Backcountry skier taking off skins on a bluebird day

How to choose backcountry skis

Backcountry skiing covers the range from alpine touring and freeskiing to ski mountaineering and randonnée (also called skimo or rando racing). At its most basic, it means you’re responsible for getting yourself up whatever you’re planning to carve, float or race down.

This human-powered ascent makes the descent all the more satisfying. It also means there are key factors to consider when you’re choosing backcountry skis, such as snow conditions, terrain and the weight of your set-up.

Here are some questions to think about for backcountry skiing gear:

  • What style of backcountry skiing are you doing?
  • What kind of snow and terrain do you ski?
  • What width and length do you need?
  • What climbing skins are best?
  • Before you head out – are you all trained up?

What style of backcountry skiing are you doing?

There are a few different terms used to describe skis built for backcountry riding:

Alpine touring (AT): Do-it-all skis meant for a variety of terrain. They’re popular for day tours (and work well for longer tours, too), and they perform well in heavy, soft or icy snow.

Freeride and freeskiing: Made to get in some turns and big drops. These skis are generally designed to float in powder as well. You can tour with these skis, but they might be a bit on the heavier, beefier side (though they’re still lighter than on-piste downhill skis).

Ski mountaineering: Skis meant to go far, fast. They’re usually light and narrow.

What kind of snow and terrain do you ski?

Are you hunting down deep powder and pillow lines? Maybe conditions are mixed where you roam: a little pow, a little crunch, a little windblown? Where you earn your turns helps narrow your focus for backcountry skis.

Powder: If you’re lucky enough to ski in a soft-snow climate where powder is the norm, then look for skis with a decent width for flotation: from 100mm waists all the way up to 120mm for dedicated powder skis. While they don’t have the same edge-to-edge speed in hard snow, wider skis offer a mix of stability and forgiveness in deep snow. They can handle inconsistencies or crust as well.

Mixed snow conditions: If you spend time skiing resorts or access ungroomed terrain from packed trails or runs, you’ll encounter a mixed-bag of conditions. If your goal is ultimately to ski untracked snow (either powder or heavier snow), you’ll appreciate having some width for flotation.

Skis with a waist width between 85 and 99mm is a good compromise. They offer decent performance and edge on hard snow and stability in deep or unpredictable snow. As an added bonus, wider skis give you stability when dealing with windslab or breakable crust. The wider the ski, the better the performance in soft snow (and conversely, that means more of a decrease in performance for on-piste runs).

What width and length do you need?

Waist width: Wider waists are stable and easy to ski through the range of snow conditions you’ll encounter. For quick traverses, ski mountaineering or randonnée (skimo) racing, a narrower waist will give you maximum edge contact; the lighter weight and reduced skin surface also means less drag when you’re going fast.

  • Up to 84mm: Designed to be light and fast, for when you’re focused on going up more than going down, such as in skimo.
  • 85–99mm: Great all-around skis. Not the best in powder, but easy to handle in mixed conditions.
  • 100–109mm: Mostly for powder, but also very good in mixed conditions.
  • 110mm and up: Powder 90% of the time.

Length: Backcountry skis are designed to float through difficult snow, be relatively easy to control and be okay to handle in technical situations. The measurements below are a starting point, not firm rules – it all comes down to personal preference.

If you ski all snow conditions:

Heavier skiers should size up (longer), while lighter skiers should consider sizing down (shorter). Ski size guide:

  • Beginner: Your height, minus 10cm
  • Intermediate: Your height, minus 5cm
  • Advanced: The same height as you
  • Expert: Your height, plus 5cm
If you freeride and ski powder:

If you’re a heavier skier, an expert-level skier, or are looking at skis with full rocker (more on rocker here), then consider sizing up (longer). Lighter skiers should consider sizing down (shorter). Ski size guide:

  • Beginner: Your height, minus 5cm
  • Intermediate: The same height as you
  • Advanced: The same height as you
  • Expert: Your height, plus 5cm

What climbing skins are best?

Climbing skins attach to your skis with a strong, reusable adhesive and clips on the tip and tail (or just tip clips). The fibres – either nylon or mohair – give you traction as you climb. One thing to note: even with skins on, skis with full rocker may have a tougher time getting traction on hardpack due to the ski shape (but they’re tons of fun to ski pow on the way down).

Choose skins that are as long and as wide as the fattest part of your skis, then trim them to fit your skis perfectly. If you need a hand, MEC ski shops offer skin shaping services.

  • Nylon skins: generally very durable, less expensive and offer good climbing and gliding.
  • Mohair skins: excellent for climbing and gliding in cold temps (-20°C and below) and light, dry snow. They’re pricier and not as durable as nylon.

Each brand uses its own kind of adhesive and they all work well, as long as you keep them clean. Some tips? For short-term storage, keep the sticky side folded against itself to reduce the chance of lint, dirt and backcountry gunk getting stuck to the adhesive. For long-term storage, use skin-savers or cheat-sheets, and always dry them completely before you store them at room temperature. Higher temps – like next to a heater – aren’t good, because it can cause the adhesive to break down.

Before you head out – are you all trained up?

In addition to a solid ski set-up, the most critical things to have in the backcountry are the proper avalanche safety gear and training. Learn avalanche training skills from Avalanche Canada or Avalanche Quebec, and find out how to get a free avalanche safety package rental at some of our stores when you sign up for a course.