The Pros and Cons Between Telemark and Alpine Touring Skis

Telemark and alpine touring skis are both great options for skiers wanting to explore the backcountry! But which is better for you? Keep reading to find out!

Two skiers walking up a very snowy hill on skis. There are many snowy mountains in the background.

Photo by Flo Maderebner

When it comes to debates about snowsports, the decision to opt for skis or a snowboard is perhaps the most infamous. However, if you want a more baroque controversy, a war waged with muddy bumper-sticker slogans and derisive hippie-bashing, the undercard fight to follow is telemark skiers versus downhill skiers. It’s a long-simmering stand-off that’s mostly good-natured—despite what you might read online.

But what is telemark skiing? How is it different from alpine skiing, and why do certain skiers ardently prefer one style over the other? To answer these questions, we have to trace the history of skiing through the years and learn a bit about how the design of ski gear has changed along the way.

Like many similar discussions, there’s a grain of truth to each side’s arguments; but the only way to truly lose this fight is to get so wrapped up in being correct that you lose sight of what really matters: skiing is ultimately about fun, and as long as you’re having fun on the snow, how you attach your feet to your skis is in service of that goal.

Does music sound better on vinyl or digital? There’s a debate to be had over the quality of early digital recordings, but the end goal is listening to great music! Are manual gearboxes obsolete in the age of the dual-clutch transmission? Some people care about more than how long it takes to change a gear.

The point is that people will argue indefinitely about why the sub-discipline they’re passionate about is superior. I suggest you log off, tune out, and get out there to enjoy the snow…after finishing this article, of course.

What Are the Differences?

A skier does a telemark turn down a ski hill.

Photo by Ben Kitching

Telemark skiing is known as “freeheel skiing” because, no surprise here, your heel is free to pivot up and away from the ski, while your toe is attached with a binding similar to cross country or “nordic” skis. This allows the telemark skier to lunge forward and drop their trailing knee towards the snow as they initiate a turn before rising out of this stance and repeating it with the opposite foot forward for the following turn.

Contrast this with an alpine or downhill skier, who has both heels and toes connected to their skis. As they initiate a turn, they lean forward down the fall line and place pressure on the shins of their boots, but their heels don’t lift, so they aren’t doing a lunge for each and every turn. Does that sound easier than a telemark turn? It is.

How many individual turns do you make over a day of skiing? Setting aside the sharp metal edges and slick snow surface, just doing that many lunges in a gym would be an incredible exertion. Personal trainers and telemark fanatics may quibble with my comparison: a proper telemark turn isn’t quite as deep as a lunge you might see at your local 24 Hour Fitness, but the point stands: the added effort of each individual telemark turn adds up to a lot more work.

So why would anyone choose to add an intense quad workout to their supposedly “fun” ski outing? Well, some folks like to show off their perfectly chiseled thighs during the warmer months, others are just masochists.

If you ask a telemark skier, they probably wouldn’t own up to either of those explanations. Usually, a tele skier’s justification will sound a lot like someone who still shoots film photos or listens to vinyl. They may say something like “I get more face shots on powder days because I’m down closer to the snow,” but often they also want to stick out from the pack: “Free the heel, free the mind.” You can roll your eyes all you want, but if someone’s having fun on tele gear, there’s not much sense in arguing with them.

In the Beginning…

A man with a red backpack walking up a snowy hill with skis on.

Photo by Alois Lachner

If there doesn’t appear to be any practical benefit to telemark skiing, then why does it exist? To understand its status as a seemingly vestigial organ, we need to look at how skiing has evolved through time.

The history of snowsports is a convoluted web of incremental breakthroughs and simultaneous discoveries, as utilitarian methods of transportation became sports and pastimes. Just as pole vaulting was once a practical skill for crossing drainage ditches, winter sports were also born out of necessity.

While it’s not necessary to trace the exact paths of the disciplines we recognize today, a bit of history helps explain where we find ourselves. The invention of the telemark turn is widely credited to the Norwegian Sondre Norheim in the late 1860s, its name coming from the Telemark region of Norway. While Norheim pioneered certain aspects of technique and technology that all skiers would recognize, telemark skiing was largely relegated to Scandinavia while others refined Norheim’s advances in the alps into what we now call “alpine” or “downhill” skiing.

However, traditional downhill ski bindings didn’t allow you to lift your heel, making climbing uphill with climbing skins nearly impossible. That meant to get to the top of the mountain, alpine skiers needed a lift of some sort, or they had to carry their skis and walk up in their boots.

If you find yourself watching ski jumping during the next winter Olympics, listen for the announcers to commend a participant on their perfectly executed “Telemark landing.” Because it demonstrates excellent control, ski jumpers will be awarded a higher score if they lunge one ski forward into a telemark-like stance just after touching down.

This is to say that the various ski disciplines are intertwined in a complex history. But what’s more important for our purposes is understanding how changing materials and engineering allowed those disciplines to advance as gear modernized.

History of Ski Technology

A man walking up a hill with skis on.

Photo by Patrik Untersee

Long before skis were built with carbon fiber and space-age alloys, people in cold climates needed efficient methods to move through snow with the materials they had available. Some of these materials have stood the test of time, while others have been swapped out for modern conveniences.

Alpine and telemark skis are made with wood to this day, just as they have been since the dawn of the discipline. Sure, we wrap them in metal edges, P-Tex bases, and fiberglass laminates, but the core of the ski is wood, because no modern material beats its lively flex profile, light weight, and durability.

Millenia before Sondre Norheim ever dipped his knee into the first telemark turn, ancient societies attached seal skins to the bottoms of their skis, allowing them to slide forward without slipping backward downhill. While modern climbing skins are made of mohair or synthetic materials, we still call them climbing skins because they serve the same purpose.

More recently, the pace of advancements has moved at a blistering speed, and it’s had an interesting impact on the tradeoffs between alpine touring and telemark skiing.

20th-Century Ski Technology

A man walking up a hill with skis on.

Photo by Cyprien Delaporte

In the 1970s and 1980s, Telemark skiing saw a revival in the United States amongst skiers who wanted to explore beyond the boundaries of resorts. They laced up their leather boots, affixed climbing skins to their long, straight skis, and clipped into their three-pin telemark bindings.

Today, we might look at telemark gear of that era and assume it was a cross-country skiing setup, but at the time it was the best way to explore the backcountry without the use of chairlifts and t-bars. If you wanted to climb uphill with free heels and lock them down for the descent, your options were pitiful. Heavy, expensive, and cumbersome Alpine Touring or Randonnée setups did exist at the time, but there was a reason they didn’t see wide adoption.

This is the point in history where the “conflict” between telemark skiers and downhill skiers arises—not from Norheim’s 1860s inventions. Alpine skiers enjoying some après-ski drinks at the lodge would deride the stinky hippies returning to their VW buses after a day in the backcountry. Whereas the telemark skiers would sneer at the squares who needed a chairlift to get up the mountain.

The tensions between these two groups was driven as much by cultural differences as any particular disagreement about the “right” way to ski. As someone who grew up hearing about all sides of this divide, my assessment is that it’s overblown and uninteresting. But what has happened in the backcountry skiing world since is incredibly exciting and hugely important for the future of our sport.

A Changing Landscape

Ariel shot of four people walking up a snowy trail on skis.

Photo by Sophie The Laya Yogis

As telemark skiers began tackling steeper slopes, more technical descents, and a widening array of snow conditions, the gear used changed as well. The flexible and lightweight leather boots that resembled cross-country boots became stiffer, heavier plastic boots, more akin to alpine boots.

To cope with burlier boots and stiffer skis, telemark bindings evolved into complex mechanisms with multiple springs and release mechanisms. These stiffer boots and bindings with more tension in turn necessitated a “Climb Mode” that released tension for an easier ascent before being locked into place for the ski down. The result of this “advancement” was telemark gear that resembled the early alpine touring setups: heavy, expensive, and cumbersome.

On the other side of the equation, alpine touring gear was becoming more and more enticing for would-be backcountry skiers. In 1990, Dynafit released their Tourlite Tech system that did away with bulky alpine-touring bindings and ushered in the modern era. Dynafit had spent the latter part of the 1980s perfecting their new system: a binding that slotted pins into specially placed inserts on a matching boot. Pins on either side of your toe let you pivot your heel like a telemark ski on the ascent, and pins at the heel let you lock down your heel for the descent. It was lightweight and convenient, but it was still fairly expensive and not widely available in North America.

So while Dynafit had created some stiff competition for the best backcountry ski setups, there was still an abundance of telemark gear that was much more affordable and relatively lightweight. But the calculation changed again as Dynafit’s patents expired on their “tech” bindings. Over the past few years, backcountry lovers have been blessed with an explosion of options for alpine touring boots and bindings, as every manufacturer tossed their hat in the touring ring. From boutique brands to industry powerhouses, you can pick and choose from an endless range of ultralight ski-mountaineering setups to affordable quiver-killers.

This seismic shift in the accessibility of Alpine Touring is what makes it hard to claim that tele skiing in the 2020s is anything but a quirky, enigmatic throwback to an earlier era. That’s not to say telemark skiing can’t be fun or will necessarily die out. But the reasoning that made telemark skiing such an attractive option is less justifiable with every new release of affordable, lightweight touring gear from alpine brands such as Atomic and Look.

A Requiem for Telemarking?

A skier walking up a hill on his skis. He is wearing a red backpack.

Photo by Alois Lackner

Here’s where I have to put my cards on the table. I grew up telemark skiing, mostly because my parents and family friends had garages full of telemark gear to fit a rapidly growing teenager. My first plastic boots, a beautiful pair of blue Garamont Garas, were handed down to me after a family friend died guiding on Denali. If it hadn’t been for a steady stream of second-hand tele gear, there’s no way I would have been able to get out and explore the backcountry so young, and I’m incredibly grateful to all that smelly, old gear for helping to nurture a lifelong passion.

As I grew older and could afford to spring for an alpine touring setup I wouldn’t outgrow in a single season, I moved away from telemark gear. And I’m so excited that young skiers today have a plethora of cheap alpine-touring gear to choose from. This is why I don’t put much stock in either side of the telemark versus alpine touring debate: each has its time and its place. My dad still telemarks after all these years because he can’t imagine skiing with his heels locked down, he says alpine bindings are “scary.” Most downhill skiers would say the same about his freeheel setup! To each their own.

Whichever side of the debate you come down on, the friendly Ski Experts at Curated can hook you up with a personalized setup that’s perfect for you. No judgment, just great advice! Either way, we’re happy to help.

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Growing up in Seattle, I learned to telemark ski on leather boots, three pin bindings and the skinniest, straightest skis you could imagine. But hey, it was the gear we already had in the basement, and it got me out on the backcountry! Over the years, I slowly modernized my gear (Plastic boots! Bind...

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