How Do Backcountry Boots and Bindings Compare to Alpine Setups?
Ski Expert Tory Dobyns details the options for backcountry boots and bindings, and explains how they differ from alpine boots and bindings!
The world of backcountry skiing (alpine touring) has exploded with interest over the past few years and equipment has rapidly progressed. I have been alpine skiing for 20 years and got into alpine touring about 5 years ago.
If you are unsure of exactly what backcountry skiing is, I would recommend starting with A Beginner’s Guide to Backcountry Skiing by Ski Expert Connor Hult to get a better understanding before diving into all you need to know about boots and bindings!
In order to backcountry ski, you will need some form of backcountry-specific bindings, skins, boots, skis, and poles. For those of you who are snowboarders looking for backcountry options, consider splitboarding!
There are many different types of backcountry setups to choose from and it can be overwhelming. The most important pieces of equipment to understand are boots and bindings. Backcountry boots and bindings are also referred to as “AT” or “touring” boots or bindings.
When I first began touring, I used the Salomon Guardian frame binding with a traditional alpine boot. This was a very affordable way to get into the backcountry. Now, I use the Lange XT3 freeride touring boot with the Salomon Shift Binding.
Basics of Backcountry Gear Explained
- Frame Bindings: These bindings can be heavy and make uphill travel a bit more difficult, but are the most affordable option as they can be used with a traditional alpine boot.
- Hybrid or Resort Bindings: This style is more limited but can be used with a traditional alpine boot when resort skiing, while also fitting a touring boot after the tech toe piece is mounted in order to also hike with these bindings.
- Tech Bindings: These are the most lightweight option and will provide the most ease for uphill travel, but require touring-specific boots.
- Traditional Alpine or Resort Boots: These are normal boots you would use when skiing on the resort and can only be used with frame bindings.
- Freeride Touring Boots: These can be used for touring or on the resort as these prioritize downhill performance.
- All-Mountain Touring Boots: These are designed for the uphill while still providing decent downhill performance for skiing scenarios outside of the resort.
- Race or Ski Mountaineering Boots: These are lightweight boots designed for optimal uphill performance as opposed to being used for resort skiing.
Skins are made from a fibrous material with a sticky bottom. The sticky side goes onto the base of the ski and the fibrous skin-like material is what comes in contact with the snow, allowing you to walk up the mountain without sliding down. There are many brands and types of skins meant for different snow conditions. Some of the most popular skin brands include Black Diamond, Dynafit, and Pomoca.
What Type of Bindings to Buy?
This was the most difficult part for me to decide on when I first began backcountry skiing so below are details and pros/cons for each of the different types of backcountry bindings!
At first glance, a frame binding will look almost identical to a traditional alpine binding. You clip in just as you normally would with an alpine binding, but with this style, there is a switch you flip in order to release the heel, giving you allowance to walk uphill. These bindings also have heel risers that can be adjusted to change the angle when walking uphill. On steeper terrain, you will want to have the heel risers up for better leverage (see the second photo below).
The Marker F10 Tour Frame Binding is a great choice for someone who is new to backcountry skiing and does not want to commit to an expensive new setup.
- Frame bindings can be used with a normal ski boot meaning you will not have to buy additional backcountry boots.
- Will have the same feeling as an alpine binding when downhill skiing.
- Cheapest option.
- Heavier which makes the climb up more difficult.
- If using a normal ski boot instead of a touring boot, you could begin to experience foot discomfort.
Tech (Pin) Bindings
Tech bindings are the most lightweight option, designed for those who want a fast and comfortable walk up the mountain. Tech bindings operate in an entirely different way than traditional alpine bindings. These require specific touring boots that have a special toe piece with slots for two steel pins from the tech bindings to lock into, along with steel pins that lock into the heel when descending. Tech bindings also have heel risers to help adjust the binding angle when climbing.
- Lightweight for easy climbing.
- These are an expensive option as the bindings are more expensive than other options, plus these require tech binding-specific books that most riders will need to invest in.
- There is very little elasticity in the heel piece of a tech binding which gives the binding a slightly different feel when skiing downhill.
- Tech bindings operate in an entirely different way than traditional bindings. They have a different release mechanism which some argue is less safe when compared to an alpine binding. However, in the past few years, the safety of tech bindings has improved dramatically.
Hybrid bindings are essentially a combination of a tech and alpine binding. Most hybrid bindings will have a tech toe and traditional alpine heel piece. These were created to address complaints around the inconstant skiing feel when descending on a traditional tech binding. Hybrid bindings have more elasticity in the heel which provides a springier feel while skiing. You will need a touring boot with a tech toe for this type of binding, just as you would with a tech binding.
There are a few different options when it comes to hybrid bindings:
- Shift Bindings: Salomon, Atomic, and Armada have all come out with what they call a “shift” binding. This binding essentially shifts from a tech binding for climbing into a traditional alpine binding for skiing. This is a great compromise for someone who wants a lighter binding for climbing without sacrificing the downhill capabilities. This is a great option if you want one pair of skis and bindings for resort and backcountry skiing. If you are skiing these on the resort you can clip in just as you would into your alpine bindings.
- Tech Toe and Traditional Heel Bindings: Another similar but slightly different option is a hybrid binding with a tech toe and a traditional heel. This is a similar concept to the shift binding, however, the toe piece does not transition into an alpine toe. You still use the toe pins to clip in when descending. However, the heel piece is a traditional alpine heel unlike a true tech binding. One of my favorite bindings in this class is the Marker KingPin. This binding utilizes a tech toe for a smooth climb up the mountain with a reliable alpine heel.
- Lightweight compared to frame bindings.
- Increased heel elasticity provides better power transfer when skiing compared to true tech bindings.
- Heavier than a true tech binding.
- Expensive compared to frame bindings.
What Type of Boots to Buy?
If you choose a tech or hybrid binding, you will need to buy a backcountry ski boot. Similar to bindings, there are some boots that prioritize uphill performance and others that prioritize downhill performance. Typically, you will have to decide if you want to sacrifice comfort and speed on the uphill or downhill performance. There are three main categories of backcountry boots: freeride, all-mountain, and race.
Freeride touring boots prioritize downhill capability. They function similarly to a resort boot but have tech inserts in order to be compatible with pin bindings. Most freeride boots have a walk mode and a ski mode for optimal comfort while skiing and climbing. Typically you will find a lever on the back of the boot to transition from walk to ski mode. Walk mode gives the boot just enough additional hinge for the climb. These boots are typically made with a heavier plastic, similar to that used in a resort boot, and most include the traditional, four-buckle closure. They are also the same height as alpine boots which ensures a similar skiing feel. Other types of backcountry boots have a lower cuff height for uphill performance. This ensures the boot has a consistent and stiff flex pattern.
The downside is these boots tend to be heavier, but most freeride boots can also be used on the resort with alpine bindings and a freeride ski. This makes them a great option for someone who wants to have one pair of boots for backcountry and resort skiing.
One of my favorite Freeride Touring boots is the Lange XT3 line. These boots have tech components and a walk mode for climbing. They have grip walk soles which are compatible with most touring and alpine bindings. I use these boots for both resort and backcountry riding.
Lange’s motto for this line of boots is, “Engineered to go UP, built to ski DOWN.” I think this really encompasses this line of freeride touring boots. Keep in mind, these boots I provided a link to are the low-volume version so if you have wider feet, these may not be the boot for you. If you have a slightly wider foot or just like a roomier fit you may consider the K2 Mindbender or the Atomic Hawx Prime XT.
- Great downhill performance.
- Progressive flex pattern.
- Versatile and can be used with alpine bindings for resort skiing.
- Heavier than a race or all-mountain boot.
- Higher cuff can impact uphill performance.
All-mountain backcountry boots are a bit lighter than freeride boots and will typically have a lower cuff with rubber boot soles for comfort while climbing. These boots typically use a lighter plastic and a lighter liner which reduces the weight of the boot but impacts the flex and downhill performance. This means they may not perform as well on the downhill but they do prioritize a comfortable fit on the climb. All-mountain boots tend to be a bit softer and will not ski as aggressively as a freeride touring boot. These boots are typically not compatible with alpine or frame bindings, however, this is not always the case so be on the lookout when picking your boot. These are a great middle-ground for someone who wants a boot that will crush the climb while still providing decent stability for the descent.
An example of an all-mountain boot is the Salomon MTN Summit. This boot has a lightweight shell and a rubber sole, providing excellent uphill performance. However, it is still stiff and stable enough for a fun ride down.
- Lighter than a freeride boot.
- More comfortable for climbing.
- Reduced downhill performance.
- Not compatible with all alpine bindings.
Ski-Mountaineering Race Boots
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have race boots. These are an ultralight boot designed to maximize uphill efficiency. This type of boot is most often used for ski mountaineering racers or those looking to use uphill climbing as a means of fitness. These boots are extremely lightweight and have a much different feel when downhill skiing. They will feel flimsy and unstable for those used to an alpine boot. On the contrary, they are extremely efficient and comfortable when climbing. The sole of these boots have a different shape and are not compatible with alpine bindings. They are also not compatible with hybrid backcountry bindings such as the Marker KingPin or the Salomon Shift.
An example of this type of boot is the Dalbello Quantum. As you can see just by looking at this boot they are lightweight and designed for going uphill.
- Lightest boots on the market for efficient climbing.
- One of the most expensive options.
- Compromised downhill performance.
- Only compatible with true tech bindings, not hybrid.
The Bottom Line
When deciding on a backcountry setup, you should think about what you want to prioritize as a backcountry skier. As a general rule, you will sacrifice downhill performance for uphill performance and vice versa.
If you are still unsure about what is right for you, consider talking with a Winter Sports Expert to get a personalized recommendation!