Touring bindings guide

Alpine touring (also known as “Randonnée” or “AT”) ski bindings allow you to lift your heels naturally while skinning uphill or moving over rolling terrain, then lock your boots down and use regular alpine skiing technique when you want to go downhill. Used in combination with climbing skins and alpine touring boots that have a hinging upper cuff, AT bindings make traveling over snowy ground remarkably fast and efficient. If the idea of skinning uphill under your own power and using conventional alpine technique to ski down appeals to you, consider alpine touring bindings.

Things to consider:

  • What type of skiing are you planning to do with this binding? “Burly backcountry lines with air” is different than “fast and light, long-distance touring.”
  • Do you plan to use this binding for lift-served skiing as well as touring?
  • Does this binding require a specific type of boot?
  • Are you willing to carry the extra weight of a heavy AT binding?
  • Are you willing to accept the downhill limitations of a light AT binding?

Types of AT Bindings

AT bindings fall into two categories:

  • Frame Bindings - Frame type bindings have toe and heel pieces connected by a frame or rails and often work with both alpine and alpine touring ski boots. Examples are Fritschi Diamir and Marker Tour bindings.

  • Tech Bindings – “Tech” type bindings, often referred to by the brand name Dynafit, although there now are a number of brands that make tech bindings, rely on two sets of pins to hold the toe and heel in place and require a special boot. Tech bindings are lightweight because the “frame” in the system is your rigid boot sole itself. 

There’s a growing selection of both types of AT bindings, offering lots of choices in weight, function, and price.

Up vs. Down

There’s compromise involved in any ski, boot, and binding system that goes both up and downhill. What’s best for the up - light weight and range of motion - is at odds with what works best for skiing down, namely width, mass, and stiffness of boot and binding.

The best binding for you will vary depending on your skiing style, ability level, fitness level, conditions, and the type of touring you plan to do.

Strength vs. Weight

A burly ski combined with a heavy frame binding will ski as well as most alpine setups and be suitable for heavier skiers or those who ski aggressively in the backcountry. It also appeals to those who can only justify one pair of skis and boots for both lift-served and touring days. The downside is weight - extra pounds on your feet are slower on the uphill, which takes its toll over a long day of touring.

A very light ski and boot with a tech binding will let you fly up the skintrack but for some doesn’t provide the same downhill and release capabilities of a more robust, heavy setup. Tech bindings require a boot with molded-in toe fittings and a slotted heel plate. Some super light tech boots will only work with tech bindings, but many will work with frame bindings as well. Super light setups are appropriate for people who plan to use their binding predominately for touring vs. skiing in a resort and don’t plan to catch a lot of air or ski super aggressively. They are great for long trips, spring and summer tours where deep fresh snow and crust are rare, and randonnée racing.

Keep in mind that tech binding release values appear to use the same DIN (Deutsches Institut für Normung, a German standards organization) scale as alpine bindings, but are not DIN certified like alpine bindings - the elasticity of tech bindings and the force required to cause a release, won’t necessarily be the same as an alpine binding set at the same number.

Unlike alpine bindings which release laterally at the toe, most tech bindings currently on the market have a fixed toe and are designed to release initially from the heel in both the lateral and vertical directions. When the boot has travelled far enough out of the normal ski position, it levers the toepiece open and the boot pops out. Recently, several exceptions to this have appeared on the market. The Fritschi Vipec binding has toe pins that hinge horizontally, releasing the toe. The toe piece also has some side to side elasticity, as does the new Dynafit Beast and Radical 2.0: This allows for a more comfortable and shock resistant ski down. This trend should continue as more elastic, safe, shock absorbent tech bindings with heel and toe elasticity/release come onto the market.

Which binding is for you?

The best bet for many people is to start at the heavier end to get a feel for the sport without jeopardizing their enjoyment of the downhill. Some people simply swap their alpine bindings for AT bindings, get some climbing skins, and head out. That is, with proper backcountry safety gear and knowledge, of course.

Heavier Frame Bindings

Heavier frame bindings like those from Marker, Salomon, and Atomic have the same sort of retention and elasticity as their alpine counterparts and use many of the same components. These bindings can be used reliably for inbounds skiing by aggressive skiers and are suitable for wide and heavy skis. A beefy frame binding and stiff AT boot can be a good choice for skiers trying to do it all with one setup, or hard charging skiers transitioning from alpine setups. Note: Not all frame bindings are certified for use with all alpine touring soles - check the manufacturer’s recommendations to ensure that your boot is compatible with the binding you choose.

Lighter Frame Bindings

Lighter frame bindings from Fritschi and Marker can be the right choice for those who mix touring and lift-served skiing, want to lessen the total weight of their setup, and aren’t as concerned with charging hard and fast. These bindings can often be used with almost any touring boot and will also fit alpine boots. The step-in operation and release settings will be similar to alpine bindings.

Tech Bindings

Choosing a tech binding and boot combination may be the best choice if you plan on touring far or fast. The lighter weight and smoother mechanical action will save you energy on the uphill, and you’ll cover more ground with less fatigue. Light, smooth and less aggressive skiers can use tech setups successfully for inbounds skiing, too.

Keep in mind that most frame bindings function like alpine bindings for entry and exit (the only difference is a locking switch to convert from tour to ski mode), but tech bindings require a short learning curve - this adjustment period might not appeal to everyone, especially newcomers to touring. Recent tech designs from Dynafit, G3, Fritschi and Marker continue to make use of the standard tech fittings while offering improved elasticity and extended release value range; these models may prove to be a viable “quiver of one” solutions for a wider range of skiers.

Common AT binding questions:

Can I telemark on AT bindings? No. People who are already familiar with telemark technique will sometimes throw in a few tele turns with AT heels unlocked, but they aren’t designed for the stresses of telemark skiing at speed. Furthermore, AT bindings pivot in front of the toe, while telemark bindings and boots are designed to flex at the ball of the foot with a spring for rebound. 

Can I use alpine boots with these bindings? Most frame-type AT bindings have enough toe height adjustment to use with an alpine DIN boot, but tech bindings will not accept them. Also, skinning for long periods in heavy alpine boots that do not have a hinging hike mode can be quite uncomfortable.

Can I use a tech binding for my everyday lift-served skis? Maybe. If you are light, smooth and don’t get much air, they might work for regular lift-served skiing, but they are not for everyone. Also, tech bindings do not meet the ISO 9462 standard for alpine binding release and adjustment, and may not perform like the alpine bindings you’ve been using.

Can I use a tech binding with a wide powder ski? Probably. Wide skis place more stress on the boot/binding connection than narrow ones, but many people use this combination successfully. Tech bindings with wider mount patterns are also increasingly popular (Dynafit Beast, Plum Yak, G3 ION).

Can I use a frame-type AT binding with big skis as my only setup? Yes. Heavier frame bindings often use the same release mechanisms as their alpine counterparts and are extremely reliable.

Batteries for avalanche beacons

Here's some advice on battery choice and care for avalanche beacons which I put together when a clients unit mysteriously appeared to stop working even though the batteries were new. On inspection the terminals had been corroded by the leaking of previous batteries and causing the fault to occur. 

CAN I USE ALKALINE BATTERIES? - YES

Alkaline batteries are the universal option for all avalanche beacons. This is because the circuitry which detects how much battery life remains is tuned for this kind of cell. 

The capacity of alkalines degrades gracefully.

Lithium and rechargeable cells have a relatively flat discharge curve. One minute your beacon is saying 99% full, the next it is on zero.

Avalanche transceivers have relatively low power requirements on transmit. With a new set of batteries they will go at least 200 hours and some will continue another 20 or so hours even when the display shows zero battery life. In search mode power requirements are much higher and a beacon with flat batteries may not work for very long and this is where lithium and rechargeable batteries could cause problems. 

CAN I USE LITHIUM BATTERIES? - MAYBE (depends on your beacon)

The motivation for using lithium batteries is that they are designed for electronic equipment (such as digital cameras) and resist cold much better than alkaline batteries. However, having said this, lithium batteries can only be used in some but not all transceivers - it depends on whether the unit has the ability to detect what type of battery it is and adjust accordingly. 

For example, the Mammut Pulse can use alkaline & lithium whereas the Mammut Element can only use alkaline - always read the manufacturers advice for your model. 

Beginning with software version 3.2, the Mammut Pulse can accept either alkaline or lithium batteries. Lithium batteries are lighter, last longer (according to Mammut, in normal conditions the batteries will last 50% longer than with alkaline), don't corrode, but are more expensive. 

CAN I USE RECHARGEABLE BATTERIES? - NEVER

Never use rechargeable batteries in a transceiver. As well as the discharge issue, they also tend to put out a lower initial voltage than their alkaline counterparts, which is exacerbated the more cells you need. 

GENERAL BEACON BATTERY ADVICE:

  • Always renew all the batteries at the same time. The variance in voltage can promote leaking in alkaline cells. 
  • Use the same brand - don't mix brands. It doesn't matter so much in a headlamp but digital transceivers are quite sensitive to differences in ampage etc across the cells. 
  • Use the same type (e.g. all alkaline).
  • Believe it or not, sizes vary, check that the brand you buy cannot shake loose. Negative and positive terminals should be proud of the casing and covered by insulation at the edges. I would recommend using a good quality brand and avoid cheap no-name batteries. 
  • Replace the batteries before they get too low - generally before 50%. Check with the manufacturers advice for your model. 
  • The batteries should be removed if you are not going to use the transceiver for a long period of time (e.g. at the end of the winter season) to prevent damage due to battery leakage. You should also remove the batteries if you ship your transceiver, because the cells may be exposed to extreme temperatures and pressure changes during shipping, this includes putting the beacon in hold luggage on airline flights.
  • With all this in mind, there is value in checking the batteries and contacts not only of your own transceiver but also those in your group. As it may be their unit searching for you!

Avalanche airbags

Here's a brief rundown on what's available Avalanche Airbag wise for the 2014/15 season - it’s not exhaustive by any means, but covers the major manufacturers in Europe. 

Avalanche airbag packs are quickly becoming the fourth piece of must-have gear for backcountry travelers, along with transceiver, shovel and probe. If you are caught in a slide, you pull a handle attached to the shoulder strap of your pack and a pressurized cartridge inflates the airbag, which helps to keep you near the surface of the avalanche and more visible to rescuers.

Properly worn and deployed airbag packs have been shown to be effective in increasing your chances of survival if you are caught in an avalanche. They work on the principle of “Inverse Segregation,” sometimes known as the Brazil Nut Effect. This principle holds that in a moving aggregate of objects large and small (like an avalanche), the larger objects will rise to the top. You can demonstrate this with a bowl of unshelled mixed nuts by shaking it – the larger Brazil nuts will tend to rise to the top, while smaller varieties will sink to the bottom. Deploying an avalanche airbag during a slide effectively turns you into a larger object and greatly increases the chance of you ending up on top of the debris pile when the avalanche stops moving.

 

Up until recently I hadn’t purchased one - partly it was the financial outlay - mainly the weight and comfort on top of an already heavy amount of gear to carry, but also that I wanted to consciously rely on my judgement. However, I'm aware that I'm having to make rational decisions in a very grey area a lot of the time and as a professional, I'm more likely to end up in an avalanche at some point in my career. I have mainly been using the BCA Float 32L since last season and this is the sac I currently favour and took to Gulmarg, India this winter. I have tried all the systems described below and although I am not going to be definitive and say this is the one to get, as much as I like the BCA Float 32L, I am pretty impressed with the Black Diamond JetForce.

Despite my reservations about people’s attitudes to wearing them (they should always be seen as an addition to smart, knowledge-based avalanche risk assessment and NOT a substitute), you can’t argue with the statistics that IF you manage to deploy your airbag you have an appreciably better chance of survival.

ABS 

ABS started it all off in 1985 and most of the airbag statistics come from ABS tests. They are of the twin (85L each) bag type to provide a large surface area to float you to the top with the backup of 2 bags just in case one doesn't deploy/gets punctured. ABS argues that the wing design puts the victim in an horizontal position and thus exposed to less dynamic forces of the avalanche. The SLF (Swiss Avalanche Institute) in Davos found inconclusive evidence for this as opposed to 'single pillow' bags.

The lighter ABS Powder line (8L to 26L options) is complemented by the ABS Vario line (8L to 45+5L options). Weights were slightly reduced across the board last season with a thermoform back system and more adjustability. The ABS system differs from other packs in that it is filled with Nitrogen and a sealed CO2 cartridge trigger unit. There no valves cables or filling gauges to deal with as in all the compressed air packs. The trigger comes in the form of a removable handle with explosive charge. This sends a shockwave down the line to pierce the cartridge and inflating the two airbags. The airbags' side deployment prevents carrying your skis as an A frame but does allow for rear mounted diagonal sling. Pulling the trigger is very easy which can be embarrassing on the lift - you should detach or stow away all airbag triggers when on lifts. The trigger is easy to attach/detach but beware it can fall off if iced up and not attached properly. It is also easily lost from the stow pocket so most people attach it with cord to the strap to prevent this.

 

   ABS Vario 15L

ABS Vario 15L

There are plenty of shops in Europe that exchange the ABS cartridges. The ABS system is fully certified for air travel but I think having an explosive charge creates problems when travelling to more exotic destinations. Be prepared to argue your case and I always carry a copy of the IATA regulations with the paragraph on avalanche airbags highlighted in addition to attaching one round the detached cylinder in my hold luggage.

The packs are well made and come in an array of colours and sizes but on the whole tend to be more expensive and heavier than their competitors. The Vario system allows you to zip on and off different sized packs from various partner manufacturers from the base ABS unit.

Mammut/Snowpulse

Snowpulse was the second company to enter the market and was recently acquired by Mammut. They have revised the 1.0 cylinder system, the new 2.0 being easier to fill and uses the same thread as the ABS units. It's therefore now compatible with their carbon cylinder which saves a load of weight.  I found the old V1.0 rather uncomfortable due to the wide shoulder straps and my bony shoulders.

The Protection system (formally Snowpulse Protection Airbag System (PAS)/Lifebag)  is unique in the deployment of the airbag from the zipped shoulder compartment creating a 150L cushion round your head and protecting your vital organs. Again, whilst some tests showed that it helped float the victim upright, SLF showed that their results were inconclusive overall. There are various sac options in the 2014/15 range starting with a Protection vest 4L through the Rocker 15L, Ride 22L, Light 30L and Pro 35L.

   Mammut Pro Protection Airbag

Mammut Pro Protection Airbag

The RAS line developed by Mammut have a single 150L pillow like the BCA packs. It allows you to detach all your airbag internals and use it as a stand-alone rucksack. The old 1.0 system had a webbing loop pull handle, which wasn't the easiest to grab and a 'pin release' cylinder. The new 2.0 system has a plastic handle that folds neatly out of a zipped pocket. The handle is attached to a mechanical cable, which punctures the copper 'burst disc' on the cylinder and releasing compressed air into the bags. They are all refillable at most European stockists and are covered for air travel under the IATA regulations. These quality made bags are available in Rocker 15L, Light 30L Ride 22L and 30L and Pro 45L.

 

   Mammut Ride Removable Airbag

Mammut Ride Removable Airbag

BackCountry Access (BCA)

BCA entered the market a few years ago and they have developed a range of sacs over the past seasons and now have the Float 22L, 25L, 27L, 32L and 42L aimed at different users from heliskiers to snowmobilers to mountain professionals. This system is activated by a handle and mechanical cable line similar to others. The airbag inflates a 150L pillow behind your head and floats you head up. The beauty of this system is its simplicity, the cylinders can be filled from any compressed air source that can pump out 3000psi e.g dive shops, paintball shops (not sure where you find one of those in a ski resort) and of course, participating ski shops. The system is covered by the IATA regulations and has now gained TUV approval for sale in Europe.

The sacs are well made and very reasonable in price. The pull handle works well and is easy to grab with gloves on. It’s also one of the lightest packs on the market due to the simple and straightforward design. BCA have an online guide outlining where you can get your cylinder refilled in Europe. In Chamonix, you can see the range and get refilled at Concept Pro Shop. Overall, the BCA refill method has got to be the most straightforward and hassle-free.

   BCA Float 22

BCA Float 22

JetForce

JetForce is the first Avalanche Airbag Technology to use jet-fan inflation, a breakthrough system that draws air from an unlimited source: the atmosphere. Testable, re-deployable and travel friendly, JetForce is the result of a multiyear collaboration between Black Diamond and PIEPS, two leaders in avalanche safety equipment. Using Black Diamond’s expertise in engineering and backcountry travel, JetForce features numerous developments over existing airbag technologies, from an intuitive deployment trigger to a proprietary tear-resistant and easily repackable airbag fabric. To design JetForce’s electronics, Black Diamond turned to PIEPS to apply their knowledge of digital engineering from their transceiver products for JetForce’s electrical systems, from the ‘good-to-go’ self-diagnosis on startup to the system-status LED monitors mounted in the trigger. It uses a single pillow style 200L bag to keep you afloat, which is one of the largest volumes in any system - bigger is better!

 

   Black Diamond Halo 28L

Black Diamond Halo 28L

Having had a chance to get my hands on one, they do look well designed and constructed with the usual Black Diamond quality. Available as a Pilot 11L, Halo 28L and Saga 40L option retailing for around $1200+. Sister companies, PIEPS do a Pro 34L version and POC do a Thorax 11L version. Having spoken to folks who have used them, despite a few 'turning themselves off' and battery issues they have been happy with their choice. The Halo 28L carries really nicely and I appreciated the central. low positioning of the battery to balance out the sac.

 

   POC Thorax 11L

POC Thorax 11L

Some of the 'marketing hype’ benefits over the existing systems:

  • Easy air travel, little to no restrictions on the batteries as they’re no different than laptop batteries. NO hassle with canisters.
  • As many practice deployments as you desire, battery good for 1 to 6 full inflations depending on temperature and age, Battery is rechargeable.
  • Slightly lighter in weight than compressed gas offerings.
  •  Automatic deflation cycle can possibly create airspace around head in the event of burial.
  • Airbag stuff-stows loosely after use, pack it in minutes, no folding or other tangled origami.
  • Fan is set to cycle on periodically during 3 minute inflation period per CE standards, this can overcome up to 6 inch tear in the fabric.

Click here to see a video on the JetForce system from the Winter Outdoor Retail Expo in Salt Lake City

Black Diamond wanted to get this product launched for the 2014/15 season and according to my sources there, they already have version 2 in the testing programme... "On the JetForce front...it's gonna be late to launch.  It passed all testing requirements but got held up on the Lithium batteries.  Not sure of the official release date.  It's an awesome product.  Skied with one last winter and loved it.  The next generation will be better as we lighten the air bag itself and create a smaller battery pack.”

All these airbags work really well, having the same basic function. I have tried at least one of the currently available models from each manufacturer and for me it would boil down to cost, weight, comfort and after sales service. I'm not keen on the ABS systems due to the explosive charge and relatively complicated system. They also feel quite heavy compared to other airbags of a similar size. I have skied with a Snowpulse 1.0 and liked the idea of the round-the-head protection but the sac was uncomfortable for me, and the trigger awkward to deploy. Note that if you've one of the older Snowpulse systems you should check the cylinder: the Snowpulse cartridges for the “Inflation System 1.0” have a defective pressure gauge and must be replaced. For more information check here.

In conclusion, as of last season (2013/14), I was recommending either the Mammut RAS or the BCA Float systems. I would need the larger sizes to accommodate all the extra gear I need to carry for daily use and I would just be able to squeeze in everything for a multi-day excursion. The 20L and below bags are more for lift access day use, rather than multi-day.

There are pros and cons with each system - there is no "This is the one to buy" - the decision is rather "Do I want/need an Airbag" and once you have made that decision it is a case of choosing the one that best fits your needs:

  • What type of riding will you be doing when you use this pack? Heli-accessed lines call for a smaller, more streamlined pack than multi-day hut touring, for example.
  • Where will you be traveling with this pack? Different airlines have different rules and regulations regarding traveling with airbag packs and cartridges, so be sure to check with your airline before you fly. In some cases, you may need to travel with an empty cartridge and refill or replace it upon arrival. The availability of filled cartridges and qualified refilling stations also varies by location.
  • Do you want the potential to transfer the airbag and inflation mechanism from one pack to another? Some makes and models offer this option, which makes it possible to use the same airbag interior features with multiple sizes and styles of packs.
  • Does the pack fit you torso length and body type? Some models are available in more than one length.
  • What is your budget? Avalanche airbag packs come in a wide variety of price points.
  • Will the ski or snowboard carry system for this pack work for you? Some avalanche airbag packs limit the ways you can attach items without blocking the airbag apparatus.
  • Is the pack comfortable when weighted for your typical use? 
  • Think about whether you’re more comfortable pulling the cord with your right or left hand. Some models offer the option of switching sides. This is mainly aimed at the snowmobile market where you have the throttle in your right hand and will want to pull with your left, but has a spin-off for the left handed out there.

Whichever one you buy, practice pulling the handle before you have to use it. You definitely have to pull harder with some packs than others. Don't forget to wear the crotch strap or you could end up losing the bag over your head (not a good idea). The most important thing is to not lose sight of the importance of not getting avalanched in the first place. There is value in investing some of your time and money on a well constructed avalanche course to increase your knowledge and adopting a risk reduction methodology to your backcountry decision making.

Finally, here is a link to download the Dangerous Goods Regulations, 56th edition effective from 1st Jan 2015 that is worth taking with you on any IATA regulated flight (i.e. outside of the U.S.A.) and produce it when needed. I flew with my full canister to Srinagar, India via Geneva, Brussels, Dehli and Srinagar in my hand luggage (which was my BCA Float 32L sac with the cabling disconnected from the canister) and had to show the certificate at each airport but had no problem. However, on the return flight, I had to put the canister in my hold luggage at Srinagar. As a military airport they didn't want me to have it in my hand luggage.

For a really comprehensive test of all the currently available Avalanche Airbags, take a look at this recent article from Outdoor Gear Lab

Check out the KLIFRA online store - European stockists of BCA 22L and 27L airbags and for 2015/16 season, the Black Diamond Jetforce range as well. In my opinion, If you decide that you would like an airbag, these are currently the 2 best options on the market.