Ski touring, or ‘earning your turns,’ as it’s affectionately called, has never been more popular. Removing the restriction of only being able to ski lift-served runs opens up new terrain, provides access to untracked powder, enables you to skip lift lines and resort crowds, and of course, has you feeling the burn of tired legs like never before.
While in theory any ski can be used for alpine touring, the recent increase in the sport’s popularity has led to the development of touring-specific ski models that typically feature lighter-weight constructions than their pure downhill counterparts. You’ll also find touring-specific shapes that allow the ski to excel in the variable conditions that you might encounter in the backcountry.
The two most important factors to take into account when choosing a new alpine touring ski are where you will be skiing and how you will be skiing.
Will you be touring to access chest-deep powder in the Wasatch, or to make July turns on Mt. Rainier’s glaciers? Likewise, do you want to start entering skimo races or just enjoy the solitude of the mountains? Will you be dropping every cliff and jibbing every tree stump you come across, or do you prefer to keep your skis planted firmly on the ground?
Once you are clear about what kind of skiing you will be doing, you can better evaluate your options in terms of width, length, shape, and weight.
Depending on what type of ski touring you would like to do, you should choose a ski width that matches your skiing style. For ski mountaineering, rando racing and long spring or summer tours where you will not be encountering too much deep snow, choose a ski with a waist width in the 70-90mm range. The narrower the ski, the lighter and more nimble it will be when making kick turns on your ascent, but performance in deeper or variable snow will be affected.
On the other side of the touring spectrum, choose a ski in the 90-115mm width range if you like catching air and expect to be skiing variable conditions or powder. You will sacrifice some weight, but wider skis provide more stability in rough conditions, and of course, superior float in the deep stuff.
Ski shape and profile are just as important as ski width. When it comes to the profile of touring-specific skis, the two most common styles you will see are traditional camber and a hybrid profile. The latter usually features a rockered tip (also referred to as early-rise tip) with camber underfoot and a flat tail.
‘Hybrid’ cambered ski with early rise rockered tip and slight tail rocker.
Traditional, full-camber profiles are generally found in the narrower touring skis that are used for ski mountaineering, rando racing and hard-packed snow conditions. This type of profile provides the most contact with the snow, which in turn provides more grip on the uphill and powerful turn initiation and edge hold on the descent.
As ski width increases, we generally begin to see the hybrid ski profile. A rockered tip allows the ski to plane better in powder and blast through variable crud, while the camber underfoot and flat tail still allows for good snow contact and edge control on the downhill.
The one ski profile that isn’t seen too often in the touring world is full rocker. We’re not saying it can’t be done, but aside from not holding climbing skins all that well, fully rockered skis make minimal contact with the snow, sacrificing grip on the uphill and making kick-turns a little more difficult if you are not an experienced uphill traveler. However, if you don’t mind a little slippage and inefficiency on the track and expect to be hitting deep snow on the way down, it may be the way to go.
The length of an alpine touring ski shouldn’t differ too much from what you are typically used to skiing. However, if you plan on racing or doing more uphill than downhill travel, you may want to choose a ski on the shorter side. This will allow for easier kick-turns and reduce ski weight—but high-speed downhill performance will be affected.
The construction of alpine touring skis is really what sets them apart from the norm. Materials like carbon fiber, paulownia, beech, poplar and bamboo are often used to lighten the skis, since you will be taking thousands of steps uphill with weight on your feet. The heavier your ski setup, the more quickly you will tire out, possibly ending your ski day prematurely.
Lightweight construction, however, means that there is a small tradeoff for ski performance since these skis often lack some of the damp, chatter-free characteristics that are helpful for hard and variable snow conditions. Therefore, you don’t necessarily want to automatically choose the lightest ski you can find. Instead, choose a ski offering the width and shape that aligns with your ski style, and look for other ways to lighten your setup, such as using lighter boots or bindings.
But as with all rules, there are exceptions; the Black Diamond Carbon Convert, for example, offers top performance on both ascents and descents, in exchange for a somewhat higher sticker price.
Another element to take into account is the shape of the tip and tail and the presence of company-specific skin attachment systems such as Dynafit’s Speedskin Skin Fix system. Since ski touring requires the use of climbing skins, attached to your ski’s bases via the tip and tail to gain uphill grip, choosing a ski that allows for easy and secure skin attachment is key.
Generally, touring-specific skis will have a flat tail with a plastic or metal insert that allows secure skin attachment while protecting the ski from damage due to the repeated application and removal of climbing skins. Others, like Dynafit and La Sportiva skis, have their own, proprietary attachment systems for ease of use.
While almost any ski can accept a skin, some, especially those with rounded tails, may require aftermarket parts like the G3 Twin Tip Connector Kit to provide a solid attachment.