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Ski touring bindings can be such an elegant and simple tool for attaching your boots to your skis. The perfect touring binding is one that keeps your skis attached to your feet, allows your skis to release if needed, and allows you to go uphill efficiently. In my mind, a touring binding should not try to do anything more than that. Simple is king, especially when we are talking about something so small that is constantly getting packed with snow and ice and resisting huge forces.
Here are a few key principles to keep in mind when you’re in the market for touring bindings.
Weight is king when you’re ski touring. In general, shaving weight off your skis, boots, and bindings will make your uphills easier and faster. A common belief is that any weight shaved off a setup will negatively impact downhill performance. This is partially true, but it’s not the whole story. A heavy ski will usually perform better in most conditions because it will track more predictably through variations in the snow. A heavy boot will usually be stiffer with a more progressive flex so you can ski harder. However, a heavier binding won’t necessarily attach your skis to your boots any better than a light binding will. For this reason, when I’m putting together a ski touring setup that is reasonably light on the climbs and skis well on the downs, I tend to pair slightly heavier skis and boots with a fairly light touring binding.
With all of the great binding options available, we are talking bindings that weigh less than 300 grams each. If you’re planning to ski your set up in the resort or are doing any style of skiing where you often have help on the ups, but would still like to have the ability to skin uphill in a pinch (e.g. heli, cat, snowmobile, or sidecountry skiing), that is one instance in which a binding that weighs more than 300 grams could be warranted.
In this case, a binding that blends the qualities of a resort binding while retaining the ability to tour could be a good solution. The only set up that fits this bill and has a good record as a resort binding is the CAST binding system. There is lots of information out there on this system and it can be a good option if it fits your needs. However, I would urge the vast majority of skiers to have different set ups for the resort and the backcountry for the best experience possible.
In today’s market, there are several styles of binding heel risers to choose from. The type of boot you ski dictates whether or not you need heel risers. We will use ski boot weight as a proxy for cuff rotation (published cuff rotations have almost no bearing in the real world). A heavier boot (with less usable cuff rotation) will demand easier access to heel risers while a light boot can allow the user to forgo all but one heel riser entirely.
Typically, a boot that weighs more than 1500 grams will require easy access to all three riser heights (flat, middle, high) because boots this heavy almost never have enough cuff rotation to make up for lack of heel risers. Boots between 1200 and 1500 grams work best with bindings that have multiple heel riser options but the options don't have to be as readily available as the heavier boots. Some bindings require you to rotate the heel to access flat and high risers while but not the middle riser.
For boots in the middleweight class, this is not a deal-breaker. This is also the weight class I try to stick to for my midwinter ski touring set up. These boots can be very capable but are significantly more comfortable to skin in than the heavier options. For boots that weigh less than 1200 grams, the cuff rotation is (usually) so good and effortless that they can be paired with a “skimo style” binding with just one heel riser (plus flat). The advantage of these bindings is that they are the simplest, lightest, and often the most durable bindings available. Bindings in this class usually weigh around 150 grams. These setups are typically paired with skinnier, lighter skis for longer days and spring ski mountaineering missions.
Release value is an interesting and hotly debated topic. I will try to cover the basics and save the deep dive for another time. Basically, ski touring bindings are designed to stay on your feet when you ski, but if you crash, the binding is meant to release from your boot at a certain force. This force is quantified as a number, usually between 4 and 12 (or higher). Bindings with higher numbers (stronger retention) are intended for heavier people who ski fast and put more force into their bindings. These release values are usually similar (or the same) as a “DIN” on an alpine binding, they just haven't gone through the DIN/ISO standardization process so they can’t legally be called a DIN.
One important difference between touring and resort bindings is that resort bindings offer lateral release at the toe and vertical release at the heel. Touring bindings offer both vertical and lateral release at the heel only. You might be able to adjust the release values by turning screws or replacing parts. If they are not adjustable then you should choose a binding with the release value you want because once you do, you’re stuck with it.
For most skiers, any of those three options should be fine. However, a beginning skier will want to choose a binding with a release that can be adjusted so that as they improve they can easily turn up the release value. When choosing my release value, I usually go down 1 or 2 from my resort skis’ DIN because I don't ski as hard in the backcountry and an injury could be a bigger issue in the backcountry. However, on my light/skinny spring ski setup I will go at least as high as my resort skis. This is because I use this set up on steep and exposed lines where a pre-release is not an option (I only lock my toes in these situations) and I also often ski them with an overnight pack.
One last remark on release values: don't make it a competition. The person with the highest release value is rarely the best skier, they’re often the one who is about to hurt their knee. Release value is not a competition.
Now I know that for the people who really like their shifts and kingpins bindings the thought of a skimpy 150 or 200g binding holding them to their skis may be concerning. This is the solution I found through my own experimentation and talking with others with a lot of experience on skis. At the end of the day, we are all just hoping to have as much fun as possible, so for me, part of that is creating an optimal setup in hopes of skiing just a bit harder or adding another lap at the end of the day.
Written By Porter McMichael
Porter is a Wagner ambassador and ski guide.
Edited by Katherine Englishman
Photos by Erin Laine and Joe Eppler