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What differentiates a backcountry vs resort skis is not rocket science – it's all about weight. But when it comes to actually building a ski light enough to haul uphill and strong enough to ski down safely, not to mention enjoyably? That’s where the rocket science comes in.
Resort skiing is a gravity sport: The lift brings you up, gravity brings you down. Though resort skis (and, perplexingly, boots) are trending lighter these days, which may make the skis less tiring to turn for some, their weight matters far less here than it does in the backcountry.
To that end, some resort skiers prefer skis with a little heft, because they cut through crud and chop with less vibration, lending more confidence to their drivers. Other skiers may want skis that are easier to carry or feel more lively and forgiving underfoot, or they want one setup to ski both the resort and backcountry. These folks can benefit from today’s lightweight technology.
Backcountry skiing, on the other hand, requires sweat equity, hence the term, “earn your turns.” Backcountry skiers use touring bindings with releasable heels and skins with a one-way nap that stick to the bottom of skis. This allows skiers to walk uphill with skis on by gliding forward and “sticking” to the snow.
Obviously, the heavier your backcountry setup is, the harder it will be to walk it uphill. It would stand to reason, then, that the lighter the better, right? For those who summit huge peaks and with long approaches, this is sound logic. But for those who tour uphill for the pleasure of skiing fresh tracks, it can be problematic.
Super light skis—which also tend to be narrower and shorter—are often twitchy, unpredictable, and, quite frankly, difficult to ski, especially in variable conditions. And, as any backcountry skier will tell you, whenever you’re in a place that never gets groomed or bombed or compacted by other skiers, variable snow is more the norm than the rarity. So while we can all agree lighter is better on the uphill, it’s not so easy to make a super light ski perform on the descent.
This is where the ski materials and construction come in. The goal for most recreationists is balance: The ski needs to be light enough to tour comfortably uphill, strong enough to resist torsional twisting, and wide enough to float. To that end, most backcountry skis incorporate cores made of lightweight wood, plastic honeycomb, or foam; and they have structural layers made most often of carbon fiber and fiberglass. (Wagner uses only lightweight wood because it’s the most durable and highest performing on the descent.) The structural layers are added to the lightweight core to add torsional rigidity and/or damp vibration.
When it comes to choosing how light is light enough for you in the backcountry, it really depends on what your objectives are. Do you want to summit huge peaks as a ski mountaineer? If so, you probably already know that you’ll need the lightest gear made to get you there—and you’re also probably a good enough skier to navigate down on your featherweight setup. Do you want to skin up medium objectives with the goal of getting exercise, great views, and nice snow? Opt for a medium-light setup with a little more width underfoot for float. Do you just want fresh tracks and will do short tours and bootpacks to get them? You could opt for a crossover resort/backcountry ski.
Of course, you also have to factor in your boots and bindings (and also your clothing, poles, pack, helmet, etc.), which will also impact skiability. Boots run the gamut from pure carbon “magic shoes,” which ski only a little better than your bedroom slippers, to heavier hybrids that are capable of resort ripping. Bindings, too, come in a variety of weights, from tiny pins that weigh almost nothing to alpine-style sturdiness with a releasable heel. Generally speaking, the beefier the better for downhill performance, and you can apply the same questions you answered earlier to help you decide which boots and bindings are best for you.
We at Wagner recommend two complete setups—one for resort and one for backcountry—to reap maximum joy. But, hey, we’re a ski company, after all, and we do understand that not everyone has the means to own a garage full of gear. Your best bet is to contact Wagner Custom’s expert ski designers today, and they’ll walk you through the process to build you your perfect pair.
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 Steamboat, Colorado, with her wonderful daughter and terrible cat.