Backcountry ski gear 101

Curious about ski touring? This post is for you. This a break down of the four main pieces of ski equipment you’ll need to get on the skin track and earn your turns: skis, bindings, boots, and skins.

Travelling into the backcountry or skiing anywhere that is not managed by avalanche professionals is inherently dangerous. This post merely outlines the ski equipment needed to partake in the sport. It is highly recommended that you take an AST – 1 course and/or hire an ACMG guide before backcountry skiing without supervision.

Skis

Yes, there are touring specific skis. There are four main measurements that you’ll want to keep in mind as you look for your perfect pair: length, shovel, waist, and tail.

Length

Length refers to the overall length of a ski and is usually measured in centimetres (for example, 174cm). As a general rule, you’ll want a ski that stands between eye level and the top of your head. Shorter skis (near chin height) are easier to turn, but give you less buoyancy in deep snow. Longer skis (near the top of your head) are harder to turn, but give you more buoyancy. Buoyancy is important because once you are off the resort you’ll be skiing and skinning through untracked/ungroomed snow. Simply put, a bigger surface area displaces more weight.

Shovel, waist, and tail

Working down the ski from tip to tail, a ski is measured at the shovel (widest part of the tip), waist, and tail. The most important measurement is the waist or middle section of the ski. It dictates the overall width of the ski. The waist is measured in millimetres. You’ll often see a ski listed like so, “Wailer 112.” Touring skis have waists that run between 90-130mm. The fatter the waist, the more buoyant the ski. You’ll want a ski that is on the slimmer side of the scale if you are just starting out. Anything between 90-112mm will work great on the resort as well as in the backcountry.

Materials

Skis are typically constructed with a wood core for flexibility, a polymer or carbon mold for stability, and metal edges that run the length of the ski for turning purchase and control. Some touring skis are made of pure carbon. I recommend shying away from a fully carbon ski unless you really want to treat yourself. Instead, choose a ski that’s affordable and a mid range weight.

$$$: DPS Wailer 112

$$: G3 Sendr 112

$: Find some second hand sticks (sticks = skis)

Bindings

Touring bindings, or “tech bindings,” function in two distinct modes: walk and ski. Tech bindings release your heel for the ascent (walk mode) and lock back down for the descent (ski mode). They are similar to traditional bindings, in that you are locked into your ski at the heel and toe for the descent. What’s unique about touring bindings, speaking broadly here, is the walk mode. When in walk mode, the heel of your boot is released from the binding and your toe pivots forward and backward on the toe unit allowing for a natural feeling step, similar to cross country skiing.

Uphill travel on tech bindings is commonly referred to as touring, skinning, hiking, or ascending. Essentially, what the tech binding is trying to achieve is supreme walkability for uphill momentum.

Toe Unit

The toe of a tech binding is fitted with two small pins that pinch the toe of your boot like a lobster claw. This allows for maximum pivot while walking or performing kick turns—we’ll talk about the wonderful world of kick-turns another time. The toe unit is the only point of contact between your boot and the binding during the ascent.

Heel Unit

The heel unit is also fitted with two pins that lock into the back of your boot for the descent. Once these are locked into the heel of your boot your foot no longer pivots on the toe fitting. In order to save energy on the ascent, the heel fitting on a tech binding stays fixed to the ski. That way you don’t have to lift the extra weight every time you make a step.

Note: with rail bindings, a hybrid touring set-up option, you pick up the entire binding with each step. This might not sound like a big deal at first, but 1 or 2 extra pounds over 2,000 feet of vertical ends up being 2000-4000 extra pounds of lifting during the ascent. Yikes!!

Heel lifters

When people walk up steep hills, they climb on their toes. To mimic this natural inclination, the heel fitting of a tech binding is equipped with heel lifters. These are metal plates that can be folded down to decrease the negative angle of your step relative to the slope. On steeper sections of the climb, when engaged manually, heel lifters create a more natural step. They create a feeling of climbing stairs by stopping your heel from dropping back down all the way to the ski.

$$$: Dynafit Radicals

$$: G3 ion

$: Your local ski swap.

Boots

Touring boots, just like tech bindings, are designed with two modes: walk and ski. Traditionally, ski boots were designed to keep the skier in an active stance that emphasized downhill motion. With touring boots, you get the added feature of walk mode. Ski boots are measured by foot size and stiffness or flex. Touring boots introduce a third feature: cuff rotation.

Flex

Flex ranges from 80-130 (honestly, I don’t know what the unit of measurement is here). The higher the number, the more aggressive the boot. Touring boots will come in anything from 90-120. If you aren’t an extreme skier launching off of cliffs, you’ll be well suited in anything from 90-110.

Cuff Rotation

Refers to the backward hinging movement in a touring boot. This allows the ankle to move freely backward as well as forward, mimicking a walking or striding motion. This is the second function of a touring boot and makes it unique from an alpine boot. The touring boot can be locked into the descent mode after ascending, locking you back into an aggressive forward downhill skiing position, once engaged.  

Boot Sizing

Go to a professional boot fitter. Your ski boot is where all of your power comes from. If your boot is too loose or sloppy fitting, you’ll lose control. If your boots are too tight, you’ll be in pain all day long. I consulted a boot fitter and I can spend 13 hours a day in my touring boots with very little discomfort thanks to his help.

Me and Mike, the owner of Sepp’s Ski Shop and one hell of a boot fitter.

Unfortunately, you can’t simply try on a ski boot or order one online. The liners that come in ski boots pack out the more you use them. That means a good fit is often much tighter at first than it will ultimately settle into.

If you insist on not getting a consult, the general rule is to take the liner out of the boot and place your foot inside the shell and stand. Adjust your foot inside the shell so that your toes are very gently touching the front of the boot. There should be roughly the width of a finger remaining between your heel and the back of the shell for a performance fit, or two fingers for more comfort.

$$$: Hoji

$$: TLT7s

$: Find something second hand and that doesn’t smell too bad…good luck!

Skins

These are carpet like strips that temporarily adhere to the bottom of your skis and make climbing uphill possible. Skins glide as well as grip. They are made out of mohair or nylon that mimics mohair. Think of the coarse fur of a goat. You stroke it one way and your hand slides over the animal smoothly, go the other direction and the coarse hair grips aggressively. This combination of glide and grip make an ideal fabric for moving uphill on snow.

To ascend you simply put the skins on your ski bases with clips and an adhesive strip the lives on your skins permanently. When it’s time to descend, rip your skins off and ski down. Skins typically last for 2-3 seasons.

Tip: skins don’t come precut, so ask your local ski shop to trim them for you. They should be trimmed to allow you ski edges to be seen, but none of the base. We are talking millimetres here. I recommend consulting your local shop before you potentially butcher your own skins.  

$$: G3 Alpinists +

$$: Black Diamond Ascensionist

$: Steal an Angora Goat?


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