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Altai Skis: The Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review

For fast, easy over-snow travel, combine the traits of a snowshoe and those of a ski. A short, fat ski would keep the maneuverability, packability and hopefully light weight of a snowshoe as well as the glide and easy trail breaking of a ski. How well does this theory play out in reality?


Overall Rating: Recommended

The Hok Ski: Recommended An impeccably designed, well-made tool for winter wilderness travel, whose introduction should help define an emerging type of ski. When combined with a three-pin binding and the correct boot, it should prove to be exactly the ski many hikers need for over-snow backpacking. The durability of the skinsert over many seasons of use is an open question, which can only be addressed by use beyond the scope of this review, and is something of which potential buyers ought to be aware.

The X-Trace Binding: Average A design with several good characteristics, but most of the same flaws as other universal bindings, which serve to limit its applicability for wilderness travel. It is also overbuilt and thus far heavier than necessary.

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by David Chenault |

Altai Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review - 1

Introduction: My Short History as a Skier

It took me decades to really care about skiing. Growing up in flat Ohio didn’t help, but even on trips further afield the lift-served, in-area alpine skiing never resonated. I usually got bored before my legs gave out or the lifts stopped running. Cross-country skiing was more my style, but I inevitably wanted to venture away from golf courses and groomed trails, where the floppy boots and skinny, plastic edged skis made the steep and narrow woods exciting in a way only enjoyable by those young people yet to realize their own mortality. Hiking, mountain biking, and kayaking always seemed like a better use of my time outdoors. I went to college in Iowa, and after graduation escaped further west to Utah and Arizona. I skied occasionally, at both alpine and cross-country areas, but as before failed to see the possibility inherent in skiing which made so many so fanatical about it.

Three years ago, I moved to western Montana to attend graduate school.

Even before the move I knew I’d need to learn how to actually ski. The most interesting areas for a wilderness traveler - the mountains - are in western Montana under snow for over half the year. A wilderness traveler has three options: stay home or in the lowest and most civilized valleys, get snowshoes, or learn to ski. I wanted to learn to ski, not primarily as a means of exercise or of kinesthetic enjoyment, but as the most efficient way to move around the snowy wilderness. Snowshoes are easy to use, but if driven with a modicum of skill, skis are almost always a faster and more elegant way to travel. Or at least, that was what conventional wisdom had to share with me, the unstudied newbie.

So I bought some short alpine touring skis on closeout and got some telemark boots and bindings. I went skiing, a lot. I got new boots and new skis; Karhu Guides, then the widest metal-edged waxless (fishscaled) ski available. I skied more, flailed a lot, got frustrated, and had a lot of fun. It didn’t take me long to realize that not only did none of the existing ski gear fit my needs particularly well, but that virtually all of the momentum in the market was concentrated on two distant ends of a spectrum. I wanted to ski along in the middle of that range, going from one point to another as I did on dirt during the summer, and there wasn’t much gear at all suited to doing so.

Altai Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review - 2
Amber Steed enjoys some backcountry alpine skiing in western Montana. Steep, deep powder with fat, heavy skis, two miles from the car.

The ski market as it exists today largely caters to pure alpine skiing or pure Nordic skiing. Alpine skiing is, to steal one company's jingle, all about the down. Folks spend cataclysmic amounts of money to visit places to ride lifts so they can ski back downhill around lots of other people and then do it again and again. The equipment reflects this, being great for difficult, chopped up snow and knee-dislocatingly heavy. Virtually all backcountry skiing gear, be it alpine touring (heel fixed for downhill) or telemark (heel freed) is dedicated to doing what is in essence the same thing. The gear is lighter, increasingly much lighter, in order to make climbing slopes to ski down faster and more enjoyable, but skiing relatively steep terrain is still the raison d’etre. Even ski mountaineering race gear, where the application of technology has facilitated ski/boot/binding pairs which weigh less than a pair of alpine boots, is still circumscribed by the necessity of descending steep slopes quickly.

Cross-country skiing hasn’t changed much, in focus or application, since my youthful golf course exploits. Even the heavier boots and wider, metal edged skis meant for “Nordic backcountry” or “rugged touring” look and ski like fat Nordic race gear. This gear can be quite light, and in the right hands and under the right conditions travel through the woods impressively fast, but the not-right conditions slow such gear to a crawl, and these conditions, namely weird snow, breakable crust, ice, and tight trees and brush are all too common if your winter interests involve approximating summer backpacking routes. What was good snow last night will be miserable in the morning, and sometimes you’ll get all of the aforementioned in one place, together, a state of affairs which, in reasonable folks, engenders swearing and crying in equal measure. Quite simply, skis may be the best way to backpack in deep snow, but the skis and ski gear yet produced are not designed with such ends in mind, and their application in the arena of winter backpacking reflects this.

Fast Shoes Defined

The temptation for many winter hikers is to buy some quality snowshoes, warm boots, and powder baskets for their trekking poles, then call it good. Even the poshest of snowshoes are cheap compared to ski gear, snowshoeing can be learned via the infamous ten-step program (take ten steps and you’re an expert), and their utility changes little from one snow condition to another. When deep snow combines with intense brush and deadfall, snowshoes and their compact maneuverability remain the most efficient option, but in most other conditions snowshoes are much slower than a well chosen set of skis, provided you have the skills to ski them. Snowshoes dig a crater with each step, and have to be lifted up and out before a step forward is taken. Skis apply their surface area more efficiently, and broad tips shove deep snow to the side as they slide forward with more effort applied purely to forward movement. When the snowpack is deep and the terrain is gentle and open, skiing is simple, and with practice almost automatic. You kick and glide forward with ample leisure to examine the splendor at hand. Once tasted, this ease is hard to give up for the ponderous gait, lower speed, and greater effort of snowshoeing.

Altai Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review - 3
The author at the Monture Creek trail head near Ovando, Montana, packing for a traverse of the southwestern Bob Marshall Wilderness. This late-May trip showcased the strengths and weaknesses of short skis and universal bindings; it combined long sections of trail hiking, skiing over mountain passes, and floating in a packraft.

Altai Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review - 4
A case study in options for over-snow wilderness travel. Total weight per foot is highly relevant, as is matching surface area to the type of snow at hand and the total weight (person and pack) of the user. From left to right, with BPL-measured lengths noted: Atlas Run snowshoe (56 cm), MSR Lightning Ascent Women’s snowshoe (63 cm), Tubbs Sierra snowshoe(76 cm), Altai Hok ski (125 cm), Marquette Backcountry ski (137 cm), Karhu Guide ski (185 cm). Weights and dimensions for each appear in a table, below.

So then, the obvious compromise is to combine the traits of a snowshoe and ski. A short, fat ski would keep the maneuverability, packability and hopefully light weight of a snowshoe as well as the glide and easy trail breaking of a ski. Many dedicated wilderness travelers who live and work in snowy, forested, steep regions have seen the need for such a tool. Jackson, Wyoming based adventurer Forrest McCarthy calls them fast shoes, while Nils Larsen and Francois Sylvain, designers of the Altai Hok, use the term skishoes. Messrs. Larsen and Sylvain are both long time ski industry insiders and were both involved with what is perhaps the Hok's most prominent predecessor, the Karver and Meta short skis produced by Karhu in the early oughts. Both were short (120 to 130 centimeters), fat (100 to 110 millimeters underfoot), had metal edges and a permanent skin inserted level with the ski base taking up a majority of the surface area. These both fell out of production some time ago, though according to correspondence with Mr. Larson, forces other than market demand were to blame.

Fast shoes can thus be defined as short, wide skis with some sort of permanent traction device in or on their base, with all these features striving to synergistically maximize overland travel in woods, rolling terrain, and moderate mountains.

Why short? Maneuverability, packability, and light weight. Most of the reasons both alpine and cross-country skiers use much longer skis are not relevant for a wilderness traveler. Longer skis are stable at speed downhill, but in the rare cases that terrain allows opening the throttle 20 miles from the road, safety probably dictates that such an impulse be limited. Cross-country skiers use longer skis because the length maintains momentum and direction better, but these factors are largely negated by the trail breaking which is almost always a part of over-snow backpacking.

Why fat? Surface area is necessary for float in deep, light snow, and if we place an arbitrary, yet functionally proven cap of 150 centimeters as the longest a fast shoe ought to be, the ski must be fairly wide to maintain float. Wider skis are harder to put on edge, all things being equal, and that becomes a factor when boots must be chosen, as is discussed below. Finally, wider skis, especially wider ski tips, break through and float over crust, logs, and other junk which is part and parcel to skiing the terrain presented by circumstance.

Altai Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review - 5
The packability of short skis is highly relevant in many situations. Here the author finds the Hoks easy to attach to a packraft, during the aforementioned Bob Marshall traverse, and to strap to a mountain bike, to access spring skiing in Glacier National Park.

Why a permanent traction device? The only way to move forward absent skating or double poling (both rare, wonderful conditions in the backcountry) is to have something for grip on the ski. Ideally this would provide perfect resistance to backward motion and no resistance to forward motion, and thankfully such a thing has existed for the better part of a century in the form of kick wax. Sadly, kick wax is an unforgiving creature that must be well matched to the snow temperature and type. Sometimes this is easy to do and thus magically effective, such as the consistently dry 10 F (-12 C) powder snow you might find in Yellowstone during February. Other times it is an impossible nightmare, such as late on a spring morning when transitioning from overnight shade to sun, when snow instantly increases 15 degrees in temperature and 20 percentage points in water content. Carrying and effectively applying and reapplying (and reapplying, and thoroughly cleaning off before starting over) the correct kick wax is not a realistic option in many wilderness conditions.

The other proven options for over-snow traction are fishscales and skins. Fishscales being an alteration in the base material of a ski for it to grip directionally, skins being typically synthetic fibers arranged to be not unlike a thick, close-shorn, directional carpet. The fibers lay flat sliding forward, yet stand up to grip and resist backwards motion. Fishscales come in different designs, with a strong inverse correlation between grip and glide being to a certain extent intractable. Fishscales also work much better in wet, dense snow types. Light, very dry powder makes fishscales drastically less effective. With these caveats arrayed before you, it is easy to see why Messrs. Larsen and Sylvain chose to put a permanent skinsert in the base of their new fast shoe, the Hok.

Altai Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review - 6
The test set of 125-centimeter Hoks, with X-Trace bindings in place, showing the substantial tip rise, subtle tail rise, and moderate camber: all elements of a predictable and utilitarian backcountry tool.

The Hok Examined

Nils Larsen is something of a ski anthropologist. Videos he has made of the Altai peoples of northern Asia skiing on handmade skis can be found online, as well as material concerning Mr. Larsen’s own experiments with this most ancient of ski technologies. He named his new ski company after the Chinese mountains in which skiing may well have been born, and the company’s first model after one such group’s word for ski. Skiing evolved in this region of Asia, as it did in Scandinavia, for functional rather than recreational purposes. It is thus a fitting midwife for a backpacking ski. The Altai Ski website says that the Hok was designed for “pocket backcountry,” the sort of woods and thickets and low snowpack many residents of snowy latitudes have out their back doors; convenient terrain poorly suited to conventional ski gear and mindset. This is no doubt true, but it is my contention that for a considerable range of rugged over-snow backcountry travel the Hok is the single best tool yet commercially produced.

That there is a growing demand for this sort of short ski is obvious, because the Hok is quite similar to another fast shoe introduced recently, the Marquette Backcountry ski. Unlike the Hok, which uses traditional ski construction with a p-tex base, wood core, and metal edges, the Marquettes are blow-molded out of plastic. Marquettes are also marketed at pocket backcountry, and they excel at skiing soft snow in tight places. Sadly, they are not good tools for unpredictable, remote backcountry adventures. They lack metal edges, making them quite terrifying on hard snow and, as the chart below demonstrates, they are very heavy.

  Item Weight (single) Dimensions (tip, waist, tail)
Gear Tested 125 Hok Ski, bare 2 lb 5 oz (1.0 kg) 123, 109, 123
  X-Trace Binding (w/ mounting hardware) 1 lb 2.5 oz (0.5 kg) n/a
  Voile Mountaineer (w/ anti ice tape) 7 oz (175 g) n/a
Comparison Gear 185cm Karhu Guide (w/ full hardware) 3 lb 12 oz (1.7 kg) 109, 78, 95
  Marquette Backcountry Ski (w/ full hardware) 5 lb 5.5 oz (2.4 kg) 150, 130, 140
  Atlas Run Snowshoe 1 lb 5.5 oz (0.6 kg) n/a
  MSR Lightning Ascent W's 25" Snowshoe 1 lb 12 oz (0.8 kg) n/a
  Tubbs Sierra 30" Snowshoe 2 lb 6.5 oz (1.1 kg) n/a
Boots used Crispi CX4 (mondo size 28) 3 lb 8 oz (1.6 kg) n/a
  Scarpa T2 (modified, mondo size 28.5) 2 lb 14 oz (1.3 kg) n/a

That minimizing equipment weight is essential in maximizing efficiency and enjoyment in the backcountry is in these parts axiomatic (look at the current IP address). However, increasing weight in the name of efficiency can occasionally be the best option. For most hikers, shoes, even though they add weight when compared with bare feet, are faster and more fun. This weight versus functionality calculation is central in evaluating fast shoes versus snowshoes for types of trips, and is the question around which the final section of this review will orbit.

I obtained a test pair of 125 cm Hoks (they’ll be available in 145 cm lengths as well, though the dimensions and weight are not yet finalized) in early May, and used them for various trips around my home in NW Montana for about a month in late May and early June. We had an exceptional snowpack in the winter of 2010-2011, and while there was thus no shortage of terrain for testing, the snow types I was able to ski were necessarily limited. No powder was skied in the testing of these skis, but I did ski a wide variety of spring snows, from bullet ice to foot-deep rain-rotted corn, as well as heavy 24-hour-old snow. I skied the Hoks with the X-Trace universal binding and my usual trail runners (LaSportiva Crossleathers and Inov8 OROC 280s), as well as Voile Mountaineer three-pin bindings and two different pairs of plastic boots. The first were my Crispi CX4s, a three-buckle telemark boot considered to be on the lower and softer end of the spectrum of plastic boots. (They can be seen mounted on my bike in the above photo.) The second are an older pair of Scarpa T2s which I have heavily modified into touring-only winter boots. By touring I mean primarily rolling terrain where making horizontal rather than vertical miles is the goal of the trip. To this end I removed the tongues entirely, cut down the uppers, and ground down the material on the back of the cuff, among other things. With thermo-moldable liners they are very warm, have a great range of fore-aft motion, and provide plenty of side-to-side rigidity. For wilderness touring, especially in cold temperatures, they work very well.

Altai Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review - 7
The author's touring-specific plastic telemark boots. Something comparable, such as the Garmont Excursion, would be a good match for the Hoks. Weights of the boots used in this test can be found in the above table.

I skied the Hoks on day trips to our local cross-country ski trails, closed ski resorts, and the rolling backcountry near both, all with both plastic boots as well as the X-Trace bindings. Mounted with Voile Mountaineers, I took them on easy ski mountaineering outings in the local mountains, and I used the Hoks with the universal bindings on the aforementioned Bob Marshall traverse, crossing miles of snow-bound terrain and passes over 7000 feet (2135 m) in elevation.

In short, I found the Hoks to be outstanding at all of these applications and to have no significant limitations other than those inherent to fast shoes. They are quite stiff both torsionally and over their length, the result being that they descend difficult terrain exceptionally well, provided that they are skied by a sufficiently stiff boot and are not pushed to excessive speeds. As a frame of reference, using both of the aforementioned plastic boots I skied the most difficult in-bounds terrain at Whitefish Mountain Resort (including North Bowl Chute, a double black) in funky half-melted conditions. The Hoks held an edge as well as any ski I’ve used, and the short length combined with the gradual curves and up-turned tip and tail made them extraordinarily easy to turn. I skied the X-Trace and trail runner combo at the resort as well, and found that, provided the snow was soft and fairly predictable, I could link turns down moderate runs (Toni Matt, top to bottom) with ease, though this did demand substantial attention from most of the muscles in my legs. At Mr. Larsen’s encouragement I skied the X-Trace mounted Hoks with a lurk, in the style of the skis namesake. This method of skiing quickly became great fun, and while a lurk is an inferior substitute for conventional ski poles when forward motion or weight are considered, the lurk technique might be kept in mind as a way to add an extra margin of control to certain descents on backcountry trips with less-supportive boots.

Altai Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review - 8
The author at Whitefish Mountain Resort, six weeks after the lifts stopped turning, skiing the Hoks and X-Trace bindings with trail runners and a lurk (a 7-foot pole from an alder bush). This tripodal way of skiing predates any major recreational use of skis by western cultures and allows low cut footwear to turn the skis with much less effort than “traditional” alpine style.

The Future of Backcountry Ski Boots

The perfect boot for backcountry skiing does not yet exist. Boots designed for backcountry alpine skiing, be it telemark or alpine touring, are heavy and historically choose to restrict fore-aft motion (and thus touring efficiency) in favor of downhill performance. The heavier variants of NNN (new Nordic norm) boots are beefed up Nordic race boots, and while by design they provide excellent range of motion for the flats, the interface between boot and binding (a metal bar in the boot toe is held by a metal clip in the binding) is widely considered to be a liability for turning and more serious terrain. The interface has more flex and play than a three-pin binding, and the toe bars are known to rip out under the more severe forces applied by wider skiis, taller boots, and trying to turn and/or stop in rugged terrain.

The ideal backcountry boot for distance-oriented wilderness travel would provide the largely unrestricted fore-aft motion of a Nordic race boot with the side to side rigidity of a downhill boot, ideally at the same time and without flipping levers or tightening buckles. Unlike backcountry downhill, where laps of long slopes with extended transitions from up to down mode are common, the sort of backcountry travel I discuss here often has frequent transitions from flat striding to steep climbs and descents. As discussed in the body of the article, these descents often feature challenging snow and narrow trails. Efficient travel dictates that a complex gear transition not be needed to go downhill.

My modified T2s demonstrate that it's fairly easy to have good fore-aft ankle motion and sideways rigidity: a moderately tight upper buckle combines with a free flexing cuff to provide both at the same time. It does not ski like a big boot with a lean lock, but enough edge pressure can be applied, provided you stay centered on your skis, to make turns in very challenging terrain (albeit not at high speeds). The more exacting design element is sole flex. The ideal BC boot would flex with the ball of the foot like a lightweight hiking shoe, but resist torsion like a downhill boot. I’m unaware of any boot that comes close to balancing these well. A flaw of many fabric/leather NNN and three-pin boots is that they mate a fairly stiff plastic cuff with a flexible sole, and the latter prevents force from the legs being effectively transferred to the skis. This shortcoming can be addressed to a certain extent by excellent telemark technique and very strong legs, but has limited applicability to most users and does not point the way toward technical innovations. For the moment skiers are forced to compromise based on expected terrain and personal preference, favoring touring at the expense of turning, or vice versa.

I have not been content with the options provided by such compromises, and my modified boots are a result. They have some sole flexibility, excellent sole resistance to torsion, good fore-aft flex and decent sideways stiffness at the ankle. The fore-aft flex compensates to some extent for the stiff sole. The thermo-moldable foam liners are blister-free if molded correctly (lots of toe spacers), and warm enough for temperatures below zero (F).

Another approach was pioneered by Alaska endurance racers and detailed by Luc Mehl is his article Fast and Light Winter Travel. Luc used stripped down Dynafit rando race boots and the toe piece from a Dynafit alpine-touring binding. This system has a totally rigid sole, but the combination of good ankle flexibility and no resistance to forward rotation within the binding system makes this a reasonable option. Luc details the virtues at length in the aforementioned article.

All of this is to say that when the market does not provide adequate gear, ingenuity and power tools can provide a good solution.

Throughout the testing, on both downhill and rolling terrain, I was impressed with how little drag the skin insert provided. I had assumed it would be noticeably more so than the fishscaled skis I’ve used, but the additional resistance on all types of snow and all angles proved to be minimal. On one mountain descent I did notice that when transitioning snow types the skinsert tended to grab certain (wetter) snow types in a way which a well-waxed conventional ski would not have. On the whole, given the impressive grip of the skinsert and the minimal drag, I am quite sold on the idea. Compared with fishscales and even a good wax, the grip force per inch of the skins is very good, a particular asset when weird maneuvering over brush or melted out spots forces a skier to rely on a small patch of the ski for purchase. I do wonder about two potential downsides to the skinsert idea. The first is water absorption. Even skins rigorously treated with DWR and wax will get soaked in short order under many conditions, and while separate skins can be stored in your sleeping bag overnight, the possibility of a wet skinsert freezing into uselessness does occur to me. During the testing period I never had any nights much below freezing, so this must remain the territory of speculation. Vigilant use of skinwax to prevent icing of the skin should be considered a mandatory part of preventative gear maintenance.

Altai Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review - 9
Dirty and abrasive spring snow is hard on skis of any type. I was not responsible for all of the stains or lost skin hairs seen above, but this could prove to be an issue for long-term, intense users.

I also worry about the long term durability of the skinsert. Not so much its adhesion to the core of the ski, but the extent to which some abrasion-induced balding might occur over several seasons. It would take serious abuse to produce functional degradation, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this as a possibility.

The Hoks come with threaded inserts built around the common three-bolt pattern used in all common three-pin bindings. Burly three-pin bindings are reliable, cheap, and simple, and thus the only choice for this application. NNN bindings can provide comparable performance, but have a well-documented history of failing under serious use (the toe bar rips out), and thus are not an appropriate choice for anything but the most mild backcountry skiing applications. Threaded inserts not only save the consumer the effort of drilling holes, they make mounting and changing bindings fast and easy (blue Loctite on the bolts proved essential). They also save weight, as the area of the ski which needs to be reinforced in order to support binding screws and prevent pull-out is much reduced. Of course, inserts are only as good as their location, and on a ski like the Hok trail breaking ease (which favors a forward mount) must be balanced with downhill turning (which favors a rearward mount, especially in deep or weird snow). Messrs. Larsen and Sylvain were still in the process of tweaking this when the prototype I skied was made, and the production version will feature inserts mounted 2 centimeters behind those of my pair. I skied this position using adapters and agreed that it will provide the most balanced compromise.

Altai Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review - 10
The tip rise of the 125 cm Hok. The green grid is in inches.

The tip of the Hok rises about 3.5 inches over 7 inches of run (8.9 and 17.8 cm, respectively) (when the camber is uncompressed, both increase somewhat when the ski is weighted), both a good bit more than conventional skis. It’s not the fully rockered tip of the Marquette, but the added rise in the tip is a great aid in trailbreaking as well as in floating over irregularities when descending. Any more rocker would have likely had an adverse effect on the edge hold. The tail rise is much more subtle, just enough to allow some smear-turns but not enough to impede plunging the tail into the snow. The gentle sidecut is enough to allow for good turns on hard snow, but not enough that tracking is affected. All this and the light weight mean that insofar as the ski design is concerned, I cannot think of a single improvement. The Hok promises to float and break trail well, turn quickly, and deal with funky snow. It’s light and durable, and it’s simply a bargain at $200.

The Limits of Universal Bindings

The X-Trace universal binding is more of a mixed bag. I likely will not be buying myself a pair of these, for reasons which have partly to do with this binding in particular, and partly to do with universal bindings in general.

Altai Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review - 11
The X-Trace at home on my couch.

The first challenge with a universal binding is making it durable enough for the backcountry, and on that ground the X-Trace succeeds admirably. I ought to note here that Altai is importing, not producing, the binding. When a ski binding is paired with floppy shoes or boots, lots of emphatic forces are placed on it, and the plastic in the base and toe plate of the X-Trace manages to flex evenly and well while seeming quite bulletproof. If anything, the whole binding is overbuilt, resulting in the porky weight noted in the above table, which when paired with the very light Hoks makes them borderline too heavy for the benefit they provide. The bindings function well enough. The adjustment mechanism is easy to use and doesn’t require tools, and the ratchet straps operate fluidly under all conditions. The forward motion is mediocre, and could be improved by moving the binding toe support back to place the end of the shoe closer to the pin line around which a ski boot pivots. This shortcoming is alleviated, but not eliminated, by using flexible footwear. The binding does a good job at holding the shoe stable within the binding, and a moderately good job at reducing diagonal or twisting flex. The pad under the toe buckle did display an annoying tendency to creep forward, and the geometry of the toe plate allows for ice to easily build up under the front of your toes, eventually requiring releasing the front strap to remove it.

Altai Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review - 12
The X-Trace in detail. Note the buckle misalignment during use, which created a pressure point. Also note the posts in front of the toes. The base plate slopes upwards there, trapping snow, which becomes ice under compression, eventually causing backwards toe pressure, which cannot be ignored.

Beyond all the details of the X-Trace, during the testing of it and the Hok I’ve developed deeper reservations about the extent to which universal bindings are appropriate in the weight to performance calculus all wilderness travelers ought to undertake. A look at table one reveals that the 125 cm Hok is a pound heavier than the Atlas Run snowshoe, one of the smaller and lighter snowshoes currently available. Even assuming a universal binding substantially lighter than the X-Trace, the weight gain with fast shoes would have to be made up by the efficiency of the setup. Whether this will be the case has much to do with the snow conditions and terrain expected on a given trip. The limitations of universal bindings are to a large extent tied to the footwear used, in my case trail runners. I do not think that rigidity and edge control will ever be anything but desperate with universal bindings and floppy shoes (even, I would imagine, lighter high-top hikers), and thus side hilling on harder snow and descending in anything but ideal conditions will be at best problematic. On my Bob Marshall trip I did not have anything close to ideal snow conditions, and found myself transitioning out of the Hoks and X-Traces to posthole on steep side slopes, crampon up hard snow, and even posthole down some slopes rather than crash and risk injury under the weight of the nasty wind-slabbed snow and my large pack. Small snowshoes would have been slower in many places, but would have been faster in others and would have saved me 51 ounces from my pack. Even with the Hoks at my disposal, I used the Atlas Run snowshoes on a similar trip two weeks later. It would take a lot of gentle terrain, and a distinct absence of steeper, more technical skiing, to justify the weight of the Hok and X-Trace combo over a pair of slower, lighter snowshoes.

I am, in short, skeptical about the breadth of application for universal bindings. For most spring trips where they’d be of use, that is to say when large sections of dry trail make hiking shoes a necessity, smaller snowshoes with an aggressive crampon may be the lightest and most efficient option in the grand scheme of a trip. A narrower ski could address some of the limitations here, but not in a comprehensive fashion.

Altai Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review - 13
Following black bear tracks in the Bob Marshall.

Conclusion and Applicability

It’s difficult to compare the Hoks to other skis or snowshoes, or to evaluate them relative to other products, because the only close relatives are either out of production, like the aforementioned Karhu Sweeper skis, or built to different specifications and with inferior technology, like the Marquette Backcountry ski. The Hok defines its own category, using top of the line ski construction with a lightweight wood core, inserts, and metal edges to create a ski best suited to fundamentally different terrain than conventional backcountry skis. The Hoks are not the best tool for wide open, gentle terrain, like the plateaus of Yellowstone in winter. They’re not designed for backcountry downhill skiing, though their ability in technical terrain will surpass expectations. They are best for deep-winter travel in wooded terrain and on unbroken trails, places where glide is not a salient attribute and maneuverability uphill and down is essential for safe passage.

The choice of a permanent skinsert has potential drawbacks. Care will need to be taken to avoid icing of the skins, with prophylactic application of a DWR and skin wax a prerequisite, and more aggressive skin-drying tactics being perhaps necessary under extraordinary circumstances. Given that both fishscales and glidewax are each largely useless under certain conditions, and that skins work in all of them, the use of a skinsert is the most versatile choice available given current technology.

The need for a heavy boot to support the wider Hok is also a disadvantage, though only when viewed through the blinkered vision of mild winter conditions which would not already require heavily insulated double boots. Modern thermo-moldable boot liners are not only warm and comfortable when fitted correctly, the close-celled foam out of which the best liners are made is also largely impermeable to water. The lining fabric of the boot liner can get wet, but the foam insulation itself is incapable of absorbing water, and thus the whole assemblage is easily dried out. Under conditions where insulation of a certain magnitude is already a necessity, the added weight of boots for the Hok becomes less of a weight penalty than a performance boost.

Finally, the skis themselves are flawlessly engineered. The gentle sidecut, rounded tips and tails, and subtle rise/rocker on both ends represents a synergy of the best of modern ski design. The Hoks' predictability in difficult snow conditions, and their applicability to a wide range of trips and terrains, is due above all else to solid design. A well designed and constructed fast shoe like the Hok, when paired with a set of burly three-pin bindings and light plastic or heavy fabric/leather boots should hit the sweet middle-of-the-road spot between light Nordic and heavy downhill gear. Such a set-up is the ski equivalent of a good light hardtail mountain bike: capable of making miles on smooth roads, difficult rocky trails, and everything in between. It is a ski rig focused on making distance in all backcountry conditions, and on doing so in an efficient and safe manner.

While exploring the narrow wooded valleys and buried trails of Glacier and the Bob, I won’t have to futz with applying and removing skins, or flail and overexert my triceps when fishscale grip comes up short. I won’t be wallowing in powder on showshoes, or quaking in terror 15 miles from the road at the top of a steep, fall line singletrack descent cut through dog-hair spruce. I’ll have the perfect tool for single and multi-day trips into quiet places away from just about everything: other skiers, snowmachines, avalanche danger. As I write this, last winter’s snow is a long way from melted, and much though I’ll value dry trail backpacking, the Hoks are going a long way to get me excited for when the snow starts falling again.


"Altai Skis: The Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review," by David Chenault. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2011-12-13 00:00:00-07.


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Altai Skis: The Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Altai Skis: The Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review on 12/13/2011 16:23:25 MST Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Altai Skis: The Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review

Paul McLaughlin
(paul) - MLife
Re: Altai Skis: The Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review on 12/13/2011 21:46:45 MST Print View

Nice write-up, Dave. And I whole-heartedly concur with your take on backcountry ski boots. AS a backcountry ski tourer - with the emphasis on touring- I am also disappointed with the current offerings. But I don't have a lot of hope, as the market is so small. I think the technology is there, and designing a boot that would be superior to the the Garmont Excursion (my current boot) for what I do would seem fairly easy. But making it would be expensive, since making any plastic boot requires molds, and unless you can sell a bunch of boots it's tough to amortize the cost of the molds.
However, the advent of skishoes and the like may be a point in our favor - since the kind of boot that would suit these best is just the kind of boot that I would want, and it seems likely to me that there will be more folks who want something like a skishoe than there will be folks looking for a boot for multi-day, non-downhill oriented backcountry ski tours. So the more skishoes that get sold the more hope we have for a real backcountry touring boot to appear.

Altai Skis: The Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review on 12/14/2011 08:34:41 MST Print View

This is an especially well-written, thorough and direct review. Before reading it I was concerned that it would take a somewhat waffling-maybe-this-maybe-that attitude, but it proved to be absolutely clear and to the point. I really appreciate that.

It is also very timely, as a friend and I, living in the Ohio you left, are both about to buy such a ski, and, not knowing about the Hok, were planning on purchasing the Marquette Backcountry ski. You have very likely changed our minds.

We have modest backcountry in Ohio and nearby western Pennsylvania. But the terrain is not necessarily modest. Local Metroparks have steep ravines and dense woods whose narrow trails were built for hiking. Frequently we'll descend 60 - 100 feet down a narrow hiking trail only to be faced with a sharp turn at the bottom. The sharp turn is necessitated by a large tree. In conventional light nordic gear we'd be faced with a desperate snowplow, a prayer that a clumsy telemark would work or, more likely, a controlled fall. Anything to avoid a direct hit on 100 year old oak.

It would be far better to be able to avoid the narrow trail, go off trail slightly, give ourselves more space and make the grade gentler if only we could have a ski that would turn through dense woods without the length that catches on downed branches and without us having to be champion skiers.

The videos we've seen showing the inventor of the Marquette ski deftly working his way through the woods of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at high speed, give a good idea of what someone with superb skills can do in dense woods. Trying the same thing at the same speed, we would likely be carted out in an ambulance.

It would also be nice to use skis instead of snowshoes (and I still am greatly enamored of snowshoes) on our backpacking trips in western PA, even if the skis need to be carried occasionally crossing a rock-strewn ravine or creek. Lightness would count.

So I hope we'll soon have the opportunity to try the Hoks out in our local woods and see if we can exchange our snowshoes for them.

Thanks for the review.
Marty Cooperman
Cleveland, Ohio

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
skis and boots on 12/14/2011 09:01:26 MST Print View

Paul, I hope you are correct about boots. As you say, it wouldn't take much (besides $$).

Martin, I think the Hoks would suit ya'll well. Snowshoes still have a place, especially in early or late season, with patchy snow and a lack of base, but skis are more fun.

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
Why Not Rando Race Gear? on 12/14/2011 10:33:39 MST Print View

You dismiss rando race gear for backcountry touring applications, but exactly what modern rando race gear setups have you actually used that causes you to conclude that it would be worse that the reviewed gear for the kind of skiing described here?

Kevin Sawchuk
(ksawchuk) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Northern California
Re: Altai Skis: The Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review on 12/14/2011 11:12:57 MST Print View

Absolutely agree with the lack of a decent boot that balances lateral rigidity with fore-aft flexibility. I've elected to go to lighter boots--Rossignol BC X-11 or even skating racing boots. This isn't so hard as a lifelong telemark skier--beefy tele boots didn't exist when I started skiing and we still skied almost everything.

I'll have to try the lurk idea.

Thanks for the article. Dare I risk divorce with yet another pair of skis? Can I hide my "habit" from my spouse?

Ryan Bressler
(ryanbressler) - F
Guides are what have you quaking in terror not skis in general. on 12/14/2011 11:28:05 MST Print View

The Karhu guide had an issue with the bevel on the edges underfoot you can read about on various skiing sites making them terrible on hard snow including tobogan run trails though tight trees as you describe. Skis with real edges that can be sharpened handle these conditions much better.

Also planning winter trips along summer trails is dangerous as summer trails often cross open slopes that are avalanche slopes in winter. It is usually better to take advantage of the fact that brush and streams are covered in snow and plan a route that is at least partially off trail to avoid avi terrain and minimize transitions (btw this is why I put together the combination of satellite photos, slope overlays and snow pack data on linked in the "on the web" section of this site).

If you are serious about fast and light winter travel you need to give a dynafit/tech based setup a try and learn to plan trips for the winter environment and your mode of travel instead of trying to replicate hiking. With a bit of practice you can get your ski/skin transitions quiet quick. I've come to love the freedom of winter as I can easily skin places that would be horrendous 'schwacs without snow and then ski back to the car in a fraction of the time it would take to walk...I end up covering much more ground then I do in summer.

spelt with a t
(spelt) - F

Locale: SW/C PA
ha! on 12/14/2011 11:31:19 MST Print View

We have modest backcountry in Ohio and nearby western Pennsylvania. But the terrain is not necessarily modest. Local Metroparks have steep ravines and dense woods whose narrow trails were built for hiking. Frequently we'll descend 60 - 100 feet down a narrow hiking trail only to be faced with a sharp turn at the bottom. The sharp turn is necessitated by a large tree. In conventional light nordic gear we'd be faced with a desperate snowplow, a prayer that a clumsy telemark would work or, more likely, a controlled fall. Anything to avoid a direct hit on 100 year old oak.

This is (unfortunately?) all too familiar to me!

Keith Roush
(skier) - MLife

Locale: San Juan Mountains
Rando gear on 12/14/2011 11:56:36 MST Print View

My light rando gear offers significantly easier touring with more control than the gear you tested. Weights run from 5 to 8 lbs for skis/boots/bindings with gear that can be used on average trails to high mountains with a pack.Skier

Ross Bleakney
(rossbleakney) - MLife

Locale: Cascades
Re: Altai Skis: The Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review on 12/14/2011 12:00:25 MST Print View

Excellent article, David. I especially like the intro. I had a small email conversation with the editor of Ski Trax magazine, and he wrote about the same thing. It is a shame that there is so much focus on the groomed or the steep, and not much about making your own tracks on mellow ground. I'm afraid that most of the folks that do that are on snow shoes, which seems like a shame.

I've written a lot about this niche market with David, much of it on his excellent blog ( So, most of the review confirms what I expected. To begin with, these are excellent skis. I've already ordered a pair, and eagerly await delivery. I could tell even before this review that the length, width and other design details are just right.

I'm still not sold on the permanent skin, but maybe I'll be proven wrong. I personally would like a nice waxless base (especially since waxless bases are very good right now) along with some way to easily attach a skin. Maybe little bolts, which allow a custom skin to be attached. I would sell the skin as part of a package (as opposed to standard skins, which are custom cut by the user). Such a skin would rely less on the glue, and more on the physical attachments.

I'm also not surprised about the problems with a universal binding. My experience with universal bindings matches David's. Generally speaking, if the binding provides good support, then gliding is difficult. With an easy glide, you don't have much support. The only exception I know about is a custom binding, that uses Berwin along with a hinge. I think the main advantage to an universal binding is less bulk (not less weight) along with a more enjoyable experience. I've been on a few trips, where the other guy carried his skis, along with his universal binding. He made very nice, controlled turns along with nice uphill glides. He said he would put the control somewhere between Nordic Backcountry and Telemark gear. He could have carried his ski boots, but then things get really bulky. He could have carried snow shoes (as I did) but then he wouldn't have enjoyed the day as much as he did.

Perhaps the best solution is a good ski boot that allows for easy hiking. I know that some of the A. T. boots have tongue inserts that allow you a fair amount of flexibility going up and good support going down.

But back to the product at hand, I think there is only one thing this ski needs, and that is an easily removable crampon. Even with these short, easily maneuverable skis, I'm sure I will encounter terrain that is too difficult for skis. In that case, I would just like to go into "snowshoe" mode. Knowing that my skis won't go anywhere (up or down) adds a lot of security. With that, I would never use snowshoes again.

Douglas Frick
(Otter) - MLife

Locale: Wyoming
skishoes on 12/14/2011 12:18:49 MST Print View

I have the Karhu Karver (131cm) and Meta (120cm) ski-shoes. I take them when I want to move right along and don't plan any serious descents (not fun with a pack or pulk anyway). They float about as well as my snowshoes, but definitely move forward easier. They glide down easy slopes as well as my AT rig, but weigh significantly less. The skinserts work and have worn well, so far; I much prefer this to fishscales. The Karhu bindings have a rigid aluminum base plate, to compensate for floppy snow boots, so they work like a free-heel AT binding, not tele. It looks like the X-Trace is an improvement.

I don't like them in icy-choppy conditions, like suncups. Then they tend to be a bit fast and skittery, and I start wishing for my snowshoes' crampons or the edging of a rigid ski/boot combo. Part of the problem is their AT-style binding, so the X-Trace or (especially) a 3-pin binding might improve control.

The Hok Ski looks like a worthy successor.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
re: Hok review on 12/14/2011 12:46:08 MST Print View

John and Keith, I'd be happy to answer questions not already addressed in the article. The relevance of mustaches to this discussion is unclear.

Ryan, you're correct about the Guide bevel issue. The same forum discussions have also extensively documented several fairly easy ways to fix it (though the Guide will never be a good ice ski).

Ryan, you're also correct that avalanche danger should be factored into route finding, and that winter routes can be quite different than summer ones. There are also plenty of occasions when that is not the case.

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
Rando Race Gear (again) on 12/14/2011 12:51:41 MST Print View

"John and Keith, I'd be happy to answer questions not already addressed in the article. The relevance of mustaches to this discussion is unclear."
-- I don't know if the reference to "John" is to me, and I don't know what the reference to "mustaches" is all about, but since my original inquiry appears to have been overlooked, I'll repeat it here:

"You dismiss rando race gear for backcountry touring applications, but exactly what modern rando race gear setups have you actually used that causes you to conclude that it would be worse that the reviewed gear for the kind of skiing described here?"
-- In other words, rando race gear is way lighter than the gear reviewed here, is way more efficient (with a resistance-free pivot + zero lifted binding weight on each stride), yet skis way better.

Kyle Meyer

Locale: Portland, OR
Re: Rando Race Gear (again) on 12/14/2011 13:21:06 MST Print View

Jonathan — what about the fact that randonee ski setups are extraordinarily expensive to get down to the weights you're talking about, and even then I severely doubt larger skis, bigger bindings, more overbuilt ski boots and separate skins could ever be lighter than these small, unified ones.

This article was perfect timing as I am looking to purchase a set of snowshoes or a splitboard. I don't want to spend the money on a splitboard, and have been vacillating on the commitment for a while. Then this article pops up and shows that I can spend the same amount of money as the snowshoes I was looking at and still be able to have little bits of fun while out exploring rolling terrain or easy mountains. I won't be making huge turns down 45º terrain, but that's not what these are for. These are a snowshoe replacement that makes snowshoeing a bit more fun. And for that, I am very excited.

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
Even Cheap Used Rando Race Gear Is Way Lighter on 12/14/2011 13:39:07 MST Print View

My rando race setup (skis, skins, bindings, boots) weighs just under 8.5 pounds. (And that's with discontinued boots that are a full pound heavier than the current version of my boots.) Per pair. With that setup, I have excellent performance on the flats (compared to any slowshoe-like device), a range of fore-aft motion in the boot cuff that exceeds my own body's flexibility, a resistance-free pivot for striding, zero lift-lifted weight (as compared to that "universal" binding), and downhill performance that can ski nearly 50-degree couloirs.
By contrast, the Hok + 3-pin binding + telemark boots weighs over 11 pounds.
Putting together a used rando race setup on the cheap under 11 pounds would be relatively easy.
Would it still be more expensive? Yes, of course, but sometimes you get what you pay for -- and I don't see other threads in response to articles on the latest and greatest gear questioning what the point is since you can just buy cheap obsolete backpacking junk at Wal-Mart...

Kyle Meyer

Locale: Portland, OR
Re: Even Cheap Used Rando Race Gear Is Way Lighter on 12/14/2011 14:21:58 MST Print View

On the contrary, BPL has always had an extremely strong interest in affordability. This is why there's a long history of MYOG articles and an active community centered around it. Randonee gear is orders of magnitude more expensive than snoeshoes and Hoks and doesn't have anything to do with backpacking unless you're also carrying your boots, which I'd wager most here wouldn't consider doing. There is definitely something to be said for equipment that balances function with economic reality (see also: Montbell).

The fact that you even mention 50º couloirs already makes you not the market for the Hoks. I can snowboard the hardest of double black diamond terrain, but that doesn't mean I expect that a snowshoe/ski hybrid should be able to carry me through this terrain as well. The fact remains that these are a simple, affordable tool for certain winter conditions and terrain that should interest people here.

Personally, I'm buying the universal bindings with the Hoks and will be trying them out with my snowboard boots for pure winter travel. I think this might be an interesting mix of lateral stiffness and enough flexibility to make this an effective pairing. This will allow me to retain the option of taking these on mixed condition backpacking trips in which I'll use them with my trailrunners. Win win?

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
weight is not an answer on 12/14/2011 14:22:12 MST Print View


While my reponse to your question was short and a bit facetious, it was at base accurate, something corroborated by your most recent posts. Yes your rando race setup is lighter than the one I used most with the Hoks. Putting cost aside (problematic, as most of us don't get free gear from our web reviewing gig), you've yet to answer the question of what performance gains your rig offers over mine, for the conditions discussed here.

[Edited to reflect the good behavior I ought to have had the sense to have from the first. My apologies to everyone.]

Edited by DaveC on 12/15/2011 11:38:55 MST.

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
To reiterate once again the many rando race gear advantages... on 12/14/2011 14:52:11 MST Print View

"most of us don't get free gear from our web reviewing gig"
-- Sure wish I did though. I paid for all that gear myself. Granted I do get discounts as a ski patroller, avalanche safety instructor, and other credentials, but the gear is so great, it's worth paying for.

"you've yet to answer the question of what performance gains your rig offers over mine, for the conditions discussed here."
To reiterate my prior comments:
"excellent performance on the flats (compared to any slowshoe-like device), a range of fore-aft motion in the boot cuff that exceeds my own body's flexibility, a resistance-free pivot for striding, zero lift-lifted weight (as compared to that "universal" binding)"

As for your objections:
"-Your boots don't offer the bit of forward resistance which is often useful for bushwacking and the like."
-- You must have meant "bindings" not "boots"? If so, the occasional moments where some binding resistance is helpful is more than offset by having to drive with the parking brake on the *entire* tour.
"-The rigid sole of your boots makes blisters more likely (Kevin's rig is better than either of ours in this respect)."
-- I don't get blisters in my boots (which actually do have some forefoot flex). And this is even during multi-day hut tours in super-warm weather. Overall though, I think individual foot shape and boot fit trump any particular sole design for blister prevention (i.e., some people are going to blister in trail runners, while others will be fine even tromping around in alpine downhill boots).
"-Your bindings offer more moving parts to break (albiet with a good track record for durability)."
-- My rando race bindings have very few moving parts. And an excellent durability record. And for a long expedition, a binding "repair kit" comprising an entire binding toe & heel would weigh only five ounces.
"-Your skis are skinny, long, and have thoroughly conventional dimensions, thus offering none of the funky snow advantages of the Hoks."
-- My rando race setup (with fixed heel and supportive boots) skis far better in funky snow than the setup reviewed here.

Overall, any rando race setup is far better than the setup reviewed here on the up, on the down, and on the flats. The only rationale for the setup reviewed here is some combination of budgetary, ignorance, and exoticism. (Having read about the native skiers in the Altai, I have to admit that a ski based on their practices is kind of cool -- but I'd rather read about them than emulate them.)

spelt with a t
(spelt) - F

Locale: SW/C PA
hmm on 12/14/2011 17:30:02 MST Print View

I was not expecting this review to be contentious. The proof will be when the first production run of Hoks gets delivered and the people who're actually using them can give their assessments.

WV Hiker

Locale: West Virginia
It's about the length and a thought on boots. on 12/15/2011 07:29:14 MST Print View

I think the point about randonee skis that Jonathan is avoiding is that they are long. The Hoks are short and thus much more maneuverable in tight backcountry locales. Randonee may work great out West but here in the East long skis are a liability. If you have to carry them then short wins around here also. Thank you David for the article. I ran onto the Hoks a few months ago and was pretty much sold. This article reinforces that.

As for boots that is still a question for me. I'm used to 3 pin Nordic Norm boots but they don't usually have the type of tread useful for backpacking and the toe protrusion can be annoying when hiking. I had thought about an interchangeable sole system boot. A currently existing system is made by Korkers that some of us fishermen use. Multiple soles are available and you can run a hiking sole for trips into backcountry streams and then switch to a studded or felt sole for wading. I was wondering if a 3 pin sole could be designed with enough rigidity to work the Hoks that could then be switched out for the hiking sole when needed.