Backcountry Skiing on a Budget
Ski expert Will Shaw has been a backcountry skier in Colorado's Front Range for nine years and shares his top tips for finding a backcountry setup that fits your budget.
I have been a backcountry skier in Colorado’s Front Range for the last nine years. I started out putting together my first setup during graduate school and will always remember the overwhelming number of options and the price. Everything seemed more expensive than alpine skis, there were more drastically different options to choose from, and I didn’t even know if I would like it. Now, after spending six years working in a mountaineering shop, and with more lightweight touring skis in my basement than I care to admit, I have much more knowledge about the gear itself and what to expect to pay for it than I did nine years ago.
In the image above I’m on some old Black Diamond Havoc skis that I saved from the trash and mounted with an old pair of bindings and skins that were barely salvageable.
What is a realistic budget for your backcountry ski setup, and what are some of the cheapest ways to get started? This article will focus on your ski setup, but no backcountry kit is complete without avalanche safety equipment that you are familiar with and comfortable using. Budget around $400 for this, and plan on getting training, whether it’s from books, free clinics, or enrolling in an AIARE course. Skiing in the backcountry is dangerous; never underestimate the importance of being prepared and following safety guidelines. For some of the essentials to bring with you on your day out, check out Ski Expert Jake Mundt’s Top 10 Backcountry Products.
Budgeting for a new setup: Skis
You could spend $1,200 on the newest ultralight ski that’s loaded with carbon and balsa wood, but if you’re going to have a heavy piece in your setup, it should be your skis. Something like the Salomon QST 99 for $650 at full price makes a fine touring ski. It’s light enough for big days with enough weight to be fun. It’s also a nice versatile shape that will let you enjoy your new AT setup all season long. Our How to Buy Skis guide goes into more detail on ski sizes and shapes.
Alpine touring or AT boots are the most important piece of your setup. If there is extra room in the budget, then spend it here. There is a huge variety of AT boots ranging from ultralight race boots to what amounts to an alpine boot with a walk mode – so talk to your expert and decide which category is right for you. If you already have some touring partners in mind, then starting off with similar equipment will keep you both moving at around the same pace. A good starting point is to look for something with about the same flex as you’re used to. Make sure that you’re looking at boots with tech fittings, as they will give you the most efficient binding options. If you’re planning on using a frame binding, then your boots should have an ISO 9523 or GripWalk sole. I like the Scarpa Maestrale for $698.95, but a new boot could range from $600-$800 at full price.
The newest tech bindings range in price from $500 to $700. It’s an investment up front, but if you continue touring and start with frame bindings, this is the first upgrade you’ll make down the road. I like the G3 Zed for a lightweight and user friendly tech binding at a reasonable price. Frame bindings, like the Marker F10, are an option for a setup that will be used for both touring and resort skiing. There is a weight penalty, and the position of the pivot point at the toe is less ideal than a tech binding, but this option is better suited for in-bounds use.
With the Marker F10 coming in at $350 there may be a slight cost savings, but tech bindings are worth the extra money if that is the only consideration. At this price point, consider the Dynafit Speed Turn. It’s a bare bones tech binding that’s lightweight and gets the job done. For more detail on bindings read How to Choose Ski Bindings.
Don’t forget climbing skins in your budget because you won’t get very far without them. Climbing skins use a reusable glue to attach a one-way fabric to the bases of your skis. This lets the ski glide forward without slipping backwards. Climbing skins cost about $200 at MSRP. Pure nylon skins are a little bulkier, have more grip and less glide, and are less expensive. Nylon/mohair blend skins are a bit more expensive, less bulky, and glide better than nylon.
A common mistake when buying skins is getting them too wide. Most of your traction will come from directly under your foot and towards the tail of the ski, so there is no need to have edge to edge coverage across that 140mm tip. Instead of looking at your ski’s widest measurement, look at the width of the tail and buy the closest skin width down to about 5mm narrower than the tail. So, if a ski’s measurements are 133-105-119, a 115mm skin would provide plenty of coverage. Wider skins cost more, and you’ll often end up trimming off that extra material and throwing it away.
Based on those numbers, with a budget of about $2,200 you could put together a high end backcountry setup with current season equipment without having to hunt for deals.
Equip Your Current Setup
If money is tight, then one option is to equip your alpine skis with a frame binding and skins. The Marker Tour F10 is compatible with alpine boots and available for $350. Add $200 for skins, and you can get a feel for touring for $550 on your alpine skis. This setup is only recommended if your alpine boots have a walk mode that lets them pivot at the ankle. This resort conversion is not something I’d recommend for a long point-to-point tour, but it’s a relatively inexpensive way to check out your local backcountry zones.
A better but more expensive option is to replace boots and bindings but keep your skis. Consider a binding like the Salomon Shift or Marker Duke PT for $600 if you want to continue to ski the resort. These hybrid bindings tour like a tech binding but convert to an alpine binding for skiing. They require tech binding compatible AT boots for skinning, but you can still ski the resort on your alpine boots and save some wear on your new gear. Add about $700 for boots and $200 for skins, and you’re into the backcountry for $1,500 if paying full price.
End of Season Deals
The backcountry season lasts much much longer than the resort season. Most resorts are closed by mid April, but some of the best backcountry skiing doesn’t come until May. Good skiing can stretch well into June some seasons. Keep this in mind while shopping end of season deals. If you’re building a backcountry setup there’s still plenty of time to ski this year’s snow for the price of last season’s gear. There’s always a risk that your perfect ski will sell out, but if you’re not too picky there are always some great clearance deals to be found.
With Skins having to be sized to your ski and bindings not changing every year, these pieces of your setup can be harder to find at closeout pricing. Taking the time to piece deals together could save you about 30% on your setup, which would bring the cost down to $1,610 if you’re not dead set on anything specific.
Used gear can be a good way to get into backcountry skiing on a tight budget. Touring setups, especially tech bindings, tend to hold their value better than alpine skis, so don’t expect to find gear for next to nothing from someone who just needs the extra space. A quick craigslist search turned up used boots ranging from $300-$700 and skis with bindings and skins form $300 for older dated equipment to $850 for something more current. The savings are there, but consider whether the savings are worth the additional wear on the equipment and missing out on the manufacturer warranty.
Be especially cautious when buying used boots or skins. Ski boots are constantly pivoting and flexing. Screws or even rivets can start to come loose, liners pack out, and heavily worn soles can make it difficult to click into a tech toe. Skin glue can last a long time when stored properly, but I’ve seen a lot of skins on Craigslist that look like the glue is in bad shape. Glue should not be soaking through to the plush side of the skin and should not be stringy when the skins are pulled apart.
At the end of the day, the cheapest backcountry setup is one that you don’t have to upgrade. Take some time to learn what you’re looking for, talk to your expert here at Curated, and look for the best options at the best price. It’s an investment, but think of it as a ski pass to any mountain you want that you never have to renew.