The ski season is now approaching, so it’s time for a look at the best new ski touring and backcountry ski kit for 2018-2019. Please note that the advice we give here is relevant to ski touring conditions typically found in the Europe 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.
BACKCOUNTRY SKI RECOMMENDATIONS 2018/19
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, with an ever expanding range of excellent lightweight skis from all the major manufacturers.
Trends for 2018/19
The big name ski brands continue to expand their lightweight freeride and ski touring offerings this winter, with Marker for instance producing a lightweight touring binding for the first time (and it’s an excellent one!)
Lighter weight all mountain resort skis also continue to be a major area of development, with several really good full strength on/off piste skis appearing, that weight little over 3Kg – making them an excellent option for one ski to do-it-all.
*NB Verified Ski Weights – all ski weights marked here with an asterisk are real world ski weights, verified on the Alpine Guides Scales of Truth(!), for the length of ski indicated. Where direct verification has not been possible, we have stated the manufacturers’ claimed weights.
Lightweight Touring Skis
Here, we concentrate on wider (a term very much open to interpretation!) lightweight skis that are suitable for all round touring in Europe – 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 in the mid 80-90mm range, with my own lightweight choice this season – the Volkl VTA 88 Lite Ski (2.3kg* at 180cm, 127-88-106) is best for good standard skiers and performs well in a wide range of conditions, making it ideal for long, multi day tours and ski mountaineering.
From Dynafit, our pick from their range is the Dynafit Speed 90 Ski (2.44kg* at 176cm, 125-91-112, 18.5m radius). I skied a pair of these for several weeks last winter and found them very versatile. This would be a great choice for multi day tours such as the Haute Route Ski Tour, but still fun for occasional skiing around resort.
The Rossignol Seek 7 Ski (2.55Kg* at 176cm, 122-86-108, 20m radius) was a great success last year and remains unchanged; playful, very easy handling and light, this is a great choice if you want an ‘easy skiing’ dedicated lightweight touring setup at a competitive price. NB The Seek 7 is available in a wide range of lengths, making it suitable for both men and women.
The Salomon MTN Explore 88 Ski (2.6kg* at 177cm, 125-88-111, 18m radius) continues to be a popular, easy turning, lightweight touring ski that’s suitable for a wide variety of conditions, including some skiing around resort. This is a good choice if you are still developing your off piste skills and are looking at coming on a chamonix ski touring course, or a first multi day tour such as the Silvretta ski tour. It’s available down to 161, so also suitable for many women too.
The award winning Atomic Backland 85 Ski (2.3Kg, 117-85-105, 17m radius) is another great option (it’s available with precut skins), that offers good performance as a ‘second ski’ setup for dedicated touring weeks.
In terms of dedicated womens’ touring skis, the Scott Superguide 88 Ws Ski (2.2kg* at 154cm, 121-87-110, 16m radius) and Atomic Backland WMN 85 Ski (117-85-115, 2.0kg, 16m radius) are both womens’ specific versions of the equivalent men’s models – they are incredibly light on the ascents and offer good performance on the descents, making them excellent dedicated touring skis.
Moving up in width to the mid 90’s – the following lightweight touring skis offer more float, but still keep the weight down:
The new 2019 Black Crows Camox Freebird (2.9kg at 177cm, 133-96-114) has a wider shovel and much lighter construction this year, making it a true wide-but-light touring ski – an excellent choice for a wide range of skiers. If in doubt, its best to size up, due to the long tip rocker.
Salomon MTN 95 Ski (3.1Kg, 130-95-116, 18m radius) big brother of the MTN 88, this ski is more focussed at stronger skiers than the 88 and delivers brilliant performance in the right hands.
Scott Superguide 95 Ski (2.86kg* at 178cm, 128-95-116, variable 3d radius) If you want to save weight, whilst sacrificing a minimum of performance, then Superguide 95s are a great option.
Scott Speedguide 95 (2.4kg, 128-95-117, 21m radius). This years new 95 Speedguide takes weight saving another notch further, but you’ll need the skills to match – for experienced tourers only!
Blizzard Zero G 95 Ski (2.75kg* at 178, 128-95-112) Incredibly light, but powerful ski – this one is best for experts and folk with good level skills who want to ski it hard.
Resort and Touring Skis – Allrounders
A minefield this one! Here we aim to flag up a few of the best ‘light all mountain skis’ or ‘robust touring skis’ around that deliver good on and off piste performance, without being too heavy for touring – ie for Brits wanting one ski for everything. The great news is that there are now numerous excellent skis in this category for both men and women, so plenty of choice – here are our recommendations:
Scott Slight 93 Ski (3.1kg, 136-93-124, 16m radius). Fantastic on and off piste resort ski, that’s also very light, which makes it a good choice for crossover resort and touring use – the modern day Mission! This is an ideal ski for a mix of off piste and ski touring in the Alps and Norway etc – eg trips like our Senja Island ski touring week and our Haute Maurienne off piste skiing holidays.
Faction Prime 2.0 Ski (3.1kg, 126-98-114, 19m radius). New School backcountry ski, that’s also good for resort use. With a large tip and tail rocker, this is a good choice for young guns seeking chutes and powder fun.
Black Crows Orb Freebird Ski – (2.93kg* at 178cm, 125-90-112, 15m radius) The new version of this award winning ski is a very different beast from the original – the tip rocker, shorter radius and softer flex making it far easier to ski for a wide range of skiers and therefore a very good allrounder.
Dynastar Legend X 96 Ski – (3.6kg* at 178cm, 132-96-112, 15m radius) building on the success of the Cham 97, this is Dynastars’ excellent new lightweight freeride ski – with a huge rocker tip, flat tail and Paulownia wood core making it perform brilliantly. The women’s version is equally good and is called the Dynastar Legend W 96 Ski.
Black Diamond Route 95 Ski – (3.2kg* at 173cm, 123-95-113) Black Diamond’s new Route 95 is another superb allrounder; great in powder, easy handling and a durable poplar wood core make this an excellent choice for a robust, off piste and touring ski.
Blizzard Black Pearl 88 Ski – (2.85kg* at 159cm, 125-88-110, 15m radius) This superb women’s ski with a superlight construction, makes it a category defying ski: a great one-ski-for-everything choice for resort and touring.
Blizzard Black Pearl 98 Ski – (3.2kg* at 166cm, 135-98-119, 15m radius) The Black Pearl 98 offers the same performance as the 88, but with a stronger focus towards off piste, powder and deep snow.
Volkl 90eight Ski (3.5kg, 133-98-118, 20m radius) High performing all mountain ski, that’s still relatively light and comes with the renowned Volkl strength and construction. Good choice for powerful skiers and saisonaires etc, wanting a full strength charging ski that’s still light enough to push uphill. The womens’ version is called the Volkl 90eight W Ski.
Head Kore 93 Ski (3.2kg at 180cm, 133-93-115, 16.4m radius) Another great skiing, full strength resort ski that’s also extremely light (unbelievably light for a Head ski!) Very versatile choice for a mix of resort skiing holidays and an annual touring trip.
Lightweight, Wide-Bodied Touring Skis
The following are a selection of lightweight, wide bodied touring skis designed for human powered soft snow adventures – eg powder touring, steeps etc.
NB Please note that all of the skis listed in the two categories above are also wide enough to enjoy a great days powder skiing whilst out ski touring in Europe (10 years ago, 90mm underfoot was considered a super specialist powder ski) – ie you don’t need superwide 100mm+ skis all of the time in typical European snow conditions, but you may want to have a pair of wider skis, in order to have as much fun as possible on fresh snow days.
With that in mind then, here are a few of the best lightweight wide bodied touring skis on the market this season – in order to convince yourself that you really do need a pair!
Atomic Bent Chetler 100 (3.4kg at 180, 130-100-120, 19.5m radius) Well built, great performing and with a semi twin tip design – these are a really fun and versatile ski that’s robust enough for resort and backcountry use.
Scott Superguide 105 Ski (3.1kg* at 183cm, 135-105-124, 23m radius) Very popular over the past 2 seasons, the Superguide 105 gets new graphics, but sticks to the same winning formula underneath – a superb lightweight, wide bodied ski that’s very easy to get on with and also great fun for occasional resort days.
Black Diamond Helio 105 Ski (3.15kg* at 185, 132-105-109) A reassuringly expensive, premium lightweight soft snow ski – all that carbon is worth the money though; great in powder, easy to ski in other snow types and a joy to push uphill.
Black Crows Navis Freebird Ski (3.25Kg* at 179cm, 133-102-118, 19m radius) The green backcountry machines – more width and rocker than the Camox, these skis have a strong following amongst high mountain steeps aficionados.
Black Crows Corvus Freebird Ski (3.45kg* at 175cn, 139-109-122) – yes they are bright pink, yes they are 109mm wide and yes they are awesome! – a top backcountry soft snow ski.
Lightweight Freeride Skis
Our final category of backcountry skis – the following are a small selection of lightened up freeride skis that are durable enough for daily resort use, but also fine to push uphill for an hour or two – ie ideal skis for searching out new lines and powder, whilst lift assisted backcountry skiing and day touring.
Salomon QST 106 Ski (3.7kg* at 174cm, 140-106-126) Top quality backcountry charger ski from Salomon.
Rossignol Soul 7 HD Ski (3.8kg* at 180cm, 136-106-126) The new Soul 7 is lighter, with better edge hold and damping and continues to be a popular choice: perfect for one of our Chamonix off piste skiing holidays!
Black Crows Atris Ski – (3.9kg* at 178cm, 137-107-127, 18m radius) They’re not super light, but we love ‘em – the Atris is our favourite wide bodied charging ski for blasting around resorts and further afield. The womens’ version is called the Black Crows Atris Birdie.
SKI TOURING BINDINGS 2018/19
The development of pin bindings and backcountry freeride bindings continues at a pace, with the launch of several exciting new models this year.
Most talked about is without doubt the new Salomon Shift Freeride Binding with it’s innovative hybrid design. A pin arrangement at the toe allows for efficient skinning on the ascents; then at the summit, flipping a couple of levers transforms the binding into a regular ‘clip in and ski’ alpine downhill binding for the descent.
The binding is ‘multi norm compatible’, so it fits a wide range of boots and at 1.7kg, it is considerably lighter than other freeride bindings that offer the convenience and ski characteristics of an alpine downhill binding on the descent.
Having played around with the transition mechanisms and given a pair a good look over, I’m impressed so far – so time will tell if they prove popular and reliable, but I’m pretty sure they’ll prove popular in the first instance (getting hold of a pair will probably be your greatest difficulty!) So, if you are in the market for a lightweight freeride binding that you could use for resort skiing in alpine boots one week and a La Grave off piste ski holiday the next, then this could be a great option – they are also light enough for occasional ski touring holidays too. NB You will also find this binding badged up as the Atomic Shift – it’s the same binding!
Update: Dec 2018 – Salomon/Atomic Shift boot compatibility… Oh dear! – now that shops have begun mounting up Salomon/Atomic Shift bindings for customers, it’s been discovered that there isn’t enough height adjustment on the binding anti friction plate (AFD plate) to set these bindings up correctly with the Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD boot (ie one of their own boots!) Atomic have issued a statement to retailers telling them that the binding works fine without the standard 0.5mm test card fitting between the boot and binding and is safe and compatible – so long as it has passed a standard release test, using testing equipment that most Uk shops don’t own – ie they’ve handed ‘retail support advice’ out that passes the buck to the retailer…
Other boots may also be affected by this: however, a good shop can usually set them up correctly by grinding a small amount of rubber off the sole of the boot (this isn’t the only touring binding you sometimes have to make boot sole modifications with in order to ensure compatibility, but it’s a pita for shops and customers nevertheless…)
Therefore, if your boots have a full rubber sole unit (ie without a plastic anti friction plate under the ball of the foot) then you need to choose very carefully where you buy shift bindings. Buy them from a physical shop and in particular, one that sells a lot of touring boots – so they’ll know how to alter your boots if required and set up the bindings correctly. Fairly obviously, this means you need to take your boots down to the shop when you buy (or courier them to the shop – but make sure you’ve talked through everything in detail with the shop before you do this!)
A year on from launch, the Fritschi Tecton Freeride Binding has had a good first year and is the other obvious choice if you want a single binding to use for resort skiing, freeride and touring. It weighs just 1.2kg, which is a considerable weight saving over the Salomon Shift – and it can work on a different range of boots – but like all pin bindings it isn’t quite as convenient to use around resort as a classic alpine style ‘step in’ binding. It’s great to have these options though – one more ‘resort’ focused and the other more ‘weight’ focused, both offering great performance on the descents.
The major gap in the current offer of freeride bindings however, is the lack of any models with a lower release value in order to make them suitable for a wider range of skiers. The Salomon Shift release range is 6-12 and although the Tecton officially starts at 5, in reality it only works reliably when setting up with most boots at 6 and above, which means that a considerable number of women, lighter recreational skiers and older skiers still cannot use them (see Dynafit Rotation below if you need a convenient pin binding that works well with a release setting lower than 6).
Moving on to more dedicated touring bindings, the latest design Fritschi Vipec Evo(1.1kg) is now well tested and has a couple of minor updates to the toe this season. Along with it’s big brother the Tecton, this is currently the only widely available pin binding with full lateral toe release, which is why I recommend it to many of my clients looking to save weight without compromising safety.
Over time, we’ve found that the lateral release sliding plate on Vipecs (and by implication Tectons, as it’s the same) does need re greasing in order to maintain good performance, so we’d suggest that if you own a pair, then get them checked out and serviced at a Fritschi dealer before the start of the season. It’s a pretty easy job that you can do yourself at home, but you need the right grease and someone who knows what they are doing in order to show you how to do it.
On the superlight pin binding front, Marker have produced a new lightweight pin binding this season:
Marker Alpinist (0.67kg with brakes) Marker have entered the lightweight pin binding market this year with an excellent looking new binding – the Alpinist is very light, well designed and with a lot more advanced features than similar bindings; they’re also an extremely good price. I’m skiing a set of these on my lightweight touring setup this winter, so I have high hopes for them! NB For most skiers I’d recommend the ‘Marker Alpinist 9’ version (ie not the 12), as it has a more sensible heel release value out of the box!
Dynafit TLT Superlight 2.0 (0.52Kg incl brakes) This is still the lightest pin binding with adjustable safety release tension (at the heel) and brakes available. If weight saving is your absolute priority, then these are a good choice – I’ve skied on these a lot for longer tours and they’ve proved very reliable.
Dynafit Rotation ST (1.25kg) The Rotation is Dynafit’s classic, all round touring binding; with an improved rotating toe unit, these are TUV safety certified and also available in lower din versions – so if you need a pin binding with low release settings, then this is probably your best choice.
Marker Kingpin 10 + 13 (1.46Kg) – Kingpins continue to have a strong following amongst the Freeride community. These are a hybrid design, using a pin attachment at the toe and a regular alpine binding attachment at the heel, which has a ski/walk mode added (ie a similar concept to the Tecton). However unlike the Tecton, these don’t have lateral toe release – so I wouldn’t recommend using them for regular resort skiing, where full safety release is much more important than weight saving.
They are solidly built and easy to use (but can be prone to unintended release at the heel when cornering fast on rough, firm snow). They weigh in at 1.46kg, which is very respectable.
Freeride Boots – the market for these ‘downhill boots with a rubber sole and a good walk mode’ continues to expand, with numerous excellent models now available from all the major manufacturers.
For the past few seasons, the Scarpa Freedom SL has been the most popular boot in this sector and sensibly, it remains unchanged. The stiffer Scarpa Freedom RS is another popular variant, for those needing maximum support. Another good boot to look at if you’ve got higher volume feet, is the Dalbello Lupo AX 120. For a mid market offering, the Technica Cochise 130 is well regarded and for lower volume feet, take a look at the Lange XT 130 L.V. Freetour. Good womens’ freeride boots to look at include the Scarpa Freedom SL Wms and Lange XT 110 L.V. Freetour W models.
Performance Touring Boots – we’ll concentrate here on supportive 3-4 buckle boots, which are most appropriate for the majority of British Ski Tourers.
Dynafit Hoji Pro Tour (2.8kg) – arguably this seasons most exciting new touring boot; they’ve picked up awards everywhere and having tried a pair on, I can see why. The new Hoji Lock System is super easy to use – genuinely, just 1 lever movement for up/down transitions (ie no more pulling up trouser legs, fiddling with power straps etc) – with a great walk mode and once locked in, they feel super supportive and powerful; like a race boot for convenience and a freeride boot for performance. NB these boots have no toe bail, so are only compatible with pin bindings. In terms of fit; on paper they are a mid to higher volume boot – but having tried a pair on, the heel hold is so good that I could definitely get a fit on them with my low volume feet – so likely very versatile.
Amongst well established models, the most popular low-to-mid volume boot in this sector is the Scarpa Maestrale 2.0 and it’s stiffer sibling, the Maestrale RS 2.0 (the latest Maestrales’ are excellent, but harder to fit than the original versions, so make sure you that you get them from a good shop!)
For a slightly wider fit, the Scott Cosmos III is the same shape as previous versions, with a few small tweaks to improve reliability. The Scott Super Guide Carbon is a stiffer version of the Cosmos, designed for wider skis and more aggressive skiers and contains a healthy amount of carbon black magic, making it lighter but more expensive.
Two interesting new entrants to the 4 buckle ski mountaineering boot market last season from the big, mainstream ski brands have also proved popular: the Technica Zero G Tour Scout is a lightweight version of Tecnica’s popular Cochise freeride boot – giving a stiff and powerful boot, at a much reduced (3.2kg) touring weight and the Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD120 (2.9kg) is a lightweight version of their Hawx Ultra 130 freeride boot. With this model, Atomic finally look to be getting the hang of touring boots – producing a mid volume boot, with a highly customisable fit.
In womens touring boots the Scarpa Gea 2.0 and Gea RS 2.0 (womens versions of the Maestrale) are great low/mid volumbe boots, the Scott Celeste III (womens’ version of the Cosmos) offers more volume and the Dynafit Beast W is a good higher volume women’s ski mountaineering boot if you’ve got wider feet.
Lightweight Ski Mountaineering Boots – race derived lightweight 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.
NB All of these boots are only compatible with pin bindings, so you cannot use them on older bar/rail design touring bindings, or the new Salomon Shift binding.
The most popular boot in his sector (and my own favourite too) is the Scarpa F1 EVO. At 2.4kg these ski incredibly well and fit a good number of peoples’ feet – this boot is a great choice for longer multiday tours such as the Bernese Oberland ski tour.
If you want to save even more weight however, the Scarpa Alien RS only weighs 1.78kg! This is a supportive race boot, beefed up for fast and light ski mountaineering. It has a lower volume fit and limited shell modifications are possible. The boot allows race speed transitions and is very easy to put on and adjust. I’d recommend these for fast day touring, but for most people they don’t offer enough support for skiing with a heavier rucsac on, whilst doing longer multiday tours.
Finally, Scott have a new lightweight 2 buckle touring book out this year called the Scott Orbit – it’s molded on the same last as their popular Cosmos boots, making this a useful higher volume option if you are looking for some good, lightweight touring boots.
AVALANCHE AIRBAG SYSTEMS
Avalanche airbag rucsacs are now very popular amongst off piste and freeride skiers, but fewer ski tourers use them to date, not least because they are heavier than a standard pack. It’s particularly difficult to find a model that is big enough for multiday touring, but still relatively light in weight.
There are now several different systems on the market; most use gas canisters to inflate the airbags, but 3 systems now use electric powered fans. Below we suggest 2 of the best options for longer, or multiday ski tours and one exiting new model suitable for day touring. For freeride and day touring use, a number of smaller and lighter rucsacs are available.
The really big news this season is the launch of the new Scott Patrol E1 30 – Alpride make the new airbag system inside this pack and at 2.7Kg, the major advantage is that it’s much lighter than other electric powered models. This is possible because the energy required for inflation is stored in supercapacitors, which are recharged with a couple of AA batteries instead of a large, heavy lithium ion battery. The system can also be swapped between rucsacs, making it more future proof.
The new Alpride system only weighs 300g more than the lightest gas powered systems, but comes with all the advantages of multiple deployments, rechargeability and easy transportation on flights that electric airbag packs offer – making it a very compelling option. Although the first model has only a 30 litre pack size (and it’s quite a small ’30’ at that!) – the range of packs and manufacturers supporting this system is going to increase, as other manufacturers are currently developing Alpride capacitor system packs for launch next season.
Ortovox Ascent 38/40 Avabag – 2.3Kg Arguably the lightest airbag rucsac on the market that’s big enough for multi day touring. Comes with a practice mode, so you can train without deploying the canister each time. Well designed pack, with an interchangeable airbag system, so it can be installed in different packs. Non refillable cartridge, so cannot be taken on flights in North America.
Mammut Pro Protection 35L – 2.3kg Another very light removable airbag system – can be fitted into any compatible pack, of which there are many. A refillable cartridge (300g heavier than the non refillable one) is also available, which can be filled up in resort (any dive shop or paintball centre can also refill it) – ie makes flying with an empty canister possible in North America.
OTHER SKI PACKS
Arcteryx have an great new touring sac out this season, called the Alpha SK 32 – weighing in at just 1Kg it has an extremely robust, very waterproof design and you can be confident that it will last for many years (I’ve used their equivalent climbing model for several years now and it’s lasted way longer than any other work rucsac that I’ve ever had). You will need these justifications to hand when you see the price tag however, but if you use it regularly it will definitely work out cheaper in the long run (well, maybe!)
The Ortovox Haute Route 32 is another popular, well designed ski touring pack, as is the Deuter Guide 30+ SL – this model is light, carries really well and goes up to 38 litres – what more do you need.
In our opinion, the best easy-to-use unit for Brits who ski a few times a year on holiday, is the Mammut Baryvox (which replaced the popular Element model last year). Likewise, we consider the Mammut Baryvox S to be the best top end unit around for more experienced users and professionals. We use both of these models ourselves on our trips and training courses.
Both units offer a 60m search width, which is a x3 improvement on older generation models (ie a really big deal).
Black Diamond skins and Colltex skins are both good, reliable choices and currently we think that Contour Hybrid Mix Skins have some of the best glue (all Black Crows Pellis skins and Atomic skins are made by Contour – we’ve been very impressed with them). Black Diamond Ultralite Skins weigh 30% less than previous models, so are worth checking out. For European conditions, go for mixed fibre skins – pure mohair skins only glide a little better at non racing speeds, but they wear out 3-4 times faster… Skins are either sold pre-cut to a particular model of ski, or more commonly they come with a cut-to-fit device.
A lot more folk come touring with us wearing helmets nowadays, so here are two good quality lightweight models that have decent venting and removable ear flaps, to make them suitable for ski touring.
First up, the Salomom MTN Lab Helmet is designed specifically for backcountry skiing and passes both the climbing helmet and ski helmet safety tests – it’s very light at a claimed 250g and has two different liners – a winter one with ear flaps incorporated and a summer one without. We’ve used this helmet a lot for skiing and like it, but like all specialist helmets it doesn’t come cheap – but you get what you pay for!
Likewise, the Scott Couloir 2 Helmet is designed for backcountry skiing, but also passes the climbing helmet test – so you can use it for both activities. It’s also quite light and comes with good venting, removable ear flaps and headlamp/goggle clips.