top of page
  • Writer's pictureWill Russack

Introduction to Backcountry Ski Equipment: How to Get the Right Gear

Choosing the right backcountry ski gear is key to having fun, staying safe, and achieving your goals in the backcountry. This is an equipment-heavy sport, so you have a lot of choices to make when you’re first getting started.


In this guide, we’ll cover the basics of backcountry ski touring gear and explain how to choose the backcountry ski equipment that’s right for you. We’ll also cover how to buy backcountry ski gear without breaking the bank.


Skiing powder in trees
Credit: Paige Jensen

Avalanche Safety Gear: Beacon, Shovel, Probe

Avalanche safety equipment and the ability to identify avalanche terrain are essential for travel in the backcountry. There are three items you should always carry when backcountry skiing: a beacon, shovel, and probe.


Beacons

Avalanche besacons, also called avalanche transceivers, are electronic devices that send and receive signals up to 200 feet away, even through snow. If someone in your group is buried by an avalanche, you need a beacon to find them quickly.


The most important thing to look for when choosing a beacon is that it’s a three antennae model. Older two antennae models are still out there, especially on used gear marketplaces, but they’re no longer considered safe for use by most avalanche experts.


REI has a great guide to choosing an avalanche beacon that highlights other features to consider. You won’t go wrong choosing any of the three antennae transceivers currently on the market.


Holding avalanche beacons together during a beacon check
Credit: Wild Snow

Probes

An avalanche beacon will identify the location of someone buried in the snow to within a few feet. To pinpoint their location, you’ll use a probe—a long, collapsible metal pole that you stick in the snow repeatedly until you hit your partner.


Probes vary in length. In the Pacific Northwest, where we have a very deep snowpack, you should choose a probe that’s at least 280 cm in length.


We also recommend using an aluminum probe instead of a carbon probe. Aluminum is less likely to bend or break in our dense PNW snowpack.


Shovels

Once you find a partner buried by an avalanche using your beacon and probe, you need a shovel to dig them out. Avalanche shovels are specifically designed for the backcountry to be lightweight, collapsible, and quick to deploy.


One thing to consider when choosing a shovel is the size and shape of the blade. A tiny shovel blade might be lighter, but it won’t be able to move much snow. With a very large, you’ll likely get tired more quickly since you’re moving large amounts of snow with each shovelful.


Backcountry Skis

Skis are the piece of gear most skiers get excited about. After all, they are what allows us to float through soft snow with a big ‘ol grin on our face. 


The reality is, there are a LOT of skis out there—and a lot to think about when choosing skis for the backcountry. We’ll explain everything you need to know to choose a pair of touring skis.


Ski Width

The width of a ski at its waist plays a significant role in how it performs in different snow conditions. In general narrower skis are better for firm snow conditions, while wider skis are better for skiing powder.


The table below shows the best uses and trade-offs for different ski widths.

Ski Width

Best use

Considerations

<85mm

Long-distance ski mountaineering and skimo races

Super light, but easy to get knocked around; poor performance in deeper snow

85mm - 95mm

Firm snow, spring skiing, or weight-conscious users

Lightweight and narrow skis can be challenging to ski in variable or deeper snow conditions

95mm - 110mm

All-season use, including fresh snow conditions

Skis in this range usually manage to handle a variety of conditions fairly well, with some compromise for weight.

>110mm

Powder, soft snow

Wider skis will weigh more and will do poorly on icy or firm conditions

Ski Length

Ski length is measured in centimeters and should be chosen based on your height and skiing ability


As a starting point, your skis should roughly reach your nose when you stand them in front of you. A newer skier may choose slightly shorter skis around chin height, while an experienced skier may have skis that reach above their head.


Longer skis will be more composed at high speeds, but they can make it harder to initiate and release from turns. They also tend to be more difficult to maneuver, especially in tight spaces like around trees. 


Shorter skis will be generally easier for beginners to turn, but may feel challenging to control at higher speeds.



Materials

Downhill skis are typically built with a combination of wood and metal and weigh 1,800 grams or more. While metal adds stability, it also adds weight. So, the majority of touring skis are built only with a wood core and weigh around 1,400-1,800 grams.


You’ll also see ultra-lightweight and rigid skis constructed with a carbon core. These can be harder to control when skiing downhill, but they’re significantly lighter for uphill skinning. Carbon skis usually weigh around 1,200-1,400 grams.


Camber and Rocker

Camber is a slight upward curve in the middle of a ski so that the ski contacts the snow close to the tip and tail when it’s unweighted. When weighted, your weight will put even pressure over the edge of the length of the ski, resulting in increased edgehold and better "pop" when coming out of turns. 


Rocker is basically the opposite of camber, and some ski companies even call it ‘reverse camber.’ Rockered skis make it easier to initiate turns and they float well in deep snow. However, they aren’t great at edging in icy conditions or on steep slopes.


There are skis with both rocker and camber, so you can have the best of both worlds. Evo has an in-depth guide to rocker and camber if you want to learn more.


Directional vs. Progressive Skis

The terms ‘directional’ and ‘progressive’ relate to the type of skier who might benefit most from a ski and the recommended mounting point for the ski binding.


Directional skis typically have a binding mounting point behind the true center of the ski. Directional skis encourage skiers to lean forward and push into their boots, engaging their edges through turns. In effect, directional skis encourage good form in most skiing situations. 


Progressive skis have a binding mounting point closer to the center of the ski. They’re designed for skiers who prefer a more neutral stance, which can be helpful for balance when landing after sending a cliff or making jump turns.


Ski Touring Bindings

Ski touring bindings need to enable us to skin uphill with our heel unlocked from the ski, but ski downhill with our heel firmly attached to the ski. They are fundamentally different from downhill bindings in how they’re constructed.


There are three main types of touring bindings: pin bindings, frame bindings, and hybrid bindings.


Pin (Tech) Bindings

Pin bindings, commonly called tech bindings are made up of two parts: a toe piece and a heel piece. The toe piece has pins that slot into holes in the toe of your ski boots. The heel piece has pins that slot into grooves in the heel of your ski boots.


Ski tech bindings
Credit: Dynafit

When you want to skin uphill, the toe piece clamps into the toe of your boot and the heel piece slides or rotates out of the way. This frees your heel and allows you to walk uphill by hinging your foot at the toe and sliding the ski along the snow.


When you’re ready to descend, the heel piece slides or pivots back into place and allows your boot to be secured to the ski at front and back.


Importantly, tech bindings are only compatible with touring-specific ski boots. This is relevant if you intend to only ski with one pair of boots in the backcountry and inbounds. 


Tech bindings are the most common type of binding that backcountry skiers use. They’re significantly lighter than frame or hybrid bindings


Frame Bindings

Frame bindings look like a traditional alpine binding that has been modified so that the bindings sits on a plate on top of your ski. When you’re skinning, you can release the plate so that it hinges, allowing you to lift your heel.


Frame binding while skinning
Credit: This Is Ski Touring

Frame bindings are much heavier than tech bindings and the pivot point can feel unnatural. However, they offer a downhill experience that feels very similar to downhill bindings, which can be nice for new backcountry skiers. Frame bindings are also relatively inexpensive


Hybrid Bindings

Hybrid bindings use a tech-style toe piece that converts into a downhill-style binding attachment when you’re ready to go downhill. Examples include the Salomon Shift binding and the Marker Duke PT.


These bindings attempt to combine the benefits of pin bindings on the uphill, with the safety and performance benefits of frame or alpine bindings on the downhill. Unlike most tech bindings, hybrid bindings will feel just like downhill bindings when you’re skiing.


There are a few drawbacks to hybrid bindings. Most models are more expensive than tech bindings. It also takes more time to transition from uphill to downhill modes than with tech bindings.


This video from pro skier Cody Townsend does a pretty good job of explaining and comparing the different types of touring bindings.



There’s one additional thing to note about touring bindings: they don’t have DIN ratings similar to downhill bindings. They may not release as reliably as downhill bindings in all situations, although they are generally considered to be safe. For more information about binding release, check out this guide from Blister.


Touring Boots

There are two key differences between touring boots and downhill ski boots.


The first is that touring boots have a walk mechanism. This is a system that allows for more mobility in the upper half of the ski boot when you are skinning uphill. Typically, the walk mechanism is a lever or tab on the back of the boot that you can release to reduce stiffness in the boot’s spine.


The second is that most touring boots have metal inserts for tech bindings. There are metal divots on either side of the toe (for the binding toe piece) and metal slots in the rear of the boot (for the binding heel piece). If you plan to use tech bindings, you must use boots that have these inserts.


Note that most touring boots are compatible with downhill bindings. So, you can use a single pair of boots with tech binding inserts for all of your skis.



Atomic Backland Carbon Boot
Credit: Atomic

Fit

Fit is the most important consideration when choosing touring boots. If you’re not comfortable in your boots, you won’t go skiing.

Always try on boots before buying them. If you buy from a ski shop, the shop will help fit and mold your new boots to your feet, often free of charge.


Boot Weight

Heavy boots take more effort to move uphill, but are generally more confidence-inspiring when skiing. Ultralight boots may allow you to cover much larger distances, but may be challenging to ski in variable snow conditions.


Generally speaking, ski touring boot weight classes can be categorized as:

  • Lightweight:  <1,300 grams per boot

  • Midweight: 1,300-1,650 grams per boot

  • Heavyweight : > 1,650 grams per boot


Forward Flex

Forward flex refers to how rigid or soft a boot feels when you lean your shin into the front of the boot. Typical flex ranges from 90 - 130, with higher numbers indicating greater stiffness.


Generally, more powerful skiers, heavier skiers, and skiers who prefer aggressive terrain will want a higher flex (stiffer) boot.

 

Note that there is no standard metric by which boot flex is measured. So, a 120 flex boot from one brand may not be equally as stiff as a 120 flex boot from another brand.


Skins

Skins are strips of nylon or mohair that stick to the bottom of your skis to allow you to move uphill without sliding back down. They are a critical piece of equipment for backcountry skiing.


Skins can be made from either mohair or synthetic materials.


Mohair skins are made from the hair of Angora goats. They offer better glide with each step and weigh less than synthetic skins. They also pack down to a smaller size.


Synthetic skins are made from nylon. They are grippier than mohair skins, making them ideal for icy or steep terrain. They’re also more durable. However, nylon skins weigh more than mohair skins and glide less, meaning you have to put in slightly more effort to make forward progress.


When choosing skins, make sure you choose a set that’s at least as long as your skis and as wide as the waist of your skis. You’ll cut your skins to fit your skis after you purchase them. 


Clothing

Dressing for a high-output physical activity during winter is challenging—especially in the Pacific Northwest, where we often experience significant precipitation and mild temperatures


While touring, you need to be able to shed heat when moving uphill and stay warm when taking a break or transitioning from skinning to skiing.


It’s a good idea to dress in layers. By using layers, you can add or remove clothing to warm up or cool down.


Here are some layers you should have:

  • Base layer (breathable, non-cotton shirt)

  • Lightly insulated midlayer

  • Insulated jacked (such as a down jacket)

  • Waterproof shell


Consider carrying several pairs of gloves of different materials and thicknesses in addition to your layers, since they’ll almost certainly get wet.


For more about layering up for ski touring, check out these guides from REI and Blister.


Other Equipment

It’s worth considering some additional pieces of gear to carry with you during a tour, including:

  • Two-way radios for communication with your partners

  • Emergency satellite communicator (such as a Garmin inReach or Zoleo)

  • Ski helmet

  • Eye protection (sunglasses or goggles)


Buying New

We are lucky to have tons of great local ski shops with passionate folks who know a LOT about backcountry gear: 

  • ProSki (Seattle) 

  • Cripple Creek (Seattle) 

  • Ascent Outdoors (Seattle, new location)

  • ProSki (North Bend)

  • Backcountry Essentials (Bellingham)

  • Mountain Shop (Portland)

  • Eastside Cycleworks (Leavenworth)

  • Goat’s Beard (Mazama)


Big retailers like REI, Backcountry.com, and Evo also carry lots of backcountry equipment and regularly include great past-season products in scheduled sales and clearance events. 


Buying Second-hand

When it comes to expensive gear like the equipment used for ski touring, buying second-hand can be a great way to get into the sport. There are several things to consider when looking at used gear. 


Skis

  • Skis with bindings on them may not fit your boots and might need to be re-mounted for an additional cost. Skis can typically be drilled for binding installation a maximum of three times. If a pair of skis has already been mounted twice, you will only be able to mount it one more time.

  • Check for damage to the bases. No part of the core should be exposed


Bindings

  • Inspect the toe and heel pins to see if they are significantly worn down or damaged.

  • Engage the front spring to ensure it works properly


Boots

  • Buying boots secondhand is generally not recommended unless you are already confident they fit your feet well

  • Inspect the metal inserts on the boots to see if they are worn out (front and back)

  • Check that all the buckles work

  • Inspect the condition of the boot liner. If it’s worn out, you may need to replace it.


Consignment stores are a great way to find used gear:

  • Wonderland Gear Exchange (Seattle)

  • Colchuck Consignment (Cashmere)

  • Next Adventure (Portland)


You can also find equipment on several online marketplaces, including Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and Ebay. Locally in the Northwest, there is the PNW Ski Classifieds Facebook page. The Turns All Year (TAY) website also has a gear sale page.


Lastly, there are also opportunities to rent backcountry gear before you buy:

  • Gearhouse (Seattle)

  • Proski (North Bend, Seattle)

  • The Mountain Shop (Portland)


Additional Resources

If you haven’t had enough gear talk already, here are some articles that provide additional or different perspectives on ski touring gear:


It’s important to recognize that having the right gear is only part of getting into backcountry skiing. To be a responsible and safe ski tourer, it’s important to build the foundations of safety-focused decision making in the backcountry, including first aid training, avalanche assessment, rescue, and other skills.


Check out the other articles in our Backcountry 101 series to learn more:

87 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Commentaires


bottom of page