Editor’s note: This was a legacy post buried in our archives. It got a ton of traffic, probably from folks new to the sport and looking for answers. Forthwith lies a new version I’m updating so it’s current. Feedback and suggestions appreciated. Bear in mind I’m trying to keep this BASIC for newcomers needing a foundational overview. I considered adding boot and binding tips, but let’s keep this post to just skis and an overview. Remember, just the basics.
Denali, 1973, Muldrow Glacier. All our group of climbing bums, world travelers, and NOLS instructors had in common was lack of experience — and keen interest in backcountry mountain skiing.
We did not have a clue about how to tackle the gigantic Muldrow Glacier. It was downright intimidating, with all the talk about icefalls and pulmonary edema, not to mention the “hill of cracks,” a square mile of crevasses that bulged from the glacier like a rotten grapefruit.
Nonetheless, one thing was known: we would travel on skis.
In those days the Park Service didn’t see eye to eye with skiers, and the ranger we spoke with expressed their position succinctly: “You guys should know”, he said, “that the last two guys to ski on the Muldrow had a couple of mountains named for them — after they skied into a crevasse and died.”
Mount Coven and Mount Carpe aside, ski mountaineering in 1973 was a primitive sport. Nevertheless we were adamant about using skis on the Muldrow. We all skied more than we walked, and enticement is a weak word for the feelings evoked by the thought of the snow blanketed mass of Denali in May (lust is a closer description).
To keep the Park Service happy we carried a pair of snowshoes for each person, and in case of a broken ski we carried an extra pair. Our loads were heavy. But for every plodding step up the mountain, there was a few more feet of skiing back down. As we proved, skiing worked.
Since those days, cable bindings, soft leather boots, and a host of other marginally effective ski equipment has passed by the wayside. Now people are doing astounding things in the mountains with ski equipment that is versatile, lightweight, and reliable.
Yet like other tools, ski gear is only as good as the user, and no tool is perfect for every job. Choosing ski mountaineering equipment is a maze of compromise and qualification. The right choices bring great rewards; the wrong, untold misery.
Alpine touring skis, boots and bindings, are covered here. First, a clarification of terms. Alpine ski touring (also known as AT or randonnee) is backcountry skiing in mountain terrain with alpine width or wider skis (at least about 80 mm at the waist, or the narrowest part of the ski), plastic ski boots, and bindings that allow vertical heel movement for walking and a latched down heel for downhill skiing.
Skiing with a heel that is always free to move up and down is called “free heel skiing” or “telemarking.” In reality, the definitions aren’t so clear cut. You can free heel ski on alpine touring equipment (though you can’t really telemark turn). Conversely, it is possible to secure the heel of your boot on a free heel rigs, and recent telemark gear can be set up with so much tension holding your heel down it is really closer to fixed heel AT gear than its nordic roots. Indeed, the fact that telemark gear is frequently heavier than alpine ski touring AT gear should send a clear message.
When you shop for gear, acquire well made and functional items that are proven by broad consumer use over a few seasons. Einstein said that “relativity is when a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute; but let him sit on a hot stove for a minute — and it is longer than any hour.” If Einstein was a mountaineer, he might have said the same thing about ski gear. Poor equipment can make a day seem like a year (or eternity, if you get massive failure in the wrong place) — with good gear a day will never be long enough.
One word describes the price of AT gear: astronomical. In part this is due to exchange rates, but it also hinges on the small size of the market along with the present scorching pace of expensive innovation. You can cut costs by buying use gear or shopping sale prices, but don’t cut corners in terms of quality. Bad boots will ski poorly and wreck your feet, while poor bindings will make your setup heavy or unsafe. The wrong skis will just make you cuss and go home. That said, any good “all mountain all terrain” alpine ski bought with an on-sale price will work fine as a backcountry ski.
BACKCOUNTRY TOURING SKIS — IN GENERAL
Specialized AT backcountry skis save weight and are designed to handle varied conditions. Around 180 cm is a common length for the average male backcountry skier. If you’re heavier and tend to ski fast in powder, a slightly longer (or fatter) ski might make your grin hurt more.
Many find it unpleasant to adjust to a radically different ski on their rare backcountry trips. If this is the case, simply mount AT bindings on your favorite alpine boards and go. Except for ultra-light touring skis, alpine and backcountry skis are virtually the same thing.
As with your other gear consider your primary use when choosing skis. Many people reserve their ski touring days for springtime when snow is often compacted, while others stick to a diet of mid-winter fluff. Moreover, it is common for highly active backcountry skiers to encounter nearly any snow condition imaginable. If you tend to only ski tour during a specific season, by all means shop a ski that trends to the type of snow you’re likely to encounter. If you expect to experience nearly anything in the nieve department, purchase a plank that’s known to be “all conditions, all terrain,” as most branded backcountry skis are.
Above all, don’t obsess on your skis. Consider the fact that while ski design varies, skis all fall under the same general design umbrella. Thus, any ski can ace any snow — with a good pilot. Work on your technique.
IN DETAIL — CHOOSING ALPINE TOURING BACKCOUNTRY SKIS
Alpine Touring (“AT”) skis have to do two things: ski up and ski down natural snow. The catch is “natural snow” — it comes in so many varieties that the Eskimos have 300 names for it. So, your AT skis have to handle varied snow. With space-age materials they ought to be able to build a ski that will do anything. Not so.
Although today’s ski technology is capable of working wonders, it hasn’t taken the step up to miracles. There are skis that are perfect for soft snow, and skis that are great for hard snow, but it’s tough to get skis that excel in both. A few skis come close to the ideal, but each is still a compromise in some area of performance.
Okay, the choices are many and hard. How do you hack through the P-tex jungle? To begin, form an image of your skiing style, both present and future. Do you want the security and comfort of an AT set up on your next hut trip? Are you planning on mostly lift serviced skiing, but want a setup for the occasional hike to the powder runs on the back side? Are you doing long winter walks with a bit of skiing thrown in? Or are you going to explore the extreme skiing arena?
Next, identify the season when you do most of your skiing, and the snow conditions you expect. Think about how much you want to spend; you may opt for a budget outfit by purchasing used alpine skis and boots, with new skins and bindings, or you can go whole hog for a state of the art setup. Above all, know the types of snow you’ll be skiing, purchase accordingly, and be aware of the fact that any ski will be a compromise in some conditions.
If you’re not a ski god you have two choices. The first is easier on the pocketbook: purchase one pair of skis that work best in the conditions you will encounter most often, then learn to get the best out of them in other types of snow. The best way to do this is seek out adverse conditions at a ski area. If you have soft snow boards, seek out the hardest steepest ice you can find. If you’ve chosen a hard snow ski practice skiing extreme guano snow. The second option is one usually taken by professional skiers and ski fanatics: accumulate a quiver of skis and choose your daily boards the way a golfer picks a club. Ski quivers can burn up your credit card, but most of the time you’ll have the best tool for the job at hand.
Below are the key features of modern skis and how they affect performance.
Length: Shorter skis (between 150 centimeters and 180 centimeters in length) weigh less, are easier to carry on a pack, and will turn with ease through the tightest trees and narrowest couloirs. Compact skis are also better for the intermediate skier because mistakes aren’t amplified, kick turns won’t pretzel your legs, and snowplow and stem turns are easier.
Some folks even contend that shorter skis contribute a degree of safety by applying less leverage in a fall. With the possibility of inconsistent release that many touring bindings have, this could be important. I’m 5’11″ in my socks and 160 lbs without a pack. After decades of skiing all lengths of backcountry skis I’m quite comfortable with 178 cm for more aggressive skiing, and sometimes I go as short as a 160 cm ski.
More, be sure to buy your skis in a size that is compatible with your weight. Today’s wider skis are designed to be skied shorter for a given weight and height, but will behave in strange ways when skied shorter then their designers intended. This is especially true of rockered skis (see below). Some ski manufacturers print recommended body weights on their skis. That can be useful but only as a general guideline.
Width: Skis come in a dizzying array of widths. Rule of thumb is the wider the ski, the easier it is to ride — especially in soft snow. Nonetheless, skis much wider than 100 mm at the waist are usually overkill for backcountry skiing. Too wide, and your skis will weigh a ton, and mass even more when they pick up piles of snow on top as you walk. Too wide, and you’ll be using wide climbing skins that add even more weight, and cost more money. Too wide, and you’ll have problems with binding brakes. It goes on and on.
Sidecut is the difference in width between the front shovel and the center (waist) of the ski. Sidecut helps a ski to turn by allowing it to flex in a smooth arc when placed on edge. Skis with less sidecut require more effort to turn, especially if they are longer. But they are more predictable, especially in junk snow and breakable crust. More sidecut makes a ski “quicker,” meaning it has a shorter turning radius and responds more aggressively to turn initiation. There is consensus that better backcountry skis have significant width under the foot (see above), so keep that in mind as well. Yet bear in mind that every design parameter of ski works in concert, so don’t get hung up on any one factor. If a ski has a good reputation — or you demo them and like them — don’t nix the idea of buying them because of something you read here. I’m only offering general guidelines.
Remember other factors, such as type of boot and ski construction, influence your perception of a skis quickness and predictability. Consequently, using dimensions alone to choose a ski can be next to useless. On the other hand, if you’ve narrowed your choice to several skis and demo skiing isn’t helping your indecision, a look at the sidecut may give you the extra oomph you need to get decisive.
Flex: One of the most arcane activities of ski reps and shop employees is the “flex session”. That’s when everyone meets, then while lubricating their muscles with numerous brews they “flex out” different makes and models of skis. With different comments like “look at that curve” and “feel the hinge in this tail” they decide which skis are sweet, and which are sour.
Flex is a valid criterion of performance, but is really only a small part of the design. This especially is true with today’s skis that use width and rocker to tune performance. As a rule of thumb, a softer flex may be better in soft snow because the ski takes less effort to flex into a turn arc, and a stiffer flex will frequently give better edge hold on hard snow. Skis have gotten softer over the years as manufacturers have learned ways of building in torsional (twist) rigidity without lengthwise rigidity. This has made flex less of a consideration than it used to be. What’s more, today’s skis are manufactured with much tighter duplication of parameters from pair to pair, so flex testing skis won’t necessarily help you find a softer or stiffer pair within a model and size run — but it is perhaps worth trying if you can select out of a batch. (Likewise, if you’re a weight fanatic you can save a few grams buy weighing skis and picking the lightest pair in a batch.)
If you want to have your own “flex session” make sure you have plenty of skis to look at side-by-side. The less you weigh, the softer you may want the ski in a given length. After you pick a pair for softness, look for an even curve. Do this by placing the tip of the ski at eye level, with the base downwards and tail on the floor. Sight along the bottom of one edge while weighting the ski with your foot. If you see any ripples or flat spots the pair should be sold as seconds. They’ll cut a decent turn in soft snow, but they’ll keep you guessing on boilerplate.
Some skis have a built in “hinge” in the flex pattern, usually in the shovel and sometimes in the tail. Don’t mistake this for a defect. A knowledgeable shop employee may be helpful in selecting skis from a retail batch. Just make sure you’re willing to be thorough and systematic in your approach. Otherwise you’ll be doing no better than kicking tires in a used car lot, with a smirking salesman looking on.
Rocker simply means the curve of the ski is slightly bent up toward you, as if you were standing on the ski with it suspended between tip and tail, with no support under your foot. Visualize a person riding curved barrel staves and you get the idea. Rocker is a virtual essential for modern soft-snow skiing but can be detrimental to hard snow performance. Some skis have rocker curves that go all the way from tip and tail to your boot-binding area. Others may only have small amounts at tip and tail. Rocker combines with flex and construction; it is not a stand-alone performance indicator.
Holes in Ski Tip and Tail: These have many uses, (such as spraying powder in your face, or building a rescue sled), but they aren’t essential. Holes may be used for tying off your skis so you won’t lose them from a climbing stance or bivouac.
Tail Notch for skins: This is a useful and we’d say essential feature. Most skin attachment systems assume you have a notch in your ski tails to prevent sideways slippage. If the skis you choose don’t have a notch it’s easy to file one into the soft aluminum or plastic of the tail protector.
Color: This may sound like a gimmick, but bright reflective colors make your skis easy to find if you leave them at the base of a winter climb — or when your amigos are searching for you after an avalanche. In the event of an avalanche burial the victim might be found by that bright ski that’s still attached to her foot. A minor point about ski color, yet one to consider, is that dark colored skis are more likely to form ice on top and base from solar heating. This can add pounds of weight to your modern “lightweight” set up. So, even though earth tones are it these days, a ski with bright base or top is more practical. In our view, white is best for shedding snow but is problematic when being searched for.
Weight: It’s nice to shave weight by using lighter skis, but a ski that’s too light may perform poorly because it gets thrown around. Lightweight boots may not give the aggressive skier the control he wants because of thinner plastic that lacks support. Compromise.
The good news is as of 2013-2014 skis have gotten remarkably lighter due to the use of carbon fiber materials. Many of those models still perform on the down. Thus, the old bias against lightweight skis as downhill performers might be going the way of other prejudices.
The same holds true for boots, which continue to loose mass while gaining or holding proven levels of downhill performance.
My own tours tend to cover a lot of miles and vertical – that’s made weight my main consideration. But I have friends who use their AT setups while lift skiing, or for short jaunts off the top of the lift served ski mountain. For those folks, downhill performance is the most important criterion, and they compromise in that direction.
Many people have found that alpine touring backcountry skiing “AT” equipment gives them a fun, safe, and reliable way to enjoy mountain skiing. Yet remember one thing: equipment is no better than its operator. If you are a novice, learn mountaineering ski touring on a ladder of graduating difficulty. Gear is fun and important, but the crucial piece of gear is your brain. Use it.