Backcountry Ski Setup Advice
Published November 2016, for the 2017 winter season.
We are frequently asked which models of backcountry skis, boots and bindings to buy (or hire) for the various trips that we run. Obviously, this is open to quite a lot of variation – as much depends on your skiing ability, ski style, weight etc and also what other kinds of ski holidays you plan to use the kit for.
However, it usually comes down to three common backcountry ski setups – each optimised for a different ratio of time spent going up, to time spent going down! These are as follows:
1. A dedicated lightweight touring setup – for multi day ski touring.
2. An all round ‘one ski for all’ setup – for touring and resort use.
3. A wide ski freeride setup – for off piste and lift assisted day tours.
Where to buy
In terms of where to buy the kit, a good specialist ski touring boot fitter is absolutely essential – ie the shop needs to have well trained staff who are active ski tourers and really know how to fit touring boots correctly. Most ski shops know how to do a recreational ski boot fit – but fitting a touring boot is a very different process, as both the inner and outer need the right amount of space in very specific areas, in order to allow skinning over longer distances without getting blisters. We’ve seen a lot of mangled feet coming out of badly fitted boots over the years and can’t over emphasise how important this step is!
My advice would be to ring the shop up first and have a chat about the kit you are interested in – then also make sure you ask the staff what kit they ski on themselves and where they’ve been touring recently; this will give you an idea how much real knowledge and experience they have. In the uk, we make no apology for recommending Backcountry Uk in Ilkley, West Yorkshire (tel 01943 816011) – as in our opinion they are the best backcountry boot fitters in the Uk and always a pleasure to deal with.
“After a lot of research, I’m thinking of buying a 117mm underfoot, full rocker powder ski (weight= XXX tons) for my upcoming Haute Route trip – do you think this will be ok, or should I go for something a little wider?”
We get a number of emails like this every year – based on people reading kit reviews and blogs on the internet. Having so much information available is brilliant, but you need to filter it carefully – as a lot of the stuff written in English comes from the western states of North America, where the local snow and skiing conditions are very different from the European Alps – so the kind of skis you need are very different too. Shops will tell you the same thing – each week, they get several people walking through the door convinced that they need ski X because they read about it online, most of whom walk out of the door a couple of hours later carrying ski Y!
For skis and bindings, you can find lots of good deals available online – but if you need specific advice and help in choosing the right ski and binding, then visiting a specialist shop is likewise a safer bet; ie you can discuss your personal requirements with a member of staff who’s also a keen ski tourer and really knows about the the kit, then actually get hold of the equipment to compare different skis and bindings etc side by side.
To help you out, we’ve produced the following Advice Video – Phil Evans at Backcountry Uk explains the different categories of backcountry ski boots, what they are best used for and suggests some good ski/boot/binding combinations that work well together – very informative!
1. Lightweight Touring Setup
This is the kind of setup that’s ideal for a week long hut to hut tour, but for maximum versatility we recommend you buy skis that are still ok for occasional resort use too. For a dedicated lightweight ski touring setup, weight is clearly a big consideration – as you spend far more time each day skinning up than skiing down. Having said that, for most people the main reason for going up is to enjoy skiing back down again – so our key advice is: don’t go too light and skinny on the skis.
We say this because nowadays you can buy excellent wider bodied touring skis that weigh ~2.5-3kg and ski brilliantly in all the conditions you are likely to encounter on a longer tour – whereas if you go much lighter than this, depending on your skill level, you may notice a considerable drop off in ski performance, which you will need to make up for with better technique (ie you might see various guides and locals skiing on narrow or very light skis, but for the majority of British ski tourers it makes far more sense to ski on something a bit more substantial!)
The other side of the coin is that for skiing in Europe, we recommend you don’t buy too wide a ski; as although there are some very light-but-wide skis out there, these usually don’t ski too well in anything but powder and are a nightmare in tricky/tight terrain, on firm spring snow, or in icy skin tracks etc – ie they’re not a versatile choice for multiday touring in the European Alps.
Recommended Lightweight Touring Setup:
- Wider bodied touring ski (85-95mm underfoot)
- Lightweight touring binding (Fritschi Vipec, Fritschi Eagle etc)
- Ski mountaineering boot (3/4 buckle, or superlight)
Above – mens lightweight touring setups
- Skis (front to back) Salomon MTN Explore 88, Movement Alptracks 94 LTD, Dynastar Mythic 97
- Boots (front to back) Dynafit TLT 7, Scarpa F1 EVO, Scarpa Maestrale
- Binding: Fritschi Vipec 12 Black
Above – womens lightweight touring setups
- Skis (front to back) Movement Vista, Movement Ultimate
- Boots (front to back) Scott Celeste II, Scarpa Gea
- Binding: Fritschi Vipe 12 Black
2. All Round Resort and Touring Setup
This is the kind of one-ski-does-it-all setup that’s suitable for a resort or off piste holiday, as well as a weeks ski touring. The key difference here is that you’ll need a more substantial freeride binding – ie one that’s strong enough to take the battering it will receive from skiing 1000s of metres of vertical each day off lifts in a resort.
If you want to keep things at the lighter end of the spectrum (ie better for that annual hut to hut tour) then simply mount some freeride bindings onto one of the ‘heavier’ lightweight touring skis recommended here and pick a ski mountaineering boot that fits you well and you’re done.
If you are a heavier skier, or want a bit more float and punch for charging around resort – then go for a lightweight ‘all mountain’ ski similar to the ones shown below and pair that up with either a beefier ski mountaineering boot, or a dedicated freeride boot. Just remember that the freeride boots aren’t as good for skinning long distances in though, so you’d be well advised to tape your feet up at the start of any longer tour in order to prevent blisters if you go down that route.
- Light ‘all mountain’ ski (90-100mm underfoot)
- Freeride binding (Fritschi Freeride Pro etc)
- Ski mountaineering (or freeride) boot)
Above – mens all rounder setups
- Skis (front to back) Black Crows Corvus Freebird, Black Crows Orb Freebird 2017, Movement Apex
- Boots (front to back) Scarpa Maestrale RS, Scott Superguide Carbon, Scarpa Freedom SL
- Binding: Fritschi Freeride Pro (Fritschi Vipec 12 Black – is only suitable if you spend more days skinning than skiing in resorts each season!)
Above – womens all rounder setups
- Skis (front to back) Blizzard Black Pearl, Movement Beyond
- Boots: Scott Celeste
- Binding: Fritschi Freeride Pro
3. Freeride and Day Touring Setup
This is the kind of lightweight freeride setup that depending on the ski and binding chosen, is ideal for a couple of different scenarios: 1. Wide ski and freeride binding: blasting around resorts and making boot tracks/shorter tours in search of fresh lines, or 2. Lightweight wide ski and freeride pin binding: a specialist 2nd ski setup for longer days skiing deep snow and backcountry freeride activities (ie don’t plan on skiing this kind of setup if in reality you mostly ski off piste around the resorts).
On the ski front, there are now a number of excellent wider bodied freeride skis available that have been lightened up for precisely this type of skiing. Likewise, freeride boots are getting lighter each year and tech pin insert freeride bindings are now appearing on the market – which for the more specialist setups means significant weight savings all round.
- Lightweight freeride ski
- Freeride binding
- Freeride boot
Above – mens lightweight freeride setups
- Skis (front to back) Scott Superguide 105, Black Crows Navis Freebird, Black Crows Atris
- Boots (front to back) Salomon QST Pro, Scarpa Freedom RS, K2 Pinnacle Pro
- Binding: Fritschi Freeride Pro
NB We only recommend using the Marker Kingpin Binding on a dedicated lightweight backcountry freeride setup (ie human powered skiing) – for which it is brilliant! In our opinion, it is not suitable for regular resort use as it has no lateral toe release, so it is not as safe as Bar/Rail design freeride bindings which have full alpine binding release capabilities.
Above – womens lightweight freeride setups
- Skis (front to back) Dynastar Cham 97 Women, Black Crows Atris Birdie
- Boots (front to back) Scarpa Freedom RS, Scarpa Gea RS
- Binding: Fritschi Freeride Pro