The ski season is approaching, so it’s time for a look at the best new ski touring and backcountry ski kit for 2015-2016. Please note that the advice we give here is relevant to ski touring conditions typically found in the European Alps and it’s mainly aimed at British ski tourers; ie who generally ski on holiday rather than every weekend – so if you are reading this in North America for instance, then the skis and kit that may be best for your own local conditions could be very different. As always, major thanks to Phil and Tom over at Backcountry UK for help and information on the latest kit developments.
SKI RECOMENDATIONS 2015/16
We concentrate here solely on skis that are destined to be pushed uphill for some amount of time, as well as being skied down on. As always with ski touring and backcountry skis, you have to make a series of compromises between ski weight and performance in different types of snow conditions etc – the good news however, is that skis are getting both lighter and better to ski on each season. This year in particular, sees the introduction of a wide range of excellent lightweight skis from all the major manufacturers.
Trends for 2015/16
The big improvement in skis this season, is that the best models are now very versatile and suitable for a broader range of skier abilities and styles. ie particular skis used to be better for faster/ heavier/ more advanced skiers etc – but too much of a handful for lighter/ slower/ more relaxed skiers etc – so it was always a bit of a minefield recommending and deciding which ones to buy.
As usual, we independently blind tested all the skis (ie no discussion until we’d all tested each ski on our own, on a separate run – the testers were: 1. a professional ski guide, 2. a keen 40something advanced off piste skier, 3. a 70 year old, very steady intermediate skier – so a wide range of speed, ability and style) and to our surprise, we found that across the board we were picking the same favourites – despite widely differing speed and styles – which rarely used to happen before! This is excellent news, as it makes both recommending and buying a good pair of skis far easier.
Lightweight Freetouring Skis
Here, we concentrate on wider lightweight skis that are suitable for all round touring in the European Alps – ie 85-95mm underfoot. On spring snow or icy terrain you are better off skiing at the narrower end of the range, whereas in soft snow you’ll get more float on the wider ones. As always, your weight, ski ability and ski style come into play – so think about what terrain and snow types you need the ski to perform best on (I said ‘need’, rather than ‘want’!) in order to narrow things down a bit.
Starting with Salomon, who this year are launching a new range of dedicated backcountry and ski touring kit (ie a full range of skis, boots and bindings). If you are looking to buy a dedicated lightweight ski for multi day touring (that you can also enjoy the odd day around resort with) then the Salomon Mountain Explore 88 is the one to go for. It’s incredibly light – just 2.44kg @ 169, offers a decent 88mm underfoot with an 18 radius – above all however, it’s simply great fun to ski. Steadier skiers said it gave them confidence and lots of control, whereas I found it really lively for short, fast turns, it held an edge well on ice and bumps, skied great in powder and absorbed shocks well in chopped up snow – which is quite remarkable for such a light ski. NB We also tested the wider Salomon MTN Explore 95, but everyone preferred the Explore 88.
The MTN Explore 88 goes down to 161cm in length – so if you are looking for a shorter-but-equivalent lightweight womens multiday touring ski, then I’d recommend the Movement Vista, (2.4kg, 119/84/108, 17m radius) – this is the update of last years successful Coax and another great ski.
If you want a bit more width underfoot – but still want to keep the weight down and performance levels high – then here are the best backcountry skis that we tested in the mid 90s width.
First up (and if you’ve ever listened to my ‘opinions’ on this brand in years gone by, you’ll know how significant the following statement is!) my favourite ski of the whole test was the Movement Apex. It’s solid construction (full width edges, decent sidewalls etc) indicates corners haven’t been cut on durability, but the ski is still lightweight at 3kg @ 177cm. With dimensions of 130/94/119 it offers plenty of float, but still has good edge grip. The 19m radius gives it stability in tricky snow, as well as good traversing ability and skinning performance – but above all, it’s simply brilliant and confidence inspiring to ski on. If I was buying one-ski-for-everything, with a strong bias toward touring, then this would be my personal choice this season.
If you really want to save as much weight as possible, then I recommend you look at the new Scott Superguide 95, which is the touring focussed replacement of the hugely successful Scott Crusair. These skied very well and are incredibly light at just 2.66kg @ 178 – (that’s 500g lighter than the original Crusair) ski dimensions are 128/95/118, with a 3d radius of 21m/28m/15m. NB the Superguides are definitely designed as a touring ski, as opposed to more of an all rounder like the Crusair. The one downside is that they are only available in longer lengths – ie 178 and 184cm this season. NB We also tested the Superguide 88, but everyone preferred the Salomon Explore 88 more.
The other mid 90s ski to look at is the Atomic Backland 95 – which is last years hugely popular Drifter, given a new name. We also tested the wider and narrower skis in the Backland series, but the 95 was most versatile in our opinion. These weigh only 3.1kg, are 95 underfoot and have a 19m radius – I know several people who bought the Drifters last season and all were very happy with them, so they are a good bet.
Moving a bit wider, on to more powder orientated touring skis, two 97mm underfoot models really stood out:
- The new Dynastar Mythic is a carbon version of the Dynastar Cham 97 2.0 (see below) and an outstanding ski. In terms of performance, the two versions are barely distinguishable, but the Mythics weigh just 2.8kg @ 178 – which is amazingly light for such a wide, high performing ski (dimensions are 133/97/113, 15m radius). These are excellent for charging around on, are very nimble in tight spots and trees etc. I’ll be skiing a pair this winter, for early season powder touring and when there’s a lot of fresh snow around. All of that carbon doesn’t come cheap however – but you get what you pay for…
- The new Black Crows Camox Freebird looks almost identical to last years model (ie it’s still red!) – but the ski has been substantially reshaped, resulting in a superb ride and much better high speed edge grip etc. These are a brilliant backcountry charger type ski (specs are 3.15kg, 128/97/114, 18m radius) that I thoroughly enjoyed. Like all Black Crows skis, they are also solidly built – ie to last and take hits – so a good choice for a solid one-ski-for-everything, with a bias toward softer snow and touring.
The final ski in this group is the only one that I’ve not skied myself, but there’s plenty of positive reports from those who have and a lot of excitement. The new Whitedot R.98 is 98 underfoot and just 3.0kg at 176. It’s quite a differently shaped ski than the others, having a long 26m radius, so is more focussed toward steeper terrain and longer radius, higher speed freeride type turns. If that’s your bag, then these could be a good choice – as with all Whitedot skis, the strength and build quality is impeccable, with a solid aluminium tail that would be brilliant for setting up ski belays etc.
A quick note on useage: although these skis are designed for ski touring, we’ve selected models here that have a strong and reliable construction, so as long as you’re not totally ragging ’em they’re ok for a bit of resort use too – ie fine as a one ski setup with a strong focus on touring. There are numerous far lighter touring skis on the market, but they generally don’t ski as well and are definitely ‘touring only’ models – ie they are not strong enough for resort use.
Finally finally, Backcountry Uk have bought up all the remaining Uk stock of Scott Crusairs – (169cm only – when they’re gone they’re gone). Crusairs still make an excellent one ski setup for British skiers wanting a high performance, light ski for both touring and resort use – they ski great, last for years and at this price they are a total bargain!
Resort/All Mountain Skis to Tour On
For a versatile on/off piste resort all rounder that you can also tour on, the Nordica NRG 90 is an excellent choice. I loved these skis – the flex is smooth, they are lively to ski on, forgiving of errors and the damping is great. Weight is a respectable 3.3kg at 177, with 90mm underfoot and a 19m radius. An equivalent women’s ski that I’d recommend is the Blizzard Black Pearl – it’s 88m under foot and very similar to the NRG 90 in terms of weight and performance.
The other obvious choice in this area is the already mentioned Scott Crusair (see note above).
If you want a wider lightweight resort ski that you can also tour on, then without a doubt the best ski we tested in this category was the new Dynastar Cham 2.0 97 – these are 97 underfoot, with a huge shovel up front and a short 15m radius, so they are super playful and great fun to ski. You can really push them hard, but they only weigh 3.4kg @ 178, so they’re also light enough to push uphill.
Backcountry Powder Skis to Day Tour On
For ‘European’ powder orientated backcountry skis that are still fairly light – you are typically looking at around 96-108mm underfoot nowadays. The previously mentioned Dynastar Mythic squeezes in here at 97mm and 2.8kg @ 178, as does it’s twin brother, the equally excellent new Dynastar Cham 2.0 97 (97mm underfoot, 15m, 3.4kg @ 178) which I also really enjoyed, as well as the Black Crows Camox Freebird also mentioned previously. The Dynastar also comes in a women’s specific version called the Dynastar Cham 2.0 Woman 97, which has a softer flex and comes in shorter lengths for lighter skiers.
At the wider end of the spectrum, the Rossignol Soul 7 at 107 underfoot, 3.7kg @ 172 continued it’s popularity last season and although not exactly light, my personal favourite here is the Black Crows Atris (4.25kg @ 184, 138/108/128, 18m) which is a great wider ski for blasting around and doing a bit of everything on. The Atris also now comes in a women’s version called the Black Crows Atris Birdie.
TOURING BINDINGS 2015/16
A year down the road, we are better able to pass on our experiences with the various new pin bindings that came onto the market last season and the year before.
First up, the Fritschi Vipec 12 which launched 2 seasons ago as the first pin binding with full lateral toe release, has received a few more tweaks with the launch of the Fritschi Vipec 12 Black Edition. I’ll leave you to guess what colour it is – but the main change is that it’s got a new, further improved toe piece design. I’ve been skiing Vipecs for the past 2 seasons now and despite their various foibles, I still really rate them and they are the only pin binding that I now recommend to clients who want to save weight by upgrading from heavier bar and rail design touring bindings.
The reason I recommend Vipecs is they they are light (1.2kg incl brakes) and they are the only widely compatible pin bindings that have full lateral toe release – ie they have all the same safety release capabilities as alpine and bar/rail design touring bindings, so there is no safety compromise in swapping over to them. (With all the other designs, there is a safety compromise – ie no lateral toe release – which increases your risk of rotational tib/fib fractures inside the boot. The only person I’ve ever had to chopper off a mountain suffered exactly this injury whilst skiing on pin bindings, so it is an issue – especially if you fall over a lot in poor vis, or tricky snow…)
The Marker Kingpin hybrid pin binding launched last season in limited numbers, to great excitement amongst the freeride community – these are a pin binding at the front (no lateral toe release) and an alpine style heelpiece at the back with a walk/ski mode – they weigh 1.46kg with brakes. I’ve skied them and I liked them – they were easy to step into and use, looked very solidly built, the ski/walk modes work well etc — however I regard them as a specialist niche product, not a mass market upgrade from bar/rail design bindings.
The people that I think should be buying these bindings are dedicated freeriders who go skinning all the time in order to ski very challenging terrain (steeps, cliffs, jumps etc) and therefore need a strong, lightweight, high release setting binding that doesn’t suffer from pre releases. ie a particular group of skiers with specific needs, who are a small part of the overall off piste/backcountry community.
The people that I don’t think should be buying these bindings are the far larger group of off piste skiers who actually spend most of their time skiing around resorts, and just make occasional forays beyond the resort boundaries – ie if you don’t carry skins around with you all the time, then you really would be much safer skiing on a binding with full alpine release capabilities – which is most likely the bar/rail design freeride binding that you currently own!
I anticipate that many people will ignore this advice however, and instead believe the marketing blurb and buy them anyway(!) – but whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of regularly visiting the terrain park whilst skiing on pin bindings, or very soon your season will come to an abrupt end – as it has for many who’ve tried this before; ie landing fakie with a massive rotation onto a pin binding with no lateral toe release is not a good idea… just sayin..
Likewise, the Dynafit Beast (2kg freeride pin binding) addresses the same niche users as the Kingpin – see comments above.
Dynafit have made a bold move in the Uk this season, by dropped all their prices 20-30% and they’ve also launched two new models with an improved toepiece design (these were delayed from last year, due to manufacturing problems) – the toe has the pin unit mounted onto a rotating pivot system, in order to improve the binding release capabilities and avoid unwanted pre release. The touring model is the Dynafit Radical 2 ST (1.2kg, DIN 4-10) and the freeride model is the Dynafit Beast 14 (1.6kg, DIN 5-14 – this is a hybrid model, sporting a Radical 2 toepiece mated to a Dynafit Beast heel piece). NB Although this new design claims to improve release safety, it still doesn’t allow lateral toe release or any release tension adjustment at the toe, like the Fritschi Vipec does.
Finally, I actually got to ski the Mythical Trab TR2 touring binding this year too. This is the only other pin binding with lateral toe release capabilities like the Vipec, but using it requires a different heel insert in the boot, so it hasn’t really taken off. La Sportiva are now making various boots which are compatible with both Trab and other pin bindings, so I used their stiffest compatible boot to test the Trab bindings. Unfortunately the boots weren’t very good, so that effectively ended any idea of adopting the bindings. As for the actual bindings themselves, I had high hopes for them, but they turned out to be very fiddly to adjust and required two pole presses to get each foot in, so although I’m sure you’d quickly get the hang of them, commercially I think they are a non starter.
Hike to Ride Boots – the big manufacturers continue to expand into this ‘resort ski boot with a good walk mode’ niche – with plenty of models to choose from. The main difference between the more and less expensive models on offer are the materials used to make them – ie the ones with pebax shells are a lot better, but cost more. A good one to look at this season is the Lange XT 120 for men, or the Lange RX 90 W for women.
Freeride Boots – these have an interchangable sole in addition to a good walk mode. They tend to be made of better quality materials, by the specialist manufacturers. For the past two seasons, the Scarpa Freedom SL has been the most popular boot in this sector and sensibly, it remains unchanged. Scarpa are now launching a new, even stiffer version though – called the Scarpa Freedom RS. Another good boot to look at if you’ve got higher volume feet, is the Black Diamond Factor. For mid market offerings, the Salomom Quest Pro and Technica Cochise are both well regarded options. Good womens’ freeride boots to look at include the Scarpa Freedom SL Wms and Black Diamond Shiva MX models.
3-4 Buckle Ski Mountaineering Boots – we’ll concentrate here on supportive 3-4 buckle boots, which are most appropriate for the majority of British Ski Tourers. Many established boots remain unchanged this season: The Scarpa Maestrale and it’s stiffer sibling, the Maestrale RS continue to do well. For a wider fit, the Scott Cosmos II is the same shape as last year, with a few small tweaks to improve buckles and reliability. Scott have also launched a new, beefed up version of the Cosmos using the same last, called the Scott Super Guide Carbon – it’s stiffer, designed for wider skis and more aggressive skiers and contains a healthy amount of carbon black magic, making it £100 more expensive. However, as the price of the standard Cosmos has dropped by nearly the same amount this year, it still cheaper than the Maestrale RS and a bit lighter too. The lightest 4 buckle boot on the market is still the La Sportiva Spectre, which remains unchanged this season and has a similar volume to the Cosmos.
Superlight Ski Mountaineering Boots – race derived superlight touring boots have been developed for keen tourers wanting to save as much weight as possible. In general you only get 2 buckles instead of 4, but if you are a good skier then they can perform extremely well and save you considerable effort on the climbs. Other useful features gained from their race heritage are extremely good walk modes and very quick lockdown systems for changing over from walk to ski mode and vica versa.
I’ve now skied all the major models in this boot category – and for me, the best one is definitely the Scarpa F1 EVO. When it launched last year there was a recall due to a problem with the automatic walk/ski changeover mode. I, like hundreds of other skiers, liked them so much that we refused to hand them back until the end of the season (they quickly produced a disclaimer for us to sign, in order to keep their lawyers happy!)
Over the summer, mine have been back to the factory to be fitted with a manual ski/walk changeover lever – which I prefer, as it’s simpler, well tested and reliable. The 2016 version comes with the manual ski/walk mode lever as standard. Like many lighter weight touring boots, these are only compatible with tech bindings – ie they are not compatible with any bar or rail design touring bindings. Weighing in at just 2.2kg, they are very light too, the lower buckle having been replaced with a Boa tensioning system that gives an excellent, easily adjustable and very even pressure across the whole foot – ie no tight spots or pressure points, like you often get with buckles. I skied on these all last season and look forward to skiing on them again this season – i’ll be driving a wider, 97mm ski much of the time too, as they can easily handle it.
The other good model that I tested – bear in mind that it wasn’t fitted to my feet and would have felt a lot better if had – was the new Salomon Mountain Explore Boot – this is a stiff, two buckle boot in Salomons’ new backcounty range and well worth considering if it fits your foot shape.
At the other end of the scale, some boots to definitely avoid however – unless you’ve got super high volume feet – are the new Atomic touring models, which have way too much volume in them to give a good fit to most peoples feet. I had a demo pair thermo fitted, using an extra high volume liner and two volume reducing insoles and it still felt like I was skiing in a pair of wellies…
AVALANCHE AIRBAG SYSTEMS
Practically all the major avalanche airbag manufacturers have had product recalls in the last 18 months or so, so it’s hard to recommend which ones are most reliable!
The Black Diamond Jetforce range of airbag packs use a battery powered system, which offers a number of advantages over gas canisters, so I expect these to become more and more popular if they prove reliable. At the moment the BD packs are quite expensive though and 3-400g heavier than some of the other competing systems, so you need to weigh up the pros and cons carefully.
In Europe, flying with the gas canister systems isn’t a problem – you just need to let the airline know in advance – so I’ll be sticking with my ABS pack for now. I’m keeping an eye on the technology though and at some point I expect to switch to a battery powered system, once the weight and prices come down a bit and when they come out with a modular system that can be switched between rucksacs and allows the replacement of batteries.
OTHER SKI PACKS
The Ortovox Haute Route 35 is a popular, well designed ski touring pack, as is the Mammut Nirvana Pro 35 – you won’t go wrong with either of these. The other traditional top entry sac that I like is the Deuter Guide 30+ SL – it’s light, carries really well and goes up to 38 litres – what more do you need.
The Mammut Pulse is still reckoned to be the best top-of-the-range transceiver on the market: the 4.0 firmware update offered a number of significant improvements (you can upgrade existing models with the new firmware for ~30 Euro). The Mammut Element is the other transceiver that we really like – it’s an easy to use, reliable and very well built unit for the less experienced user.
Colltex new Whizzz Skins have proved to be really popular, with their acrylic based adhesive technology. They are a lot easier to pull apart, so you don’t need faff about with cheat sheets, they stick to your bases but not to everything else in sight and they are much easier to re glue (anyone who’s re glued a pair of conventional skins will rejoice at that one!)
Finally, we are seeing a lot more folk touring with helmets nowadays – so I thought it would be useful to highlight a couple of good quality lightweight models that have decent venting and removable ear flaps, to make them suitable for ski touring.
Two that we’ve tested and rate are the new Salomom MTN Lab Helmet, which is designed specifically for backcountry skiing and is very light at 300g and the mid range Scott Tracker Helmet, which is a well priced, lighter weight regular ski helmet that weighs 350g.