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?

Recommended

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


Citation

"Altai Skis: The Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review," by David Chenault. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/altai_hok_ski_x-trace_universal_binding_review.html, 2011-12-13 00:00:00-07.

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Forum Index » Editor's Roundtable » 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.


(cooperman1)
Altai Skis: The Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review on 12/14/2011 08:34:41 MST Print View

Dave,
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 hillmap.com 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 !
(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 (http://bedrockandparadox.wordpress.com/). 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
(kylemeyer) - M

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
(kylemeyer) - M

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

Jon(athan);


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 !
(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
(vdeal)

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.

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
Rando Gear is Far Easier to Get Around in Tight Places on 12/15/2011 07:36:44 MST Print View

Most rando race skis are a bit over 160cm to meet the ISMF rules for men, but rando race skis are available as short as 150cm (to meet the ISMF rules for women).
Although the Hok ski-like . . thing is a bit shorter, the overall efficiency and control over a long tour is going to be far easier with rando race gear.
BTW, I do indeed have a ski-like setup for messing around with backyard fun and the sort.
But for longer and especially multi-day tours, rando race gear is far superior to any of these ski-like . . . things (especially when paired with heavy tele boots and no resistance-free pivot that means you're driving with the parking brake on).
An interesting example is the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse. This is a *NORDIC* backcountry race, that for years was naturally raced on nordic gear. Now it's dominated by rando race gear, even though the course features none of the demanding descents for which rando race gear was designed.

WV Hiker
(vdeal)

Locale: West Virginia
Rando skis on 12/15/2011 08:16:16 MST Print View

Jonathan,

No doubt you have plenty of experience with rando skis and backcountry touring using them. I'm not dismissing them at all but simply pointing out some differences. Doubtless you have a lot of time and money involved in them and that seems to be coloring your responses. I'm willing to try new things. Your contempt for the Hoks is evident with the appellation "ski-like". One could say that a snowboard is ski-like but these certainly are skis, not ski-like. You also dismissed my point of East versus West. Come to WV or PA and try some longer skis in our woods and varied terrain and snow conditions. I've done it and its not that fun. The Hok fills the niche of a product designed for the backpacker who occasionally needs to cover snow in a more advantageous way. It is not for the backcountry skier who occasionally needs to hike.

Edited by vdeal on 12/15/2011 08:16:52 MST.

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
Even the company's own website calls it "skishoeing" on 12/15/2011 08:25:44 MST Print View

"Your contempt for the Hoks is evident with the appellation "ski-like". One could say that a snowboard is ski-like but these certainly are skis, not ski-like."
-- Contempt? No, just referring the company's own website, which uses the term "skishoeing" and quite clearly puts the focus on other than the efficient long-distance transportation that BPL is supposed to bring us:
*****
"We believe that backcountry skiing is wherever you choose to go, whether it’s out the back door for a quick tour in the woods, or to your nearby park, hills or mountains."
"We felt there was a great potential for skis designed for what we like to call ‘pocket backcountry’, the skiing many skiers have ready access to close to where they live. In both Quebec (Francois’ home) and NE Washington (Nils’ home), skiing out the back door or close to it offers us excellent and easy access to the winter world."
*****
For that kind of backyard fun it's certainly great (and cheap too). Would be ideal for stuff right near my house (in addition to somewhat similar gear I already have for that).
But for "lightweight wilderness travel" that is supposed to be BPL's focus? No.
*****
"You also dismissed my point of East versus West."
-- I live in southern New England. I know all about tight confines for skiing.

Gerry Volpe
(gvolpe)

Locale: Vermont
Hok ski on 12/15/2011 08:46:26 MST Print View

Wow have we ever moved a review thread to chaff? It seems like we are straying from the point and the niche this equipment is meant for. The pro rando argument is valid and has won over many of my tele friends for the weight and performance reasons(though you will have to pry my nordic gear from my cold dead hands).

What sounds cool about the Hoks to me is they are more manueverable and slower than my skis which would make me feel like a hero and open up terrain that I am very tentative in now. They also seem very simple and fuss free which I like. This is why waxless skis appeal to me for winter travel as opposed to skins for up and down(which is super fun too). Would I buy them as opposed to saving for some short(relative), wide, single cambered, waxless skis? I don't know but I feel like it is not a fair comparison. I sure would like to play around on them though.


(cooperman1)
Easter terrain on 12/15/2011 09:01:02 MST Print View

Fellows,
I am much out of my league when the discussion turns to rando and tele skis.
But I do know my local woods and the woods of western PA where I backpack.

Everything is tight. The trails are narrow, sometimes with no room to execute a turn unless it is a very sharp turn, where the consequence of error is harsh.
The snow is not always deep and there are downed branches, roots and sometimes rocks lurking just below the surface. Some little ravines are far too steep and rocky to use any skis at all. They must be carried and not tangle me up in overhead branches.

And my skills are just not that good. In Ohio we don't get 6 months of snow. We get maybe 3 months, and maybe much less if a warm rain interrupts. I don't get that much chance to practice.

So I need to descend slowly. I need a ski that will slow my progress downhill. I cannot do snappy linked turns with trees whipping by because I'm going to hit one. Or trip over a downed branch.

I need skis that will grip well enough to let me stride and climb instead of doing an inverted snowplow which sometimes won't work because the trail is too narrow to allow long skis to spread out enough.

I need to get my foot around brush without ending up straddling both sides of a 6 foot sapling.

Snowshoes do this admirably. But slowly. Maybe, just maybe, these very slow skis will allow for some ski-like experience without me seeing my life flash before my eyes.

Thanks,
Marty Cooperman
Cleveland, Ohio

Khader Ahmad
(337guanacos) - F

Locale: Pirineos, Sierra de la Demanda
I love my Dynafit, but... on 12/15/2011 09:46:26 MST Print View

They're too expensive for bushwacking. Period. I don't like thrashing expensive gear.

I love my used dynafit, tlt bindings and boots, there's nothing better. But I can't buy new boards every season, so this might be a really good option (with a tlt binding, of course) for BC travel in my region (not too much snow, plenty of rocks).

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
circular circles on 12/15/2011 10:43:03 MST Print View

There are obviously robust arguments on both sides here, and if nothing else this discussion will provide future readers with a place to start when making their own decision. My personal opinion is that while superlight alpine gear is at the forefront of technology at the moment, and will no doubt influence heavy nordic gear in a beneficial way, nordic (distance oriented) and alpine (vert oriented) gear will remain separate. Some of these reasons have been touched on here, some in the article, and some in neither. I stand by my statement that for many users skis like the Hoks and a freeheel rig will be the best way to cover miles in the backcountry.

Edited by DaveC on 12/15/2011 11:32:27 MST.

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
Informing readers about the superiority of rando race gear is not trolling on 12/15/2011 11:04:12 MST Print View

I don’t see how restricting my posting to my expertise in on-snow travel gear constitutes trolling. (By contrast, I *read* articles and posts on other topics.)
It is a well-known fact (among those who have actual first-hand experience in the field – both figuratively and literally) that rando race gear excels not only in alpine backcountry terrain but also nordic backcountry terrain. (Witness the demise of nordic gear in the *NORDIC* backcountry Elk Mountain Grand Traverse race.) The European rando race market is driving impressive innovations in cutting-edge gear (as well as rendering used gear from only a few seasons ago very cheap), and although that gear is designed for competition in the alpine environment, a side benefit is its suitability for lower-angle lightweight backcountry travel.
The only exception to the superiority of rando race gear for BPL’s "lightweight wilderness travel" is xc skate gear under certain conditions in the Eastern Sierra and AK (although that requires excellent fitness, technique, and route planning).
BPL is seriously undermining its credibility by publishing an article that recommends a heavy backyard plaything setup to “cover miles in the backcountry” and that dismisses rando race gear out of apparent lack of familiarity.

Howard E. Friedman
(hefriedman)

Locale: New York/New Jersey
newbie boot question on 12/15/2011 11:54:38 MST Print View

The consensus seems that the universal binding is not preferable. Even the Hok website recommends the 75 mm binding as first choice for control and stability. Just curious if the Alpina Blazer boot which has a 75mm 3-pin binding would be appropriate. The binding, however, is described as fitting the 'older' type of 75 mm 3 pin binding. Is there a new type and an old type? Most of the other 75 mm boots I see are heavy and burly.

WV Hiker
(vdeal)

Locale: West Virginia
BPL's mission on 12/15/2011 13:52:02 MST Print View

Jonathan stated:

"Contempt? No, just referring the company's own website, which uses the term "skishoeing" and quite clearly puts the focus on other than the efficient long-distance transportation that BPL is supposed to bring us

But for "lightweight wilderness travel" that is supposed to be BPL's focus? No."



You state that BPL is about efficient long-distance transportation and lightweight wilderness travel. The mission statement of BPL is:

"Our Mission
"To promote multi-day, backcountry travel in a self-supported ("backpackable"), lightweight style."

So, yes BPL is about lightweight wilderness travel. I don't recall ever seeing where that necessarily involved long-distance. In fact, most places in the eastern US are not going to be long-distance unless you're on a long trail like the AT, LT, etc. To denigrate a product because it is not suited (in some people's opinion) to long-distance travel does a disservice to this discussion.

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
How is lightweight multi-day travel *not* long distance? on 12/15/2011 14:14:08 MST Print View

How can multi-day backcountry travel in a lightweight style not add up to long distances?
Oh, that's right, if you have a really wide ski with inefficient bindings that amount to driving with the parking brake on the entire time, then you won't get all that far . . . but then again, the reviewed setup isn't even lightweight in the first place anyway.

As I've written before, the Hok looks like a great product for backyard fun (and it's cheap too). But even just going by their website's own copy, it obviously doesn't match up with BPL's focus (although rando race gear sure does, even though it's developed for competitive pursuits in more technical terrain).

I suppose the Hok would be an intriguing option if rando race gear didn't exist, but, well, it does.

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Altai Skis: The Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review on 12/15/2011 14:37:16 MST Print View

Gosh folks, can't we just get along?

I skied a little bit about 40 years ago, and it just isn't for me. As a matter of fact I don't even know what skins are. I do know that the article is Dave's opinion, even though it has a "BPL Recommended Label."

Sounds like the set-up works for him and will work for others. And there are options, although more expensive. A simple statement, like if you want XYZ, you might consider this set up, that include these features and benefits.

Now I don't know anything about mountain bikes either. I suppose a $89 WalMart bike would not hold up well and not do a lot of things well. I suspect a $500 brand bike might do everything I need and not kill my bank account. And there are people who probably own $5,000+ titanium mountain bikes that are the cat's meow. So the heavier and less feature rich $500 bike would probably do everything and more than many people would want, even though it may not be the lightest, fastest, most maneuverable, and coolest product available.

Should we criticize someone who has a 3lb big box backpack with a total base weight of 7 pounds? No, especially if it works for them and they are happy. If they ask for help in choosing something different, we can chime in.

Be nice everyone!

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
Sure, if you want cheap heavy inefficient gear that sort of works... on 12/15/2011 14:50:20 MST Print View

Nick, yes, if the focus were along the lines of, here's something that's rather heavy and inefficient compared to the optimal gear on the market for this kind of application, but hey it works, well, works good enough (however defined) -- then sure.
But instead the article dismiss rando race gear for backcountry touring applications, implicitly concluding that it would be worse that the reviewed gear for the kind of skiing described here.
So in other words, using your own analogy, it's basically saying the $500 brand bike is far better than the $5,000+ titanium mountain bike (even though the actual differential is greater when it comes to ski gear, and in reverse of that posited by the review).


(cooperman1)
Jonathan can you provide some examples on 12/15/2011 14:56:15 MST Print View

Jonathan,
Not knowing what Rando gear is, I wonder if you could give an example of a ski, boot and binding that illustrates what you're talking about.
I've not heard of Rando ski gear before and it sounds interesting.
Thanks,
Marty Cooperman
Cleveland, Ohio

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
Rando Race Gear on 12/15/2011 15:06:05 MST Print View

Information on rando race gear is unfortunately hard to come by in North America, but both the information and available selection are growing at a rapid rate.
The bindings are unfortunately very pricey:
http://www.wildsnow.com/5916/backcountry-skiing-bindings-lightweight/
However, Dynafit Speed / Classic is typically available used for a little over $200 -- twice as heavy as rando race bindings, but then again that's still adding only around ten ounces or so (per pair).
You can also try to find close-out specials on last year's Dynafit Low Tech Lite, or get the Dynafit Low Tech Radical from a European etailer (as for some odd reason it's not available in North American this year).
For boots, in this context (both budget & lower angle), the best option is get some used Scarpa F1 boots from between $100 and $200 then essentially modify it into the F1 Race:
http://www.wildsnow.com/2180/scarpa-f1-backcountry-skiing-boots/
For skis, if you want a patterned base, you could go with a model from Fischer, Alpine, Rossignol, or Madshus. These are widely available and pretty cheap, even new.
Full-on rando race skis are absurdly light (a little over three pounds, per pair), although also pricey:
http://www.wildsnow.com/4228/rando-race-gear-review-2/
These are probably the least expensive readily available in North America:
http://www.dynafit.com/product/ski-1/race-performance
http://store.haganskiusa.com/products/Hagan-X%252dRace.html

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Sure, if you want cheap heavy inefficient gear that sort of works... on 12/15/2011 15:47:25 MST Print View

So correct me if I am wrong. Rando gear is designed specifically for racing, is very expensive, and is not readily available in the US?

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
Rando race gear is the best for extended nordic touring, prices vary, and selection is finally good in U.S. on 12/15/2011 16:02:05 MST Print View

"Rando gear is designed specifically for racing"
-- The design goal is the ultimate in efficiency for the alpine environment. So is it overbuilt for lower-angle backcountry touring? Yes, but it's still way better than any other options (especially the gear reviewed here). As I noted before, rando race gear even now dominates a *nordic* backcountry races, for which participants previously used nordic backcountry gear.
-- Now, if high-tech gear were specifically designed for the lower-angle environment, it would be even better yet for that context. But no market for cutting-edge nordic backcountry boots & bindings. So instead, the Euro rando race market is so competitive and innovative, the overbuilt gear still outperforms the nordic gear.

"is very expensive"
-- It all depends what you get.
-- For example, a used Dynafit Speed binding is adding weight, but you'll pay a little over $200. Want to lose another 10 ounces or so? On eBay, it will cost you another $100 or so if combined with some used rando race skis. New, it will cost you much more.
-- Boots, as I wrote in a prior post, a used Scarpa F1 is somewhere between $100 and $200. A used Dynafit TLT4 -- which is easy to hack down into essentially its even lighter MLT4 -- goes for even less, but for the low-angle context, I think the bellows on the F1 has the edge over the TLT4/MLT4.
-- Full-on rando race skis, you can sometimes find used Atomic TM:11, MX:11, and MX:20 for really cheap. New full-on rando race skis are similar in price to alpine downhill skis.
-- Or, if you want a patterned base ski (heavier just because they're not as current in their designs), those are way cheaper, and available used for cheaper yet.
-- Skinny used nylon skins are very cheap. Mohair are pricier, although if you go in with a buddy, just buy a pair of wide BD mohair skins then split them down the middle. Or go with kicker skins. Or kick wax.

"and is not readily available in the US?"
-- All of the items described above were written from a U.S. market/buyer perspective. Total hit for a used setup with a patterned base ski is something like $500 for the above. Not cutting-edge rando weight, but lighter than the review gear, and much better performance on both the up, down, and flats.

spelt !
(spelt) - F

Locale: SW/C PA
come again on 12/15/2011 16:37:43 MST Print View

For roughly double what I'd pay for a new Hok setup, I could get a used rando setup that's some unspecified amount lighter. In addition, I'd be committing to boots that are impossible to hike in should I find myself in conditions where skiing is impossible or impractical, thus requiring me to carry spare shoes that would likely cancel out any weight advantage I'd gain with a rando setup. That weight differential, of course, could be preserved if I were willing to spend even more for yet lighter rando gear. I gotta say, I'm not really feelin' it.

I understand really loving something and wanting to evangelize for it, but I don't understand why you are resistant to the facts that
(1) not everyone wants to or can spend more,
(2) there is no single system that is the best for everyone in every condition everywhere, and that
(3) people have different needs and desires for their outdoor excursions that are not always compatible with the absolute lightest or absolute most efficient gear.

Would you be less incensed if the Hok billed itself as a "sliding snowshoe", or some other name that didn't contain the word "ski" or suggest that it--a hybrid piece of equipment--should be compared with pure skiing setups? That seems to be the root of your beef, given that you haven't been posting on snowshoe review threads about the inadequacy of snowshoes in allowing efficient long-distance backcountry travel.

spelt !
(spelt) - F

Locale: SW/C PA
multi-day =/= long distance on 12/15/2011 16:42:34 MST Print View

Traveling into backcountry, setting up basecamp, and staying put for several days is one way in which "multi-day trip" is not synonymous with "long distance trip."

Ross Bleakney
(rossbleakney) - MLife

Locale: Cascades
Altai Skis: The Hok Ski and X-Trace Universal Binding Review on 12/15/2011 18:47:37 MST Print View

Wow, leave this thread for a little while, and all hell breaks loose. :)

A few things come to mind. Jonathan confirms, in a round about way, what was said in the intro. The industry is driven by several forces, and they don't generally result in gear that is great for the person who just wants to get from here to there in the winter. For example, great cross country racing gear trickles down to the average groomed skier. Similarly, we have really light Randonee gear, made for racing, that works well for general use. Not all of the improvements come from the extremes, fortunately. As I said in an earlier post, waxless bases are much better than before, even though they aren't used by racers.

In some ways, this gear is like really good waxless skis: Maybe it isn't the best of the best, but it is still really good, and should appeal to lots of people. Even though I'm in the West, I agree with the earlier post, in that the great appeal of these skis is their short size. Anyone can make short skis, of course (some call them Skiboards) but these are a great compromise. They have just enough camber to glide and just enough rise to prevent face plants (especially in the Spring, where sun cups can be murder on a short ski) while still maintaining a good edge. They do all this in a package that is nice for hauling. The ability to haul skis like this is a huge bonus, and should not be dismissed lightly.

Here are a couple examples of why this product should appeal to a lot of folks. I make local references (to spots in Washington State) but don't worry if you've never heard of these spots. They aren't that interesting (just nod along as if listening to your niece talk about boy bands).

The first example is Kendall Lake, close to Snoqualmie Pass. This is a favorite for lots of folks in the winter. Some ski this with sturdy gear, so they can make turns up high. Others, like myself, ski it in moderate cross country gear (light boots and skis with more sidecut than the super skinny stuff used in the tracks). But most of the people on this road use snowshoes. I often pass these people going up and down. Despite the fact that I'm faster and using less energy than the average snowshoe user, I notice more and more snowshoes every year. My gear doesn't cost much more (if any) than the snowshoes, so I'm sure that's not the biggest factor. No, the big factor is skill, and a willingness to fall down once in a while (I'm not that skilled). Most of these folks just want to be up in the mountains, and snowshoes work fine. Most of them don't want to spend the time to learn to ski (the hardest part is matching your ability to the conditions). If you suggested to them that they can spend a big wad on Rando Race gear, it just won't happen. Even the cost of standard Randonee or Telemark gear will raise some eyebrows. On the other hand, buying a pair of three pin boots, along with these skis doesn't sound so bad. Plus, you could save yourself even more money by just getting the universal bindings. Those have the added advantage of being easily transferable to anyone else.

As much as I would like to see the permanent skin replaced with a waxless base, I don't think that is the most important addition. The big key, to me, is having ski crampons. To go back to that example again, I was on that road last weekend. Unfortunately, even though we had a good start to snow season here, we are experiencing a little drought right now (it's been a couple weeks since we've had a lot of snow). So, the road was very icy. I expected this, and brought my snowshoes. I did see a few skiers, but most of them had sturdier equipment (sturdier than I own). I only saw one with skinny skis, and she was carrying them down. I commented on that, and she said she did just fine going up. This makes for a great case study of why these skis, with crampons, would be really popular. Glide up, and, at worse, walk down. No need to carry your skis, just put them in "snowshoe" mode, and you'll be fine. If you are a beginner (or even if your not) and the terrain (or the conditions) get too nasty, just put on the crampons, and go down.

This leads me to my next example. For this weekend, I plan on visiting a mountain that starts with moderate logging roads, then hits a wooded trail until the summit. I will be traveling with a couple of friends of mine. They both snowshoe. I would love to bring these along, and glide my way up the moderate sections, then attach the crampons when things get nasty. I could easily sell a couple pairs of these, given that experience. As it is, though, without crampons, I'm not so sure. Even if I had these (they are on order) I'm not sure I want to attempt the dicey sections with these. I guess I can always take them off and plunge my way down, but I would much rather have snowshoes (for those sections). On the other hand, it is quite likely that it will be icy for almost the entire trip. If that's the case, then we'll carry our snowshoes, and wear Yaktrax (or equivalent). The ease with which these skis can be carried would prove to be very useful, if that happened. In other words, if I add crampons to these, I may never snowshoe again. That's saying something, and I like it.

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
As I wrote before, the Hok is probably great for a little winter snowplay fun... on 12/15/2011 19:56:27 MST Print View

I agree that people certainly have different desires for outdoor winter recreation. For example, perhaps a little snowplay in the woods close to home, a casual short outing in the backcountry, or a multi-day trip that mainly entails staying close to a basecamp.
I therefore agree that “this product should appeal to a lot of folks” since a lot of folks are interested in recreation like that. And you certainly don’t need efficient lightweight travel gear for fun like that. (Although it does exist, as witnessed by the success of rando race gear in the FORTY-mile Elk race, which is all about getting “from here to there in the winter” albeit over rather moderate terrain.) But then again, you don’t need any of the gear or info from BPL for that either.
Instead, I thought BPL was the kind of place where people as an avatar might use the Mizuno Wave Universe 4 racing shoes (which in my size on my digital postal scale weigh a mere 7.9 oz per pair). But once the snow falls, it’s all about saving money (although the Wave Universe 4 is on sale at Zappos right now!), or the winter equivalent of casual nature walks, and forget about lightweight efficient travel.
As far as a “used rando setup that's some unspecified amount lighter” I already provided the numbers that show the lightest setup in the review is about 1/3 heavier than my own not-quite-current setup, and that’s extra weight on your feet, where it counts way more than on your back. Moreover, the lightest reviewed setup has a pivot design - or rather, a lack of pivot - that is very much akin to driving with the parking brake on. (So in other words, you’re not only taking on more weight, but the efficiency penalty goes beyond the mere static nature of that weight.) And the skiing performance of the reviewed setup is horribly poor compared to rando race gear (as demonstrated on the company’s own videos).
As far as, “committing to boots that are impossible to hike in should I find myself in conditions where skiing is impossible or impractical” a stripped down F1 is better for hiking than the modified telemark boots in the review. Admittedly, although I have hiked many (many) miles at a time in my ski boots, they are certainly not optimal for hiking compared to trail runners, etc. But given that the universal binding didn’t even make the cut in this review, I won’t go into the details of how much worse a Hok + universal binding + trail runners setup would be than a rando race setup plus trail runners (or even my Mizuno Wave Universe 4 racing shoes if the non-snow travel will be relatively smooth).

Ross Bleakney
(rossbleakney) - MLife

Locale: Cascades
Re: As I wrote before, the Hok is probably great for a little winter snowplay fun... on 12/15/2011 21:15:43 MST Print View

I don't think its fair to criticize or generalize BPL for ignoring weight when it comes to winter activity. This is just one review. BPL does plenty of reviews of gear that is outside what most would consider to be ultralight activity. However, if there is a piece of gear that seems to fit a niche market, then it is worth reviewing. If it fits that niche market just right, than it is definitely worth saying so. A quick glance at many of the previous reviews shows plenty of gear that most of the members of this site would say is not really ultralight, but interesting enough nonetheless. Much of that gear is bought and used by ultralight folks because it fits our budget or satisfies the niche we want satisfied.

That being said, I think an article about "state of the market" ultralight winter travel would be most welcome. Perhaps you could write such an article, going into more detail about many of the things you mentioned. You can bet that cost would be an important item to mention. But as someone who has bought two (yest two) Cuben tents, it won't be the only criteria.

Most of the time I travel in the winter with very comfortable, very lightweight gear. My guess is that is lighter than Rando race gear, but I also travel with this gear when the conditions are right (no need for metal edges) and the terrain is moderate.

I've never heard of the Elk Race, but my guess is that if gave out gold medals, then maybe ski makers would make much lighter general purpose gear.

Also, I should mention that Jonathan is not the only one who is excited about Rando Race gear. A trip report quickly turned into a similar discussion here: http://www.nwhikers.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=7991770 (although it was mostly focused on the boots, rather than the skis).

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Specialized Gear on 12/15/2011 22:15:22 MST Print View

Jonathan,

It is too bad this thread has gotten off track, and I have participated in that.

As I mentioned earlier, I know diddly about skiing.

I am glad you brought up the Mizuno Shoes. I know a little bit about them. If you are familiar with my posts, you would know I do a lot of hiking in XC flats. And the Wave Universe series were designed just for that, running cross country races, although they are now marketing the 4's as minimalist shoe to capitalize on the current minimalist craze. I strapped on my first pair of racing flats in 1967, so they are not new to me. XC flats are for racing in XC meets, generally 5K in high school, and 8K in college unless you run in the NCAA Regional or National finals. XC courses tend to be gentle rolling terrain. You would also know that I have hiked in several brands of XC flats the past few years, mostly Asics and Sacouny. You would also know that I do not advocate them as best or even better shoe than other options. They are just my preference and not a viable option for most people.

Now, if someone wrote an article about general use trail running shoes that would interest a broad cross section of BPL members, I would not post that you forgot XC flats or even that they are better. XC flats probably fit the need for less than 1% of the BPL membership. An article about minimal trail running shoes on BPL would probably not include XC flats; they are not designed for trail running. I might mention them as a lighter option and leave it at that. If people want more information on my experiences, I am more than willing to share them. I also have shared the negatives about cross country flats... they don't last long (very high cost per mile vs other shoes), traction is not great, no rock plate, not good in cactus country, you need to be agile, you should be carrying a very light pack, etc.

I probably have recommended Salomon Comp 3Ds more than any other shoe, because they fit me well, and would be a good all around choice for most people here if it fits them properly. I have 3 pair, each for a specific need, but probably do more hiking in flats that don't last. That is what works for me, and will not work for most people on this site.

And this is the point. Seems Dave wrote an article that would appeal to a good cross section of BPL members, and you keep pushing the benefits of a specialized and more expensive option. As I said earlier, a simple post of "you may want to also consider this, because of XYZ instead of beating it to death.

And yes I mention cost, because it is important to a lot of BPL members. I am fortunate because I have been working for over 40 years and my kids are grown and gone. So I can afford to spend more discretionary income on my hobby. Others here cannot, or have additional responsibilities that I do not have. I am very sensitive to cost for that reason.

BPL is about sharing information, knowledge, and experiences. Usually there is no right way. What works for one person many not work for the majority.

To be honest, the best thing for you to do is to let this thread run its course and let those interested in Dave's system discuss it. There does seem to be an interest by some in Rando racing. Why not start a thread on that subject, where those who are interested in it would get some real benefit. This way everyone wins.

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
A niche market unrelated to BPL... on 12/16/2011 08:11:04 MST Print View

The Hok certainly fills a niche, but a very specialized one for short-distance snowplay, not BPL’s lightweight efficient travel (for which rando race gear excels across a wide spectrum of terrain).

Now granted outdoor lightweight efficient winter travel has many niches, depending on the terrain, and also the traveler’s skills. At one extreme – or rather, entirely non-extreme terrain – where metal edges are not required, the new Skiathlon xc race boots might be ideal for backcountry applications ... perhaps paired with SNS Pilot skate bindings for extra lateral control . . . and the new Skintec classic skis. (Or would a wider model be better?)
At the other extreme, for truly extreme terrain, but combined with long approaches, then one (small) step up from rando race gear might be ideal. (Witness the recent speed record for ski mountaineering on the Grand Teton.)
For non-skiing winter travel, various “traction devices” offer interesting variations on the old instep crampons and the like for low-angle snowfield hiking. And although snowshoes are neither light nor efficient, for non-skiers, it beats postholing, so they still have their place.

Overall, the review is akin to writing about footwear for trail use yet dismissing out of hand trail runners (of which the La Sportiva Crosslite 2.0 is my current favorite, though I might consider using my Mizuno Wave Universe 4 if the terrain was very smooth and I subsequently had to carry my shoes around with me for the duration of the trip once I hit snow).

Brendan Swihart
(brendans) - MLife

Locale: Fruita CO
Re: A niche market unrelated to BPL... on 12/16/2011 08:51:38 MST Print View

Jonathan, this isn't a SOTM article. It's a review of one product, and an excellent one at that. This is what a gear review should look like: thoughtful, honest, well-written, and the product has been used enough by the reviewer for them to be able to take a real stance on it.

Like others have said, offering some alternatives is helpful but at this point we know your stance and maybe another thread on rando gear is the best way to keep this thread on track for those that want to discuss the Hoks.

Eric Blumensaadt
(Danepacker) - MLife

Locale: Mojave Desert
Interesting "sliding snowshoe" review on 12/16/2011 10:49:09 MST Print View

Dave,

Thanks for the review of gear I didn't know existed. Interesting stuff, especially so for beginner backcountry ski campers. Plus, as you mention, they are much more packable than regular BC skis.

My own BC ski gear is:
Atomic TM 22 tele skis (190 cm.)
Asnes Norwegian Army skis (210 cm. !!) Easier on undulating terain but hard to turn.

Both have heavy duty Voile' 3 pin bindings mounted on Voile' RELEASE binding plates
(Hey, I'm 68 and don't want broken bones in the backcountry.)

My main BC boots are low, more flexible Scarpa T3 boots. I also have old, heavy duty Vasque leather telemark boots.
And yes, as you said, snowshoes are an effort. Even my top-of-the-line MSR Lightning Ascent snowshoes are S L O W compared to the skis.

BTW, If I got the Altai skis I'd still mount my Voile' release binding plates and still use my Scarpa T3 boots unless the terrain was gentle and the trip just a day trip, in which case I'd use the Vasque leather boots, being the lighter of the two pair.

Edited by Danepacker on 12/16/2011 18:33:56 MST.

Ryan Bressler
(ryanbressler) - F
Crampons etc. on 12/16/2011 11:03:47 MST Print View

For those looking for a crampon, you could get a b and d telemark crampon (http://www.bndskigear.com/telemarkcrampons.html) or a fixed ski crampon from voile for the Hok though neither of these is designed for downhill use and don't offer as much resistance to forward travel as the teeth on an msr snowshoe.

I can definitely see the appeal of the hok from the point of view of the recreational snow shoer or the user looking to get in a few turns during a spring/summer hike without specialized footwear. I also have a ton of respect for the kind of multisport ski + bike + pac raft + hike enchainments David seems to be putting together using the hok...revolutionary stuff.

However I feel there is also a revolution going on centered around tech/rando bindings and the latest generation of compatible boots that walk and climb as well as a climbing boot, tour like an XC ski shoe and ski like a downhill boot and it is a little surprising to see David dismiss this gear so quickly. Alpine climbers are climbing hard remote routes in these boots with dynafited skis strapped to their backs and difficult ski traverses and enchainments are getting done more and more frequently by non expert skiers...I feel this gear is enabling new types of human powdered adventure like a pac raft and don't understand why he is so down on it.

From my own experience with winter travel David seems to under value the importance of fore aft stability, the predictability and repairability of pure ptex bases and the hugh safety advantage of releasable bindings. Even at conservative low speeds I have trouble envisioning such short skis eliminating all of these issues and keeping me stable with a pack in variable snow under tree cover, or on logging roads covered with refrozen snowmobile tracks or in heavy grabby snow... perhaps a decent ski crampon that let one walk downhill would help but 135 is pretty long to be side stepping with.

These things would be less of an issue if one could be ensured of consistent untracked snow for miles and miles and perhaps that is the case in the rockies but it is not my experience in the cascades.

A few mustache free, bushwhack heavy, non racing rando gear shots:

...for mandatory booting...
For the ups...
...and the downs...home

Edited by ryanbressler on 12/16/2011 11:07:51 MST.

spelt !
(spelt) - F

Locale: SW/C PA
balance on 12/16/2011 11:33:29 MST Print View

Ryan, thanks for the broader perspective. I like the concepts rando seems to be pushing forward. It just doesn't fit my budget or the kind of trips I'm doing for the foreseeable future. I appreciate Dave's extensive testing with the Hok and am excited to try mine when they come. Even if I move on to "real" skis at some point, I still see where the Hoks could stay on as snowshoe replacements if they perform as expected.

Erin McKittrick
(mckittre) - MLife

Locale: Seldovia, Alaska
For beginners? on 12/16/2011 12:05:32 MST Print View

A lot of discussion with a lot of terminology I don't even know. One thing I'm curious about is how friendly these various setups are to cautious beginners (someone who knows how to cross country ski in easy terrain, but nothing more). I snowshoe a lot, and my backyard is exactly the place that makes me curious for something like this - steep, wooded, snow-covered for 6 months per year. But conditions are often icy, snow is variable, and the hills are quite steep. When my husband has used the Karhu Karvers (and I'm in snowshoes alongside him), it seems like the extensive switchbacking required to go up the hills cancels out the speed advantage coming down. Though it might not if the skier was more skilled?

Is there a ski setup that has an advantage over snowshoes for someone who isn't a ski expert?

Jim Colten
(jcolten) - M

Locale: MN
Re: Specialized Gear on 12/16/2011 12:34:31 MST Print View

To add a little to Nick's nicely stated and dispassionate response ...

Rather than just starting a thread about using rando gear in the backcountry Jonathan might also care to write a 4000-5000 word article including a dozen or so photos showing details of rando gear and their back country use.

Regarding topics addressing what fewer than 1% of BPL readers do ... I recall two articles about climbing Denali in UL style (well, really light anyway), several about the Alaskan Wilderness Classic and one about packrafting the Grand Canyon. I seriously doubt that 1% of us will be doing those (but kudos to those that do.)

Ryan Bressler
(ryanbressler) - F
For beginers on 12/16/2011 14:01:54 MST Print View

I'm still very much a beginner in terms of skiing as I've only got into it seriously in the last few years mostly as a way to access the mountains in winter, tele turning (the kneeling turn used by the skiers in the hok videos) is harder to learn and much harder to master then the fixed heel alpine turn. Tele turns are fun, beautiful and soulful and keep you in touch with the snow...I've spent days lapping small powder filled clear cuts on karhu guides and light plastic and leather boots and it is an absolute blast but when the snow gets tricky or the steep I often trip up and face plant or catch a tip and tweak a knee. Shorter fatter skis might help this to some extent but I would also worry about going over the handlebars on them more...I end up survival skiing a lot (traversing back and forth across the slope and kick turning) which can be imposible in tight trees.

In comparison, after a couple of seasons on AT gear (and 3 days lift skiing in my life) I can confidently pick my way down the fall line weird refrozen black diamond terrain in heavy fog, make tight turns through steep tight trees and blast out chunky snowmobile tracked logging roads by moonlight relying on the stiffness of the skis and boots to absorb even the things I don't see or have time to react too and If I do crash my skis come off my feet instead of blowing out my acl. I'm not doing long multi sport trips like dave and I can definitely see the draw of a shorter ski and multipurpose footwear for that...

Dave equates the Hok's to a hardtail mountain bike and I can see that being an apt description in terms of the terrain one can access for that. For me AT skis are something more, in mountain bike terms it is as if all of a sudden the entire brushy and rugged cascade mountain range is covered in moderate bike trails and slick rock and I can go wherever I want. The gear is more expensive but it is worth it if you use it often...

(Note: I use the term AT or alpine touring interchangeably with the french term rando or randonee. Both of these terms refer to skiing with bindings that have a tour mode and a heel locked down ski mode.

One intriguing option not yet mentioned but often employed by climbers is using one of the silveretta or similar AT bindings with a crampon compatible climbing boot and rope from the knee of the skier to the tip of the ski to provide additional stiffness. This with the longer hok might be a great approach setup but I like the stiffness of a real ski boot...)

David Olsen
(oware)

Locale: Steptoe Butte
Skins in tight crud on 12/16/2011 14:51:18 MST Print View

Sometimes leaving skins on can slow your descent to get through tight and icy spots.
Use rope climbers and you can turn your skis into snow shoes.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
beginners and experts on 12/16/2011 17:10:14 MST Print View

Ryan, I am not dismissing AT gear. Its advantages are extensively documented, and easy to research. I do think that for a wide variety of wooded, nordic terrain other gear will serve most better. Unfortunately my self-indulgent responses early on here only served to obfuscate that.

As Eric's response highlights, prospective skiers will need to match equipment to terrain. I see no benefit in pretending that one article could be any sort of reasonable guide for that, so I didn't even attempt it.

Erin, the question of whether skis might work better than snowshoes for you depends on a lot of factors, some having to do with terrain, some with your personal preferences and ambitions. From what little I know of the Kenai, snowshoes might be the best tool for non-alpine stuff. Very steep, short hills and thick brush tend to favor snowshoes, though for me short, fat skis like the Hoks are the next best thing.

I'd also like to highlight that rando race skis are so light for two reasons: hi-tech construction and dimensions. Top of the line race skis have waists below 70mm and tips skinnier than the waist of the Hoks. Comparing the two is thus rather problematic. I do have some K2s with dimensions almost identical to something like the Dynafit DNA, albeit 10 oz per ski heavier. They're great for firm spring and resort snow, but under other circumstances I prefer to stack the deck more in my favor. A cool fixed heel bushwacking setup might be had by putting some Speed Superlights on the 154 Voile Chargers, though then you're looking at 1300 grams a ski unmounted.

More snow travel articles here would only be a good thing. As the seasonal surge in questions on winter travel shows, the demand exists.

Paul McLaughlin
(paul) - MLife
niche, but more than one niche on 12/16/2011 22:41:29 MST Print View

Well, this discussion has certainly wandered around. Which, if you think about it, is pretty apropos, since that is one of the things these types of skis are well suited to.
I think that here we have some differences of opinion that are partially rooted in points of view. If you think like a skier, then anyplace you'd want to ski, anyplace where the skiing would be enjoyable, would be a place where AT or Rando race gear would be more efficient and more effective than ski-shoes. But if you're not thinking like a skier, but instead you just have some spots in mind that you'd like to visit when the ground is snow-covered, spots that may be in thick woods, or brushy, with lots of short, steep ups and downs, then a ski-shoe might just be the ticket. those places are no fun to ski - trust me, I've tried it. And no one would go there for the skiing.
As a backpacker who happens to travel on skis in the winter and spring, I've thrashed around the woods on various skis for many years. I've also spent a fair amount of time in more alpine regions on skis - skied across the Sierra last spring - and yet I hardly think of myself as a skier, since that isn't why I go. I go to see the sights, and to experience the mountains in a different way than I can in the summer. I can definitely see the advantages of AT type gear for the long tours I do in more open terrain. If only I could afford any new skis now. But for thrashing in the woods, I'd take these in a heartbeat. That totally free pivot is great for going up a long climb, and maybe even for a flat kick and glide, but when it's a few sidesteps, and then a 10 foot downhill to a stop, followed by a traversing sidestep and a few choice cusswords, then that in-between sort of connection to the ski that you have with a 3-pin or an NNN-BC binding really comes into it's own.
With dynafits, if you have the heel unlocked and you lift the ski off the snow for a weird sidestep maneuever, the tail of the skis drops down, making it hard to do that kind of thing. And if you lock in the heels, then it's hard in another way. So for that kind of thing, it's just not the tool for the job.
Yes, these are a niche product. But the niche is not just fooling around in the backyard. There are indeed multi-day trips for which I think these would be the most efficient option - it's just that those conditions are such that a lot of people would never want to go there, and thus might not consider that sort of trip in their assessment of these types of skis.
And of course, there is another niche, and that is for the snowshoer who wants a little more speed but not too much. Probably a much larger niche than the multi-day bushwhacking niche.

David Cramer
(dauwhe) - F
Hok + Dynafit on 12/18/2011 11:42:16 MST Print View

I can't wait to try these, especially as I have done a fair amount of nordic-type skiing on a low-end Rando Race setup (BD Cult skis, Speed bindings, TLT5 Mountains). But something about the idea of these ski-like objects was very attractive to me, especially for local summer hiking trails where having something slower than skis would be an advantage for a bad skier like myself (skill level seems to influence equipment choices in skiing more than many other sports).

So maybe I'll mount some Dynafit bindings on the Hoks and use 'em with my TLT5 boots.

Jonathan, here's even more evidence that my telemark past has addled my brain ;)

Dave

David Cramer
(dauwhe) - F
Weights on 12/18/2011 12:16:20 MST Print View

Just pulled out the scale; the Hoks + 3pin binding + Scarpa T3 is about 50g lighter than my Rando setup (157cm BD Cult, Dynafit Speed, TLT5 Mountain). So essentially no difference.

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
Exactly... on 12/18/2011 13:01:51 MST Print View

Exactly: you can (and you indeed deed) assemble a reasonably light ski mountaineering setup on the cheap, that will perform reasonably well across the entire spectrum of moderate-angle touring, the occasional rando race, and even the most extreme ski mountaineering that one dares engage in.
Or spend more on rando race gear to drop additional pounds of weight while still retaining the performance (on the up, on the down, and in between).
Or save some bucks and get a backyard snowtime plaything that, while undoubtedly fun at its intended purpose, is very ill-suited for actual wilderness travel (given both its shape and the driving-with-the-parking-brake-on intended binding) as well as any higher-angle skiing.

spelt !
(spelt) - F

Locale: SW/C PA
Re: Exactly... on 12/18/2011 15:08:53 MST Print View

Man, give up on repeating yourself and just admit this is grudgewank already.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
binding reinforcements on 12/18/2011 21:58:53 MST Print View

For those thinking about mounting alternate bindings on the Hoks, be sure to inquire with the company first. I'm not sure there's enough reinforcing material for something like a dynafit heel piece.

Ross Bleakney
(rossbleakney) - MLife

Locale: Cascades
Re: A niche market unrelated to BPL... on 12/19/2011 19:01:50 MST Print View

Now granted outdoor lightweight efficient winter travel has many niches, depending on the terrain, and also the traveler’s skills. At one extreme – or rather, entirely non-extreme terrain – where metal edges are not required, the new Skiathlon xc race boots might be ideal for backcountry applications ... perhaps paired with SNS Pilot skate bindings for extra lateral control . . . and the new Skintec classic skis. (Or would a wider model be better?)

I agree. Personally, I'm a big fan of regular cross country boots and bindings combined with skis that have the most sidecut in their class. Their class being skis that don't have metal edges. I know these are heavier than skis meant for the tracks, but they perform much better in the backcountry. As long as the conditions are good and the terrain isn't that steep, I can go lots of places. I often take such gear in places where I have the flimsiest gear by a long shot. No matter, if the snow is good, and the terrain is not too steep and narrow (steep and wide can simply be traversed). If I was a better skier, then I would stretch the envelope even more. The trickiest part of the process is matching the gear to the conditions. If it is crustier than I expect, I fall down a lot.

I would really like to see the numbers on the Rando Race gear. I was serious before, and now Jim has suggested it as well: A state of the market report for Rando Race Gear (or similar gear) would be great. Even something just laying out specs of example gear and approaches would be nice (not as exhaustive as a SOTM article, but of the same nature). I enjoy the comments, but they are no substitute for a real article. I know some of the prices will raise some eyebrows, but so be it. We are all used to it, and make those sort of trade-offs every day (e. g. $450 for Cuben or $200 for Silnylon).

As an example, I wrote a little spreadsheet of my gear. It may be hard to read (it makes sense to me) but, for example, I have 1742 grams on each foot (boot, binding and ski) with my typical gear. I have less if I'm exclusively on a groomed track, but not that much less. I'm sure I could slash some weight by going with a lighter boot, but probably not that much. On the other hand, I don't really know, as I'm quite happy with my boot (it is very comfortable).

Edited by rossbleakney on 12/19/2011 19:02:21 MST.

Khader Ahmad
(337guanacos) - F

Locale: Pirineos, Sierra de la Demanda
@ Ross Re: Re: A niche market unrelated to BPL... on 12/19/2011 20:00:10 MST Print View

I believe this is the lightest set you could buy today (without skins or crampons):

DYNAFIT DY.N.A. Evo Boot: Held one last winter, they wouldn't let me use it though...
703grams actual weight on 28.5Mondo. Really cheap aprox 1000€ :( The tester told me it was one of the best downhill boots he had ever seen. Nice walker.

OR

Scarpa Alien, same weight same price. Never seen it.

OR

LaSportiva Stratos, wieght and price beyond my sources. This one seems the most expensive option (full carbon shell).


Ski Trab Race Areo World Cup boards: aprox 700g on 159cm 96/92/65/78mm 859€

DYNAFIT Low Tech Race Auto binding: 117g 700€

This is the lightest RACE PRO gear available outside of pro-teams. My set (used gear) was a bit less than 300€ Dinafit Broad Peak (170cm+-) with TLT speed bindings, crampons, mohair skins, brakes and lashes. My Boots are really old, Lasers and TLT3, maybe this season I'll get a good deal on used tlt5.

I had a pair of Hagan Dolphins 120cm with Silvretta 404 bindings I used for aproach when I was a clumsy alpinist, but they are also really heavy, I bought that for 100€ with crampons and skins a long time ago.

Ross Bleakney
(rossbleakney) - MLife

Locale: Cascades
Re: @ Ross Rando Race Gear Weights on 12/19/2011 21:12:41 MST Print View

Wow! Really, I had no idea. OK, the boot weights are very good, but they don't surprise me that much. I had heard of things like that, and much of it makes sense. If you use a lot of plastic, you can make a lightweight boot. The big challenge is making it comfortable, especially for hiking. Lots of people say these are, but that varies person by person.

The really impressive thing are the skis. I double checked the weight, and that's what the website says (http://skitrab.com/en-au/c-5-ultra-light/1-race-areo-world-cup.html). I weigh about 150 pounds (give or take a beer or two) so I would probably get the longer ski. But at 720 grams, that is extremely light. Even the heaviest one is under 800 grams. The medium sized ski paired with the binding you mention weighs about 840 grams. To put things in perspective, that is just about what my Motion Crown ski (with binding weighs). In other words, a skinny ski I specifically bought to cruise around in the grooomed, because it is faster and lighter than my general purpose ski, weighs about the same as a metal edged ski with ten times the sidecut. Simply amazing.

Now, to be fair to the cross country world, I didn't buy cross country race skis. You can get cross country skis that weigh 500 grams, and bindings that weigh another 100, saving you over 100 grams over the Skitrab skis. Nonetheless, the Skitrab skis are amazing. It is basically like talking about bicycles and explaining that you prefer a nice light road bike since you just stick to the pavement, and then you pick up the guy's mountain bike and realize it is lighter than yours. No, you don't have an Italian racing bike, but still, it's a road bike (and a good one) yet the mountain bike is lighter. Crazy.

It also begs the question: I wonder if you could use plain cross country boots with those skis? The obvious answer is why bother. You would obviously get much better control with the boots you mention. Still, one of the reasons (I assume) that you get firmer boots when you get curvier skis is because of the weight. In other words, if you tried using regular cross country boots with a pair of Atomic Rainiers, your boots would get thrashed trying to move the skis around. I wonder if it is the sidecut, or the weight that matters?

If they weren't so expensive, I might experiment. As it is, I hope the price drops. It probably will. It is obvious that this is cutting edge engineering, and like a lot of cutting edge engineering, the price drops after a while (as long as other competitors keep up). This is really exciting stuff -- I appreciate the information.

Edited by rossbleakney on 12/19/2011 21:14:56 MST.

Khader Ahmad
(337guanacos) - F

Locale: Pirineos, Sierra de la Demanda
Re: Re: @ Ross Rando Race Gear Weights on 12/19/2011 22:36:24 MST Print View

Remember: that was the "standard" race gear, if you want to spend big bucks you might get the boots killian uses:

http://www.pierregignoux.fr/GB/PackUltimate.php

Atomic or Fish boards, atk, Haereo or kreuzspite bindings, Crazy jumpsuits.... weight goes down as fast as your money evaporates. Crazy world.

Ross Bleakney
(rossbleakney) - MLife

Locale: Cascades
Re: Re: Re: @ Ross Rando Race Gear Weights on 12/20/2011 08:18:13 MST Print View

It seems like there is a lot of competition in the boot market, even if the prices are really high. My guess is that this will eventually drop the price, at least for gear almost as light.

I'm curious about the skis. Do any of the really light skis have waxless bottoms? If not, I assume that they are designed for skins on the flats (no kick wax). I notice that a few companies sell some fairly carved skis with waxless bottoms. For example, Rossignol has a waxless ski with dimensions of 123-95-120. Fischer, Madshus and Alpina have similar skis.

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
So maybe I really am repeating myself now... on 12/20/2011 15:49:21 MST Print View

I’ll admit that now I finally might very well be repeating myself, but to clarify the state-of-the-market in response to some recent posts:

Skis are all very similar (except for the even lighter Merelli models ... which have a very bad reputation for breaking) and weigh a bit over 3 pounds per pair at a bit over 160cm (unless you want to drop as low as 150cm for the women’s minimum, which will save even more weight and gain even more maneuverability in tight quarters). About half a dozen different models are available in the U.S. (way more in Europe), with the cheapest from Hagan and Dynafit (the “Race Performance” model). Cheap used rando skis can be found from Atomic for ~$100: TM:11, MX:11, MX:20.

No ultralight rando race skis are available with patterned bases (i.e., “fishscales” or the misleadingly termed “waxless”). Patterned-base skis are now available in a very wide variety of widths and lengths, and the weights although quite light is still much heavier than rando race skis.
For a rando race ski on lots of rolling terrain, kick wax would work okay (although not as well as on a true double-cambered ski of course). Kickers skins are another option (just keeping them on all the time) or super-skinny mohair skins (sometimes termed “runners”).

Bindings are cheap (~$200 used) if you take on extra weight and go with the non-race Dynafit Speed, but the older Dynafit Low Tech Race is now showing up on eBay fairly regularly (as elite racers upgrade their gear and as wannabe racers go through their equivalent of all the nice road bikes showing up for sale barely used b/c of Lance mania). Another good deal is trying to rack down last year’s Dynafit Low Tech Lite. This year’s Dynafit Low Tech Radical is reasonably affordable by alpine downhill standards if ordered from Europe (not available in North America for some odd reason), but it lacks a completely “flat” touring position, so probably not a good choice for more nordic-esque applications.
Weights vary from about a pound to half a pound, per pair, with mounting screws. And speaking of mounting, this is not for the do-it-yourselfer, unless you’re really good at this kind of work. (I’ve mounted four such pairs of bindings, but I’d had many years of experience with other Dynafit models.)

Boots are now at around three pounds per pair from four different companies (well, except for Merelli with a new custom boot at only . . . two pounds . . . per pair?!?). Near-race boots are available at around four pounds. But for more nordic-esque applications, I think the somewhat dated Scarpa F1 is preferable, especially with modifications:
http://www.wildsnow.com/2180/scarpa-f1-backcountry-skiing-boots/
... and the best part is that since it’s no longer used by rando racers, used prices are about $100 to $200, with good availability. (So in other words, blame the Euro rando race scene for increasingly the price of cutting-edge gear to crazy high levels, but also thank it for creating an affordable used market.)

As for how all this skis, compared to the skiing video footage at the Hok website, I’m able to ski about 4x as fast (in rando races when under time pressure!) on terrain much steeper with far trickier snow. (Yes, the skis are skinnier, but the 125cm length of the reviewed Hok is absurdly short for real skiing, and the lack of any rear cable or other support plus a severely hacked-up telemark boot can’t help matters much.) Here are some old pics from a glacier in the summer:
https://picasaweb.google.com/118364351379631769177/20080821ParadiseGlacier

On firm snow, this is just some mellow skiing, but I think the fairly precise short-radius turns convey the control the gear provides:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxwdZGAZK7g

Quoting a few prior posts:

“In other words, a skinny ski I specifically bought to cruise around in the groomed, because it is faster and lighter than my general purpose ski, weighs about the same as a metal edged ski with ten times the sidecut.”
– My rando race setup weighs significantly less than my nordic backcountry setup: as was said, it’s as if my mtn bike were to weigh less than my road bike...

“It also begs the question: I wonder if you could use plain cross country boots with those skis? The obvious answer is why bother.”
- Funny you should mention that, since each year I see a guy in this one rando race who does exactly that ... and I have exactly the same reaction when I see that setup! (Although I’ve never asked him why/how he came up with that combination.)

“If you use a lot of plastic, you can make a lightweight boot. The big challenge is making it comfortable, especially for hiking. Lots of people say these are, but that varies person by person.”
- Individual fit of course varies immensely. That said, if these boots fit you, they are quite comfy for tromping around. I spent a couple hours on Saturday with trailwork on a rando race backcountry ascent route, and although regular hiking boots would have been lighter, the near-race rando race boots (plastic lower shell, carbon fiber upper cuff) I had on were just as comfy. (And ditto for then hiking down the upper half of the ski area from the summit, which I had hoped would have more snow already made, ugh...)

BTW, at the other end of the spectrum, I see that Rossignol is coming out with a new “OT” version of its X5 nordic boot. For many nordic backcountry skiers, so-called “bar” bindings (i.e., NNN-BC or SNS-BC) are a very attractive option, but unfortunately the boots have really lagged behind the potential of the binding system, so nice to see what looks like an innovative model. (If you’re looking for used, I really like my old Salomon Raid boots - shame that they discontinued it.)

Michael Driscoll
(Hillhikerz) - M

Locale: Monterey Bay
Hok is probably great for a little winter snowplay fun... on 12/21/2011 22:05:31 MST Print View

just joined the site because of this article... read it the day it came out, and checked out the after posts, lively group... sooooo doing a honey do project for xmas, low and behold I have a pair of Hok's in the attic in the form of an old pair of water skis; a beautiful mahogany, nice upturn and trailing edge, bindings are right next to them in an old pair of funky snowshoes... sooooo I am thinking I got the flats and downhill covered just need a bit of help with skins for the uphill action... after looking around a bit decide on some worse for ware fishing nets, just Macgyver them on and away I go... I am headed up to see my 84 year old Mom for the holidays just down the street from Crater Lake... am thinking at the very least a couple screws, bicycle inner-tubes and go for a walk in the woods... what can go really wrong right... any way Happy Holidays to you all... loving the site & learning a lot...

Douglas Frick
(Otter) - MLife

Locale: Wyoming
Re: Hok is probably great for a little winter snowplay fun... on 12/22/2011 09:25:32 MST Print View

The nets will turn your skis into snowshoes, because they're not going to slide. (Unless you were going to make them removable?)

You might watch eBay for a week or two and try to pick up some used "climbing skins" (particularly "Ascension"; there's usually some of the original stock available cheap). It doesn't matter if the skins have sticky glue on the bottom or not, because you're going to want to buy a can of strong glue to make the bond permanent. Then you'll have the same glide-down climb-up capability that's built into the Hok skis. You can experiment with how much of the bottom to cover with skin, to balance slide and grip. (Be sure you put the fur on the right direction!) The Karhu Karver has a 32in x 3.25in skin, and the Meta has a 28in x3.75in skin, so about 104 in^2 is probably a good start.

If you've got a chisel or router, it's probably worth cutting in the leading curved edge of the skin, and maybe even putting in a plate and some screws, to prevent the leading edge from being pulled away from the ski base by snow friction.

Edited by Otter on 12/22/2011 09:30:05 MST.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
re: water skis on 12/22/2011 12:50:00 MST Print View

Michael, that's a great idea. The lack of metal edges is something to keep in mind, but not a big deal in many cases. If you can think of a way to recess the skin all the way around, that would help with longevity. On the other hand, attaching and removing a skin in the normal fashion would be quick and easy and a good way to get acquainted with the setup to see if it will work.

Ross Bleakney
(rossbleakney) - MLife

Locale: Cascades
Re: So maybe I really am repeating myself now... on 12/26/2011 12:21:07 MST Print View

I decided to create another thread that more generally discusses ski gear, as opposed to this review (or this product). I figure that if someone is interested in some of the items discusses, they may decide to search in "Winter Hiking" section, in which case, they would miss out on some of the useful information here. So, that post is here: http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/forums/thread_display.html?forum_thread_id=57332
and it starts with my comments on Jonathan's last comments. I decided not to copy his comments, but I reference his last comment (which would allow anyone to get to all of the comments).

As to this product, I ordered it, along with the universal bindings. I'll use some other bindings with it as well, but I'll start with that. The next step is to somehow attach some ski crampons, or something similar. When I get to that point, I'll probably start a new thread in Gear, or MYOG. My hope is that with ski crampons, or rope, or something like that, I'll be able to use the Hoks wherever I would normally use snowshoes.

Paul Cernak
(Cernak) - F

Locale: North Cascades
NNN or NNNBC bindings.... on 12/27/2011 15:41:34 MST Print View

Thank you David for the excellent review!
I'm on the lookout for my first ski setup and like most here, interested in a system that is as lightweight as possible.
For this reason (as well as price and hike-ability) I'm interested in boots with NNNBC bindings. You don't recommend the NNN bindings on the Hok because they have a tendency to break with such a wide ski. Does this include NNNBC bindings? My understanding is that NNNBC bindings are a bit bigger (wider and larger diameter post) therefore more robust.

Cheers,

Paul

Forrest G McCarthy
(forrestmccarthy) - MLife

Locale: Planet Earth
Nordic Mountaineering on 12/27/2011 23:06:05 MST Print View

Jonathan - Open your mind. AT gear has its advantages as does Nordic gear. What is best depends on your objective and skill level. What a boring world it would be if we all skied on the same gear in the same way.

Catch me if you can - http://teton.outerlocal.com/skiing/nordic-mountaineering-outpost

or Tim Kelley - http://crust.outlookalaska.com/index_about.htm

or Andrew Skurka - http://youtu.be/oZUaa9SjuMM

Great article Dave. We need to get out skiing together. You will like my latest version of Fast Shoes.

Onward,

Edited by forrestmccarthy on 12/27/2011 23:50:15 MST.

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
Open your mind to the post Steve Barnett era... on 12/28/2011 07:09:54 MST Print View

I long ago opened my mind to nordic backcountry touring gear. I even still own such gear. But then I opened my mind to ultralight rando racing gear. (Well, first it had to come into existence, then I had to learn about it, and finally I had to buy it.)

That kind of gear in your TR certainly made sense back in the era of Steve Barnett's impressive tours (well, impressive for their day and the gear limitations), but as your own TR notes, most of your original ski mountaineering partners have long-since switched to the "light and well-engineered" Dynafit and other "Tech"-style bindings, both touring and racing. (But BTW, the 3-pin weight savings of a couple ounces per foot as compared to a rando race binding will be offset in the touring efficiency after just a short amount of resistance-free strides.) And you admit to being "envious of the new ultra-light randonee [sic] racing boots."

As for your link to Tim Kelley, I already referenced that in an earlier post of mine. ("The only exception to the superiority of rando race gear for BPL’s "lightweight wilderness travel" is xc skate gear under certain conditions in the Eastern Sierra and AK (although that requires excellent fitness, technique, and route planning).")

Joe Anderson
(joeski4life) - F
LLBean Boreal on 12/29/2011 09:33:09 MST Print View

Dave (& others),

Given that you've shared your experiences with the Marquette BC and the Altai Hok, I'm wondering if anyone has any experience/feedback/comments on LL Bean's Boreal Sliding Snowshoes. As you pointed out, I have concerns about the durability of the permanent skin on the Hok, and like the idea of the positrack "scaled" base (similar to the Marquette) combined with the metal edges (like the Hok). Not a fan of the Berwin bindings, but I'd imagine these would be a little more functional with a 3-pin setup. Similar price range ($225 w/o bindings) to the Marquette and Hok, with some of the best features of both. LL Bean used to sell some of the Karhu's (see below), but they've since exited the market. I think these may be manufactured by Rossignol.

I was tossing around the idea of doing either snowshoes or XC skis this winter to entertain my dog add some variety to my winter sports (downhill has always been my go-to, but I did XC quite a bit growing up), and these 3 products look like an interesting alternative, but I can't decide which to go with!

http://www.llbean.com/llb/shop/68748?feat=66735-ppxs&dds=y
LL Bean Boreal Sliding Snowshoes:
LL Bean Boreal Sliding Snowshoes



Old LLBean/Karhu:
Discontinued LLBean Karhu

Edited by joeski4life on 12/29/2011 09:35:20 MST.

joe newton
(holdfast)

Locale: Bergen, Norway
Yet another viewpoint... on 12/29/2011 09:38:06 MST Print View

This is Forrest McCarthy's take on the mini ski set-up:

http://forrestmccarthy.blogspot.com/2011/12/fast-shoes-lightest-binding-is-no.html

Ross Bleakney
(rossbleakney) - MLife

Locale: Cascades
Re: LLBean Boreal on 12/29/2011 11:14:50 MST Print View

I would say that the Altai Skis have one big advantage over the Karhu/LL Bean skis: easily adaptable bindings. You can get several plates that you can then mount different bindings to. Apparently, it is easy to switch between bindings at that point. So, for example, you could spend a winter day with Altai skis and 3 pin (or BC or Telemark) boots. Then in the Spring, you could easily switch to the universal bindings on a day when you want to carry the skis, but not the boots.

As to the strength or weakness of the universal bindings, I haven't tried the bindings on the Altai. I have used the Berwin bindings. I wore them with fairly stiff mid-length boots. I found the bindings (with those boots) to be fairly supportive, but not very flexible. In other words, I could turn really well, but couldn't glide. Some of that could have been the skis (which were short Skiboards). My brother decided to take the bindings and attach them to a block of wood along with a hinge. After adding a bumper and some other niceties, he managed to crank out a very nice setup. I would say it is comparable to McCarthy's setup; I think it has better glide and control, but at a substantial cost in weight.

I write about the whole saga here: http://tinyurl.com/3qrkd8l (this includes a link to my brother's project in the "Success (but not by me)" section).

Huzefa Siamwala
(huzefa)
No Bindings on 01/16/2012 23:04:21 MST Print View

I am really digging McCarthy's setup. I wonder how hoks with fortybelow overboots screwed to the base will work. Probably some reinforcement under the rubber sole may be required. I am thinking 1.5 oz cuben fiber bonded to inside of the sole should prevent the rubber from tearing. Any better ideas?

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
reinventing the wheel ... but worse on 01/17/2012 07:43:53 MST Print View

"I am really digging McCarthy's setup."
-- What aspect of it? I ran the numbers for his overboots and hardware as compared to xc classic race boots and bindings, and in return for the lack of any striding pivot and far reduced skiing control (as well as highly suspect durability), the weight savings are somewhere on the order of just a few ounces, so an utter failure in both efficiency and fun.

spelt !
(spelt) - F

Locale: SW/C PA
fun a quantitative property? on 01/17/2012 14:26:32 MST Print View

No.

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
Agreed, fun is not quantifiable... on 01/17/2012 14:29:24 MST Print View

... but my point is that cross country skiing with overboots screwed into skis (as opposed to using cross country ski boots and bindings) entails both a lack of any striding pivot and a significant reduction in skiing control that sure seems like a lot less fun.

Ross Bleakney
(rossbleakney) - MLife

Locale: Cascades
Re: Agreed, fun is not quantifiable... on 01/17/2012 14:47:22 MST Print View

I think the advantage of the overboot setup is that it is:

1) Cheap
2) Can work with hiking boots

If you are too cheap to get a good universal binding, then the overboot should work (if it doesn't break). The advantage of an universal binding is that you don't have to use ski boots. This means that if you don't own a pair of (cross country or other) ski boots, but you already own hiking boots, you can save yourself even more money. It also means that you don't have to either carry your ski boots, or worry about whether they are comfortable to hike in (or whether you might damage them in some way).

As previously mentioned, though, a lot of ski boots are very comfortable for hiking. In general, the overboot would not be my choice, but if you like to tinker around and want to save money, it is probably the cheapest way to go (assuming you already have hiking boots and can get overboots for cheap). Worth mentioning is that lots of people have tried this approach, but only a few have succeeded (and bully for the folks that have).

In general, though, using cross country gear does sound like a lot more fun. I think most people would agree (just as most people would say going to the dentist is not fun, even though that isn't quantifiable either).

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
The advantage of the overboot setup is . . . on 01/17/2012 15:10:33 MST Print View

. . . pretty much none. If I'm understanding his setup correctly, the cost of overboots and related custom hardware will save a very small amount of money over some used xc classic race boots and bindings.
But his setup "works" with trail runners (or whatever non-snow footwear is being used) only by slipping them into the overboots (which are permanently attached to the skis). You could instead just slip off the trail runners and then put your feet into the xc ski boots for a far more efficient and in-control skiing experience (which I think anyone would agree adds up to more fun).
The only advantage the screwed-on overboots have is a very slight weight savings (i.e., a few ounces) relative to xc classic race boots & bindings. But the striding inefficiency and lack of skiing control will more than offset the weight savings.

Jim Milstein
(JimSubzero) - M

Locale: New Uraniborg CO
I've been skiing on the 145 cm Hoks this winter (2012-2013) on 03/31/2013 22:18:07 MDT Print View

I mounted the heavy-duty Voile 3-pin bindings on the Hoks and used my only 75 mm Nordic Norm boots, an early pair of Scarpa T1s (similar to recent T2s). The skis climb great and glide surprisingly well. They are very easy to turn. However, the factory binding position is quite a bit too far forward for those accustomed to skiing. I think they are meant to appeal to reforming snowshoers. I made some light-weight adapters of redwood that move the bindings back three inches, which allows comfortable linked telemark turns, or anything else you want to do with the Hoks.

T1s are overkill for these short skis, so I ski them unbuckled, which makes them very comfortable indeed. The boots have Thermofit liners, and that makes them slightly lighter. I will try to find a smaller lighter 3-pin boot for these skis. Or I may mount some adapters I made to fit my SNS bindings and use some Karhu SNS boots on hand. That would be a fairly light setup overall. But even using the T1s, the rig feels pretty light to me, accustomed as I am to a very heavy backcountry telemark setup.

It is no surprise that these skis are at their best in my "backyard", which is the foothills zone (7-8.5K') south of the San Juans and east of the South San Juans in southwest Colorado. There are lots of up and down, lots of brush and trees, and usually thin snow cover. As noted in the review, the built-in skins must be kept well-waxed and scraped from time to time, if they get iced. This will happen when skiing alternately on sunny wet snow and cold shady snow. I am seeing signs of wear on the skins. Eventually, something will need to be done, but probably not for a few years.

I have tried skiing them up high in the Wolf Creek Pass region, and that is the wrong terrain for them. They are not meant for big descents where maximal glide is best. There's no harm in trying though.