Our backcountry experts have tested over 30 of the best backcountry skis over the last 5 years. This 2020 update shows off 13 of the market's best competitors, who we had the pleasure of testing side-by-side. Our team of alpine testers is comprised of avalanche forecasters, ski guides, recreational users, and newbies. We skinned up steep slopes, strapped them to our backs, and tested performance while edging across icy slopes. We rode them for months while descending dreamy couloirs, mellow terrain, and across powdery bowls. Our years of testing and advice will help you find a great pair of backcountry skis for your needs.Related: Best Backcountry Ski Bindings of 2020
Best Backcountry Skis of 2020
|Price||$1,200 List||$739.95 at Backcountry|
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|$948.95 at Backcountry||$700 List||$649.95 at Backcountry|
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|Pros||Light for the uphill, balanced downhill performance for all conditions||Stable, damp, predictable||Stable, predictable downhill performance in all snow types and terrain||Inexpensive, balanced downhill performance, average weight||Solid all around downhill performance, compatible with excellent Dynafit SpeedSkins|
|Cons||Expensive, generalized downhill performance||Mid-weight, no real stand out performance||Heavy||Ski “short”, powder skiing stability suffers at super high speed||Heavier than average|
|Bottom Line||If you have to pick one backcountry ski model for full seasons and all conditions, this is the one we recommend, as it's carefully tuned for all conditions||There is nothing remarkable about these skis, and that is a good thing||Goes downhill very well, we just wish it was lighter||Well-balanced, all-around skis for the human-powered skier looking for durable and lasting value||The Beast leans decidedly in the downhill performance direction; they are heavy by comparison and for the dimensions, but they ski better than most|
|Rating Categories||Movement Alp Tracks 100||Black Crows Camox Freebird||Kastle TX 103||Salomon MTN Explore 95||Dynafit Beast 98|
|Firm Snow (20%)|
|Crud And Poor Snow (20%)|
|Stability At Speed (15%)|
|Specs||Movement Alp...||Black Crows Camox...||Kastle TX 103||Salomon MTN...||Dynafit Beast 98|
|Weight Per Pair||5.6 lbs||6.7 lbs||7.6 lbs||6.8 lbs||6.8 lbs|
|Measured Length||176 cm||182 cm||180 cm||177 cm||183 cm|
|Manufacturer Length||177 cm||183 cm||181 cm||177 cm||184 cm|
|Available Lengths||170, 177, 185 cm||162, 172, 178, 183 cm||165, 173, 181, 189 cm||169, 177, 184 cm||170, 177, 184 cm|
|Claimed Dimensions||132/100/120 mm||130/97/115 mm||138/103/120 mm||130 / 95 / 116 mm||136/98/117 mm|
|Measured Dimensions||131/100/118 mm||137/97/117 mm||138/103/120 mm||130/95/116 mm||126/97/116 mm|
|Weight Per Ski grams||1270g, 1272g, average: 1271 g||1510g, 1509g, average: 1510 g||1727g,1708g, average :1718 g||1547g,1529g, average: 1538 g||1541g, 1553g, average: 1547 g|
|Weight Per Pair||2542 g||3024 g||3435 g||3076 g||3094 g|
|Weight Per Surface Area Ratio, g/cm^2||0.62||0.71||0.79||0.76||0.75|
|Core Material||Karuba||Paulownia, poplar||Paulownia,poplar||3D Full Woodcore, C/FX reinforcement||Ash/poplar wood|
|Waist Width||100 mm||97 mm||103 mm||95 mm||98 mm|
|Radius||19 meters||18 meters||19 meters||18 meters||21 meters|
|Rocker/Camber||Tip rocker, camber underfoot||Tip rocker, camber underfoot||Tip rocker, camber underfoot||Rocker, camber, rocker||Double Ellipse Rocker|
Best Overall Backcountry Skis
Movement Alp Tracks 100
The Movement Alp Tracks 100 recently entered our review and has quickly risen to the top. Mainly, it nails what we have concluded is the sweet spot in backcountry ski gear. It balances uphill efficiency and downhill performance in a way that is ideal for the vast majority of human-powered skiers.
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. 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.
Read review: Movement Alp Tracks 100
Best Overall in the Fleet
Black Crows Camox Freebird
The Black Crows Camox Freebird took some time to grow on us. It also took expanding and further improving our test team to see its award winner status. We skied half a season on it and liked it. We kept it around for the first half of the next season and got it on even more and even more authoritative feet, and the conclusion became quite clear. This winner strikes all the right balances of downhill performance, versatility, and uphill weight.
We granted the Camox a top award along with the Alp Tracks 100. In a direct comparison, these two models ski very similarly. Both are great in all conditions and extraordinary in some. The Movement is lighter, but the Camox is more durable. All will get more mileage out of the Camox than out of the Movement. For bigger skiers or those that ride with higher energy, this might mean the difference between making them last through a trip or a season. Both models have their place in our award circle. Further differentiation is in price. The Black Crows is a little less expensive than the Movement.
Read review: Black Crows Camox Freebird
Best Bang for the Buck
Salomon MTN Explore 95
Most of the team tested the Salomon MTN Explore for weeks before knowing its price. We were nearly done with our testing and tentatively considering the MTN Explore for some sort of award. The core of the team couldn't decide whether they liked the MTN Explore or the Black Crows Camox Freebird better. Both were clearly great skis. We put our heads together and realized we still hadn't handed either of these skis to one particular authoritative and trusted tester. We agreed to a "tie" and then entrusted Joel to break the tie. We didn't really tell him what was on the line. Joel used both of these top contenders, back to back and in tough dry-spell conditions on Teton Pass, for almost a week. He endorsed them both but gave the tough-snow nod to the Camox. This edged it ahead, overall, and bumped the Salomon from top honor.
It was only then that we began to more closely prepare the final content. When our lead test editor stumbled onto the price of the Salomon MTN Explore, it quickly became clear that these would snag a budget award. If a product only narrowly misses the EC award, but costs significantly less than average, it is an easy bargain choice. Shop with confidence.
Read review: Salomon MTN Explore 95
Best for Ultralight Big Missions
K2 Wayback 80
You might not even fully realize just how much you want a ski like this. For high volume ski touring, steep-and-rowdy firm-snow ski mountaineering, and work-week exercise skinning, a lightweight set-up based on the K2 WayBack 80 is just the ticket. The feather weight construction flies uphill. The narrow and stiff construction grabs on the steeps but gets bucked around in tougher snow.
This is a specialized tool. You won't pick these for day-to-day backcountry skiing. Deep, perfect powder snow is enjoyable, but bigger guns will be even more fun. Any sort of poor snow (breakable crust? Slop?) is better handled by a bigger option. All small skis are under-equipped for tough snow, but the K2 does better than most. It is this ski's more forgiving tough-snow performance that edges it ahead.
Read review: K2 WayBack 80
Best for Downhill Performance
Black Crows Corvus Freebird
We aim for symmetry in our specialized award selections. The K2 WayBack 80 is as far from "average" as the Black Crows Corvus Freebird is. However, realize that the weight and size of the Corvus Freebird set it well apart from the more typical current backcountry skis for human powered efforts. Despite reviews elsewhere (and manufacturer catalog copy) that persistently 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
Best for Casual Winter Exploration
Black Diamond Glidelite 147 Snow Trekkers
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 (and terrifying…) 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
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, including 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.
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.
Related: How We Tested Backcountry Skis
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 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. We have 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.
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
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 Salomon MTN Explore 95 packs a punch at a reasonable cost.
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 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 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 "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, which can accrete and freeze even more snow. The ultralight performance pick K2 WayBack 80 is only 1093 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 is one of the ultra lightweight models tested. The newly added Movement Alp Tracks 100 and Fischer Transalp 90 Carbon, both around 1300 grams, are solidly in this weight class. Their dimensions and performance lend them higher all-around performance than the ultra lighters.
In the middle of the pack, weight-wise is the Black Crows Camox Freebird, Salomon MTN Explore, Volkl VTA 98, the Dynafit Beast 98 and 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 (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 weight earned it a spot back up the page!).
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 , Black Diamond Helio 105, Kastle TX 103, Faction Agent 3.0 and Black Crows Corvus Freebird. The G3 Roamr 108 is a big step heavier than all the others; it is more different than the next closest than almost any other adjacent pairings in our weight list. These are each solid performers but live in a weight class that preempts acclaim in the human-powered backcountry world. These heavier ski models are good to excellent downhill skis that are branded to tour.
The weight of the unique 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. 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 and G3 Roamr 108 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.
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 Faction Agent, 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 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.
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, "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 Fischer Transalp 90 is narrow and stiff but ultralight, and performs reliably on firm snow, and inspires great confidence when it is steep and hard. The ultralight, ski mountaineering specialist K2 Wayback 80 did really well on an early season, firm-conditions descent of the Grand Teton. 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 Movement Alp Tracks 100, Kastle TX 103, Black Crows Camox Freebird and Faction Agent 3.0 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. However, none of us were super impressed with the firm snow hold of the Black Diamond Helio 105
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. All the skis in the middle of the weight and width spectrum, like the Dynafit Beast 98, do pretty well.
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 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, narrow waist, and stiff construction would be a liability in the soft. Not so, in our experience. This single data point hints at the issues with generalizing dimensions and construction type.
While every ski did well in the powder, we have to give 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 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 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 Salomon MTN Explore 95 also compares favorably, especially considering the respective weight of each.
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. In any of these endeavors, you are likely to encounter poor snow, 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 Fischer Transalp 90.
The narrow and ultralight skis also battled in tough snow. Mass and girth, it turns out, help with tough snow. This isn't much of a surprise to most. The K2 WayBack 80 took a specialized award in this light and fast category.
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.
— Jediah Porter