There’s nothing as majestic as shredding through the snow away from the resort slopes full of other skiers. Backcountry skiing offers enthusiasts an opportunity to leave the groomed trails to head out on their own, and in order to take in the full experience proper backcountry skis are a must.
Skiers who enjoy venturing off the beaten path to explore the majestic backcountry trails know that having the right equipment is the most important thing in the world. Unlike groomed slopes, backcountry skiers have to be ready for anything, from patchy snow conditions to hard pack snow to perfect powder. The terrain might be flat, full of hills or a combination of both, and half the challenge could be getting where you’re going – and back. Backcountry skis, then, have to be ready for all of it.
Generally speaking, backcountry skiing refers to skiing outside of marked trails, usually in the backcountry near resorts, hence the name. It’s also referred to as off-piste skiing or touring in some cases, and it involves four main types of terrain: Frontcountry, slackcountry, sidecountry and true backcountry.
Frontcountry skiing is done off-trail but close enough to the resort and/or ski lifts that emergency personnel are nearby should something happen. Slackcountry enthusiasts can access their trails by car or by lift, but the trails are still located off-trail. Sidecountry trails are also off-trail and the skier must hike or climb to get to the top or return from the bottom, though the lift might also be close enough to be accessible. Lastly, true backcountry skiing refers to skiing outside of the trails and away from the marked boundaries of a resort.
Off-trail skiing is exactly what it implies, and these trails are not maintained or groomed in any way. Conditions can range from peak powder to hard pack snow and even to choppy crud depending on the location, and this should inform your choice of backcountry skis.
In addition to the proper skis, skiers on a true backcountry trail should be aware of any emergency equipment needed in case of accident or avalanche given that they will be too far from emergency services should something happen. This is a sport that requires an eye for emergency preparation, and that’s why you need to be able to feel confident in your skis and their ability to work in the conditions you’re in. Choosing the right skis for backcountry excursions is step one of your safety plan.
When it comes to choosing the right equipment for backcountry skiing, there are a variety of considerations that will be examined in the buying guide.
Top Backcountry Skis Comparison Chart
|Name||Ski Profile||Price||Where to Buy?|
|Volkl 2019 Mantra V-Werks Skis||Rocker/Camber/Rocker||$$$$||Check Price on Amazon|
|Icelantic 18/19 Maiden 91 Women's Skis||Rocker/Camber/Rocker||$$$||Check Price on Amazon|
|Blizzard Rustler 9 Skis 2019||Rocker/Camber/Rocker||$$$||Check Price on Amazon|
|Dynafit Beast 98 Skis||Double Ellipse Rocker||$$||Check Price on Amazon|
|Icelantic 18/19 Sabre 99||Rocker/Camber/Rocker||$$$||Check Price on Amazon|
|Atomic Backland 65 UL Alpine Touring Ski||15% rocker, 15% camber, flat tail||$$||Check Price on Amazon|
|Condor-Ti||Early Rise/Camber/Early Rise||$$$||Check Price on Amazon|
|Blizzard Zero G 95||$$$||Check Price on Amazon|
|Fischer Hannibal Skis Mens||Tour Rocker||$$||Check Price on Amazon|
|La Sportiva Vapor Float||Rocker/Camber/Rocker||$$$$||Check Price on Amazon|
|DPS Wailer 106 Alchemist Skis 2019||Rocker/Camber/Rocker||$$$$||Check Price on Amazon|
|Black Crows Atris Skis 2019||Rocker/Camber/Rocker||$$$||Check Price on Amazon|
|Kastle TX98||Camber||$$$$||Check Price on Amazon|
|Voelkl VTA 98||Tip Rocker||$$$||Check Price on Amazon|
|DPS Tour1 Wailer T99||Rocker/Camber/Rocker||$$$$||Check Price on Amazon|
Backcountry Skis Buying Guide
Backcountry skiing is a lot like cross-country running. Both require equipment that is tough enough to handle anything you might encounter. Backcountry skis must be durable enough should the powder thin out and they should also be light enough in case of uphill climbs and easy to maneuver in case of quick downhill descents. Versatility, therefore, is key.
Before you buy backcountry skis, or skis of any kind it’s important to determine what you’re looking for in terms of function and performance. This is especially true if you’re buying skis online and on your own. Think about your personal preferences in terms of performance while considering how you plan to use them, and be sure to factor in where you plan to use them.
It’s worth noting that across the board there are some skiers who are able to make due with any skis, and so the selection of skis isn’t as important as the individual’s skillset. That’s not the case for everyone, of course, but we mention it because there are some skis that aren’t necessarily rated for backcountry skiing but do the job nonetheless. There are also some great multipurpose skis out there that provide a great ride no matter the terrain and if you can only afford to buy one set of skis you can utilize them in a number of situations, giving you the most bang for your buck.
It’s incredibly important, therefore, to know what you’re looking for when shopping for backcountry skis. Let’s look at the considerations you should be thinking about prior to your purchase.
Are you an experienced backcountry skier, or are you just getting started? Do you plan to stick close to the established trails in the frontcountry, or are you planning to venture off on your own? Are you looking at mixed terrain or generally even conditions? These are all questions to ask before buying.
When shopping for backcountry skis one of the most important factors to consider is terrain. If you’re a frequent visitor to the Wasatch Mountains, for example, then you know that you’ll encounter variable conditions that require some uphill climbing, quick descents and choppy conditions that could pose a huge problem for traditional skis. You might hit powder or crud depending on the location or even the time of the year. If you know that you’re mostly dealing with light descents and climbs you might not want to have all of the bells and whistles of the high end and more expensive models.
Should you be shopping for skis that can handle all kinds of terrain, plan to spend more money for skis that are made to traverse the most demanding conditions. You don’t necessarily need the top model skis for what would be considered light backcountry usage, and if you’re new to the sport then you should be able to find a relatively inexpensive set of all-around skis. However, the more specialized styles tend to cost more.
In terms of pricing, backcountry skis can generally cost anywhere between $250 to $1200. For our purposes, good value describes anything that lands between $600 and $800 or so. What’s interesting is that cost is not a function of performance, so if you’re just starting out in the sport then you can find a great set of backcountry skis for less than $500 that will perform at the level you need, while experienced backcountry skiers can work with any of the skis offered. The key is understanding what you’re looking for and where you’re planning to use your backcountry skis.
Performance and Versatility
Once you have identified what you’re looking for, you need to look at what the skis offer and determine what is important for you. You should consider weight, stability at speed and how they perform in a variety of conditions, including firm snow, powder and poor snow conditions. As with all-terrain shoes, there are some skiers who can get a suitable performance from their skis no matter the brand or design, but for the majority of us the type of ski is important.
Also keep in mind that the vast majority of backcountry skis are geared toward multiple conditions, but like running shoes you can find skis that cover specific cases like crud, uphill climbs and speed on the descent. For the purposes of this article the focus will be on backcountry skis that generally cover all terrain and conditions.
It’s important to understand performance on all snow conditions if you plan to use them for true backcountry excursions that take you away from the resorts and into the unknown, and that’s why it’s helpful to understand how you plan to use them. Some backcountry skis are not suited for powder while others grip the hard pack better than anything else. Some even perform best in crud. If you know you’re always going to stick to firm snow or powder, and that you’re never going to ski on poor snow conditions, then you absolutely need to take that into consideration.
Backcountry skis are designed to be lightweight on purpose to allow for a full range of movement, especially when it comes to climbing or navigating steep paths. Some people love the feeling of having the lightest skis possible while others lose some control because they’re too light. The spectrum of lightweight skis is broad, with the general consensus being that anything up to 6 pounds is considered lightweight while anything over that is on the heavier side. Heavier skis can be great for downhill performance but less than ideal for any kind of uphill trek. (Then again, some people won’t notice the extra weight on the uphill climb, so weight is definitely a personal consideration more than anything else) Be sure to understand where you fall on this spectrum when shopping for backcountry skis.
Stability is very important, especially when navigating the narrow paths deep in the mountains. Stability at speed is even more important for obvious reasons. When you mix speed and lightweight skis you can lose stability so look for skis that have a high rating if you’re looking to reach speed on the backcountry trails. If you’re shopping for versatile skis that work on groomed trails as wells as backcountry trails then you’ll want to be sure that you’re getting skis that provide the stability you need in both places.
Snow conditions vary greatly and that’s the prime reason you need to understand where you’re going to be using your new backcountry skis. If you’re an avid traveler with plans to use the skis in a variety of locations – and therefore a variety of conditions – then you need quality and durability and the ability to perform in firm snow, powder and poor snow conditions. After all, you never know what you’ll find on the backcountry trails that are off the beaten path. For the explorers out there, finding a good set of skis that handle multiple conditions is key.
On the other hand, if you only plan to ski in the same place all the time with say on your favorite backcountry trails around Mammoth Mountain, and you know that the conditions are about the same all the time, then you can use that information to find skis that are optimal for your location and terrain.
Lastly, there are some backcountry skis that are specifically marketed to women. Like the vast majority of skis, most backcountry skis are interchangeable and work for both men and women. Given their lightweight nature and tendency to be shorter than traditional skis, women won’t have trouble using “men’s” backcountry skis. However there are some backcountry skis that have been designed for women and they’re slightly shorter than the men’s variety.
One of the main benefits of backcountry skis is their versatility. Since they’re made to perform in almost any terrain, they make a great all-purpose ski. You’ll see the word “versatility” a lot in this buying guide because many of these skis work in every kind of condition. That said, here are the best backcountry skis of 2019.
Best Backcountry Skis Reviews
VOLKL 2019 MANTRA V-WERKS
The Volkl 2019 Mantra V-Werks skis have been reconfigured from the previous V-Werks model to include the patented Mantra technology. Though you might not think about using Mantra skis for backcountry trails, the Volkl 2019 Mantra V-Werks design combines both technologies to make something truly spectacular. This new lightweight incarnation gives them the kind of versatility for the intermediate to experienced backcountry skier looking for something that can work on the up and on the down. Whether you’re on powder or packed snow doesn’t matter because these skis can handle it all. The lightweight design makes it possible to climb with little difficulty but there’s no sacrificing stability at high speeds on the downhill. For anyone looking to upgrade to something that covers all the bases, the Volkl 2019 Mantra V-Werks skis are perfect.
- Extreme versatility
- Stability in a variety of conditions
- Lightweight and durable design
- Higher price point than other models
ICELANTIC 18/19 MAIDEN 91 WOMEN’S SKIS
Icelantic describes the 18/19 Maiden 91 model as their most “playful” design in production. They’re a perfect freeride ski that will take you all over the mountain with perfect handling and maneuverability. The Maiden 91 model’s lightweight design allows you to climb in comfort but doesn’t sacrifice stability on the descent. The high performance design will give you comfort and control no matter the terrain, and they’re slightly shorter than many of the men’s designs which gives them greater control in tight conditions.
- Fantastic price point
- Handmade in Colorado, 3-year warranty
- The narrow waist is most suited for clean conditions
BLIZZARD RUSTLER 9 SKIS 2019
According to manufacturer Evo, the Blizzard Rustler 9 Skis are “quick like a bunny” and they do “a bit of everything” with no trouble. In fact, they’re made for skiers who appreciate the ability to go from the trails to the backcountry. The rocker allows for greater stability though not as much grip as some of the high-end models. The Blizzard Rustler 9 excels at maneuverability without being weighed down, giving the rider lots of control without sacrificing control.
- Great price point
- Versatility and value
- Perfect for beginners and intermediate backcountry enthusiasts
- Not ideal for experiences backcountry skiers looking for lots of support
DYNAFIT BEAST 98
The Dynafit Beast 98 skis offer uncompromised performance, especially when free touring on powder. Great downhill stability and speed will give you a smooth ride on the way down, but the heavier weight (they come in at 6.8 pounds) can be problematic for men and women who prefer ease on the uphill conditions as well as on the descent.
- Great for powder enthusiasts
- Low price
- Heavier than other models
ICELANTIC 18/19 SABRE 99
This all-mountain ski from Icelantic is made to power through every condition. The Sabre 99 model slices through groomed runs and effortlessly holds an edge for maximum control without chatter. The control coupled with the added agility makes it an excellent all-mountain ski. These would be ideal for lighter backcountry terrain and not extreme conditions. They’re a great ski for all experience levels and would be appropriate for beginners who plan to stay close to resorts.
- Great versatility
- Excellent price point, 3-year warranty
- Not suited for heavy backcountry usage
ATOMIC BACKLAND UL 78
There is no question that the Atomic Backland UL 78 are great for long trips. However, it’s important to note that while these ultralight skis are great for long missions, the conditions have to be perfect. They’re designed to perform on firm snow and at only 4.8 pounds they’re one of the best skis for uphill ascents. In fact, the Atomic Backland UL 78 will give you great uphill speeds if that’s what you’re looking for. Keep in mind that while these skis excel on hard pack, getting adjusted on other conditions can be a major (albeit manageable) challenge.
- Ultra lightweight
- Great in firm snow
- Excellent price point
- Very little stability at speed
- Not optimal for powder or crud
Sego Ski Company’s Condor-TI skis are designed for the backcountry. They’re versatile enough to handle variable conditions but they’re made to perform all over the big mountain. Thanks to their long camber zone and a lightweight tip and tail they have a tight turning radius that makes them perfect in just about every condition. In fact, they’re almost rated as high for powder as they are for backcountry conditions, but nothing can beat their fun factor ratings. The Condor-TI are slightly wider to provide a good float and they’re just as good on the groomed trails as they are charging down the backcountry. Ideal for experienced and intermediate backcountry skiers, with enough bite to possibly overwhelm newbies.
- Excellent stability at speed
- Great versatility
- Good price point
- Might be too much power for beginning backcountry skiers
BLIZZARD ZERO G 95
The Blizzard Zero G 95 skis are a great value for the beginner, or anyone looking to stick to firm snow and steep conditions, which means they’re great performers on groomed snow but are also functional in certain backcountry conditions. While you won’t want to stray too far from the resort in these skis, they’ll get you out into the open snow with no trouble, but stay away from the far reaches where conditions might deteriorate. Blizzard Zero G 95 skis are more rigid than some of the other models and so they’re not ideal for crud or poor snow conditions where you need more maneuverability.
- Great price
- Good versatility
- Not as stable in powder as they are in firm snow
FISCHER HANNIBAL MEN’S
The Fischer Hannibal skis offer all of the basic qualifications for backcountry beginners or advanced skiers on a budget. Coming in at less than $500 makes them one of the most affordable skis on the market that allow you to go from groomed trails to the backcountry and back without sacrificing performance. This is a great set to start with, and it will also get you through the season with no trouble. Like some of the other versatile skis, the Fischer Hannibal skis can handle different conditions but they aren’t ideal in poor conditions, which might not be a problem for newcomers who don’t plan on getting out too far.
- One of the most affordable backcountry skis
- Perfect for beginners
- Ideal for firm snow
- Not ideal for poor snow conditions, which makes them less ideal for true backcountry trips
LA SPORTIVA VAPOR FLOAT
The LA Sportiva Vapor Float skis are designed to be playful while delivering top quality performance. The progressive sidecut gives you ultimate speed on turns with great float and unprecedented landings. They’re tough and lightweight, and highly suited for backcountry trails that see more powder than anything else. The Vapor Float is pricey and would make excellent backcountry skis for lighter terrain. These are more suited for the groomed trails so you won’t want to venture out in them but you can certainly go off the beaten path and enjoy them near the trails.
- Good price for experienced backcountry enthusiasts
- Incredible responsiveness
- Not a frontside ski
DPS WAILER 106 ALCHEMIST SKIS 2019
Evo is known for the DPS line and the Wailer 106 model is the one to own if you can only have one pair of DPS skis that handle a variety of situations and needs. They’re solid in all conditions but they really excel on the float at high speeds. Their stability is off the charts. In terms of performance the Wailer 106 will do well on light terrain backcountry trails, and they’ll power through most trail conditions with no trouble.
- Great value for DPS skis
- Highly versatile and powerful
- Not designed for true backcountry skiing but suitable for frontcountry action
BLACK CROWS ATRIS SKIS 2019
Described as ideal for skiers with a “quiver of one”, the Black Crows Atris Skis can handle it all. From speed to the rugged backcountry terrain, they are consistent and reliable performers. The lightweight design coupled with their great carving ability and performance on a float give them a solid rating in all terrain. The Black Crows Atris skis are reliable and playful, making for a great choice for just about every condition. Backcountry skiers with experience will enjoy the way they can shred down remote hills with the Black Crows Atris compared to some of the other skis set at this price point.
- Great value for the price
- Incredible versatility
- Prone to scratch
The Kastle TX98 skis are ideal for just about every condition you’ll come across. The lightweight design is perfect for all levels of backcountry terrain while also offering great control and speed for trails. This is a great performer no matter the condition and when tested it performed equally well on firm snow, powder and crud. No matter what conditions you’re working with you’ll find that the Kastle TX98 will work for you. The Kastle TX98 models are one of the highest rated backcountry skis and that makes them tricky to find in stock.
- Great performer
- Difficult to find in stock
VOELKL VTA 98
The Voelkl VTA 98 skis are designed for backcountry conditions that require some climbing, but they’re magnificent on the way down. The Voelkl touring technology gives them peak performance when climbing or riding on harder snow, but they also offer great floatation when conditions are softer. They’re great on powder and actually are rated higher for poor conditions than they are on firm snow. The VTA 98s provide great stability with a slightly greater weight than some of the other models.
- Great versatility
- Mid-range price
- Considered grabby in firm conditions
DPS TOUR1 WAILER T99
There’s no question that DPS skis deliver high quality ride and experience. Unlike the Wailer Alchemists, which traverse all conditions, the Wailer T99 model is designed for peak performance in powder thanks to the ultra lightweight design. The Wailer T99 gives you great predictability in powder, but offers little stability in any other conditions. These skis are perfect for people who know they’re getting loads of powder and nothing else, and if that’s you then you’re in for a real treat.
- Exceptional performance in powder, handles well in poor snow
- Not suitable for non-powder conditions
Conclusion And Final Backcountry Skis Recommendations
Whether you’re new to backcountry skiing or you’re a seasoned veteran, the key to choosing the best backcountry skis is understanding your needs and finding something that matches your goals. It is possible to have too much power for what you’re looking for, so it’s important to understand your goals and what you want to accomplish with your skis.
For the majority of casual backcountry enthusiasts, as well as anyone looking to purchase one set of skis to cover a wide range of uses, the all around performance models are a good choice. They offer great versatility on groomed trails while performing well away from the beaten path. A lightweight and balanced backcountry ski will give you the ride you’re looking for without breaking the bank. In many cases reviewers noted that they went back to purchase a second set because they enjoyed the skis so much.
True backcountry enthusiasts looking to venture off into the unknown need a combination of lightweight skis with the rugged durability to engage in every possible condition. This is also true of skiers who frequent a variety of locations during the season. You need something that can function no matter where you are, whether it’s across fresh powder or trudging through crud on the way to the top of the hill. Invest in a high quality set of skis that will give you everything you need to adapt to ever-changing conditions.
Again, it’s important to note that more experienced backcountry skiers will enjoy skis that suit specific terrain and conditions. All-around skis will work in almost every situation but in some cases a specialized ski will deliver peak performance. The needs of backcountry skiers in Vermont will differ from those in Colorado. Therefore, consider your needs and your wish list of capabilities when shopping for specialized backcountry skis.
The good news is that there are plenty of backcountry skis out there to choose from, so it’s a matter of finding the ones that meet your needs.