How We Tested Backcountry Skis

By:
Jediah Porter
Review Editor

Last Updated:
Tuesday
March 6, 2018

Mainly, in order to test backcountry skis, we went backcountry skiing. This alone differentiates our review from the bulk of comparative backcountry ski reviews. Many of the comparative reviews out there use resort slopes to test backcountry skis. This allows great mileage, but does not at all simulate true backcountry conditions.

It is a rough job  but someone needs to do it. Testing skis in Grand Teton National Park. April 2015.
It is a rough job, but someone needs to do it. Testing skis in Grand Teton National Park. April 2015.

Product Selection and Preparation


Before even beginning our test, we surveyed the entire market and narrowed our selection to over a dozen of the best all-around backcountry specific skis available. We chose products that are at least a little lighter than your average all-mountain resort ski and that are all between 88 and 110 mm underfoot. We only chose skis that the manufacturer markets as suited for backcountry skiing. We selected skis sized for our lead test editor, Jed Porter, at 5'10" and 165 lbs. For each model selected, we purchased the ski closest to 182 cm in length.

Comparative ski testing in Alberta. March 2015.
Comparative ski testing in Alberta. March 2015.

We had all the skis mounted with the Best Buy Award-winning backcountry binding, the Dynafit Speed Turn. We mounted every ski to the manufacturer's specifications and had all of them tuned the same. Tuning was done after at least a day or two of skiing each one straight out of the wrapper. We also equipped every set of skis with its own dedicated set of skins. We tested the skins simultaneously and have reported our results in our Climbing Skin Review.

Soft snow  whether deep and steep or shallow and fast  is always fun. Here  lead editor Jediah Porter snags the mega classic Forever Young Couloir in perfect powder. Rogers Pass  British Columbia. March 2015. On the Black Diamond Carbon Convert skis.
Soft snow, whether deep and steep or shallow and fast, is always fun. Here, lead editor Jediah Porter snags the mega classic Forever Young Couloir in perfect powder. Rogers Pass, British Columbia. March 2015. On the Black Diamond Carbon Convert skis.

Note that we purchased all of these skis. Just as in every OutdoorGearLab review, we purchased the equipment we reviewed here on the open market. This also sets us apart from other comparative reviews. While there are an abundance of private, one-off, ski reviews on the internet from users that have purchased their own skis, we know of no other comparative, comprehensive backcountry ski review in which the reviewer purchased all of the skis. Most seemingly similar reviews are with magazines and blogs that are reviewing advertisers' products.

Testing Methods


We weighed and measured the length and widths of the skis ourselves. In measuring the skis for width and length we found that the claimed dimensions were pretty accurate. Claimed dimensions only varied from the actual by about two to three percent, if at all. We took our actual measurements and calculated a weight-to-surface area ratio. Reported in grams per square centimeter, this relatively simple calculation helps to compare the weight effect of different construction techniques and materials between skis of different sizes. It is just one more data point, and is far from exact. There are elaborate ways to calculate surface area, but we chose one that is repeatable and simple. It could be better, but it couldn't be more repeatable. If you wish to use this calculation for comparing skis we did not test, you may. Using real measurements is marginally better than using the manufacturers' claims, but both will give you all the information you need. Our equation is this, all dimensions in cm. (cm=mm/10)

((Tip Width + Waist width + tail width) / 3) x length = surface area in cm^2.

(Weight of one ski in grams) / (surface area in cm^2) = weight per surface area in g/cm^2.

We recruited a roster of 14 skiers, each of whom rode at least one set of skis. Around half of them skied more than three of the pairs. 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. Our lead test editor skied every pair in a variety of conditions. He made sure to personally test each ski in powder, firm snow, poor snow, steep conditions, and on at least one big mission. Learn more about the experience and qualifications of our lead tester here.

And then we skied. A lot. Over 500,000 vertical feet, so far. And testing is continuous and on-going. We skied in three U.S. states and two Canadian Provinces. We skied over three months and many days out. We found great snow and poor, steep terrain and mellow. We hit rocks and temporarily lost skis in bottomless powder. We rode side country at Vail and deep wilderness in the Wind River Range. We snagged one of the best powder days in years in California, and skied 15,000 feet of perfect pow one day in the Tetons. In the course of testing these skis we rappelled in Silverton and taught Marines in Bridgeport and slid off the summit of the Grand Teton. We slogged the entire Wapta Traverse and dropped roadside chutes in the San Juans. We had skiers making first descents in Alaska and quick, before work runs on Teton Pass. At times our testing team swapped partway through the day in order to compare performance. We skinned most of the vertical we skied. A couple of times we rode chairlifts, and a couple of other times we used car shuttles to get free vertical.

Touring skis are evaluated just as much for the uphill as for the down. Lightweight skis make the climb easier and leave the skier energy for the descent. Here world class mountain guide Jeff Witt climbs with the K2 Wayback 96 on Rogers Pass  British Columbia.
Touring skis are evaluated just as much for the uphill as for the down. Lightweight skis make the climb easier and leave the skier energy for the descent. Here world class mountain guide Jeff Witt climbs with the K2 Wayback 96 on Rogers Pass, British Columbia.

Conclusions


With this amount and variety of actual backcountry terrain and snow and the depth of experience the testing team was able to apply, we are confident in our assessment of these skis for these skiers and our patterns of usage. Comparative testing in real backcountry terrain takes a great deal of work, and the outcome is plagued with subjectivity. We worked very hard to make direct, valuable comparisons, all in the context of real usage, now and anticipated. We have spent years in, and studying, the backcountry ski community in order to best understand how equipment is used. Most of the center of the bell curve of backcountry skiers will find our results relevant, while outliers will need to extrapolate conclusions for themselves.