Ski Touring Equipment Made Simple
Navigating the options and selecting appropriate ski touring equipment can be a serious challenge. Every gear manufacturer thinks that whatever concoction they’ve come up with is the best tool for, well, everything it seems. So how do you figure out what gear is best for you?
Really, it isn’t as complicated as it may seem. First off, ignore pretty much all marketing and get ready to look at things critically yourself. Understand that there is no equipment that is really good at everything; only things that do multiple things less well. Then look at the equipment with fresh eyes.
In recent years gear has commonly been marketed in categories: Race, Sport and Alpine Hybrid. On one end of the spectrum there is ultra-lightweight gear that is designed for speed on the up and speed only and on the other end, gear that can be used inbounds and out of bounds and is really clunky and heavy for actually touring with. Most people that think about ski touring will fall into the so-called ‘Sport’ category. This is gear that is optimized to be as light as possible without (or with minimal) sacrifice in skiing quality on the downhill, and what we focus on in this article.
There are two main principals to think about here: Float vs. Precision. Very generally speaking, the wider skis get, the better they handle deep snow. They float you up making turning far easier than with narrower skis. Wide skis don’t handle firmer snow well though, as there is a huge amount of tortional leverage working against the ski causing it to not hold an edge well. This brings us to the idea of precision. Narrower skis hold an edge in firm snow, making them easier to maneuver. They are more precise.
Now, there are all sorts of ski designs that try to make the ski be able to both float and be precise. Skis with an exaggerated side-cut (a narrower waist to that of the tip and tail) being one example. Skis with rockered (bent up) tips and tail while also having traditional camber under foot are another very common example today. All adjustments in design are compromises in one fashion or another
The most important questions you should ask when considering skis are: What do I want to do with the ski? And. How is the ski going to handle with you on it? Generally speaking, the touring equipment you select should be optimized for the ski runs you are going to take. Hopefully they are often in good conditions, hence why you are there. If so, you can often get away with a little lighter boot set -up than you might be used to using at the ski area. You, likely won’t be skiing moguls in the backcountry. Remember, any weight savings is a huge win for the uphill.
Most often, weight savings in skis can be made by buying touring specific skis, as they usually made with lighter weight materials than alpine skis. Secondarily, the length of the ski selected could also influence the weight. In the backcountry, with a little lighter boots (we’ll get to that) you may not be able to power big skis like you ski inbounds in quite the same fashion. Weight isn’t everything though, as some lightweight materials can cause skis to deflect or chatter. A ski that is damp, or one that absorbs vibration is always preferable, but hard to find with lightweight materials. So there is a balance with this. A few manufacturers have marketed some impressive new materials in this realm in recent years, most notably Kastle and Salomon.
Remember, nothing does everything really well. Here in Utah I ski on a quiver of about four different pairs of skis: Deep Powder Ski (115-135mm), All Mountain Powder Ski (100-115mm), General Purpose/Mixed Conditions Ski (90-105mm) and a Spring Corn Snow Ski (85-100mm). One of those pairs, the All Mountain Powder Ski, I ski on about 80% of the time. If I lived in a different snow-climate, though, this number would likely be a lot different! In Europe, for instance, most individuals opt to use a General Purpose/Mixed Conditions type ski for the majority of their winter travels.
An All-Mountain Powder Ski is a ski that skis all but the deepest powder really well but also can hold and edge if it has to, or at least somewhat. It also most often has a lot of rocker in tip and possibly tail, has a fair amount of side-cut and turns really easily as a result. An added bonus of the rocker is that it also handles breakable crust conditions better than most other ski designs too. This category ski is generally going to be in the 100-115mm underfoot range. I personally use the DPS Pagoda Tour 112, but there are a lot of other good skis like this out there such as the Black Diamond Helio Carbon 104 and 115, and the Black Crows Corvus Freebird.
The General Purpose/Mixed Conditions Ski has more precision, or edge holding power than All Mountain Powder and Powder specific skis. They are more traditionally shaped and have less float. I recently have been skiing on the Kastle TX103 and am very impressed, but other popular skis in this category are the Black Crows Camox Freebird and Black Crows Navis Freebird, and Black Diamond Helio Carbon 95.
Powder specific skis are fairly easy to assess. Just make sure they are made with light materials as the weight adds up quick with their girth. With Spring Corn Skis I generally look for something that is really light but isn’t twitchy. I’ve been really Impressed with how light, yet damp and responsive the Kastle TX87 is, but again there are a lot of other good options out there. A lot of people use a ski in the General Purpose/Mixed conditions category for corn skiing too, often with great success.
I’ll keep it fairly simple here. Get the boot that you can get by handling the conditions you ski in the most in but not any more, and moreover, one that fits really well. Generally speaking, a boot that is in the 115-125 flex range is what most people will want to look for, as when touring you are generally not skiing in choppy, variable conditions very often where one may want a burlier boot. If you are on the lighter side or female, that number could be lower. If you are heavier, the number could be a bit higher. Remember, you want to try to find a boot that does what it needs to do on the down but is also light for the up. For people with low volume feet, look at Technica and Dynafit boots. If the Technica Zero G fits well, it is really hard to beat. For high volume feet, Scarpa, Scott and Salomon boots seem to work well. Again there are plenty of other boots out there too that may be suitable. Boots can easily be the hardest part of your set-up to get right. Put as much effort into getting a good fit as possible. Many people find that having a slightly larger size shell than a proper alpine fit to be beneficial, as when touring boots are in walk mode one’s toes are driven forward in the boot. A bigger boot combined with a custom liner (such as Intuition Dreamliner or Pro Tour) to fill the space is my personal go to.
Don’t be fooled by marketing gimmicks, all touring bindings are going to keep you on the ski just fine. The decision to make is how ‘featured’ the binding is, meaning: are there heel risers or not and whether there are adjustable release settings or fixed ones. One important thing to consider is how much forward lean you want to ski with as the ‘ramp’ angle (the angle of the boot relative to the ski when clicked in) is quite different between bindings. More streamlined, or race oriented bindings, tend to have less ramp angle, which results in a less aggressive downhill ski stance. You will also need to decide if you want to use brakes. Hint: brakes are just another thing to have to deal with when doing transitions between runs. They also don’t really do very much in powder and add weight overall. But if you ski a lot in firm snow, they have their place. Personally, I think not having brakes is an easy way to save yourself a whole lot of fiddling and a way of shedding a little weight on each step you take. A great all around, lightweight touring binding is the tried and true classic Dynafit Speed Radical or the slimed down race-sport hybrids, Dynafit Superlite 150 or 175 or the Plum Oazo. There are a lots of good options on the market these days though!
The gear market is daunting. Don’t be afraid to demo gear to see if you like it first. The resale market is also fairly robust to for entry or exit if you need to evaluate. Getting out with a certified guide is also a terrific way to learn about what works and what doesn’t and why. Be a bit wary of salesman pushing snake-oil.