The Norwegians and Swedes didn't think much about their bindings back in the 1600s when they first starting using skis to get around during the winter. In fact, lashing their old work boots to long wooden planks using leather straps or nails was about as sophisticated as the technology got. Oh, how things have changed.
Bindings for alpine skis have constantly evolved since skiing became popular in the 1950s. That's largely because of changes in ski technology, trail grooming, and teaching techniques. There were many different types of bindings available during the 1960s skiing boom in America that included traditional heel and toe pieces, plates that attached to the bottom of your boots, and complicated systems that were integrated into the design of the ski.
There were even permanently-attached leather straps, called "long thongs," just to make sure that your skis stayed put. But, the one thing that they were all supposed to do was hold your foot securely onto the ski during use, but release during a fall or collision. Sometimes they did. Sometimes they didn't.
You'll see two different types of bindings when shopping: those that can be mounted on any pair of skis, and those that are integrated into the design of the skis. Which type you buy largely depends on the type of boots you use, your skis, and your skiing style. Do you need to find bindings that you can mount on the skis you already have, or are you also shopping for new skis? You need to decide before you look for bindings.
Both types of bindings have several things in common. They'll have adjustable toe pieces that are meant to keep the front of your boot in place, and heel pieces that not only hold your heel onto the ski, but will also release your heel during a forward fall. Some of the newer bindings will also release during a backward fall, which wasn't possible with earlier technology.
The tension of the bindings is controlled by internal springs that are rated as "DIN settings" an internationally accepted standard that is based on the length of your skis, your age, and how well you ski. Modern ski bindings come with ski brakes, designed to drag in the snow after the bindings release. This prevents you from having to chase your skis all the way into the village after a fall.
Many of the newer skis are sold with ski/binding systems. You can't mount any other type of bindings to the skis other than those that come with the skis. Get used to this trend, it's the wave of the future. The benefit to buying a ski/binding package is that they are designed to work in harmony with each other and provide superior skiing performance, especially when skiing at high speeds or on variable terrain. Let's take a look at the differences between traditional bindings versus ski/binding systems.
No matter what type of traditional bindings you buy, they will almost always contribute to "dead spots" on your skis. Dead spots are the areas immediately below the bindings and are difficult to eliminate because ultimately, the only way to attach bindings to skis is to screw them into the core of the ski. Manufacturers have attempted to minimize the dead spots on skis by mounting the toe and heel pieces on sliding plates. The bindings and your boots "float" on the plates as your skis flex.
The technology generated from the World Cup ski racing circuit (which is responsible for most recreational trends) is the ski/binding system. Manufacturers of skis that use ski/binding systems impregnate rails or tracks into the design of the skis. The bindings are mounted onto the rails and allow them to move as the ski flexes, nearly eliminating dead spots on skis.
With skis getting shorter and more pronounced sidecuts, they tend to flex more, requiring bindings to float on the top of their surface. The more the bindings float, the more the skis can flex and carve in the snow. Contemporary ski schools are taking advantage of the newer ski/boot/binding technology by teaching students how to "carve" shaped turns instead of merely sliding down the hill.
Stop into a demo center during your next ski trip if you've never experienced the thrill of skiing with the new ski/binding technology. Skiing has become exciting again.