Beyond resort lines: touring kit
Mark Jones guides you through the kit you'll need when heading beyond the resort lines
By BASI examiner and ICE director and coach Mark Jones
If you've reached that nirvana moment, and fallen in love with touring, you need to start thinking about gearing up for the long term. And this is where it can get confusing. There's a whole new world of kit you need to immerse yourself in. Choosing touring gear will be a compromise: what you gain in one area you'll invariably lose in another. It's a juggling act of balancing performance against weight. In this issue we will focus purely on ski and binding choices.
Currently Dynafit and Diamir are the most common makes you'll see on the mountain. However, Marker are now more commonplace, with Salomon and Atomic entering the area.
Most full-timers are on Dynafit - a great choice if you're looking for light weight. Most people are actually surprised by how well these ski. The boot is kept close and level with the ski, which helps give it a great sensitive touch when you're making turns. They're more difficult to step into than a normal binding, and you have to use Dynafit compatible boots. It's definitely a binding that takes a while to get used to. In terms of release, they're more limited than a standard binding, with the pivot only coming from the heel. But they're awesome for going up, very light (the Vertical FT bindings weigh 530 grams) and easy to ski on as long as you're happy with touring-specific boots.
The Vertical ST is the binding of choice for most skiers. However this year sees the introduction of the Radical ST, which uses side towers next to the front pins to ease binding entry and create greater side resistance. It also has an easier-to-adjust height angle when skinning up.
The Diamirs look and feel more akin to a standard alpine binding. The lightest model in the range is the Eagle. It's easy to use and simple to adjust - however at 1.7 kg it's still weighty compared with the Dynafits. Also, the height of the support bar does mean you're quite high off the ski. This gives it more leverage on the edge, but reduces sensitivity. Diamir also produce the Freeride Plus, which has the same basic design, but is beefed up to take a higher DIN setting. This could be a good option if you want to ski hard and fast.
Markers are the bulldogs of touring bindings. The Dukes are heavy-duty, quite weighty (2.6kg) but for skiing down, they feel like a normal alpine binding. The boot stays close to the ski, while the flex pattern is not hindered. However, the mechanism for going up the mountain can be tricky, and needs to be cleared of ice before use. This year the Duke has a wider frame to match fatter skis. For this season there's the new Marker Tour F12, which is made lighter (1.77kg) by using hollow materials within the heel area. Although relatively heavy for going up, they are solid and grippy on the way down, and popular additions for strong, fast skiers who ride big skis and love short climbs. Any-timers love them.
This year sees Salomon launching into the touring market with the new Guardian binding. It's easy to use and has a low profile chassis to keep you close to the ski. It also has a wider platform which gives good response to the edge, and makes it a great match with wider skis. The binding functions very simply, allowing the skier to switch into touring mode without getting out of the ski. It's also easy to switch into different angles for climbing. It weighs more than Dynafit, but less than other more freeride orientated bindings, coming onto the scales at 1.46kg. This binding is also sold by Atomic as the Tracker. It skis really well, looks great, and with its functionality should be a big seller.
Plum are a French company who stepped into the 'tech' touring binding market quite recently. One of the catalysts was that Dynafit's patent had expired. The Plums are very similar to the Dynafits in function and design, but they've made some design tweaks and used unusually high quality materials. The front lever is longer and made of metal, the crampon insert is reinforced, and the heel post has been modified for easier adjustment. On the 'Yak' they use wider base plates and mounting platforms with raised toe height to reduce ramp angles. The quality of engineering and materials looks awesome. It's a great way to raise pulse rates amongst full-timers outside the hut!
As you can see from our ski tests in the last two issues, there's a huge amount of choice out there for off-piste skiing. Essentially you can put a touring binding on any one of these and you'll be good to go. However, there are definitely a few extra factors you should consider before making a decision.
That dreaded word again! It's something that isn't an issue for skiers when making turns. But wait till you start going back up! Weight will kick you in the backside like nothing else, and if those extra pounds are strapped to your feet, you're going to feel it much more than if they're in your pack.
If you match a light touring ski with a touring binding and touring-specific boots, it's a different world from standard freeride gear: the contrast is massive. Many years ago I switched from a freeride ski with a classic 'alpine' binding and moved to a lightweight touring ski with a 'tech' binding. I instantly felt the difference. You can literally go twice as fast uphill with the same amount of effort. Trab and Dynafit are well known specialists in lightweight touring skis, and all the main manufacturers tend to have touring -specific skis. The only downside with going super light is that you need to be sure of your technique for skiing back down the mountain.
When you're touring, you'll hit a variety of conditions, ranging from perfect powder to horrendous breakable crust. In tricky conditions, when lightweight skis are matched with a soft touring boot, it can drain your confidence, with balance and edge-grip feeling less secure than on a standard freeride set-up. Also, with very light skis they can be more susceptible to breakages if they're subjected to sudden high pressure. So, if you're a strong skier go light - you'll probably love that feeling of being more in touch with the snow. If you're not so confident, go heavier and make those turns easier.
There's no question that a wider ski is easier to use in deep conditions than a narrower one. However, when you're touring, you need to be sure you can cope with anything the mountain springs on you - ice, crust, slush or hardpack. If you're lucky you might ski on some powder as well! On those harder surfaces, having a narrower set-up will make it easier to punch out some shorter turns, give you more grip, and generally make it easier to 'feel' the snow and react. Fat skis can be awful for skinning on hard surfaces, particularly on a steep traverse. The contact edge is so far away from your foot that it transmits uncomfortable strain through your joints. A good range of width would be about 80mm - 95mm.
Good article Mark.
Great I thought some guidance on skins which is just what I need. So why nothing on skins?
I prefer skins which attach both front & back because they don't always stick well after removing and replacing a few times when wet.
(122 tours over 25 years)
Skins! That's a whole article in itself. I use Celotex, Black Diamond are equally popular. Skins are sold 'straight' and they need to be trimmed to fit the ski. If you have never done it, best to get it done by the shop first time. K2 offer ready cut skins for their own skis.
Latest product is Gecko, claimed to be 25% lighter than other skins. Anyone used them?
Make sure to remember to hang your skins up to dry if you overnight in a hut!
My skins are Vinersa which fold over the front clip & under the ski. Easy to fit any length of ski.
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