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The Best Backcountry Skis of 2019

Lead test editor guiding a ski ascent and descent of Wyoming's Grand Teton on the Editors Choice Kastle TX 98.
By Jediah Porter ⋅ Review Editor
Wednesday October 23, 2019
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Finding the best backcountry ski is a high-stakes game. We analyzed over 45 models before purchasing the best 15 of 2019. We put each one through hundreds of hours of human-powered shredding and elaborate on their relative strengths and weaknesses. We understand the ins and outs and recognize the uselessness of jumping on board the latest marketing buzzwords. Our expert team tests in authentic backcountry environments and are sharp and passionate; they represent the entire spectrum of backcountry ski experience. Skis for the backcountry have to be optimized for wildly competing tasks. Uphill, you want low weight. Downhill, you want heavier skis for optimizing performance at speed, in powder snow, on ice, and in even tougher snow conditions. Where does your sweet spot lie?

Related: The Best Backcountry Alpine Touring Boots of 2019


Top 15 Product Ratings

Displaying 1 - 5 of 15
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Awards Editors' Choice Award   Best Buy Award  
Price $949 List$698.95 at Backcountry$699.95 at Backcountry
Compare at 2 sellers
$458.00 at Amazon
Compare at 2 sellers
$719.95 at Amazon
Compare at 3 sellers
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Pros Light, well-balanced downhill performanceAll around ski performance, hit what we consider to be the weight ‘sweet spot’Solid all around downhill performance, compatible with excellent Dynafit SpeedSkinsLight and versatileStable, damp, predictable
Cons Expensive, ski “short”Grabby firm snow performance, expensiveHeavier than averageLimited poor snow performancemid-weight, no real stand out performance
Bottom Line Excellent, all-around backcountry skis in nearly all conditions.Excellent backcountry skis for the majority of applications.Touring skis for he or she that prefers downhill performance to uphill efficiency.All around choice for beginner to advanced backcountry skiers on a budget.Good skis for good skiers in all kinds of conditions.
Rating Categories Kastle TX98 Volkl VTA 98 Dynafit Beast 98 Fischer Hannibal Black Crows Camox Freebird
Weight (25%)
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Stability At Speed (15%)
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Firm Snow (20%)
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Specs Kastle TX98 Volkl VTA 98 Dynafit Beast 98 Fischer Hannibal Black Crows Camox...
Weight Per Pair 6.2 lbs 6.4 lbs 6.8 lbs 6.2 lbs 6.7 lbs
Measured Length 177 cm 185 cm 183 cm 183 cm 182 cm
Manufacturer Length 178 cm 184 cm 184 cm 183 cm 183 cm
Available Lengths 168, 178, 188 cm 156, 163, 170, 177, 184 cm 170, 177, 184 cm 162, 169, 176, 183 cm 162, 172, 178, 183 cm
Claimed Dimensions 128/98/117 mm 133/98/116 mm 136/98/117 mm 126/96/114 mm 130/97/115 mm
Measured Dimensions 122/97/116 mm 132/98/111 mm 126/97/116 mm 127/97/113 mm 137/97/117 mm
Weight Per Ski grams 1394g, 1400g, average: 1397g 1454g, 1449g, average: 1452g 1541g, 1553g, average: 1547g 1421g, 1388g, average: 1405g 1510g, 1509g, average: 1510g
Weight Per Pair 2794g 2903g 3094g 2809g 3024g
Weight per Surface Area Ratio, g/cm^2 0.71 0.69 0.75 0.69 0.71
Construction Type Sandwich Cap Hybrid Sandwich Cap Hybrid Sandwich Sandwich Cap Hybrid Semi-cap
Core Material Karuba Wood Beech, poplar & paulownia Ash/poplar wood Paulownia wood with carbon stringers Paulownia, poplar
Waist Width 98 mm 98 mm 98 mm 97 mm 97 mm
Radius 22 meters 22.3 meters 21 meters 21 meters 18 meters
Rocker/Camber Low camber Tip rocker Double Ellipse Rocker Tip rocker Tip rocker, camber underfoot

Best Overall Backcountry Ski


Kastle TX98


Editors' Choice Award

$949 List
List Price
See It

86
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Weight - 25% 8
  • Stability at Speed - 15% 8
  • Firm Snow - 20% 9
  • Powder - 20% 9
  • Crud and Poor Snow - 20% 9
Weight: 6.2 pounds | Measured Dimensions: 122/97/116
Light
Good tough snow performance
Great firm and powder snow performance
Expensive

The Kastle TX 98 is remarkable both in its high level of performance and in its uniformity of performance, all at an impressive weight. These are truly ultralight backcountry skis that ride any and all conditions and terrain. You will have to adapt some from your resort gear, but the adaptations will come quick, and the uphill benefits are significant. In more than a full year of testing and over 100,000 vertical feet of human-powered skiing on two continents, we saw the full gamut of conditions and were able to closely compare the Kastle to all the other skis in our test. There are better skis in each subcategory, but there are none that are as well balanced in downhill performance. There are no skis at this weight that ski as well as the Kastle.

This excellent product is expensive. For the cost, you get the aforementioned performance, but that cost is steep. The biggest weakness of the Kastle is in higher speed situations. The softer construction and light weight dictate a slightly slower downhill pace than expert resort skiers are accustomed to. A longer size might stabilize things and provide better powder float (we tested the 178 size for our lead test editor at 5'10" and 170 pounds) but compromise in the steep and firm and be a little heavier. Overall, we cannot imagine a human-powered backcountry skier that wouldn't be stoked, overall, with the TX 98.

Read review: Kastle TX98

Best Bang for the Buck


Blizzard Zero G 95


Best Buy Award

$699.95
at Backcountry
See It

75
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Weight - 25% 8
  • Stability at Speed - 15% 7
  • Firm Snow - 20% 9
  • Powder - 20% 6
  • Crud and Poor Snow - 20% 7
Weight: 5.9 pounds | Measured Dimensions: 123/94/110
Light
Phenomenal firm snow grip
Satisfactory soft snow performance
Tough snow requires patience

We granted two different Best Buy awards. The state of the market is such that an Editors' Choice can truly be an all-around choice. On a budget, you need to lean one direction or another. If you are an all-around skier whose travel patterns lean toward firmer snow, the Blizzard Zero G 95 is the choice for you. It'll work in softer snow and breakable conditions, but it excels in the steep and firm. In our testing, we very much liked the Blizzard, all around, and appreciated it for steep stuff.

Something about the construction (maybe it is the super stiff longitudinal flex. In that cliched -and often useless- "hand flex test" the Blizzard is significantly more rigid than most) makes the Blizzard more of a handful in soft and tough conditions than the top performer. It does better than many but isn't at the top of the heap.

Read review: Blizzard Zero G 95

Best Buy on a Budget


Fischer Hannibal


Best Buy Award

$458.00
(35% off)
at Amazon
See It

76
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Weight - 25% 8
  • Stability at Speed - 15% 5
  • Firm Snow - 20% 9
  • Powder - 20% 8
  • Crud and Poor Snow - 20% 7
Lightweight
All-around soft snow performance
Slight disadvantage in durability
A little chattery in steep and firm

The Fischer Hannibal family is one of our lead test editor's favorite backcountry skis ever, and it earned this praise from an all-mountain resort ski lead tester as well: "Overall they feel snappy and responsive…especially for something of 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 light weight 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 Kastle TX 98, 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, especially at this price, isn't desperate for 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. The main shortcoming of the Fischer, downhill and as compared to the Kastle and other top skis, is in firm snow. The edge grip is uniform but a little chattery. The other Best Buy Blizzard Zero G 95 smooths out the steep and icy better than the Fischer, but battles a little more when it's softer.

Read review: Fischer Hannibal

Top Pick for Powder Touring


DPS Tour1 Wailer 112 RP2


Top Pick Award

$1,099.00
at Amazon
See It

67
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Weight - 25% 6
  • Stability at Speed - 15% 8
  • Firm Snow - 20% 4
  • Powder - 20% 9
  • Crud and Poor Snow - 20% 7
Weight: 7.3 lbs | Measured Dimensions: 141/113/127
Fun, trendy shape
Light, for the size
Amazingly floaty
Heavy
Poor performance in non powder snow

The big, yellow DPS Tour1 Wailer 112 is a now-venerable shape in a quite revolutionary construction. For years now, soft-snow seekers have loved the dramatic Wailer shape. Just a couple seasons back, DPS lightened that ski up with their "Tour1" construction. The result, in this Top Pick winner, is a giant powder ski (yeah, yeah, we know… there are bigger skis. For human power, though, these are giant…) that doesn't break the back on the way up. Size them longer than you think, pick the lightest, slickest skins you can, mount them with tiny bindings, ski them fast and open and send it into powder slashing nirvana.

Just avoid any sort of snow that isn't powder snow. The Wailer 112 doesn't like firm stuff or breakable. It'll survive, but not nearly as well as the more sophisticated, more well-rounded skis in our test. Further, the Tour1 Wailer 112 is among the most expensive skis on the market. Bliss, in its narrow niche, doesn't come cheap. Only you know where in your budget this thing might fit, and only you will realize its value in those precious moments of high-speed perfect pow riding.

Read full review: DPS Tour1 Wailer 112

Top Pick for Ultralight Big Missions


Atomic Backland UL 78


Top Pick Award

$699.00
at Amazon
See It

68
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Weight - 25% 10
  • Stability at Speed - 15% 3
  • Firm Snow - 20% 9
  • Powder - 20% 5
  • Crud and Poor Snow - 20% 5
Weight: 4.8 pounds | Measured Dimensions: 113/78/102
Ridiculously light
Amazing technical firm snow performance
Virtually no support for high-speed skiing
Require meticulous survival skiing in tough snow

Do you want a super light ski for long-distance, big vertical, and technical climbs? This is just the ticket. Short of "rando race" skis (which also have their place. Just not in this review), the Atomic Backland UL 78 is the best lightweight, "mission" ski we've used. On a 12000 foot tour of the Central Tetons' "Three Glaciers" in an early 2019 high-pressure spell, the Backland 78 was our lead tester's choice. In this context, there is nothing better than a sub five pound pair of skis. You'll work on the downhill, but save tons of energy on the up. If something other than optimum downhill skiing sensation is your priority, this is what you need to select. The lightweight uphill efficiency will pay for itself many times over. Ski with them enough, and you will adapt for the downhill and start having "fun" even in that environment for which they are compromised.

It takes significant adjustment to ride these things downhill. On firm, smooth snow, that adjustment will come quickly. In powder and breakable crust, your adjustment period may never end. They're tough to ski; that being said, our team of testers readily adapted and skied some giant powder days with enjoyable results. Don't overlook the ultralight, small-dimension ski gear.

Read review: Atomic Backland UL 78

Top Pick for Downhill Performance


Black Crows Corvus Freebird


Top Pick Award

$674.98
(25% off)
at Amazon
See It

72
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Weight - 25% 2
  • Stability at Speed - 15% 10
  • Firm Snow - 20% 7
  • Powder - 20% 9
  • Crud and Poor Snow - 20% 10
Weight: 8 pounds | Actual Dimensions: 139/108/114
Fast, big powder turns
Confident, tough snow riding
Slick and clean graphics
Heavy
Expensive

We aim for symmetry in our Top Pick award selections. The Atomic Backland UL 78 is as far from "average" as the Black Crows Corvus Freebird is. The Atomic leans to lightweight while the Black Crows leans toward downhill performance. Given most people's preferences, the Corvus Freebird will have greater appeal than the Atomic. However, realize that the weight and size of the Corvus Freebird set it well apart from the more typical current backcountry skis. Despite reviews elsewhere (and manufacturer catalog copy) that constantly refer to the Corvus as "lightweight", this is a heavy set of skis. They are lightweight as compared to resort skis, but heavy as compared to your typical contemporary skis for human-powered skiing.

With that weight, you get truly better downhill performance. In deep snow, at speed, and in tough snow, the girth and mass of the Corvus Freebird blasts through and rails hard. Confidence, speed, and versatility mark your experience with this set of hot rod sleds. Only in slow and technical icy skiing and in the tightest of trees will the limited maneuverability of the Corvus Freebird hold you back. These are excellent downhill performers.

Read review: Black Crows Corvus Freebird

Top Pick for Casual Winter Exploration


Black Diamond Glidelite 147 Snow Trekkers


33
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Weight - 25% 7
  • Stability at Speed - 15% 2
  • Firm Snow - 20% 1
  • Powder - 20% 4
  • Crud and Poor Snow - 20% 1
Weight: 8.1 pounds | Actual Dimensions: 132/110/122
Affordable
Universal bindings
Come as a complete package
Only suitable for very low-angle terrain, up and down
Only suitable for soft snow

The Black Diamond Glidelite 147 Snow Trekker ski kit is really, really unique. At first glance, and especially according to the catalog copy, it may appear as a lower-cost and simpler alternative to "regular" backcountry skis. The fact is that the application is perhaps narrower than you would hope. The good news is that that narrow application is popular and holds great potential. For casual scooting through deep, fresh snow around forests and meadows, this is the best tool on the market.

If you wish to go up and/or downhill more steeply than a typical road grade, look elsewhere. Even with the best skills, boots, and snow, our test team had frustrating difficulty when they pressed these skis into use on 15-20 degree slopes. Most mountain terrain holds slopes at least that steep, at least for short sections. If you can keep your travels to forest roads and open meadows (and in fresh snow; hard stuff and breakable crust snow are very difficult even when the terrain is nearly flat), the all-in-one kit and pleasant striding of the Glidelite Snow Trekkers is a unique and special tool.

Read review: Black Diamond Glidelite Snow Trekkers


The right skis make all the difference. Choose wisely and your time in places like this will be focused on everything but your gear.
The right skis make all the difference. Choose wisely and your time in places like this will be focused on everything but your gear.

Why You Should Trust Us


For many seasons now Jed Porter has led our backcountry ski testing team. He tests all the skis, administers sharing and comparing in the rest of the team, collects the data, and prepares each final report. Jed is, first and foremost, an adventure skier. He has tromped through winter wildernesses since the mid 1990s on three continents, millions of vertical feet, countless face shots, and a handful of first descents. He is also a full-time, year-round Mountain Guide. About half the year he takes people on gritty, human-powered, steep-and-wild ski adventures and the other half is spent in all types of climbing. Jed's guiding acumen is recognized in certifications from the American Mountain Guides Association, International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations, and the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education.

We collect a passionate team of skiers to help Jed and to complement his perspectives; dozens of skiers have helped over the years. Currently, the entire team, along with Jed, is located in the Teton Region. We ski Grand Teton National Park, Teton Pass, and the Targhee backcountry close to home and venture further afield into the various ranges of the Greater Yellowstone region.

Powder performance is the most forgiving of all our rated metrics. Every ski we used was a joy in powder. Some go faster  but none are unenjoyable.
Powder performance is the most forgiving of all our rated metrics. Every ski we used was a joy in powder. Some go faster, but none are unenjoyable.

We are continuously scouring the market for appropriate and desirable backcountry skis. In order to perform authentic and exhaustive testing, while staying free of perceived or real pressure from manufacturers' PR departments, we have to construct our testing schedule in a way that precludes getting you a full review of equipment that is brand new on the market. Our typical ski testing schedule is to select and purchase skis in January that we are confident will still be available, relevant, and unchanged (other than cosmetic changes) for the following Northern Hemisphere ski season. We test all winter, spring, and early summer (with periodic visits in Austral spring to South America) in order to have excellent and relevant reviews ready for the beginning of the North American ski season. This means that all our testing, unlike some other reviews, is done on production equipment that we bought and that has seen a full gamut of conditions and terrain. It also might mean that we just can't and won't get you a full review of this year's "hot new" product.

Related: How We Tested Backcountry Skis

For long approaches (here  to Mount Moran in Wyoming)  light weight skis make a huge difference. We did extensive weighing and calculating  and then verified with real world trials.
To test stability at speed  ski fast...
What job is better than testing the powder performance of backcountry skis? We're not really sure  but we aren't ready to take time off of the current job to investigate further.

Analysis and Test Results


As the sport's popularity explodes, gear increases in both quality and quantity. To sort through all the options is a bear of a task. 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 and weight, relatively speaking. Shapes and designs vary, but all of our tested skis are lightweight, forgiving of a variety of snow conditions, and sized between 78 and 109 mm underfoot.

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 discovered that there is a significant 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.

Some tested skis  from left to right: Dynafit Beast  G3 Findr  BD Route  Black Crows Corvus  Kastle TX 98  Atomic Backland UL  Blizzard Zero G  Fischer Hannibal.
Some tested skis, from left to right: Dynafit Beast, G3 Findr, BD Route, Black Crows Corvus, Kastle TX 98, Atomic Backland UL, Blizzard Zero G, Fischer Hannibal.

To organize our thoughts and help you understand each ski a little better we have divided our assessment into five different metrics. Weight is a proxy for uphill performance, while downhill performance is assessed for stability, firm snow grip, powder snow performance, and turning ability in poor snow. When we mathematically assess each of these and mash them together, properly weighted, we find that the higher scoring skis are also the ones we simply like more.

Related: Buying Advice for Backcountry Skis


Related: The Best Climbing Skins for Backcountry Skiing

Related: The Best Bindings for Backcountry Skiing

Value


At OutdoorGearLab, we're keen on making sure we test the best of the best. The cream of the crop, if you will. For good measure, and because we all like high-value gear, we highlight the products that score toward the top of the pack while also providing a massive bang for your buck. As such, the Volkl VTA packs a punch at a reasonable cost and scored just after our Editors' Choice; however, it can be difficult to find at some retailers. We've also included the Fischer Hannibal and Blizzard Zero G 95 which are also a good deal and finish in the top five. The new Top Pick Black Diamond Glidelite Snow Trekker is less expensive than most, and it includes accessories that the others do not. If you can live with its constraints, the Glidelite is an excellent value. All the other equipment we test does what the Glidelite does (and then some), but for at least twice the cost.

Weight


Weight is the only criterion that directly correlates to uphill performance. It is no coincidence that it is also the single most heavily prioritized criteria in our assessment. You will spend a great deal of your backcountry skiing day and career going uphill. In evalu9ating 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 pairs we tested, there was up to four percent difference in weight from left to right ski. 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 167 percent the weight of the lightest. Before you dismiss lightweight skis as only for "touring dorks", consider that essentially all the rowdiest classic ski lines on the planet have been skied with rando race gear. You have to adjust technique, and ride more slowly, but the lightweight gear can go a long way.


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. The Top Pick for ultralight performance Atomic Backland UL 78 is only 4.8 pounds for the pair, but has a relatively dark top sheet. The DPS Wailer 99 Tour1 is also super lightweight. The Editors' Choice Kastle TX 98 is most impressive for its balance of uphill weight (6.2 pounds) and downhill performance.

"Ski Mountaineering"... you might picture one thing  but this is sometimes the reality; rappelling  with skis on  while spindrift pummels you right in the face. You don't want to be thinking about your skis in this situation. Or before it. Or after it. Choose wisely.
"Ski Mountaineering"... you might picture one thing, but this is sometimes the reality; rappelling, with skis on, while spindrift pummels you right in the face. You don't want to be thinking about your skis in this situation. Or before it. Or after it. Choose wisely.

In the ultralight weight class, the DPS Tour1 Wailer 99 is a super-light, wide-bodied powder touring machine. 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. We also tested its larger sibling, the DPS Tour1 Wailer 112. These two are related in overall shape, design philosophy, and construction technique. There the comparison ends. The 99 is a wiggling tree skier while the 112 is for wide open powder ripping. Lots of skis will snake the tiny turns at a light weight, but few bring hard charging powder performance at a reasonable mass. For this specialty build at such a light weight, we gave the DPS 112 one of our Top Pick awards. These skis are relatively fragile, truly backcountry specific tools. A great deal of in-bounds use or hard riding would risk breaking or wearing them out.

The Atomic Backland is even lighter than the DPS 99, with different downhill skiing characteristics. The newly added Dynafit Tour 88, at 4.9 pounds, is solidly in this weight class. Its dimensions and performance lend it higher all-around performance than the first two ultra lighters. Finally, also sub six pounds is the Best Buy Blizzard Zero G 95. The Blizzard is even more versatile and higher performing than the Dynafit 88.

Tested ultralight skis in their element. Ski mountaineering in Grand Teton National Park.
Tested ultralight skis in their element. Ski mountaineering in Grand Teton National Park.

In the middle of the pack, weight-wise is our Editors' Choice winning Kastle TX 98, Volkl VTA 98, Black Crows Camox Freebird, the Dynafit Beast 98 and Best Buy Fischer Hannibal 98. 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.

Light skis like the Atomic Backland UL 78 make long distance touring more reasonable. Lead test editor in the middle of the Wapta Traverse  right on the British Columbia/Alberta border.
Light skis like the Atomic Backland UL 78 make long distance touring more reasonable. Lead test editor in the middle of the Wapta Traverse, right on the British Columbia/Alberta border.

Finally, the heaviest skis, all coming in over seven pounds for the pair, in our test are the G3 Findr 102, Black Diamond Route 95, Black Diamond Helio 105, DPS Wailer 112, and the Black Crows Corvus Freebird. These are each solid performers but live in a weight class that preempts acclaim in the backcountry world. These heavier ski models are good to excellent downhill skis that are branded to tour.

The weight of the Top Pick Black Diamond Glidelite Snow Trekkers requires special mention. At first glance, one has to wonder how skis that are so much shorter than the others weigh so much more. The difference is that the Snow Trekkers include skins and bindings while no other tested skis do. The skins included with the Snow Trekkers are small and add barely any weight, while the bindings are pretty bulky and heavy.

We also calculated the weight-to-surface area ratio of each ski in grams per square centimeter 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 them out. Elsewhere on the web, you will also see surface-area-to-weight numbers generated.

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. Not surprisingly, the heavier skis like the Black Crows Corvus Freebird are more stable than the lighter ones. The Corvus is essentially an outlier, weightwise. It is also in a class of its own when it comes to speed stability. We gave a Top Pick Award to the Corvus 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 and G3 Findr, replicate the stability of the heaviest skis at a lower mass. In times past, lightweight skis would noodle around terrain and snow conditions. Modern, lightweight skis built with carbon fiber like the Hannibal, Black Crows Camox Freebird, 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.

Up high  windswept snow  big wilderness. OGL editor Ian McEleney making a cameo.
Up high, windswept snow, big wilderness. OGL editor Ian McEleney making a cameo.

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 (unless you ski on the East Coast of the US. There, "its not called ice unless you can see fish underneath"). 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, while 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 Volkl VTA 98, especially in the tested 184cm length, suffered in steep and icy skiing. We 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 better in firm conditions. The widest ski in our test, the Top Pick DPS Tour1 Wailer 112 was also a very poor performer in harder snow conditions.

Athletic pace  early morning  firm snow. Sometimes skiing is more about the exercise and place than it is about the ripping turns. For that  light gear goes a long way.
Athletic pace, early morning, firm snow. Sometimes skiing is more about the exercise and place than it is about the ripping turns. For that, light gear goes a long way.

The Editors' Choice Kastle TX 98 is excellent on firm snow, as long as speeds are kept moderate, while the G3 Findr 102 is quite frightening on hard stuff. When we assess edge grip, we look for even traction along the ski's length. Too much grab in the tip or the tail is a bad thing. Similarly, too much grip under foot compromises ski feel and security. The Findr falls in this last category. Numerous testers reported that it felt as though the Findr tips and tails were doing nothing in firm snow.


The wide and light skis like the DPS Tour1 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 Dynafit, and the Black Diamond Route 95, do pretty well.

We all liked the firm snow grip and predictability of the Best Buy Blizzard Zero G 95. It performs at least a little better on hard stuff than the other Best Buy Fischer Hannibal. It is this performance that differentiates between them. On firm snow, the otherwise unique and challenging Atomic Backland UL 78 was almost "normal". The narrow profile is easy to adjust to, and the edge grip is tenacious and uniform.

Powder Performance


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 DPS Tour1 Wailer 99 is an ultralight tool with above-average girth and dimensions tuned for soft snow. They perform very well on good snow and do so with absolute minimum weight. For your overall touring day, ultralight construction is a significant advantage. One is most likely to encounter poor snow conditions when hunting for powder between storms. Taking all that the Wailer 99 is, and adding to it, the Top Pick DPS Wailer 112 is a hard-charging powder dream sled. Neither of these did all that well elsewhere, but both are a real blast in powder snow. They are different from one another, but both excellent in the powder.

Lead Editor Jed Porter in perfect Colorado "Champagne Powder" on the DPS Wailer 99 Tour 1.
Lead Editor Jed Porter in perfect Colorado "Champagne Powder" on the DPS Wailer 99 Tour 1.

The width, weight, and shape of both Tour1 skis are unforgiving of tricky snow conditions that one encounters when trying to find the last bits of powder. For all these reasons, we recommend these skis for people motivated to find, or fortunate enough to stumble into, powder snow for much of their skiing. 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 skis.

It is a rough job  but someone needs to do it. Testing skis in Grand Teton National Park.
It is a rough job, but someone needs to do it. Testing skis in Grand Teton National Park.

The Kastle TX 98 snaps quick powder turns and rails higher speed soft snow carves. We tested it in a relatively short 178cm length. For steep skiing and firm snow, this was just the right length. At high speed in soft snow, we found ourselves wishing for more length. With that length would come even better float and stability. If you are on the fence between two sizes of these, consider our experience as you choose.

The big gun Black Crows Corvus Freebird charges long radius powder turns like a train on tracks. If you want or need to slow it down and make three dimensional, bouncy, short-radius turns the Freebird requires more input than some of the others.

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.


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 ok 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 Black Crows Corvus Freebird performs amazingly in bad snow. However, the narrow, light, and more traditionally profiled Fischer Hannibal also does well enough. The G3 Findr 102, 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.

Human-powered skiing isn't always face shots and bluebird skies. Sometimes it is tough snow and flat light. For that  we assess skis for their crud performance.
Human-powered skiing isn't always face shots and bluebird skies. Sometimes it is tough snow and flat light. For that, we assess skis for their crud performance.

While ski resort riders may spend a considerable percentage of their time on the same home mountain, backcountry aficionados are inherently explorers. Even in one's home range, the goal is often to see new terrain under new conditions. Not to mention, of course, the appeal of traveling further afield to backcountry ski. Even if, for argument's sake, one were to go to the same backcountry ski slope every time out, one 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 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, and your equipment must be ready for this.

The Editors' Choice Kastle TX 98 is a breakable crust champion. The Black Crows Camox Freebird holds its own. The two Best Buy winners are discernible by their breakable crust performance. The Fischer Hannibal is slightly better in poor snow than the Blizzard Zero G 95. We had a hard time in tough snow with the Dynafit Tour 88.

Conclusion


In today's backcountry ski market, there are few wrong answers. There is a wide range of weight and functionality, but all have their place. Our parting, and most important advice, is to truly consider, and ponder hard, exactly what your backcountry skiing will look like before committing to a product. Make your choice based on that reality. An aspirational purchase, one based on the idea of "I hope my skiing is like this", could lead you astray and actually diminish your ultimate experience in one way or another.


Jediah Porter