strenuous, at times dangerous, and takes place in a fully uncontrolled environment. As our primary interaction with the snow, our skis can have a significant influence on our experience. Every ski we reviewed is excellent, some are better in certain ways and under certain circumstances, while a select few truly stand out from the rest. Read on for our evaluation criteria and to learn how products compare. Read each individual product review for far greater detail on that product.
Weight is the single biggest criteria in our assessment. It is no coincidence that it is also the only criteria that correlates to uphill performance. You will spend a great deal of your day and career going uphill. In evaluating weight, we did more than simply cite weight. First, we did actually weigh the skis without bindings on them. Because of manufacturing differences and marketing pressures, claimed weights are sometimes different than actual. Even two different skis of the same make, model, size, and pair can have different weights. Of the eight pairs we tested there was up to four percent difference in weight from left to right ski. Our initial weight numbers are included in the chart above. Even after we scoured the market for the best lightweight backcountry specific skis, we still ended up with significant variability in ski weights. The heaviest product in our test is 173 percent the weight of the lightest.
Weight scores were distributed based primarily on weight, but also consideration was given to color and width. The wider the ski is, the wider (and thus heavier) the skins need to be and the more snow can accumulate on its top sheet while skinning. Dark colored skis heat up more than lighter skis in even partial sun. This warmed top sheet melts a little bit of snow into water, to which can accrete and freeze even more snow. Interestingly, the lightest were also the whitest. The ultralight construction of the La Sportiva Vapor Nano is augmented by its medium width and almost fully white top sheet. Our Best Buy winner, the Fischer Hannibal 94 is also mostly light colored and super lightweight to begin with. The difference in weight between the Vapor and the Fischer was basically within the margin of manufacturing differences.
Also in this weight class are two of our two Top Pick winners. The DPS Wailer 99 Tour is a super-light, wide-bodied powder touring monster. The DPS can be pressed into service for all around application, but it does best on many thousands of feet of deep, cold powder snow. For this specialty bent at such a light weight, we gave the DPS one of our Top Pick awards. The final ski in the ultralight subclass of our review is the Dynafit Cho Oyu. This is roughly similar in mass to the DPS, La Sportiva, and Fischer, but it has a narrow profile that excels on steep and firm terrain. All of these mentioned skis are relatively fragile, truly backcountry specific tools with a pair weight of something under six and a half pounds. A great deal of in-bounds use or hard riding would risk breaking or wearing them out.
In the middle of the pack, weight-wise, is our Editors' Choice winning Volkl V-Werks BMT 94, the Dynastar Mythic, Scott Super Guide 95 and K2 Wayback 96. These represent, currently, your standard touring ski. Light enough to lug around, wide enough to power through poor snow, and versatile enough to take anywhere. It is at this weight class that solid, reliable performance meets reasonable weight. If and when this degree of downhill performance trickles down to even lower weights, we'll be even more stoked.
Finally, the heaviest skis in our test are the K2 Coomback and the Dynafit Chugach. These are each solid performers, but live in a weight class that preempts acclaim in the backcountry world. Basically, these two heavier ski models are good to excellent downhill skis that are branded to tour.
For your information, we calculated the weight-to-surface area ratio of each ski. The master chart lists this calculation in grams per square cm of ski base surface area. This ratio helps to compare construction methods and materials because it normalizes for actual ski size. Long and wide skis will be heavier than short and narrow. Especially if you wish to compare skis of radically different dimensions, this number can help sort out the numbers. Consult our How We Test article to learn our repeatable methodology. Elsewhere on the web you will see surface-area-to-weight numbers generated. Each reviewer in those cases uses slightly different methods, and most keep their calculations a secret.
Stability at Speed
A ski's stability determines the user's comfort at speed, and the rider's security when landing steep jump turns. These seemingly different activities actually reward the same attributes. Damp (basically, damp skis deflect from their path less readily than less damp ones), stiff, and heavy skis are the most stable. In our testing, the same skis that we wanted to go fast on were the same ones we could jump around on in steep, chunky snow. Not surprisingly, the heavier skis like the K2 Coomback are more stable than the lighter ones. The Dynafit Chugach is essentially an outlier, weight wise. it is also in a class of its own when it comes to speed stability. We gave a Top Pick Award to the Chugach because of its admirable stability at top speeds.
Tempering the stability for the lighter skis is the inclusion of carbon fiber. Carbon fiber stiffens the ride without dramatically increasing the weight. Heavy-ish skis with carbon fiber in them, like the Volkl, Dynastar, Wayback, and Super Guide, replicate the stability of the heaviest skis at a lower mass. In times past, lightweight skis would noodle around terrain and snow conditions. Modern, expensive, lightweight skis built with carbon fiber like the Vapor Nano, Hannibal 94, and DPS Tour1 can push right through almost as well as the more massive ones. The second lightest skis in our review, also the narrowest, are, not surprisingly, the least stable at speed. However, the stiff construction of the Dynafit Cho Oyu pushes fairly well through disturbance.
Firm Snow Performance
Firm snow in the backcountry is formed by melt freeze metamorphosis, and we call it corn, or it is formed by wind transport, and we call it wind board. The firmest expression of both of these can be called ice. Corn snow, in its softer phase, is one type of hero snow. Turning in perfect corn snow is almost effortless. Like in perfect powder, differentiating between skis on corn snow is difficult; all are fun. In the firmer manifestations of snow, ski performance varies drastically. Stiffer is better. Narrower feels more predictable and less strenuous. Weight helps. Our favorite firm snow skis were narrow. The Fischer is narrow and stiff, but ultralight. The Dynafit Cho Oyu is even more so. In the end, both perform pretty reliably on firm snow and inspire great confidence when it is steep and hard.
The wide and light skis like the DPS Tour1 and La Sportiva Nano exert great leverage without the mass and stiffness to back it up. These are best kept to slow speeds when the firm is encountered. All the skis in the middle of the weight and width spectrum, like the Editors' Choice Volkl, Scott, and the Dynastar Mythic, do pretty well once the user is tuned into their quirks. The moderate width, but super damp constructed K2 Wayback is perhaps the least reliable of the mid-weights on firm snow. We found it to chatter and slip like one of the lightweight powder chasers. The wide, but heavy-ish K2 Coomback does surprisingly well on firm snow, as tested on a serious run above a gaping berschrund in Alaska in the spring of 2016.
All the skis we tested are a ton of fun in powder snow. This is a reflection of the nature of powder skiing and the fact that modern skis are so well designed. Wide or narrow, stiff or floppy, rockered or not, good skis combine with good powder snow to make for a transcendent experience. We must give mention here of the Voile V6. This fully cambered, stiff, relatively narrow ski excels in powder. It is a lively ride that positively pops up and out of the fluffy between each silky turn. The enjoyable performance kicks cold pow in the face of convention. Common knowledge would hold that the camber, narrow waist, and stiff construction would be a liability in the soft. Not so, in our experience. This single data point hints at the issues with generalizing dimensions and construction type.
While every ski did well in the powder, we have to give special mention to the dedicated powder tourers. The La Sportiva Vapor Nano and DPS Wailer 99 Tour1 are both ultralight tools with above average girth and dimensions tuned for soft snow. They both perform very well on good snow, and do so with absolute minimum weight. For your overall touring day, ultralight construction is a great advantage. One is most likely to encounter poor snow conditions when hunting for powder between storms.
The width and shape of the Nano and Tour1 are forgiving of tricky snow conditions that one encounters when trying to find the last bits of powder. For all these reasons, we recommend either of these skis for people motivated to find, or fortunate enough to stumble into, powder snow for much of their skiing. Between the two, the DPS is a little more polished in its rider experience, with more forgiving poor snow performance. For that we gave it our Top Pick Award for powder touring. In multiple human powered trips to the high and cold reaches of Colorado's Rockies and Wyoming's Tetons, we had a great time scoping soft and fluffy on the Wailer 99 Tour1 skis.
Crud/Poor Snow Performance
This is our favorite review category. It is here that a product can truly make itself known. As mentioned above, in great snow, whether powder or corn, all modern skis are fun and perform well. At speed and in the steeps, stable and firm-snow tuned products start to stand out. However, it is when the snow inevitably gets breakable or sloppy that separates the wheat from the chaff. This applies to skis as well as skiers. We can't change your skiing over the internet, but we can help you get products that smooth the rough.
Overall, we found a significant range in poor snow performance. We separated our scoring into breakable crust, and slop or mashed potatoes. Generally, those that did well in one did at least okay in the other, and vice versa. Both of these general snow types reward similar attributes. The rider wants equipment that comes up reliably out of the snow and turns gently and readily. Tips, tails, and edges must engage and disengage with the snow smoothly with little grabbing or hesitation. We can make some construction generalizations, but must do so cautiously. The wide, heavy, and rockered Dynafit Chugach performs amazingly in bad snow. However, the narrow, light, and more traditionally profiled Fischer Hannibal also does well enough. The K2 Coomback, with width and weight on its side, as well as a long early rise tip, seems to float on top of the funky stuff better than most. Surely the damp construction that K2 is known for helps. Even the narrower K2 Wayback does alright in breakable. The narrow profile gets bogged down in sloppy snow.
While ski resort riders may spend a huge percentage of their time on the same home mountain, backcountry afficionados are inherently explorers. Even in your home range, the goal is often to see new terrain under new conditions. Not to mention, of course, the appeal of traveling to backcountry ski. Even if, for argument's sake, you were to go to the same backcountry ski slope every time out, you would encounter different conditions each time. Versatility of your backcountry equipment is crucial. In evaluating versatility on variable snow conditions we looked at downhill performance in all kinds of snow. Most will want their one pair of backcountry specific skis to be able to shred powder on 25 degree Berthoud Pass laps just as well as ski off the summit of the Grand Teton. In any of these endeavors you are likely to encounter poor snow. Your equipment must be ready for this.
As mentioned, people are also accessing ungroomed snow with the help of ski lifts and internal combustion. On these "side-country" or cat/heli endeavors, proportions matter. If most or all of the uphill is accessed by mechanized means, equipment needs are more similar to those of a resort skier. If the skier is doing a great deal of the climbing herself, the skis we review here are suitable. On the other end of the spectrum is ski mountaineering. In this setting, most or all of the vertical is gained with human power, and the challenges and hazards are simply greater than in ski touring. You may be on glaciers, going for time, going absolutely huge, or using rock and alpine climbing techniques for your objective. As you read our review and make your own choices, understand that our testing and review is mainly ski touring focused, but we did some testing and will report on the suitability of the products for ski mountaineering and, to a lesser degree, skiing with mechanized access.
For ski touring and mountaineering, skis are differentiated by their weight, stability, firm snow performance, soft snow performance, and poor snow performance. Because backcountry skiers, on any given day, season, and lifetime, will inherently encounter variability and challenge, the ideal ski is a perfect balance of all these criteria. However, some criteria are competing. Heavier equipment is more stable, while lighter skis allow longer tours and faster travel.
Narrow profiles perform better on firm snow while fatter models are better in poor snow. All skis are amazing in perfect powder. Our test team and testing regimen simulated typical patterns and preferences. We all like going downhill fast, in perfect powder snow, in spectacular settings. Everyone involved must understand, however, that physics and meteorology combine to temper that enthusiasm. Gravity makes lugging big equipment hard, and sun, wind, and drought make for tough snow conditions.
Besides weight, there are a couple of other considerations in the backcountry. If you will carry the skis in technical or brushy terrain, you might want to err on the shorter side. In the backcountry you will ski a lot more untracked powder, sloppy "mash potatoes," and breakable crust than in-bounds. When it is firm in the backcountry, it is often also super steep.
What Differentiates a Backcountry Ski?
At its simplest, a backcountry ski is a lighter version of an alpine resort tool. What makes a ski enjoyable at a resort is at least similar to what informs your downhill experience in the backcountry. On top of that, we have to lug the equipment uphill when in the backcountry. If the manufacturer could simply remove mass without changing performance, backcountry ski design would be quite a bit simpler. However, lighter skis, all else equal, still perform differently. The mass is part of the performance.
That said, companies are doing a better and better job of tuning skis for performance while keeping the weight low. In the past, backcountry specific skis were lightweight, while good skis were heavy. In our current test roster, every ski performs well and 90 percent are lighter than every ski in our Men's All-Mountain Ski Review.
You Can Use Regular Alpine Skis
It is true. Besides weight, there is little to no reason you cannot use any model in the backcountry. If you absolutely love a certain model of alpine ski, it is possible to mount it for backcountry use. Check out our full review of all-mountain skis for options in this category. You will work harder, maybe much harder, carrying the extra mass uphill, but otherwise performance should be good.
In order to accommodate the differences inherent in ungroomed, untraveled snow, your ideas of ski dimensions should adapt. Shorter skis may be in order. Tight terrain, both up and down, rewards less length. Shorter skis are lighter. Width wise, consider some adjustment too. Wide skis are better when the snow is soft and/or poor. Now, in the backcountry, we generally ski a greater percentage of soft snow than we do in the resort.
That's a vote in favor of wider skis for the backcountry. Narrow skis are better on firm snow, all else equal. Narrow skis are lighter. Wide skis are heavier, and that weight increase compounds with the snow load on the top sheet and greater required skin width. Many of these dimension generalizations are contradictory and confusing. Our final take home is this: if you are between lengths, downsize. Unless you have a really good reason to do otherwise, choose a touring ski with an underfoot width between 90 and 105 mm.
Construction, Weight, and Durability
In order to get the weight down for the climb while optimizing downhill performance, these products make some compromises and add more expensive procedures and materials. Lighter skis are less durable than their heavier counterparts. The edges and bases are thinner, while the core materials are far more expensive. Carbon fiber is being ever more widely employed in ski design, especially in the lighter models.
A ski's turning performance is a function of materials, weight, length, width, stiffness, sidecut (the radius of the curve formed by the edge), rocker (presence and degree of rise to the tip and tail), and camber (arc shape through the length of the ski, whether positive and called simply "camber," or negative and called "reverse camber"). Much is made of these last three and how these attributes affect the turning of the skis.
As one can see, however, these three attributes are just a few of many design criteria that influence a product's performance. Because there are so many variables, we steer clear of manufacturing and shape descriptors and aim to discuss performance attributes. For instance, common knowledge holds that wider skis are better in powder, while some of the most memorable powder runs in our test were on the narrowest products.
For truly optimizing your performance, efficiency, and comfort, virtually all of your resort ski equipment and clothing could be swapped for more backcountry specific options. Additionally, some equipment required in the backcountry is never necessary in the resort. Besides skis, you must consider changing your bindings, boots, and adding climbing skins to your collection. Dedicated backcountry boots and bindings are lighter and more flexible than resort gear. You will also need avalanche safety equipment and training. Resort clothing works for short tours, but you will want dedicated touring gear for longer use.
Who We Are
While this review didn't have the same collaborative team of three primary testers that our all-mountain ski reviews did, we still relied on a lot of collaboration to determine the results in this review. Our lead test editor enlisted a roster of 14 skiers to help test, each of whom rode at least one set of skis. On this test team were four internationally certified guides, three non-certified mountain guides, three avalanche instructors, two ski patrollers, five women, and one national champion randonnee racer. Their opinions, along with those of our lead tester, comprise the unified perspective you find in this review.
Jediah Porter, Lead Tester
Jed Porter is a backcountry skier to the core. While he rides lifts (and occasionally a helicopter) his fair share, his ski passion is in the wild. It has always been this way. While he grew up occasionally skiing his local ski hill in upstate New York, he spent a great deal more of his young ski time on nordic gear slamming around in the woods. He still slams around, and has amassed an impressive resume of backcountry descents and accomplishments. He has ski toured in 13 U.S. states, Peru, and four Canadian provinces (well, the Yukon is a territory, not a province…) over 15 years of dedicated pursuit. He is an avalanche instructor and is a working backcountry guide certified by the American Mountain Guides Association as a Ski Mountaineering Guide. On the clock and off he has ticked thousands of human powered ski runs, including first recorded descents in Alaska, Peru, and California. He is an avid fan of lightweight, fast travel, and a student of ski technique.
Jed's deep backcountry resume and athletic approach to wilderness skiing tilt his preference to the lightest gear in the review. With all-around performance at an unprecedented feather weight, the Best Buy Fischer Hannibal is his favorite touring ski ever, but he also enjoyed charging with the big dogs on an all-mountain ski mounted with minimalist Dynafit Speed Turn bindings.
As powder season is upon us, we hope we've been able to help you choose a backcountry ski that fits your needs. If you're still unsure as to which model is best for you, consider reading over our buying advice article to sort out what's what.
— Jediah Porter
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