The Best Women’s Backcountry Skis of 2023
Our favorite backcountry skis of the year aren’t just lightweight skis that power up the skintrack. They’re bonafide downhill performers.
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This article was first published by SkiMag.com.
These women’s-specific backcountry skis run the gamut, from narrow-waisted featherweights designed primarily for fast and light cardio missions to all-mountain skis that have undergone a little nip-tuck to make them light enough to get you far beyond the resort ropes. Can’t decide what’s most important to you—weight savings (narrower waist, lightweight construction) or performance (fatter waist, beefier materials)? Make like Goldilocks and choose something in the middle.
How We Test
Testing backcountry skis is tricky, because every skier is looking for something different in a backcountry setup. Of course, you want a backcountry ski to be lighter than the skis you charge on at the resort. But the total weight you’re lugging up the skin track depends on your binding, boot, and ski combination; plus, not every skier cares about having an ultralight backcountry ski, especially if downhill performance is compromised by the lightweight construction. For this reason, we primarily considered downhill performance when testing and reviewing this year’s crop of backcountry skis for women.
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To be entered into SKI’s gear test, each backcountry ski had to weigh in under 2,000g per ski and be mounted with a tech or hybrid binding. A crew of 15 testers then put these skis to test at Sun Valley and in the Colorado backcountry to assess how well they performed across seven skills categories—Versatility, Crud Performance, Responsiveness, Quickness, Stability at Speed, Flotation, and Forgiveness. Testers, a mix of advanced and expert skiers with extensive backcountry skiing experience, rated each ski in each skill department on a 1-10 scale (10 being the highest). The eight women’s backcountry skis reviewed below are those that rose to the top of the pile after impressing testers with their performance across all seven scoring categories.
Meet the Testers
Age: 36 | Height: 5′8″ | Weight: 110 lbs
Krass is a freelance ski journalist based in Jackson, Wyoming with work featured in SKI, Powder Magazine, Freeskier, Teton Gravity Research, and Ascent Backcountry Snow Journal. She spends winters backcountry skiing in Grand Teton National Park and riding lifts at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, with the occasional trip to the Alps (for the food, obviously).
Age: 32 | Height: 5′2″ | Weight: 135 lbs
Garett is an assistant ski buyer for Evo in Denver, Colo. When she’s not in the shop, you’ll find her exploring Colorado’s backcountry while testing out the latest skis, or tearing up her home resorts of Copper Mountain or Winter Park.
Age: 38 | Height: 5’7″ | Weight: 140 lbs
SKI’s former photo director Keri Bascetta has spent her whole life on skis, and almost as long behind the lens shooting skiers and ski gear for SKI. She lives in Denver, Colo., and splits her ski days between Colorado’s Winter Park, Loveland Ski Area, and the backcountry.
Reviews: The Best Women’s Backcountry Skis of 2023
Vӧlkl Rise Above 88 W ($700)
Lengths (cm): 149, 156, 163, 170
Dimensions (mm): 130.6-88-111
Radius (m): 14
Weight (per ski): 1,187g
Pros: Quickness, Responsiveness
Cons: Flotation, Versatility
Efficient on the ascent and zippy on the way down, the Rise Above 88 W translates the reliability of a Völkl ski to long backcountry tours. Völkl’s 3D radius sidecut provides a shorter radius in the center of the ski for smaller turns, yet a longer one at the tip and tail for sweeping arcs at high speed. Add in Völkl’s multilayer wood core—a combo of poplar, paulownia, and beech—and you get a confidence-inspiring ski for big missions. While the narrow waist provides trust in firm conditions, testers felt this women’s-specific ski should be reserved for spring missions or long, high-pressure windows when you aren’t likely to encounter fresh snow. “Anyone from a first-time backcountry skier to an accomplished ski mountaineer could have a fun day on this ski,” says tester and Colorado backcountry skier Jordan Garrett. “Beginners will find the turn initiation a breeze, and advanced skiers will be able to jump-turn and zip through all types of terrain.”
Rossignol Escaper W 97 Nano ($800)
Lengths (cm): 160, 168, 176
Dimensions (mm): 126-97-116
Weight (per ski): 1,250g
Pros: Quickness, Versatility
Cons: Crud performance, Stability at speed
A new addition to Rossignol’s Escaper Nano line, the W 97 Nano is the widest and most all-mountain oriented of the women’s offerings, with a rockered design and progressive sidecut that makes it easy to whip around in tight trees. Thin Titanal and basalt layers boost stability and power without bumping up the weight, which keeps skiers feeling light on their feet during long midwinter tours. While the light tips make it easy to throw these skis sideways in corn and boot-top pow, they make the ski a little chattery at high speeds (which we probably shouldn’t be clocking in the backcountry anyway). As a result, the Escaper W 97 Nano isn’t our top choice for plowing through chunder. But as one tester put it, “For being so light, it performed quite well. A great ski for the aspiring ski mountaineer, or anyone looking to get farther out into the backcountry. The weight is very low, making it easy to flick around in the trees and in variable terrain.”
Icelantic Mystic 97 ($899)
Lengths (cm): 155, 162, 169
Dimensions (mm): 128-97-113
Radius (m): 16
Weight (per ski): 1,444g
Pros: Playfulness, Responsiveness
Cons: Stability at speed, Flotation
Playful and quick, the Mystic 97 is a forgiving backcountry ski that can handle chop, hot pow, and silky smooth corn. Thanks to Icelantic’s signature Feather-Weight Wood Core—a sustainability sourced balsa layup—ample rocker but a flat tail, and a shorter turning radius, the Mystic is light yet snappy, making it quick and maneuverable. Because it’s so maneuverable in tight spots, testers gave it top scores in Forgiveness and Responsiveness. It’s ready to drive through turns if you’re feeling it, but friendly enough to let off the gas and just cruise. Testers wouldn’t make this their top choice for firm terrain or charging hard in the steeps, but agreed it would make a well-rounded touring ski for intermediate skiers looking to explore the terrain beyond the ropes. “Buttery, smooth, and forgiving in soft snow and chunder,” said tester Lily Krass, who calls Jackson Hole home. “Definitely a hero ski in mellow to moderate terrain thanks to the playful feel and easy steering.”
Salomon MTN 86 W Pro ($800)
Lengths (cm): 156, 164, 172
Dimensions (mm): 118-85-104
Radius (m): 18
Weight (per ski): 1,140g
Pros: Quickness, Playfulness
Cons: Stability at speed, Versatility
For busting out fast climbs and technical descents, the redesigned Salmon MTN series adds some fun to ski-mountaineering sufferfests. The 86 is the slimmest of the bunch, a zippy, women’s-specific, spring- (or East Coast-) oriented option that makes the uphill a breeze while serving up confidence-inspiring edge hold in the steeps. For a ski that seems laser-focused on conquering high peaks, the MTN 86 W felt remarkably playful when linking hop turns and threading the needle between tight trees. It’s more forgiving than traditionally stiff mountaineering sticks, thanks to the springy poplar and caruba core topped with Salomon’s cork dampening technology to smooth out chatter. It favors quickness and rebound over stability at high speeds, but for those looking for precision in slower, technical terrain, the MTN 86 is incredibly reliable. Spring missions are where this ski flourishes; don’t reach for this one when there’s new snow on the ground. “For an 86mm-waist ski, this had incredible crud-blasting ability,” said Garrett. “Turning on a dime couldn’t be easier, and in the run-out of steeper runs, the ski holds an edge well.”
Nordica Santa Ana 93 Unlimited ($750)
Lengths (cm): 151, 158, 165, 172
Dimensions (mm): 125.5-93-112.5
Radius (m): 15.5m
Weight (per ski): 1,350g
Pros: Stability at speed, Quickness
Cons: Flotation, Playfulness
No matter how planned-out a backcountry tour is, there’s always a certain amount of thinking on your feet involved. That’s where the Santa Ana Unlimited 93 shines. Testers loved how well this ski adapts to a variety of terrain: It’s quick in the trees, yet quiet and stable while arcing long-radius turns down wide-open bowls. The modest 93mm waist, reduced amount of material in the tip, and elongated wood core combine to make this ski exceedingly quick and maneuverable. At 1,350g per plank, it won’t ruin your legs on the climb, while testers were impressed with the ski’s power and responsiveness, even while cruising wind crust and hardpack. This ski falls short only in super-deep snow and heavy mank. “A great backcountry ski for longer missions into the high alpine,” said SKI editor Jenny Wiegand. “Light enough to make the slog doable, but offers great performance for the downhill, especially in steep or technical terrain, because these skis are so quick.”
Black Crows Ova Freebird ($700)
Lengths (cm): 156.1, 163.5, 170.3, 176.1, 182.3
Dimensions (mm): 123-85-107
Radius (m): 17
Weight (per ski): 1,125g
Pros: Quickness, Responsiveness
Cons: Flotation, Versatility
On its third update, the Ova Freebird is quick and energetic in terrain where it matters most, surprisingly powerful for its slim waist, but soft enough to feel accessible for skiers who aren’t putting the pedal to the metal. The Ova’s responsive yet stable feel is thanks to the light paulownia wood core laid up with a mix of carbon and fiberglass for torsional rigidity, making the ski a top choice among testers for spring ski-mountaineering missions that involve long approaches and technical descents. A slight bit of tip rocker makes for intuitive turn initiation, camber underfoot brings confidence and solid edge hold in the steeps, and flat tails provide a platform for solid kick turns and snow anchors. It’s not the ideal choice for sniffing out powder stashes or ripping big lines at top speeds; instead, it’s an assurance-boosting tool for those looking to keep their cool in steep, technical terrain. “A fantastic couloir ski for spring skiing,” said Krass. “This ski shines in tight terrain and firm snow—super zippy through anything where you need to think on your feet.”
Kästle TX93W ($999)
Lengths (cm): 154, 162, 170
Dimensions (mm): 129-93-115
Radius (m): 13.2
Weight (per ski): 1,215g
Pros: Responsiveness, Versatility
Cons: Flotation, Playfulness
Light and reliable, the Kästle TX93W impressed us with its perky personality in crowded glades and narrow chutes. The 93mm waist is equally at home in the steeps as it is slarving its way through creamy spring corn thanks to a springy paulownia core wound with carbon and fiberglass that makes for a solid, stable ski with plenty of energy. It’s an ideal daily driver for weight-conscious backcountry skiers looking to explore the far reaches of the backcountry without giving up any performance when precision counts on the descent. Kästle’s signature Hollowtech 3.0 tip and short turning radius mean this ski responds quickly when dodging natural obstacles, and the low swing weight is forgiving and easy to maneuver even when your legs are trashed at the end of the day. “Not your sometimes-flimsy touring ski that can’t pack a punch,” said Garrett. “It’s a breeze to flick around in the trees, making it easy to avoid thin spots and rocks without having to think too much, and the soft tips allow for easy turn initiation.”
Head Kore 97 W ($875)
Lengths (cm): 156, 163, 170, 177
Dimensions (mm): 131-97-118
Radius (m): 15.3
Weight (per ski): 1,640g
Pros: Stability at speed, Crud performance
Cons: Playfulness, Forgiveness
Energetic and confidence-inspiring, the Kore 97 W is a solid crossover choice for women spending time in the resort and backcountry. Like a good Head ski, the Kore 97 W likes to go fast, with a stiff yet springy caruba and poplar wood core and 97mm waist that can hold its own in everything from boot-top powder to chopped-up leftovers. Carbon and graphene in the tip and tail reduce the ski’s swing weight, allowing for easy turn initiation when linking turns in steep chutes or zipping through dense trees. At 1,675g per ski, the Kore 97 definitely wasn’t built for weight weenies, but the stable and powerful feel is proof that a little extra meat goes a long way when you point it downhill. “The Kore offers a lot of energy and personality, with each turn propelling you into the next,” said Garrett. “Although I think this can be enjoyed by a more aggressive skier, I still found it pretty approachable.”