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Advice on Backcountry skiing gear
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Graeme Finley
(gfinley001) - F

Locale: SF Bay Area
Advice on Backcountry skiing gear on 11/28/2008 19:17:57 MST Print View

I just relocated from the east coast to the SF Bay area, and am looking to learn backcountry skiing now that I have easy access to the Sierras. My interest is less in skiing per se, but rather being able to go winter backpacking in the Sierras using skis as my mode of transportation. I've been reading a bunch of stuff about various types of ski set ups, and am completely undecided about whether I'd be better off with a lighter, flexible nordic setup (say an NNN BC binding), a plastic boot telemark setup, or an AT setup (e.g. Dynafit).

I'm an intermediate alpine skier, but would be happy to put some effort into learning free heel skiing if that would be the best option for me. My confusion is that while I'm primarily interested in traversing ground and not in skiing steep off-piste terrain, I can imagine that to cover a lot of the hiking terrain in the Sierras (e.g. the PCT, which I hiked last year) I'd need to be able to handle potentially steep and variable snow conditions. Weight is important to me - my winter backpacking base weight is around 10-12lb.

Any advice?

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Advice on Backcountry skiing gear on 11/28/2008 19:43:30 MST Print View

You will always get advice here!

OK, you are distinguishing between Alpine skiing and Backcountry skiing, and are focused on 'winter backpacking' rather than Telemarking. They are in fact quite different.

My wife and I go touring in winter in the 'winter backpacking' mode in the Australian Alps. We used to use 3-pin bindings with light skis and low-cut leather boots. Then we outgrew our old boots, and had to buy new gear this year. But we couldn't find low-cut leather 3-pin boots any more. Oops!

What we found is that the 3-pin market has basically switched over to the Telemark game, with big heavy plastic boots and big heavy wide skis. Trying to cover large distances in Tele gear is an exercise in very sore shins. You can still buy the old light rat-traps, but I am not sure what you do with them these days.

The AT Dynafit market is great for Heli-skiing )and Telemarking too,) but too heavy and awkward for real travelling with a pack imho. We looked at it, and passed on.

After a (very successful) trial with hire gear, we switched to NNN-BC, with Fisher Explorer and Rossignol BC-65 skis and Alpina BC1550 boots. These allow us good touring speed and good turning - better than our older Canadian Bonner Conquest skis for sure! The outfit is lighter than our old 3-pin gear too, and more comfortable.

Geehi Plains

In passing I will mention that we bought our new gear from Skinny Skis at Jacksons Hole - and were happy with the service.

Camp near Bluff Tarn


nanook ofthenorth
(nanookofthenorth) - MLife
touring or downhill? on 11/28/2008 20:51:47 MST Print View

It really depends - if you think you'll mainly be using it to access the woods in winter I'd get a NNN metal edged setup or just normal classic skies.
While the NNN setup gives you OK control on the downhill (better w/ practice) if your moving into bigger terrain above the treeline or are more concerned about the downhill I'd move to a AT or tele setup.

If you want to do both you may find that neither setup does the other very well. Probably the best crossover would be something like a Karhu Guide ski w/ a NNN, lightish tele or even Dynafit binding/boot.

I've been cross-countery skiing for 20 years now and have X-country (Skate, NNN and classic), downhill and Dynafit touring skies - they all work but do different things well.

nanook ofthenorth
(nanookofthenorth) - MLife
... on 11/28/2008 21:02:20 MST Print View

Rereading your post it sounds like a heavyish NNN might be your best option, another would be Silvereta 404's w/ climbing boots on a shaped wideish waxless meatle edged ski.
Only thing is that even w/ a fair amount of practice those boot/bindings are not great for downhills that you'll run into.
If I were you I might seriously look into a light dynafit setup w/ bellowed boots - like the touring racers wear. Might be a good compromise b/t downhill and up. I think you might be happier w/ a bit of a stiffer boot even if your only touring in the Searras b/c of the vertical nature of the range vs. Australia (might be wrong there).

lol, if your a 26 I have some light touring boots for you in the Gear Swap - Scarpa Lasers, otherwise look for something that can handle downhills w/ a pack. IME you might find the NNN boots a little lacking there. Great for rolling terrain but outmatched when you are dealing w/ elevation gains and losses.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
Backcountry ski gear on 11/28/2008 21:04:24 MST Print View

May I suggest a book?cover

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
re NNN-BC fittings on 11/28/2008 22:40:02 MST Print View

At the risk of being repetitious...
NNN bindings are much lighter than NNN-BC bindings. The 'BC' means 'BackCountry'.

> those boot/bindings are not great for downhills that you'll run into.
I agree that the NNN bindings might not be so good, but the NNN-BC bindings with some Alpina BC1550 boots served us well on some fairly steep downhills. I was managing to do some moderate Tele turns with them.

> Sierras b/c of the vertical nature of the range vs. Australia (might be wrong there).
Some truth there. We have a lot of rolling country in our Alps, but we do also have a few steep bits.


This is the summit of Mt Jagungal. We skied down from a bit to the left of the photo.

Maybe you should hire some different kits first?


Chris Townsend
(Christownsend) - MLife

Locale: Cairngorms National Park
Advice on Backcountry skiing gear on 11/29/2008 14:58:14 MST Print View

Hi Graeme, I spent a decade leading Nordic ski tours for several months a year, including two two-week trips in the High Sierra. Back then I used leather boots with 75mm three-pin or cable bindings and skis that would be regarded as narrow now but were wide at the time (62-72 at the tip)and found these fine on most descents. If descents were too steep or icy for comfort (i.e. above my skill level!) then I resorted to traverses and kick turns, which will get you down most things.

These days I use a wider ski (97mm at the tip) that weighs no more than the narrower ones of the past and which has enough camber to get some glide with a kick wax. I also use plastic boots - Garmont Xcursions, which are designed for touring and are very comfortable. They're the one exception I would make to Roger's comment about "very sore shins" when touring in plastic boots. I've used the Xcursions on two-week long trips, including the one described here:, without any problems.

If choosing 75mm gear watch the weight of the bindings. Most cable bindings are heavy and complex and designed for downhill control only. I use Rottefella Riva II cable bindings, which are light and simple. Three-pin "rat traps" (which is what Rottefella means) are an alternative.

I've only used NNN-BC for short periods of time and have never owned this system. However participants on my ski tours sometimes used it and never had any problems that I can recall.

Chris Townsend
(Christownsend) - MLife

Locale: Cairngorms National Park
Advice on Backcountry skiing gear on 11/29/2008 15:24:51 MST Print View

Oh, and Mike Clelland Telemark Tips book is excellent, as is his other ski book: Allen & Mike's Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book. Good information and great cartoons.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
Backcountry skiing on 11/29/2008 16:54:15 MST Print View

Yeah! Like Chris T. said!

bc book

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
First, read this book... on 11/29/2008 19:52:07 MST Print View

First, read this book:
(You can read the other referenced books mainly for the enteretaining illustrations of old-school diehard tele skiers ready to ascend slowly and descend even more slowly.)

Second, I think this comes down to whether you have in mind tours that can accomplished with:
-- patterned bases ("fishscales"), often incorrectly called waxless skis (since they're an alternative not to glide wax, but only to kick wax, which is more efficient, yet tricky to apply correctly, especially in the Sierra with wide-ranging temps over the course of a day)
-- climbing skins

If the former, then either SNS-BC or NNN-BC bindings (pick your boots first, then get the bindings), and some ski like one of the Fischer S-Bounds series.

If the latter, build up a rando race or near-race setup. If you get a true rando race setup (with a Dynafit binding that has no fore/aft adjustment -- mount carefully!), you might even be lighter than the SNS/NNN-BC setup. And just like a nordic binding (and unlike any telemark setup), you have a resistance-free pivot *and* the binding stays put on the ski instead of pivoting with the boot on each stride. (But not as good for very long flat sections with lots of rolling terrain. (Though Dynafit rando race setups won this past season's Elk Mountains Grand Traverse *nordic* race.) However, you can compromise by using very narrow skins or kicker skins.
Or you can take on a wee bit more weight for way more fun performance on the downhills, so get a regular Dynafit TLT Speed/Classic binding, a near-race boot like the Dynafit TLT Evo or Lite, Scarpa F1 (as opposed to the F1 Race or various after-market modified F1 boots), or even the F3, or the Dynafit Zzero3. Then for skis something around 70mm or a bit wider in the waist and a normal lenght, vs mid 60s for race ski and ~160cm length.
The other complicating issue is that SNS/NNN-BC boots do not have removable liners, whereas any Dynafit compatible boots will come with some type of separate thermomoldable liner, with the advantages of:
-- can be removed for use inside tent in lieu of down booties
-- allows for custom fit
-- super warm
-- can be removed for drying overnight, although then again, they're so light, that even if they're wet in the morning, your feet will still be warm

Stephen Klassen
Backcountry skiing on 11/30/2008 00:54:54 MST Print View

You could check out Telemarktips.

It is (accurately) billed as a "Telemark and Backcountry Skiing Online Magazine."

Don't go to the off-topic forum, search and ask on the "Telemark Talk Forum".

The folks over there ban be a little (ok, a lot) rough, and they seem to have divided into 2 camps, tele vs AT. Beware a poster named "AT Apostle" - he will have you shaving metal filings off of your (Dynafit) bindings to save weight.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
Backcountry skiing on 11/30/2008 08:20:15 MST Print View

Jonathan wrote:

First, read this book:

(You can read the other referenced books mainly for the entertaining illustrations of old-school diehard tele skiers ready to ascend slowly and descend even more slowly.)

Ooooh, the pain.

I feel like I'm in an old western and the young upstart next to me in the saloon just threw a shot of rock gut whiskey in my face. Next thing, we'll be staring each other down out on the main street and the women folk will be closing the curtains.

Richard Lyon
(richardglyon) - MLife

Locale: Bridger Mountains
More advice on 11/30/2008 10:00:03 MST Print View

First, an endorsement of three other suggestions. Allen O'Bannon Mike Cleland's two books should be must-reads for any backcountry skier of any type (NNN, NNN-BC, tele, AT). Both tend to be anecdotal rather than didactic, and are easier reads and easier to test out than the competition. The original Telemark Tips book helped more than many lessons to improve my in-bounds and backcountry telemark skiing. And both Skinny Skis and Teton Mountaineering of Jackson, Wyoming can get you set up - once you decide on the type of skiing you want to do. And the telemarktips site is very helpful, though (as someone noted) often opinionated.
From your post it sounds like you are more interested in using skis to get around than to handle 500 meter descents. I'm the opposite - I hike mostly for the turns coming down, and so use plastic SCARPA Terminator (1 or 2) boots and wider skis (Goodes are lightweight; G3 and Black Diamond more versatile). I haven't had foot or shin problems with them, but I'm not usually a long-mileage guy. AT set-ups have improved greatly over the past few years, if you want to stick with fixed-heel downhills. You might try some rentals to see which kit matches your style before making what has become a fairly large investment.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
Backcountry skiing on 11/30/2008 11:59:40 MST Print View

Richard Lyon is my new favorite person, I just hugged my computer. Right on Tele-Brother!

Mike C!

Edited by mikeclelland on 11/30/2008 12:00:12 MST.

Stephen Klassen
Another book on 11/30/2008 18:06:31 MST Print View

Mike should illustrate a book about glacier travel and crevasse rescue . . .

Maybe Andy Tyson could help write it.

Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
Advice on Backcountry skiing gear on 12/01/2008 09:05:37 MST Print View

I feel this conversation is lacking without reference being made not only to gear education but to avalanche education as well. Please, please, please enroll in a free (or inexpensive) level I avalanche and safe winter travel course before heading off into the Sierra (or any other range for that matter).

Visit to find the avalanche center nearest you.

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
Already Done on 12/01/2008 15:03:44 MST Print View

The avy chapter in the Volken book is outstanding -- based on the AIARE curriculum. (One of the book's coauthors was one of the leaders for my avy instructor training course.)

Steven Nelson
(slnsf) - MLife

Locale: Northern California
Lightweight 3-pin boots on 12/01/2008 19:35:16 MST Print View

And, I'll add to the mix that there are still lightweight touring boots available in both 75mm and NNN configurations from Alpina and Karhu. I have the Karhu Traverse boots (called the "Tour" with the NNN binding) matched with the XCD GT skis and Voile Heavy Duty Mountaineer bindings, and they're a fine combo for touring and skiing rolling trails.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
Backcountry skiing on 12/02/2008 09:38:13 MST Print View

The (really cool) book that was dismissed (with contempt) up higher on this forum - also has an excellent avalanche chapter.

The "old-school diehard" authors (Allen & Mike) both teach avalanche skills in the northern rockies. Allen is level 3 certified, and Mike is level 2 certified. I have been teaching for 14 years, and Allen has about 20 years of teaching experience.

I will add that trying to become avalanche savvy from a chapter in a book is not recommended, that requires a hands-on multi-day course.

Plus, in the (really cool) book, these skills are thoroughly

Edited by mikeclelland on 12/02/2008 09:39:25 MST.

Richard Matthews
(food) - F

Locale: Colorado Rockies
Re: Advice on Backcountry skiing gear on 12/02/2008 14:19:07 MST Print View

I have the NNN bindings on my skinny skis and love them.

However, I replaced the NNN-BC bindings on my backcountry skis with 3 pin bindings because of icing. When waxing/ skinning up the front bar becomes encrusted in ice. The backcountry is no place for a binding failure.