Why a Narrower Backcountry Ski May be Best for You

Clay Malott | BackcountryBackcountry
Skis are obviously a crucial piece of equipment in the backcountry. Choosing the right width for you is critical. Photo credit: Switchback Travel

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In today’s day and age, it seems like wide skis continue to get more and more popular. While the mid-fat ski has brought a powder revolution with increased flotation, there are also severe downsides to a wide ski, especially in the backcountry.

First of all, we must define a “fat ski.” Generally speaking, 105-120mm underfoot is in the mid-fat range. Most all-mountain skis tend to fall in this category these days. Anything wider underfoot than that becomes what we like to call “pontoons.” Boats for your feet so you won’t sink :).

Let’s break down some reasons why shying away from a mid-fat ski for backcountry skiing might be a good idea for you.

#1. Weight

Narrow means light, which will let you charge harder for longer. Photo credit: SKI Mag

When it comes to backcountry skiing, weight is everything. Less weight to lug uphill means a happier day. Just a few hundred grams can mean the difference between 3 and 4 laps, or success and failure on a big objective. Ski widths are one of the biggest determinates of ski weight. For example, on a 180cm ski, shaving as little as 5mm underfoot means you’re losing 5mm x 180cm worth of material, which can add up fast. By going with a skinnier ski, you can save quite a bit of energy on the skin track.

#2. Stability

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A skinnier ski means better stability, which is crucial in high consequence areas, or just for making the descent more enjoyable. Photo credit: Backcountry Magazine

After a long hike up, enjoying the down is a priority. Stability – meaning dampened chatter and noise – is key to an enjoyable downhill, especially in non-ideal snow conditions. It may seem a bit counter-intuitive, but a skinner ski is more stable than a wider ski. This is why you don’t see race skiers on 110mm underfoot. Instead, they lean more towards super skinny skis (70mm or less) to maintain stability during the race.

#3. Turn speed

A skinnier ski will be easier to turn. It will maneuver easier from edge to edge and is much easier to pop up off the slope to perform a hop turn.

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Photo credit: GearJunkie

When it comes to choosing a backcountry ski width, you just need to know what sort of terrain you’ll be skiing on. If you’re a powder hound who loves winter powder, maybe a skinny ski isn’t for you, due to the lack of floatation they provide and the fact that you won’t be skiing much hard snow where the dampening of a skinnier ski would be warranted. If you’re a ski mountaineer, most of your skiing will be done in the spring or summer, when alpine roads open and the snowpack “ripens” (corn, anyone?!). In this case, where springtime melt/freeze cycles will often render the snow surface less than ideal, the dampening of a narrower ski may be welcomed. For a ski mountaineer, the ease of being able to quickly turn the skis is important in consequential terrain.

Narrow skis are awesome, and the great thing is that a skinnier ski isn’t necessarily just limited to bad snow. In winter, a 95mm underfoot ski will perform just fine in moderately deep powder. There are probably less than 5% of days where a mid-fat or fat ski would have the advantage over a narrower ski.

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3 thoughts on “Why a Narrower Backcountry Ski May be Best for You

  1. This is by far the worst piece of advice that I have ever seen. “Weight is everything” “skinny skis are more maneuverable” “There are probably less than 5% of days where a mid-fat or fat ski would have the advantage over a narrower ski” – what BS!!! I guess your right if your skinning uphill on a resort in vermont but that is NOT backcountry skiing!
    Snow Brains you should be ashamed

  2. great article! one additional point for skinnier skis; it makes pie deeper! 4 inches of fresh on fat skis may as well be a groomer! but on old school sticks it’s time for face shots! tele gear has a similar effect, drop your knee and your a foot closer to the cold smoke!

  3. I agree. My backcountry quiver has slowly gotten narrower, and I find my 95mm skis being the go-to more and more. With modern ski shapes (rocker, taper) you don’t need a super-wide ski to achieve good float, especially in untracked, backcountry snow.

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