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How to choose ski touring skis

The first question I asked myself when I began to entertain the idea of trying ski touring was “what equipment do I need? The first thing I had to worry about was the choice of ski touring skis.

I opted for some rather old, without sidecut, convinced that I could handle them without any problems. But after a spicy first descent, to say the least, I quickly realised that the ‘right’ ski makes all the difference in terms of both safety and enjoyment.

In recent years, the development of materials has made it easier to ski off-piste. This has allowed many skiers, including intermediate skiers, to take up ski touring, creating a virtuous circle in which supply and demand in the industry have evolved hand in hand. Suffice it to say that almost all ski brands now have both on-piste and backcountry ranges.

Different backcountry approaches: “touring” and “light

Just like on-piste skiing, there are different types of ski touring equipment designed to meet different needs. I do not intend to analyse each sub-category of skis here, but for simplicity’s sake I will divide the types into two macro-families:

  • Touring: skis designed for those who want to enjoy the descent, but need a little more effort on the ascent.
  • Light: skis designed for those who prefer ascents with a lot of elevation gain or high alpine difficulty and are willing to sacrifice the pleasure of the descent.

Then there are two other categories that are more niche and for more experienced ski mountaineers: “Race” and “Free”. “Race” includes super-lightweight skis designed for competition, and we will not be discussing them here. “Free” refers to freeride skis, which are mainly used for off-piste skiing with lifts or otherwise for moderate elevation gain. We will only touch on them briefly in the list of ski models, which you can find here.

Let’s dispel the myth of lightness

Most people who take up ski touring are already familiar with alpine skis. However, the first time they put ski touring skis on their feet, they often have a crisis, even on the piste. There are two reasons for this:

  • Weight: a touring ski is much lighter than a downhill ski. It is easy to see why, since you have to go uphill before you go downhill, it is important to limit the weight as much as possible.
  • Structure: The second macro-difference is closely related to the first and concerns the structure of the ski. I am not going to go into the technical details, but if one ski weighs twice as much as the other, there must be some difference in the core and construction of the ski.
ski mountaineering skis

A light and poorly “structured” ski will give the uninitiated the feeling of an unstable ski that will not hold on hard surfaces.

The conclusion is that weight is certainly an enemy when you are going uphill, but when you get to the top and have to go downhill, weight (and therefore structure) goes from being an enemy to an ally.

A question of goals

Before we talk about ski features and geometry, we need to ask ourselves what kind of trips we want to make. It should be clear by now that something has to be sacrificed: either a little more effort on the ascent or a little more fun on the descent. We need to find the right balance for the type of touring we want to do.

choosing the best ski touring skis

Normally, the beginner ski mountaineer will start with leisurely rides (without looking at the chrono), with moderate gradients and difficulty. In this case, the real aim is to ascend calmly, enjoying the surroundings, and then have fun on the descent.

For this type of skier, I would recommend a touring ski, which has a good amount of structure. If you are planning this kind of trip, there is no point in taking a very light ski, as you would risk not enjoying the descent. Much better to put in a bit more effort on the way up, maybe take an extra half an hour to get to the top, but then have the right equipment to have fun if that is our aim.

how to choose ski touring skis

If, on the other hand, the aim of ski mountaineering is to collect summits or traverses, a different approach is needed. If you want to climb a lot of elevation gain, or even if you want to take on more difficult ascents, you will need to choose lighter touring skis, more in line with the Light category.

This will penalise the downhill feeling and require a better skiing technique.

Ski touring skis geometry and characteristics

Before we look at the different types of skis on the market, let’s take a look at the main characteristics of touring skis.

What length should I choose for ski touring skis?

In general, I recommend choosing a touring ski whose length is very close to your height. For an intermediate or beginner skier, a few centimetres shorter is better, as the ski will be easier to control both downhill and uphill. Even when ascending, a few centimetres less can help, not so much for weight reasons, but to make it easier to do turns.

ski touring in powder

What width for my ski touring skis?

Obviously a wide ski will help you float better, especially in soft snow, but it is good not to exaggerate this parameter for two reasons:

  • We will find very different types of snow during the season. A 120 mm wide ski is perfect when a metre of soft snow has just fallen, but it will be completely useless or counterproductive when we are skiing on old or marbled snow.
  • Ski manufacturers tend to use larger structures for more generous geometries, resulting in a ski that is too demanding for an intermediate skier and too heavy on the ascent if you do not have the right training.

To best calibrate your choice, you must also assess your weight. At an intermediate technical level, a light skier may well choose a slightly narrower ski. A heavier skier, on the other hand, will benefit more from a few extra millimetres underfoot.

guide to choosing the right ski

Does the radius of curvature really matter?

This value has little practical significance when choosing touring skis.

We must not forget that in off-piste skiing we may find a soft or marbled base and, of course, the elastic response of the ski is very different depending on the type of snow.

Also, if the snow is not marbled, there will always be a certain amount of sinking and when we want to set up a turn, narrower tips could make a difference. A “narrow” tip that gradually widens to the point of maximum width of the ski allows the first phase of the turn to be smoother, as the snow is moved gradually.

Of course, this argument also applies to the tail and exit of the turn. This is one reason why it is not uncommon to find a ski with a 30m radius turning more easily than one with a 25m radius. Perhaps the 30m radius ski has a different rocker. But what is rocker?

ski touring skis for powder

The rocker of ski touring skis

This variable indicates the part of the ski’s length that is raised in relation to the ski’s 2 points of contact with the ground. In this case, a picture says more than a thousand words:

There is no unit of measurement for rocker, and many manufacturers give it as a percentage. For example, if a ski is 180 cm long and has 70% camber and 30% rocker, this means that there is 126 cm (70% of 180 cm) between the two points where the ski touches the ground, and the remaining 54 cm (30% of 180 cm) is raised. In addition, the rocker is not necessarily evenly distributed between the tip and tail.

The geometry of the rocker comes from the need to help the skier float downhill, just like a motorboat, and to make it easier to enter and exit turns. Nowadays, all touring skis have this geometry, but it is important to remember that the more rocker a ski has, the more unwanted vibrations it will generate.

how to choose ski touring skis

What the market offers

Given the initial distinction between Light and Tour, we have listed the technical features of a number of 2022/2023 models, sorted by waist width, to help you understand the differences between the two categories.

You will also find some models from the Free category to give you an idea of how the ski evolves as it moves up into the dedicated Freeride category.

BrandModelWaist Width (mm)Weight (170 cm length)CategoryPrice
Black DiamondCirque 84841.030Lightvisualizza
DynafitSeven Summit841.230Lightvisualizza
Black CrowsOva Freebird851.125Lightvisualizza
DynafitRadical 88881.230Lightvisualizza
K2Wayback 88881.270Lightvisualizza
ScottProguide 89891.170Lightvisualizza
Black CrowsOrb Freebird901.350Tourvisualizza
Black DiamondHelio Carbon 95951.330Tourvisualizza
ScottProguide 96961.120Tourvisualizza
K2Wayback 96961.397Tourvisualizza
Black CrowsCamox Freebird961.600Tourvisualizza
DynafitFree 97971.390Tourvisualizza
LineVision 98981.515Tourvisualizza
ScottPure Mission 98 Ti981.500Freevisualizza
Black DiamondImpulse 98981.710Freevisualizza
Black CrowsNavis Freebird1021.700Freevisualizza
Black DiamondImpulse 1041041.850Freevisualizza
Black CrowsCorvus Freebird1071.825Freevisualizza
LineVision 1081081.605Freevisualizza

Based on this sample, the Light category has an average weight per ski of just over 1.1 kg (1,138 g. for Precision) and a waist width of 85 mm. The Tour category, on the other hand, has an average weight of 1.36 kg per ski and a waist width of 96 mm. The Free category has an average weight of 1.75 kg and a waist width of 104 mm.

Going from a Light ski to a Tour ski means, on average, a 14% increase in width (and surface area) and a 20% increase in weight. The fact that the increase in weight is more than proportional to the increase in surface area means that a Tour ski is not only “wider” than a Light ski, it is also more structured.

Guidelines for choosing ski touring skis

Let us try to summarise all these concepts by analysing the concrete case of three different people who have to choose touring skis.

  • Maria is 165 cm tall, weighs 55 kg and has a good technique on the piste, even on black slopes. She prefers to enjoy the descent, even at the cost of a little more effort on the ascent. Her tours will not involve any sustained mountaineering difficulties or ascents of more than 1,200 m. Look at the choice for Maria.
  • Luis is 175 cm tall and weighs 70 kg. Like Maria, he is a good skier and his aim is to enjoy the pleasure of off-piste skiing while carrying a little extra weight. He has no great mountaineering ambitions. Look at the choice for Luis.
  • Paul is 175 cm tall and weighs 70 kg. He has a good technique on the piste and his main objective is to get to the top and “explore” the mountain. He needs equipment that allows him to gain altitude without exhausting himself. For him, skis are basically a means of getting back to the car. Look at the choice for Paul.

Maria’s choice

Maria could choose skis with a height of about 158/164 cm, a width of about 85/90 mm and a weight of 1,100/1,200 g per ski. Here are some models:

ModelLenght (cm)Waist Width (mm)
Black Crows Orb Freebird16190
K2 Wayback 8816088
Scott Proguide 8916389

Luis’s choice

Luis could choose a ski about 168/178 cm tall with underfoot width around 90/98 mm and weight 1,350/1,550 g per ski. Here are some models:

ModelLenght (cm)Waist Width (mm)
Black Crows Camox Freebird17296
Black Diamond Helio Carbon 9516995
K2 Wayback 9617796

Paul’s choice

Paul might choose a ski about 165/175 cm tall with underfoot width around 80/85 mm and weight 1,100/1,200 g per ski. Here are some models:

ModelLenght (cm)Waist Width (mm)
Black Crows Ova Freebird17085
Black Diamond Cirque 8417184
Dynafit Seven Summit17484

Before you buy

Once you have identified the two or three models that fall within the above parameters, there is only one thing left to do when choosing touring skis: try them out. Either by finding a rental shop or by attending a ski test event.

A pair of shoes or boots will give you a certain feeling as soon as you put them on in the shop, as will the grip of an ice axe or the handling of a climbing harness. Skis, on the other hand, do not: unfortunately, they are tools that give you no feeling until you have made your first few turns!

Happy ski touring to all!

Thanks to Black Crows for some of the photos published here.

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