How to Choose the Right Backcountry Touring Binding for You
Ski expert Christian Strachan goes over the two main types of AT bindings and how to select your binding based on how and where you ski and your priorities on the slopes.
Backcountry touring has been booming in recent years, much of it due to the advent of lighter, easier-to-use gear that performs stellarly well in a variety of different conditions, and in different realms of specialization. As a result of this boom, manufacturers have responded with (of course) more choices. For skiers (or snowboarders, or never-evers!) wanting to make the jump to backcountry skiing, the choices can be pretty intimidating, especially in the realm of bindings. Touring bindings can look, and operate, nothing like normal alpine bindings that you'd use at a lift-serviced ski area or resort.
My own personal history with backcountry skiing actually started with telemarking in the days when tele was king in North America. Tele totally ruled the roost, so to speak, the telemark turn was flowy and beautiful to execute, and a wonder to witness...except when conditions were suboptimal, such as with breakable crust or sastrugi. However, the alpine touring (AT) equipment available at the time was exceptionally heavy and clunky. Frame bindings were the only type of binding available, and the materials and design technologies were still developing within this relatively small, niche market.
Then came along the Dynafit TLT (TourLite Tech) binding, and everything changed. My first outing on tech bindings was a veritable game-changer, and my mind was blown by the ease of skinning up and the lack of weight on my legs. From there, I have used both frame-style and tech-style bindings, and have finally settled in on tech bindings for all my skiing, both on- and off-resort.
First, I’ll go over the two main types of AT bindings, frame and tech, and then how to select your binding based on how and where you ski and your priorities. Also, please note: in this article, I’ll be talking specifically about alpine touring ski bindings, and not addressing telemark or splitboard bindings; I also won’t be taking a look at alpine touring adapters such as the Alpine Trekkers or Daymakers—devices you click in your downhill-only bindings to allow you to tour.
Types of Backcountry AT Bindings
Backcountry ski bindings can be roughly divided into two types: frame and tech (or pin bindings).
Frame bindings basically work like regular downhill bindings for stepping in and out and have a rigid frame connection between the toe and heel. In ski mode, the heel part of the frame is locked down, allowing the binding to operate basically the same way a downhill alpine binding operates, with full entrance/exit and release. In tour mode, the heel is unlocked and the frame rotates about a hinge near the toe to allow the user to hike easily using skins. Some popular examples of frame bindings are the Tyrolia Aaambition, Marker Baron, F10, and F12 Tour. Frame bindings are still relevant because they offer a more consistent, standardized DIN release, and have more built-in suspension and shock absorption than tech bindings, so they perform better in hardpack, icy, and challenging conditions.
With “tech” style bindings, first introduced to the broader market by Dynafit in 1993 with their TourLite Tech (TLT) binding, the ski boot acts as the frame of the binding, transferring power from the boot through the binding to the ski. Two steel conical pins in the toe of the binding clamp firmly on either side of an insert in the toe of the boot, while two pins in the heel piece of the binding insert into a slotted steel plate in the heel of the boot when in downhill mode. For touring, the pins are situated out of the way to allow the boot to hinge about the toes. The main advantages of tech bindings are that they are lighter (much lighter!) weight than frame bindings, and the toe pivot point is further back, offering a more natural gait than frame bindings.
Frame or Tech?
Increasingly, most people’s answer to this is a resounding, “tech!” Their ease of use, robustness, and lightness all add up to a more enjoyable experience for _most_ backcountry uses. There might be some exceptions, however, that would make you want to consider using a frame binding:
- Most of your backcountry skiing is gate-accessed (slackcountry), and you’ll be ascending a few hundred or a thousand vertical feet and want the safe release characteristics of a full regular alpine binding.
- You’ll be using your skis for mostly lift-serviced terrain and only occasionally venturing out into the backcountry on them.
- You’re skiing very aggressively in the backcountry and demand the safety of a standardized DIN release and performance characteristics of a downhill alpine binding (that said, even Hoji uses tech bindings).
- You have regular downhill boots that don't have the tech insert in them and therefore won’t fit in tech bindings.
Choosing a Tech Binding
As I mentioned above, as backcountry skiing has exploded, so have the choices, and the options can be maddeningly diverse. The main factors in narrowing down your selection are how you’ll use them, your binding weight considerations, and then once you have the model narrowed down, determining the submodel for release values. The "best bindings" are not going to be the most expensive, but rather the ones that fit your use and style most appropriately.
(A note on release values with tech bindings: the same alpine DIN standard that downhill alpine bindings fall under does not apply to tech bindings. Tech bindings manufacturers use “release value” that roughly approximates the DIN of alpine bindings, but is not tested for consistency the same way alpine bindings are. That said, look for a binding that has release values about the same as your downhill alpine bindings.)
Freeride Touring Tech Bindings
These bindings are for those skiers who will be using their setup both on lift-serviced terrain and in the backcountry. You’re not as concerned with weight and want a beefy binding that can handle abuse and also features ski brakes and a more alpine-style clamping heel. The performance of these bindings matches those of frame and alpine bindings, and they are still lighter and easy to tour in. Examples are the Marker Duke PT, Salomon S/Lab Shift MNC, and Fritschi Tecton.
All Mountain Bindings
If you’re not sure where to start and what to get, this is the perfect category to get you started. Weighing less than freeride bindings, but with a full feature set, these bindings will perform at a very high level and take you pretty much wherever you need to go. This category’s bindings feature brakes, adjustable release values, and other brand-specific features that help perform on the way down, while not weighing you down on the up. Examples include the G3 Ion and Zed, then Dynafit ST Rotation and Fritschi Vipec.
Ski Mountaineering Bindings
When you’re setting out for an ambitious goal for the day, with miles of distance and thousands of vertical feet to go, there are two things you don’t want to be thinking about: noticing the weight on your feet (or on your pack), and whether your gear might fail miles from nowhere. Mountaineering bindings address these issues of light weight and reliability for long days in the backcountry. These bindings often feature removable brakes and heel boot length adjustability, and still keep higher heel risers for steeper skin tracks often found in the backcountry. They may also include an adjustable release setting rather than using a fixed spring as race bindings use. Many fitness skiers use this class of binding as they are light, but not race light, and still include features important for uphilling on resort terrain. The Dynafit ST Radical and Marker Alpinists fit this niche very well.
Shaving every gram for uphill high-performance with minimalistic design, race bindings are actually very robust due to their simplicity and fewer moving parts. Heel risers are lower, and the heel unit is fixed to a set boot sole length (binding techs sweat over these mounts!), and brakes are nonexistent. You will actually often see race bindings in the backcountry on those skiers to whom weight savings is paramount. Springs set the release at a fixed value, and you can’t fine-tune the release to your particular style. However, these weigh next to nothing (often hovering around 120-150g) and are a dream on the up. However, you won’t see skiers hucking even 10-footers on these! The Black Diamond Helio 180 is actually a race binding with an adjustment plate and is a great option to start with in this category, blurring the line between a race and mountaineering binding.
So, narrow down based on the above categories how you’ll most likely be using your alpine touring setup, then choose a model within those that best fits your needs and is most appealing in its feature set. Also, don’t feel too restricted by having to choose something within your category—it’s ok to go across categories, just have in mind that there will be some give and take as you bring a binding into a different use category.
Having problems deciding? That’s why we have experts on hand to help. Give us a shout any time and an expert will be available to help get you started!