Sorting out the nuances and finding authoritative information is exhausting. We've done the exhaustive research, analyzing over 30 skis, before purchasing the best 7. We deliver the web's best comparative, objective review of backcountry specific skis. We assembled a test team including some of the most prolific skiers and backcountry ski guides in the country. We've got decades of experience on the team, and many seasons now of generating relevant recommendations for you. Our testing is almost exclusively human powered, where true backcountry performance attributes are drawn out. Resort skiing and backcountry skiing are different enough that testing should reflect that. Be careful of other reviews that involve just a few runs on each product, all in-bounds. We've got months on each product, mainly in real, human-powered backcountry terrain.
The Best Backcountry Skis
In order to bring you the most relevant and useful information about backcountry skis, we have to plan well ahead. We overlap our testing and review launches such that we are almost always testing new skis and retiring others. Early season 2018, in US mountain weather, has been a weird one. Some call it the slowest start to a Mountain West winter in 60 years. Nonetheless, our testing team in Wyoming's Tetons has been out and at it. Our lead tester alone has conducted 26 days of on-snow, human-powered ski testing since Thanksgiving. The weird early season conditions mean that we've skied a greater variety of conditions (powder, breakable, thin cover, even some ice… unheard of this time of year in this region) than is normal. Our two added skis, as compared from one week to the next with existing award winners, have been exposed to the full gamut of BC snow conditions, all in just a couple months. This round of testing and updating has resulted in the shift of one award, and the full exchange of another. Fischer's updated Hannibal 96 ski, widened and beefed up, is our new Best Buy winner, displacing the cousin (and now discontinued) Fischer Hannibal 94. From Volkl, we chose their light-weight VTA 98 all around touring ski. The VTA displaces the Volkl BMT 94 from the Editors Choice slot. The VTA is a little lighter, for a given length, with a greater surface area and the same tough snow performance we loved in the BMT. The one compromise the VTA makes is that it doesn't ski firm snow quite as well as the vicious edge-holding BMT. We are currently sorting through the market and choosing skis for a total review reboot in autumn of 2018. Our test team has multi-hemispherical ski plans that will test an excellent roster in a variety of conditions. Stay tuned, and read on.
Best Overall Backcountry Skis
Volkl VTA 98
A Volkl ski replaces a Volkl ski for our Editors Choice award. With the revamping of their BMT line, Volkl eliminated the 94mm version. This left a vacuum that the "just right" VTA 98 readily fills. It is wider than the BMT 94, but lighter, for a given length. The VTA skis everything better than any of the lighter skis we tested. It skis powder and breakable better even than the BMT 94. It's one Achilles, at least in the long size we tested, is firm snow performance. We tested the longest VTA available and enjoyed it for stable, high-speed riding. For techier, steeper, and firmer skiing, we can extrapolate that a size down would better compete with the rest of the field. The VTA nails a weight "sweet spot", at about 1450g per ski, that seems to be the point at which skis perform best without dramatically increasing the uphill demands. In even further good news, the VTA is quite a bit less expensive than the BMT ski was.
Read review: Volkl VTA 98
Best Bang for the Buck
The Fischer Hannibal family is one of our lead test editor's favorite backcountry skis ever, and it earned this praise from our all-mountain resort ski lead tester Mike Phillips as well: "Overall they feel snappy and responsive…especially for something [this width]." We've watched the Hannibal evolve over a few years now. It was once a bold, lightweight touring specific product that turned heads for both lightweight and respectable ski performance. The latest iteration, in the tested 96mm width, has added some grams but packed on the ski performance. Just like the Editors Choice, the roughly 1450g per ski weight seems to hit a sweet spot. The performance of the Hannibal reinforces our assertion that this is the ideal weight for all-around backcountry skiing. The Hannibal 96, especially at this price, doesn't need any more downhill performance. Surely, more material and mass would lend greater downhill performance. However, we don't want any more weight for the uphill. Fischer has struck a balance, and you'll dig that balance.
Read review: Fischer Hannibal
Top Pick for Powder Touring
DPS Tour1 Wailer 99
In 2016, DPS launched their "Tour1" construction, which significantly lightened the narrower versions of the venerable Wailer shape. It is mere grams from the lightest ski in our review and is among the widest skis we tested. In perfect powder and the occasional crusty turn, the Wailer is fun and predictable. If your ski life is blessed with miles of deep powder touring, and little else, consider the Tour1 Wailer.
Read full review: DPS Tour1 Wailer 99
Analysis & Test Results
A comprehensive review of backcountry skis wouldn't be complete without some discussion about price, or more specifically, the cost of performance. A good way to visualize this is by plotting retail price versus a performance metric, which is just what we've done here. In this case the performance metric is overall score, which takes many different attributes into account, so temper this by keeping in mind which are most important to you.
A little unusually, we have some high priced options here that didn't score as well as others, such as the la Sportiva Vapor Nano, which is super light but lacks stability out of the powder. More often, the highest price tags come with scores to match. Our Editor's choice award winner - the Volkl VTA 98 comes in at $699 and also happens to be tied for lowest priced ski we tested with our Best Buy - the Fischer Hannibal.
Backcountry skis are getting better and better, but shopping for them is getting harder and harder. As the rising tide of skiers and ski technology lifts all manufacturers' ships, products get closer and closer in performance. We narrowed an 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 96 and 109 mm underfoot. Just like with our All-Mountain Alpine Ski Review, we targeted general purpose equipment rather than specialty products. We tested 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.
In first narrowing the field, and then testing what we chose, we learned a great deal about what constitutes a great backcountry ski. We also learned that there is 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.
We keep tabs on a market that includes about 100 relevant products. We quickly narrowed it down to products that will withstand our long-term review and fit our educated description of what constitutes a backcountry ski. For 2018 we compare nine of the best. We are already starting the comprehensive 18/19 ski review. We have next year's tester skis trickling in and getting mounted as we launch this update.
To give you the best recommendations for your purposes, we evaluate skis for uphill and downhill performance. By far the biggest determinant of uphill performance is weight. Weight is both simple and complex. First, we weigh the skis. Next, we have to factor in width, as climbing skin weight is directly correlated with ski surface area. Some performance attributes are associated with width and weight. For the uphill, weight needs to be low. For the downhill, there is a sweet spot. In downhill performance, we divide our observations and scoring into consideration of poor snow performance, firm snow performance, stability at speed and in steep terrain, and powder snow performance.
Weight is the single biggest criteria in our assessment. It is no coincidence that it is also the only criterion 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 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 nine 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 measured 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 was 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 Top Pick winner, the DPS Wailer 99 Tour1 is also super lightweight. The difference in weight between the Vapor and the Wailer was basically within the margin of manufacturing differences.
In this ultralightweight class, the Top Pick winning DPS Tour1 Wailer 99 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 lightweight, we gave the DPS one of our Top Pick awards. These 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 VTA 98, the Dynastar Mythic, Scott Super Guide 95, Best Buy Fischer Hannibal 98, 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.
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 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.
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 96, 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, and DPS Tour1 can push right through almost as well as the more massive ones. No matter what technology is included in a ski, mass has a relationship to stability. The lighter skis won't be as stable as the heavier ones, all else equal. A carefully constructed light ski, of course, will out ski a sloppy heavier one.
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, and performs reliably on firm snow and inspires great confidence when it is steep and hard. The Editors Choice Volkl VTA 98, especially in the tested 184cm length, suffered in steep and icy skiing. Were able to survive, of course, and the performance was dramatically better than that of the DPS Wailer 99 Tour1, but the Volkl didn't quite meet our early expectations. We extrapolate, with good reason, that a shorter tested Volkl VTA would perform far better in firm conditions.
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 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 96 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.
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 a mention here of the no-longer-included Voile V6. This fully cambered, stiff, relatively narrow ski excels in powder. It was a lively ride that positively pops up and out of the fluffy between each silky turn. The enjoyable performance kicked 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. The Volkl VTA 98 also hints at this same point. It is a cambered ski of moderate width but absolutely charges powder skiing.
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 Tour1 Wailer 99 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, weight, and shape of the Nano and Tour1 are unforgiving 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 slightly 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 Tour1 Wailer 99 skis.
Crud/Poor Snow Performance
This is our favorite review category. And that is not because we like skiing crud and poor snow. 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.
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 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.
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, 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.
Overall, we found a significant range in poor snow performance. We separated our scoring into breakable crust, and slop or mashed potatoes. 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. Wide, heavy, and rockered should perform amazingly in bad snow. However, the narrow, light, and more traditionally profiled Fischer Hannibal also does well enough. Even the narrower K2 Wayback 96 does alright in breakable. The narrow profile gets bogged down though in sloppy snow.
While ski resort riders may spend a huge percentage of their time on the same home mountain, backcountry aficionados 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. The 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 degrees 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 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 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.
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, Chile, and four Canadian provinces (well, the Yukon is a territory, not a province…) over 19 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 featherweight, the original 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