Backcountry terrain differs from geographic area to geographic area. What works in typical western terrain may not work in the east and vice versa. Also, different skiers have different tastes. Some folks like blazing speed. For example, there are people who use nordic skate gear to do one day blitzes across the Sierra Mountains. Others prefer the steepest and gnarliest of lines.
Yet another difference is the type of trip the skier is attempting. Day trips with light packs allow the skier to choose their ski based primarily on the skis performance. But, overnight or multi-day trips with heavy winter packs might call for extra stability.
To paraphrase an old saying, it is pointless to debate matters of opinion. Since different people have different definitions for "backcountry", different skiing preferences and different goals in mind, it is pointless to debate what kind of equipment is the best for backcountry skiing.
That said, different skis and boots are better suited to different types of skiing. The equipment manufacturers, retailers and the reviewers at magazines understand this pretty well. So, for this reason I think the only definition of "backcountry ski" that really matters is the loose category that they use!
Go to the web site of any of the manufacturers or retailers and you will almost certainly see the categories of "touring", "telemark" and, of course, "backcountry". "Touring" skis typically refers to edgeless cross-country skis with traditional double-camber. "Telemark" skis are downhill oriented skis with alpine camber, which are made to be used with tall plastic boots. "Backcountry" skis fall somewhere in between. In general, backcountry skis have full (or partial) metal edges. They can vary in width from narrow like an cross-country ski, or wide like a telemark ski. They can also vary in the amount of camber, from high double camber like a cross-country ski to relatively flat cambered like an alpine ski. Interestingly, width and camber are not necessarily related as you might expect. You can find narrow skis with a lot of camber or almost none. And, while many wide skis are single cambered, you can also find them with double camber.
I see no need to argue with these industry labels. They are, after all, only labels. But, however arbitrary the terms, they give do us a starting from which to begin. And we should not confuse the discussion of the term "backcountry ski" with loftier, more abstract and possibly more important discussions about what "backcountry" is. There is nothing to stop a person from using a touring ski in the backcountry, nor from using a backcountry ski for riding the lifts.
In most cases, the differences between the different types of backcountry equipment make different decisions between the opposing goals of touring efficiency and turning performance. Life is full of trade-offs. Backcountry ski gear is no exception to this.
Copyright 2004 by David Mann