Article by Anna
Once upon a time not too long ago, backcountry ski bindings options were limited. Either get Dynafit Tech Bindings or a frame style. There was also the dreaded option of strapping your skis and boots to your pack and snowshoeing up. Yeah, that sucks. That would be some people's first and last venture into the backcountry. If that was my introduction, I would probably never do it again. I admit it, I hate snowshoeing.
Now that the Dynafit patent has expired, a flood of new options has arrived. When I was picking out my first set of backcountry ski bindings, I was overwhelmed with the few available options. Now, it is even worse. This article will help you decide which bindings are best for you and your budget.
Alpine Touring (AT) Binding: This is a blanket term for "backcountry bindings". AT bindings allow you to set the binding so that you can lift your heel to skin up a mountain and then lock the heel for the ski down.
Randonee: A fancy name for an Alpine Touring Binding.
Frame Binding: Essentially a traditional DIN binding that is mounted on a frame. The entire binding releases at the back with a frame that runs down the boot, allowing the heel to lift for the ascent. These are compatible with standard ski boots.
Tech Binding: These bindings incorporate a toe pin and require boots with toe pin holes. These bindings are typically lighter weight and require a boot compatible with tech bindings. The heel piece either slides or rotates to allow the heel to be free for the ascent.
rame bindings are great if you are looking for a burly all-around binding for backcountry and resort use. They have standard DIN settings and accept standard ski boots. This is great because it means you can also save money not buying new boots (ideally your boots will have a ski/walk mode-the walk mode makes skinning significantly easier). The bindings themselves typically retail for several hundred dollars less than a tech binding. These bindings maintain a similar delta and ramp angle to regular alpine bindings. For some, this angle is important. For many weekend warriors, it doesn't make a difference.
The cons? They are heavy. Skinning up a mountain can be exhausting and these add weight to every step you take. Every bit of energy you use going up is that much less energy you have to safely enjoy the descent. They also can be a bit cumbersome to switch from skinning to ski mode.
These bindings are pretty straight forward: put an alpine binding on a frame with a hinge on the front where it attaches to the ski. Create a system that locks and releases the heel. Everything else is similar to your trusty old alpine bindings.
Examples: Solomon Guardian, Atomic Tracker, Marker Duke, Fritschi Freeride Pro
Tech bindings are a little more complicated than frame bindings to explain. For the purposes of this article, I am only going to address the tech binding that the majority of recreational backcountry skiers would consider. I am not talking about the ultra-lightweight race bindings (such as the Dynafit Superlight, Dynafit Low Tech, and Dynafit DNA lines). If you are in need of those types of bindings, then you probably already know the information in this article. I am only going to address bindings that come that are practical for the recreational backcountry skier.
Tech bindings are lightweight and are very quick and easy to switch from climbing to ski mode. Basically, they shine where the frame binding does not. They are made for efficiency in the backcountry.
One of the cons of older (and many of the newer) tech bindings is they do not have a standard DIN release, making them frowned upon for use at a resort. The release mechanism is also a little different from how a typical alpine binding would release. The release is based more on the tension in the heel piece whereas the release for alpine bindings is dependent on the toe piece. This can make ejecting in the case of a crash different from what you might expect. Some of the newer models now come with the DIN rating, making them a great lightweight all around binding for resorts and the backcountry.
Whispers and rumors that tech bindings are weak and will release prematurely has been circulating in the ski community for years. While this may be kind of true with much older models, most of the "premature release" problems have been debunked at this point and are commonly attributed to not setting the release settings correctly. I have never met a skier who has actually had a problem or complaint with the predictability of the release on tech bindings. From my experience, they stay put when I need them, and pop off when I fall.
Concerns regarding the overall durability of tech bindings are also somewhat common. These are typically lightweight bindings. If you want to do heavy duty skiing, you need to get a heavy duty binding. Match the binding to what kind of skier you are. There are "heavy duty" tech bindings available. These bindings will be designated by a 16 after the model name.
Tech bindings will typically run you a few hundred dollars more than a frame set up. Additionally, the toe clips take some getting used to. It took me about a season to get used to the process. Also, the delta and ramp angles are usually a little steeper on this style binding. As mentioned before, this is not noticeable to many skiers. If it does bother you, there are techniques to place spacers to correct this if it is a problem for you.
Despite the cons, the lightness and efficiency of tech bindings makes them a popular choice for many backcountry skiers.
Examples of traditional tech bindings: Older Dynafit Radical, Dynafit Beast, G3 Ion, G3 Onyx, Fritschi Tecton
Examples of tech bindings with ISO/DIN rating: Newer Dynafit Radical, Marker Kingpin, Fritschi Vipec
My Personal .02
There are advantages and disadvantages to both tech and frame bindings. An aspiring backcountry skier will need to decide what values are the most important to them when selecting a setup.
Don't underestimate the role that extra weight on your feet plays. Every single step up the mountain, earning those turns, adds up. Many new skiers are shocked by the massive amount of energy it takes to haul yourself up the mountain. Some choose to get used to a heavy setup and enjoy the benefits of leg strengthening. For others, it is worth every penny and con to save the pound of weight on each foot. A tech setup weight around 2 to 3 pounds whereas a frame setup is closer to 4 to 6 pounds.
The financial savings and versatility of frame bindings make them a tempting choice for new backcountry skiers. Despite choosing tech bindings, I tried to save money with my first setup by remounting my old alpine powder skis with Dynafit FT Radicals. Even repurposing skis I already had, I ended up spending over one thousand dollars on bindings, boots, skins, beacon, shovel, probe, and pack. Those skis served me well for 3 seasons until I knew more of what I wanted in a ski. My set up was light enough that I was not completely miserable. While I could have saved money with frame bindings, I knew from my alpine skiing preferences that I dislike heavy skis, even just sitting on a chairlift.
If money was not an option, the option with the fewest cons would be one of the DIN rated tech bindings, such as the Marker King Pin.
Tips for Purchasing
For a new backcountry skier, getting a used ski/binding setup can be an excellent option. Used setups often run around $500 for the skis and bindings at local ski swaps or in the classified. If you must buy new, be aware that tech bindings rarely go on sale for less than $350. Most retail starting around $500. Frame bindings can be found on sale for around $250, with most retailing starting around $350.
What are the numbers after the binding? Why is the G3 Ion 10 more expensive than the G3 ion 12? The number (usually 10-16) indicates the maximum release tension setting. For someone like me who is relatively lightweight and does not charge extreme lines, I usually set my backcountry bindings to 7-8 (which is actually similar to my DIN on my alpine bindings). I can buy the G3 Ion 10s since I will never set my bindings above 10. If you are heavier and/or attaching more aggressive lines that require dropping large cliffs, you'll need to shell out the extra money for a higher setting on the binding, such as 16.
Also, don't get too excited with your new ski set up yet. Don't forget you also need to purchase avalanche safety equipment (beacon, shovel, probe) and sign up for an avalanche 1 class to learn how to use the equipment and how to make smart and safer choices in avalanche terrain. Don't be that guy or gal out there making bad and unsafe choices that ends up doing something stupid and causing a slide that kills you or your friend. Or worse, causing a slide that kills you or your friend and unsuspecting parties below. The backcountry is an amazing place, but it is to be respected.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution. A backcountry set up is a significant investment, so consider what kind of skier you are and what you plan to do with your set up. Then get out there and safely enjoy the freedom of the backcountry!