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We have ten years of backcountry ski review experience. This year, we added six brand new skis and revisited and retested a handful more, for a total of 15 skis. Each of these has seen miles of vertical gain and descent in a variety of conditions and with a representative test team. We assess each for weight, firm snow, powder snow, poor snow, and high speed stability. Each ski gets at least a dozen hours of testing attention. Most of that testing is in real backcountry skiing in real human-powered situations.
Weight: 1513 grams | Measured Dimensions: 133/104/118 mm
REASONS TO BUY
REASONS TO AVOID
Compromised firm snow performance
Others are lighter
The Blizzard Zero G 105 is the best heavy-ish all-around backcountry ski we have used in recent years. It does everything very well, especially considering its weight. At 1500 grams, there are many lighter options on the market, but the ones we've tested ski more poorly than the Blizzard. Going the other direction, one must tack on a couple hundred grams of mass before matching or exceeding the ski performance of this award winner.
Weight to performance ratio is the real and definitive measure of an all-around ski for human-powered use. In that matrix, this Blizzard shares the top of the heap. For a long time, we have picked two highest award winners; one super light and the other "normal" light. The Zero G 105 is the "normal light" award winner. The primary compromise in its performance is in firm snow. It doesn't grip quite as smoothly or confidently as we would like in an all-around ski. It does well enough, but this is the drawback we have to comment on.
Weight: 1271 grams | Measured Dimensions: 131/100/118 mm
REASONS TO BUY
Solidly balanced downhill performance
REASONS TO AVOID
Downhill "speed limit"
Product Update Note — October 2022
Movement no longer makes the Alp Tracks 100, but they released a very similar Alp Tracks 98 from which we expect a similar performance. We've linked to the Alp Tracks 98 in this review.
The Movement Alp Tracks 100 quickly rose to the top of our test roster. Mainly, it nails what we have long concluded is the sweet spot in backcountry ski gear. It balances uphill efficiency and downhill performance in a way that is ideal for a majority of human-powered skiers. If we had to pick one ski for all-season, all-conditions human-powered travels, this award winner would be the choice.
1271 grams for each ski is an excellent "weight point" to reach, as long as downhill performance is good. In the case of this Movement ski, the downhill performance is very well balanced. It does not excel in any one venue or condition, but it can do it all. We've long found that efficiency and downhill performance optimize around this weight point. Performance keeps improving at all weight points but seems to be optimized against weight right around 12-1300 grams. You'll pop in powder, edge confidently on the firm, and survive the tough stuff. At higher speeds, this ski is a little overwhelmed, but not as much as you might fear, given the gossamer weight. We've got a few full seasons now on the Alp Tracks, with no durability concerns yet. Nonetheless, it would be absurd to expect something in this weight class to hold up like something beefier. You don't choose these for a decade of service or for huge cliff drops.
Weight: 1537 grams | Measured Dimensions: 135/107/123 mm
REASONS TO BUY
Balanced downhill performance
REASONS TO AVOID
On the wide side of versatile
Our latest value recommendation for all-around, all-season human-powered backcountry skiing is this K2 Wayback 106. It offers well-balanced performance across the entire spectrum of backcountry conditions, comes in at a reasonable, competitive weight, and is priced and available for optimal value. The dimensions are relatively wide for all-around backcountry skiing, but performance keeps up, and many of you are accustomed to skis in this size range for all-season use. A few millimeters narrower would save weight and increase versatility, but we aren't really complaining.
Identifying backcountry ski cost deals is a tough proposition. First, original retail prices don't vary with skis as much as they do with other consumer goods. Further, the regular changes in models and graphics mean that older skis are often turning over at great prices with little to no compromise in function. Nonetheless, for this award, we look for a good intro price, all-around performance, relative durability, and wide availability. The K2 Wayback 106 checks all those boxes, but others do too. Shop wisely.
Weight: 1565 grams | Measured Dimensions: 154/121/138 mm
REASONS TO BUY
Familiar and predictable in soft snow
Wicked light, for the size
REASONS TO AVOID
Abysmal, terrifying hard snow performance
Require big, heavy skins
The Voile HyperDrifter is the biggest ski in our test but is near the center in terms of weight. This is a great balance if you seek (and actually find) enough truly deep powder snow to justify dedicated powder skis. If you are fortunate and good enough to track down that amount of soft snow via human power, you can't do better than the HyperDrifter. As the biggest ski we have tested, it stands out. We love it for the deepest days and when the pitch is low and the snow is soft.
Many, many skis make excellent powder skiing enjoyable. But let's look at what makes excellent powder skiing. It has to be steep enough to carry speed, and the snow needs to be deep, soft, and graduated, but not so deep as to bog you down. There are some caveats baked in. First, "steep enough" can often overlap with overly hazardous avalanche risk. Big skis like the HyperDrifter can help you carry speed on gentler terrain and, therefore, better enjoy those days that you've gotta stay out of the steeper country. Next, it can actually be too deep to ski sometimes. On those rare (and comical, and strenuous) days, huge, light skis like the HyperDrifter will set you up right. These are pretty narrow circumstances. And circumstances in which your all-around backcountry skis will also function. You choose the HyperDrifter to complement all-around skis and have to learn exactly when they benefit you and when they don't.
Weight: 861 grams | Measured Dimensions: 114/76/94 mm
REASONS TO BUY
Acceptable ski performance for the weight
REASONS TO AVOID
Poor deep and sloppy snow performance
The Movement Race Pro 77 is our current recommendation for ultralight fast ski mountaineering. It is basically a meaningful step up from skimo race skis, suitable for everything fast, short of true race pace efforts. Pair it with race-class boots for inbounds and corn snow pursuits, or step up to sturdier "1-kilo" boots for expeditions and more serious skiing. In either case, mount it with sturdy race-style bindings.
You will use skis like this for training on the ski area, long gentle traverses, chasing down those summer snow patches of "novelty skiing," and the occasional more serious ski descent. Of course, all these same things can be done with heavier gear, but are decidedly more enjoyable with lighter gear. Start your lightweight setup with the Movement Race Pro 77.
We have been testing backcountry skis for a decade now. We've tested dozens of ski models, some of them in multiple iterations and most over multiple seasons. We test all winter, spring, and early summer (with periodic visits in Austral spring to South America) 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 purchased and that has seen a full gamut of conditions and terrain. It also might mean that we just can't get you a full review of this year's "hot new" product before it's released. We've noted which products from testing have been updated since our test period.
Our testing of backcountry skis is divided across five different metrics:
Weight (25% of total score weighting)
Firm Snow (20% weighting)
Powder (20% weighting)
Crud and Poor Snow (20% weighting)
Stability at Speed (15% weighting)
For many seasons now, Jed Porter has led our backcountry ski testing team. He tests all the skis, administers sharing and comparing with 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 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.
Analysis and Test Results
As the sport's popularity explodes, gear increases in both quality and quantity. To sort through all the gear 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 77 and 121 mm underfoot.
We mostly target general-purpose equipment rather than specialty products. We tested the skis with modern, tech-style alpine touring bindings, backcountry ski boots, and technique. This style of skiing and equipment allows the user to climb with heels free and descend with them locked.
In doing this formal testing (and collecting a team with hundreds of years of accumulated experience), we have learned a great deal about what constitutes a great backcountry ski. 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.
Dream Backcountry Ski Quiver
We have been asked for an outline of our dream backcountry ski quiver. We test lots of skis and have many options at our disposal. We also ski a lot in a variety of conditions and settings. Sometimes it feels as if we are faced with infinite options for skis and ski gear pairings. The answer to an "ideal" ski quiver isn't necessarily "infinite"; there is such a thing as too many skis. It takes some time to get used to skis, either when using them for the first time or when switching from a different option. Few people ski as much and in as varied of settings as our lead tester Jed Porter. Jed chimes in here with his ideal backcountry ski quiver, in general terms and with some specifics. He dreamt up a five ski system:
Little "go-fast skis"
These are small like skimo skis but are slightly bigger, heavier, and more durable. He uses these for huge missions on relatively firm snow. Jed has done one skimo race (in 2005) but has worn out a few pairs of skimo race skis. They're weird, but when they are right for the job, it'll blow your mind. The latest choice is the Movement Race Pro 77.
Big-mountain "sending" skis
80 to 90mm underfoot and around 1000g per ski. Right now, he's digging the K2 Wayback 80. He uses these for fast ascents and descents "in a day" in the high Tetons.
100mm underfoot, lightweight all-around skis
The Movement Alp Tracks 100 is great for everything from Shasta corn to bottomless January Teton Pass powder.
100mm underfoot, mid-weight all-around skis
These are what he uses for day-to-day ski guiding in varied conditions and terrain. This is also the ski to travel with. This is as close as you'll get to a backcountry "quiver of one". The Blizzard Zero G 105 will last for hundreds of thousands of vertical feet and can hang in absolutely any circumstance. They're heavier than what he wants for the longest days, but the downhill performance is hard to complain doubt.
Giant, lightweight powder skis
Jed loves the Voile HyperDrifter. It is almost 2cm wider than the Zero G 105 but weighs about the same. On the absolute deepest days, especially when avalanche conditions confine us to low-angle terrain, giant powder skis like this enable fast and floaty enjoyment. Skis this big perform well at almost any weight. Get 'em lightweight for more vertical. You'll hardly notice the low weight on the downhill.
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 K2 Wayback 106 packs a punch at a reasonable cost.
In general, ski shopping for value is a little tilted. The very highest cost skis are indeed at least a little better. However, ski performance at the lower and middle price ranges is largely independent of cost. There are good skis and poor skis across the lower to middle price ranges. Further, great deals are regularly available, mixing up any generalization one might draw from manufacturer's suggested retail price.
Weight is the only backcountry ski 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 evaluating weight, we did more than simply cite weight. First, we weighed 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. We make that data available to you.
We found up to a 4% difference in weight from the left to right ski of the pairs we tested. 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 more than 2x 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 "skimo" 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, absorbing and refreezing even more collected snow. The ultralight performance pick Movement Race Pro 77 is only 860 grams per ski but has a relatively dark top sheet. The Movement Alp Tracks 100 is most impressive for its balance of uphill weight (1271g per ski) and all-conditions downhill performance.
The K2 WayBack 80 and Dynafit Blacklight Pro are two more of the ultra-lightweight models tested. The deimensions and performance of the Movement Alp Tracks 100, Fischer Hannibal 96, and Dynastar M-Tour 99 lend them higher all-around performance than the ultra lighters. Each of these, in terms of weight, could be considered lightweight all-arounders and suitable for all-purpose touring.
In the middle of the pack weight-wise is the Black Crows Camox Freebird, Blizzard Zero G 105, K2 Wayback 106, Voile HyperDrifter, the Black Diamond Helio Carbon 115, and DPS Pagoda Tour 100 RP. These represent, currently, the weight of your standard touring ski. Light enough to lug around, wide enough to power through poor snow, and (mostly) 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 (we're seeing exactly this with the high scoring Movement Alp Tracks 100; its downhill performance belongs with the skis in this paragraph, but its lighter weight earned it higher score).
Finally, the heaviest skis, all coming in over 1600 grams for the pair and listed in order from light to heavy, in our test are the Kastle TX 103, Elan Ripstick 106, and Black Crows Corvus Freebird. These are solid performers but live in a weight class that preempts acclaim in the world of the human-powered backcountry. These heavier ski models are good to excellent downhill skis that are branded to tour.
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. 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.
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. As the backcountry becomes more and more crowded, we're also seeing firm snow in the wild as a result of "skier compaction". The firmest expression of these can be called ice (unless you ski on the East Coast of the US. There, "it's 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 ultralight ski mountaineering specialist K2 Wayback 80 and Dynafit Blacklight Pro do really well on any firm conditions, high volume, and high-speed ski mountaineering endeavors. Similarly, the ultralight Movement Race Pro 77 is great on the icy and serious, provided you slow down your overall rate of downhill skiing.
Mid-width, "all-around" skis can do pretty well in firm stuff. It is especially important with these mid-fat skis on firm snow to pair them with beefier boots. You can get away with light boots in soft snow, but harder snow requires stiffer boots. We'd put the Dynastar M-Tour, Movement Alp Tracks 100, Kastle TX 103, Black Crows Camox Freebird, DPS Pagoda Tour 100, and Fischer Hannibal 96 in this category. You wouldn't choose any of these for pure firm snow skiing, but you won't be let down when you encounter that with these. The K2 Wayback 106 does better on firm snow than its weight and width numbers would suggest. With similar numbers as the K2, we expected similar (compromised) firm snow performance from the Blizzard Zero G 105. Indeed, it doesn't carve and grab like a narrower, stiffer ski, but it suffices.
The wide and light skis exert great leverage without the mass and stiffness to back it up. These are best kept to slow speeds when the firm is encountered. We're mainly talking about the Voile HyperDrifter and Black Diamond Helio Carbon 115. If you "luck" into hard snow on the HyperDrifter or Helio, you will quickly revert to survival skiing skills and techniques. The Helio is slightly better than the Voile, but not by enough to affect any meaningful decision-making.
The big and wide Black Crows Corvus Freebird and Elan Ripstick 106 do surprisingly well on firm snow. All that weighty material lends smoothness and torsional stiffness.
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 HyperDrifter. This cambered ski excelled for us in powder. It was a lively ride that positively popped 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 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 a special mention to the dedicated powder tourers. The Movement Alp Tracks 100 are ultralight tools 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. The huge Voile HyperDrifter is a powder hog; just be sure to put it away when the snow gets tough or firm.
The Movement Alp Tracks 100 snaps quick powder turns and rails higher-speed soft snow carves. We tested it in a relatively short 177cm length. For steep skiing and firm snow, this was just the right length. At high speeds in soft snow, we found ourselves wishing for more length for 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.
Most of the "mid fat", light-to-average weight touring skis in our test are more enjoyable in powder than you would first guess. We gladly grab the Fischer Hannibal 96, Dynastar 99, Pagoda 100, or TX103 for powder days.
Crud/Poor Snow Performance
This is our favorite review category. Not because we like skiing crud and poor snow, but because it's 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, when the snow inevitably gets breakable or sloppy, it 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 Black Crows Corvus Freebird and Elan Ripstick both perform amazingly in bad snow. However, the narrow, lighter, and more traditionally profiled Dynastar M-Tour 99 also compares favorably, especially considering their weight.
The Blizzard Zero G 105 is great in tough snow conditions. A ski can't get to top award status without excellent bad snow 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.
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 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. You are likely to encounter poor snow in any of these endeavors, and your equipment must be ready for this.
The Movement Alp Tracks 100 is a breakable crust champion. The Black Crows Camox Freebird is in the same category; its poor snow performance wins it another of our highest awards. We had a hard time in tough snow with the Voile HyperDrifter. They do well enough, but nothing special.
The DPS Pagoda Tour 100 does surprisingly well, especially for the weight, in tough snow conditions.
The narrow and ultralight skis also battled in tough snow. Unsurprisingly, mass and girth help with tough snow. The Movement Race Pro 77, a light and fast ski, is not the ski you want when the snow is poor.
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 we wanted to go fast on were the same ones we could jump around on in steep, chunky snow. Heavier skis like the Black Crows Corvus Freebird and Elan Ripstick 106 are more stable than the lighter ones. These two are both outliers, weight-wise. We have to note the admirable stability of each at top speeds; weight and stability are closely correlated. Again, the greatest determinant of stability (and other downhill performance attributes, for that matter) is weight. The mass of a ski is part of its downhill performance.
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 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 DPS Pagoda, Dynastar M-Tour 99, and Black Crows Camox Freebird, 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.
There is a wide spectrum of conditions and users that backcountry skis are tailored for. The biggest are twice as big as the smallest, for instance. Further, branding and marketing copy makes them all sound excellent for everything. This isn't the case. We hope that our reviews and comparisons serve to smooth out your purchasing process.
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