Mainly, 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 excellent mileage in a short timeframe but does not at all simulate true backcountry conditions. We take our time and take our laps, almost all in the backcountry.
Product Selection and Preparation
Before even beginning our test, we surveyed the entire market and narrowed our selection to 10 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 78 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.
We had all the skis mounted with tech style alpine touring bindings. We mounted every ski to the manufacturer's specifications and had all of them tuned the same. 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.
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 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.
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. 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 1,000,000 vertical feet, so far (in the four seasons we've been testing backcountry skis). And testing is continuous and on-going. We skied in three U.S. states, two Canadian Provinces and two South American countries. 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 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.
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 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.