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

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


Overall Rating: Recommended

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

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

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by David Chenault |

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

Introduction: My Short History as a Skier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fast Shoes Defined

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hok Examined

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Future of Backcountry Ski Boots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Limits of Universal Bindings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion and Applicability

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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 ( 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:

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:
... 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:

On firm snow, this is just some mellow skiing, but I think the fairly precise short-radius turns convey the control the gear provides:

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) - F

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:
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.



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 -

or Tim Kelley -

or Andrew Skurka -

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


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!
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

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:

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: (this includes a link to my brother's project in the "Success (but not by me)" section).

Huzefa Siamwala
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 with a t
(spelt) - F

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


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).