The Lowdown on Alpine Touring Gear
Most gear advice articles will paint a very neutral picture of the various brands and equipment recommended to “get the job done”. After reading, I often end up more confused as to which gear to use. Since I have no sponsors or brand relationships, you will hear the truth and nothing but the truth from my 20 years of backcountry touring experience.
I’ve skied on almost every AT binding, from the first Alpine Trekkers to Diamir Fritschis to Dukes to Dynafits. In my mind, Dynafit is the ticket! It’s essentially everything you want in an alpine touring binding. Light, functional, safe and ergonomic. You feel connected to the ski. Unlike other AT bindings, you’re not lifted inches above the ski. There is also a lock out mode and newer versions offer DIN release-ability (if that’s a word). For those of you who use the Backcountry to “send it”, I’ve seen people crush it on Dynafits, but if you’re looking for the full support of an alpine binding, try the Marker Duke.
Dynafit bindings require dynafit compataible boots, so you won’t be able to use your traditional alpine boots if you choose Dynafit. However, most touring bindings will accept a traditional ski boot if you want to go that route. In fact, for short ski tours, many people prefer to use their alpine boots for performance, but touring in alpine boots can get uncomfortable after a few hours.
Touring boots have come a long way in the last few years and most come standard with a walk/ski mode and rubber lugged soles. Both of these features are key. Today’s touring boots are geared for both going up and downhill so if you’re a alpine boot purist, I think you’ll be surprised. In the end, there will always be a trade off between comfort and performance and that is a decision you’ll have to make. I would suggest leaning slightly towards the side of comfort versus performance. So, if you’re the type of person who crams down two sizes for their resort ski boots, try going down one size for your touring boots. The key is to find the right shell that fits the shape and size of your foot. If you have a wide foot, try Garmont or Salomon. If you have a narrow foot, try Lange or Dynafit to start.
Any ski can be used as an AT ski, and you don’t need a carbon fiber ski to ski in the Backcountry. Use a ski that suits you! However, if you have extra money to spend, you will not regret purchasing one of these BC specific lightweight carbon skis. Your legs will thank you. If not, there are a ton of skis you can find on the cheap that are lightweight. Atomic made some skis back in the late 90’s you can find around called the Powder Ride or Powder Free Ride (foam core, capped ski). These are really light and you can usually find a pair under $150. Faction makes a great lightweight ski called the Candide and other brands have been following suit including the Blizzard Zero G, DPS Wailer, Dynastar Mythic, K2 Pinnacle, Line Magnum Opus or Sir Francis Bacon and Salmon’s MTN Lab.
Skis made with a foam core tend to be lighter, as well as skis made from a Balsa or Karuba wood core. Many ski companies are now offering honeycomb tips, which reduce weight even further.
The only thing you need to watch out for is excessive tip and tail rocker. A little tip rocker is great for breaking trail, but too much rocker can be unusable in the Backcountry. If your skis don’t have enough contact with the snow, then you can’t climb uphill. More than 200mm of tip and tail rocker will start to cause problems. 100- 200mm tip rocker and no tail rocker is perfect, but when you add in tail rocker you start to lose your grip fast.
If you want to climb and not flail, use mohair. I’ve tried synthetic and synthetic blends and they simply don’t grip as well as mohair. You’ve seen people out in the backcountry spend all their energy just to keep from slipping. It’s pointless. If you are really looking to save weight and will never ascend a slope over 30 degrees, you can use full synthetic.
Poles are all preference. I like the ability to extend and collapse my poles for climbing and skiing, but I know plenty of people who just use their alpine poles or a slightly longer pole and get by just fine. I highly recommend powder baskets and Black Diamond makes the best ones for $5.
A beacon, shovel and probe are 100% necessary. If you’re not sure what these items are, then do some research before heading into the backcountry. There are plenty of courses, books and information online to get started, but hands-on learning is essential before you start touring.
Most beacons today are easy to use. The best beacon is the one you are familiar with and know how to use. Beginners often prefer the Backcountry Access beacon. I have had a Pieps for years and love it. I would not recommend starting out with a 20 year old Ortovox beacon. Make sure your batteries are new since cold weather can zap a battery’s life.
I see people save weight and money by buying small plastic shovels. Plastic shovels break and small shovels are inefficient. Buy a full size metal shovel. The standard Voile shovel is great. If you need to use one, your partner’s life depends on it.
Probes. Get a full size probe. Many pole probes only go down a few feet. If your partner is buried more than a few feet underground, your probe becomes useless.
Every second matters in a search so don’t skimp on a shovel and probe.
Other essentials include a healthy wrap of duck tape around your pole for random fixes like a broken shoulder strap. If the sun’s out, I’m usually sweating 15 minutes into the tour so a super lightweight hat, headband or trucker hat is always a lifesaver, as well as an extra lightweight base layer. Sunglasses and lip balm for the sun, and don’t forget a few zip ties and a multi-tool to fix bindings.