K2 Shuksan skis mounted with Dynafit bindings. Garmont Megaride boot.

This article was originally published on 12/7/09 by Andy Dappen.

Which skis, boots, bindings, and poles do you need for ski touring? Here are some thoughts.

General Comments

  • There are many ways to cut corners when you start ski touring. Use old skis that are collecting dust in the garage or buy beaters at a ski swap and mount those up. Use an old pair of ski poles from the garage or Goodwill—the only things they’re likely to need are larger baskets. And borrow appropriate hardware from friends so you can find out through experience what gear works for you. Unfortunately, depending on your friends and your size, there may be items needed for this sport (namely, boots and bindings) you can’t fudge your way around.
  •  Leavenworth Mountain Sports has a quiver of AT and telemark gear they rent and it would be wise to get out on different gear a few times. See what you like before you bite the bullet on the boot/binding blues (this combo, if bought new, will cost close to $1000).
  • Once you decide to buy something that’s more than a stop-gap measure, don’t compromise, buy what your research indicates would be best for your needs. Even if that item is more expensive, indulge yourself (within reason, of course). After purchasing, forget about what’s newest, or marginally better, or fractionally lighter. Spend your time skiing rather than working to buy the latest, greatest gear.
  •  Weight needs to be part of the equation whenever you’re shelling out big bucks for ski touring equipment. If you’re going to take long day tours and overnight tours without the assistance of lifts or snowmobiles, reducing the total weight of your kit is directly related to the distance you’ll travel, the vertical you’ll climb, and the fun you’ll have. If multi-day tours are of interest, you’ll learn that doubling the weight of your gear quarters your skiing pleasure. Furthermore the military’s research using treadmill tests indicates that each pound added to the foot works the body as much as five pounds added to the back (the laws of leverage are at work here). Skiing isn’t the same as hiking because weight attached to the foot is dragged rather than lifted, but most experienced backcountry skiers concede that, for the uphills, an extra pound on the foot is like two to three pounds on the back.
  • Despite the need to keep equipment light, reduced weight is not the be-all and end-all of efficient gear. Lightweight skis deflect more easily  in heavy or variable snow conditions, do not edge as effectively on ice, and can’t handle the forces and vibrations of high-speed skiing.  And ultralight boots don’t have stiffness to drive powerful skis through crud, ice, or high-speed turns. You’ll want to match your skis, boots and bindings to the type of skiing you’ll be pursuing and then find that nebulous spot where your ski gear is as light as possible yet capable of handling the snows, inclines, and the speeds you ski.
  • The upshot of the last two points? You pay for skiing the gnarliest terrain or skiing at high speeds with weight – that extra weight may limit the distances you travel. Meanwhile lighter gear gives you greater mobility and range but downgrades what you’re capable of skiing or the style in which you ski certain terrain.

    Skiing uphill in the Enchantments with an all-terrain. Alpine-touring rig.

  • A trend we’ve heard from specialty stores selling backcountry gear is that newcomers to ski touring, want the heavy, gnarly gear when they first buy into the sports — they think they’ll be ripping up the backcountry in the way that ski films glamorize the sport. After a year of trying to keep up with experienced tourers on lighter gear (and after seeing how much avalanche hazard curtails what can be safely skied), many people re-invest in lighter gear. Ouch–that’s an expensive mistake.

Alpine Touring (or Randonnee) vs. Telemark Skiing

Which is better? The best system is the one you enjoy most. This is recreation, not religion, so let the fun factor be your ultimate creed. If you think there’s one right or wrong way, you’re missing the point. That being said, each system has its advantages and if you’re not already married to a system, we will say that for steep terrain the AT system  is more powerful and safer going down, and more efficient going up. On such terrain AT gear lets you muscle your turns and gives you more recovery potential when funky snow conditions muscle you around.

The free hinging toe of an AT system also tours uphill more efficiently than a stiff telemark boot mated to a typical telemark binding (there are some exceptions to this rule). The DIN-rated releasability of AT bindings is safer for your joints (in the event of a fall) and for your life (in the  event of an avalanche) than most telemark bindings which don’ release. Again, there are exceptions to the rule like Karhu’s 7TM Power Binding that does give telemarkers the same sort of free hinging tourability and DIN-rated releasability – although at twice the weight of the Dynafit AT binding. Finally if you use the Dynafit binding, you’ll end up with an AT system that’s lighter than telemark bindings designed for terrain of comparable steepness.

Raw performance aside, however, telemark skiing is much more seamless — you don’t need to fiddle with bindings and boots to switch from downhill skiing to walking mode. You just go. And there’s a sensation to the telemark turn that its advocates simply prefer.

What does Backcountry Skiing Mean to You?

Backcountry skiing means different things to different people. For everyone it’s about exploring the winter landscape away from the groomed runs of both Alpine and Nordic resorts. Beyond that backcountry skiing embraces many forms of skiing from super steep terrain on one end of the continuum to relatively gentle, rolling terrain at the other end. Those loving the adrenaline rush and technical challenge of skiing steeps are quite a different skier (and need different gear) than those loving the aesthetic and kinesthetic pleasure of traveling long distances through less technical terrain. Where are you on that continuum and what gear is best suited for that kind of skiing?

  • Slackcountry or sidecountry skiing uses lifts to gain  most of your elevation. Then you move higher or  sideways to find fresh snow. Weight is not much of an issue here and downhill performance is the desired benchmark.  Skis: whatever fat downhill skis you’re most attracted to like the Volkl Gotama, K2 Sidestash, Rossignol S7. Bindings: the Marker Duke binding or a sturdy step-in AT binding like the Fritschi Freeride.  Boots: Garmont  Shaman, Garmont Axon, or Dynafit Titan. Telemark skiers – use the same rig you’d use for the resort.
  • 65-35 (resort/backcountry) or backcountry skiing with an emphasis on the steep and deep. Use a sturdy ski but one that has chiseled away some weight for uphill skiing like the Dynafit Manaslu, K2 Backlash or Wayback, Black Diamond Kilowatt. If you spend more time resort skiing, consider a step-in AT binding like the Fritschi Freeride. If you earn most of your turns, look at the Dynafit Vertical binding. Recommended AT boots: Garmont Axon or Endorphine, Dynafit Zzeus or Black Diamond Factor. Recommended Telemark boots: Garmont Voodoo.  Recommended telemark binding: Karhu 7TM.
  • All-Terrain Touring. What if backcountry skiing for you is as much about the uphill and covering distances efficiently as it is about skiing the downhill? This is arguably the largest segment of touring population and such skiers want good performance on each end of the spectrum even if they can’t have the best performance of  either category. Representative skis: Dynafit Mustagh Ata or Seven Summits or K2 Bakerlight or Shuksan (older skis) or K2 Wayback or Backup (newest skis).  Good AT boots: Garmont Radium (new) or MegaRides (old), or Dynafit Zzero4.  Recommended AT Bindings: Dynafit Vertical or  Dynafit TLT Speed. Recommended Telemark binding: Karhu 7TM or others with releasability. Telemark boot: Garmont Syner-G, Scarpa T2 Eco, Black Diamond Seeker/Trance.
  • All-Terrain Light.  Emphasis is on really shaving the weight of the system for uphill performance. Modern gear in this category will still accommodate serious tours you’ll simply need to  dial back how aggressively you attack the downhills. Skis: Karhu XCD Guide  Dynafit Zzero 3 boot or Dynafit DyNA or Scarpa F1 . Bindings. Dynafit TLT Speed.  Telemark Boot: Garmont Excursion or Scarpa T4. Telemark binding: Rottefella Super Telemark (3-pin) or Voile 3-pin-cable-binding.
  • Classic Telemark Touring. This puts much more emphasis on covering distance on snowed-over roads and finding slopes of moderate angle to ski. This is closer in spirit to what telemark skiing was 30 years ago when telemark was closer in spirit to hiking in winter (with the added fun of some turning thrown in) and less about skiing the deepest, most radical terrain. Skis: Karhu XCD Tenth Mountain or GT  or Fischer Outtabound or  Snowbound Crown. Boots : Garmont Touring or Venture, or Karhu XCD Traverse.  Telemark binding: Rottefella Super Telemark (3-pin)

Backcountry harvests — Ye shall rip what you sow.

Rockered Skis (or Reverse Camber)

Are rockered skis (visualize skis whose tips and/or tail regions curve up more like a rocking chair’s rocker) a bunch of hype or the second coming of new innovation (shaped skis were the first coming)? I’ve used some of these skis like the Dynafit Manaslu at trade show demos and have really enjoyed the way they ski soft snow and crud alike – really smooth and controlled. None of us affiliated with this website, however, have put rockered skis through the ringer of all snows, all terrain, all season long. So…we’ve copied this discussion from the very experienced skiers to our north in Mazama affiliated with the North Cascades Mountain Guides who wrote a ski primer that has this information about reverse cambered skis:

“When you first strap these skis on you might feel like you’re wearing a pair of floppy clown shoes but after a few runs you’ll be hooked. These skis float better and turn easier than your traditional cambered ski. Often times in deep snow on a traditionally cambered ski, you wind up having to ski with your weight on your heels, trying to keep your tips up so you don’t go over the handlebars. A rockered or reversed cambered ski allows you keep your weight centered where it is supposed to be, which makes the turn more efficient and much easier.  

These days there are basically three options when it comes to rockered or reverse camber skis – full reverse camber, tip and tail rocker, and tip rocker with a flat tail.  Reverse cambered skis are bent towards the topsheet throughout the length of the ski.  This allows for major float and very easy turn initiation and finish. Tip and tail rocker gives you good float, easy turn initiation and makes finishing the turn a breeze, but also gives you the advantage of traditional camber underfoot for firmer conditions. Tip rocker with a flat tail still gives you that easy turn initiation and float but has a bit more traditional tail which works well in a variety of snow conditions.

When choosing a ski for the backcountry we’ve found that skis with tip rocker and a flat tail are the most versatile. You lose a bit of the smearability/easy turning of the reverse camber ski but the flat tail makes kick turns and snow anchors much easier. If you are just looking for a deep snow ski, and don’t see yourself having to build many snow anchors, a reverse camber or tip and tail rockered ski would work well. If you’re looking for a ski to do everything, a tip rocker with a flat tail is the ticket. If you are already a somewhat accomplished backcountry skier and looking for good ski for all conditions, keep this little pearl of wisdom in mind:

It is easy to ski well in perfect conditions so a ski that performs well in dreamy powder but is too soft to ski the crud and wind crust is not going to help you in tough conditions. Opt for a ski that helps you master what you are worst at.”

Offpiste Magazine recently put out their 2009 backcountry ski review. While almost every ski reviewed sounds appealing, the article should help you define a ski profile that seems right for your type of skiing. Also, some of the  reviewed boards elicited more excitement than others, so the article may help you identify a few skis worthy of your consideration.

Poles

Two adjustable poles. The rightmost one uses a twist adjustment (boo), the left pole is a FlipLock (yeah).

When you first gear up there’s no problem in getting by with garage- or Goodwill-vintage poles. Adjustable poles are nice should you have extra bucks burning a hole in your pocket, but we’ve had nothing but issues with adjustable poles whose camming mechaninsms work through twists (this is the majority of adjustable poles on the market). Such poles collapse and pull apart in use, sometimes they’re difficult to twist apart, more often they’re difficult to tighten adequately. The Black Diamond adjustable poles using a FlipLock are quite a different kettle of fish. They’re quick to adjust, bomber in their clamping, and can be mated with a self-arrest grip (the Whippet) for steep skiing. Also look at the K2 Lock Jaw poles that provide quick, easy adjustments and bomber clamping.

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