Snow crunches beneath every sliding step. The cold air bites your exposed skin. But your movements—step, plant, push forward, up—keep you warm as you ascend towards your final goal: the mountain’s summit. Maybe it’s that adrenaline-soaked descent that draws you out. Or maybe it’s the quiet stillness of a clear winter day, the beautiful isolation of the mountains, or the camaraderie of a group backcountry journey. Hell, maybe you’re even one of those freaks who loves the ascent. All skiers have different motivations that draw us to the backcountry. But the vehicle that takes us there is the same: our backcountry skis.
Those trusty boards, our magic carpets—every backcountry skier has at least one pair. Many have a quiver of different models for different conditions. Some of us have garages lined with more backcountry skis than we know what to do with.
It’s easy to amass a collection. Every year, brands come out with new models or updates to old favorites. Underdog brands often pop up and come out swinging with radical backcountry ski designs that sweep their corporate competitors’ boots out from under them. For skiers, it’s hard not to shop around.
How to Choose a Pair of Backcountry Skis
What should you look for when you shop for a new pair of backcountry skis? Ask yourself a few key questions. What kind of skiing do you want to do with this new pair? Are you buying a pair that’s going to be your bread-and-butter boards, or are you buying a pair for specific conditions or terrain? Do you want powder skis? All-around everything skis? Or skimo racers? What kind of bindings are you planning on putting on them?
There’s a lot to consider.
First, think about where you’ll be using your new skis. If you want to ski big-mountain deep powder, you’ll want a ski that has a fatter waist and is light, so it’ll float on top of the snow, but it should also be stable enough to charge the steeps.
If you’ll be skiing glaciers or areas with lots of windblown crust, you’ll want a narrower ski with a more classic AT shape. Want a good all-around pair of skis that can do a little bit of everything? You should look at an all-mountain backcountry ski that’s firm but also fast and responsive.
If you want to ride your backcountry skis in the backcountry and in the resort, you might think about putting a binding like the Marker Duke Pro on your skis. That will allow you to clip in like you’re wearing downhill skis or remove the downhill toe of the binding to convert them into AT bindings for hiking.
However, conversion bindings like those are often heavy, and they require heavier skis with specific mounting plates to secure the binding in place. It makes for a heavier ski setup that’s better suited for a season spent mostly in resorts with intermittent backcountry excursions.
Skimo touring requires skis specifically designed to be the lightest, tightest, and fastest uphill. However, such designs often sacrifice stability at high speeds, and they don’t usually support bindings that have resort-level DIN settings.
Everything is a trade-off. Keep in mind your specific goals and skiing style to help you narrow down your options.
Custom Backcountry Skis
If you have the cash and aren’t afraid to use it, some companies will custom make AT skis for you. Builds like that can be expensive, often costing upwards of $1,200. But they’ll be exactly what you want and need from your backcountry setup. (And you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing your custom skis are the only pair like it in the backcountry.)
Folsom Custom Skis has been making custom skis since 2006. Romp Skis out of Crested Butte, CO is another custom ski maker that has been slinging custom builds since 2010. Both companies will talk with you on the phone to learn more about your aspirations as a skier, where you’ll be taking your backcountry skis, and what you’ll be doing on them. Then they’ll specifically tailor a pair of skis to meet your exact needs.
But even if you don’t go the custom route, you’ll have plenty of off-the-shelf options to choose from. The 2022-23 winter ski season is shaping up to be another good one, with plenty of new styles and updates hitting the market. Below, I’ve compiled a list of the top backcountry skis for this winter—the creme de la quiver, if you will.