Do you ever get the feeling that you have too much gear? Does it often seem to you that each new adventure sport, guaranteed to enhance the quality of your life, will also lead to financial despair?
Backcountry skiing has historically fit into that category. Fortunately, our future is looking brighter as leaps in technology have afforded us an unprecedented versatility across ski area boundaries. Let’s summarize in my order of priority:
Bindings: The big decision here is whether to go tech or plate.
Tech bindings, popularized by Dynafit, are the overwhelming choice for those dedicated to the skin track. The superlight, touring-friendly concept will look really weird and flimsy to the unfamiliar. However, these bindings can ski fast and go big, all while saving your quads on the way up. The disadvantage is their lack of in-area versatility. They are noticeably trickier to get in and out of and require a boot with specific fittings for the binding’s pins.
The modern plate binding was revolutionized by Fritschi, a Black Diamond product. Marker has taken this design a step further with the Duke and Tour models. This is the preferred option for those who primarily ski inbounds and are building a do-it-all rig. These bindings look and ski quite similarly to your alpine binders. This option is very intuitive, durable and can be used with almost any alpine or AT boot, but at the cost of increased weight.
Boots: Stick with your alpine boots or go AT?
Great question. How much touring do you plan to do and what’s your tolerance for blisters? Boot fit will make or break your day in the backcountry.
Alpine touring (AT) boots differ from alpine boots in that they have a rubberized lug sole (much like a mountaineering boot) and a walk mode to aid in uphill range of motion. They often have a softer overall flex, but many of the newer models are on par with high performance alpine boots.
Versatility is the kicker here. Touring uphill in the rigid shell of an alpine boot is unpleasant at best and kicking steps in a couloir or scrambling over boulders without a lug sole can be insecure and dangerous.
For perspective, I’ve used an AT boot in all of my skiing for the past several years. I opt for a stiffer model and my current choice is the Scarpa Maestrale RS. Consult your local ski shop/boot fitter for the right fit.
Skis: Versatility and Weight
Despite what the ski movies show you, backcountry skiing is not always blue skies and deep pow. It will only take one sketchy sideslip down a steep and icy slope to convince you that your ultra wide, reverse camber boards were not the best choice for your everyday ski. Choose a ski that balances sidecut, flotation, and rocker. This will vary depending on where and when you spend most of your time touring. Here in Colorado, I spend 75% of my days on a ski that’s around 110mm underfoot, with tip rocker and a flat tail. Sidecut and flex should encourage easy turn initiation in tight spots, yet allow you to maintain control in all snow conditions.
Remember that you’ll be lugging these boards around all day, so shoot for a reasonable weight. Sub 10lbs. per pair is a good place to start and will minimize fatigue while maintaining downhill performance. Refer to www.wildsnow.com for in depth reviews of the latest and greatest.
Don’t expect to immediately feel at home with whatever setup you choose. Take some time to slide around the ski area base or the golf course in order to get used to it. Start slowly and seek out professional instruction. Let’s hear from the vets out there. What’s worked for you?
Nice summary, Mike. I like that you ignored telemark equipment altogether. As a recovering tele skier of 15+ years, I now pity those people lugging much heavier tele equipment into the backcountry – and the statistics on avalanche survival on non-releasable skis (or snowboards) vs. releasable bindings is pretty strong. (There was a good article on this in Backcountry magazine a few years ago). The great thing about telemarking for so long is that even the lightest AT equipment now feels incredibly powerful, so I love the new ultralight 2 buckle boots like the La Sportiva’s, with a light mid-90’s underfoot ski, it’s easy to go far and grab a lot of vertical.