How to Choose a Backcountry Ski Setup 

So you’ve been backcountry skiing a few times and you’re ready to choose a backcountry ski setup. Making the leap is one of the most exciting parts of getting started in backcountry skiing. But it can also be pretty overwhelming. 

Camber or rocker? Paulownia or poplar? Fiberglass or carbon? There are so many skis out there (and so many friends with really strong opinions). If you find yourself leaving gear conversations with your head spinning like a kid throwing 360s at the terrain park, you’re not alone. 

To demystify the process and help you choose a backcountry ski setup that works for you, we talked to Andy Merriman, who’s been involved in engineering and designing skis for nearly 17 years. As Black Diamond’s ski category manager and an experienced backcountry skier himself, he’s got some insider tips for picking the perfect setup. 

1. Think of your backcountry ski setup as an integrated system.

Think of your boots, bindings, skins, and skis not as four distinct pieces of gear but as a single system designed to work together, Merriman says. Different bindings work better with different boots, and some skins work best with certain skis. Before you buy something new, ask an expert how it will pair with what you’ve already got. 

Your boots, bindings, skis, and skins should work in harmony. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

2. Pick a mid-weight ski. 

“Weight isn’t everything, but it does matter,” Merriman says. Resort skis, which are often made of heavier materials like fiberglass and poplar wood, handle well on the downhill, but the weight will leave you huffing on the uphills. Lighter skis, on the other hand, are dreamy while touring, but they can result in a bouncier, more unstable ride. Plus, the lighter the ski, the less durable it will be.

Merriman recommends finding a ski that hits the middle of the weight spectrum by using a mix of materials like fiberglass and carbon fiber, and lighter woods like paulownia or balsam. (Around 5.5 to 8 pounds is a good ballpark range, though your ideal ski weight will vary depending on your height and weight.)

3. Look for a 95- to 105-mm waist.

“When it comes to the width of the ski, the snow that you ski is obviously a factor,” Merriman explains. “In places where they get a ton of snow, you’ll see people skiing with 115mm underfoot. But most of the time, 95 to 105 is that sweet spot for a backcountry ski. “Whenever I travel to ski, unless I have a specific objective, I take a Helio Carbon 104,” Merriman says. “I would say that for 90% of what I go out to ski, the Helio Carbon 104 is perfect.”

4. Stick with the length you’re used to. 

Sure, shorter skis can be helpful when it comes to making kick turns or maneuvering in tight trees, but they provide less float when it comes to powder, Merriman says. At the end of the day, “I wouldn’t think there’s anything different about selecting a ski length for the backcountry than a resort.” Stick with the length you’re used to skiing. 

A waist between 95 and 105mm is the sweet spot for most backcountry skiing.

5. Consider your goals. 

When you choose a backcountry ski setup, it’s important to consider your actual plans for use. Are you going all in on backcountry skiing? A lighter-weight, backcountry-specific ski (like the Helio Carbon 104 Merriman likes) could be the best option for you. Want to split your time between the resorts and the backcountry? Pick a ski designed to do both. “The Helio Recon is a great option,” Merriman says. “It’s got a poplar core and it’s pretty light, but it’s made with fiberglass instead of all carbon. It’s a really solid in-bounds and out-of-bounds ski.” Bonus: It’s also a little less expensive. 

6. Pick a ski that’s intuitive to use. 

Aggressive, hard-charging skis may sound fancy, but stiff skis make it harder to initiate turns—which is already tough enough in variable backcountry snow. If you’re new to backcountry skiing, look for a ski that’s a little softer with a shorter turn radius. (Again, the Helio Carbon ticks this box. It also has a full ABS sidewall, which means great edge stability for a really intuitive feel.)

7. Look for traditional camber and early-rise tip. 

The best ski shape for you totally depends on your personal preferences and style. However, Merriman says that some of the most popular backcountry skis are those with a traditional camber (that means they’re arched in the middle) and an early-rise tip (they scoop upward at the front to give you a lift over powder.) 

Pick a ski that matches your goals. In this case: as many backcountry laps as possible.

8. Find boots that fit. 

The most important qualities in a boot: They keep your feet warm, and they fit you well. We recommend going to a professional bootfitter or reputable shop when you’re working to choose a backcountry ski setup. There, you can have your boots professionally fitted and your liners molded to your feet if need be.

9. Don’t overthink your bindings.

After a pricey ski purchase, it can be tempting to skimp on bindings. But the last thing you want when you’re transitioning on a frigid, windy ridge is having a binding freeze, get stuck, or break. Bindings are a crucial part of a backcountry ski setup. It pays to buy a pair that’s high quality, and that works well with your boot. 

For first-time backcountry skiers, Merriman recommends keeping it simple. Like skis, look for something that’s in the mid-range in terms of weight. Then, “make sure it has the features you’re looking for,” Merriman says. For new backcountry skiers, brakes and two or three levels of heel riser settings are usually the way to go, he adds. 

10. Test-drive as much gear as you can. 

The longer you backcountry ski, the better idea you’ll have of what gear you like and don’t like. Before you choose a backcountry ski setup, it can be helpful to try out as many models as you can, says Merriman. (Bluebird Backcountry offers rentals of boots, skins, splitboards, and backcountry skis—including the Helio Carbon.) 

Bluebird’s rental fleet, at your service. Photo: Erik Lambert