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Ok, people, here’s the deal: Heavier skis are better for downhill performance, and lighter ones are (obviously) better for hauling up mountains. So when you’re evaluating what kind of skis are right for your backcountry setup, you need to start by assessing your values. Here are some questions to get the conversation rolling:
If you do only short tours to get some pow turns in, you can go a little bit heavier and wider. Wider skis are generally clunkier to tour in, but they float much better in pow. So if having fun on the ski down is your priority and you’re in shape enough to haul them up short distances, your best bet might be a ski made with a lightweight wood core wrapped in fiberglass laminates with a waist of 100 to 110 mm.
If ski-mountaineering up 14ers or summiting peaks is your goal, you’ll want to go with a ski that is as light as possible while still being skiable. You might choose a ski with a core made of paulownia wood and/or foam with carbon laminates with a narrower waist of 90 to 100 mm. (Click to learn more about materials or waist-widths.)
If keeping up with your sinewy touring partners is paramount, go lighter and narrower. However, keep in mind that skiing back down in variable conditions with what feel like toothpicks on your feet can also be exhausting.
If beast-mode is your everyday gear, you can probably stand to have a heftier ski that will perform a bit more like your resort skis on the way down.
The weight of these matter. (One pound on your feet equals five in your pack, so the saying goes.) You can mitigate the weight of a wider, heavier ski by mounting it with a super light pin or tech binding. You can also make a super lightweight ski feel beefier with a binding like the Salmon Shift or Marker Kingpin, which gives you more power and control because they grip your boot better. (It’s all about seamless power transfer. The less contact your boot has with the binding, the less power transfer you’ll have.)
When it comes to boots, the lighter you go the less progressive flex you’ll feel because the plastic or carbon is just too thin to flex gradually. This means the boots will feel harder to initiate turns and will “bottom out.” (Note that superlight ski-mo boots feel more like running shoes than ski boots on the downhill.) For most backcountry skiers, we’d recommend going with a medium-weight dedicated touring boot—which is not a resort boot with a walk mode—that is stiff enough to be powerful but light enough to haul uphill.
If the answer is yes, we think you should question your priorities. Because no matter how much your bank account wishes it were so, an AT setup is just not as fun on lift-served terrain. (A friend recently said watching people ski the resort on lightweight AT gear is like watching cats walk across a frozen pond.) All kidding aside, if you are looking for one ski to do it all, we’d advise to go a little heavier and wider on the skis. Your hip-flexors may not be happy about it when you’re skinning up, but your fun factor will make up for it.
If you have two sets of boots—one for resort and one for touring—another option is to get a set of quiver killers, which enable you to swap out touring bindings for downhill ones, or opt for a binding like the Salmon Shift, which can be skied with alpine boots.
So, to recap, if you mostly ski downhill and do short tours, opt for a medium-weight ski with a wider waist. If you plan to climb high or far, go as light as possible while still being skiable. And if you’re one of those ski-mo racers wearing skin suits to run up peaks, well, you don’t need us to tell you what kind of gear you need.
Article by Kimberly Beekman
Kimberly Beekman is the former editor-in-chief of the late, great Skiing Magazine (RIP), and a longtime editor of SKI Magazine before that. She currently uses the title of “freelancer” as a beard to ski powder all over the world. She lives in Denver, Colorado, with her wonderful daughter and terrible cat.