Basic attributes of skis that help describe their function are, camber, flex, length, width and side cut. All the back country light touring gear we will describe here are metal edged. You want metal edges for durability and grip when hill climbing and climbing over debris when hauling a heavy sled or backpack, and for carving the occasional large radius downhill turn should the opportunity arise. There are many other ski attributes that won’t really affect your back country trekking and sled hauling so we won’t discuss it here, such as base type (extruded vs. sintered, but sintered is best and should always be selected if there is a choice); and core material (wood vs. foam vs. other). There are also a few companies still making pure wooden skis which are great back country skis, often made wider for better floatation, albeit heavier than synthetic materials. I don’t have experience with these wooden skis so in this first version I won’t be reporting on them. The descriptions here will be limited to composite construction skis.
Camber: This is perhaps the most important attribute immediately separating light back country touring skis from the downhill models for Telemark/AT. Camber is the arc under the foot and extending fore and aft from this area, which creates the kick or wax pocket which engages the snow for the kick part of the stride, and then releases from the snow for the glide. If the camber is not high and stiff enough on the glide, the kick pocket drags and slows or eliminates the glide, making your skis just walking trudging sticks. Generally light back country touring skis are double camber, or slightly softer at 1 ½ camber. Your groomed track resort racing type skis are double camber and very hard to compress completely between your hands. In the ski shop you can stand in the skis on a flat surface and slide a piece of paper under your foot fore and aft, which indicates a good double camber for the glide. Similarly the fastest back country touring skis will have a similar stiff double camber. However for touring in deep fluffy snow, a double camber will shear and slip, so a compromise is a 1 ½ camber which will not glide as well, but will flex down more to grip and engage the snow for the kick better. There is no one ski camber which is optimum for all touring and trekking conditions, and combined with length and width combination, you will eventually acquire several pairs for the range of trekking conditions you will hopefully experience. Modern Telemark and AT skis will tend to have a single camber that is extremely soft, or essentially no camber at all when pressure is applied.
Personally I prefer a double cambered ski, and in deep snow shearing conditions where my wax or waxless pattern is not gripping, I use climbing skins or softer wax, which will be explained in the corresponding sub sections below.
Flex: Flex is related to camber, i.e. a double camber ski by definition is a very stiff ski. So a good gliding back country touring ski will have a stiff flex. Telemark and AT downhill skis have a very soft flex and are actually designed to flex backwards to help initiate tight downhill turns. The softer the flex, the slower the glide, and the softest telemark/AT skis have essentially no glide for the flats – you basically shuffle and walk on these skis.
Flex also relates to the ends of the skis, called tip and tail. Each ski model will have different tip and tail flex patterns, depending on its intended use. A true light back country touring ski will also have a stiff flex on tip and tail, designed to keep the wax or grip pocket raised up slightly off the snow in the glide, and to plane straight in the glide, as opposed to bending back upwards in deep snow ploughing a bit. The hybrid type skis that are made for moderate kick and glide and for carving downhill turns have moderate flex. The Telemark/AT skis have their tips bend upwards in deep powder to keep you planing back up instead of submarining. There are no standards for flex, so you have to handle the skis when buying and bend them on the floor or take a demo pair out for a ski to know for sure how they respond to your weight and trail/snow conditions. For speed in the kick and glide, stiffer is far better.
Length: The length of the ski is related to the camber and flex, your weight, and your ability to float on the snow. A heavy person will need a longer ski to distribute the weight and not totally collapse the grip pocket, and to keep the ski straighter for a good glide and to not bend backwards. A heavier person will need a longer ski for floatation also. A lighter person generally uses a shorter length ski in a very stiff highly cambered ski, in order to create enough force down to engage the pocket for the grip. However the softer the camber and flex, the longer a ski a lighter person can use. Longer skis tend to ski faster.
Long legged tall people need a longer ski to accommodate their weight, and to take advantage of the longer skis for a more efficient kick and glide. Smaller people need a slightly shorter ski to accommodate their stride. However as your skills improve, shorter people should consider longer skis for kick and glide performance.
However, if there is any consideration of skiing in the bush, or on narrow trails with hills, then a shorter ski is preferred. The snow in the bush is more airy, the skis will sink and get caught under debris. Herringbone technique up hills requires the tips to be well out, and longer skis can get tangled in brush along narrow trail hills and be a hassle.
Floatation also affects the length of ski you choose. A very wide ski will have more floatation, and so you can get by with a shorter ski for tight trails and bush skiing conditions. The narrower the ski the longer it needs to be for the same floatation. The longer narrower ski has to be stiffer as well so that the tip does not bend backwards too far in the deep snow when touring.
Light back country touring ski lengths range from about 170 cm to 210 cm. If you already cross country ski classic style on groomed trails, then you already have a ski length you are probably comfortable with. This is a good starting point if considering a narrower back country ski, and you could go shorter for a wider high floatation ski, but tempering that with considerations of camber and flex.
If you have no experience, then to give you an idea of where to start, I can relate my specs to various skis I own. I am quite short at 5’4” (162 cm), and weigh 150 lbs (68 kg) without my gear, and my narrowest back country skis are 195 cm length, and my widest are 175 cm lenght, with several intermediate width pairs of ski lengths in between. Note: True ski length is often different than the manufacturer’s quoted length – why I don’t know, but its close enough for studying specs.
Metal edges on wider skis are usually made full length from tip to tail. On longer narrower skis, sometimes the metal edges are ¾ length with tip and tail non edged. ¾ length metal edges are made to save weight on the narrower skis.
Everything said above goes out the window for Telemark and AT. These skis are generally very wide (fat!), extremely soft “wet noodles”, and generally the shorter ski the better for carving very tight radius turns. So when shopping for a light touring back country ski and the maximum length offered is only 180-190 cm, then you know it likely has a softer flex and soft camber, and may not glide well, but there are a few exceptions for the maximum 190 lengths which glide fairly well in some conditions.
Width and Sidecut: Sidecut is the longitudinal shape of the width of the ski quoted as widths in the tip, waist (under the foot) and tail in that order. They range from perfectly straight to radically shaped with an hourglass shape. The best touring skis for straight line touring are straight or zero sidecut, since they want to track in a straight line. The extremely sidecut Telemark/AT skis are designed to initiate and carve tight downhill turns. When kicking and gliding these radically sidecut skis are horrible, as they always want to turn and throw your stride way off into splaying and forced corrections.
However most light back country touring skis will have some sidecut for several good reasons. Almost all these skis are made to allow a person to do some moderate downhill turns – after all when touring cross country, there are always some hills unless you travel only on lakes. Some sidecut will also allow a good grip when doing uphill climbs with herringbone or side step technique, since as the ski bends, the arc created by the sidecut allows for the full metal edge to grip the trail, and for the tips and tails to dig in deep and hold. For narrower skis, the tip is often wider for floatation, which will impart a sidecut shape. So some mild sidecut is beneficial, and is not bad for touring the flats as your technique will compensate to control the ski’s desire to turn. Just stay away from the large sidecut if you intend to ski the flats.
What is a reasonable sidecut for touring the flats without the skis going squirrelly on you, wanting to turn all the time? There is no precise answer, but in my experience, generally speaking, 10-15cm side cut is fine. One of my pairs of skis has 18cm sidecut and I have no problem. 20cm is getting out there and beyond that most skis are going to want to turn all the time. However there are a few models of light touring skis with up to 30cm sidecut designed as hybrids to attempt to do everything for touring and Telemark/AT, although I have not skied these so can’t comment on their performance, and I remain skeptical. Manufactures generally don’t make a light back country touring ski with more than 15-20cm anyways, so if you see a large sidecut it is not likely a kick and glide touring ski.
As you can see from the above description, there is no one pair of skis to do everything. There are wide, high floatation skis for deep fluffy snow which are slower, and narrower stiffer skis for speedy kick and gliding on packed trails, such as your own snowshoe trail on the way out, wind-packed lake snow, and along snowmobile trails. When we add considerations of temperature and the pros and cons of waxable and waxless, you will soon realize that you will need several pairs of skis for different conditions. In the back country lexicon we refer to our collection as our “quiver” of skis.
The following photos with ski specs are from my growing quiver, and represent a gradual collection of skis for a wide range of various back country flat land touring, winter trekking hauling sleds, and free skiing conditions. (“Free skiing” in our context here refers to skiing for day trips without hauling a sled and using only a day pack.) We try as much as possible on Winter-Camping.ca to report on gear we have actually used so that you get better information. The sidecut is listed in the standard way as tip-waist-tail in mm. Camber and flex are estimated as sometimes it is not listed by the manufacturer. Ski length is given as a comparison to my personal height and weight listed above, to assist beginners in their considerations of ski specs for their own height and weight. Veterans will know what they need. Manufacturers terms for waxable = “tour”, and for waxless = “crown”. I hope to add to the quiver photo collection in the future. Also listed after the photos are similar skis that I am familiar with but have not used, as well as some skis that I have not seen but have read about with specs that potentially may work well for light back country touring on the flatlands. Its best to always handle skis in the shop, talk to your ski shop pros and not order blind.
The above collection represents quite a wide range of ski types for light back country touring on the flatlands, but it’s a only a representation of what’s out there. We look forward to hearing back from you on your gear reports of the skis you use. Some other skis that are similar to the above, or which have good specs for trying out for touring include:
Fischer Europa (E) 99 Tour and Crown BCX: 68-55-62. This is a classic stiff flex 1 ½ camber, full metal edged ski. I wish I had a pair, as this ski is often reported on in the literature as a great ski for the niche of skiing we are talking about. It’s roughly equivalent to the Asnes Mountains’s above, but with a stiffer camber, so it may be faster. Yet another ski I “need”.
Fischer E89 Mountain Tour BCX: 59-49-55, full metal edge. A buddy has these and uses them on our trips, and he loves them. Roughly equivalent to the Atomic Mountain’s above.
Karhu Solstice XT Widetrack: 65-55-60, with ¾ metal edge, and waxless base. No specific info yet on camber and flex, but they mention that it is designed for kick and glide touring. This is a new line for Karhu, with very slim sidecut, so we look forward to hearing more about the touring ability of these skis. There are several other models in the new Widetrack line. http://www.karhu.com/
Karhu XCD series, the GT and Pinnacle: Karhu’s XCD line offers two models in their “camber and a half”, full metal edge, in waxless, which are designed for light telemark turning, but are supposed to be stiff enough for kick and glide (“Nordic back country” as they call it), using a waxless base. The GT is 83-62-70, and the Pinnacle is 67-56-58. Having never tried these, but owning older camber and half Karhu’s I am really interested in hearing back from folks how well they tour on the flats.
Madshus back country series, the Glittertind and Voss: The Glittertind is 68-55-62, full metal edge. The Voss is 60-50-55 with a ¾ metal edge. No specific info on the camber on either, but having handled the Voss in the store, I think they are roughly equivalent to the Atomic and Fischer Mountain’s described above, perhaps a tad softer. Madshus says they are designed for kick and glide touring, with enough flex to carve some telemark turns. They are offered in both waxable and waxless. These skis have a great reputation for quality and performance in the mountains, and we would love to hear back from folks who have tried them on the flats for kick and glide touring and hauling sled. They recently dropped their Pellestova model which was a similar ski to these, and might be available on the used market. http://www.madshus.com/
Asnes Ski in Norway http://www.asnes.com/ makes very fine back country skis, all designed for touring combined with moderate downhill, all with full metal edges of course. This company is unique in advertising how their skis are well suited for hauling sleds (pulks) on expeditions, and they list expeditions where the skis have been used. They recently changed their website and are currently without an English version (and I can’t read Norwegian!), but their back country “Fjellski” line is similar as before. The Rago already mentioned and shown above has now been re-named as the Amundsen with the same specs. The Nansen is wider at 76-56-66, and the widest is their military ski in white camo is 84-62-74. From memory of their old English version specs, they emphasized the waxability of these skis for kick and glide. They also offer these in waxelss. Asnes has a unique product of a factory installed slot on their waxable skis for their own brand of “kicker skin” for ultimate grip, with tip and tail free for glide. More on kicker skins below in the Skins section.
Rossignol http://www.rossignol.com/ makes a back country touring (BC) line which I am not familiar with, but which appear to fit this niche. Their BC 65 model at 65-53-60, might be suitable. There is no information on their website as to steel edges, camber or flex.