Choosing a Backcountry Ski Setup

Backcountry Ski Setup Advice

Updated October 2020, for the 2020-2021 winter season.

We are regularly asked for advice on which models of backcountry skis, boots and bindings to buy (or hire) for the different trips that we run. Obviously there are many different options available and a lot depends on your skiing ability, ski style, weight etc – as well as the different kinds of ski holidays you plan to use the gear for.

Most of the time however, it’s a choice between three typical backcountry ski setups – each focused on a different ratio of up versus down!

1. A dedicated lightweight touring setup – ideal for multi day ski touring.

2. An a one ski ‘all rounder’ setup – used both for touring and resort skiing.

3. A lightweight freeride setup – for lift assisted skiing and day touring.

Where to buy
In terms of where to buy the kit, a good ski boot fitting service is absolutely essential, so you need to find a specialist ski touring boot fitter – 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 and racing 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 touring 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 Otley, 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.

Internet reviews
“After a lot of research, I’m thinking of buying a 120mm 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?”
Before writing this article, we used to 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; they regularly get people walking through the door convinced that they need ski X because they’ve read all about it online – but following some discussion and advice, many 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.

1.  Lightweight Touring Setup
This is a dedicated lightweight ski setup that will be good for any of our ski touring holidays, but perfect on a longer  hut to hut week like the haute route ski tour.  For most holiday skiers, it’s best to choose a pair of skis that are still ok for the odd resort day as well. For a lightweight setup like this, weight is clearly important – as skinning makes up a large part of each days’ touring. However, you still want to enjoy the descents too, so our advice is not to go too light and skinny on the skis.

Excellent wider bodied touring skis are now available in the ~2.5-3kg weight range, that ski really well in all the conditions you typically find on a longer tour – whereas for the very lightest skis you may notice a drop off in performance, which you have to make up for with better technique (ie what may be Ok for locals and guides isn’t always the best choice for British ski tourers, who are usually better off skiing on something a little more substantial!)

At the other end of the spectrum, for ski touring in Europe we recommend you don’t go for a super wide touring ski; as although there are some very light-but-wide skis available, they often don’t ski particularly well in anything except powder and are difficult to ski in tricky/tight terrain, on hard spring snow and icy skin tracks etc – ie they are not a versatile choice for most ski touring in Europe.

Recommended Lightweight Touring Setup:

  • Classic midfat touring ski (85-95mm underfoot)
  • Lightweight pin binding (ATK, Marker, Dynafit etc)
  • Ski mountaineering boot (superlight 2 buckle, or classic 3-4 buckle)

Above – mens’ lightweight touring setups

  • Skis (front to back): Zag Ubac 95, Dynastar M-Tour 99, Volkl VTA 88, Black Crows Camox Freebird
  • Bindings (front to back): ATK Crest 10, ATK C-Raider 12, Marker Alpinist, Dynafit Superlight 2.0
  • Boots (left to right): Dalbello Quantum, Atomic Backland Carbon, Scarpa F1 EVO

womens lightweight ski touring setups

Above – womens’ lightweight touring setups

  • Skis (front to back): Black Crows Ova Freebird, Black Crows Orb Freebird, Salomon MTN 88 W, Black Crows Camox Freebird
  • Bindings (front to back): ATK Crest 10, ATK C-Raider 12, Marker Alpinist, Dynafit Superlight 2.0
  • Boots (left to right) Scarpa F1 Evo W’s, Scott Celeste 3, Dynafit Hoji Pro Tour W

2. One Ski ‘All Rounder’ Setup
A versatile one ski setup that’s good for a resort holiday or a weeks’ off piste skiing in La Grave, as well as an annual ski touring trip. The key difference here is that you need to buy 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 a trip like the bernese oberland ski tour) then simply mount some freeride bindings onto one of the ‘heavier’ lightweight touring skis recommended here and pick a 3-4 buckle ski mountaineering boot that fits you well and you’re done.

If you are a heavier skier, or enjoy charging around resort – then buy a lightweight ‘all mountain’ ski like the ones shown below and either a more powerful ski mountaineering boot, or a light freeride boot. Don’t forget that freeride boots aren’t as good for skinning long distances in though, so remember to tape your feet up  before any longer tour to guard against blisters if you go down this route.

Recommended setup:

  • Light ‘all mountain’ ski (90-100mm underfoot)
  • Freeride binding (Salomon Shift, Marker M-Werks etc)
  • 3-4 buckle ski mountaineering boot (or freeride boot)

mens allrounder ski stups

Above – mens’ all rounder setups

  • Skis (front to back): Scott Slight 93, Volkl Blaze 94, Elan Ripstick 96
  • Bindings (front to back): ATK FR14, Salomon Shift, Marker Kingpin M-Werks
  • Boots (left to right): Scarpa Maestrale RS, Dynafit Hoji Free 130, Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD 130 TECH

womens allrounder ski setups

Above – womens’ all rounder setups

  • Skis (front to back): Scott Slight 93 W, Elan Ripstick 94 W, Volkl Blaze 94W
  • Bindings (front to back): ATK FR14, Salomon Shift, Marker Kingpin M-Werks
  • Boots (left to right): Scarpa Gea RS, Scott Celeste 3, Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD 115 W

3. Lightweight Freeride Setup
A setup for off piste skiing around resorts and making boot tracks/shorter tours in search of fresh snow, or for longer days skiing deep snow and backcountry freeride.  NB If  in truth you mostly ski off piste and only occasionally go skinning into the backcountry, then it’s better to choose a heavier ‘resort’ freeride ski than the lightweight ski options shown below – as full weight freeride skis are more durable and ski a little better in typical resort conditions.

However, if you do regularly head out into the backcountry, then there are numerous ‘lightened up’ wider bodied freeride skis available for this type of skiing. Similarly, freeride boots are getting lighter with better walk modes each year and lighter weight freeride bindings are now available, which means significant weight savings all round.

Recommended setup:

  • Lightweight freeride ski
  • Freeride binding
  • Freeride boot

mens lightweight freeride setups

Above – mens’ lightweight freeride setups

  • Skis (front to back): Black Crows Corvus Freebird, Elan Ripstick 106, Volkl Blaze 106, Atomic Backland 107
  • Bindings (front to back): ATK FR14, Marker Kingpin M-Werks, Salomon Shift, ATK R12
  • Boots (left to right): Dynafit Hoji Free 130, Salomon Shift Pro 130 AT,  Scarpa Maestrale XT, Atomic Hawx Prime XTD 130 TECH, Head Kore 1

womens lightweight freeride setupsAbove – womens’ lightweight freeride setups

  • Skis (front to back): Black Crows Navis Freebird, Eland Ripstick 104 W,  Atomic Backland 102 W
  • Bindings (front to back): ATK R12, Marker Kingpin M-Werks, Salomon Shift
  • Boots (left to right) Salomon Shift Pro 110 AT, Lange XT3 110 W LV, Scarpa Gea RS 2