Ten Tips for Randonnee AT Backcountry Skiing Newbies

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This post by WildSnow.com blogger  

Converting to modern AT gear from a resort skiing setup is like moving from from a bicycle to an MTT Turbine Superbike motorcycle (well, maybe not that radical, but you get the idea.) Alpine touring (AT; randonnee) ski gear is sophisticated. It is designed for expert or advanced intermediate skiers who are not afraid of technical gear, and who demand the most of their equipment. If you’re new to AT backcountry skiing, ten tips to help your transition:

1. If you’re a good or great skier at the resort, AT gear will help you do the same in the backcountry (provided you can handle natural snow). BUT, converting to alpine touring gear will not make you an instant ski god. If you’re an intermediate skier uncomfortable in crud or crust, you’ll flail no matter what gear you’re on. As a corollary, don’t expect converting from telemark to AT to make a huge gain in your ability to handle difficult snow. Switching helps most skiers, but only after they spend time mastering fixed heel skiing and learning how to “ride” their planks rather than depending on exaggerated movements to initiate a turn. (Don’t get me wrong, exaggerated movement can be fun, but that’s not today’s subject matter.)

2. Master your ski bindings. All AT bindings are technical and require user savvy, this especially so for tech bindings such as G3 or Dynafit. Practice at home and at a ski area before you hit the wild. If you’re a total newbie, ski the carpet in your living room before you hit the snow. Practice diligently with your heel lifters till changing them is second nature, and you don’t have to bend over to do it. With Dynafit, practice getting in and out of the binding (try with your eyes closed).

3. Learn the subtle tricks of setting release tension for your choice in bindings. Begin with a moderate setting, then dial up a hair if you pre-release often. No AT binding has the safety release of the latest and most protective alpine bindings (though bindings such as Marker models come close). Learn to ski with fewer falls. If you fall frequently, AT gear may not be the correct choice. Frequent fallers should consider using mid-weight telemark gear, which I’m convinced does cause fewer lower leg injuries in falls, especially if used with a telemark release binding. Above all, beware of using binding release setting numbers as a sort of macho meter. Sheet time is not macho, and most nurses are middle aged, and quite possibly male (especially the one who catheterizes you after they put your leg back together — don’t ask me how I know).

4. Choose compatible skis/boots/bindings. Softer boots go with shorter more forgiving skis. If you’re hurling off cliffs or kissing avalanches, you’ll want the beefiest boots, skis, and bindings — perhaps even an alpine setup with Alpine Trekker plate adapters or Marker Duke bindings.

5. Work with a full service ski shop that provides boot fitting, certified ski technicians, and mechanized ski tuning. All AT systems are high-tech. They usually work well for backcountry skiing, but only when everything is properly installed, tuned, and maintained. Moreover, the system will not work unless you, the user, are educated. For example, mail order boots might be the ticket if you know exactly what you want, otherwise they can be a nightmare.

6. If you’re new to AT gear consider a ski mountaineering course or at least a few days with a guide (who uses AT gear). While AT and telemark gear are more similar than different, there are a number of cool techniques (such as the snap kick-turn ) that work best with AT gear and are best learned from a teacher.

7. Carry a repair kit with the proper driver bits to tighten your binding screws and adjust release tension. In our albeit controversial opinion, aggressive skiers should have bindings professionally mounted with epoxy (soften epoxy with soldering iron for screw removal). On remote trips carry binding parts essential for travel (e.g. spare Dynafit toe and heel, or Silvretta plate). For big trips such as ski traverses or Denali expeditions, try to standardize bindings within your party so you can carry fewer spare parts.

8. It’s cruel and politically incorrect, but some plastic booted telemarkers in their camouflaged AT gear delight in out-skiing us latched heel rando kiddies. Unless you’re a ski deity, you’ll have a lot more fun if there is at least one other fixed heel anachronism in your group so you have someone to relate to (and compete with?). As revenge, remember that lightweight AT randonnee gear is more efficient on the uphills than huge cabled plastic and thus more fun, so get fit and work your tele-mates on the climbs.

9. When using lightweight AT bindings and boots, pick skis based on downhill performance rather than weight (within reason). Don’t compromise ski performance to save a few ounces — you’re probably there to make turns, not cut ten seconds an hour of your ascent by using skis that are light but don’t ski downhill well.

10. Work with an experienced boot fitter and tweak your shoes like you’d baby a Ferrari engine. For cold climes — or the apex in comfort — fit your boots with heat-molded closed cell foam liners such as Intuition brand. Buy a shell with enough length for toe room and mold the liner with a roomy toe box, but go for a glove fit around your mid-foot, ankle, and leg. Above all, don’t be afraid of boot modifications — they’re key to the perfect backcountry skiing experience.

Comments

51 Responses to “Ten Tips for Randonnee AT Backcountry Skiing Newbies”

  1. Scott Portnoy August 4th, 2009 10:27 am

    Hey great tips. Any suggestions for good terrain for a beginner backcountry skier in Colorado? I’m solid at the resorts and am trying to make my way into the backcountry scene. Also, is buying lightly used AT bindings a big mistake? Thanks.

  2. El Jefe August 4th, 2009 11:13 am

    skin up west butttermilk to the gate…through the gate along the ridge to “sugar bowls” With an experienced partner of course. Or, buy lou’s book. everybody should have it.

  3. Mike August 4th, 2009 12:16 pm

    Marker Joker? Did you mean Baron (as the Jester is not an AT binding)?

  4. Lou August 4th, 2009 1:22 pm

    Yeah, I meant the Baron, wow, Freudian slip! Thanks for the help.

  5. Jon Jay August 4th, 2009 1:56 pm

    @Scott- Berthoud Pass is where I take all my new-at-AT friends if you’re closer to the Denver side and don’t feel like the 3+ hour to Marble is worth it. Don’t let the parking lot fool you either, I’ve seen it more crowded than Keystone on President’s Day weekend, but maybe saw a half dozen people actually skiing all day. With that being said, Marble and the rest of the terrain in Lou’s book is probably the best in the state when the avy danger is down and definitely worth checking out when you can.

    Great stuff Lou, I wish this was around when I got started on AT. The best tip is definitely to go with someone who knows.

  6. Matus August 4th, 2009 3:29 pm

    TIP: Discuss any questions with real experienced individual before going anywhere for the first time with your brand new AT gear. Internet is a good source of information, but it it is good to talk about the things face to face. The same for buying AT setup – ask as much as possible.

  7. Dan August 4th, 2009 3:32 pm

    The tech tips are great, but what about “ethics”? Little things such as not jumping somebody else’s line, or not trashing an obvious descent slope/lines while skinng up, showing up at the trailhead ready to go and on time (no waxing, adjusting bindinds, etc)…it gets cold standing around waiting for unprepared partners, and then there is the minor matter of the exchange…again, it gets cold waiting around. Of course there are safety issues too, such as not skiing off into oblivian when your partners went in another direction, keeping an eye on your partner or partners, getting some avy awareness/rescue/avoidance training, getting your ass in shape, being prepared/packed so as not to have to mooch whatever off your partners. Certainly, the crowd that reads the Wild Snow blog can think of a lot more issues than I just listed.

    Happy skiing to you all.

  8. Lou August 4th, 2009 4:24 pm

    Hmm, good point Dan, I’ll dig up the old code of ethics for tomorrow and see if we can improve it!

  9. Dostie August 4th, 2009 5:46 pm

    This tip is embedded between the lines of #1 and #2, but needs to be stated plainly.

    Take time to adjust your ski technique to your AT rig by skiing with it at a resort until you are comfortable on all the runs you are normally comfortable on.

    I’ve seen far to many friends who are awesome skiers be reduced to frustrated hacks because their backcountry rig was different enough that it required significant changes in their skiing technique. When combined with wild snow, they swore at their gear and the experience. Just a few hours dialing the backcountry rig would have cured that.

  10. Dostie August 4th, 2009 5:48 pm

    Re: Code of Ethics.

    May I suggest you simply link to Andrew McLean’s classic “Ten Knots.” If he needs a PDF copy, have him send me a bribe. ;)

  11. Mark August 5th, 2009 6:14 am

    Craig’s comment bears repeating. Skiing your AT setup at the resort to adjust to it’s undoubtedly different feel is important. I spent a most of a season cranking my very lightweight AT boots at a PA ski area before hitting the wild slopes, and it helped a great deal. Transition was fairly easy. I pitty anyone new to the sport who ignores such advice.

  12. Lou August 5th, 2009 8:01 am

    Indeed, I’ve seen some real horror shows when folks just grab AT gear and head for the backcountry without getting used to the different bindings/boots/skis. When guiding intermediate skiers on AT gear, I usually include a day at the ski resort so I can evaluate their skiing and do a bit of instruction, while they get used to the gear.

  13. Jon August 5th, 2009 10:53 am

    bring up something about how skins are very important and keeping the glue sticky helps alot.

    By the way you spelt deity diety.

  14. Randonnee August 5th, 2009 11:25 am

    Be sure that you are seeking your goals, instead of following others’. For example, are you into mileage, shortest time to walk to a certain point, untracked turns, a summit regardless of conditions/ turns, kilovert per day, risk-taking or risk-aversion, or your perfect tour. For me, I am into an aesthetic and efficient approach, beautiful stopping points for tea or lunch (and out of the wind), quality snow and quality turns, and certain safety. As a former logger (baggage), I avoid skiing clearcuts (eg ski areas or logged areas) and prefer natural skiable terrain. A summit may or may not be a goal, depends on the plan for the day, and a day may be one of the best tours without a summit, conversely to find an aesthetic line to ski (turns, not a sideslip/ traverse for me) from a summit renders great satisfaction. Don’t just get dragged along on someone’s death march to ski chowder or death crust, unless that is what you like to do.

  15. Chase Harrison August 5th, 2009 2:50 pm

    More on etiquette in regards to skinning and skin tracks. As everybody knows skin tracks can get really slick after a lot of traffic and sun. So if you see this happening pull you your shovel out and do some excavation work on the skin track. Your good karma will come back to reward you.

  16. Lou August 5th, 2009 3:23 pm

    Thanks Chase, good stuff!

  17. Dostie August 5th, 2009 4:58 pm

    Chase et al,

    If ya just laid a low-angle meanderthal track to begin with it wouldn’t matter if it iced up a bit. If you’re puttin’ in a macho neanderthal track, it only needs to be packed firm for lemmings to lose traction. Better to lay a new trench than waste time grooming the line that was too steep to begin with. IMO. ;)

  18. Mark August 5th, 2009 6:16 pm

    Low angle skinning works. I’ve caught people who started much earlier, lapped them and skied more runs with more energy at day’s end.

  19. Malachi August 6th, 2009 9:10 am

    Hello,

    Not sure this is the right place to post this but, I am planning a trip this year for backcountry ski in the usa. Which is the better place for this, Colorado or Montana? Bozeman or around salida, Co? Theses are my two place to choose. Thank you.
    m

  20. Lou August 6th, 2009 9:19 am

    I’d go for Bozeman over Salida…

  21. Scott Portnoy August 6th, 2009 10:11 am

    Thanks for the awesome tips and the beginner backcountry spots (jon jey and el jefe). I think ill have to pick up your book Lou. Randonnee, great point. I feel like this point can be applied to skiing backcountry or resort or whatever, it should be more about your full experience than pushing out as many runs as possible. I feel like my days are way better when its about enjoying the skiing.

  22. shoveler August 6th, 2009 12:22 pm

    Hey, the ‘tude thing is right on. Amazing how people go out there then start whining and moaning about stuff. Too many people, too many dogs, too many this, not enough of that. Leave the *itching for when you’re writing letters to your Congressman, wear a smile when you’re out there!

  23. Malachi August 6th, 2009 3:29 pm

    Thank you lou, for the advice.

  24. Paul January 10th, 2010 9:11 pm

    I’ve always skied basic downhill, I’m getting interested in doing some back county skiing. I’m wondering whats the best way to get started.

    I was initially interested in tele skiing but your site makes some good points towards AT. Would it be feasable to ski only on an AT setup for both lift assisted and BC skiing? The thing that really sells me on AT is that they release in a crash.

    Is AT gear too burly for off track tours where only minor downhill runs would be expected?

    I’m 30 and have a family so getting laid up is not a good thing. In the past I’ve always snowshoed and downhill skied. AT skiing looks like a good way to go up and have a lot more fun getting down.

    Could any one offer advice on skies boots and bindings?

  25. patb February 5th, 2010 3:14 pm

    Lou and community,

    I have been a climber and snowshoer in the backcountry for a few years now. I just bought an AT setup with goals of getting farther out in the backcountry than snowshoeing as well as increasing my skiing ability. I don’t like skiing in resorts because they are too expensive for me and I love the backcountry too much to spend time in the mall-like setting of a resort. I am originally from the Midwest and now a transplant in Seattle. I have downhill skied a total of about 10 times at a resort and cross country/skate skied about 5 times on groomed trails.

    I read a lot on your site about more difficult snow conditions in the backcountry than in the resort. The resort skiing I’ve done in the Cascades has mostly been in the rain and on HARD snow/ice. Am I crazy to think I can start learning to become a competent skier in the backcountry?

    I mostly want to start AT skiing by moderate terrain touring and easy descents; mainly as a quicker mode of transport in the backcountry than snowshoes. Do I stand a chance of picking up the skills of skinning and natural snow turning without having a resort/downhill background?

    Thanks for your help!

  26. Chris February 5th, 2010 3:17 pm

    patb,
    This is a tough winter for washington. But you can do it if you have patience and determination. There are numerous places that offer mellow terrain and lower avalanche risk. I would recommend the Mazama ridge at Paradise to start. Remember to always have a buddy and all your avalanche gear with you. Have fun.

  27. Dave September 16th, 2010 3:17 pm

    Interested in getting into AT/Touring… After following sume local buddies in Jackson Hole and Snowbird/Alta last year and mostly skiing the trees out east at Sugarloaf and JayPeak, I’m looking to add to the quiver and get something that will make it easier to explore.

    I’m looking at the Volkl Nanuq with Marker Duke or Baron binders for a setup. What’s the thought about using my Dalbello Krypton Pros with this? too much or should I consider getting softer/AT boots?

    Ready for the snow!!

  28. Lou September 16th, 2010 8:46 pm

    Dave, do you mean by AT boots being softer that they have a walk mode? That’s what you want… get a stiff AT boot with a walk mode, in other words. Like the BD Factor and that sort of thing.

  29. Dostie September 16th, 2010 10:20 pm

    Paul,

    I would agree that if you want to experience skiing in the backcountry, AT is probably the way to go. It certainly has the shortest learning curve, can be light weight, delivers power with control and has a safety release (although that won’t save you in every situation).

    However you did indicate you were initially interested in tele. It has a longer learning curve, can be light but not as light as AT, and bindings with a safety release are available although there is substantial anecdotal evidence that it isn’t as necessary if you have a permanently free heel.

    So then why tele?

    Because when you do figure it out, making tele turns in powder is absolutely sublime. Making parallel turns in powder is sublime too, but there are degrees and the depth of sublimity is undeniably deeper with tele. It’s not for everyone though.

    If you want to get in the backcountry and put a smile on your face sooner than later, go AT. If you’re willing to work harder for that smile, learn to curtsy when you turn. :wink:

  30. Lou September 17th, 2010 5:19 am

    Ah yes, degrees of sublimity (grin). Nothing like a bit of televangelism to spice up the stuffy old AT blog.

  31. Mark D October 19th, 2010 8:53 pm

    I’m a native Pennsylvanian resort skier, and want to expand my horizons into backcountry. I consider myself to be a competent (advanced intermediate/low-level expert) downhill skier, and have always loved tree runs and solitude. With all the snow my area received last winter, I took to hiking up any hill I could find with my downhill gear and picking lines like I could never experience in a resort.

    I think that AT may the way to go for the best experience for me, personally, but am also considering telemark. I have many questions on both.

    Lou, what is the title of your book?
    Is it possible/safe to leave the heels unlatched on AT’s to make tele turns?
    Is it worth it to invest both financial resources and precious snow time to the limited PA backcountry?
    Where can i find more info/guides/classes on backcountry/AT/tele skiing?

    Any advice would be appreciated, and I thank all of you who took the time to read all this.

  32. Lou October 20th, 2010 8:26 am

    Mark,
    If you already know how to alpine ski, just get AT gear and don’t look back. That is, if you’re really hiking up significant vertical and then skiing down. If you’re dong rolling hills terrain, a lighter weight telemark setup might be better, as it can be a more fluid system for ski touring that involves mixed terrain.

    You can’t really tele on AT gear.

    Don’t know about the PA backcountry, but traveling is always an option!

    See menu above for book info.

  33. Mark D October 20th, 2010 9:19 am

    Thanks for the advice, Lou!

  34. Ron Netter January 9th, 2011 1:23 pm

    Lou,
    Who are the recommended shops in the northeast for AT equipment?
    I found Mountain Travelers in Rutland. Are there others around or are they the primary equipment folks?

    Thanks, Ron

  35. Lou January 9th, 2011 1:59 pm

    Jonathan?

  36. Lisa Ingersoll April 11th, 2011 12:19 pm

    I am just getting into back country skiing. I have downhill skied (hiking a lot, some tele and cross country), so very comfy on the snow. I just bought 176mc BD aspect skis w/ dynafit bindings and Quadrant BD boots. By the end of a long day, the balls of feet really burn. My left on is killing me… and I am really not a whiner. Could I be hiking up wrong (shifting the heal lift higher too soon, etc.), keeping my boots to lose while climbing (heal comes up), or whatever….? I do have a high instep which is why I went w/ the quadrant.

    Another question… My DIN setting is at 5.5. My downhill skis have been at 6. I have come out of these dynafits in powder. I am 140Ilbs and 5′-10″ and an expert skier. I am tempted to set them higher although that is not the manufacturer’s suggestion. ANy thoughts?

    Thanks!

  37. Lou April 11th, 2011 2:11 pm

    Lisa, first, tech bindings such as Dynafit do not have DIN settings, they have release values that attempt to match what a DIN setting is, but they are not DIN settings. We use the term RV, not DIN, to keep that clear.

    As for your settings, figure out which way you released and perhaps set that mode (vertical or lateral) to 6 but leave the other at 5.5. BUT, before doing that learn how to be sure you are in the binding correctly with no ice blockage in your boot toe sockets nor in the pocket below the binding wings on the toe. Most people your size who have release problems with tech bindings are 1., not clearing ice, and 2., have a binding that’s incorrectly set in terms of heel space or incorrectly mounted in some other fashion.

    As for your feet, that kind of pain is usually cause by too much foot movement, or too much pressure in one spot. To deal with that, the first step is to make sure you’re using custom molded liners with custom footbeds. After you experiment with different ways of buckling the boot of course. If you never do figure out how to get your feet feeling right, sometimes you have to go to another model or model/brand of boot, but that’s a last resort of course.

    I hope all that helps. Lou

  38. Lisa Ingersoll April 11th, 2011 11:27 pm

    Thanks, Lou. Yes, it does. I have a lot to learn!

  39. Scott January 3rd, 2012 12:16 am

    I’m just getting into the AT game this winter and some of the above comments are a little confusing to me. I have snowboarded and resort skied off and on for 15 years and for the last three years spent the majority of my time on snowshoes climbing and then snowboarding down.
    I find it much easier to board in the back country than at the resort. I don’t have to deal with the chunky, icy, hard-packed ski area conditions and the inevitable minor falls are almost always in soft snow.
    I just purchased skis and bindings and the boots and skins will be on the way within a couple days; all of this to ask you: why do you suggest spending time at the resort getting used to the new gear (mileage aside) when the conditions are often more forgiving/easier/rewarding/fun off the resort? Am I missing something? I know the area and have spent a lot of time out there on my board..
    Thanks

  40. Brian September 15th, 2012 9:22 am

    11. Practice off-piste Resort skiing/boarding, a lot, with a backpack loaded with your backcountry gear.

  41. Andy October 16th, 2012 8:52 pm

    Is it possible to make telemark turns with the at bindings?

  42. Lou Dawson October 16th, 2012 9:06 pm

    Andy, not really.

  43. Phil October 16th, 2012 10:11 pm

    Andy, it is possible if you have bellowed AT boots and are a decent skier. But really, it would only be for mellow turns in uncommon situations. However, the tech toe becomes very interesting for telemark if you pair bellowed AT/NTN boots with a telemark heel (see TTS binding). But careful, we shouldn’t talk about that on wildsnow, best to keep quiet and lurk in the shadows here… *grin*

  44. Jenny December 18th, 2012 11:45 pm

    Hi,
    I’m reading this blog because my husband wants some new backcountry skis for Christmas. He’s happy with decent quality second hand but I don’t really know what I’m looking for. He suggested the Volkl Nunataq’s but I can only seem to find new ones of these. Is there a version from a previous year? Do you have any other reccomendations or suggestions? He already has regular skis with AT bindings but wants new ones because it’s a pretty heavy set-up (and the old set need relacing anyway.)
    Thanks for your help!

  45. Lou Dawson December 19th, 2012 8:54 am

    Hi Jenny, Lou here, you can find good values in the Black Diamond skis at retail, if he has a heavy setup perhaps get him the Carbon Justice, which makes a really nice lighter weight setup that still has some rocker and width. Getting used skis can be good, but of course you never know what’s out there… Nunataq is indeed terrific if you can find some.

  46. Mark D December 29th, 2012 8:30 pm

    I just added a new pair of skis to my quiver and I want to outfit one set with AT bindings. I’ve been skiing downhill on Line Prophets and just bought Salomon BBR’s. The BBR’s are much bigger and stiffer but the Prophets are much more nimble. My thought is to remount the alpine bindings on the BBR’s and set the Prophets up for AT because I will most likely spend most of my time below the treeline for a few seasons, and I am comfortable with the way they ride as opposed to a new pair which have a totally different shape and I have only demo’d.

    Any thoughts on which pair of skis would be better suited for AT gear?

    Thanks,
    Mark

  47. zippy_the_pinhead December 29th, 2012 10:01 pm

    Phil,
    I bet you and Lou would both be surprised by the number of hits this site gets from telemark skiers.

    We like skiing wild snow as much as any AT skier, and just ignore all the Dynafit babble here at wildsnow.com.

    As for myself, I’m just here for the strudel.

    Happy trails!

    Zippy

  48. zippy_the_pinhead December 29th, 2012 10:08 pm

    Lou,
    Seems your anti-spam quiz is broken. The question (“What device attaches boots to skis?”) wouldn’t accept “3 pins” for an answer.

    Zippy

  49. Lou Dawson December 29th, 2012 11:07 pm

    Zippy, you discovered the deep dark secret of WildSnow.com; it’s not a telemark skiing website (grin). Lou

  50. zippy_the_pinhead December 30th, 2012 7:04 am

    Hi Lou,
    You cover strudel pretty well, but I didn’t think it was a dessert website either! Skiing without the encumbrance of a heel piece has at least as much to do with skiing wild snow as a tasty treat!

    Perhaps you can change the question to “What is the best thing to snack on in an alpine hut after a day of backcountry skiing?”

    In the meantime, pass me a slice as fat as a Megawatt while i consider registering “wildstrudel.com.”

    Happy trails….

    Zippy

  51. JR January 10th, 2013 3:08 pm

    I am long-time telemarker faced with the prospect of some long (for me) tours into backcountry huts this winter. On a whim, I bought a pair of Dalbello Aerro 90s for very cheap ($50) and was thinking of making the jump to AT (since I’m old and only make alpine turns anyway these days).

    What’s the maximum tour length (in miles per day and vertical) you’d recommend on beefy AT gear. And, what bindings are better (besides Dynafit) for longish tours, Marker or Fritschi? Thanks…

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