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Best Backcountry Bindings In 2021 - Backcountry UK Binding Buyers Guide.
The world of Ski Touring and Freeride bindings is changing rapidly so here is our updated 2021 buyers guide to help introduce you to the best ski touring and freeride bindings on the market!
With new systems arriving and existing systems evolving so it is time our aim here is to introduce the different types of Backcountry bindings and explain some of the differences.
Different peoples requirements will vary but I will give an outline of the type of skiers that might suit each group of bindings and suggest my top picks from the 2021 seasons offerings.
To start with it is useful useful to divide the types of binding out there in to several different groups, this way you can narrow down the type of binding that will be best suited to your needs. These groups can be subdivided again, some people may choose to split them in a different way but I find the divisions below a useful starting point.
Pin Tech Bindings
Light weight with features designed for lots of time climbing up, there are subdivisions within this family that we will come to later and many of the modern Pin Tech bindings are very capable when skiing but these bindings are for people intending to do regular days where the only uplift is you legs!
Hybrid Pin Tech / Freeride / Free Touring Bindings
This is the newest family of Backcountry bindings and has been growing in popularity. These bindings feature some aspects of the pin tech system (usually at the toe) but will combine that with a more alpine style heel piece. Here the skiing is more of a priority than the skinning, they are designed for harder skiing, bigger skis or more days from the lift systems, they can still be used for full days of touring and can work well but they will often be heavier than the full pin tech bindings.
Once very popular, frame bindings are heavier, clunky and hold you higher off the ski. They have now been largely superseded but can still be appropriate in a some situations.
GripWalk and MNC binidngs
No touring functions here just traditional downhill bindings but they can be used with some Backcountry Ski boot sole types so are worth knowing about.
Now we've introduced the basics it's time to delve a little further!
The Pin Tech Bindings
The original design for these clever lightweight bindings was developed by Dynafit over 30 years ago, the design was so good that some some bindings on the market still closely resemble the original version.
Dynafit Rotation 10, an example of Dynafit's classic system which has evolved over the years.
Pin Tech bindings have several significant advantages over frame bindings when touring. Other than the fact that these bindings are lighter in weight, they also have other advantages:
- The pivot of the boot, when skinning, feels more natural and is almost free from mechanical resistance.
- Unlike frame bindings, you don’t have to lift the weight of the binding with every step (zero lift weight) which makes them less tiring over the course of a day.
- The lower stand height (the height that the binding holds your boot above the ski) gives a more stable feel whilst skiing, pin toes also generally have good lateral power transmission.
- .. and of course they are much lighter than frame bindings, in some cases less than a quarter of the weight
Something to consider is that most pin binding systems safety releases work in a different way to that of Alpine downhill bindings with the lateral (sideways) release component being at the heel instead of the toe. There are some Pin Tech bindings available which do offer a lateral toe release, making their release characteristics more similar to those of Alpine Bindings, some of these work more effectively than others though.
The debate about how much difference the two systems make to the safety of the skier is complicated, in essence both systems are generally safe, manufacturers who make both types say that there is no safety difference between the two systems, though be aware there are certain falls that you can have on either system which could still cause injury. My view is that on balance a lateral toe release can help to reduce the risk of some common leg injuries particularly in the event of an awkward low speed fall.
This is not to say that bindings without lateral toe release are inherently dangerous but I think they are better suited to competent off piste skiers who will be less likely to have lots of low speed falls.
The most important consideration is to get a binding that is compatible with your boot and make sure it is correctly set up.
A few years ago the patent on these pin tech binding systems lapsed and there was an explosion in development with most binding brands now having at least one offering.
They vary widely so the pure pin binding family (pins at the heel and toe) is best sub divided into two basic groups: Super Light weight and All round, in reality there is more of a spectrum but the basic divide can still be useful for choosing the right system for you.
Super light weight Pin Tech Bindings
These are the lightest bindings available, (expect weights per pair of 300 to 700 grams!) some derived from Skimo race bindings, others have evolved from ski touring designs. These super light bindings are focused on shaving every gram off to help on the ascent and are in the most part suited to ski set ups that will be spending more time touring than anything else.
In the past these bindings would have no brakes, release settings would often be a fixed value or the adjustment of the releases may be limited to the lateral component and they would often have limited features like 1 climbing position and no means of adjusting the length for different boots.
Now though we are seeing some designs which have a full compliment of features such as brakes, adjustment in release values and length setting an multiple climbing heights in this lightest class of bindings which makes some of them more suitable for a wider range of uses.
There is a big variety within this class so take care to choose a binding that is suitable for your skis and skiing activities, this section alone could turn into an essay but to keep things clear, for most people we recommend ski brakes and having some adjustment in the length will future proof your skis. We prefer fully adjustable releases in the horizontal and vertical but if you are buying a binding which just has horizontal adjustment (eg. Marker Alpinists, Salomon T MTN or Dynafit Superlite 2) make sure that the U springs that you are using are appropriate for you. For the fast and light tourers and alpinists bindings such as ATK Trofeo can do the job well and are less than 300gms / pair, they are not designed for hammering the resorts though!
The modern super light bindings are often very clever, they can make a big difference on long tours with big climbs and ski mountaineering objectives but they can be a bit more fiddly and might not have all the features you want, so they are best suited to regular ski tourers and ski mountaineers on a dedicated lightweight touring set up.
ATK R12, C-Raider 12 & Crest 10 are fully featured with ski brakes and adjustable releases and length (only 1 climbing lift on the Crest).
Marker Alpinist have an optional brake, adjustable length and horizontal release but no vertical release adjustment and only 1 climbing lift.
Dynafit Superlite 2.0 No length adjustment (optional plate available but adds weight and holes to your ski) no vertical release adjustment, optional brake, no fully flat climbing height, 1 climbing lift.
Salomon T MTN / Atomic Backland are reliable but the release setting can only be adjusted by using 1 of 3 different spring sets that come with them though there is a good optional brake and length adjustment.
Marker Alpinist are a good modern superlite binding with optional brake.
All Round Ski Touring Pin Bindings
This is the category for most recreational ski tourers as they generally offer more robust construction, reliability and functionality without getting too heavy for big days of touring, there are a few bindings which sit happily in both of these categories such as the ATK R12, Crest 10, FR14 and C-Raider 12.
Expect these bindings to have ski brakes, fully adjustable release setting in the horizontal and vertical with improved release characteristics such as AFD’s, sprung heel pieces to allow the ski to flex whilst maintaining the vertical release values, 3 stage climbing positions and good ski performance.
These bindings usually weigh between 600gms to 1.2KGs per pair and often have features which are designed to make them a bit easier to use when stepping in.
The 2021 line up of ski touring bindings is quite diverse with some great options out there. Most ski tourers will get years of service and everything they need from one of these bindings and most are suitable for doing most of your skiing on including some resort trips.
ATK R12, FR14, C-Raider 12 & Crest 10 are stand out lighter than the competitors in this class but still have all the features needed.
Dynafit Rotation 10 & 12 these have a rotating toe plate which is designed to help reduce pre releases and are a tried and tested reliable design.
G3 Ion are something of a Dynafit analogue, nothing too new but they work.
Fritschi Vipec Evo feature a different design which has a lateral toe release, this doesn't work in the same way as an alpine binding but can be effective with a compatible boot. They are largely made of plastic though so don't wear as well as the more metal bindings.
Hybrid or Freeride, Freetour Bindings. Performance pin bindings
This is the newest category of pin bindings and it has really gathered momentum in the last few seasons. They are touring binding systems which have been developed to give maximum ski performance and safety whilst still being light enough to do some ‘proper’ touring.
These bindings feature a combination of a pin tech and a more conventional Alpine style heel which presses the boot down to the ski for improved ski performance, this can give the skier the best of both worlds.
They have lower ‘stand heights’ (the height of the boot above the ski) than older frame freeride bindings making them more stable and the safety releases will often have a higher DIN range than the normal Pin Tech touring bindings for harder skiing.
Some of these bindings feature lateral toe releases in the same style as alpine bindings (The Salomon Shift for example is an alpine binding when skiing) and all will comfortably drive modern wide freeride skis and stand up to hard skiing making them suitable for lift served resort skiing as well as many ski touring trips. Typically these bindings will be a little heavier weighing in between 1.2KGs and 1.6KGs per pair so are more aimed at people skiing hard and doing shorter day tours from the lifts though they can still work well on the occasional multi day touring trip.
Everyone wants the best ski performance they can get and as the number of people wanting to go ski touring increases and the number of ski boots on the market which have pin tech fittings grows, we expect this category to continue to be the biggest growth area in the market.
Salomon / Atomic Shift The market leader for good reason, easy step in, very smooth safety releases will all compatible boots, solid skiing and good touring functions.
Marker Kingpin M-Werks Are a lighter version of markers famous kingpin, they are solid to ski and good to tour with also the lightest in this class.
Marker Duke PT new for 2021 we feel these are too heavy for anyone doing any reasonable amount of touring, could be great for the hardest of chargers who won't be hiking often though.
Frame Touring Bindings
These are the type of binding we were all using a few years ago, where the boot is clipped into a aluminium or plastic frame which is hinged at the toe. This frame is locked down at the heel to ski but unlocked to tour. When skinning the whole binding frame is lifted with the boot.
It’s fair to say that these frame bindings have reduced in sales massively over the last few of seasons as the weight saving of moving to pin tech bindings is dramatic and the ski performance a safety features of pin bindings has improved. There is, however, still a place for these binding systems as their ease of use, reliability, safety performance and value for money can make them a good choice for people just getting started, they are the only touring bindings that can be used with a boot that doesn't have tech inserts too.
GripWalk & MNC Touring Boot Compatible Alpine Bindings.
The final family of bindings we’ll look at in this article aren’t touring bindings at all, but they are of interest to the anyone who uses Backcountry Ski Boots.
GripWalk is a system that allows people to use a GripWalk touring boot sole or a standard alpine boot sole in the same binding without making any adjustments. It is a good system that cleared up some of the mess caused by the competing multiple norms that emerged. The GripWalk boot soles aren't as good as a 'proper' touring boot sole for hiking around off your skis but they are way better than an alpine sole. As many alpine bindings are now being produced GripWalk compatible expect to see more of this sole type around.
MNC or multi norm compatible bindings will work with normal alpine ISO5355 and touring boot ISO 9523.These bindings differ from ‘normal’ downhill bindings in 2 ways, they will have a system for adjusting the depth of the toe height, and they should have a moving AFD (Anti Friction Device) which is designed to reduce the friction against the binding caused by the rubber boot sole.
Hopefully this article is of help, please get in touch if you have any questions!