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Atomic Backland UL 78 Review

This is a specialized touring ski for high tempo and high volume ski missions
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Price:  $700 List
Pros:  Super light, excellent firm snow performance
Cons:  Slow downhill skiing, tough times in tough snow
Manufacturer:   Atomic
By Jediah Porter ⋅ Review Editor  ⋅  Oct 23, 2019
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54
OVERALL
SCORE


RANKED
#15 of 16
  • Weight - 25% 9
  • Stability at Speed - 15% 2
  • Firm Snow - 20% 7
  • Powder - 20% 4
  • Crud and Poor Snow - 20% 3

Our Verdict

The Atomic Backland UL 78 is an outlier product. It sits way outside the main pack - on the lightweight end. Just as far outside the other end of the pack are heavy skis that are likely high on your list, while this end of the bell curve goes unnoticed. We think that dedicated ski tourers should be considering skis in this general category; super light tools for high-volume, rowdy missions. The light weight of these skis enables you, with commensurate improved efficiency and fitness, to ski twice or three times as much terrain as you might have imagined. If skiing Mount Rainier is a big day, imagine doing it before lunch. If you skied the Grand Teton, these will support a mission to ski the Grand-Middle-South. Like the Haute Route? How about doing it all in one day? Our lead test editor took these skis on a recent tour in which he and (similarly equipped) partners racked up nearly 12000 vertical feet of human-powered skiing. Try that on your 8-pound hard-chargers.

Graphics Update

This ski was graced with some updated graphics since our testing period, but nothing in the construction of the ski itself has changed. See the new top sheets in the image above.

October 2019

Compare to Similar Products

Our Analysis and Test Results

These are definitely an outlier product in our overall review. As narrow, short, light ski mountaineering skis, these could be seen as one of the most specialized product we have assessed. We hope, though, that we can paint a positive picture that broadens the appeal of these skis and others like them. On the spectrum of backcountry skis, these are actually as useful and important as much heavier skis.

Performance Comparison


Long  low-angle  and encumbered ski slogs (like this mission in wild Wyoming) virtually require the lightweight design of the Atomic Backland UL 78.
Long, low-angle, and encumbered ski slogs (like this mission in wild Wyoming) virtually require the lightweight design of the Atomic Backland UL 78.

Weight


Weight is king. It is the primary determinant of uphill skiing performance. The majority of your backcountry skiing day is spent going uphill. We feel that we wouldn't be wrong to prioritize this scoring metric at greater than 50%. However, that would be aggressive and a bit controversial, so we weight our metrics the way we have; downhill attributes make up 75% of the score, with uphill attributes making up 25%. If we flipped that script (more in line with how you spend your time backcountry skiing), the Backland UL 78 would come out on top of the whole chart, easily. Light skis are easier to move up the mountain. If its easier to move them up the mountain, you have more energy and more time to go downhill. If you can go downhill more, isn't that a win? Of course, we realize the flaws in this logic, but we also know the advantages of truly super light backcountry skis.

The snow looks ugly here  but these last days of the season hold amazing corn skiing for those that tough it out. Corn skiing is hero skiing  enabling great turns on even little skis.
The snow looks ugly here, but these last days of the season hold amazing corn skiing for those that tough it out. Corn skiing is hero skiing, enabling great turns on even little skis.

Stability at Speed


You don't choose these skis to go downhill fast; these are for going uphill fast. These might enable an ascent rate of 1.5x your typical ski touring set up. However, that typical ski touring setup will go downhill at 2x the speed of these Atomic award winners. If downhill speed is important to you, these are not for you. The lightweight, short length, and narrow platform needs to stay on edge and under angulation. These are not particularly fast skis.

Perhaps the clumsiest ski picture we've published. With a big pack on and spongy legs deep in the wild  the slightest lapse in technique will throw you off balance on the Atomic little sticks.
Perhaps the clumsiest ski picture we've published. With a big pack on and spongy legs deep in the wild, the slightest lapse in technique will throw you off balance on the Atomic little sticks.

Firm Snow


As long as you keep the speeds reasonable, these are great ice skis. Hard snow rewards patience and narrow skis; you provide the patience and technique, and these little rockets will edge all you need. The steepest ski lines ever ridden, at least those done in firmer conditions, have been done on skis of these dimensions. We took advantage of a January 2019 high-pressure spell to ski 50 deg couloirs on the Atomic Backland 78. We noticed literally no disadvantage with these skis when the snow was hard.

We draw a distinct line between the performance of the UL 78 on hard snow. If it is slow and technical, these are right in the mix with the others. If it is faster carving, the big guns will do better. Hop turns on ice in steep terrain are exactly where the UL 78 excels.

For steep  firm  and technical skiing  you might actually prefer the lightweight set up of this Top Pick. Take some time to adjust to the Atomic Backland UL and give them a chance. You might be pleasantly surprised.
For steep, firm, and technical skiing, you might actually prefer the lightweight set up of this Top Pick. Take some time to adjust to the Atomic Backland UL and give them a chance. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Powder


Powder skiing isn't why you choose these skis. However, we are absolutely certain that you would be surprised at the performance of the Backland UL 78 (in truly perfect powder with technique that is sound… both of these things are rarer than you might first think). Of course, if it is deep and heavy enough or flat enough, bigger skis will float and cruise better than the Backland UL 78. Those conditions and that terrain, though, isn't the perfect powder slope we look for. On 25-40 degree, light, graduated powder slopes (the sweet spot, for sure) and with good, centered powder skiing technique, you might not be able to distinguish the short radius turns of a skier on these vs. on bigger skis.

Corn snow  as captured here on a springtime Teton Pass mission  is a joy on light and narrow skis. Bigger sticks will go faster  but control is equal at lower speeds.
Corn snow, as captured here on a springtime Teton Pass mission, is a joy on light and narrow skis. Bigger sticks will go faster, but control is equal at lower speeds.

Crud/Poor Snow


This is the real Achilles of these little wonders. Light and narrow is the exact opposite of what makes for high-end bad snow performance. Atomic adds rocker and side cut, but they're just going to get pushed around no matter what. It is your patience and technique that will get you down and through breakable crust and bottomless slop. You'll revert to snowplow and christie turns between long traverses, and you'll like it. Or else.

On slopping spring ski tours, exiting through the shaded forests of lower altitude Teton Pass, Wyoming, the Atomic Backland dives and bogs down where the longer and wider options float higher.

Lead tester Jediah Porter deep in the wilderness on the ultralight and uber efficient Atomic Backland UL 78.
Lead tester Jediah Porter deep in the wilderness on the ultralight and uber efficient Atomic Backland UL 78.

Value


These aren't super expensive, but they are specialized tools. Dedicated, high-tempo ski tourers will justify these as a quiver tool for those massive vertical days.

Pair light skis with light boots and bindings. Here  a full "Top Pick" set up of skis bindings  and boots  makes for a speedy  featherweight package that survives even the most rugged skiing.
Pair light skis with light boots and bindings. Here, a full "Top Pick" set up of skis bindings, and boots, makes for a speedy, featherweight package that survives even the most rugged skiing.

Conclusion


With good downhill technique, we know you will be pleasantly surprised at the performance of these skis, and guarantee that you will dig the uphill efficiency. Yes, these are specialized tools. They earn their spot here in our review, though. They perform well, fill a niche, and are something that likely should be more prominent on your radar. Super light alpine touring ski gear gets better all the time, and it has applications in many different types of backcountry skiing.

Jediah Porter