NOVEMBER 4, 2020 | WRITTEN BY Matt McGinnis

Alpine touring has been increasing in popularity in recent years, with a huge explosion in interest over the past year.  There’s always a lot of gear involved in skiing, but alpine touring takes it to a whole different level.  If you’re new to the world of touring, you might find yourself feeling lost among a sea of options.  How do you know what’s right for you?  Do you need super lightweight gear?  What are the differences between different binding and boot options?  Will my current boots work?  Help!  If you’re feeling this way, even just a little bit, we’re here to help.

Now, before we get into it, we think it’s important to note that alpine touring and backcountry skiing in general is somewhat of a lifelong journey.  There’s so much to learn about gear choices, and even more importantly how to stay safe, where to go, and so much more.  We do not intend this to be an end-all, tell-all guide to backcountry touring, that would be wildly inappropriate for us to suggest.  On the contrary, this is intended to help guide newcomers through the early decision-making process and put you on a path to success.  You’ll have to walk that path yourself, but we’ll help you feel more confident with the first few steps.

The best way to start this journey is to evaluate yourself as a skier and your specific goals and needs when it comes to alpine touring.  If you can paint an accurate picture of what you’ll be doing, or what you want to be doing, it’s really going to help a lot when selecting gear.  How often will you be touring?  What type of touring will you be doing?  What I’ll call “resort touring” has become increasingly popular.  Will you mostly be at a resort on designated uphill trails?  Will you be in the backcountry?  How often?  Are you considering day-long trips, or focused on just a couple hours here and there.  Maybe you’re considering multi-day hut trips?  How demanding is the ascent?  Is it really steep?  Is the terrain variable and challenging, or is it a smooth, easy-going pitch?  How demanding is the descent?  How do you want to ski it?  Are you looking to charge, drop cliffs, hit jumps, and ski aggressively?  Or maybe you’re just hoping for some fun, relatively casual turns with a potential bonus of them being powder turns? 

It might sound silly, but I’d recommend taking out a pen and paper and jotting down some answers to these questions.  Start building a profile of yourself as a skier and what your intentions are, it’s really going to help as we move forward.

Choosing the Right Boots:

Now that we’re ready to start looking at gear, we want to put emphasis again on the idea that this is intended as a starting point.  We’ll be showing some examples of equipment, but the available options extend far past what we’re going to look at in this article.  As always, if you still have questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us.  We have many experienced skiers on our staff with lots of time on touring equipment and in the backcountry, and we’re here to help answer whatever questions you might have.

Boots, as is often the case in choosing ski equipment, is really the best place to start here.  Think back to those questions we asked.  How often will you be touring?  Is it a demanding ascent?  Choosing boots is where we’ll start to determine how important lightweight gear is as opposed to heavier, but more versatile equipment.  If you’re answer to “how often will you be touring?” is something along the lines of “probably not much,” you should consider a hybrid resort/touring boot.  This is a growing segment in the ski industry right now and offers some really good products.  A hybrid boot offers really good downhill performance and integrates well with an alpine binding, but also includes tech-fittings in the toe (for pin binding systems) and a hike mode.  In other words, you can get a hybrid boot and use it as your only ski boot.  A lot of skiers are going that direction right now, and it’s a good way to save some money while still ending up with really, really good equipment. 

Hybrid Resort / AT Ski Boots

If you’re looking to buy a more dedicated touring setup, something that you don’t necessarily plan on using at a resort, you may want to go with a lighter boot setup.  These boots are designed more for efficient ascents, while still offering pretty darn good downhill performance as well.  Most of these boots use touring soles, which are more rounded and rockered than an alpine sole, whether it be a traditional alpine sole or the GripWalk soles you’ll find on most of the hybrid boots we just mentioned.  In other words, there’s a reasonably good chance these boots won’t work in your existing alpine skis, or if you’re planning on using a boot like this as your only ski boot, you’re going to need to be pretty careful about the boot/binding integration.  That said, if you’re looking to spend a significant amount of time touring this season, or if you’re looking for a backcountry specific setup, the efficient uphill capabilities of more touring-specific boots may be worth it for you. 

Pure AT Ski Boots

Alpine Touring Bindings:

Hopefully you’ve kind of decided what type of boot is going to work best for you before getting to bindings.  If you’re still not sure what style boot is going to work best for you, leave us a comment or give us a call and we’d be happy to make a recommendation.

Before we dive into bindings, let’s circle back to boots for one quick moment.  If you’re brand new to alpine touring and/or maybe you’re not sure if you’re going to like it or not, there is another option for boots.  You can use a normal alpine boot for touring.  The problem here is you won’t have tech fittings in the toe and you also won’t have a walk mode.  So, it’s not ideal, but it can work, and it’s the least expensive way to enter the world of touring.  You can use your normal alpine boot with a frame binding like the Marker Baron or F12 Tour listed here.  Frame binding have their own pivot point, rather than pivoting off the pins of the binding connected to your boot.  They’ve been around quite a long time now, and they work quite well for skiers just getting into alpine touring.  They are, hands-down, the simplest way to introduce yourself to the activity.

That said, frame bindings are now becoming somewhat outdated thanks to new entries in the binding category, most notably the Salomon/Atomic/Armada Shift and the new Marker Duke PT.  Much like how we talked about boots, these bindings are essentially hybrid resort/AT bindings.  The Shift and Duke PT are designed to mimic the downhill performance of their existing alpine bindings, essentially the STH2 13 and Griffon/Jester respectively.  You do, however, still need tech fittings in your boots to use these bindings.  Interestingly, that’s only true for the ascent, which is where some confusion has formed.  You can click a strictly alpine boot into both the Shift and the Duke PT and use it as a resort binding.  You can’t, however, go uphill with an alpine boot.  Some might see that as a limitation, but it’s actually giving you more options.  For example, if you have an existing alpine setup, and alpine boots you like, you could consider getting a hybrid binding like this, mounting it on a hybrid ski (which we’ll get to), but then picking up a lighter weight touring boot.  You could use those skis both in the resort and in the backcountry, essentially swapping just your boots for the different applications.  

Hybrid Resort / AT Bindings

Just like how we described boots, if you’re planning on doing a significant amount of touring this season or are really focused on uphill efficiency, you may want to get a lighter-weight, more touring specific binding.  These pin-based binding systems have come a long way in recent years.  Both the Kingpin 13 and Rotation 10 offer DIN-certified safety release systems, which were not always available on this type of binding.  They don’t, however, offer the same connectivity to your skis and ultimately the same downhill performance as bindings like the Duke PT or Shift.  Now, can they work as cross-over, hybrid resort/AT bindings?  Yes, they can.  You’ll likely see more people at the resort on tech-fit bindings this season than ever before.  This is where it’s important to go back to that skier profile you created for yourself.  What’s more important to you?  Where are you willing to make sacrifices?  Can you deal with some slightly heavier bindings for touring ascents knowing that it’ll give you better alpine performance?  That decision is ultimately up to you.

Primarily Touring Bindings

Skis for Alpine Touring:

Ultimately, your choice of skis should usually align with your choice of bindings, but that’s not always the case.  We are, however, basically having the same conversation when it comes to skis.  How much touring efficiency do you want?  How much downhill performance are you willing to give up?  Basically, how light do you want your skis to be?  Your choice of boots and your existing gear plays into this as well.  Are you going to have one pair of boots?  A hybrid resort/AT boot?  If yes, and you have an existing alpine setup, you could easily justify getting a lightweight ski with a lightweight binding to act as a dedicated touring setup.  Going to have one pair of boots and one pair of skis?  That’s where it might be worth going with a slightly heavier ski that’s going to perform better in the resort.  There are a lot of skis designed for that application now, just like the growing number of hybrid boots.  The 3 skis we’ve listed in this article are all good examples, and essentially most manufacturers now have a ski that falls into this category.  Keep an eye out for a Comparison of skis in this category on Chairlift Chat in the next month.

Hybrid Resort / AT Skis

Then there are lighter, more touring specific skis.  These are great choices if you’re planning on spending a significant amount of time touring in the backcountry this season, or even a lot of time touring at a local resort.  These skis sacrifice some downhill power and stability in favor of a lighter feel and more efficient ascents.  Usually, you’re going to want to pair a lightweight ski with a lightweight binding like the Rotation 10 or Kingpin 13.  Of course, there are exceptions to that, and that’s a good example of how you can customize a touring setup to work for you.  Maybe you like the sounds of the hybrid bindings, but want a lightweight ski.  Certainly nothing wrong with that.  Maybe you’re going to have a dedicated touring boot, a lightweight binding, but want your skis to feel a little more burly like the ones we just looked at.  That’s fine too.  

Primarily Touring Skis

With so many options in the alpine touring market now, the idea that you can customize what’s right for you is kind of what it’s all about.  If you’ve read through this whole thing and you’re still confused, go back to your skier profile.  Really think about what you enjoy most about skiing.  Don’t be afraid to combine elements from different categories.  People look at this author a little funny sometimes because I have a hybrid boot, a hybrid binding, but a lightweight ski.  Why?  I value the feel and support of a boot like that and the downhill performance of a binding like that, but I’m lightweight myself, and don’t feel like I need a heavy, stiff ski to support the kind of skiing I’ll be doing when touring.  It’s all about what works best for you.  

Another potential option is gear that falls into more of a cross-country category.  If your goals for touring this season are exercise, exploration, and enjoying the outdoors, maybe it would be better to get something like the Rossignol BC 100 XC skis and BC Magnum Bindings.  XC gear, like touring equipment, has come a long way in recent years, and you can have a lot of fun exploring the backcountry on equipment like this.  Obviously you’re making significant sacrifices for downhill performance, like the fact that your heel won’t be locked down, but it’s another valuable option.  

As we mentioned when we started this article, alpine touring is a lifelong journey, and even if you’ve selected your boots, bindings, and skis, you still have a lot of decisions to make.  You need skins, adjustable touring poles, proper clothing, safety equipment, and more.  We’ll do another article going through the differences between some of these accessories, and in the meantime don’t hesitate to reach out, especially if you need help selecting something like skins.  

We’re going to leave you with the most important piece of advice in this entire article.  If you’re new to backcountry touring, go take a backcountry safety class.  There are way more variables in the backcountry than there are at your local resort, and you need to be prepared.  A proper safety course is the best way to get started.  It’s also important to have a crew of skiers you trust, especially in a backcountry situation.  We strongly advise against solo backcountry skiing.  Even solo touring within a resort can be relatively dangerous as you often don’t have the safety and support nets that are available during operating hours.  Go enjoy the backcountry, go enjoy earning your turns, but please, please do so safely and within the guidelines set forth by local authorities, your local resort, take a safety course, and listen to experts.