Alpine touring (the French call it randonnée) is backcountry skiing outside of a controlled ski resort boundary using your own power to get up the hill. No lifts means fewer people and less competition for fresh tracks, but the decision making, risk and responsibility—where you go, what you ski, what adventures you have along the way—is entirely up to you.
Sound like something you’re interested in? Keep reading.
Before you head into the backcountry on your new AT gear, be sure to take an avalanche safety course to learn about snow stability, terrain choice, rescue techniques and more. We recommend an AAIRE Level I course or its equivalent. You should also be equipped with an avalanche transceiver (beacon)
, snow shovel
, and avalanche probe
and know how to use them.
Alpine touring skis can be any skis you feel comfortable with for the type of terrain and snow you’ll be skiing. It’s perfectly acceptable to take a pair of skis you’re already using for lift-served skiing, remove the alpine bindings, and replace them with alpine touring bindings. Find some skins and AT boots, and you're set.
Some Things to Consider When Choosing AT Skis:
- What type of skiing do I plan to do while touring? Aggressive skiing with air? Mellow powder turns in moderate terrain? Some of both?
- What type of trips do I intend to do on these skis? Short day trips or sidecountry? Multi-day traverses in remote terrain? Each suggests a different type of ski.
- Do I plan to use this ski for both lift-served and touring? Can I afford to maintain both alpine skis and an AT setup?
- What's my ability level? Do I struggle in difficult snow on my alpine setup, or could I get by with lighter and narrower gear?
- How fast do my touring partners move in the mountains? If our fitness levels are about the same, our gear should be roughly the same weight, too.
- Think about which type of skins you intend to use with your skis, and what type of connection system they have. AT-specific skis often have holes or cutouts in the tips and tails designed for a proprietary skin system, and the matching skins for many AT-specific skis are worth considering (but not mandatory).
Why do people make such a big deal out of finding the "perfect" touring ski?
The answer involves finding the right balance between uphill performance (mostly skinning and sometimes climbing with skis on your pack or in your hands) and downhill skiing performance (often in highly variable snow). Narrow and light skis excel on the climb, where you’ll be spending the majority of your time. Wide and heavy skis do a much better job of handling speed and difficult snow. As with AT ski boots and AT ski bindings, the perfect compromise between the two is a personal choice and should take into account your terrain choice, fitness, motivation, and skill level.
For instance, you could slap a beefy frame AT binding on a big-mountain twin tip ski with a 120 mm waist, and it would definitely smoke the downhill. On the way up, however, you’ll be doing much more work than your friends on lighter gear, both because of the weight and the width of your ski (wider means more drag on the snow and heavier weight as you slide your ski). The twin tip can make skin attachment more complicated, and planting the tail while booting in steep terrain is difficult with a rockered tail. Depending on how fit you are, this might cut into your enjoyment of the skiing, slow you down when speed is important, or cause your touring partners to grow impatient waiting for you at the top.
A light, short ski with a 75 mm waist, on the other hand, might be a handful in tough snow conditions, even if you’re a skilled and balanced skier. You’ll rock the skintrack on the way up, though, and uphill kickturns and booting with the skis on your pack will be a breeze.
The ideal usually falls somewhere in between.
One solution is to find a ski you trust for all snow conditions (maybe you already own it). To gain a little maneuverability and lose some weight, you can drop down a size (normally about 9-10 cm in length). Add a suitable AT binding, and you’re ready to go.
Many major ski manufacturers make touring skis from the same molds as their popular alpine skis, but use a lighter core and leave out a layer of metal or some other laminate material to save weight. Smaller touring-oriented ski companies offer light and nimble skis in a range of widths, often with proprietary skin attachments. With any ski, it's wise to demo those you’re interested in or ask for opinions from skiers you trust.
Most experienced backcountry skiers have gone through a heavy-to-light transition over the years before arriving at a good compromise between skiability and light weight. Start with what you already know and feel comfortable with, and get out and tour. You might hit the right combination right away, or you may continue to redefine your perfect ski for years, but either way you’ll be out there having fun!
Rocker and AT Skis
Most backcountry skiers agree that some tip rocker or "early rise" is a huge benefit in fresh and difficult snow both for skiing and skinning. Tail rocker on the other hand can be a mixed blessing for touring. AT-specific skis usually have either a very mild and short tail rocker or none at all. While tail rocker can add maneuverability in steep chutes and during "falling leaf" sideslips, it can make uphill kickturns and attaching the skin to the tail more difficult and is a disadvantage when planting the ski tail in the snow while booting or setting snow anchors.We recommend that backcountry travelers take an AIARE Level One class or the equivalent, and practice the skills they learn there regularly with their partners. Here are some great resources for avalanche safety education: