The 10 Best Backcountry Touring SkisPublished on 09/19/2023 · 19 min readTrying to stay away from the ski resorts this season? No problem! Check out these 10 recommendations for backcountry touring skis from Ski Expert Luke Hinz!
Photo by Noah Kuhns
Backcountry skiing, otherwise known as alpine touring, is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the skiing world. And it's for good reasons: zero lift lines, heaps and heaps of fresh mountain air, and endless fields of untracked powder await anyone willing to hoof it out and earn their turns. But due to the nature of touring, backcountry skis tend to be very different from other types of skis, and it can be confusing when staring at all the various options. So what makes a good backcountry ski, and what brands are putting out some of the best backcountry skis on the market right now? We’ll explore all that and more below.
What Makes a Ski a Backcountry Ski?
With more skiers striking out into the backcountry than ever before, almost every ski brand is now releasing backcountry-specific skis. So what makes a ski a backcountry ski? Simply put, a lot of it comes down to the construction. Because alpine touring involves hiking up under your own power, backcountry skis tend to be constructed with lighter materials in order to create less strain on your legs as you hike and also to cut down on the amount of weight you carry throughout a day in the backcountry. Backcountry skis can range in weight from wide powder skis weighing just a few 100 grams less than a regular alpine ski to ultra-lightweight mountaineering skis that would give a toothbrush a run for its money in the weight department. This reduction in weight often means sacrificing key materials used in resort skis, with the result being that backcountry skis don’t perform to quite the same level as a resort-specific ski. But for skiers looking to explore vast new terrain, the trade-offs are worth it.
That being said, with the advent of hybrid bindings, such as the Salomon Shift, there is also a growing demand for hybrid resort/touring skis, meaning a ski that can be used both in the resort and in the backcountry. These skis tend to combine a little bit of construction design from both alpine and backcountry skis. And some brands, such as Rossignol and Head, are building their resort-focused skis with light enough materials that they also market them as backcountry skis. Because of this, you no longer need to necessarily refine your search to something ‘touring-specific’ when shopping for a backcountry ski. Although 50/50 resort/touring skis are still a niche part of the ski market, there is no doubt they will be expanding rapidly in the years to come.
The technology used to build touring skis has evolved by leaps and bounds over the last decade, and every brand is trying to nail down the perfect ski that is both lightweight and efficient on the uphill but skis just as confidently as a resort ski on the downhill. To do this, brands are utilizing some unique new construction designs.
Many brands, such as Blizzard and Rossignol, are now using much lighter types of wood in the core of the skis, such as paulownia, poplar, and ash, as opposed to the heavier aspen and maple used in resort skis. And while many hard-charging freeride skis or carving skis use full sheets of metal in their construction, backcountry skis almost universally shun metal due to its weight. Instead, many touring skis will incorporate carbon into the frame in place of metal in order to stiffen the ski. Carbon retains a level of stiffness at a fraction of the weight of metal; the drawback, however, is that carbon is still not as stiff as metal, nor is it as consistent in its flex, resulting in a ski that can tend to chatter at higher speeds or in rough conditions.
When it comes to choosing a proper ski length for backcountry skis, it doesn’t really differ all that much from resort skis. Generally, it is ideal to choose a ski that reaches between your chin and the top of your head. Beginner skiers, or skiers who like more control and less speed, should opt for a shorter-length ski. Advanced to expert skiers and skiers who like to go fast should opt for longer skis. But advanced skiers looking to do more touring in tight trees or steep couloirs might also benefit from choosing a shorter ski if they plan on routinely skiing in tight spaces.
The dimensions of alpine touring skis are best gauged by the waist width (measured in millimeters) and are crucial in backcountry touring—remember, there are no groomed runs where you’re going with these skis. As such, the narrowest of touring skis, generally 80 to 90mm, are usually designed for ultra-lightweight ski mountaineers or for the fanatical Skimo racers for whom speed is the ultimate priority. These skis prioritize weight, and everything else is a distant second. Skis ranging from 90-105mm are solid all-mountain options that can tackle 85% of all conditions encountered in the backcountry. If you ski somewhere out West that gets a lot of regular powder days, skis in the 105-120 category can be a solid option to provide more float, though they can weigh a bit more. And due to their rarity in the backcountry, such wide skis can equate to you constantly having to break your own skin track, even when there is already an established one. Lastly, if you ski somewhere that gets so much snow it demands something wider than 120mm—well, I want to know where this fantasy land is and how to get there.
Weight is easily the most frustrating factor when choosing the right touring ski. Do you want a lightweight ski that allows you to quickly and effortlessly skin uphill? Or do you want a big, heavier ski that you can take down the mountain at mach speeds with no concern for the ski’s limits? Ideally, as backcountry skiers, we would like both, but that kind of technology just hasn’t arrived yet. Until it does, it’s best to ask yourself what your goals are in the backcountry. Are you hoping to gain tall, far-away summits or do mega-traverses, in which you rack up 10’K vert a day? If so, probably best to get a lightweight, more narrow ski that sacrifices some downhill performance. Are you hoping to gorge on deep powder on burly descents right outside the ski boundaries? Then you might want to reach for a heavier, wider ski designed for the downhill. It can be tricky to nail down a ski with the best weight-to-performance ratio, but with a myriad of backcountry skis crowding the shelves these days, it's safe to bet there is a good option out there for you.
Now that we’ve sufficiently explained what makes a backcountry ski, let’s delve into the brands and models that are nailing the concept. Below, we break down some of the best touring skis on the market right now, from lightweight mountaineering options to all-mountain powder seekers to outright freeride machines.
Top 10 Backcountry Touring Skis
- Dimensions: 134/105/120 in a 188cm
- Weight: 1660g in a 188cm
- Core Materials: Paulownia and carbon
When Blizzard first released the Zero G line of touring skis in 2017, it immediately reset the bar regarding what a lightweight ski built sans metal was capable of. The original Zero G 108 was uncompromising in its downhill stability and precision. In fact, the Zero G 108 turned out to be good. For the vast majority of backcountry tourers, the 108 was as beefy, if not beefier, than some of the rowdiest resort-specific big-mountain skis on the market. So Blizzard set out to redo the Zero G and make it more approachable for us mere mortals. Enter the Zero G 105, constructed with a lightweight paulownia wood core and a carbon laminate frame. The new Zero G weighs in at a healthy 1660g per ski in the 188cm length, making it ideal for lapping powder in the trees all day long, but the Zero G is still stiff and responsive enough for steep and technical descent. It’s not the lightest ski, and it's not the burliest ski, but for the everyday tourer looking for a lightweight setup on the ascent and strength and confidence on the descent, the Zero G 105 gets it done.
- Dimensions: 135/107/122 in a 167cm
- Weight: 1470g in a 167cm
- Core Materials: Caruba/poplar and carbon backbone
The ski industry as a whole has been slow to produce women-specific backcountry skis, but I like to think that Atomic waited so long simply because they were refining the Backland to be the best women’s touring ski on the market. Designed in the Austrian Alps, Atomic has a history of designing every type of ski that can be seen on a mountain, from ultra-lightweight mountaineering skis like the Backland UL 85 to the powder-devouring Bent Chetler 120. In the Backland, Atomic aimed to combine the best of both worlds and darn if those Euros didn’t nail it.
The Backland 107 is composed of a Caruba and poplar wood core, which keeps the ski at a ridiculous 1470g per ski in the 167cm length, but a carbon backbone laid over the core instills power and stability into the ski. To top it off, Atomic finished the Backland 107 with a Dura Cap sidewall construction to boost both the ski’s durability and edge hold. The opposite of other quiver skis, the Backland is built to shine in all conditions, from variable snow to steep couloirs to deep powder days. If you are a female skier looking for an absurdly light ski that sacrifices next to nothing on the downhill but still serves up a helping of playfulness, put the Backland 107 in your quiver and get rid of the rest. For the male rippers, there is also the Atomic Backland 107.
- Dimensions: 132/109/124 in the 184cm
- Weight: 1610 grams in the 184 cm length
- Core Materials: Full Carbon Weave around a Paulownia wood core
In Asia, many traditional pagodas were built as places of worship, which might explain how the newest ski in the DPS lineup received its name. Could it be a nod to the legion of backcountry skiers who have flocked to the boutique ski manufacturer over the years with nothing short of religious zeal? I’ll let you decide on that one. Whatever your thoughts, it’s hard to deny that DPS put out a serious contender for the best all-around touring ski with the Pagoda 100.
While DPS skis have been mainstays in the touring world due to their weight savings construction, many of their early ski designs often suffered from some fatal flaw, whether it was proving to be too soft in variable conditions or prone to fragility. But with the DPS Pagoda Tour, it seems like DPS has finally zeroed in on what works. The ski combines ash and paulownia stringers with a carbon laminate, resulting in a ski equal parts power and forgiveness but is still, ironically, playful and lively with an astounding 15m turn radius. Then, in an effort to outdo themselves, DPS added aerospace-grade foam to the core to lighten the ski even further while retaining stiffness—truly, the Pagoda is out of this world (Get it?). Unlike DPS’s more powder-focused earlier designs, like the well-loved RP models, the Pagoda is at home, both milking deep powder laps in mid-winter and carving up corn and chunder during long spring days.
- Dimensions: 124/99/115 in a 172cm
- Weight: 1475g in a 172cm
- Core Materials: Paulownia/pine with triaxial and carbon
There was a time when it was assumed that if your skis were more than 95mm underfoot, you couldn’t possibly be a true backcountry skier. Sure, all the Skimo guys in their spandex suits and ultra-lightweight skis get more laps in; but when the snow is deep and plentiful, they absolutely flounder. That’s where Faction’s La Machine comes in. It is an absolutely rotund touring ski with a 109mm waist that makes this the perfect tool for those epic powder days. When all the lemmings are waiting in line over an hour only to find skied-out powder, the La Machine is light enough—due to its carbon and Paulownia core—and girthy enough to take you to all the untracked powder you can feast upon. The La Machine sports a very small amount of camber underfoot, but for the most part, this ski is pure rocker, making it a surfy, smeary, and absolute powder slayer.
In comparison to the Agent series from Faction, which is designed more to be hybrid-style ski for both resort skiing and touring, the La Machine is their pure backcountry/powder weapon. It clocks in at nearly 200 grams lighter than the Agent, making it one of the most uphill-friendly powder skis available. So when the fat flakes are falling from the sky, and you can’t stand someone else crossing your tracks, reach for the La Machine 3 Mega.
- Dimensions: 140/107/119 in a 183cm
- Weight: 1875g in a 183cm
- Core Materials: Poplar, titanal binding plate, and glass and carbon mix
Black Crows was launched deep in the heart of the Chamonix Valley in 2007, and it's safe to say they hit the ground running. Fast forward 15 years, and the freeride ski company founded by pro skiers still hasn’t slowed down. The original Corvus was the company’s first launch, and it gained such a following within the Chamonix freeride scene that they started clamoring for an equivalent touring option. Thus, the Corvus Freebird was born, and its iconic pink scheme has become nearly ubiquitous throughout the backcountry ever since.
Though the Freebird ditches the metal used in the original Corvus, make no mistake—this ski is not for the faint of heart. Despite using a paulownia and poplar core mixed with a carbon and fiberglass laminate, the Corvus Freebird weighs a burly 1950g per ski and is squarely aimed at more aggressive skiers. Many pure backcountry skiers would argue that such a heavy ski hardly even qualifies as a touring option, but those naysayers have never experienced the Corvus on the downhill. The Corvus boasts a heavy camber profile that makes this ski damp and stable at any speed and in all conditions. In short, the Corvus loves to find steep terrain and dive headfirst into it—speed first, safety second. It’s why some of the biggest names in freeride skiing, from Christina Lustenberger to Matthias Giraud, swear by the pink skis. For the discerning big-mountain skier concerned only with downhill performance, the Corvus Freebird is the ultimate platform for big-mountain dreams.
- Dimensions: 1146/106/128 in a 179cm
- Weight: 1725 grams in a 179cm
- Core Materials: Poplar and beech hybrid multilayer woodcore with a titanal binding platform
While Völkl is famous for their all-mountain line of skis, such as the Mantra and the Kendo, those skis, with their tailored titanal frames and stiffer flexes, are far too heavy to cut it as an everyday touring ski. So Völkl developed the Blaze, a lighter, playful, and more agile brethren to their famous all-mountain siblings. Völkl designed the Blaze series specifically to be a hybrid-style ski: sturdy enough for everyday resort skiing, but still light enough for the occasional foray uphill outside the resort boundaries, and nimble enough to surf powder and navigate through trees.
To achieve a lighter construction, Völkl ditched the tailored titanal frame, opting instead for a poplar and beech woodcore that keeps the ski stiff where you need it, and flexible where you don’t. A simple titanal binding reinforcement plate underfoot gives the ski added edge grip on firmer snow. The Blaze, unlike its bigger brother the Mantra, is right at home making tighter, snappier turns, and due to its lightweight nature, it’s surfier in powder as well. For skiers who want just one ski for both the resort and for touring, the Blaze 106 was built to do it all.
7. Head Kore 93
- Dimensions: 133/93/115 in a 177cm
- Weight: 1700g in a 177cm
- Core Materials: Caruba/poplar with carbon and graphene
Ever since its inception, the Head Kore has been an enigma; how does a ski this lightweight and void of any metal perform at such a high level? Head has tapped into something truly special with the Kore, which has become a favorite across the ski industry as a highly versatile ski that can do it all. Head starts with a Caruba and poplar wood core, but then they ditch the metal so common in similar all-mountain skis, opting instead for graphene and two layers of carbon. The result is an absurdly lightweight ski that goes downhill with the stability and confidence of much heavier skis. In fact, the Kore is so lightweight (around 1700g for the 177cm) that Head bucked the current ski industry trend and didn’t even introduce a backcountry-specific line of skis. As far as Head is concerned, the Kore is their backcountry ski, one you can use on either side of the resort ropes. But somehow, it still performs like a resort ski, able to hang long GS-like turns on groomers but can just as easily shut it down for quick turns in tighter terrain.
However, the Kore is still a carbon ski, and sometimes it shows; it is certainly more prone to chatter than a traditional metal ski and can get bucked around a bit at very high speeds on firm snow. But for such a lightweight ski, the Head Kore is impressive in its resort display, easily going head-to-head with many burlier options. A lot of brands claim to have mastered the 50/50 resort/touring ski, but the Head Kore 93 is as close to that fantasy as you can possibly get.
- Dimensions: 142/108/128 in a 183cm
- Weight: 1605g in a 183cm
- Core Materials: Paulownia/maple with aramid, carbon, and fiberglass
Much like Armada, Line has positioned itself as a brand geared toward freeriders and freestylers over the years. But with the Vision Series, the company set out to design a completely different type of freestyle ski. Most freestyle skis incorporate a wood core, and…well, that’s about it, really. Freestyle skis tend to be pretty lightweight in order to get more airtime and boost off jumps, which is great for those objectives, but results in a ski that sacrifices stability and confidence in choppier conditions.
Line set out to change that, starting with the Vision. In order to achieve a lightweight but stable ski, Line introduced their aptly dubbed THC Construction, or Triple Hybrid Construction, which combines fiberglass, aramid, and carbon stringers to the wood core to provide dampness, while also offering plenty of pop between turns. I could go into how all of these materials resonate at a different frequency and more, but all we really care about is the end result: the Vision is a very damp and stable ski for weighing only 1605g per ski. And with a 108mm waist, the Vision provides more than ample float for the deepest of deep snow. The Vision 98 sports deeper rocker lines than its narrow brethren, the Vision 98, meaning it can blast and surf through the soft stuff easily, all while retaining a very playful nature. (The Line Vision is intended as a 50/50 touring/resort ski: for a dedicated touring ski, check out the Armada Locator).
And while a bit heavier than the Atomic Bent Chetler 120 and a bit more narrow, the Vision is ultimately much more stable in pow. But it is also stable where it really counts: in crud and variable snow conditions. Depending on where you live, you may not encounter a lot of days requiring the Vision 108, but when you do, you’ll be happy you have them.
- Dimensions: 127/95/111 in a 178cm
- Weight: 1260g in a 172cm
- Core Materials: Paulownia and carbon
I know what you’re thinking: “But there’s already a Blizzard Zero G on this list. And it took the top spot!” And you’re right. So is the Blizzard Zero G line so good that it deserves two spots on this list? In short: yes. Compared to its big brother above, the Zero G 95 is a thinner, more versatile sibling. If you think of the Zero G 105 as the big brother who is the starting quarterback for the high school football team, wins all the big games, and exalts in fame and popularity, then the Zero G 95 is the little brother quietly acing all his tests, obtaining a full scholarship to an Ivy League school, and ultimately selling a tech start-up for a gazillion dollars. Yeah, it’s that good.
For a touring ski, the Zero G 105 is a Swiss Army knife. It's light, weighing just 1190g in the 171cm length. It has a mid-fat waist, and it skis like a dream, demonstrating float, stability, and maneuverability. The Zero G shares the same construction as the 105, but with less rocker in the tip and more camber underfoot, resulting in a stiffer, more responsive ski that is at its best carving tight turns in technical terrain or on exposed faces. For such a lightweight ski, the Zero G 95 is a very demanding ski, but for a competent pilot, it offers untold rewards. With its sturdy chassis, confidence-inspiring camber, and lightweight nature, the Zero G 95 is a do-it-all goldilocks touring ski, and even comes in a women's Zero version.
10. K2 Wayback 106
There are truly amazing places to discover far beyond the confines of a ski slope with your crew in tow, and backcountry skis are the best tools to get you there. As I’ve laid out here, touring skis come in all shapes, sizes, and constructions, so if you are looking for a touring ski to add to your ski quiver before your next adventure, or you're looking for any other ski gear, please contact me or my fellow Curated Ski Experts here at Curated. Eager for more? Check out the best backcountry touring skis here.