The Essential Guide to AT Ski Gear // Ski Industry News
You've seen enough people skiing uphill at this point and to start wondering about how to get a setup for yourself. The appeal of a good workout and getting to a less traveled place for fresh snow has drawn you in to the world of alpine touring (AT). But how do you get started? How much or how little will you need to buy? What kinds of variables should you consider when buying your equipment? Fortunately, we have the answer to these questions and more!
The very first thing to understand is that literally any flat, non-system ski can be used for an AT setup. One of the most important considerations though, is the weight of the ski. If you expect to go on long tours, possibly even multi-day tours, then weight is something you'll definitely want to think about. Fortunately, there are a lot of skis out there that are designed to be lightweight, with touring in mind. Most of these skis are between 88mm to 98mm in width, with the exception of a few unique models. A few popular choices from this category are the Volkl Nanuq, Nordica Steadfast, K2 WayBack, or the Nordica Hell's Belles for the ladies. If you really want the extra width of a powder ski but really don't want a ski that's heavy, you might look into the Rossignol Soul 7 (106mm underfoot), or the Volkl Nunataq (107mm underfoot). Both of these skis were made to be as lightweight as possible, while maintaining a larger surface area for better floatation.
On the other hand, if you plan on using your AT setup take laps, then chances are you're more interested in finding the fresh snow than anything. In this case, you might find that weight is less important to you then finding a ski that's a bit wider underfoot, and equally capable of climbing and descending. With this in mind, the most popular widths for this type of skier, are anywhere from about 98mm to 108mm. Of course, you can go wider, but when you skis start to be too wide, you're also adding weight. Most skiers find the sweet spot to be in this range as they're able to achieve the float they want, without packing on unnecessary extra weight. Some of the most popular skis in this genre are the Blizzard Scout, K2 Annex 108, Kastle BMX108, and the Blizzard Samba for the females.
Alpine Touring Bindings:
In the AT world, bindings have been the most debated and scrutinized aspect of an AT setup. For a number of years, Black Diamond Fritschi dominated the market. The bindings are a great uphill performer, but some skiers have complained about their downhill performance. Still, these bindings were the best option until Marker came along and challenged Fritschi. Designed to perform as well as any downhill binding, Marker's line of bindings quickly gained attention and helped expand the scope of Alpine Touring. Bindings like the Duke or the Baron quickly became the binding of choice for aggressive skiers who preferred to earn their turns. Yet while Marker managed to make an AT binding with improved downhill capabilities, Fritschi remained the brand of choice for those AT skiers more focused on their ascent rather than descent. There's been some solid competition between these two brands for years, and this winter will be no different as Fritschi hopes to prove that their Diamar Freeride Pro bindings are not only better than Marker at making it up the mountain, but just as capable on the way down as well. Likewise, Marker hopes to continue to improve their uphill image with their lightweight touring bindings- the Marker F10 Tour and the F12 Tour.
As the market for Alpine Touring continues to grow, so does the amount of bindings available to skiers. This past year, Salomon joined in on the fun by releasing their all-new Guardian touring binding. (It's also worth mentioning that Salomon is also making the binding for Atomic, which they're selling as the Tracker). Like the Marker AT bindings, the Salomon Guardian was built with downhill performance in mind. Built on a metal frame, the Guardian easily handles high speeds and big drops. It also has a lower stand height than its competitors, keeping you closer to the snow and giving you better downhill performance. If you're looking for an AT binding that you can use at the resort too, then the Guardian is your choice.
Alpine Touring Bindings:
Any of the above bindings can be used with your standard downhill alpine boot. You won't need to purchase another pair of boots to get started with alpine touring. That said, once you get hooked on AT skiing, you're probably going to want to upgrade your boots to make touring more comfortable. The two main traits that make a ski boot better for Alpine Touring, is having a Ski / Walk mode, and being lightweight. Like with bindings, the growth in the sport has lead to an increase in the quantity and quality of products available.
In the last few years, ski boot manufacturers have also started making “hybrid” style boots that are somewhere in between traditional AT ski boots, and more aggressive downhill boots. Basically these new hybrid boots are taking the best qualities of both, making traditional alpine ski boots with the features of an AT Boot. Take for example Lange's new XT series of boots. Touted as “Adventure Boots,” the XT series of boots features a lightweight construction, an easy to access tab that switches the boot from ski to hike mode, and a rubberized sole that makes tricky climbing situations a little less slippery. Lange offers a variety of flexes in this series, ranging from 100-130 for the men, and from 90-100 for the women.
Of course, there are other boots that offer similar features to Lange's XT series. The Salomon Quest line of ski boots is a range of ski boots available to both Men and Women that offers a Ski / Walk mode, lightweight components, and a rubber sole. Likewise, Black Diamond offers similar boots, as does Tecnica. It's never been a better time to get into Alpine Touring, as there are now enough options available to ensure that you can find a great AT boot that will be comfortable enough to hike up a mountain in.
Skins are the secret ingredient that makes Alpine Touring possible, as they're what enables you to go uphill. Essentially, a skin is a strip of fabric that is covered in synthetic hairs on one side, and a unique type of glue on the other. The hairs on the bottom of the ski are angled so that it's easy to slide your skis uphill, but dig into the snow when they start to slide back. In this regard, most skins are pretty equal in quality. The one aspect of skins that is really important is the glue. Because the skins are taken on and off of your skis so regularly, it's important that the glue is long lasting and adheres well to the ski every time. The Black Diamond Ascension skins have had the most reliable glue on the market since they came out years ago. As for sizing, there are two schools of thought. First, and the most common, is to buy skins that are at least the width of the tip of your ski. With this method, you would need to apply the skins to your skis and trim the skis to fit the shape of your ski. The second method is to buy a skin that's the width of the waist of your skis and avoid trimming altogether. This method works just fine in most cases, but if your skis have a lot of sidecut, you may want to go with the first option. If the tips and tails of your skis are significantly wider than the waist of the ski, there's a chance you may slip when traversing steeper slopes.
Possibly the most confusing part about climbing skins for most people, is figuring out how exactly how they attach to your skis. It's really quite simple actually. At the beginning of your hike, you'll start by flipping your skis over, face down. Then, you'll separate the skins from each other and lay one down on each ski. At this step, you'll want the glue side to be against the base or your ski, and the fabric side facing up, essentially becoming the new base of your ski. From here, you simply clip the bottom of the skin around the tail of your ski, and attach the tip loop to the top. The first few times you use your skins, you might struggle a little bit getting everything lined up and secured. Once you get a few tours under your belt though, you'll quickly figure out a method that works well for you.
Alpine Touring poles aren't a crucial element for your setup, but they sure are nice to have. You can go with your regular Alpine poles but we highly recommend an adjustable ski pole so that you can have the extra length for the uphill, while being able to adjust them back to your normal length for the downhill. The Black Diamond Traverse has been a favorite for a long time, with many improvements over the years. Or, for a little more money, you could pick up a pair of Black Diamond Razor Carbon Pole. These poles feature an aluminum upper shaft, with a carbon lower shaft. Having the lower shaft being made of carbon is a nice upgrade as it prevents the lower part of the pole from bending, making it difficult to adjust. By switching from a aluminum lower shaft to a carbon one, the pole will have a longer lifespan, making that initial investment worth it.
Awareness and Preparedness:
While not an absolute necessity for all Alpine Tours, there are some areas where avalanches are a real danger. Chances are you're already pretty aware of avalanches if you're living in an area where they exist. If you are planning on going on any kind of Alpine Tour in an area that's prone to avalanches, then we strongly recommend taking an avalanche class that will give you the knowledge you need to know to reduce your risk.
Beyond taking an avalanche safety class, there is also a short list of safety gear that both you and your touring partners should bring every time you go into the backcountry. The three things that you absolutely must have if you're touring in avalanche territory are: an avalanche beacon, an avalanche shovel, and a probe. Your avalanche beacon is a device that you wear around your chest at all times in the backcountry. In the event of an avalanche, the beacon is the device that is used to locate a buried skier. The second item, the avalanche shovel, is a collapsible metal shovel that is used to dig out trapped skiers. While most avalanche shovels are pretty similar, there are some that standout with their additional features. For example, the K2 Rescue Shovel Plus, which can be used to turn any pair of K2 BackSide or Factory Team Skis into a rescue sled for emergency evacuations. Finally, the third item is a probe, which is used to poke into the snow to find exactly where a buried skier is. The longer and stronger the probe is, the better. That said even the probes on the shorter end should be plenty long enough with the help of a beacon. There's a lot to know about avalanche safety and rescue, so we strongly encourage anyone touring in an avalanche zone takes a lesson before even going on his or her first tour.
In addition to these key pieces of gear, some strategic layering and a solid backpack will make your touring experience more enjoyable. For more general information about layering check out our in depth article on the subject. In regards to touring though, you'll want to keep in mind that even though it's winter, you're bound to sweat. We recommend starting with only a couple of layers on, and keeping your jacket in your backpack for the hike up. Also in your bag should be your shovel and probe (if necessary), an extra snack, and plenty of water. If you're going out on into an open area on a sunny day, you'll likely want to wear some sunscreen, a brimmed hat, and a pair of sunglasses. The snow reflects the sun more than you might think, so even if you feel a little ridiculous, at least you'll be avoiding terrible sunburn. On that note, a small emergency kit is usually a good idea as well. Common items include a first aid kit, a headlamp in case you get caught in the dark, toe/hand warmers, and extra energy bars.
So while it may seem like a big commitment to start Alpine Touring, it's really a lot easier than you think. Depending on where you live, you may even be able to rent an AT setup before deciding to spend money on your own setup. Really, the most basic AT setup consists of just three things: Skis, Bindings, and Skins. If you can piece these three things together, then you can at least start earning your turns at the local sledding hill. Although, we're sure it won't be long until you're hooked and can't help but search out longer, steeper runs.
Ultimately though, Alpine Touring is one of the most fun ways to enjoy skiing. Sure it takes a little planning and motivation, but once you get out there and try it, you'll immediately see what all of the fuss is about. In a day and age where lift ticket prices are approaching triple digits, it can feel both rewarding and exciting to break away and find your own trails to ski. There's really just something about being on top of a hill that you just climbed up, alone, and away from crowds. You get a chance to reflect for a few moments right before you decide to but your bindings into downhill mode, tighten up the boots, and dive into a pure, untouched run of snow!