How to Choose Ski Bindings
Ski expert Abe F. breaks down everything you need to know when picking out ski bindings.
Finding the right ski bindings can feel overwhelming. There are a wide variety of types, sizes, and specs to understand and consider. Ensuring compatibility between bindings, boots, and skis is crucial as well. Fortunately, this gear selection process is really fairly straightforward. For adult skiers who are new to buying bindings, this quick primer on all the options and terms involved will make everything a lot clearer.
Types of Bindings
The first element to consider when looking for bindings is type. There are three main types of downhill ski bindings to look at—Alpine, AT, and Telemark.
Alpine bindings, or downhill bindings, are the most common type and they are what most people picture when they think of ski bindings. The toe and heel of the boot are fully secured to the ski when the binding is engaged and they can pop off in the event of a fall. For any skier who isn’t interested in backcountry or telemark skiing, this is the binding to use.
The major factors to consider for traditional alpine bindings are DIN range, release and retention capability, weight, and power transfer.
DIN Range – The DIN setting, or release force setting, on a binding determines how much force is needed for the ski boot to pop out. A lower DIN setting allows for quick and sensitive releases for lighter or beginner skiers, while a higher DIN setting powerfully grips onto the boots of heavier or more advanced skiers. It is crucial to choose a binding with a DIN range that will include the setting that the skier needs.
It’s also good to leave a bit of room so that the bindings aren’t constantly being used at their limit. For instance, if a skier uses a DIN adjustment of 7, a binding that goes up to 10 or 11 will last a lot longer for them than one that only goes up to 7. Check out Aidan Anderson’s article, “What is Your DIN Setting and What Does it Do,” for a lot more information on DIN settings, including how to determine the right one for you!
Release and Retention Capability – Superior release and retention capability in a binding means that it will hold onto a boot when it should, and it will let go of a boot when it should as well. Inferior bindings have trouble finding that sweet spot. Elastic travel is the component of the binding that determines its release and retention capability. Superior bindings will have longer elastic travel to effectively allow for more give before the boot pops out. This means the binding can safely absorb a decent amount of force before needing to release.
DIN setting and elastic travel work hand in hand to provide performance. DIN setting determines how much force is required to engage the binding’s elastic spring. Once the elastic spring has been engaged, the elastic travel of the spring determines how much force it can safely absorb before it must release the boot to avoid injury.
Weight – Weight is an obvious factor but an important one. Some skiers prefer a lightweight binding, while others prefer something heavier. Light bindings are great for smaller skiers who may have trouble maneuvering something with too much weight. They are also popular among park skiers because they are quick and nimble when it comes to rotations and grabs. Light bindings are good in bumps and trees for similar reasons.
Larger skiers with powerful leg muscles and skiers at a more advanced ability level who value high speeds and big lines will appreciate the durability and added stability of a heavier binding.
Power Transfer – Sometimes referred to as power transmission, energy transfer, or energy transmission, this quality describes how well a binding directs force from the skier to the ski. There isn’t one single quality to determine this ability for a given binding, but with popular models from most major brands, you can count on good power transfer. If you have a wider ski, a binding with a wider toe piece will usually provide superior power transfer as well.
When choosing an alpine binding, make sure its DIN range will accommodate the skier and its weight is well-suited to the skier’s size, ability, and style. Remember that greater elastic travel will allow for superior release and retention capability and high-quality bindings will offer superior power transfer.
Alpine Touring, or AT, bindings are for backcountry skiers because they facilitate uphill and downhill travel. They feature releasable heels and heel risers that, along with climbing skins, make ascending snowy peaks on foot as comfortable as possible. Once the peak has been summited, the heels lock back in and create a sturdy and familiar downhill skiing feel. There are four main variations of AT bindings, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Traditional Tech Bindings – Traditional AT bindings put a premium on weight to appeal to hikers who make long treks. They don’t resemble alpine bindings much at all. They use a pin in the toe piece that attaches to the toe of the boot to allow for easy pivoting when hiking and are able to lock in place on the way down. They require compatible boots and usually do not have brakes.
These are best for skiers who want the best performance on the skin track and quickest transition from uphill to downhill settings. They are not the best option for skiers who want to go big or ski aggressively because the bindings are less durable, offer lower DIN ranges, and don’t release as reliably during falls. A prime example of this type of binding is the Dynafit ST Rotation.
Hybrid Tech Bindings – These bindings feature the minimal toe piece of a traditional tech binding with a heel piece that is much more akin to that of a regular alpine binding.
This creates a nice compromise that can hold up a bit better for someone with a more aggressive skiing style. An example of this kind of binding is the Marker Kingpin.
Frame Style AT Bindings – Frame style bindings are the most durable and heavy-duty option for backcountry skiing. Rather than using separate toe and heel pieces, frame bindings are all one big piece. There is a pivot point in front of the toe that allows the entire frame behind it to lift off the ski when the heel is not locked in. This means that each step carries more weight with it, since the heel attachment stays with the boot rather than the ski. When the heel attachment is in the downhill mode, it locks back into the ski and performs almost exactly like a regular alpine binding.
These are often considered the worst option on the way up due to their heavy weight, but the best option on the way down due to their overall similarities to alpine bindings. As such, they are a favorite among aggressive skiers who often ski at resorts and mix in a few backcountry days per season. A very popular option for this type of binding is the Marker Baron 13.
Next-Gen AT Bindings – The cutting edge of AT binding technology is currently best represented by the new Salomon Shift and Marker Duke bindings. These bindings feature toe pieces that use traditional pin technology for the ascent and then transform into pinless alpine designs to lock in the toe on the way down. The heel pieces on these are sturdy and light. While these options can be fairly expensive and the technology hasn’t been tested as much by the public, they are quickly taking the touring world by storm due to their superlative performance in both hiking and skiing.
Telemark bindings are for telemark or free-heel skiing. Unlike AT bindings, these bindings, along with telemark boots, are designed to pivot near the ball of the foot rather than in front of the toe. Most have just one mode for uphill and downhill use and many don’t release during falls.
There are both cable and backcountry telemark bindings. The cable bindings maintain a constant resistance for more comfortable downhill skiing. Backcountry telemark bindings have the ability to pivot from a more forward point during ascents and they can release the tension on the heel to make hiking easier.
The main concern when pairing bindings and alpine skis is brake width relative to ski width. The brakes on the binding must be equally wide or up to 15 millimeters wider than the ski's waist width. So a 100 millimeter ski, for instance, would require a binding with a brake width from 100 millimeters to 115 millimeters.
There are some skis and bindings that use integrated systems where the ski is designed with a slot for a particular binding to sit in. These devices claim to offer superior power transfer; however, many skiers don’t detect much difference. These types of bindings are less common and usually advertised alongside their accompanying skis.
Just about any non-integrated binding with a suitable brake width will work for just about any non-integrated ski.
The final piece of the puzzle is boot compatibility.
Regular ski boots will work with just about any traditional bindings. Some newer boots have GripWalk soles that are designed to make walking around more comfortable. These types of boots will only work with GripWalk or Multi-Norm Compatible bindings. These kinds of bindings will have the letters GW or MNC in their model names to signify those features.
If you are using a demo binding or a frame binding that has a limited range for boot sole length, make sure your boots aren't too long or too short.
Any binding that uses some variation of toe-pin technology will require a boot with tech inserts on the toe. Traditional touring-specific boots that don’t have prominent heel pieces will only work with traditional tech AT bindings.
Telemark bindings require telemark-specific boots.
Get Out There!
There are so many different options when it comes to bindings, but finding the right one doesn’t need to be a hassle. If you can determine your needs and understand the variations, you’ll have the right binding in no time that will take you exactly where you want to ski!