What's the Best AT Backcountry Ski Setup?

Mikepowers Small

by Michael Powers, IFMGA
AAI Senior Guide & Director for Staff Development


From the March 2007 edition of AAI's E-newsletter

I want to get into backcountry skiing, and I wonder if you know the ultimate AT setup for skinning up and skiing down untouched slopes and, from time to time, for skiing a day or two in groomed areas. I have heard about so many different brands and models, but some of the same names seem to be repeated, such as Garmont boots, the Dynafit AT bindings, and the Black Diamond Havoc skis. Do you have an opinion on these models? Any tips on fit? Also, I don't know if stiff boots or soft boots are better. Please advise me. Thanks!

- Alton Kerner (Salem, Oregon)


Dear Alton,

First of all, backcountry skiing with all the gear that I mention is great. The trick, of course, is trying to figure out what type of skiing you will be doing most. And I fully realize that until we actually use whatever gear we decide upon, it's hard to know what our habits will be.

For example, when you are doing lots of ski area skiing, weight is less of an issue, so wide skis, beefy bindings like the Fritschi AT (All Terrain) bindings, and supportive boots (such as the Garmont Endorphin) are the way to go. For skinning up backcountry slopes, a lighter system (narrower, shorter skis with Dynafit AT bindings) is the way to go.

Of course, no one piece of gear does everything perfectly. That being said, this is what I would do:

First, find the boots that fit you best. For me this means a very soft, comfortable boot because 90% of the time in the backcountry is skinning uphill (those downhill moments end all too quickly!). I have been a skier most of my life, so I'm willing to give up some of my equipment's downhill performance because I can attempt to compensate with technique. If I were more of a beginner or intermediate skier, then I might consider going with a boot that offered more downhill performance (that is, more support). Some of the lightest boots even have a very limited comfort range (you are lucky if you find them comfortable enough for all-day use). My ideal boot would be something that is comfortable, light, and fits the Dynafit binding system. Ideally, I would like to be able to walk and climb comfortably in the boots (including wearing crampons and performing French technique) but still be able to buckle them tight and have sufficient control for difficult descents. Though I haven't yet found such a boot, some of the newer AT boots are very light, while still being supportive, and have form-fitting liners that provide a great fit.

After finding a boot, I'd decide on bindings. The Dynafit bindings are the lightest available and are still plenty strong for ski area use. However, the disadvantages of these are that they offer a less consistent release mechanism, and they are are somewhat finicky when switching from the uphill to the downhill setting (as well as when putting them on and taking them off). They also require a specific boot that are Dynafit-compatable, such as the Garmont Mega Lites. Dynafit bindings cannot be used with non-Dynafit-compatible boots, which means that you and your friend can't switch skis for fun or, heaven forbid, for a rescue. Unfortunately, you can't wear a climbing boot with the Dynafit bindings like you can with some other bindings. Occasionally, I'll wear a climbing boot in my Silvretta or Fritschi AT bindings if I'm doing an approach to an ice climb on my skis. The Fritschi bindings are more convenient to get in and out of, have a more consistent release mechanism, and have a higher climbing bar. However, they are heavier. The Silvretta bindings are somewhat similar to the Fritschi bindings, except some of their models offer better compatibility with climbing boots (at the expense of consistent releasability).

For skis, it's all a matter of priorities. For uphill performance, the short, narrow skis (under 90mm wide at the foot) are the fastest. Narrower skis are also easier to set an edge and make difficult traverses with. However, narrow skis are no fun to ski with, especially on backcountry slopes that may be deep, soft, and varied. Wide skis (over 90mm wide under-foot) float much better and are more forgiving with less-than-perfect technique.

I prefer a moderately wide ski that is fairly soft and easy to turn. I personally own the K2 Shuksan skis, which, at the time that I bought them, were considered medium-width (they are now considered narrow). K2 has recently redesigned the Shuksan model into a bit wider ski; they also offer the Mt. Baker, which is slightly wider and softer and better suited for soft and crud snow. The skis that you mentioned, the Black Diamond Havoc, as well as other skis by Black Diamond, are great all-around skis. I recommend doing your research and possibly trying a few pairs of demo skis, then going for what appeals most to you.

Happy turns,

- Mike

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