They're the foundation of our sport, allowing randonnée skiers to travel over deep and light snow with remarkable efficiency while enjoying a unique form of descent when the climbing is done. For ski touring, a ski's desired attributes differ slightly from alpine skiing. Speeds are generally lower, snow conditions highly variable, and solid icy conditions are relatively rare. Though good alpine skis can and often are mounted for touring with randonnée and telemark bindings, ascending on skis and dealing with the vagueries of ungroomed snow puts a premium on characteristics that aren't always so important at the ski area.
Weight is important. Experienced ski tourists will often forego some measure of downhill performance in favor of light, short and relatively narrow skis that require less of an energy expenditure while skinning and climbing. Even resiliant twenty-somethings who can run a sub-3:00 marathon should pay heed, and usually do - it's often the super-fit crowd leading the way with the light-is-right gear, making it even harder for the rest of us to keep up with them.
Manufacturers reduce ski weight by using low profile designs, omitting layers of fiberglass and Titanal (an aluminum alloy used to dampen vibration), using lighter wood cores of Paulownia instead of the traditional ash and poplar, and increasing the use of carbon fiber in place of fiberglass. Many companies build touring skis in the same molds as popular alpine skis using these lighter constructions.
A ski's ability to excel in conditions seldom found in lift-served skiing, such breakable crusts, re-frozen avalanche debris, and moisture saturated mank can mean the difference between having the time of your life and being totally miserable or seriously injured. Often there is a fine line between choosing a ski that is wide enough to comfortably handle all the conditions you expect to encounter in the backcountry and light enough to tour on all day. Figuring out what you can get away with in terms of width requires finding a balance between float and weight, with your skiing ability factored in as well.
As technology improves and skis' weight-to-width ratio goes down, randonnée skiers are increasingly drawn to skis in the 100mm waist width range for winter touring. A ski in the 100mm to 105mm width with a weight between 1300 grams per ski and 1600 grams per ski is often a good choice for general touring and a wide range of snow conditions.
If a few more millimeters underfoot means the difference between enjoying that deep snow or floundering, touring skis with a wider platform and waists of 106mm to 112mm can be a good choice. Weights will typically be higher, in the 1400 to 1800 gram range, and drag while skinning in deep snow greater, but the extra surface area will make deep snow easier and more fun.
For spring and summer tours as well as strenuous ski mountaineering objectives, many people use much narrower and lighter skis, usually in a shorter length. Although you give up some performance in new and difficult snow, the energy saved by having less weight on your feet (or your pack, if carrying them) makes long trips much more enjoyable. Waist widths in the neighborhood of 85mm to 95mm and weights from 1000 to 1300 grams save a huge amount of energy going uphill, but may require adjusting your ski technique on the descent.
So how are you supposed to choose from the array of available choices? Be careful of recommendations unless you are confident in the source and have reason to believe their skiing style and ski level is similar to your own. Online reviews or posts on ski forums can help, especially if comparisons to skis you're familiar with are made - but again, consider the source. The best, of course, is to demo the model and length you're interested in over a reasonable period of time and in a variety of snow conditions, but finding a shop that offers demos of touring gear can be difficult.
A Note on Rocker: What's rocker? Basically, it's a bend or upward curvature (away from the snow) in the tip or tail of the ski that begins closer to the ski mid-point than in traditionally contoured skis. In the past, skis had camber (when you put them together, base to base, with the tips and tails touching, there was a gap between them in the middle) and the tip began its upward curve approximately 15-17 centimeters from the end of the ski. The camber was intended to allow an even distribution of weight along the length of the ski when the right sized person stood on them. As skis began to get wider, then wider still, people found it increasingly difficult to turn them quickly with this conventional profile but manufacturers discovered that bending the tips (and tails) upward closer to the center of the ski, as well as leaving out the camber, mitigated the problem. Rocker was born, and fat skis became the norm. There are now myriad combinations of tip/tail, tip only, and "early rise" with or without camber available, and some degree of rocker has filtered down to many popular touring skis (K2 employs tip rocker on every touring ski in its line). A bit of tip rocker or early rise can have a surprisingly positive effect on a ski's performance in difficult fresh snow, so its widespread adoption is sure to continue. Full rocker often has a negative effect on hard snow edgehold, so a heavily rockered wide ski may not be your best choice for a "quiver of one" if groomed or icy skiing is in your future.
Design elements that have become standard in performance alpine freeride skis are filtering down to touring skis. Rocker-camber profiles and Five-Point sidecuts work very well in backcountry variable conditions. Twin-tips or skis with a lot of tail rocker offer challenges for touring - they make securing skins at the tail difficult, and are a liability when booting with a ski in each hand or trying to use the skis as an anchor.
Many people have several touring "setups" and choose their gear depending on their intended destination and anticipated snow conditions. An expensive solution, perhaps, but think of all the money you're saving by not buying lift tickets . . .
© 2018 Gregory C. Louie