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The 10 Best Backcountry Skis

Powder performance is the most forgiving of all our rated metrics. Every ski we used was a joy in powder. Some go faster  but none are unenjoyable.
By Jediah Porter ⋅ Review Editor
Tuesday December 11, 2018
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No matter who you are, choosing backcountry skis is a challenge. We've done the work for you, researching over 45 pairs of skis before purchasing and putting the top 10 to the test. Unless you have the opportunity to try a dozen products yourself, you risk needing to sort through piles of vague manufacturer information and even-more-vague "reviews as endorsement" on the internet. The few unbiased reviews you might find are from folks that haven't been able to compare many different products. We buy the skis at retail (therefore eliminating external or perceived pressures to please manufacturer PR departments), compare them to one another, and do almost all of our testing in actual backcountry conditions. Finally, we communicate to you the uphill and downhill characteristics of the skis we've tested in performance-based terms in our detailed review below.


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Awards Editors' Choice Award   Best Buy Award Best Buy Award 
Price $948.95 at Backcountry
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$698.95 at Backcountry$699.95 at Backcountry
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$699.95 at REI
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$699.95 at REI
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Pros Light, well-balanced downhill performanceAll around ski performance, hit what we consider to be the weight ‘sweet spot’Solid all around downhill performance, compatible with excellent Dynafit SpeedSkinsLight and versatileLight, all around downhill performance
Cons Expensive, ski “short”Grabby firm snow performance, expensiveHeavier than averageLimited poor snow performanceWobble 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
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Specs Kastle TX98 Volkl VTA 98 Dynafit Beast 98 Fischer Hannibal Blizzard Zero G 95
Tested length 178 184 184 183 178
Actual Length 177 185 183 183 176
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
Claimed Dimensions 128/98/117 133/98/116 136/98/117 126/96/114 128/95/111.5
Actual Dimensions 122/97/116 132/98/111 126/97/116 127/97/113 123/94/110
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
Waist Width 98 98 98 97 95
Radius (meters) 22 22.3 21 21 21
Rocker/Camber Low camber Tip rocker Double Ellipse Rocker Tip rocker Tip and tail rocker, camber underfoot
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December 2018
For the 2018-19 ski season, we tested a nearly all-new set of seven backcountry skis and compared them to three perennial favorites. The result is a set of ten well-used and carefully compared skis. Our selection spans budget and function, within the general human-powered backcountry ski category. We have ultralight ski mountaineering sticks stacked up next to big guns that are nearly as tight on the downhill as your resort boards. The bulk, though, of our testing and selection was in typical, "middle of the road" human powered backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. Construction attributes are interesting and easy to "see", but it is the actual performance that matters to you. You won't find here platitudes like "we really liked the rocker" of these skis. We speak in constructive, clear terms like "these skis tracked evenly through breakable crust, but our team of testers agreed that the tips grabbed in steep and firm snow". Our primary award winners are suited to travel and ski all around the world in all conditions. Our testing over the last year took place in California, Colorado, Idaho, Alberta, British Columbia, Chile, and Argentina.

Best Overall Backcountry Ski


Kastle TX98


Editors' Choice Award

$948.95
at Backcountry
See It

Weight: 6.2 pounds | Actual Dimensions: 122/97/116
Light
Good tough snow performance
Great firm and powder snow performance
Expensive

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 months of testing and almost 100,000 vertical feet of human-powered skiing, 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 it is steep, and the biggest weakness of the Kastle is in higher speed situations. The softer construction and light weight dictate a slower downhill pace. 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 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


Weight: 5.9 pounds | Actual Dimensions: 123/94/110
Light
Phenomenal firm snow grip
Satisfactory soft snow performance
Tough snow requires patience

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 more rigid than most of the pack) 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


Fischer Hannibal


Lightweight
All-around soft snow performance
Slight disadvantage in durability
A little chattery in steep and firm

The Fischer Hannibal family is one of our lead test editor's favorite backcountry skis ever, and it earned this praise from our all-mountain resort ski lead tester Mike Phillips 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


DPS Wailer 99 Tour1
Top Pick Award

$1,095.00
at Amazon
See It

Light and surfy
Get pushed around at speed and in funky snow
Super squirrely firm snow performance

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


Top Pick Award

$559.99
(20% off)
at MooseJaw
See It

Weight: 4.8 pounds | Actual Dimensions: 113/78/102
Ridiculously light
Amazing technical firm snow performance
Virtually no support for high-speed skiing
Require meticulous survival skiing in tough snow

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. 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


Weight: 8 pounds | Actual Dimensions: 139/108/114
Fast, big powder turns
Confident, tough snow riding
Slick and clean graphics
Heavy
Expensive

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


Analysis & Test Results


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.

Tested 2018 skis  from left to right: Dynafit Beast  G3 Findr  BD Route  Black Crows Corvus  Kastle TX 98  Atomic Backland UL  Blizzard Zero G  Fischer Hannibal.
Tested 2018 skis, from left to right: Dynafit Beast, G3 Findr, BD Route, Black Crows Corvus, Kastle TX 98, Atomic Backland UL, Blizzard Zero G, Fischer Hannibal.

We keep tabs on a market that includes about 50 relevant products. We then quickly narrow it down to products that will withstand our long-term review and fit our educated description of what constitutes a backcountry ski. For 2018, we compare ten of the best. We are already starting the comprehensive 2019/20 ski review.

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 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.

Value


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, costing about $700 and scoring 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 cost $700 and finish in the top five.


Weight


Weight is the only criterion that directly and permanently 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 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. Our initial weight numbers are included in the chart above. 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.


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 bent at such a lightweight, we gave the DPS one of our Top Pick awards. These skis are relatively fragile, truly backcountry specific tools with a pair weight of something under six pounds. 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.

Tested ultralight skis in their element. Ski mountaineering in Grand Teton National Park.
Tested ultralight skis in their element. Ski mountaineering in Grand Teton National Park.

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.

Light skis like the Atomic Backland UL 78 make long distance touring more reasonable. Lead test editor in the middle of the Wapta Traverse  right on the British Columbia/Alberta border.
Light skis like the Atomic Backland UL 78 make long distance touring more reasonable. Lead test editor in the middle of the Wapta Traverse, right on the British Columbia/Alberta border.

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 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 three heavier ski models are good to excellent downhill skis that are branded to tour.

We also calculated the weight-to-surface area ratio of each ski and the master chart lists this calculation in grams per square cm 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. Consult our How We Test article to learn our repeatable methodology. Elsewhere on the web, you will see surface-area-to-weight numbers generated. Each reviewer in those cases uses slightly different methods, and most keep their calculations a secret.

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, expensive, 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.

Steep terrain and fast travel  especially together  require stable skis. Jed Porter in the STS Couloir  Mt Cheops  British Columbia.
Steep terrain and fast travel, especially together, require stable skis. Jed Porter in the STS Couloir, Mt Cheops, British Columbia.

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. 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 far 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 once the user is tuned into their quirks.

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.

Powder Performance


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-incuded 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.

Lead Editor Jed Porter in perfect Colorado "Champagne Powder" on the Top Pick DPS Wailer 99 Tour 1.
Lead Editor Jed Porter in perfect Colorado "Champagne Powder" on the Top Pick DPS Wailer 99 Tour 1.

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.

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

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.

Human-powered skiing isn't always face shots and bluebird skies. Sometimes it is tough snow and flat light. For that  we assess skis for their crud performance.
Human-powered skiing isn't always face shots and bluebird skies. Sometimes it is tough snow and flat light. For that, we assess skis for their crud performance.

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.

What Differentiates a Backcountry Ski?


At its simplest, a backcountry ski is a lighter version of an alpine resort tool. What makes a ski enjoyable at a resort is at least similar to what informs your downhill experience in the backcountry. On top of that, we have to lug the equipment uphill when in the backcountry. If the manufacturer could simply remove mass without changing performance, backcountry ski design would be quite a bit simpler. However, lighter skis, all else equal, still perform differently. The mass is part of the performance.

That said, companies are doing a better and better job of tuning skis for performance while keeping the weight low. In the past, backcountry specific skis were lightweight, while good skis were heavy. In our current test roster, every ski performs well, and 90 percent are lighter than every ski in our Men's All-Mountain Ski Review.

You Can Use Regular Alpine Skis


It is true. Besides weight, there is little to no reason you cannot use any model in the backcountry. If you love a certain model of alpine ski, it is possible to mount it for backcountry use. Check out our full review of all-mountain skis for options in this category. You will work harder, maybe much harder, carrying the extra mass uphill, but otherwise, performance should be good.

Dimensions


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.

For most ski touring  all-around skis around 95mm underfoot represent the sweet spot. Here  Best Buy Fischer Hannibal on Wyoming's Teton Pass.
For most ski touring, all-around skis around 95mm underfoot represent the sweet spot. Here, Best Buy Fischer Hannibal on Wyoming's Teton Pass.

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.

Technical ski mountaineering is "sexy"  but not actually that much fun. It is the sort of challenge you enjoy after the fact. In that environment  skis that are light and compact are beneficial.
Technical ski mountaineering is "sexy", but not actually that much fun. It is the sort of challenge you enjoy after the fact. In that environment, skis that are light and compact are beneficial.

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.

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 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 on Rogers Pass, British Columbia.

Accessories


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.

Jediah Porter, Lead Tester


Lead test editor and IFMGA certified guide Jed Porter on tester skis in Alberta  Canada.
Lead test editor and IFMGA certified guide Jed Porter on tester skis in Alberta, Canada.

Jed Porter is a backcountry skier to the core. While he rides lifts (and occasionally a helicopter) his fair share, his ski passion is in the wild. It has always been this way. While he grew up occasionally skiing his local ski hill in upstate New York, he spent a great deal more of his young ski time on nordic gear slamming around in the woods. He still slams around and has amassed an impressive resume of backcountry descents and accomplishments. He has ski toured in 13 U.S. states, Peru, Chile, Argentina and four Canadian provinces (well, the Yukon is a territory, not a province…) over 20 years of dedicated pursuit. He is an avalanche instructor and is a working backcountry guide certified by the American Mountain Guides Association as a Ski Mountaineering Guide. On the clock and off he has ticked thousands of human powered ski runs, including first recorded descents in Alaska, Peru, and California. He is an avid fan of lightweight, fast travel, and a student of ski technique.

Jed's deep backcountry resume and athletic approach to wilderness skiing tilt his preference to the lightest gear in the review. With all-around performance at an unprecedented featherweight, the original Fischer Hannibal is his favorite touring ski ever, but he also enjoyed charging with the big dogs on an all-mountain resort ski mounted with minimalist Dynafit Speed Turn bindings. His best-known ski accomplishments (a summit-to-ski descent of Mount Saint Elias and completion of the legendary California Red Line Traverse were both completed on randonnee race style equipment. In short, Jed knows the full spectrum of ski gear and the whole gamut of that which we could call "backcountry skiing". His editorial influence on our review is strong.

Testing skis and tagging summits. Volcan Lanin on the Chile/Argentina border.
Testing skis and tagging summits. Volcan Lanin on the Chile/Argentina border.

Conclusion


As powder season is upon us, we hope we've been able to help you choose a backcountry ski that fits your needs. If you're still unsure as to which model is best for you, consider reading over our Buying Advice article to sort out what's what.


Jediah Porter