After years as the fastest growing segment of the ski industry, alpine touring (AT), or uphill skiing, has gotten even hotter and is seeing record participation this winter, in large part because of the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19.
In Part 1, I covered all the reasons why alpine touring, and its snowboard equivalent, splitboarding, are so popular and appropriate right now. Today I am covering the gear you need to give AT skiing a try.
Bindings: This is definitely the most complicated part of the equation, as there are three distinctly different styles, two of which have significant variants, essentially creating five kinds of bindings. The good news is that there are now only two main choices you need to consider. The traditional style for AT skiing for the past 35 years has been the “Tech binding.” Two small metal pins on the front piece of the binding are set parallel to the top of the ski, and when you step down, they lock into two metal holes on either side of the boot toe. This results in a very effective up and down pivot at the toe. The heelpiece likewise has two metal rods that snap into the heel of the boot for descending.
Tech bindings were long the province of AT specialists, namely Dynafit and more recently G3. But others, including downhill binding giant Marker and Black Diamond, also make Tech bindings now. Tech bindings were designed for going up and are very light with a great climbing range of motion. But they have always been less secure for coming down, both in terms of performance and safety. The lighter setup and tiny connection points leaves the skier less “locked in” then a downhill binding, most noticeable while skiing aggressively, and the release in a fall, lacking the traditional alpine binding DIN settings, was less controllable. Classic Tech bindings also lack the spring-loaded ski brakes that keep alpine skis from running away downhill.
Most recent innovation in AT gear has been to address these shortcomings. A second style of Tech binding, known as TUV certified, has come out, which adds safer release settings and brakes. This makes them the safer choice while still being extremely light, though you still don’t get the locked down feel. Unless you are doing uphill racing where eyery ounce affects speed, I would recommend only buying TUV certified Tech bindings if Tech is what you want (more on this below).
The other response was the paradigm shifting frame binding, basically a regular downhill style binding mounted on a plate that is hinged to the ski so the entire unit pivots up and down for climbs. These introduced rock solid performance for the most aggressive terrain and descents, complete with alpine DIN settings and predictable release. If you are an expert skiing dangerous or sketchy terrain the reliability is very reassuring. Frame bindings can also accept traditional alpine boots for lift served resort skiing days with no climbing, allowing you to own just a single pair of skis and bindings and save money. However, while frame bindings made some major performance improvement on the downhill side, they came at big climbing cost. They are both much heavier (like twice as heavy) and promote a less comfortable and efficient climbing stride, which combine to create fatigue on longer tours.
That’s why frame bindings are quickly giving way to the so-called hybrid binding, which combines the smooth pivoting two-pin Tech toe piece with an alpine-style step-down rear piece. While not as light as Tech, it is lighter than Frame and also offers better movement going up, combined with the much more solid descent performance sought by big mountain skiers. Marker’s Duke and Salomon’s S/Lab Shift series dominate this very attractive design format, but there are increasing choices. However, some hybrid bindings have alpine DIN certification, and some do not, and I would look for this feature.
Scarpa is the boot company long sinuous with AT skiing and makes the industry’s most popular models. Kim Miller, CEO of SCARPA North America told me, “Backcountry skiing has been on a pretty rapid upward growth curve for a decade or more. That’s because the equipment is getting closer to alpine-skiing gear in terms of how it performs, so alpine skiers feel very at home on today’s backcountry ski gear, and it’s getting lighter and easier to use as well.”
Bottom line? Tech bindings climb best and hybrids are best all-around for anyone skiing more advanced terrain. If you are planning long hut to hut tours with a pack and lots of climbing but moderate difficulty descents. I’d go Tech. If you are climbing to access steeps and chutes, I‘d go hybrid. Personally, when I want to ski aggressive double black or above terrain I tend to do it at resorts on my regular alpine gear and I do AT mainly for fitness, often a single rapid ascent at a closed or open ski resort and then one run down, and I use Tech.
Skis: In a sense this is the easiest choice – and the hardest. Just as with alpine skis, backcountry models come in all shapes and sizes and brands with different performance characteristics. The main difference between backcountry and alpine skis is that they are typically much lighter for climbing. The width and shape and length and stiffness and rocker (or none) you choose has to reflect the conditions you expect, the kind of touring you plan to do, your ability and personal preferences, just like choosing downhill skis. In fact, some people use regular downhill skis for AT, and they work just fine, except of course they are heavier. However, if you have an extra pair kicking around and want to try AT without spending a fortune, that’s one way to start.
In general, just as with bindings, the lighter the ski the easier it is to go up but the harder it is to come down, as lighter skis tend to chatter and don’t perform as well. If you plan on doing single ascent resort skinning of 45-90 minutes up, I would lean towards heavier skis that you will still be able to climb that amount but will ski down better. As with bindings, lighter skis are better for longer tours with less technical descents.
There are companies that make only backcountry skis, like Black Diamond, Dynafit, Wonder Alpine (WNDR) and G3, while mainstream alpine brands big (K2, Head, Elan, Blizzard, Volkl, Atomic, Salomon, Dynastar, Kastle) and small (DPS, Black Crows, Armada, Line, etc.) sell AT models.
Just as with downhill, there is no “best” ski or best ski brand with one notable exception. If you want to go custom and have an ultra-high quality bespoke ski made specifically for you and your exact needs, then you cannot buy a better ski than those made by Wagner Custom Skis in Telluride, Colorado. Wagner offers the same painstaking research into your needs and one-off construction for backcountry skiers. Jackson Hole, Wyoming-based Franco Snowshapes does the same thing with custom made to order high-performance snowboards for these in search of one of a kind splitboards. You can read more about both companies here.
Another notable backcountry ski exception to the mass retail rule is Wonder Alpine (WNDR) which makes only backcountry skis and manufactures them here in the U.S. using a revolutionary new eco-friendly process – and sells direct to consumers. You can read more about the green technology here in a recent piece I did on eco-friendly ski gear, but the bottom line is that in addition to being more sustainable, engineering-driven WNDR uses materials no one else has access to and makes excellent backcountry skis that get exceptional reviews, have an unconditional “happiness guarantee” of total satisfaction, and offer one of the easiest ways to buy a backcountry setup in the pandemic. Not only do they sell direct online, but you can choose from more than a dozen high-quality name brand Tech or hybrid bindings and have them come mounted on the skis, as well as adding perfectly pre-fit skins, from well-respected Swiss specialist Pomoca. This offers a turnkey package (minus boots) delivered to you without ever having to don a mask and go shopping.
Boots: This is the simplest of all the gear categories – if your backcountry boots fit well and are comfy, they will probably work just fine going up and down. Like alpine boots, there are differences in higher performance models, stiffer, lighter, customizable liners, better buckles, etc., but all the mainline AT boots on the market are pretty well made, so fit is the most important thing. That being said, no player dominates the space like Scarpa, which was making backcountry and Telemark boots long before the big alpine brands jumped on the bandwagon, and just about everyone I know who is into AT skiing has Scarpa boots, including myself (the Maestrale) and my wife (the Gea). Some version of the Scarpa Maestrale or Scarpa F1 boot is rated number one for men in just about every 2020 gear guide, from Ski Magazine to Men’s Journal to Switchbacktravel.com, and several Scarpa models feature intuition liners that can be heat molded to your feet for custom fit.
AT specialist Dynafit also makes excellent lightweight touring boots, while the more traditional alpine ski brands like Tecnica, Atomic, Lange and K2 all make AT boots now, often based more on a traditional four buckle style that may be better suited to those doing resort-based skiing. Full Tilt is a cult ski boot brand known for exceptionally comfortable high-performance – and the personal favorite of U.S. pro superstar and Olympic champ Bode Miller – and they now also make AT boots.
Skins: These traction strips that attached to the boom of your skis were originally made of mohair, from the hair of goats. Today most skins are synthetic or blends of mohair and nylon. Mohair works well but is both less durable and more expensive, which is why it is often blended with synthetic material. For most people the material is not as big a deal as fit. Experienced backcountry skiers cut and glue their own skins, sold as rolls of the fabric which have to be trimmed both lengthwise and width-wise, and then you have to attach plastic or metal tip and tail hooks. To put it simply, this is not fun, but rather a hassle. I think you are better off either having the store where you buy your set up prep the skins for you or purchase pre-cut skins that are ready to go. Many ski manufacturers like Black Crow, Dynafit, DPS, Atomic, Blizzard, Salomon, Fischer, Scott and K2 sell skins specifically set up to fit various models of their AT skis, making for a slick turnkey customer experience.
However, many of these brands in turn have their skins made for them by Swiss specialist Pomoca, which also sells very high-quality user-friendly skins directly. They have four different models in their “Ready2Climb” lineup, so named because they come in set lengths with pre-attached tip and tail hooks, and all you have to do is trim the width using an included and well-designed tool, the promise (true) being that you can trim the pair of skins to fit in just two minutes and head for the slopes. The other top companies offering trim to size skins with pre-attached hooks are Black Diamond and G3.
Safety Gear: Living in Vermont, there are plenty of places I can skin in the wilderness with no avalanche danger. But I would never go solo out West, period, and other than in-bounds resort skiing, I’ve only gone with guides. Backcountry touring presents the same kinds of danger you would encounter heli-skiing or cat-skiing and if do want to tour unguided you need to take avalanche training classes. Not “you should,” or “you would be better off,” you need to. In recent years the surge of interest in backcountry skiing has had a dark side, and seen those without the knowledge required putting themselves (and then their rescuers) in harm’s way.
When ski resorts shut in early March 2020 due to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, backcountry travel surged and so did avalanches. The Utah Avalanche Center reported 50 human triggered slides in less than two days. In Colorado 32 skiers were caught in avalanches in the 9-weeks after lifts closed and several backcountry skiers have died already this winter. You do not want to join that list.
There are plenty of places you can take avalanche and winter backcountry travel classes, in just about every western mountain town. I wrote here earlier about Bluebird Backcountry, a new no-lift ski resort in Colorado that is all about AT skiing, with in and out of bounds options, which has a big educational focus and offers a variety of progressive class packages.
Otherwise, there are several resorts that offer excellent guided backcountry packages from intro to full day touring with a trained expert. These places have rentals and it’s a great way to check out AT before you make the investment. I’ve done this at Mammoth Mountain, California, which as an excellent intro AT program (unfortunately currently suspended), as well as at Jackson, Hole, WY, which pioneered the guided sidecountry concept in this country and has partially lift served access to some awesome ski terrain. Also based in Jackson is the nation’s oldest and most renowned mountain guide company, Exum Mountain Guides, which offers guided trips and instruction in the Tetons.
In any of these cases you need a full complement of specialized safety gear. If you are on vacation and doing a guided day outing, they will rent what you need. If you plan on going regularly, or also heli or cat-ski and use the gear with any recurring frequency, it’s better to have your own and be familiar with it. But none of this gear is helpful if you don’t know what to do with it – before your head out.
What you absolutely need at a bare minimum is a beacon, or avalanche transceiver, which both helps others find you in an accident and lets you search for those buried; a folding shovel; and an avalanche probe. But these days an airbag backpack is practically a requirement, and I wouldn’t go out of bounds without one. This is basically a backpack that includes a giant balloon that you can inflate with a pull of a handle in an avalanche to keep you above the snow. It’s like when airbags came out in cars – they were an option, but if you chose not to have them, you were choosing to be less likely to survive.
I am also a big fan of two-way radios for backcountry travel, where cell phones are unreliable and it is easy to get separated from line of sight, especially when skiing in trees. I got a pair of radios made just for this purpose for my wife and I from Backcountry Access (BCA), and I love them. They are also very handy for resort skiing to reconnect for lunch or after taking different trails down, and are especially useful for skiing and snowboarding families. I’ve even taken to using them on hiking and backpacking trips where a group can get spread out.
BCA’s Backcountry Link two-way radios are the kind used by ski patrollers, and have a main unit (shockingly small) you keep inside your pack or clothing, attached to a smart handpiece that lets you control volume and channel without accessing the actual radio. This clips to the strap of your backpack for easy use even with gloves and without taking anything in or out. With 22 channels and 121 sub-channels you can avoid chatter at busy ski resorts, while the 2-watt units have great range (always several and as many as many as 40 miles (line of sight), great clarity, and very long battery life with USB rechargeable lithium-ion batteries (80 hours of use or 400 in standby). When you talk about the kind of things you don’t know you need but then get to try, these have become one of my favorite all around pieces of outdoor gear, and come in handy for so many uses.
There are several companies making good airbags (Mammut, Black Diamond) and transceivers (Ortovox) but I like Backcountry Access because they make it all and have specialized in nothing but gear for backcountry winter travel for more than quarter of a century. They make high-end beacons, shovels, probes, packs, airbags, radios – even climbing skins. They also have a slew of free instructional safety videos on various winter and avalanche topics on their website, and they group their products into turnkey “rescue packages” matching beacons, shovels and probes – it’s a turnkey way to buy top quality safety gear. They also have half a dozen different airbag backpack models in their industry leading “Float” lineup and use compressed air cylinders half the size and weight of many on the market. This makes uphill travel easier and also frees up more space in the very well-designed packs for everything else you want to carry. I only go heli-skiing or cat-skiing with topnotch reputable companies, and the last few times I’ve gone they have all used BCA airbag packs.
A Completely Different Take On Uphill Skiing: Many top ski resorts feature terrain that you have to hike to once you get off the lift. These hikes typically take between 15-45 minutes and let skiers access snow that is less skied than the stuff that can just be reached easily by lifts, meaning more fresh powder. It is also usually expert terrain and at some resorts, like Telluride, Aspen Highlands and Breckenridge, the hike-to terrain is some of the most iconic on the mountain. For short hikes skiers typically just throw their skis over their shoulder and trudge in their ski boots – famously not made for walking – which is exhausting and cumbersome. For longer hikes or repeat laps, skiers use specialty backpacks to carry their skis.
But there is a more dramatic version of this endeavor called SkiMo, short for ski mountaineering, which has competitive races. You basically run up the mountain and ski down for the fastest combined time. But you don’t have to run and you don’t have to race to experience the spirit of this pursuit: you can simply hike up a slope with your skis on your back. SkiMo racers ascend in AT boots, which requires you to use AT bindings and skis, but there’s no rule that says you couldn’t carry your alpine ski boots in the pack and go up in hiking boots or even snowshoes then switch. For my money, you can bring a thermos of hot cocoa and a sandwich too and enjoy the rest break at the top – you’ve earned it. This would not only make long climbs easier, but it is a cheap alternative for downhill skiers stuck in a pandemic winter without easy access to lifts who are not ready to take the plunge into a thousand-dollar-plus AT setup. Think of it as a cheap and easy way to give n human powered skiing a try.
Whether you do this, do SkiMo or regularly ski hike-to terrain at resorts, you want a pack that carries your skis really well. That’s where the new Gregory Targhee FastTrack (FT) comes in.
Just about every good pack brand makes models designed to carry skis outside, but until now, almost all of these have required taking off the pack at the beginning and end. This winter Gregory (the same brand I use for my summer hiking backpack and hydration system) came out with this amazing model designed for SkiMo racing, where the transition to put on your skis adds to your time and every second counts. But it’s slick enough for anyone who wants to carry skis on their back. a super model that was built specifically to make it extremely easy to put the skis on and remove them off without ever taking the pack off. I love it when the outdoor gear industry puts a new twist on a longstanding technology and this is genius. The fact that we have taken a more cumbersome way of carrying our skis for granted for so many years when there was a better idea may makes me really impressed with the Targhee FT. If you watch the video. you will get it.
In addition to the cool new ski system, the Targhee FT is made of extremely durable, weatherproof materials but at greatly reduced weight for racing. To customize it based on the kind of trip you are doing, heavier components, such as the hip belts, top pocket and frame sheet can all be removed and the substantial pack can weigh in at under two pounds. The Targhee FT is available in 35 and 45-liter versions.
Stay safe, ski safe!