We examined more than 50 of the best backcountry skis before selecting the top 12 for our extensive testing. These 12 pairs of skis saw months of use in all kinds of conditions and environments, as our testing team boasts broad and deep experience, skiing all over North and South America just last year. To maximize your experience, you want the best gear you can acquire. We've decided upon a set of metrics to test each pair, and our scoring system is designed to quantify that which is otherwise so difficult to assess - which ski is gonna be the most fun!?
The Best Backcountry Skis of 2019
|Price||$949 List||$699 List||$559.96 at Backcountry|
Compare at 2 sellers
|$480.00 at Amazon||$639.99 at Amazon|
|Pros||Light, well-balanced downhill performance||All around ski performance, hit what we consider to be the weight ‘sweet spot’||Solid all around downhill performance, compatible with excellent Dynafit SpeedSkins||Light and versatile||Light, all around downhill performance|
|Cons||Expensive, ski “short”||Grabby firm snow performance, expensive||Heavier than average||Limited poor snow performance||Wobble in longer radius powder turns, slow down in tough snow|
|Bottom Line||Excellent, all around backcountry skis for human powered adventures 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.||Light, big mountain skis for human powered skiing in all conditions; you won’t ski like a movie star, but you will ski it all efficiently and easy on your wallet.|
|Rating Categories||Kastle TX98||Volkl VTA 98||Dynafit Beast 98||Fischer Hannibal||Blizzard Zero G 95|
|Stability At Speed (15%)|
|Firm Snow (20%)|
|Crud And Poor Snow (20%)|
|Specs||Kastle TX98||Volkl VTA 98||Dynafit Beast 98||Fischer Hannibal||Blizzard Zero G 95|
|Weight Per Pair (lbs.)||6.2 lbs||6.4 lbs||6.8 lbs||6.2 lbs||5.9 lbs|
|Available Lengths||168, 178, 188||156, 163, 170, 177, 184||170, 177, 184||162, 169, 176, 183||164, 171, 178, 185|
|Weight Per Ski grams||1394g, 1400g, average: 1397g||1454g, 1449g, average: 1452g||1541g, 1553g, average: 1547g||1421g, 1388g, average: 1405g||1340g, 1347g, average: 1344g|
|Weight Per Pair grams||2794||2903||3094||2809||2687|
|Weight per Surface Area Ratio, g/cm^2||0.71||0.69||0.75||0.69||0.7|
|Construction Type||Sandwich Cap Hybrid||Sandwich Cap Hybrid||Sandwich||Sandwich Cap Hybrid||Sandwich|
|Core Material||Karuba Wood||Beech, poplar & paulownia||Ash/poplar wood||Paulownia wood with carbon stringers||Paulownia wood, Carbon Drive Technology|
|Rocker/Camber||Low camber||Tip rocker||Double Ellipse Rocker||Tip rocker||Tip and tail rocker, camber underfoot|
Best Overall Backcountry Ski
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 a full year of testing and almost 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 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
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
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 [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 96, especially at this price, doesn't need any more downhill performance.
Surely, more material and mass would lend greater downhill performance. However, we don't want any more weight for the uphill. Fischer has struck a balance, and you'll dig that balance. 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 99
In 2016, DPS launched their "Tour1" construction, which significantly lightened the narrower versions of the venerable Wailer shape. It is mere grams from the lightest ski in our review and is among the widest skis we tested. In perfect powder and the occasional crusty turn, the Wailer is fun and predictable. If your ski life is blessed with miles of deep powder touring, and little else, consider the DPS Tour1 Wailer.
If any of your travel patterns take you to icy snow, steer clear. On an unexpectedly icy descent of Wyoming's South Teton, we had a few downright frightening turns. These are a specialized tool. One of the Best Buy or Editors' Choice winners is a better all-around choice if that's what you seek.
Read review: DPS Tour1 Wailer 99
Top Pick for Ultralight Big Missions
Atomic Backland UL 78
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 testers choice. In this context, there is nothing better than a sub-5-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 actual "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
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
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
Analysis & Test Results
We're carving out some days here in the middle of winter to make sure you have the latest and greatest information at your disposal. First, we've continued to ride our award-winning skis, tweaking this review with our long-term impressions. Additionally, we added two new products to the roster and have three more products "in the works". Your OutdoorGearLab backcountry ski review is comprehensive, thorough, and ever-growing. We pound the skin tracks and slam the crusts to get you the best possible information. The two new products we added for this time around are both from Black Diamond. Through the first half of the winter ski season (ski season doesn't really end for our passionate team…) we rode the Black Diamond Helio 105 on short mini-golf days, huge powder lines, breakable crust ski guiding, and with a spectrum of boots and riders. What we found is a ski that is reliable and tailored to human-powered soft snow skiing for the good to great skier. The other new product is a Top Pick award winner and is truly a unique entry. The Black Diamond Glidelite Snow Trekker skis snuck into our backcountry ski review for a variety of reasons. First, it is exactly that; a ski for the backcountry. However, it is unlike anything else in our review. If you took a snowshoe and mated it with a cross-country ski, then sent it to AT ski boot camp, this is what you might end up with. The end result is a neat tool for casual exploration of very mellow terrain in soft and fresh snow. The price of entry is remarkably low and the doors it might open for the casual user are impressive. Don't be confused, though. This is barely comparable to the other skis we reviewed here. This is not a low-budget alternative to actual AT skis. The Glidelite Snow Trekkers create a whole new category of snow travel; literal "meadow skipping".
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. Just like with our All-Mountain Alpine Ski Review, we targeted general purpose equipment rather than specialty products. We tested the skis with modern, tech-style alpine touring bindings, boots, and technique. This style of skiing and equipment allows the user to climb with heels free, and descend with them locked. All of these skis can also be used with telemark equipment and technique, but this style is less popular. We did not test skis with telemark bindings.
In first narrowing the field, and then testing what we chose, we learned a great deal about what constitutes a great backcountry ski. We also 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.
To give you the best recommendations for your purposes, we evaluate skis for uphill and downhill performance. By far the most significant determinant of uphill performance is weight. Weight is both simple and complex. First, we weigh the skis. Next, we factor in width, as climbing skin weight (and the weight of snow stuck and carried on top of the skis) is directly correlated with ski surface area. Some performance attributes are associated with width and weight. For the uphill, weight needs to be low. For the downhill, there is a sweet spot. That downhill sweet spot is a higher weight than you would prefer for going uphill. In downhill performance, we divide our observations and scoring into consideration of poor snow performance, firm snow performance, stability at speed and in steep terrain, and powder snow performance.
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 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 ten 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. Our Top Pick winner, 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.
In the ultralight weight class the Top Pick winning DPS Tour1 Wailer 99 is a super-light, wide-bodied powder touring monster. The DPS can be pressed into service for all-around application, but it does best on many thousands of feet of deep, cold powder snow. For this specialty build at such a light weight, we gave the DPS 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, with different downhill skiing characteristics. Finally, also sub six pounds is the Best Buy Blizzard Zero G 95.
In the middle of the pack, weight-wise is our Editors' Choice winning Kastle TX 98, Volkl VTA 98, 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.
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, 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 four 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 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 out the numbers. Elsewhere on the web, you will 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 and DPS Tour1 can push right through almost as well as the more massive ones. No matter what technology is included in a ski, mass has a relationship to stability. The lighter skis won't be as stable as the heavier ones, all else equal. A carefully constructed light ski, of course, will out ski a sloppy heavier one.
Firm Snow Performance
Firm snow in the backcountry is formed by melt freeze metamorphosis, and we call it corn, or it is formed by wind transport, and we call it wind board. The firmest expression of both of these can be called ice (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 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.
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.
The width, weight, and shape of the Tour1 is 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. For that, we gave it our Top Pick Award for powder touring. In multiple human powered trips to the high and cold reaches of Colorado's Rockies and Wyoming's Tetons, we had a great time scoping soft and fluffy on the Tour1 Wailer 99 skis.
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.
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 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 two Best Buy winners are discernible by their breakable crust performance. The Fischer Hannibal 96 is slightly better in poor snow than the Blizzard Zero G 95.
To accommodate the differences inherent in ungroomed, untraveled snow, your ideas of ski dimensions should adapt. Shorter skis may be in order; tight terrain, both up and down, rewards less length. Shorter skis are also lighter.
Width wise, consider some adjustment too. Wide skis are better when the snow is soft and/or poor. Now, in the backcountry, we generally ski a higher percentage of soft snow than we do in the resort. That's a vote in favor of wider skis for the backcountry, while narrow skis are better on firm snow, all else equal. Narrow skis are lighter; wide skis are heavier, and that weight increase compounds with the snow load on the top sheet and greater required skin width. Many of these dimension generalizations are contradictory and confusing. Our final take home is this: if you are between lengths, downsize. Unless you have a really, really good reason to do otherwise, choose a touring ski with an underfoot width between 90 and 105 mm.
Construction, Weight, and Durability
To get the weight down for the climb while optimizing downhill performance, these products make some compromises and add more expensive procedures and materials. Lighter skis are less durable than their heavier counterparts. The edges and bases are thinner, while the core materials are far more expensive. Carbon fiber is being ever more widely employed in ski design, especially in the lighter models.A ski's turning performance is a function of materials, weight, length, width, stiffness, sidecut (the radius of the curve formed by the edge), rocker (presence and degree of rise to the tip and tail), and camber (arc shape through the length of the ski, whether positive and called simply "camber," or negative and called "reverse camber"). Much is made of these last three and how these attributes affect the turning of the skis.
As one can see, however, these three attributes are just a few of many design criteria that influence a product's performance. Because there are so many variables, we steer clear of manufacturing and shape descriptors and aim to discuss performance attributes. For instance, common knowledge holds that wider skis are better in powder, while some of the most memorable powder runs in our test were on the narrowest products.
As mentioned, people are also accessing ungroomed snow with the help of ski lifts and internal combustion. On these "side-country" or cat/heli endeavors, proportions matter. If most or all of the uphill is accessed by mechanized means, equipment needs are more similar to those of a resort skier. If the skier is doing a great deal of the climbing herself, the skis we review here are suitable. On the other end of the spectrum is ski mountaineering. In this setting, most or all of the vertical is gained with human power, and the challenges and hazards are simply higher than in ski touring. You may be on glaciers, going for time, going huge, or using rock and alpine climbing techniques for your objective. As you read our review and make your own choices, understand that our testing and review is ski touring focused, but we did some testing and will report on the suitability of the products for ski mountaineering and, to a lesser degree, skiing with mechanized access.
For truly optimizing your performance, efficiency, and comfort, virtually all of your resort ski equipment and clothing could be swapped for more backcountry specific options. Additionally, some equipment required in the backcountry is never necessary for the resort. Besides skis, you must consider changing your bindings, boots, and adding climbing skins to your collection. Dedicated backcountry boots and bindings are lighter and more flexible than resort gear. You will also need avalanche safety equipment and training. Resort clothing works for short tours, but you will want dedicated touring gear for longer use.
Who We Are
Our lead test editor has enlisted a roster of 14 skiers to help test, each of whom rode at least one set of skis. On this test team were four internationally certified guides, three non-certified mountain guides, three avalanche instructors, two ski patrollers, five women, and one national champion randonnee racer. Their opinions, along with those of our lead tester, comprise the unified perspective you find in this review.
As powder season is upon us, we hope we've been able to help you choose a backcountry ski that fits your needs. No grab a pair of skis and get out there. The mountain are calling.
— Jediah Porter