Published October 2019, for the 2019-2020 winter season.
Our best piece of ski touring equipment advice is a simple one: when it comes to ski touring kit, it’s worth remembering the old adage that every extra kilo on your back knocks 10% off your enjoyment of the descents. Getting hold of the best and lightest kit available is generally always worth it. Here is our take on the seasons best new kit.
If you need advice on choosing the ideal ski, boot and binding combo for you needs – take a look at our choosing a backcountry ski setup advice article.
Below we highlight features to look for and a number of recommended products for most main items of kit – with a big thanks to the staff at Backcountry UK, our thoroughly recommended Ski Touring Equipment retailer, for helping me keep this article up to date each season.
In our opinion, the best easy-to-use unit for Brits who ski a few times a year on holiday, is the Mammut Baryvox. Likewise, in our opinion, the new Mammut Baryvox S is the best top end unit around for more experienced users and professionals. Both of these units offer a 60m search width, which is a three times improvement on older generation models – ie this is a really big deal. We’ve been using both of these Mammut units on our chamonix ski touring courses and have been very happy with their performance and usability.
All modern transceivers now use the latest 3 antenna digital technology – the more advanced models use additional technologies, which allow for extra features and may also speed up search times. It must be stressed however, that the most important thing is to practice and train extensively with the transceiver that you actually own.
Transceiver, Shovel, Probe Sets – if you need to buy a transceiver, shovel and probe all at the same time, then there are various 3 in 1 packages available – the Mammut Baryvox Package Light is a good option for ski touring. Or if you want to choose separate items, then this is the setup I recommend for most people our our guided touring trips: Mammut Baryvox Transceiver, Mammut Alugator Light Shovel, Arva ALP 240 Probe – see below for more shovel and probe options.
NB We no longer allow the old Ortovox F1 analogue transceivers on our ski trips, as they have been declared obsolete, due to frequency drift and compatibility problems with newer digital transceivers.
Warning – Smart Phone Apps: if you come across a smart phone app claiming to turn your phone into an avalanche transceiver – DO NOT BUY IT, as these do not work! The Canadian Avalanche Foundation looked into them and issued a press release warning people against using them.
SKI TOURING BINDINGS
This is an area undergoing considerable change at the moment, with new models coming out each year and most ski tourers and freeriders now using pin bindings, as opposed to traditional bar/frame design touring bindings.
There are a number of things you need to know about how pin bindings work and the different types available, in order to choose an appropriate model – so please read our comments carefully and seek some expert advice.
Pin bindings have been around for over 35 years now – the original Dynafit Low Tech binding design is still being made and used by thousands of ski tourers around the world. The main advantage of pin bindings is a considerable weight saving, as they are up to 1kg lighter than equivalent bar/frame designs.
Since the original Dynafit patent expired a few years ago, several copies and new designs have now appeared – many of the latest designs are easier to use, with improved safety release capabilities and/or are more strongly built, in order to make them suitable for freeride use as well as for touring. These developments are making pin bindings an attractive proposition to the majority of backcountry skiers – ie they are no longer the preserve of racers and the ‘weight obsessed’.
Pin Bindings and Release Safety
One of the key safety features all ski bindings have is a lateral release function, so that the ski can come off sideways during a twisting fall, or sideways impact etc. On alpine downhill bindings and traditional bar/rail design touring bindings, the lateral release function is at the toe – whereas on most pin bindings the lateral release function is at the heel (apart from Fritschi Tecton and Vipec bindings, which have lateral release at the toe).
There is no strong evidence about which system offers the best release capability, as there are numerous different ways you can fall and there is currently no comparative data available for injury rates on different bindings. However, all binding manufacturers are continually looking to improve safety and a number of the latest pin binding designs that offer improved lateral release function have been tested and awarded TUV safety certification, so this is a good thing to look out for if you want to prioritise safety release capability in your bindings.
This is especially true if you are the kind of skier who takes regular falls in difficult snow conditions – therefore we don’t recommend buying the very lightest pin bindings, which generally have less sophisticated release mechanisms, unless you are already a proficient and experienced ski tourer (level 3 minimum, preferably level 4-5 on our ski ability levels).
NB We’ve seen many bindings incorrectly set up, or not functioning properly for a whole host of reasons: eg lack of maintenance, changing boots, long term storage, shop servicing(!) etc etc, so binding setup and release function are important things to check before each season and ski trip.
Finally, it’s important to understand that no binding can guarantee to prevent injury in every possible fall and skiing situation, so although injuries are thankfully rare, they can still happen on any binding. Therefore, it’s important to make sure that your bindings are correctly set up, set at an appropriate release value for your weight/height/age and ability and properly serviced with the release mechanisms functioning correctly before each holiday.
In order to use pin bindings, you need a pair of compatible ski boots with the appropriate metal pin tech inserts moulded into the toe and heel (you cannot retro fit these to older boots). Nowadays, just about all new touring and freeride boots come with these fitted as standard, but if you have a particularly old pair of boots (ie 10-15+ years old!), then you may have to upgrade these as well, in order to use pin bindings.
Below we give our opinions on various well established and newer pin binding models currently (or recently) on the market.
Salomon Shift Binding (1.7kg) TUV certified. Popular new freeride binding, with a novel hybrid design. A pin toe piece arrangement allows easy and efficient skinning on the ascent; then at the summit, flipping a couple of levers transforms the binding into a regular ‘clip in and ski’ alpine downhill binding for the descent. The binding is ‘multi norm compatible’, so it fits a wide range of boots and at 1.7kg, it is considerably lighter than other freeride bindings that offer the convenience and feel of an alpine downhill binding on the descent.
After a season’s use the Shift has proven popular and reliable, so if you are in the market for a lightweight freeride binding that you could use for resort skiing in alpine boots one week and a La Grave off piste ski holiday the next, then these are a good option. They are also light enough for occasional ski touring holidays too, but they are not really designed for longer tours, where a lighter binding would be preferable. NB You will also find this binding badged up as the Atomic Shift – it’s the same binding!
A note on boot compatibility – Shift bindings are multi norm compatible, but in reality they don’t fit all boots and in particular if your boots have a full rubber sole unit (ie without a plastic anti friction plate under the ball of the foot) then you need to choose very carefully where you buy shift bindings. Buy them from a physical shop and in particular, one that sells a lot of touring boots, so they’ll know how to set up the bindings correctly and tweak your boot soles too if necessary. Fairly obviously, this means you need to take your boots down to the shop when you buy (or courier them to the shop – but make sure you’ve talked through everything in detail with the shop before you do this!)
Marker Kingpin M-Werks (1,24kg). TUV certified. New out this year, Marker have developed a lighter version of their well known Kingpin binding. This new model combines the lightweight toepiece off their Alpinist binding launched last year, with an updated version of the Kingpin heel unit. The result is a 300g weight saving over the original Kingpin, whilst maintaining the same features and performance, plus a few upgrades.
Weighing in at 1240g a pair, the Kingpin M-Werks is now a strong competitor against the Frischi Vipec/Tecton and Dynafit Rotation models (details below), for skiers wanting a fully featured lightweight freeride/touring pin binding with good downhill performance and enhanced safety release.
Fritschi Vipec Evo (1.1kg) Along with it’s big brother the Tecton (see below) this binding has lateral safety release at the toe. TUV certified, the design allows good power transfer during turns, changing from ski to walk mode without removing the ski, ski flex compensation and it has a ‘high din’ lockout mode at the toe (so the ski stays on whilst skinning, but will still release if you get caught in an avalanche whilst skinning) – these are all useful features in a touring binding.
Fritschi Tecton (1.2kg) Also TUV certified, this is a freeride pin binding with an alpine style heel piece, which offers excellent performance on the descents. The toepiece on the Tecton is identical to the Vipec Evo.
NB Over the past year, we’ve seen various boot compatibility issues with the latest Fritschi toepiece, so make sure you buy the binding from a retailer that sells a lot of these bindings and always take your boots to the shop, so the staff can check compatibility with your own boots before drilling any skis! Because of these careful setup requirements, currently we recommend buying Fritschi pin bindings from a physical shop – ie we don’t recommend buying them online as part of a mounted ski plus binding package.
Fritschi Toepiece Servicing – In our experience, the toe unit on Fritschi pin bindings does need re greasing from time to time, in order to maintain good lateral release function. You can either do this yourself, or get a shop to do it for you when they service your skis – clearly, you need to take them to a shop who are familiar with this type of binding though!
Marker Alpinist (0.67kg with brakes) Marker entered the lightweight pin binding market last year with this excellent binding – the Alpinist is very light, well designed and with a lot more advanced features than similar bindings; they’re also an extremely good price. I skied these bindings on my own lightweight touring setup all last winter and have been extremely impressed and will continue using them (read our review here).
Dynafit TLT Superlight 2.0 (0.35kg) One of the lightest pin binding available with adjustable safety release tension and brakes (0.52kg incl brakes). If weight saving is your absolute priority, then these are an obvious choice – we’ve used the Superlights a lot for hut to hut ski touring and they’ve proven reliable and a good choice.
NB If you already own a set of superlight pin bindings, but also want to have brakes on your skis – then there are a couple of retrofit ski brakes available for pin bindings. The best we’ve come across are made by the Italian company Kreuzspitze – these weigh 88g each, they are very well made and fit onto the harscheisen slot of your pin bindings.
With a small locking button mounted onto the ski, the brakes can be fitted for skiing down and removed for skinning up, just like your harscheisen. Clearly it’s a bit more hassle than having permanently fitted ski brakes, but you can add brakes to an existing lightweight setup, so it’s an option worth knowing about.
ATK RT 10 (0.52kg with brakes) This is another attractive looking option, from the Italian masters of lightweight racing kit. With several new patented features, this is the lightest binding available with fully adjustable vertical and lateral release settings and brakes. If you want to save 100 Euros, the ATK Crest 10 binding (0.56kg with brakes) is a more affordable version of the above – having most of the same features as the RT 10 and weighing just 40g more. We’re hoping to get out on a set of ATKs this winter, to check them out in detail.
Dynafit Rotation ST (1.25kg) Beefier, more user friendly all-round touring version of the original, well proven Dynafit pin binding design. These have a swiveling toe piece to improve the release behaviour, which is now TUV safety certified and they also come with brakes. NB These bindings are also available in a lower din range version, which makes them suitable for lighter skiers – so if you need a pin binding that provides good low DIN release capabilities (ie it works well at lower than DIN 6), then these are probably your best bet at the moment – both my kids ski on them at release setting 4-5 and I’ve been very impressed with the smooth release function that they offer at this lower range.
Dynafit Radical ST (1.07kg) Back by popular demand! – the reliable Radical binding is back, with some weight saving updates. A good choice if you liked the predecessor model, which I certainly did.
Plum Yak (1.2kg) French pin binding, similar to the original Dynafit bindings but with a few tweaks – they look lovely with all metal construction, come with brakes, the boot heel sits on a platform for stability and they have wider mounting holes for use on 100mm+ skis.
NB The Plum Guide range of lightweight pin bindings are similar to the Dynafit Tourlite Speed bindings – ie less mass – but in addition, the Plum bindings have optional ski brakes available. Plum bindings are not the lightest on the market, but they are well engineered and extremely well made, so if durability is a prime concern, then these could be a good choice.
Marker Kingpin 10 + 13 (1.46Kg) – TUV certified freeride bindings. The original Kingpin is still available – they are solidly built, easy to use and give good ski performance. They weigh in at 1.56kg, which is still quite respectable.
Dynafit Beast – burly freeride pin binding. These are now discontinued, but you may still come across them – they were quite complicated and not compatible with all boots.
Bar/Frame Design Touring Bindings
Bar and frame design touring and freeride bindings work in a similar way to alpine bindings, with the obvious addition of a walk mode, plus various adaptations to make them compatible with freeride and ski mountaineering boots. Those models marketed as freeride bindings have a more robust construction, that’s designed to take the abuse of lift accessed off piste skiing, as well as human powered touring. They are consequently potentially more versatile, but also heavier, than pure touring models.
All of these bindings come with full alpine safety release capabilities. Fritschi are probably the leading brand in terms of being the longest established in the market and having an excellent reputation for reliability. Although they weigh more than pin bindings, these designs are easier to step into and you can use them with alpine downhill boots too, so they are still a good option for resort use, where convenience and compatibility may be a bigger consideration than absolute weight.
All weights are quoted for a pair of bindings with brakes (if available).
Fritschi Eagle 12 (2.0kg) The best selling touring binding on the market for years and with good reason – they work extremely well and are very reliable. Buy ski brakes too as a matter of course. NB For for lighter skiers, the Scout 11 model goes down to a DIN release 3 and weighs 1.8kg with brakes.
Fritschi Freeride Pro (2.2kg) Freeride binding – ie a beefed up version of the above, designed to take abuse from a lot of lift based off piste skiing too. These ski really well, are easy to use and very reliable – a good choice if you do mainly resort skiing, with just a bit of touring. Brakes are included in the package.
Marker Duke and Baron (~2.8kg) these are freeride bindings designed for skinning short distances, rather than dedicated ski touring bindings. They are great to ski down on, but not really designed for out and out touring, where the extra weight and design features make them slower and more awkward to use than dedicated touring bindings.
Scott/Salomon Guardian (~2.7kg) a good freeride binding, better designed and more practical for touring on than the Markers. An alternative to Fritschi Freerides if you want a binding primarily for off piste and day touring, that you can also do the odd longer tour on as well. NB Atomic also market this as their Tracker binding.
Marker Tour TR (~2.2Kg) this is a lightened up version of the Duke and Baron, with the same design features. For this reason, we don’t think it makes a good dedicated touring binding, so we’d choose the Fritschi Eagle instead.
BACKCOUNTRY SKI BOOTS
We make no apology for erring to the performance end of the market here – as good, fully custom fitted boots will improve your skiing and enjoyment more than anything else. To start with, go for a full thermofit liner and a custom made footbed straight away – it will always be worth it. After that, foot volume, individual fit and boot weight may well decide your final choice – but we give notes on various favourite models below:
Performance Touring Boots
Ski Touring/Ski Mountaineering boots traditionally have a vibram rubber sole unit with a rocker shape to aid walking and climbing in, as well as skiing in – consequently they are the most popular choice for multiday ski touring. At the performance end of the spectrum, the line between freeride boots and touring boots is becoming more blurred, with a number of high end, lightweight freeride-touring boots now entering the market – we’ve put these boots in the category below for the time being!
We concentrate here on supportive 3-4 buckle boots, which are most appropriate for the majority of British Ski Tourers – the good news is that these boots have become considerably lighter in recent years (many now dipping under 3kg a pair, as opposed to 3.6-3.8kg just a few years ago) without any compromise in either fit or ski performance. Walk modes have also improved massively in recent years, thanks to developments in ski mountaineering race boots.
Dalbello Lupo Air 130 (2.6kg) – new out this year, the Lupo Air is a very interesting development from freeride brand Dalbello; being a lightweight performance touring boot with strong freeride genetics. It has a medium volume fit.
Dynafit Hoji Free (2.9kg) – Dynafit’s new follow up model to their much vaunted Hoji Pro Tour boot launched last season. This new version features a proper toe lug, making it compatible with a wider range of bindings (and crampons!), as well as being a touch stiffer and having a slightly narrower 101mm last. The Hoji Lock System is super easy to use – genuinely, just 1 lever movement for up/down transitions; like a race boot for convenience and a freeride boot for performance.
Scarpa Maestrale 2.0 (2.8kg) – Scarpa’s top all rounder has been tweaked, with a slightly softer flex and a plusher lining this season. This model has a relatively low volume fit. The Maestrale RS 2.0 is a stiffer version of the same and remains unchanged from last season.
Scarpa Maestrale XT (3.0kg) – a new, even stiffer version of the Maestrale out this year, promises freeride performance on a touring boot sole unit.
Scott Cosmos III (2.9kg) – the Cosmos is another excellent 4 buckle design, with a slightly broader fit than the Maestrale.
Scott Superguide Carbon (2.8kg) – same shell shape as the Cosmos, but with added carbon! This makes the boot stiffer and lighter – but will also make your wallet lighter at the same time.
Technica Zero G Tour Scout (2.7kg) – new, even lighter version of the previous Zero G Guide boot. Smooth 120 flex, medium last boot at a much reduced touring weight.
Technica Zero G Tour Pro (2.64kg) – top of the range, powerful 130 flex boot, with a medium last and impressively low weight.
Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD120 and XTD130 (2.9kg) – two excellent lightweight versions of the Hawx Ultra freeride boot. With these models, Atomic are finally getting the hang of touring boots – producing a mid volume boot, with a highly customisable fit.
Regarding inners – foam injection inners are known for giving a precise fit, but they are too cold for ski touring. Instead, go for Scarpa Intuition inners which are the best thermo fit inners on the market at the moment.
Lightweight Touring Boots
Race derived superlight touring boots have now entered the mainstream to cater for keen, good standard ski tourers who want to save as much weight as possible. In general you only get 2 buckles instead of 4, but if you are a good skier, then these boots can perform extremely well and save considerable effort on the climbs. Other useful features gained from their race heritage are very good walk modes and quick lockdown systems for changing over from walk to ski mode and vica versa.
The other important thing to note about this type of boot concerns fitting and making boot modifications. Because they are derived from race boots, many have a lower volume fit and all are made of lightweight materials. This means that shops are sometimes unable (or unwilling) to stretch the shells as much as on regular ski boots – so you need to make sure they fit your feet pretty well out of the box, without requiring extensive stretching or modification to get them to fit. This sort of boot is perfect for a big trip like the Bernese Oberland ski tour, or a week of ski touring in Val Maira and anything in between. They are also Ok for the odd day of off piste skiing in resort as well, but clearly they are not designed for large amounts of resort based skiing.
Atomic Backland Carbon (2.2kg) – the previously very high volume backland carbon has received a complete overhaul this year – with a new boa buckle design, narrower last and improved liner. With a shell design that allows for stretching in some key areas, this new version looks like it could be a good option for a wider range of skiers.
Scarpa F1 EVO (2.4kg) – my personal favourite. I find that the F1 EVO gives excellent support and all day comfort. The shell does allow for limited stretching in some areas (eg across the ball of the foot) but not everywhere. Personally, I think they are great with up to mid 90’s skis, but wider than 100mm underfoot and they reach their limit.
Scarpa Alien RS (1.78kg) – Supportive race boot, beefed up for fast and light ski mountaineering. Lower volume fit, but limited shell modifications possible. The boot allows race speed transitions and is very easy to put on and adjust. I’d recommend these for day touring activities and lighter ski setups (beyond mid 80s ski widths, you are going to notice more flex), but they don’t give the same level of comfortable support that most people will want whilst skiing with a heavier rucsac on a multi day tour.
Scott Orbit (2.4Kg) – New lightweight touring boot this year from Scott, with a higher volume fit. The Orbit is moulded on the same last as their very popular Cosmos model, which makes it a very useful option if you need a higher volume fit than than the Scarpa F1 for example.
Important Note: All of the lightweight boots above only work with tech bindings that have a standard 2 pin attachment system at the heel (ie you cannot use them with any bar/frame design bindings, or with the Dynafit Beast, Marker Kingpin and Salomon Shift bindings).
Freeride Ski Boots
Freeride boots with interchangeable soles offer great support for off piste skiing, but are only really designed for lift assisted and day touring use. They are not so comfortable for walking and skinning long distances in (ie we’ve seen lots of blistered feet coming out of freeride boots on longer multiday hut tours – if you plan on using the boot for multiday tours, then you may be better looking at a dedicated ski mountaineering boot instead). This is an expanding market, with numerous new models available – a few good ones to look at are:
- Head Kore 1
- Salomon QST 130
- Technica Cochise 130
- Lange XT 130 L.V. Freetour
- Dalbello Lupo AX 120
- Rossignol Alltrack Pro 120 LT
Our advice is simply to go for which ever one gives you the best fit. Of the ones above – the Lange XT 130 gives a low volume fit, the Head Kore 1 give a mid volume fit, the Rossignol Alltrack give a mid/high volume fit and the Salomon QST and Dalbello Lupo give a high volume fit.
WOMEN’S BACKCOUNTRY SKI BOOTS
Nowadays there’s pretty much the same choice in women’s backcountry ski boots as men’s, with all of the major manufacturers producing female specific versions of their popular backcountry models. However, finding a shop that stocks a good range for you to try on is often more of a challenge…
NB You’ll be glad to know that the days of ‘shrink it and pink it’ (ie just making smaller versions of men’s gear) are now long gone. The women’s boots are moulded on separately shaped lasts and generally have softer flex properties to cater for lighter weight skiers, but still come with the same features as the men’s boots. Below we’ve highlighted a number of good ones to look at, together with the men’s model that they are equivalent to.
Scarpa Gea 2.0 (2.6kg) – Good quality ski mountaineering boot specifically moulded for women’s feet. Same construction and performance characteristics as the men’s Maestrale boot – see notes above.
Dalbello Lupo Air 110 (2.6kg) – New high performance Freeride-Touring boot – women’s version of the Lupo Air.
Scott Celeste 2 (2.7kg) – High performance women’s ski mountaineering boot – women’s version of the Cosmos – see notes above.
Dynafit Beast W (2.7Kg) – higher volume women’s ski mountaineering boot – women’s version of the Beast.
Scarpa F1 EVO WMN (2.0kg) – women’s version of the F1 EVO.
Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD 115 W – womens freeride boot. Essentially this is a comfortable, supportive downhill boot with a good walk mode.
Lange XT 110 L.V. Freetour W – women’s version of the Lange XT 130 freeride boot.
Dalbello Lupo AX 105 W (2.4kg) – women’s version of the Lupo AX 120.
SKI TOURING CLOTHING
Just like for other equipment – the best ski touring equipment advice for clothing is to keep the weight down. Light, warm and versatile are the key words to bear in mind when choosing touring clothing – as an average week sees you alternate between carrying clothes in your rucsac on climbs and warm afternoons, to wearing absolutely everything when the weather closes in.
This is a subject in it’s own right, so we’ve written a specific Ski Touring Clothing Advice article for you to look at ski touring clothing choices in more depth.
SKI TOURING CRAMPONS
Very light, alloy framed crampons are available for ski touring which are a great weight saver and suitable for most ‘ski focussed’ tours (eg the Silvretta ski tour). Camp XLC’s (390g) and Petzl Leopard FL’s (360g) are the lightest, but don’t have anti ball plates – Black Diamond Neve’s (576g) are superbly made, nearly as light and come with excellent anti ball plates. With both of these superlight options, don’t go buying a pair of these intending them to be your only set of crampons if you also do technical ski mountaineering – as they were only ever designed for stomping up steep snow.
For more technical ski mountaineering trips (eg the Bernina ski tour) that may involve climbing on icy ground and snowed up rock, then you still need to use good steel crampons. Currently we reckon that Petzl Charlet Vasak’s (850g) are the best all round mountaineering crampons, so these would be a good choice.
The final option is to go for a hybrid steel/alloy crampon, which offers some of the benefits of both – ie a light weight alloy rear half and strong steel front points to deal with occasional rock and ice. The Petzl Irvis Hybrid (540g) and Grivel Haute Route (560g) are two good models to look at in this category – unless you are doing a lot of technical ski mountaineering with specific climbing objectives, these will be suitable for the vast majority of ski tours you are likely to do.
CREVASSE RESCUE KIT
If you are joining a guided trip or course, then 2 prussik loops and a 120cm sling with screwgate carabiner is sufficient.
However, a guide would probably be carrying the following:
- belay device
- 5 screwgate carabiners
- 120cm sling
- spare quickdraw
- 2 ice screws
- 2 prussik loops
- Micro Triaxion
- Lightweight pulley or DMM
- Revolver carabiner.
Petzl RAD System
To Quote Petzl: “Complete, ultra-light and compact, the RAD SYSTEM (Rescue And Descent) kit allows skiers on mountain terrain to always have the equipment necessary for crevasse rescue, rappelling, or roping up on skis to traverse a crevasse zone. This kit contains a storage bag, 30 meters of RAD LINE 6 mm specific cordage, carabiners, ascenders and a sling.”
Basically it’s a small bag that weighs just 1 kilo and contains everything you need to either rope up on a glacier, or pull someone out of a crevasse. The haul kit is set up and ready to use inside the bag, so you can just pull it out, attach it to a ski belay and start the rescue immediately. The idea is to have at least 2 kits in a team and ski with them clipped onto your harness constantly at the ready. Costing 200 Euros each, they aren’t cheap – but are pretty good value when you add up the cost of buying all the individual parts.
SKI TOURING HARNESSES
Light and simple are the watchwords here. If you already have a climbing harness, then you can also use it for ski touring too.
However, if you want to save some weight, then there are 2 options: buy a lightweight climbing harness (eg. Petzl Hirundos Harness) or an ultralight, specific ski touring harness, such as the Black Diamond Couloir, Petzl Tour and Petzl Altitude – these are all popular choices.
SKI TOURING ICE AXES
There are a number of extremely light alloy headed axes on the market, billed as ski mountaineering models (eg Cassin, Camp XLC ).
Unfortunately, when you try to climb or actually do any work with one of these tools they are very difficult to use effectively, so best reserved for days when you don’t think you are going to need an axe! (ie I wouldn’t bother buying one..)
If you are after a lightweight tool which is genuinely useful when you need it, then look at the Grivel Airtech (400g), or Petzl Glacier Literide (320g) – the shorter 45-48cm lengths fit inside a pack, to keep your axe safely out of the way on descents.
Ideally, buy a pair of ski touring specific poles with extra grip down the top half for traversing – but failing that, any pair of normal fixed length ski poles are fine for ski touring, so long as you put some wider baskets on. Alloy poles are more resistant to breakage than carbon ones, so I’d always recommend alloy (I’ve found out the hard way, having broken 3 sets of carbon ones!) – and fixed length poles are always stronger and more reliable than telescopic ones. Currently, our favourite backcountry ski poles are the Black Crows Oxus (strong) and Black Diamond Expedition 2, if you want a telescopic pole.
NB Whatever poles you buy, make sure you have reasonable sized baskets (5cm plus in diameter) for the softer conditions.
230-260cm is a good working length and although carbon fibre models are lightest, they are more flexible than alloy ones and therefore not as easy to use, so I’d recommend an alloy probe for most people. The Black Diamond Tour 240 (300g) and Arva ALP 240 (230g) are both good and well priced models, with a robust and easy to use locking mechanism – we use both of these models ourselves.
SKI TOURING ROPES
It’s common to carry two 30m long, 8mm dynamic ropes in the party – one with the leader and another at the back (in case the leader skis into a crevasse!). Beal market a specific rope of this type called the Randonee, which comes in 30m and 48m lengths. Having said that, many variations occur depending on the type of tour and the obstacles expected – you may see guides carrying everything from 40m of 7mm static cord, to a full weight, full length rope.
SKI TOURING RUCSACS
A 35-40l pack with a u shaped zip opening rather than a lid is the classic touring pack. Other useful features are a close, body hugging fit, ability to carry skis together on the back (like you would carry a snowboard) and as few excess features as possible (though it’s difficult to achieve this without taking a knife to most sacs!)
Day Touring Packs
The Arcteryx Alpha SK 32 weighs 1kg and has an extremely robust, very waterproof design, so you can be confident that it will last for many years (I’ve used their equivalent climbing model for several years now and it’s lasted way longer than any other work rucsac that I’ve ever had). You will need these justifications to hand when you see the price tag however, but if you use it regularly it will definitely work out cheaper in the long run (well, maybe!) NB This is definitely a day touring pack – you’d struggle to fit everything in it for a multi-day glacier hut to hut tour like the Haute Route for instance.
Our other favourite day touring packs are the Ortovox Ascent 32 and 30S – these are the same pack, in long and short back lengths. At 900g they are very light, but well designed with everything in just the right place – with careful packing, you may also be able to use the 32 litre version for European multiday hut touring as well.
Multiday Touring Packs
For multiday hut to hut ski tours in the European Alps you’ll need a slightly bigger pack, but it’s important not to carry too large a pack, as inevitably you end up taking extra ‘non essential’ stuff that weighs you down all week…
35-40l is about right and you can either to go for a dedicated touring pack, or a crossover mountaineering pack that you can also carry skis on.
Three good dedicated touring packs in this size range are the Mammut Nirvana 35 and Ortovox Haute Route 40 and 38 S and three good lightweight mountaineering packs that work well for ski touring are the Deuter Guide Lite 30+, Ortovox Trad 35, and Mammut Trion Light 38. All these packs are well designed and big enough for multi-day hut tours – each offering slightly different features depending on what range of activities you plan to use the sac for.
AVALANCHE AIRBAG RUCSACS
Avalanche airbag rucsacs have become much more popular in recent years, especially amongst off piste and freeride skiers. An increasing number of ski tourers have begun using them too, but the uptake in this group has been slower – not least because they add extra weight to your pack. However there are new, lighter avalanche airbag packs available now, that only weigh about 2kg – making them much more suitable for ski touring.
Other barriers to adoption are the not inconsiderable cost (£600-£1000) and issues with carrying the gas powered systems on flights. All of the gas canisters are compliant with IATA safety regulations and are Ok to take onto flights in Europe (nowadays, you don’t experience any problems flying with them in Western Europe, as airport security staff in popular ski destinations are all familiar with them) – but you should still always check the airlines’ website to see if you need to notify them in advance and i’d also take the manufacturers flight safety paperwork with you to the airport in order to show if needed (personally, I wrap a copy of the IATA regulations with the relevant section highlighted around my gas canister when I pack it into my hold luggage, just in case it gets searched – I’ve never had a problem!)
However, in North America gas canisters are not allowed on flights, so you need a refillable canister or an electric powered system if you want to take one there.
In terms of what’s on the market, there are now several different systems available; most use gas canisters to inflate the airbags, but some new systems use electric powered fans. For the gas canister based systems, the principle user differences to consider are as follows:
- ease of deployment
- total system weight
- rucsac design
- interchangeability between rucsacs
- ease of replacement of the gas can in resort/after deployment
The other systems released recently use an electrical energy source (battery or capacitors) and a fan to inflate the airbag. This clearly offers a number of advantages – ie no problems with flying, multiple deployments possible (therefore no hesitation in ‘pulling the trigger’) and no difficulty replacing gas canisters after deployment. You still need to consider all the other factors above though, before selecting a system. Below we describe packs suitable for firstly multiday touring and secondly, day touring use.
Multiday Avalanche Airbag Packs
Each of the following packs are big enough for multi day touring:
Ortovox Ascent 38/40 Avabag – 2.3Kg Arguably the lightest airbag rucsack on the market that’s suitable for multiday touring. Comes with a practice mode, so you can train without deploying the canister each time. Well designed pack, with an interchangeable airbag system, so it can be installed in different packs. Non refillable cartridge, so cannot be taken on flights in N America.
Mammut Pro Protection 35L – 2.3kg Another very light removable airbag system – can be fitted into any compatible pack, of which there are many. A refillable cartridge (300g heavier than the non refillable one) is also available, which can be filled up in resort (any dive shop or paintball centre can also refill it) – ie makes flying with an empty canister possible in North America.
Arva Reactor 40L – 2.5Kg (with carbon bottle). Equipped with the Arva Reactor Airbag system, which has a much higher inflation pressure than other systems (ie it’ll definitely inflate properly whilst tumbling through an avalanche!). Well designed pack, with an optional top lid and a good weight for such a large pack.
Black Diamond Jetforce Pro 35 – 3.0kg BD have updated their electronic airbags, with the new models being significantly lighter. The deployment system on this pack uses a rechargeable battery and fan system to inflate the airbags. This creates to a number of significant advantages, but the most important two are: no issues with flying (it’s a laptop battery) and multiple deployments are possible (4+ per charge), so you won’t hesitate to deploy it (this is a significant advantage over gas canister systems).
Day Touring Avalanche Airbag Packs
Each of the following packs are big enough for day touring:
BCA Float 32 – 3.06kg The BCA packs are competitively priced and use a refillable gas canister, so have similar advantages to the Mammut system above. The main difference is that the system is fixed permanently into the pack, so you can’t swap it between rucsacs. They also make a 42l version at 3.3kg if you need more space.
ABS Vario L 32L – 3.2kg ABS are the original manufacturer and have been making airbag rucsacs for nearly 30 years. The vario base unit allows different packs to be zipped on and off in a matter of seconds. Tried and trusted system. The one drawback is that both the used handle and canister must be sent back for replacement after each deployment. This is Ok if you are near to a dealership and able to swap these out in resort, but a big problem if you are anywhere else.
Arc’teryx Voltair 30L – 3.4Kg Arc’teryx’ own battery powered avalanche pack. Fully waterproof, super well designed pack, with the same advantages as BD’s Jetforce system above. The weight is an issue though.
Scott Patrol E1 30 – 2.7Kg New Alpride designed electric airbag system uses supercapacitors instead of batteries and weighs just 300g more than the lightest gas powered systems, but offers all the advantages of multiple deployments, rechargeability and easy transportation on flights – making it a very attractive option.
Black Diamond Jetforce Tour 26 – 2.6kg This new pack from BD also uses the Alpride supercapacitor system, offering the same advantages as the Scott pack above – but it’s even lighter, a similar size and also looks a bit better designed.
We only recommend metal bladed shovels, as when digging in real life in hard avalanche debris, plastic blades flex so much that they and are totally ineffective.
The Black Diamond Deploy 3 (565g) is a great metal shovel with a telescopic handle, the Mammut Alugator Light is similar, but slightly smaller and slightly lighter (482g). We use both of these shovels regularly on our trips and courses and are very happy with them.
SKI TOURING SKINS
Black Diamond skins and Colltex skins are both good, reliable choices and currently we think that G3 Minimist Universal Skins have some of the best glue, combined with a lightweight design.
For European conditions, go for mixed fibre skins – pure mohair skins only glide a little better at non racing speeds, but they wear out 3-4 times faster…
Skins are either sold pre-cut to a particular model of ski, or more commonly they come with a cut-to-fit device.
SKI TOURING HELMETS
Courtesy of Petzl, we now have a new safety standard for ski touring helmets. Two of their lightweight mountaineering helmets have this new certification, making them suitable (marketable?) for ski touring – the Petzl Meteor (240g) and Petzl Sirocco (170g) both have improved side impact protection, thus making them suitable for ski touring as well as climbing and mountaineering. We use both of these helmets regularly for ski touring – the Meteor has a more durable and adjustable design, the Sirocco is lighter and more minimalist – take your pick.
Please note however, that these helmets do not pass the safety test for resort skiing helmets – so if you want a lightweight helmet you can use for resort skiing too, then look at one of the following:
The Salomom MTN Lab Helmet is designed specifically for backcountry skiing and passes both the climbing helmet, ski touring helmet and resort skiing helmet safety tests – it’s light at 350g and has two different liners – a winter one with ear flaps incorporated and a summer one without. We’ve used this helmet a lot for skiing and like it, but like all specialist helmets it’s at the upper end of the price scale – you get what you pay for!
Likewise, the Salomon QST Charge Helmet is designed for backcountry skiing, is light at 380g and has adjustable air vents for when it gets warm.
SKIS – RESORT AND TOURING
A minefield this one! Here we aim to flag up a few of the best ‘light all mountain skis’ or ‘robust touring skis’ around that deliver good on and off piste performance, without being too heavy for touring – ie for Brits wanting one ski for everything. The great news is that there are now numerous excellent skis in this category for both men and women, so plenty of choice – here are our recommendations:
Elan Ripstick 88 (3.2kg, 130-88-105, 17m radius), Elan Ripstick 96 (3.3kg, 134-96-113, 16m radius) and Elan Ripstick 88 W (2.9kg, 130-88-105, 15m radius) We’ve been super impressed with Elan’s Ripsticks, which have different camber and rocker profiles on their inside and outside edge to improve performance. This makes the skis Left-Right specific, but results in brilliant performance both in resort and out and they are great value too – add that to very respectable weights and you have superb all rounders for resort and touring use.
Scott Slight 93 (3.1kg, 136-93-124, 16m radius), Scott Slight 100 (3.4kg, 139-100-129, 18m radius) and Scott Slight 93 Women’s (2.9kg, 136-93-124, 13m radius). Three more fantastic on and off piste resort skis from Scott, that are also very light, making them a good choice for crossover resort and touring use – the modern day Missions! These are ideal skis for a mix of off piste and ski touring in the Alps and Norway etc – eg trips like our Senja Island ski touring week and our Haute Maurienne off piste skiing holidays.
Black Crows Orb Freebird – (2.93kg* at 178cm, 125-90-112, 15m radius) The new version of this award winning ski is a very different beast from the original – the tip rocker, shorter radius and softer flex making it far easier to ski for a wide range of skiers and therefore a very good allrounder.
Dynastar Legend X 96 – (3.6kg* at 178cm, 132-96-112, 15m radius) building on the success of the Cham 97, this is Dynastars’ latest all round all mountain ski – with a huge rocker tip, flat tail and Paulownia wood core making it perform brilliantly. The women’s version is equally good and is called the Dynastar Legend W 96.
Head Kore 93 (3.2kg, 133-93-115, 16.4m radius) and Head Kore 99 (3.6kg, 14-99-120, 17m radius) Our final pair of great skiing, full strength resort skis that are also extremely light (unbelievably light for Head skis!) Two very versatile choices for a mix of resort skiing holidays and an annual touring trip, these are a good option faster skiers who like to charge and heavier skiers looking for a strong and stable platform.
SKIS – LIGHTWEIGHT TOURING
If saving weight is a consideration, then this is the way to go – again the market is huge, but we’ve flagged up a few of the best wider bodied touring skis that are suitable for all round European Alpine conditions.
A quick note on useage: although these skis are designed for ski touring, we’ve for the most part selected models here that in many conditions ski just as well as resort skis and have a strong and reliable construction, so as long as you’re not totally ragging them, they’re ok for a bit of resort use too – ie fine as a one ski setup with a strong focus on touring.
Starting in the mid 80-90mm range, with my own lightweight favourite – the Volkl VTA 88 Lite(2.3kg* at 180cm, 127-88-106) is best for good standard skiers and performs brilliantly in a wide range of conditions, making it ideal for long, multi day tours and ski mountaineering trips like the Haute Route Ski Tour.
In a similar vein, the Atomic Backland 85UL (2Kg , 117-85-105, 17m radius) is another great ‘big days of vertical’ option (it’s also available with pre-cut skins), that offers excellent performance as a ‘second ski’ setup for long day tours and dedicated touring weeks.
The now classic Salomon MTN Explore 88 (2.6kg* at 177cm, 125-88-111, 18m radius) continues to be a popular, easy turning, lightweight touring ski that’s suitable for a wide variety of conditions, including some skiing around resort. This is a good choice if you are still developing your off piste skills and are looking at coming on a chamonix ski touring course, or a first multi day tour such as the Silvretta ski tour. It’s also available in a womens’ version at shorter lengths too.
Finally, the Dynastar Mythic 87 Pro(2.5Kg, 127-87-103, 15m radius) has modern shorter radius resort ski dimensions, making it very easy to turn and fun to ski, whilst still being very light for longer tours.
In terms of dedicated womens’ touring skis, in addition to the Salomon MTN 88 W womens’ model, the Scott Superguide 88 Ws (2.2kg* at 154cm, 121-87-110, 16m radius) and Atomic Backland WMN 85 (117-85-115, 2.0kg, 16m radius) are both womens’ specific versions of the equivalent men’s models – they are incredibly light on the ascents and offer good performance on the descents, making them excellent dedicated touring skis.
Moving up to the 90-100mm width range – the following lightweight touring skis offer more float in softer conditions (or for bigger skiers!), but still keep the weight down:
The new, lightened up Black Crows Camox Freebird (2.75kg at 177cm, 133-96-114) launched last winter has proved to be excellent, offering a very versatile lightweight powder touring ski and a good allrounder – these are an great choice for a wide range of skiers. If in doubt, its best to size up, due to the long tip rocker.
Zag Ubac 95 (2.7kg, 129-95-116, 18.5m radius). Winner of many awards and very popular in France, the Ubac 95 offers durability with excellent all round performance in a wide range of conditions and they’re now available in the Uk!
Salomon MTN 95 (3.1Kg, 130-95-116, 18m radius) big brother of the MTN 88 and equally well regarded, this ski is more focused at stronger skiers than the 88 and delivers brilliant performance in the right hands.
Black Diamond Helio 95 (2.5kg, 123-95-113, 19m) Featuring a large tip rocker, the Helio 95 is great in soft snow, but can still hold a reliable edge in icier conditions.
Dynastar Mythic 97 Pro (2.8kg, 133-97-113) New version of the classic, award winning Mythic – beefed up last season and tweaked again this year, the Mythic 97’s are very playful and easy to ski in all conditions.
NB – Superlight Skis. There are many different models of very light skis available nowadays, but you need to choose extremely carefully in this category, as quite a few are either difficult to ski on and/or not so strongly built (ie thinner edges, bases and sidewalls – these are the most vulnerable parts of the ski).
Depending on materials used and quality of construction, there is definitely a limit to weight saving where both ski performance and strength drop off markedly. We’ve tested, rejected and/or broken numerous superlight skis for one or other of the above reasons. This contrasts markedly with top end off piste and resort skis, which are pretty much all good skis nowadays!
SKIS – WIDE BODIED TOURING
The following are a selection of lightweight, wide bodied touring skis designed for human powered adventures – eg powder touring, steeps etc.
NB Please note that all of the skis listed in the two categories above are also wide enough to enjoy a great days powder skiing whilst out ski touring in Europe (10 years ago, 90mm underfoot was considered a super specialist powder ski) – ie you don’t need superwide 100mm+ skis all of the time, but you may want to have a pair of wider skis, in order to have as much fun as possible on fresh snow days.
With that in mind then, here are a few of the best lightweight wide bodied touring skis on the market at the moment – in order to convince yourself that you really do need a pair!
Zag Ubac 102 (3.1kg, 136-102-119, 21.5m radius) The brilliant, wider bodied Ubac 102 makes an ideal powder touring tool – being both light on the ascents and great fun on the descents.
Atomic Backland 107 (3.3kg at 182cm, 137-107-124, 18.5m radius) Very light, dedicated powder touring ski with an excellent rocker-camber-rocker profile, gives the Backland 107 great soft snow performance and it’s a friendly, manoueverable ski.
Black Diamond Helio 105 (2.9kg* at 175, 132-105-119, 20m radius) A reassuringly expensive, premium lightweight soft snow ski – all that carbon is worth the money though; great in powder, easy to ski in other snow types and a joy to push uphill.
Black Crows Navis Freebird (3.25Kg* at 179cm, 133-102-118, 19m radius) The green backcountry machines – more width and rocker than the Camox Freebird, these skis have a strong following amongst high mountain steeps aficionados.
Black Crows Corvus Freebird (3.45kg* at 175cn, 139-109-122) – yes they are bright pink, yes they are 109mm wide and yes they are awesome! – a top backcountry soft snow ski.
Black Crows Ferox Freebird (3.6kg, 136-110-126, 21m radius) Black Crows latest new wide freeride/freestyle ski replaces the Anima, with a firmer base underfoot and slightly stiffer tail to improve allround versatility.
SKIS – LIGHTWEIGHT FREERIDE
Our final category of backcountry skis – below are a couple of lightened up freeride skis that are durable enough for daily resort use, but also fine to push uphill for an hour or two – ie ideal skis for searching out new lines and powder, whilst lift assisted backcountry skiing and day touring.
Elan Ripstick 106 (3.5kg, 140-106-122, 20m radius) The award winning Riptick 106 is a superb freeride ski that’s still very light and an acceptable weight for touring on.
Black Crows Atris – (3.9kg* at 178cm, 137-107-127, 18m radius) They’re not super light, but we love ‘em – the Atris is our favourite wide bodied charging ski for blasting around resorts and further afield. The womens’ version is called the Black Crows Atris Birdie.