Ski Touring Equipment
Ski touring and split boarding have become increasingly popular in recent years, in part thanks to improvements in the safety of touring bindings, the lure of the backcountry and the ease of finding equipment both online and in ski shops.
Important factors to consider when buying touring equipment include weight, usability, cost and durability, like with most products you can usually only choose a few of these factors without impacting too much on the others. Some will opt for super light setups for long ascents and hut to hut touring, sacrificing the durability and performance of the kit on the downhill.
Others will prioritise the actual skiing experience which tends to make for a heavier system that doesn’t skin quite as well. Depending on what you are looking for it’s worth comparing products to make sure you get something suitable for your skiing.
Skis for touring tend to fall into one of three categories – Race, Touring or Freetour. Whilst you can use pretty much any alpine ski for touring (if it allows you to fit skins), skis specially designed for touring are generally lighter weight and have a profile and camber which works well for off piste and for skinning uphill.
Touring skis – these are usually much lighter than freetour skis and normally narrower with the emphasis being on their use for travelling longer distances, spending more time skinning. As a result, they are often not as stable as freetour skis when descending but easier to manoeuvre with skins on and take less effort to climb with. Some feature tip and tail slots or fixtures to help with attaching skins. Core materials range from foam & wood to innovative carbon and honeycomb structures that make for a lighter ski. Swingweight is also considered with most proper touring skis making kick turns easier by balancing the weight along the ski.
Freetour skis – these are more like Freeride or All Mountain alpine skis that have gone on a bit of a diet. If you are doing short uphill skins to access off piste in and around resort then these are probably the skis for you. They aren’t the best for long expeditions, mostly due to their weight and width but if you want the best equipment to enjoy the rewards of the climb then choose Freetour skis.
Race or SkiMo skis – are designed specifically for Ski Mountaineering races, where speed is essential, not just in the climb but also in the transition and in the downhill. As a result, the skis are super light, usually have a system that allows for easy attachment and removal of skins and have little sidecut as SkiMo racers tend to straight line the downhill sections of the course. These skis are generally not particularly pleasant to ski on for either touring or freetouring so unless you are planning on racing probably best avoided.
There are two main types of touring binding, Frame and AT/Tech/Pin. The latter has been around for over 30 years but seen had a huge amount of technological development in the last five. Most of this centre around improved safety and control. Frame bindings are like standard alpine ski bindings with the addition of a frame underneath that allows the heel to detach so you can skin uphill. If you are skiing on piste most resorts require you to use either a binding that has a brake, or leashes to keep the ski attached you in case of a fall. Which system you choose depends on a few factors –
AT/Tech/Pin bindings – the norm when it comes to touring bindings, there are now a huge variety of pin bindings available, from extremely minimalist to those offering near alpine binding levels of release safety. The lightest race bindings weigh just 75g (and are ISMF approved) and have no DIN release setting, but the majority are around the 200g mark and have either single release points or fully DIN approved protection. With big brands like Atomic, Marker and Salomon entering the touring market in the last few years the options on offer mean there is something for every type of skier.
It’s worth considering if the bindings you are looking at allow crampon attachment (for approaches on icy terrain) and have heel lifters for climbing steeper slopes. If you are going to be skiing aggressively off or on piste we recommend getting a binding which has DIN release settings rather than going lightweight.
The main manufacturers of these bindings are G3, Marker, Dynafit, Salomon, Diamir and Atomic.
Frame bindings - If you are going to spend most of your time skiing in resort and on piste but want to be able to skin up to nearby off piste without changing your kit over, a frame binding is a good solution. With full DIN safety certification, these bindings act the same as standard alpine bindings in the event of a fall or crash, releasing your boot so you don’t cause more serious injuries.
When it comes to touring they allow the heel piece to move freely off the ski, pivoting from the front of the boot & binding so you can skin uphill. These bindings should work with all alpine ski boots using ISO/DIN 5355 and in most cases work with AT boots that have ISO/DIN 9523, however, there are exceptions to this so it’s always worth checking before you buy.
While they ski very similar to normal alpine bindings, the stiff frame part can affect the flex of the ski, particularly if you have larger feet. They also add a bit of ‘stack height’ to the binding which is good if you want to get over on an edge but can put pressure on your knees and reduce the underfoot sensation of what the ski is doing.
Frame bindings are available from Salomon, Atomic, Marker and Diamir.
Boots fall into one of three categories for touring – Alpine, Touring and Race.
Alpine boots are regular ski boots, these can only fit into frame type touring bindings and are not specifically designed for touring. Boots with a ‘walk mode’ tend to work better for touring as they can be switched to improve flexibility for uphill skinning.
Touring boots are designed to be comfortable and efficient going uphill and have a dedicated ‘walk mode’ for this purpose. They are generally lighter than regular ski boots and have metal toe piece and heel inserts to fit into pin bindings. The also tend to have a curved or ‘rockered’ sole which means they can’t fit into normal downhill ski bindings but should fit most frame touring bindings (there are exceptions so please check). Lighter boots are better for hut-to-hut or expedition touring but freetour boots give better control and power for downhill skiing.
Race boots, like the skis and bindings, are ultralight and designed for speed rather than comfort or durability so shouldn’t be used for regular touring.
Skins attach to the bottom of your skis in order to provide traction when travelling uphill. They attach via clips and usually a glue on the surface facing the ski base. There are various materials used, including mohair and/or synthetics to create a directional fabric that glides forward but stops the ski from slipping backwards. Most skins can be cut to fit the skis or splitboard you are using, some feature universal clips to attach at the tip of the ski and often the tail too. Some manufacturers have skin systems that clip on to special inserts in the skis.
Skins need to be taken care of in order to function correctly and last a reasonable amount of time. Caring for them includes drying them out properly after use and storing them the right way in your backpack or pockets as well as reproofing if they start to absorb water in use. Synthetic skins tend to be more durable and less prone to water ingress whilst mohair tend to glide better, pack smaller and weigh less. You can get blends of materials for the advantages of both. SkiMo racers tend to trim their skins to cover only the first 1/2 to 3/4 of the ski, this makes the easier to remove in transition, lighter weight and smoother to glide on flatter sections.
If you are doing a lot of skinning where the slope angle changes then dedicated touring poles are a must. Touring poles are telescopic, so you can adjust the length on the fly, going along the flat – raise them for better leverage, traversing – drop one side for better balance. If you are splitboarding they are also an essential and many models pack down to under 50cm to stash on your backpack for the descent.
Other Touring Equipment
Depending on the type of touring you will be doing there are several essentials for safe and enjoyable skiing or splitboarding. For any off piste activity, you should take an avalanche transceiver, probe and metal shovel.
A backpack is useful to carry this, plus your skis when it gets too steep to skin, if your budget allows then airbag equipped packs are becoming increasingly popular for backcountry safety.
Ropes, harnesses and ice screws are among other safety recommendations for crevasse and other rescue situations but knowing what to do with them is just as important as owning them.
For more information on off piste skiing and snowboarding check out our guide here – The Ski Club guide to off piste.
If you would like to get into touring why not join one of our Introduction to Touring trips with Freshtracks where you can learn off piste safety, touring skills and mountain navigation. There are also trips available for more experienced tourers with both Freshtracks and Mountain Tracks.