Picking the best backcountry ski is the sexy part of assembling your BC gear kit. Our experts have spent 5 years testing 30+ models, noting what sets each apart and identifying the best for you. For our 2020 update, we've purchased and compared 16 contenders, covering an incredibly wide spectrum of performance. We've put each one through the wringer, lap after lap in the backcountry, subjecting them to a series of metrics, such as stability at speed, and powder, to evaluate their overall performance. We present to you the end result of our knowledge, efforts, and thought process is the best darn reviews of backcountry skis on the internet.
The Best Backcountry Skis of 2020
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 Editors Choice winner strikes all the right balances of downhill performance, versatility, and uphill weight.
We granted the Camox an Editors' Choice but didn't displace perennial favorite Kastle TX98. In a direct comparison, these two models ski very similarly. Both are great in all conditions and awesome in some. The Kastle is lighter, but the Camox is more durable. All will get more turns, on a given trip or season, out of the Camox than out of the Kastle. 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 less expensive than the Kastle.
Read review: Black Crows Camox Freebird
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 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. The TX98 shares top honor with the aforementioned Black Crows Camox Freebird. The Camox and the TX98 ski about the same, but the Camox is heavier and less expensive. The TX98 is a little more fragile than the Camox.
Read review: Kastle TX98
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 considering the MTN Explore for an Editors' Choice award. The core of the team couldn't decide between the MTN Explore and the Black Crows Camox Freebird. Both were clearly great skis. We put our heads together and realized we still hadn't handed either of these skis to an 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.
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 the Best Buy award. If a product only narrowly misses the EC award, but costs significantly less than average, it is an easy Best Buy choice. Shop with confidence.
Read review: Salomon MTN Explore 95
Best for Powder Touring
DPS Tour1 Wailer 112 RP2
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 review: DPS Tour1 Wailer 112
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 tenaciously 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 crud and 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. In a direct comparison of this K2 WayBack 80 and former Top Pick winning Atomic Backland UL 78, it is the K2'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 Top Pick award selections. The K2 WayBack 80 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 apparent 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
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 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 Trus,t 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 are continuously scouring the market for appropriate and desirable backcountry skis. 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) 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 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 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.
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 Volkl VTA packs a punch at a reasonable cost; however, it can be difficult to find at some retailers. We've also included the Fischer Hannibal, which is a good deal and finish in the top five.
Our Best Buy Award goes to the Salomon MTN Explore 95. This Salomon was a very close contender for an Editors' Choice, but came up short. Its price, though, sets it further apart, and we don't hesitate to recommend it to bargain hunters and others. 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 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, which can accrete and freeze even more snow. The Top Pick for ultralight performance K2 WayBack 80 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.
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 and K2 WayBack 80 are both even lighter than the DPS 99, with different downhill skiing characteristics. The newly added Dynafit Tour 88 and Fischer Transalp 90 Carbon, both just under five pounds, are solidly in this weight class. Their dimensions and performance lend them higher all-around performance than the first three ultra lighters.
In the middle of the pack, weight-wise is our Editors' Choice winning Kastle TX 98 and Black Crows Camox Freebird, Best Buy 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.
Finally, the heaviest skis, all coming in over seven pounds for the pair, in our test are the G3 Roamr 108, 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 and G3 Roamr 108 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, 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.
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 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 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. None of us were super impressed with the firm snow hold of the Black Diamond Helio 105
The Editors' Choice Kastle TX 98 is excellent on firm snow, as long as speeds are kept moderate. 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 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, does pretty well.
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. We had virtually the same firm snow experience with the Top Pick K2 Wayback 80.
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 a 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.
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.
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.
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 is in the same category. Its poor snow performance wins it another of our Editors Choice Awards. We had a hard time in tough snow with the Dynafit Tour 88 and 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. Between the two lightest and narrowest skis in the test, it was poor snow performance that differentiated. Neither did awesome, but the K2 WayBack 80 edged ahead of the Atomic Backland UL 78 and took our Top Pick 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 make 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