Ski Touring Equipment
If you've seen the other pages on Telemark and Cross Country Skiing you'll have come to realise that free heel Nordic skiing covers a wide range of activities. The extremes within this branch of skiing being Cross Country Ski Racing with narrow skis and ultra light boots through to enormously wide telemark skis with equally enormous four buckle boots. Those are easy to identify. It's the infinite variety of free heel skiing in between that's more difficult to pigeonhole because of the wide overlap.
Ski touring has quite a big footprint in the middle of all this. Like much else in life the phrase "horses for courses" springs to mind because if you're going to extract maximum enjoyment from your trip, your equipment should be tailored to the type of terrain in which you will tour. In the best of all possible worlds a ski tourer would be followed by a ski caddy carrying a large quiver of skis and boots for every occasion. On the flat he would hand you a set of light narrow skis to enable you to zoom along. When you come to that powder bowl he will pass you a set of big wide tele skis and a change of boots. Unless you've just won the lottery this is not going to happen so we inevitably have to compromise.
Thirty years ago the choices were much simpler because there was only a small range of equipment from which to choose. Today the choices are daunting. As more equipment comes onto the market, more and more niches are being filled by manufacturers answering particular needs. To go back to that ski caddy; every ski caddy would produce something different from his quiver, not only because of the enormous range of gear on offer but also because of his own personal preferences. For this reason this page can be no more that a general guide to help you to identify the gear for the kind of ski touring you wish to do.
In England gear is not easy to track down and when you do it's not going to cheap. If you're buying ski touring gear for the first time you'll want to get it right. Your previous mountain experience, your budget and of course your personal preferences will dictate what kind and what level of touring you are most likely to undertake.
At this stage an equipment guide would usually now tell you about the various options of skis, boots, bindings and peripheral gear. I'm going to take an unusual but more structured approach to helping you make equipment choices. So ask yourself and get answers to these questions before buying anything.
What sort of terrain am I most likely to ski?
Which skis best suits this terrain?
Which binding systems best suits this terrain?
What sort of boot best fits the grade of touring I shall be doing?
Your answer to the first question is likely to point you to one of the four tour areas mentioned in the Ski Touring Information page
. So let's look at these areas in turn and we'll see what the gear options are to enable you to answer the other two questions and to get the most out of your trip.
Unless you're going to ski near to the west coast where the mountains plunge suddenly down to the fjords, for the most part the mountains inland are fairly well rounded with many flat frozen lakes. The fantastic hut systems, particularly in Norway, make hut tours ideal. Direct routes between the huts are usually marked with birch twigs so there will be few surprises in terms of challenging terrain. Get away from the marked routes and you can make your trip more challenging but without having to go for the heavier equipment needed in say, the Alps.
You will probably reject heavy telemarking equipment on the grounds that lugging around all that weight will undoubtedly slow you down and increase fatigue. On most Scandinavian trips, slopes suitable to telemark will be relatively few in number. At the other extreme you will probably reject racing skis on the grounds that whilst they're great crossing those lakes, the lack of metal edges made that long traverse difficult and dangerous. Those narrow skis are great in tracks but sink out of sight in untracked snow and skitter about on ice. A good indication of which ski to use for touring in this area is to look at the sort of skis that the Scandinavian manufacturers make for just such a purpose. You'll find several metal edged skis with a medium camber and a ski tip in the region of 65 - 80 mm.
A very important factor not to be ignored at this stage is whether you will use skis with fish scale bases or will you use grip wax. Having got this far, I'm going to assume that you are familiar with these two types of bases (if not, click onto this page)
75mm Binding & BC - Up to just a few years ago if you were touring in Scandinavia, the 75mm Rottefella binding system was de rigueur. There was nothing else really suitable for touring. All the boots had what is called a Norwegian welt. It's a sort of square bill at the front of the sole. To engage the binding, the boot toe is pushed into it and a hinged bail swings down onto the welt, clamping the toe of the boot to the ski. The bail is secured by a ratchet, thus leaving the heel free. To increase security, three holes in the toe welt, underneath the boot, engage onto three pins pointing up from the binding. This binding started life in the 1950's, or perhaps before, and has been gradually beefed up to keep pace with ever beefier boots and stronger skis. The beefed up version of the 75mm binding still remains popular today because:
it does the job,
it's tried and tested
There's nothing much to go wrong.
BC Bindings - Several years ago, the BC binding system was launched. Exactly what BC stands for is open to dispute but it's commonly thought to stand for Back Country. Just as the 75mm system was beefed up so has the racing and standard recreational Cross Country Ski binding system. This system comprises a metal bar recessed into the toe of the boot which engages with a slot in the binding. Many prefer this binding system although some would say that downhill control is inferior to the 75mm system. As a mark of how much this system is taking over in Scandinavia, DNT the Norwegian Hut Touring Organisation, now recommends this boot and binding system for those embarking on the tours that it organises. Not only that, it's brochures advises against the use of heavier equipment.
Cable bindings - Throughout all these developments, the original cable binding system was always available for touring but perhaps only selected by those tackling the more serious and steeper trips. In recent years the system is making a come back partly due to the fact that the bindings are stronger but mainly because the latest versions incorporate a touring setting. One advantage that Alpine ski mountaineering gear always had over tele gear was that the hinge point was in front of the toe rather than under the ball of the foot as in Nordic bindings. This advantage made climbing much less tiring because there was no resistance offered from the binding. Many of the latest tele bindings now have a switchable climbing setting so that you have the advantages of both systems and can switch from Nordic to Alpine when the need arises. If your trip is likely to venture away from the main marked routes into steeper territory, this system may rise to the top of your list.
Having decided on the binding system, we can now look at boots. This decision on bindings will already have weeded out a large selection of boots that won't fit your bindings. BC & 75mm are not interchangeable. Ten years ago leather boots were the norm but they're not only becoming more difficult to find but they're now often more expensive than plastic. A range of lower cut plastic boots suitable for touring is now available from all the major boots makers and they're no heavier than the leather ones that they replaced. In general BC boots tend to be less rigid than boots to fit the 75mm system. Whichever system you're buying into it's an advantage to get your boots fitted by a good boot fitter. Everyone's feet are different and it may be that you will benefit from different foot beds to the ones that come with the boots. They'll give your feet extra support.
The advice in this section applies to ski touring in any area. There is much merit in the advice to get the strongest but lightest poles that you can afford. A broken pole in the middle of a tour is no fun. Adjustable telescopic poles are an option and these best come into their own on a long traverse where you need one short pole and one long pole. You can adjust them to your exact requirements. Whilst you may encounter a long traverse on a Scandinavian tour they are unlikely to be common. Some skiers question the reliability of telescopic poles because with wear, you could find that the joints become sloppy resulting in the poles gradually diminishing in length as you put pressure on them. As a general rule, the fewer joints along the pole, the less likely they are to cause trouble.
In whichever area you are going to tour, get poles with a large basket. Small baskets for track skiing will sink through untracked snow and impede your progress. There are some large plastic fixed baskets but the floating baskets that you see in the oldest of black and white ski photos are hard to beat. These consist of a hoop attached to the bottom of the pole by four straps as the spokes and it automatically adjusts to the level of the snow. Many of the new ones have plastic spokes attaching the hoop but you may find them too springy. You can still get ones with leather spokes and these soon adjust themselves to the angle of your gait and become "yours".
Skins - Just a few years ago Scandinavians laughed when foreigners produced a set of skins from their sacks. So far as they were concerned there was nothing steep enough with which grip wax could not cope. They've changed their minds. Whether you've plumped for fish scales or for grip wax, climbing skins are a very useful if not essential addition to your gear. Not only do they get you up the steepest of slopes but they also come in handy when the snow conditions are so awful and varied that fish scales can't get a grip and not even klister seems to work. Most skins will cover the whole length of the ski but you can buy some skins that just cover the grip area.
These can work quite well on easy gradients except that you do lose traction when you hit a slight dip under the grip area and you're weight's only on the tips and tails. They are cheaper than full length fully fitted carpeting but they may be all you need if you're not going to go too steep.
In the same way that Post-it notes revolutionised the office in the last century, in a small way so did skins glue in ski touring. Each manufacturer has its own way of attaching skins to the bases at the tips and tails but practically all have some form of skins glue which acts rather like Post-it notes but better. Whereas the Post-it note's ability to stick soon wears off, skins glue just seems to carry on and on sticking. Bear in mind that the glide qualities of skins vary from one manufacturer to another so it's a good idea to look at some reviews to see which glide best.
Spade/Bivvy Bag - You will of course eventually make your own decisions about the safety gear that you will carry but the general rule about selecting gear; that has at least two uses, also applies to safety equipment. If you decide to take a small spade, it will have a number of uses other than digging people out of avalanches or digging a snow hole in an emergency. You'll be surprised how often you use it for collecting snow for melt water or digging out a seating area at lunch time to mention but two. It's worth noting that should you get caught out in bad weather and need to build a snow hole, a spade may be of little use if snow cover is thin. In these circumstances a bivvy bag made of breathable material could make a significant difference. When it's not saving your life, it's a good thing to have in a snow hole anyway or just to put under you if you encounter a damp bed. I usually put my sleeping bag in one just to keep it extra dry.
Undoubtedly the Alps offer some of the greatest challenges to the free heel ski tourer. There will be stretches on the plateaus which are very similar to the conditions that you'll experience in Scandinavia but the ups and downs are likely to be much steeper. You will find it difficult to avoid glaciers and you will need the necessary know how and safety equipment for these parts of your tour. The Alps are further south than Scandinavia and so you are likely to encounter a greater range of snow conditions.
Nearly all the information contained on the telemark skiing equipment page applies to equipment suitable for an Alps tour.
Most manufacturers make a ski aimed at the ski tour/randonnee market but an alternative would be a ski often termed an all mountain ski. One important factor to consider when selecting gear for touring as opposed to selecting gear for the piste, is weight. There are papers calculating the additional energy needed in each footstep for every gramme of weight attached to the bottom of each leg so you'll need to carefully strike a balance between the strength of your gear and its weight.
Unless you intend some low level day tours just away from the ski tracks, few would contemplate the use of the BC system for a tour of the Alps. If your free heel performance is going to approach or match that of Alpine Ski Mountaineering equipment it's going to have to be big and strong. Fortunately there is a wide range of strong and reliable bindings capable of dealing with an alpine tour. You may want to narrow down your choice to include only those bindings with a switchable tour setting. (See Scandinavia/cable bindings above)
Poles - See Scandinavia above.
Full length skins are considered essential for the Alps. There will be lots of long steep ups and whilst grip waxes could do the job, there will be a number of times when you'll lose traction, time and waste much energy slipping back.
One item of equipment that you're more likely to need in the Alps than in Scandinavia is the harscheisen. As its name suggests, it's a bit of alpine kit that clips either to the ski or to the bottom of the ski boot and will grab hold of hard snow and ice with which not even skins can cope. Most practitioners prefer the ones that attach to the boot because they allow you to slide your ski forward without the teeth catching. The one in the photo attaches to the ski.
With these steep slopes, avalanches should be an ever present concern. The quantity of safety equipment carried will differ from that needed in Scandinavia in that greater emphasis will be placed on emergencies on the glaciers and in possible avalanches. Avalanche transceivers and probes will undoubtedly be items of safety equipment that you'll be prudent to carry but like all safety equipment, practice with its use is essential.
Scotland has lots of terrain suitable to undertake ski tours. Neither purely Scandinavian nor purely alpine, your choices will be dictated by these factors. Firstly, there will be no nice ski huts in the mountains for you to stay in and secondly with mountains no higher than 1343 metres the snow will be less than reliable thanks to the nearness of the gulf stream and the maritime climate. Ski tourers are more likely to do day tours from a fixed base or the hardy will camp.
Skis, Bindings & Boots
Because the weather is such an overriding factor for Scottish touring, this is largely going to dictate the sort of equipment that you decide to take. Whilst settled periods of dry cold weather are not unknown in Scotland, allowing you to travel light on undulating hills with BC equipment or even lighter, the reality is that you must be prepared for everything. Scotland is an area where you may be glad that you chose skis with waxless bases otherwise you may be faced with frequent changes of waxes. If only to cope with the variable snow conditions, skins will find a place in most Scottish tourers sacks.
In the current financial climate the Rockies is unlikely to be your first tour venue but it is somewhere that every free heel tourer should visit at least once if only to experience the quality of the snow. Although it's much further south than any of the three preceding areas it has the benefit of high mountains and, as a consequence of being a long way from the sea, it has a proper winter. The mountains may not be as spectacular and the challenges not quite as great as in the Alps but there is fine ski touring to be had.
If the Americans complain about the poor snow conditions it's probably because they've not skied near to the coasts or in Europe. Scotland would give its eye teeth for what the Americans call crud. Ski in the Rockies, particularly on the Wasatch front and you will encounter powder snow that's often 5% (or less) water content. What's more, because the trees go up to 3000 metres and beyond, they hold the 13 metres of powder that falls every year. This means wide skis will be needed to keep you on top of the snow.
Bindings and Boots
Because there is no equivalent European hut system, most touring in the US is either day tours or camping tours. Day tours are very much "earn your turns" tours looking for that untracked powder bowl. Wide skis inevitably means substantial bindings and boots otherwise there will be a mismatch the skis will overpower the rest of your gear. Your gear is probably going to heavier than the touring equipment that you'd use elsewhere but it will help you to make the most of those powder bowls. As in the Alps, your bindings will benefit from the tour/climbing setting to make the long ups easier.
Peripheral Equipment - See Alps above
[Skiing is inherently dangerous. This page does not purport to teach you anything about mountain safety. Understand and accept the risks involved before participating. You are responsible for your own actions and decisions. Avalanche is a possibility in every mountain area. None are exempt. You can never learn enough about avalanches or about how to assess snow conditions and avalanche risk.]
(SSE does not recommend any specific manufacturer of any of the goods referred to in these articles. Most items of equipment are produced by a number of manufacturers although not all may be available in the UK)
Updated October 2011 SJ