Backcountry Skis

Friends often ask what is the best backcountry ski to get. Backcountry skiing may be one of the most varied sports and terminology. Backcountry skiing ranges from mellow tours on golf courses to skinning in the wilderness or side-country and seeking the steeps. Webster’s definition of backcountry (all one word) is “a remote undeveloped rural area.” What we do with MOB and local friends in our Valley is primarily considered touring but there are the occasional steeps. Metal edges, fish scales, and three pin bindings are assumed. When we mention downhill backcountry, most people from other worlds think of alpine touring with fixed heels (Randonn√©e) instead of our downhill tele skis.

Karhu (now Madshus) was instrumental in developing products that met the “cross country / downhill” market with their XCDs, and the Guide and 10th Mountain were those first preferred by our crowd. This article, The Legendary Karhu XCD Guide/Madshus Annum, offers some perspective on conditions and performance. Even wider skis are now available.

Consequently, we often have a large quiver of BC skis. Briefly, below are the range of skis for the uses. The shape specs quoted may have been for a particular year and may now be slightly different, and you may also care about camber and tip rocker.

SKIS

Madshus M68 (previously Epoch) (and previously Karhu 10th Mountain) is the narrowest we use at 99-68-84mm. Great for golf courses and backcountry touring where limited challenges will be anticipated. I use my leather boots on these and Deb uses plastic.

Madshus Epoch
Madshus Epoch

Madshus M78 (previously Annum) (and previously Karhu Guide) is next widest at 109-78-95mm. I gravitate to those below for most purposes but find that these are 1) great in the early and late season when snow is sketchier/thinner and we’re less likely to charge, and 2) the best value and versatility for easy touring/gentle downhill at a reasonable price point. (The Rossi BC 110 is also available in similar width at 110-78-95mm and now has tip rocker.)

Madshus Annum
Older version of Madshus Annum

The Rossi BC 125 (sadly, no longer made) has been my most utilized ski with dimensions 123-95-120mm (165cm), and now with tip rocker. Great for our local areas where we might tour five miles (90% of the activity) to get to some sweet medium steeps (10%) at (our local) Squaw Valley, I have also found myself using these on some of the Woodward and Bolton-Trapp tours where a larger percentage of the excursion is also touring. I’m happy to sacrifice some downhill performance for the convenience of not having to depend solely on skins for the uphill. When I have taken my true downhill (tele) skis, I end up glomming them up with wax for some of the mellower uphills on the exit route when herringboning starts to get tiring.

Rossi BC 125
Rossi BC 125

The Voile line likely offers the best performance for all around touring and steep backcountry, but is significantly higher priced, ballpark $700. Its tip rocker facilitates the small radius turns. It’s fishscale climbing pattern is superior to the other brands noted. There are now two great choices. The V6, replacing the Vector and Charger, has dimensions at the 163cm length of 126-96-108mm. The UltraVector is slightly lighter and narrower with 123-92-108mm at 164cm and offers the first 154cm length that I’m aware of!

Voile Vector BC
Voile V6 BC

The manufacturers will try to put a heavier person on longer skis, but the shortest lengths, typically 165cm, are usually appropriate for the women unless you are really good at turning in crud. I won’t get too much into the physics, but longer ski = better glide, shorter ski = better turn. These skis can be used in tracks but are slightly too wide and will damage the tracks as well as be slower than track-appropriate skis. Heavier weight on the ski may wear it out faster, but likely only if you are really pressing in the steeps.

BOOTS

Leather boots are fine for touring. Plastic boots are better on the wider (beefier) skis and when some turning and moderate downhill is likely–when you want more control. Garmont Excursions (now Scott), <$300, and Scarpa T3 (no longer available) and T4, >$400 are the plastic brands. I no longer see Excursions offered on the Scott website, but you can likely find them on retailer sites. Many people with wider feet prefer the Garmont, but I have found that a Scarpa fits a C-width fine and has a nicer/snugger heel cup. Heavier tele boots are fine, too–just heavier; what Trish uses because that’s what she has!

BINDINGS

The Voile Hardwire 3-Pin, sometimes available at Clearwater Sports is the “standard” binding choice. It can be skied with or without the wire. Although you could get by with the Voile HD Mountaineer 3-Pin for lightweight use. G3 Targa Ascents (no longer available) and Voile Switchback and Switchback X2 with pivoting toe are good for climbing the steeps.

You may want a riser with climbing posts for steeper climbs if it doesn’t already come with the binding.

ACCESSORIES

My preferred skins (not needed if you are only touring) are Black Diamond Ascension. Make sure the tip loop is large enough if you have rounded-tip skis. Also, IMO the ski tail width (or slightly narrower) is a sufficient width for the skin (vs. tip width) as much of the middle/waist will be trimmed.

My preferred poles are Black Diamond 2-piece carbon (~$110) or aluminum with FlickLock adjustment.

Lastly, don’t forget about safety, and modify what you carry based on the length of your excursion, the distance from civilization, and the type of conditions you might encounter. This is by no means comprehensive and only one link I ran across, but consider carrying some repair items as well as your first aid kit, hydration, and extra clothing.

VENDORS

Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington

Onion River Outdoors in Montpelier

Clearwater Sports in Waitsfield

Happy touring!

Partially updated 12/20/23.