Choosing a Backcountry Ski Setup

Backcountry Ski Setup Advice

Updated November 2018, for the 2018-2019 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 both touring and resort use.

3. A lightweight freeride setup – for lift assisted backcountry and 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 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 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 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.

1.  Lightweight Touring Setup
This is the kind of setup that’s suitable for all of our ski touring holidays, but ideally suited to a longer  hut to hut week like the haute route ski tour. However, 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 ski touring 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 the majority of ski touring in Europe.

Recommended Lightweight Touring Setup:

  • Wider bodied touring ski (85-95mm underfoot)
  • Lightweight touring binding (Fritschi Vipec Evo, Marker Alpinist)
  • Ski mountaineering boot (Superlight, or 3-4 buckle)
mens lightweight ski touring setups

Above – mens lightweight touring setups

  • Skis (front to back) Rossignol Seek 7, Volkl VTA 88 Lite, Dynafit Speed 90, Blizzrd Zero G 95
  • Boots (front to back) Scarpa Maestrale 2.0, Scarpa Alien RS, Scarpa F1 EVO
  • Bindings (front to back): Fritschi Vipec Evo, Marker Alpinist, Dynafit Superlight
womens lightweight ski touring setups

Above – womens’ lightweight touring setups

  • Skis (front to back) Atomic Backland WMN 85, Rossignol Seek 7, Scott Superguide 88 W’s
  • Boots (front to back) Scarpa F1 Evo W’s, Scott Celeste, La Sportiva Starlet
  • Binding: Fritschi Vipec Evo, Dynafit Superlight

2. All Round Resort and Touring Setup
This is the kind of one-ski-does-it-all setup that’s suitable 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’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 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 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.

Recommended setup:

  • Light ‘all mountain’ ski (90-100mm underfoot)
  • Freeride binding (Fritschi Tecton, Salomon Shift etc)
  • Ski mountaineering (or freeride boot)

Above – mens all rounder setups

  • Skis (front to back) Black Crows Camox Freebird, Faction Prime 2.0, Scott Slight, Salomon MTN 95, Dynastar Legend X96
  • Boots (front to back) Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD120, Scarpa Maestrale RS 2.0,Technica Zero G Guide, Scott Cosmos III
  • Binding: Salomon Shift, Fritschi Tecton, Fritschi Freeride Pro

Above – womens all rounder setups

  • Skis (front to back) Dynastar Legend W88, Dynastar Legend W96, Black Crows Orb Freebird
  • Boots: Scott Celeste, Scarpa Gea 2.0, Scarpa Gea RS, Scott Celeste III, Dynafit Beast W
  • Binding: Fritschi Tecton, Salomon Shift, Fritschi Freeride Pro

3. Lightweight Freeride Setup
This is the kind of setup that  is ideal for blasting around resorts and making boot tracks/shorter tours in search of fresh lines, or for longer days skiing deep snow and backcountry freeride activities.  NB If in reality you mostly ski off piste around resorts, with only the odd skin into the backcountry, then you will be better choosing a heavier ‘resort’ freeride ski than the lightweight ski options listed below – as full weight freeride skis are more durable and perform a bit better in typical resort conditions.

However, if you do regularly head out into the backcountry in search of powder and bigger lines, then there are now a great range of 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 well established – which means significant weight savings all round.

Recommended setup:

  • Lightweight freeride ski
  • Freeride binding
  • Freeride boot

Above – mens lightweight freeride setups

  • Skis (front to back) Atomic Bent Chetler 100, Rossignol Soul 7 HD, Black Crows Corvus Freebird, Black Crows Atris
  • Boots (front to back) Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD120, Scarpa Freedom SL, Salomon QST 130 TR, Dalbello Lupo AX 120
  • Bindings (front to back): Salomon Shift, Fritschi Tecon, Marker Kingpin, Fritschi Freeride Pro

Above – womens lightweight freeride setups

  • Skis (front to back) Dynastar Legend W96, Volkl 90eight W, Black Crows Atris Birdie
  • Boots (front to back) Scarpa Freedom SL WMN, Lange XT Free 110 W LV, Tecnica Cochise 105 WMS, Salomon QST Pro 110
  • Binding: Salomon Shift, Fritschi Tecton, Marker Kingpin, Fritschi Freeride Pro