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. One excellent choice in this class is K2's 104mm wide Coomback , a light, rockered ski that excels in adverse snow conditions. Already creating a buzz among experienced west coast skiers, including many of my friends, is Dynafit's new Denali , a great soft snow ski with a 98mm waist (176cm) that's lighter than many of its narrower peers. If your pockets are deep, consider the DPS Wailer 99 Pure 3 which has led this category for several years.
If a few more millimeters underfoot means the difference between enjoying that deep snow or floundering (I'd caution you against going to the 110mm and above class, both for weight and drag reasons) consider the 105 wide Black Diamond Carbon Convert , the G3 Zenoxide C3 or the La Sportiva Vapor Nano .
Dynafit's Cho Oyu is another ski that I've added to my personal quiver for fast and light days; with an 88mm waist in a 174 length it has enough surface area and tip rocker to handle funky snow "surprises" and even full powder conditions but is amazingly light on the ascent at 1147 grams per ski.
For spring and summer tours as well as strenuous ski mountaineering objectives, many people use super-light and much narrower 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. Race skis like the Dynastar Pierra Menta , the Trab Gara World Cup and the Atomic Ultimate can't be beat for the uphill but require a skilled and balanced skier 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 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. Find a shop that is strong in backcountry gear and see what they have available as demos or rentals; the money you spend usually can be applied to a purchase. Keep an eye out for backcountry ski events with industry attendees - these often have demos available as well. And don't limit your choices to skis you see on websites like this one - the skis I picture here are skis that I or people I know have skied and like, or ones that people whose opinions I value have spoken positively about; there are many more great skis out there.
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. It's also safe to say that incorporating 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. If in doubt, try to demo.
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 should be avoided for touring - they make securing skins at the tail a challenge, and are a liability when booting with a ski in each hand and trying to use the planted ski for extra security. If you like the looser feel and versatility of a rockered tail, look at skis with tail taper instead - this shape serves a similar function in terms of performance.
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 . . .
A Note on Skin Compatibility: Even though many of the above skis have fittings meant to accept a proprietary model of skin, you can always find another way to attach them at tips and tails. The Black Diamond tip loop/elastomer tail, for instance, will work with any of these skis, even if it's not quite as elegant as the factory fittings. Keep this in mind if you already have skins you'd like to re-use, or prefer another type of skin than what the factory offers.
© 2015 Gregory C. Louie