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Backcountry/Tele Skiing
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John Brochu
(JohnnyBgood4) - F

Locale: New Hampshire
Backcountry/Tele Skiing on 03/04/2010 07:56:57 MST Print View

I've posted this here to avoid hijacking a different thread in the Gear forum. I think this forum is the most appropriate place for it...

Gerry had responded to a post of mine with some questions as follows:

>>>John skiing is a wonderfull way to spend time outside in the winter. There are many people much more qualified to give advice than I and hopefully they chime in but there are a few questions you must ask yourself to begin navigating the maze of ski options.<<<

>>>What is your experience?(Alpine skier, Cross Country,none )<<<

I have no alpine experience and just a tad of x-country experience, of the golf course skinny ski variety.

>>>Where do you want to ski? (backcountry, area, both)<<<

I'm really only interested in skiing the backcountry.

>>>What type of skiing do you want to do? (Downhill, touring rolling terrain, both)<<<

Here lies the problem for me. I would like to be able to tour rolling terrain and also do downhill stuff as my skills increase.

I'm a bit worried about trying to learn with pure tele gear, so started to look into AT gear. There seem to be a lot of different bindings/boots for AT gear.

I was also hoping to find something I could use with my plastic mountain boots for approaching/descending ice climbs in the backcountry. I guess this restricts my choices to some of the Silvretta bindings like the Easy Go 500 or the older 404s. My concern here is possible increased risk of injury if I also use these with an AT boot on more aggressive downhill terrain...?

I might need to eventually purchase a few different set ups to meet my different requirements, but what would you suggest to start given the following:

1) Want to start with one set-up

2) Have no real experience

3) My skiing friends all tele backcountry in the White Mountains and focus more on the turns than the touring, so that is most often what I would be doing

4) It would be nice to be able to use the bindings with my plastic mountaineering boots

Comments from anyone would be appreciated.

Edited by JohnnyBgood4 on 03/04/2010 07:57:58 MST.

Gerry Volpe

Locale: Vermont
back country skiing on 03/04/2010 09:52:59 MST Print View

I have no experience with AT gear. I had an instructor at a mountaineering course who had a mountaineering compatable AT set up for situations like you described and it seemed to work great. You have the boots get some bindings and maybe a used ski depending on your level of commitment and spend some time at an easy ski area, take a lesson. It will be no time before you can survival ski down the John Sherbourne ski trail from Hermit lake. It would make for a quick descent after climbing anything on that side of Mount Washington. Good luck!

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
real BC skiing on 03/04/2010 10:11:52 MST Print View

I define backcountry skiing as being more concerned with going nifty places than what you do along the way (ie the quality of the turns is not primary, and often is really bad). The winter version of backpacking or mountain bike touring, really.

The problem is that there is no definitive answer for this. Everything is a compromise, and it's tough to decide which compromise will be best for you without buying gear and trying it out. I'll give a run down on the major systems as I see them, and some thoughts on gear.

Caveat emptor, I'm in my second season of doing this, still have lots to figure out, and still suck at much of it. But man is it fun!

AT/Splitboarding/Heavy Tele:
-These are all optimized for mountain skiing, that is, either going up fairly steeply or going down. Big hills, full skins, etc. The problem is that there is often a long, rolling approach to the big hills, and full skins and 4+ pound plastic boots are very slow at this sort of thing. This is what most people seem to be doing, but even if you do live close to big mountains, these setups can be a serious liability. On the other, being able to bust funky snow on big descents, rather than flail down with survival turns, has it's virtues.

Approach skis:
-These are what Silvretta's were made for, going over the woods, glacier, and icefield to get to ice climbs and alpine routes. Some bindings have release setups, others don't. They'll go up fine, but turning in mountain boots will be a serious compromise. The sole is too stiff for good kick and glide, and the ankle too floppy for turns of any kind.

-By which I mean skis with a tip less than 100mm and a waist less then 70 (and often much less), with 3 pin or NNN-type system bindings, and heavy plastic/leather boots (or all leather). Skis like the Karhu XCD or Madshus Glitterind. Might be the best all-around answer, especially for making miles and taking the path of least resistance. Real good tele technicians can make turns down steep stuff and/or in less than perfect snow with this kind of gear, but I tried that and it will takes years of apprenticeship (ie flailing) to learn. Increasingly I think about getting a rig on the lighter end of this spectrum for trail touring.

XCD/Tele, new generation:
-Here we're talking low plastic boots, and skis like Karhu Guides and Fischer Boundless Crowns. Neither of these skis are made anymore, oddly enough. The fatter skis give more float in powder with a pack, have more mass and girth to drive through funky snow, but still are light (by AT standards), and have more camber than a modern AT or downhill ski. Plastic boots have a stiff enough sole to drive the big skis in un-ideal snow, and are made of softer plastic to maximize forward flex for touring. Binding are usually heavy 3 pins or 3 pin cables. Binding riser plates increase leverage for turning, and keep your binding up off hard snow.

I really think this last area is the ticket, the problem is that it's a very uncool market segment and thus suffers from a lack of product, and is the last area where the latest technology is applied. The latest generation of AT boots, for instance, are lighter than Excursions, have better forward flex, and are much stiffer and ski better when locked down. They're also very expensive. So, compromise is the order of the day.

I ski 185 Guides, with 15mm risers, Voile Mountaineer bindings, full width skins, and old blue two-buckle T2s. The skis and bindings I'm totally happy with. The boots are great going down, but have poor forward flex and are super heavy. I'd love to find some older brown T3s or T4s in my size (a bit lower and made of softer plastic, especially in the toungue), but they've become very coveted and hard to find.

I'm totally sold on waxless for multi-day touring with turns. In certain snow conditions (fresh, cold snow) using kick wax on waxless XCD or tele/AT skis is very effective, and you'll want it in your bag of tricks regardless. There are many conditions, however, where waxing is tough, and those are generally the conditions where waxless works well (ie warm snow, rough and refrozen snow). The other problem for multiday trips away from the wax iron is that getting kick wax off the skis when conditions change is a pain, and god help you trying to get klister off your skis once the snow goes down and things get cold.

For spring conditions, I don't bring wax, knowing that either waxless or full skins will work pretty well for any conditions. In deep winter, where light powder makes waxless largely ineffective, I iron some swix polar (the coldest hard wax) into the tail of my Guides. That makes a good base to apply green, blue, or extra blue as needed. I don't go warmer than that (messy), and I do NOT put kick wax into the waxless pattern. Impossible to get out without an iron, and you're setting yourself to have crazy snow-globbing issues on a multiday trip with various conditions.

Those are my thoughts. My skis are dialed, but I'm still looking for better boots. Which may not yet exist.

I'm very interested in hearing others thoughts.

Oh, and get all the avy education you can!

Richard Lyon
(richardglyon) - MLife

Locale: Bridger Mountains
More advice on 03/04/2010 10:39:13 MST Print View

David has given you a very comprehensive and knowledgable answer; please consider the following as supplementing his.

First, an echo: Get all the avy education you can.

Second, if you decide on tele, read Alan and Mike!'s books on Tele Skiing, which are very helpful on winter camping and (properly) emphasize safety.

As for equipment, it depends more on your purpose to be in the backcountry. For me it's turns (downhill skiing) so I use a mid-size tele ski that I also use at the ski area and use my SCARPA T-1 or T-2 boots and climb with skins. As David notes these aren't the best for extended touring -heavy and bulky, and slow going uphill. But for day touring to find the cold smoke they can't be beat. Goode Skis makes skis out of carbon fiber that are extraordinarily lightweight, great for the backcountry, but ridiculously expensive.

Another lightweight alternative favored by people who hike to ski is the Dynafit binding system for AT/randonee. These are minimalist binding that allow use of regular alpine boots (four-buckle, plastic) that are compatible with the bindings. Free heel for climbing, fixed heel downhill. The major bootmakers (and Dynafit) offer these boots: SCARPA, Garmont, etc, but they must be Dynafit-compatible. The new Garmont Radium boots are much lighter than traditional tele or randonee boots but still have the stiffness needed for steep descents.

If you're just now learning, I'd recommend learning on skinny skis (as David suggests) and your present boots. Once you've mastered that turns are easy with the fatter stuff.

Good luck and keep us posted.

Gerry Volpe

Locale: Vermont
bc skiing on 03/04/2010 10:46:31 MST Print View

"still have lots to figure out, and still suck at much of it. But man is it fun!" Amen!

Great synopsis. I am trying to go in your direction from a heavy tele set up. I went too light with my skis first go round. I am also using comparable boots(old Garmont Veloces) way too heavy. It really is too bad this market segment gets overlooked. The elegant simplicity of this type of set up is so appealing.

Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
Backcountry/Tele Skiing on 03/04/2010 10:49:44 MST Print View

Wow, hardly a reply necessary after Dave's lenghy and informative post.

I will reiterate that gear choices come second to being educated about snow safety. Begin to educate yourself on avalanche and backcountry travel safety first, and in doing so you will begin to become familiarized with gear specifics by default.

There are plenty of good Websites to begin with:

Telemark Tips
Teton Gravity Research

Also a GREAT (and fun) read is Allen & Mike's Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
David's summary on 03/04/2010 10:54:46 MST Print View

Yes, that was a good summary.

There was one more backcountry ski style that wasn't mentioned: Extreme Skiing. The definition is simple. If you fall, you die.


John Brochu
(JohnnyBgood4) - F

Locale: New Hampshire
Re: David's summary on 03/04/2010 11:39:37 MST Print View

Thanks for all the responses - very informative and helps clear up some points of confusion.

I do have some general knowledge of traveling in avy terrain due to my ice climbing/mountain experience but need to improve on it for skiing. As an ice climber in the Northeast it's real easy to avoid avy terrain when conditions are bad, but I suppose not as easy when your objective is skiing!

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Backcountry/Tele Skiing on 03/04/2010 14:13:38 MST Print View

The 3-pin gear with low-cut leather boots is good for ski-touring. We used that gear for many years. Forget plastic - that's really only suitable for AT or telemark.

These days we have changed to lighter NNN-BC fittings and boots, for week-long tours by tent. Very nice.
Geehi Plains
Geehi Plains.


Edited by rcaffin on 03/04/2010 14:15:11 MST.

Chris Townsend
(Christownsend) - MLife

Locale: Cairngorms National Park
Backcountry/Tele Skiing on 03/04/2010 14:36:25 MST Print View

I wouldn't totally forget plastic - touring boots like the Garmont Xcursion are excellent. I've used them for ski tours everywhere from Yellowstone to Lapland in recent years. They can be used with three-pin or simple cable bindings. I like them because they are warm and very fast drying if damp. On steep descents they give more control than low-cut leather boots but that isn't the main reason I use them.

Eric Blumensaadt
(Danepacker) - MLife

Locale: Mojave Desert
PROPER SKIS on 03/05/2010 20:41:48 MST Print View

Many backcountry skiers are on fairly short and wide tele skis, even 180 cm.!

My "on piste" (ski area) skis are Atomic TM 22 skis at 190
cm. and even they are too short & wide for decent touring. They WILL NOT go well in a straight line. Takes way too much effort for that.

Soooo... I have 210 cm. Asnes Norwegian Army skis. Great for touring, halfway decent at turning, parallel or Tele, amazingly fairly light and mil-spec strong (and all white, natch).

Both pair have what I feel is STILL the best backcountry release binding, the Voile' binding using the Besser type front binding. Works every time. As a ski patroller, both Nordic and Alpine, I've seen enough broken bones to know release bindings are very smart for B/C touring.


John Brochu
(JohnnyBgood4) - F

Locale: New Hampshire
Re: PROPER SKIS on 03/05/2010 22:24:25 MST Print View

Thanks for mentioning ski length - I'm actually unsure about that too.

Iirc my friends are recommending I start with something along the lines of 190cm, although they disagree a bit with each other.

What I'm learning in all of this is that everything is a compromise, and being better in one regard means a drawback somewhere else. To some extent this is also true for UL backpacking gear, but it seems way more significant for skiing equipment.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
ski length on 03/06/2010 09:11:27 MST Print View

Another compromise, but for me this one is easier than the others.

I weight 160 without a pack. I'm also a reasonably good classic technician, and while the 185 Guides aren't track skis, they go straight just fine for my needs, either on a track or breaking trail.

I actually can't imagine having longer skis for real, off-track backcountry. The 185s are about as long as I'd want for cranking turns in the trees, and I would absolutely not want longer skis for bushwacking, which is hard enough as is.

As you said, it depends on what you intend to do, and what you want your gear to do best.

Ross Bleakney
(rossbleakney) - MLife

Locale: Cascades
Re: BC skiing on 03/07/2010 13:18:49 MST Print View

It is important to pick the right ski model based on the length, but once you've done that, base the actual length on your weight. In other words, you may pick ski X because it is shorter and fatter than ski Y, but once you've done that, pick the appropriate ski based on your weight (not your height). Doing so is essential for proper kick and glide. At least, that is the case with Nordic skis, it may not matter as much with AT equipment.

I agree with David on many points, especially the choice of waxless skis. Waxed skis are great if you want maximum performance (racing) but I doubt that is what you are after.

I want to add that so much depends on the terrain and the snow conditions. If the snow is good or the terrain is rolling, you can get by with lighter gear. Sometimes, you can get to spectacular areas, even though the terrain resembles a golf course. For example, the Artist Point area, near Mount Shuksan, has a mix of rolling terrain and cliffs: The first time I skied it, I had Atomic Rainier skis, with NNN BC bindings and boots. I had the lightest gear out there. The second time, I used even lighter gear (straight Nordic gear) and still had a great time. This isn't because I'm a great skier, but because the terrain is wide open and rolling (despite the world class mountains nearby). For much of it, I can carve very long, arching curves. For the steeper stuff, I simply traverse back and forth until I get through it. I don't earn style points, but I find the trade-off worth it.

On the other hand, I've been on Mount Rainier and cursed my gear for not being heavy enough (even though it was the heaviest stuff I had -- the Rainiers). OK, mostly I cursed the snow, but as my brother pointed out, with heavier gear (on the spectrum closer to the beginning of David's post) I would have been fine.

If you do a lot of day trips, you'll probably end up with several pairs of skis, and maybe several pairs of boots. With a variety of equipment, you can pick the right gear for the right day.

Also, a lot depends on where you are coming from. AT is very popular because a lot of folks know how to alpine ski, and the transition is very easy for them. Since you are coming from the other end, I would recommend gear towards the lighter end of things. I grew up skiing alpine resorts (with lifts) and have since rejected it. I don't like the noise and I don't like the boots. They boots feel way too heavy to me (but that's me -- I never liked heavy hiking boots either, and hiked in running shoes before trail runners came out). So, a lot depends on your style and your comfort level. If I had to pick one set of gear for you, I would probably pick NNN BC boots, along with skis similar to the Guides. This should give you comfortable feet along with nice turns on most terrain.

Regardless of the gear, you're going to have to learn how to use it. Since you aren't a great parallel skier, you may as well learn how to make telemark turns. If you master that, you can ski anywhere in the world.

Oh, ask all your buddies what shoe size they have. If you have the same bindings, then you can swap skis (in the backcountry) just to test things out. If you are lucky enough to have the same shoe size, then you can try out the whole package.

One more thing: Buy Black Diamond adjustable poles (the ones made for winter).

Edited by rossbleakney on 03/07/2010 13:20:51 MST.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
skis on 03/07/2010 13:48:42 MST Print View

Rather than selecting a ski length based on your weight, it is smarter to base it on your weight with pack. A 10-pound daypack means one thing, but a 40-pound overnighter probably means the next longer size ski. But then, when you think you have the right length selected, you need to confirm it with a camber test.

Every decent X-C ski shop should know about all this, but there are a few ski shops that aren't decent. For example, at some shops, the only sales person might know lift-served skis, but not backcountry skis.


David Lutz

Locale: Bay Area
"Backcountry/Tele Skiing" on 03/07/2010 13:54:26 MST Print View

Bob -

I want to take up XC next season. Do you know of any good Bay Area shops, preferably starting in the East Bay, then working out from there?

I would rather buy something like XC skis from a quality shop so I can hopefully get it right the first time. Rather than making some goofy trial and error buys online first.

Understanding that there is a learning curve and currently unknown personal preferences involved.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
purchasing skis on 03/07/2010 14:09:20 MST Print View

The rule of thumb is to rent skis at least once first. You probably won't learn what you like, but you will learn what you don't like. After one weekend on them, you may be ready for a purchase. One person I knew rented skis every weekend for an entire ski season. That seemed expensive and stupid.

Renting skis can be tricky, and I don't know the East Bay. If you rent skis near home, then you have to transport them up to the mountains, ski on them, and then return them to the shop. That's OK, but you need to have a ski rack or else a large vehicle. If you rent skis in the mountains, then the daily rental rate doubles. However, you can ski on them for one day, then return to the shop and get different ones if necessary. There are some shops at the ski resorts, and also in Truckee, if that happens to be near your destination.

Lots of people claim that they are going to learn X-C skiing next season. Actually, I think a better time to start is late in this season. Late March and early April tend to have good weather. The snow begins to get a little slushy, but that is OK for a beginner.

David Lutz

Locale: Bay Area
"Backcountry/Tele Skiing" on 03/07/2010 14:11:42 MST Print View

You're right! I've been saying that for a few years now!

Plus, sale prices are always in the Spring.


Eric Blumensaadt
(Danepacker) - MLife

Locale: Mojave Desert
SKI SELECTION GUIDE on 03/07/2010 14:37:41 MST Print View

Check out "Dave's Nordic Backcountry Skiing Page" for a rundown on ALL types of skis suitable for Nordic skiing.

A lot of the models mentioned are old and out of production but what you want to look at are ski PROFILE measureents, i.e shovel width, waist (underfoot) width and tail width. These measurements not only tell you how WIDE a ski is in general but its SIDECUT, the difference between the shovel measurement and the waist.

This gives you a rough idea of the skis' turning ability. If there is a bigger difference in the numbers there will be more sidecut and the ski will TURN easier but will not "track" or ski as easily in a straight line. For example, Nordic racing skis are long (say, 210 cm.)and have NO sidecut, for maximum speed, but slalom alpine skis are relatively short (say, 180 cm.) have a lot of sidecut for maximum turning control and quick carving of turns.

***My recommendation for GOOD all-around backcountry skis are the "10th Mountain" skis (by Karhu, I think). They have the right compromise combination of length-to-width ratio and full metal edges to help carve on crusty snow and protect the skis but be easy to tour in as well. See REI or Mountain Equipment online for descriptions.

Edited by Danepacker on 03/07/2010 14:38:17 MST.

Ross Bleakney
(rossbleakney) - MLife

Locale: Cascades
Re: XC Shops on 03/07/2010 14:49:44 MST Print View

I know Marmot Mountain Works ( is in Berkeley. I haven't been to that one, but I've been pretty happy with their store in Bellevue.
REI has some stuff, but not as much. What folks have in the store right now is probably on sale.

Edited by rossbleakney on 03/07/2010 14:52:14 MST.