You’re an avid skier who loves the feeling of cruising your favorite resort runs. You’ve also spent more minutes on chairlifts than turns made, waited in multiple lines, searched for parking spots and shelled out beaucoup bucks for a sandwich. You don’t want to give up the ease of resort skiing, but you’ve been daydreaming about adding a new kind of adventure to your ski repertoire. Where do you start?
Traditional alpine skiers are increasingly searching for the kind of freedom that backcountry skiing offers. It can be more than a little intimidating, however, to break into a part of the sport that requires specialized gear and the knowledge to make important and, at times, potentially life-saving safety decisions.
In the past, alpine touring (AT) gear was expensive, designed mainly for uphill travel and didn’t instill confidence for making aggressive downhill turns. Recently, that’s all changed. “The lightweight technology for ski mountaineering has trickled down to the entry-level backcountry gear,” says Bob Wade, owner of Ute Mountaineering in Aspen, Colo. “For someone not used to touring, it’s now easier to get uphill, and you’ll have much better downhill performance.”
Alpine Touring: What's Trending?
Industry trends are blurring the line between resort and backcountry gear as new materials and construction techniques lighten and strengthen gear: Skis often contain carbon, lightweight wood blends and specialized milling techniques while boots offer walk/ski modes, Vibram soles and four-buckle performance. Bindings with touring modes are driving sales in the category, with innovations that make them light enough for touring but strong enough for the forces created by arcing GS turns.
Outerwear focuses on freedom of movement with functional features like four-way stretch material, pit zips and helmet-compatible hoods. Many touring or backcountry skis are skin compatible, and several ski companies, like K2 and Fischer, manufacture and/or sell skins (which adhere to your ski bases for uphill travel) that come precut to fit specific ski models. Most importantly, avalanche rescue gear is easier to use than ever and educational opportunities are available at most resorts and mountain towns.
No backcountry conversation would be complete without bringing up avalanche safety—your first and most important investment. “Education teaches us the rules, nature teaches us the exceptions,” says Dale Atkins, RECCO North American training director and internationally known avalanche and mountain rescue professional. “Take a course or several. Also, ski with experienced skiers who are skilled and knowledgeable in the backcountry and make sure the group’s skills and abilities meet the ambitions.”
Outdoor specialty shops that sell backcountry equipment are everywhere, and the employees tend to be very knowledgeable about the gear because they use it themselves. Step one? Familiarize yourself with the gear before you venture into the backcountry. “Alpine touring involves a full management system, and you need to learn the gear and the transitions before you go out to big terrain,” says Wade. “First, skin up your local ski mountain, practice taking your skins off and on and learn how to dress. The next step (after taking a backcountry course) is to go out, hire a guide or get a group of friends and split a guide. That keeps it fun and becomes a natural progression.”
The Quintessential Setup: 5 AT Gear Go-To's
Ready to expand your mountain travel method? Here’s a roundup of 2015/2016 alpine touring gear and apparel that’s strong enough for the ex-racer, yet light enough for the uphill enthusiast.
1. Völkl V-Werks BMT 109
Along with the edge grip synonymous with Völkl skis, the V-Werks BMT 109 (with a 109-mm waist) features 3D.Ridge technology, which combines a raised central ridge and a thin profile around the edges as well as a carbon and lightweight multi-layer wood core, all designed to reduce weight without loosing hard snow performance. The ski has a full rocker profile, skin compatibility and is available in three lengths (in cm): 166, 176 and 186.
2. Marker Kingpin 13
Marker’s innovations have been noteworthy, particularly with the Marker Duke—one of the first wide-ski, big mountain bindings with climbing capabilities. (Note: In a frame binding designed for alpine boots, the toe and heel pieces are connected by a plate; in a tech binding, also known as “pintech” and originally designed for ski touring, steel boot toe socket fittings are made to “fit” into metal sockets on specialized AT boots.) Debuting this season, Marker touts the Kingpin 13 as the first tech binding to offer a certified DIN safety release. It feels like an alpine binding when locked, but has tech features such as a tech toe, a flat tour mode and two risers for steep pitches—and weighs only 3 pounds.
3. BCA Tracker3
Backcountry Access was formed in the early 90s after one of the founders survived being caught in an avalanche. Since then, the company has been dedicated to carrying a full line of backcountry safety equipment, such as the Tracker avalanche beacon, professionals and recreationalists alike favor for its ease-of-use and efficiency with single or multi-burial searches. The latest iteration, the Tracker3, weighs 20 percent less than its predecessor and is known as the thinnest multi-antenna beacon on the market. BCA also produces packs, probes and shovels, all essential tools for any trip into the backcountry.
4. Scarpa Freedom SL
Scarpa means “shoe” in Italian, and the 70-year-old company, based in a Northern Italian town with its own shoe museum, has been catering to mountaineers and backcountry skiers for decades. The four-buckle Freedom SL features Carbon Core technology, which creates a performance-oriented 120 flex and a carbon-fiber frame compatible with alpine or tech bindings. Ride Power Block technology locks for downhill performance, while providing 27-degree range of motion for uphill travel. The men’s version includes design input from big-mountain skier Chris Davenport, and the women’s version sports a women’s-specific last. Both models have Intuition liners and interchangeable Vibram soles.
5. Bergans of Norway Storen Jacket and Torfinnstind Pants
$499 and $119, bergans.com
Norway has a legendary history of ski touring and mountaineering—and hence many innovations in gear. In 1908, while hunting in the mountains, Ole Bergan invented an external backpack frame. In the mid-90s, the company moved from packs and equipment to apparel as well. The Storen Jacket (available in men’s and women’s models) has a three-layer Dermizax NX waterproof, windproof and breathable membrane combined with two-way stretch nylon outer fabric. The result: a lightweight, stormproof jacket with lots of mobility. The Storen includes long pit zips, a helmet-compatible hood and ample pockets.
The Torfinnstind Pants are made from a quiet, four-way stretch softshell material (polyester/spandex blend) helpful assisting skiers in both uphill and downhill travel, aided by articulated knees and vented by mesh-lined pockets. The pants are wind and water-resistant, designed for breathability and mobility.
Perfect your backcountry getup with jacket and pant reviews in our latest 2015/2016 Softgoods Buyers’ Guide under the Backcountry Skier Persona.