Backcountry skiing is a great way to access areas outside the ski area boundaries. But before you head into the backcountry, you need to have the right skis for the conditions. Trying to turn powder skis on crud or skinny skis in deeper snow can suck a lot of the fun out of touring.
In this guide, I’ll highlight the 9 best backcountry skis for your next tour and help you find the right pair of skis for any terrain or conditions.
My Review Process
I’ve been backcountry skiing for 7+ years and have done everything from lap days near the ski resort to massive ski mountaineering trips in remote areas. I’ve tried out many different skis in all conditions, ranging from powder to spring slush to concrete.
I know what attributes of backcountry skis make them suitable for certain conditions and what to look for when choosing skis for different objectives. In my reviews, I’ll explain what each pair of alpine touring skis is best for and why you might want to choose them.
The Blizzard Zero G 105 were built from the ground up for backcountry touring and big days in the mountains. These skis are ridiculously light at just 6 lbs 12 oz per pair, but they deliver downhill performance that rivals skis in a heavier weight class. Of course, there is a trade-off as with any lightweight backcountry skis—the carbon construction can be a little chattery on icy slopes or hard-packed snow.
The 105mm width is enough to provide flotation in powder, but not so wide that the turning radius gets out of hand. For ski mountaineers, the Zero G is also available with a 95mm waist that offers a little less swing weight when making jump turns.
The Salomon QST 98 is an all-mountain backcountry ski that’s perfect for casual touring and lap days in the backcountry. They’re on the heavy side at just over 9 pounds per pair, but that weight offers terrific stability in a wide variety of snow conditions. If you’re not out for huge days, the extra weight on your feet is a worthwhile sacrifice for the performance these skis offer.
I love that these skis slide through crud and breakable crust like it’s nothing. They feel as powerful as resort-specific skis and offer a secure-feeling edge grip in consolidated snow.
The QST 98 handle powder better than you might expect, although they’re not as surfy as a set of dedicated powder skis. The shorter turn radius is also a plus, especially if you’re skiing in tight trees.
The SEEKr line is G3’s build for powder hounds. The skis aren’t so wide that they feel like surfboards strapped to your feet, but experienced powder skiers will appreciate the slight camber underfoot. The tips also rise quite a bit, which helps you keep you floating on top of powder instead of sinking into it.
The drawback to the SEEKr 110 is that these same powder-centric features can work against you on days when the snow surface is firm. The carbon fiber and poplar wood construction doesn’t provide much stability in crud and the turning radius is pretty wide.
I think these skis are terrific if you live somewhere that consistently gets dumps of new snow or if you only go out when there’s fresh powder. They’re not as suitable if you’re searching for an all-around performance ski that can handle any conditions.
The Elan Ripstick skis are worth considering as a single-quiver pair of skis if you’re splitting time between the resort and backcountry. They handle everything from groomers to deep snow with impressive grace and smoothness. The 16.2m turning radius isn’t super tight, but I’ve been able to jump turn in these skis as well as navigate through trees fairly easily.
At around 7 lbs per pair, the Elan Ripstick are light enough to take on full-day tours in the backcountry. They’re built with a wooden core construction and fiberglass sheath, so there’s no carbon fiber laminates to chatter on firmer snow.
One slightly odd thing to know about these skis is that they have a rockered and cambered profile, so there are specific left and right skis. This is easy to get used to, but you do have to pay attention when clicking into your bindings.
The K2 Wayback 106 are downhill-oriented touring skis. In effect, they’re downhill skis with a slightly lighter construction.
If you’re skiing in variable, cruddy, or icy conditions, I can think of nothing better than having a relatively heavy pair of charging skis underneath me. The Wayback 106 are able to push through most disturbances in the snow without throwing you off balance, so they can make skiing on marginal days a lot more fun.
That said, these skis are above-average weight at close to 7 lbs per pair. They also work well as a pair of backcountry/resort crossover skis.
If you’re looking for a pair of skis to take on big, multi-day ski mountaineering adventures, I simply can’t say enough good things about the Helio Carbon 95 skis. These are the skis I reach for whenever I think I’ll need to put my skis on my back or sideslip and jump turn my way down a narrow couloir.
The Helio Carbon 95 weigh in at just over 6 lbs per pair, making them among the lightest backcountry skis on the market right now. Despite the light carbon construction, I’ve found that they’re surprisingly stable in crud and avalanche debris. The rockered profile offers great control and they can even carve respectably when you get onto a big, open face.
The Atomic Backland 85 are made for climbing. These ultralight touring skis weigh in at less than 5 lbs, which is pretty crazy. They’re at least a pound lighter than any other skis on this list.
While the Backland 85 give up some performance by going so light, it’s not as much as you might think. They hold their own on a variety of snow surfaces, although you shouldn’t expect much stability on crud or ice. For that reason, I recommend these skis only for advanced skiers who are heading out on huge tours and feel comfortable in any conditions.
If you have a large budget for a new pair of alpine touring skis, the DPS Pagoda 112 RP skis make for a premium backcountry setup. These skis are extremely playful in powder and offer more stability than most other powder skis I’ve tried.
The secret to these skis is the highly rockered profile and the 15m turning radius. Together, these make it easier to press into turns while staying on top of the snow.
The Pagoda 112 RP weigh close to 8 lbs per pair, so there is a bit of a weight penalty to pay for their performance. The weight isn’t enough to detract from the skis and it plays a big role in how stable they feel.
If you’re new to the backcountry and want to put together a touring setup at a reasonable price, I recommend the Volkl Blaze 94. These freerider skis are designed for all-mountain conditions, but they excel in soft snow and powder. They’re especially good for skiing forested slopes since Volkl’s 3D radius sidecut makes it easy to execute tight turns.
At 6.6 lbs per pair, these skis are among the lightest that you’ll find at this price point. The only knock is that the price point doesn't quite match the skis’ target ability level—while these are sold at a beginner-friendly price, the Blaze 94 skis are best for intermediate and aggressive skiers.
Volkl also sells pre-cut skins for these skis, making it incredibly simple to get into the backcountry.
Backcountry Skis vs. Alpine Skis
From a technical standpoint, there’s no distinction between backcountry skis and alpine skis or resort skis. With the right bindings, you could use alpine skis in the backcountry—and many skiers, myself included, use backcountry skis for resort skiing.
However, there can be a huge difference in weight between backcountry and alpine skis, and this has implications for how skis are designed overall. Backcountry skis are generally much lighter than alpine skis because you have to climb uphill with them. The heavier your skis, the more work it takes to go uphill and the more tired you are before you ever start skiing downhill.
Making backcountry skis lighter involves a lot of changes to skis’ shapes and materials. Backcountry skis use lightweight wood, carbon, and fiberglass to a much greater extent than alpine skis. These lighter materials aren’t as good for charging downhill and backcountry skis can feel less stable in chunky snow or variable conditions.
Backcountry skis can also shave weight by changing their shape. Many backcountry skis are narrower than their alpine counterparts or have slightly less material between the top and bottom of the ski. That also impacts how these skis perform in different conditions.
Backcountry Ski Bindings vs. Downhill Ski Bindings
The biggest difference between a backcountry ski setup and a downhill ski setup is in the bindings. Backcountry bindings, called AT bindings, have an uphill mode in which your heel is free from the binding and only the toe of your boot is clicked in. When it’s time to go downhill, you can attach your heel to the binding.
AT bindings are very different from downhill ski bindings. The toe and heel pieces are separate in most cases, whereas downhill bindings are often one piece of hardware.
Importantly, the mechanisms by which your boots click into AT and downhill bindings are also distinct.
On AT bindings, pins on the side of your boot click into holes drilled in the toe of the boot. These allow your foot to pivot up and down when skinning uphill. There are also pins in the heel piece, which you step down onto to attach your heel when in downhill mode. You must have ski touring boots with holes at the toe and heel in order to use AT bindings. In contrast, downhill bindings grab onto flanges at the front and rear of your boot.
If you only have downhill-oriented boots and want to try backcountry skiing, you can get what are known as frame bindings. This is a hybrid binding in which your whole boot is attached to the binding using the same mechanism as a downhill or alpine binding. However, the rear of the binding itself can be released from the ski to allow you to walk uphill. Frame bindings are much heavier than AT bindings, which is why AT bindings are the standard for backcountry skiing.
Backcountry Skis For Ski Mountaineering
There are a few special things to consider if you’re looking for a pair of skis to use for ski mountaineering. Ski mountaineering involves climbing peaks and skiing down, and there may be rock climbing, ice climbing, or steep snow climbing required in addition to skinning.
When you’re ski mountaineering, it’s highly likely that you’re going to be carrying your skis on your back up a steep or icy slope at some point during the day. So, it’s critical that your skis (and boots and bindings) are as light as possible. The best skis for ski mountaineering generally weigh less than 6.5 lbs per pair.
Ski mountaineering also frequently involves navigating steep and icy constrictions like couloirs. For that, having a slightly shorter pair of skis is better because you have more room to sideslip and turn. I also prefer skis with a narrower waist—95mm or less—because it makes it easier to jump turn.
Still, you don’t necessarily want to choose the lightest, narrowest, and shortest pair of skis possible. It’s important to strike a balance between weight, turning ability, and stability. Snow conditions when ski mountaineering can be highly variable, and a little extra weight in your skis gives you the ability to stay in control.
How To Choose Backcountry Skis
Choosing the right pair of backcountry skis comes down to how you plan to use your skis and the conditions you typically ski in.
If your goal is to spend long days in the backcountry and try out big ski traverses or even ski mountaineering, prioritize reducing weight above most other factors. On the other hand, if you’re skiing big, steep lines, then a heavier, wider, and longer ski can provide more control.
If you’re mostly touring on powder days, look for a ski that’s designed to surf on top of the snow. Powder skis tend to be wide yet lightweight, and they typically don’t have much sidecut (the difference between the ski’s waist and tip or tail).
For splitting time between the backcountry and resort, look for all-mountain skis that perform well across a variety of conditions. It’s okay if these skis are on the heavy side since you won’t be spending every day going uphill with them.
I recommend the Blizzard Zero G 95 as the overall best pair of backcountry skis. They perform well in virtually all conditions and they’re lighter than the vast majority of skis for touring. The Salomon QST 98 are on the heavy side, but they offer great downhill performance for casual lap days in the backcountry. For skiing fresh snow and powder, check out the G3 SEEKr 110.
Think carefully about what type of skiing you plan to do in the backcountry, then choose a ski based on weight, width, and performance in different types of snow conditions.
A good rule of thumb is that your skis should come up to about the level of your nose when stood upright. More advanced skiers might opt for longer skis, while beginner skiers can opt for slightly shorter skis.
You can use alpine skis for backcountry skiing if they are mounted with a binding that allows you to travel uphill. Alternatively, you can walk uphill with your skis on your back.
You can ski at a resort with backcountry skis as long as your bindings have brakes or leashes.
I recommend the Blizzard Zero G 95 as the best all-around backcountry skis. The G3 SEEkr 110 are best for powder days, while the Salomon QST 96 are best for downhill performance.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.