Off Piste and Ski Touring Ski Review
One of the most frequently asked equipment questions is “What ski should I buy?” The answer to this question is rather complicated and depends on some key factors. I would always start by thinking about the number of days you are realistically going to ski and what aspect of skiing will have the heaviest weighting, off-piste, ski touring or piste skiing. Do you want a single ski that will be a compromise or can you justify buying two pairs of skis to cover all bases? Is it a viable option to avoid buying and renting skis if you have your own boots?
Renting skis in the resort is a good option if you don’t do a huge amount of skiing each year and you want to retain the flexibility of having the correct ski for conditions and activity. I would suggest having your own boots (see my article on Choosing The Correct Ski Boot) is a must. All large resorts have excellent online rental services for off and on-piste skis.
However, it gets trickier if you want a pure touring setup or a freeride ski with a touring binding. Most large resorts or resorts famous for off-piste skiing like La Grave have excellent freeride and touring ski rental. Small resorts do have rental options but it’s very important to email or call shops and prebook. Smaller rental shops will order in rental stock especially if they have a link with a bigger resort retailer or if a group is renting for multiple days. Mountain Tracks will advise on the retailers to contact in resort; rental isn’t cheap but carriage on airlines is becoming pricey. Always take out ski insurance when renting as damaging a ski will cost you the retail price of a new pair!
The All Rounder
The majority of skiers would opt for this category, ie a ski that can be used for off-piste, ski touring and piste skiing. Balancing these differing disciplines means a ski of roughly 95mm underfoot is a good option. This gives you enough flotation on powder good edge control on the piste and light enough to push uphill. The length of the ski should be roughly equivalent to your height. If you’re a freeride speed demon, then you could go 5cm longer if you are more touring-focused 5cm shorter (shorter skis are easier to kick turn). The shorter the turn radius of the ski the easier it is to turn. Most skis in this all-around category will be between 16m and 19m radius, any longer and they’ll be hard work to turn on and off-piste.
The construction of the ski is really important as light touring skis with lots of carbon and foam perform poorly off and on the piste. A good quality wood-cored ski might be 200g heavier but will have vastly improved performance. I see so many clients on light touring skis struggling to hold an edge on steep terrain or getting bounced around off-piste on a soft ski. Saving weight on these full-fat off-piste skis when touring is easily achieved by the use of a lightweight pin binding such as the Elan C Raider 12. If you don’t want to compromise on convenience then the Salomon / Atomic shift style binding is a good option but rather heavy if you do lots of touring (read my Touring binding Review article)
Below are some skis to consider in the “all-rounder” camp:
Elan Ripstick 96
These are a great all-rounder and perform well on and off-piste. They are light enough to tour on and the Amphibio profile (you need to wear the skis on the correct feet) gives them the edge on piste / hard pack compared to other skis in this category. I’ve skied on these for the past two seasons and love them.
Salomon QST 98 / 92
The all-rounder from Salomon is pretty good but not quite as light as the Elan Ripstick for the uphill. It comes in two widths 92mm for a more hardpack/touring with more freeride orientated 98mm underfoot. They are slight rocker at the rear which can be annoying when attaching skins.
Black Crows Camox
Another 97mm all-rounder which covers all bases on and off the piste. Again the rear rocker like the Salomon QST can be annoying with skins. There also quite pricey compared to the other skis but they do look cool.
Volkl Mantra 96
A high-quality ski legend which performs really well both on and off-piste however they are a bit heavier (200g) than the other skis in this category so you need to be a bit fitter pushing them uphill.
This is just a small selection of the best all-rounders on the market. Other skis and brands that are worth a look include K2 – Mindbender 96, Atomic - Maverick 95 Ti, and Dynastar - M Pro 90 Open. Ultimately the main choice factors might be price and availability, look at end-of-season discount deals if you are not fussy about the brand. After a few days, you’ll get used to whatever you buy. Women's skis are technically the same as the men’s in this category apart from the graphics and larger range in the smaller sizes.
Off Piste / Freeride Powder Skis
Larger off-piste and freeride skis have become very popular over the past ten years. In lots of resorts if your ski is under 100mm under foot you’re considered a dinosaur! Fat skis are brilliant in powder but are a compromise on all other terrains. Just ask yourself how many days do you ski powder as opposed to, hardpack, moguls and crud? Wider skis between 100mm and 110mm will leave your knees sore at the end of an icy day. They’re heavier to push uphill and difficult to hold an edge on icy skinning tracks. On piste and hardpack you’ll struggle to hold an edge and will have to ‘ride with the slide’! If you are heading to a powder mecca like Japan then fat skis are pretty essential but can be made palatable as a touring ski with a light pin binding. I do the majority of my skiing on 96mm underfoot and use my 106mm only on powder days. My two choices for a wider ski are:
Elan Ripstick 106
A great big ski for charging the powder there stiff enough to cope with hardpack and crud. They are on the heavy side for the uphill but that’s the price for a stable performance ski. I did plenty of day tours on mine paired with the light Elan C Raider 12-pin binding.
Salomon QST 106
Another good fat ski but slightly softer flex more rockered and marginally lighter than the Elan Ripstick.
Ski Touring Skis
I spend at least eight weeks a year pushing my skis uphill so it’s really important I have a relatively light touring ski in my quiver. Dedicated touring skis weigh roughly between 2.6kg and 3.2kg per pair. There are a plethora of skis below 2.4Kg but I would avoid these as they are awful to ski on. The sub 2.4kg super light skis are designed for fast uphill or ski rando racing and are constructed from foam and carbon with thinner edges so they don’t perform at all well downhill. Where you really save weight on a touring ski is the binding some of the minimal fixed DIN pin bindings weigh less than 200g (see my Ski Binding article) The pure touring skis I’ve picked are light but enjoyable to ski. If you’re not a strong skier but fit I would always suggest you buy one of the skis mentioned above as All Rounders in combination with a light pin binding. I see far too many people struggling with light-touring skis on trips when they would be far better off on a full-fat ski with a light binding.
Elan Ripstick Tour 94
A great touring ski which performs well on the downhills and is a comparable weight to other mid-range skis in this segment. It has a really good tip and tail skin clip locator and is easy to turn in tight spots.
Black Crows Camox Freebird
The Black Crows “Freebird” range is the lighter version of the aforementioned Camox ski. It performs well both up and downhill but is nowhere near as good as the full-fat version on hard pack or crud. At 97mm it's getting on the fat side but maybe that’s me being old school. They do the Orb Freebird at 90mm which is slightly lighter.
Salomon MTN 96 Carbon
The latest light offering from Salomon which is really light for the uphill at only 1.3kg per ski. They can be a bit jittery on hardpack and crud but that’s the price you pay for the weight saving.
Atomic Backland 95
A nice forgiving soft ski with a slight rocker to make it easy to turn. Hard to fault but probably in second place compared to the Elan Ripstick Tour.
Choosing the correct ski can be a bit of a minefield but this article should give you some ideas. To reiterate, if you just want one ski that does it all then don’t buy a light touring ski. Hunt out a good deal on the Elan Ripstick 96 or any of the mid-range do-it-all skis I’ve mentioned above. To save weight when touring I suggest you get some pin bindings and a suitable hybrid boot. Take a look at my articles on choosing an off-piste ski boot and binding.
Have fun skiing the powder,
IFMGA / UIAGM / IVBV
The IFMGA / UIAGM / IVBV symbol is the logo of the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association.
Nick, Olly and Matt are all fully-qualified UIAGM Mountain Guides and members of the British Mountain Guides Association.
The International Ski Instructors Association is the world body for professional ski instructors.
The ISIA was formed in 1971 and there are currently 39 member nations representing the very best in ski instruction around the world.