How to pick the right backcountry ski

Finding the right ski is like the elusive search for perfect powder. Let Dave Waag be your guide.
By Dave Waag

If it has been a few seasons since you updated your skis or you’re a powder addict who needs the latest and greatest, the question, “which ski is right for me?” never goes away.

Ski design has changed dramatically in the past four or more seasons. Terms like rocker and early rise and composite materials like carbon fibre are now part of the daily discussion. Design and material innovations are making alpine touring skis lighter, fatter and more versatile than ever.

Skiing off-piste brings its own unique demands for a ski and settling into the right pair requires knowing your main use. Are you looking to go light, fast and far, rip big freeride arcs while hucking off cliffs, or are you the everyman in search of one ski that will serve all of your needs?


Völkl Nanuq ski product image
Völkl Nanuq © Marker Völkl


The elusive all-mountain tool, the one ski that does it all is more of a reality than ever. Look to skis with waist dimensions between 95 and 105mm. This growing category walks the line between firm snow carving and hedonistic powder consumption very well.

The more tip rocker or early rise in the design, the more a ski favours soft snow skiing and the more responsive it will be in deeper snow. The more traditional the camber and the tip shape, the more predictably it will carve and initiate on firm snow. Look for 20-30% tip rocker and minimal or no tail rocker. Want a surfier, more freeride personality, look at skis with tip and tail rocker matched with camber underfoot.

Examples: Völkl Nanuq, Kastle TX97, DPS Wailer 99

DPS Wailer 112 ski product image
DPS Wailer 112 © DPS Skis

Fast and Light

Consider these boards well suited to ski mountaineering objectives, hut-to-hut adventures and general light-is-right aficionados, but not rando racing.

These skis are, by default, more traditional in their personality. They are as much tools of the trade as they are fun sliding rigs. That’s not to say they aren’t fun. Tip and tail rocker are definitely finding their way into this category and for good reason. Rocker makes a ski easy to initiate and responsive – good characteristics when making the turn can make all the difference.

Look for skis with waist dimensions between 85 and 95 millimeters. There’s enough surface area here to deal with variable backcountry snow, yet the skis are inherently lighter. Also consider early rise tips or light tip rocker.

Examples: Black Diamond Current, Dynafit Manaslu

Black Diamond Current
Black Diamond Current © Black Diamond Equipment

Freeride Powder Skis

Dedicated powder skis reflect the most change in the evolution of ski design. Though it sounds trite, many fat, rockered backcountry skis really do handle a wide range of conditions and terrain well. The trade-offs are weight and edge control. Nonetheless, you can definitely enjoy many big powder boards on the occasional groomed piste and in spring snow conditions.

Look for skis wider than 105mm underfoot with 110-115mm as the sweet spot. Break beyond 120mm underfoot and versatility declines. Consider 30 percent or better tip rocker and similar tail rocker specs. Many powder skis still have camber underfoot and this helps them maintain versatility in mixed conditions. The more rocker and less camber in a ski, the more surfy the ride. Tapered tip and tail shapes add to smooth transitions in deep snow. Wide skis weigh more, so consider lightweight constructions that feature carbon fibre and specialty woods to keep them uphill friendly.

Examples: DPS Wailer 112, Dynafit Huascaran, Voile V8, Völkl V-Werks Katana, Rossignol Soul 7

Fast and light Voile Vector ski product image
Voile Vector © Voile
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