The Complete Guide to Ski Touring Gear
Backcountry ski gear can be confusing, but Ski Expert Will D. can help! Here he breaks down the most common sectors of touring gear and what it's best suited for.
The backcountry skiing market can be overwhelming. You’re looking for a lightweight setup, but how light is too light? You need something to handle inbounds terrain, but don’t want your boots to be uncomfortable on the uphill? Weight classes, intended uses, crazy new features that might just be gimmicks—it can be hard to know what manufacturers are actually saying!
There are very few industry standards when it comes to touring gear, so in this article, I’m going to break down some of the most common sectors of touring gear and tell what actually matters in all of the marketing buzzwords which plague touring gear.
I’ll break it down into a couple of different weight “classes,” which I will go through in this article—from lightest to heaviest. As with any rules, there are always exceptions, and especially with how much touring gear can change from season to season, these are not written in stone. But they typically provide a great starting point for narrowing down your search to make sure you get the right gear for your needs. As always, a Curated Ski Expert will be able to take what you’re looking for and find some perfect recommendations for your new setup!
Remember! The most important piece of touring gear is always avalanche safety equipment. Always carry the proper gear (beacon, shovel, probe), read the avalanche forecast, and ski to your abilities. Your safety is your responsibility. Know before you go!
Lightest: Race + Expedition
The gear in this category is for the real gram weenies and lycra enthusiasts out there and is highly specialized for specific use. There is a singular goal with this gear: save weight.
Stripped-down feature sets, super short skis, crazy design and materials all make this category what it is. These products are not meant for daily drivers or even normal touring.
Expedition bindings typically don’t even have a heelpiece that you can click into, and race bindings often do not have adjustable releases.
Skis are often all carbon fiber and have an extremely narrow waist width. They are not made for enjoying the journey downhill.
Boots can have super awesome walk modes, with an incredibly high range of motion, but as with the skis, they’re not made for downhill performance.
This category is for those times you’re trying to save as much weight as possible for your approach to Denali or setting a new course record at a skimo race in the Alps.
Light: Ski Mountaineering + Fast and Light
While also fairly specialized, this gear is more approachable and more useful in terrain. Made for long approaches and high altitude lines, this gear saves weight wherever possible, leaving it stripped-down and super functional.
This category has probably seen the most innovation in the past couple of years, with bindings becoming crazy light while still retaining a high level of functionality. Gear such as the Dynafit Superlite 150 has an adjustable release range up to 13, three riser heights, and comes in at 150 grams.
Skis with super-light construction methods and materials also help to save weight on those high-vertical days and are usually super stiff to hold edges in steep terrain, with underfoot widths typically sub-100 mm. The Salomon MTN Explore 95s are a great example of this!
Boots retain a very high range of motion while providing a little more in terms of downhill performance, although they can still be pretty soft when the snow gets chunky. These will typically weigh in at around 1000 grams, as seen in the Scarpa F1 boots.
The lightweight nature of this gear means it’s made to get down those big lines safely and in somewhat good style, but it also means it will suffer in less-than-ideal snow conditions and high speeds. If you want a setup to tick off those splitter couloirs and steep faces at 13,000 ft or if you’re carrying an ice ax, crampons, and a rope on your pack, this category is where you should be looking.
Mid-Weight: Standard Touring + Alpine Touring
This is the bread-and-butter touring category—the one for most skiers out there. It strikes a great middle-ground between weight and performance and spans a large portion of the market, with options on either side depending on your priorities.
Fully featured tech bindings, around the 400-gram mark, come with lots of adjustable release and large footprints for better power transfer. Satisfying clicks all around and easy-to-use riser designs make these perfect for everyday touring in any condition.
Skis are made with more advanced materials to save weight, but still have wood cores for good performance in variable snow. These skis won’t be a drag on the ascent, but will still have enough to them to have a lot of fun when you’re on the way down—like the Moment Wildcat Tour 108s.
Boots sacrifice some walk-mode comfort for higher stiffness and better performance on the downhill, but are still plenty light for longer days, typically weighing around 1300-1500 grams.
Mid-weight touring gear is the easiest to use, but can sometimes fall into the trap of having too many features. Confusing bindings are one of the easiest ways to make your backcountry day much harder than it needs to be—I’ve always been a believer in keeping it simple! Overall, most tourers will want to stick in this section for general touring, with no crazy specialized features and the most fun per gram out of any of these categories. The options are endless to dial in the perfect setup for your terrain and conditions.
Heavy: Freeride Touring
This category is known by many different names, but freeride touring seems to be the most common. “Free” seems to be manufacturers’ favorite word, but this gear is some of the most expensive. This category includes the burliest, most performance-oriented gear that you can still tour on.
Bindings often include many designs from normal resort bindings, with heelpiece and toe designs directly from alpine bindings (e.g Marker Kingpins), all the way to full-on frame bindings—a normal resort binding on a frame that allows you to walk uphill in them. These bindings often also have certified DIN release, adding a nice margin of safety for your ligaments.
Many freeride tourers opt to simply ride resort skis, allowing them to stomp big air with incredible stability. Lightweight resort skis make great candidates for 50/50 backcountry/resort and freeride setups.
Boots are often alpine boots with an added walk mode (1500+ grams), providing great versatility as they can be used both for touring and piste skiing. Although they will not be as comfortable as dedicated touring boots, they are certainly an upgrade to touring in traditional alpine boots. These boots also will give the best flex and feel compared to lightweight touring boots.
All this extra fun and stability comes at the cost of weight though, but if you’re looking to hit big airs and ski super aggressively in the backcountry, this is the way to do it. This is also the place to look for the setups that are to be used in the resort—the overbuilt freeride gear can also take the beating of inbounds skiing.
Heaviest: Telemark Skiing
Ah yes, telemark skiing. The OG touring method. While it might be the heaviest way to get into the backcountry, it’s also one of the coolest. Telemark gear comes in at a significantly higher weight compared to normal mid-weight touring gear (telemark skiers are the strongest guys out there), but what is weight compared to true freedom and bliss?
If you’re looking for free-heel touring gear, bindings and boots will add an extra touring-specific walk mode.
With skis—while it may be tempting to reduce the weight with light construction—make sure the skis are rated for telemark bindings. Tele bindings put much more force in a concentrated area compared to typical bindings, and not all skis, especially touring skis, are built for those forces. Free the heel, free the mind.
There’s a lot of information here, and yet it doesn’t paint a complete picture of the myriad of options available in touring gear. Being honest with what you’re looking to accomplish in the backcountry will make sure you put together the best setup for maximum enjoyment. If you're ready for more, read about the best backcountry touring skis here. Don’t forget about climbing skins, poles, packs, and all the other gear needed to have a successful tour. Remember to reach out to a Ski Expert to get the best recommendations for your goals, and have fun out there!