4:00am - Alarm goes off. Get dressed, grab breakfast, and load the Jeep. 4:30am -…
We started this series of articles with the WHY – what motivations get us outside touring in the backcountry. Then, we discussed the HOW – where to reach for the smarts needed to travel as safely as possible in the backcountry.
Now the WHAT. What gear takes you happily and safely into the backcountry? This is where the gear heads at Mountain Chalet come in.
As the oldest outdoor specialty shop in Colorado, Mountain Chalet has outfitted and educated the backcountry-curious populous of the Springs and surrounds with the finer points of gear, and its use, for over 50 years. Our focus and intention have never been stronger. With a deep commitment to the categories and brands that make up the ever-growing offering of fine gear designed to keep you safe and happy in your favorite outdoor places. Mountain Chalet is proud to offer one of the most comprehensive assortments of backcountry-specific equipment available in the West.
Whether you’re a die-hard, knee-dropping telemarker or an ultra lightweight conscious Alpine Touring skier, or you have just made the decision to join either of these communities, you’ll have some choices to make about gear. The good news is that there’s an expanding lot of astoundingly good gear to choose from and, if you like, you’ll have Mountain Chalet to help you navigate the process.
There is a requisite amount of gear needed to ski, and a bit more is needed to ski the backcountry safely. If you’re anything like me, you’ve put an inordinate effort into selecting the gear needed to slide down your mountain. Or perhaps, you’re just at the start of climbing the slopes and you’re looking for a guide as you delve deeper into the snow pack.
Regardless of the perspective you’re coming from – spiffing up your backcountry kit with a few new pieces or making your first foray into a newly adopted sport – we’ve got a worthwhile story to tell about the process of selecting gear, including some information about gear we’ve brought into the shop.
We’re approaching our gear talk through three sections to help you in your quest:
Part 3.1 Boots & Bindings
In this part, we’re looking at boots and bindings together because the boots you choose need to fit the bindings you want with the innovations for the backcountry zone.
Part 3.2 Skis & Skins
In the next part, matching your skis with your boots is important as well, and there are specific technical reasons some skis and bindings don’t play well together. We can help you discover the ones that do.
Part 3.3 Avalanche Safety Gear
In the last part of this article, you know entering avalanche terrain safely requires a beacon, a shovel, a probe and a pack to carry it all. We’re ready to unpack it with you.
Time to go…the skin tracks are calling.
Boots & Bindings Gear Glossary
Check out our glossary for terms you may not be familiar with.
Boots and Bindings
The biggest advancements in backcountry ski gear are in the world of boots. Because it serves as the connection between you and your skis, it’s the most important decision you have to make when picking a backcountry kit. Skis and bindings, although very important and personal decisions, have no immediate connection to your specific body type, but boots do. The bulk of your investment, whether its time or money, should be spent on finding the right boot for you. It’s important to note that a good boot fit relies on your ability to communicate effectively with the boot fitter to have your needs met. Contrary to popular belief, there is no boot fitter in the land that can see if a boot fits you well, so we rely a lot upon you in the search for a great fit.
Questions to consider as you think about the right BOOTS for you
- How do you plan to use these boots?
If you’re planning long tours in the backcountry, you’ll likely prefer a lighter and more flexible boot for this pursuit. If you’re driving a big, wide ski in big mountain terrain, you’re going to want a boot that may sacrifice some lightness for downhill performance. Generally speaking, the bigger the ski, the burlier the boot will be.
- What shape is your foot?
You should never base your choice of boot on someone else’s success, or a magazine’s definition of “best”. Spend some time talking to an experienced boot fitter, and start with a “shell fit.” This will ensure that you’re exploring boots that match the personality of your foot regarding instep height, heel width, toe shape, calf circumference, etc. And if you don’t know about your foot, that’s where the boot fitter (or Mountain Chalet) will serve you well.
- What type of binding will this boot be connecting with?
Are you looking to match the lightweight of an uphill-oriented “low tech” binding? Or are you stepping out of the snowcat and into your big frame binding?
Current backcountry bindings afford us more options to travel the backcountry than ever before. They are light; they are efficient; and some offer safety features that set a new standard in the backcountry. You can choose a binding that appeals to your obsession with traveling as light and as efficiently as possible, or choose an interface that pays closer attention to your safety. Whether your approach to safety is based in prevention or based on a past injury, new AT bindings with added ISO/DIN/TUV certifications and “elasticity” have never been closer to their alpine/resort cousins, while telemark bindings afford us more efficiency and power than ever before.
Questions to consider as you think about the right BINDINGS for you
- How do you intend to use these bindings? Backcountry? Resort? Or both?
If you’re planning to use these bindings to occasionally ski the out-of-bounds terrain at your favorite area you might consider a frame binding with your normal alpine boot to see if you like the touring aspects of backcountry skiing. If you want to have one pair of skis that allows you to ski at the area AND in the backcountry, you may choose one of the bindings that meets the newest DIN/ISO certifications for safety. These certifications are not identical to those of the alpine ski world, but they provide a much-improved functionality that keeps you safe and skiing longer.
- Are you more interested in the UP? Or the DOWN?
You may be willing to hand over some downhill performance to reduce the weight of your backcountry rig because your favorite part of backcountry skiing is going up. If you endure the effort of the uphill so you can earn the exhilaration of the downhill, you’ll likely choose a heavier binding that has more capability to hold onto the ski in difficult terrain while adding the safety features of a DIN-standard releasability.
- Do you have a boot that requires a specific type of binding?
This not only needs to be considered when deciding between telemark and AT systems, but also within those two categories. For example, the Dynafit Hoji PX has a unique snub nose that creates a more efficient touring experience by moving the pivot point of the tow backward a bit. Since there is no welt at the tow you have no way to attach to the tow piece of a frame binding. Also, when considering TechNTN bindings for telemark, you need to be sure the boot has “tech” fittings at the toe. While there have never been more choices for boots or bindings in the backcountry ski world, these innovations will come with some limitations. The staff at Mountain Chalet can help you make these decisions regarding your bindings.
- Is the weight of the binding playing a big part in this decision?
We can outfit you with bindings that meet all of your weight requirements, or none at all. Some travelers will be willing to carry a heavier binding that incorporate safety features that increase their margin of safety. Other skiers will opt to forego those safety elements for a binding that shaves weight to increase efficiency while touring. What sacrifices are you willing to make for your ski adventures.
- Do you have specific concerns about the safety of your binding/boot interface?
In the AT world there now exists a selection of bindings that are closer to the safety functionality of a traditional alpine binding. With TUV/ISO/DIN certifications that can ease your mind on the slopes, whether you are at the area or on your favorite backcountry slope.
After a little contemplation on how you’re going to play, we’re going to take a look at the Alpine Touring world first, and then we’ll venture into the Telemark realm.
Alpine touring is certainly a mainstay in the community; while Telemark is currently undergoing strong and exciting resurgence.
Boots and Bindings for Alpine Touring
The primary benefit of alpine touring equipment has always been its ability to tour with the relative ease of a cross country kit, yet also feature the mechanism to lock down the heel of the boot to provide maximum power and performance on the downhill. No need to learn a new turn, just adapt to the activity with skills you may already have as an alpine skier, and go touring. (Hence the name – Alpine Touring)
Not that long ago, Alpine Touring (AT) equipment was considered inferior to the efficiency and efficacy of telemark equipment for backcountry pursuits. AT’s heavier gear and more restrictive boots made sure that people seeking turns away from lift lines would instead choose telemark equipment. More recently, alpine touring gear started to see innovations in bindings and boots that caused many long-time telemarkers to re-think their methods. AT skiers can now tour more efficiently on lightweight bindings, and enjoy the benefits of svelte, yet powerful boots that you don’t want to rip off before you get back in the car.
Light weight, accommodating fit, and incredible cuff mobility make it possible to travel in the backcountry with more comfort and efficiency than ever before. You can choose from dozens of boots. Your quest may lead you to shave some weight with a lightweight boot, or to favor a powerful boot that drives a big ski, or to select a combination of the two that suits your specific needs.
Are broken into two different design camps, “frame” style bindings and “tech” style bindings.
- Frame-Style Bindings are basically an alpine-style binding attached to a frame that allows for a cross-country style pivot at the toe for touring, and a lock-down mechanism at the heel for skiing down, just like your alpine skis. For all intents and purposes, the dedicated backcountry community has moved away from frame bindings for the benefits of the tech-style binding.
- Tech-Style Bindings eliminate the frame. They connect the boot and the binding with some unique cone-shaped pins, or “tech” pins, that mate with special fittings on the tow and heel of your tech-equipped boot, creating a hinge at the toe that eliminates the need for a frame.
Boots and Bindings for Telemark
Telemark skiing, with its inherent free-heeled fluidity and grace, has long been referred to as a dance by its most ardent practitioners. Until relatively recently, it was almost undisputed as the chosen ski method for efficiency and convenience while entering into the backcountry. The equipment’s light weight and affordability made it a great choice for the grassroots backcountry movement that brought it to prominence in the late 70’s and 80’s. Then, as a result of incredible advancements in alpine touring equipment innovation, it was overshadowed by the svelt gear offered to the AT community. As skis got bigger and more powerful, the bindings and boots had to follow suit. Telemark was gaining weight and burl while AT gear was shedding pounds, Telemark was gaining a little weight, and with it – a little more power. Now, with the advent of amazing new binding and boot technologies, like TechNTN, telemark is enjoying a strong and exciting resurgence.
Haven’t seen the same developments that AT boots recently have seen, but with the advent of modern NTN (New Telemark Norm) and Tech-NTN bindings there are some boots that have risen to the surface as stand-out leaders. We’re very hopeful about what might be new in telemark boots as a result of our current telemark resurgence. Keep a lookout for a new product that combines the power and stability of NTN with the light weight and expanded cuff rotation of the newest AT designs. It’s an exciting time for alpine touring and telemark skiers.
Have seen a lot of fantastic developments, recently. What was once an industry standard (75mm) is now compromised of three distinct groups – 75mm, NTN, and TechNTN. It’s important to note that NOT all telemark boots are compatible with all telemark bindings. If you have 75mm boots, you’ll need to match it with a 75 mm binding. NTN boots will work with both NTN and TechNTN bindings.
75mm Bindings are a wedge-shaped metal toe piece that connect to a wedge-shaped outsole of a telemark boot toe that is 75mm wide and often referred to as the “duck bill”. Although adapted to the modern day, this design has been used for nearly 100 years and is still the preference for many telemark skiers.
NTN (New Telemark Norm) bindings clamp to the toe of the boot and a connecting point at the midsole of the boot called the “midsole,” or the “duck butt,” allowing for a free heel, but increased power and stability.
TechNTN (Tech/New Telemark Norm) utilizes the power and stability of NTN, but attaches at the toe with “tech” pins, which increases efficiency for touring by eliminating the need to flex the boot in the binding. The boot pivots on the tech pins like an oiled hinge, just like an alpine touring tech binding.
Boots and Bindings in the Backcountry
Whatever equipment you choose to use in the backcountry, its important to make sure you are well-versed in their functions and operation before you hit the trail head. There has never been a more exciting time to embrace the world of backcountry skiing from an equipment perspective.
In the past, there was a light-hearted rivalry among alpine touring and telemarkers. You might recall some bumperstickers designed to display your loyalties, like “free the heel, ski for real” or “fix the heel, fix the problem”. Now, those are just memories of a divided past. AT skiers and telemarkers are now seen together, sharing a beer or recollecting a tree-run. They place nice together, and it couldn’t be better. They share a pure love for the mountains and for skiing, not for the trappings that come with a lift ticket. Some might say that the backcountry ski community is more backcountry and more community than it has ever been.
Another thing to know for sure is that there is NO LIFT TICKET REQUIRED. EVER.