With an explosion in backcountry skiing, the industry has seen some significant design innovations and an explosion in minimalist ski-mountaineering boots, minimalist bindings, and light, thin waisted skis in response to a growing consumer demand. Along with that innovation people are going into the backcountry with greater ambitions, a door opened by a light and fast mentre that a minimalist setup affords. At the beginning of every season I feel a tension pulling me towards buying a shiny new set of skis binding and boots in order to replace my old planks that are more p-tex than ski. It is a hard sell to sink a few thousand dollars on a new setup that will realistically give me marginal gains in the backcountry. A lighter setup can even come at a cost of downhill performance. Lighter skis and boots will often not perform as well as their heavier counterparts in the variable conditions that are so often found in backcountry skiing. So is there a perfect balance between light and fast and fun and functional? There may be a perfect balance, but it will certainly differ from person to person.
While there is a legitimate criticism over choosing light gear over downhill performance, there is also a legitimate case that can be made for splurging on a lighter backcountry setup. If you have a certain threshold for athletic output, then the more grams you can shave equals less work that you will have to expend on a given ski tour. This can lead to more vertical terrain that can be covered, making the most of that limited winter sunlight, and tacking on that extra lap at the end of a long tour. I am writing this article to remind you that it’s not always the ski, but the skier. There are certain things that you can do to have the same outcomes as buying a lighter backcountry setup without dropping three thousand dollars.
Like many readers, I have been following WildSnow for a number of years. There have been a number of articles in that time that have highlighted the importance of skinning efficiency in your backcountry tour. Realistically, 90% of a backcountry tour is spent going uphill and unless you can develop an efficient skiing technique. No matter what your setup is like, how many grams you saved, you won’t notice those saved grams if you are wasting energy with every step of the journey.
Don’t lift your skis, let the glide do the work – A common mistake that first-time tourers make is to lift their skis as they make their up the skin track. You can think of this as a “double” step. You lift the ski higher than it needs to go and then lower it back down to the skin track. That is extra work that will add up significantly throughout a ski tour. Your skis should barely skim the surface of the snow, to the point where the drag of snow on the base of your ski is balanced by the weight of the ski that is supported by the snow’s surface. It is a tricky balance to strike as you get into ski touring but one that can be achieved with practice.
Use your toes to pull your skis up the hill – There is a rhythm to ski touring. The more you ski tour the more attuned to this rhythm your body will become. One key part to getting into this rhythm is using your toe to pull the ski up the hill, rather than using your toe to push the ski up the hill. This technique will keep your body more centered and aligned in a more efficient position, lengthening the longevity of a ski tour.
Put that weight on your heels – Ski touring, especially as the pitch gets steeper, is a game of managing friction. Every ski tourer can certainly relate to the experience of encountering a steep, icy hill, not being able to get the necessary purchase, and sliding back down. The surface area directly underneath your feet are doing most of the work when it comes to gripping the snow surface as you walk uphill. Ensuring that your heels, and therefore the bulk of your body weight, are pushing down on the ski with each step maximizes the friction force between the snow and your skins.
Work on your kick turns – It takes a significant amount of energy to change your cadence and body position while ski touring. This is especially true when you involve dynamic movements into your ski tour like a kick turn. Kick-turns are something that can introduce a lot of efficiency in a ski tour, but can be an incredible energy sink when done incorrectly. Mastering the kick-turn is, unfortunately, something that comes from practice. Everyone’s first kick turns are ugly and getting the right sequence committed to muscle memory can do wonders to your touring efficiency.
Top sheet lubrication
So you bought those shiny new carbon-constructed skis. The topsheets are a glossy reminder that skis can be a work of art and would perhaps be better mounted on your living room wall rather than on your feet. You take them into the backcountry and aghast! Those brilliant top sheets are no longer visible. One thing to realize is those 200 grams that you saved by buying the new setup are now negated by the 200-400 grams of snow sticking to your topsheets. One trick that largely goes overlooked is not only waxing your bases, but your topsheets as well. I recently was recommended a certain brand of ceramic car wax that applies easily and the bottle will last you a lifetime. I have used it this season with great success, applying the wax to one ski at a time to observe the difference that a well waxed topsheet can make.
The weight savings from an average 1500 gram backcountry boot and a 1000 gram race-inspired boot are realistically marginal. Variables that you are more likely to notice are the level of boot articulation in walk-mode, and vastly more importantly the fit. Imagine the scenario where you shell out 900 dollars for a top of the line sub-1000 gram boot. You saw Killian rocking those in his last impossible ski traverse so why not? You put those boots on out of the box and you barely get out of the trailhead because your feet are being squeezed to a pulp. Bootfitting is the backcountry boot equalizer. Nothing will negate the potential benefits in weight reduction or ski performance like a poorly fitted boot. Going to an experienced boot fitter can save a ski season. While I do recommend spending the time and money visiting a professional, boot fitting is also something that can be done in your garage and something that you can become more attuned with the more you .
Here is a list of things an bootfitter will recommend:
Heat Molding – Ski boot liners, and even some ski boot shells, have the ability to be molded to the shape of your foot. There are certain manufacturer recommendations depending on the brand of boot liner but well worth it.
Footbeds – Many of those aches and pains that you feel both on your feet and knees can be attributed to your foot being improperly supported in your ski boot. A common drop-in footbed can better support the many bones in your foot and make your ski boot feel more comfortable. If you really want to invest in the comfort of your feet, a custom footbed like those offered by Sidas are a nearly foolproof way to ensure that your feet are properly supported.
Shims – I have oddly shaped feet. I tend to have wide and short feet that result in buying boots that have too much volume. A few strategically placed shims can help take up that extra volume and make the boot more responsive on the downhill.
Punching the Shell – Most skiers tend to save this strategy as a last resort in their boot fitting repertoire. If you have tried all of the above and still feel as if your feet are being squeezed into non-anatomic positions, then your shell may not be wide enough. With the right tools, many boots can be “punched” or stretched to accommodate different feet shapes and sizes. One thing to note about this method is that it may void the manufacturer warranty or make the boot more brittle in some cases.
This tip is more of a habit that most backcountry skiers adopt through experience. Take care of your skins. Nothing will ruin a powder day like a set of saturated skins desperately voile strapped to your bases for that extra, glorious, lap. Keep your skins dry, keep them warm. Keep fresh snow away from the sticky side. If your skis do start to ice up, take the few minutes to take proactive steps to de-ice them. A quick rub on a pair of gore-tex ski pants or on the edge of your skis can save your ski tour.
This is one area where I would actually advocate for splurging and buying the lighter thing. Spending the extra cash on a pair of lightweight mohair skins not only will save you a few grams per ski, but the glide that a mohair skin provides versus a traditional nylon skin is invaluable. Getting a little bit of extra glide on every step adds up over the course of an entire tour. If you want to buy something that will have an impact on your efficiency, splurge on skins.
A harsh reality about backcountry skiing is that it doesn’t provide quite the same practice through repetition on the downhill as resort skiing. A big day in the backcountry may give you 4-7k feet of skiing. A big lift-served day may give you 20-30k feet of skiing. Like any other skill that requires nuanced movements and muscle memory, you can only get better at skiing by skiing. Often I see backcountry skiers frustrated by their performance in the backcountry with variable snow or deep powder and blame it on the skis. Regret seeps in. Maybe I should have gotten the ski with more sidecut, the bigger shovel, the longer/shorter ski. If you are fighting the ski you will find that you get to the bottom of a run and your legs are shot.
These ideas come from a backcountry ski career molded around this idea of being efficient in the mountains. I’ll be one of the first people to tell you about the benefits that a lightweight setup can give you in the backcountry. But I will also be the first to tell you that my lightweight setup realistically provides marginal gains in efficiency. It was a difficult reality to try out my first backcountry setup, draining my savings to splurge on lighter setup, and then being passed by a skier on frame bindings. My evolution as a ski-mountaineer came from my everyday routines and systems and continual learning from the experienced ski-mountaineers I surround myself with.
So where am I at the moment? I guess I am caught in a sort of limbo between “light and fast” and “fun and functional”. The past era of light and fast gear brought a great deal of innovation that harbored a new generation of ski touring boots that have become a permanent addition to my ski closet. I kept the race-inspired boot but went with the wider and more playful ski. I use the Scarpa F1 LT to drive the 114 waisted Voile Hyper V8 for most of my mid-winter backcountry outings. I then whip out the thinner waisted, but more capable, skis once the spring corn cycles become reliable.
Aidan Goldie is a Basalt-based backcountry skier and photographer. When he is not climbing and descending peaks in the American West, he is an outdoor educator, working with schools and nonprofits guiding groups through the Colorado wilderness.
One skinning technique tip I rarely see is to stop bobbing your torso up and down with every step. Just stand in place with your pack on and bob your torso, your heart rate will increase and you aren’t even moving uphill! I also try minimize the load on my hip flexors from skinning by using my quads to kick my foot forward at the last part of the uphill step. Rolling with a lacrosse ball and stretching the hip flexors helps too, especially before a day out.
No mention of Transitions( with a capital T) ! Transitions are a big deal. I have a transition routine and I am efficient and practice them. I consider good Transitions a necessary skill. When I tour with less experienced tourers I am sometimes aghast at the faffing about they do and how long they take.
As to lightweight gear… I am a convert to Skimo gear and have drunk the “kool aid”. I practice skiing my LW gear inbounds to learn how to ski them. They make skiing downhill much harder but I like the challenge to retain good form. I’m willing to put up with that as the feeling of unencumbered travel on 1000g skis with race bindings and speed skins is amazing.
I think there’s a happy medium with skis in the 85-90mm range that weigh 1250g at 170cm. They ski powder well and nasty snow pretty good too. There’s a lot of sex appeal in big fat skis, but unless you know 100% you’re going to ski lots of powder you can economise by getting a sturdy pair of sticks. Also, the super light and the super fat skis get all the attention and you can get the skis at a better price point end of season. 🙂 I’d also shout out that a great place to learn all these best practices is touring on the slopes of your resort. When you are starting out the stress of navigating avy terrain and refining technique is hard. Give yourself a break and get all the bugs out of your touring skills in a safer environment.
This discussion reminded me of a time when I was searching for ounces to shed. I decided to reduce my first aid kit. The very next day I sliced my hand on a ski edge while deskinning. The steri-strips and leukotape I needed were not there so I improvised with toilet paper and duct tape. This solution was ineffective and an affront to any wound care nurse that ever treated a wound. So be discerning about those ounces.
Love the emphasis on good skinning form. It amazes me how many people tour a lot without focusing on their uphill form. A small amount of effort here reaps huge benefits!
It’s really incredible the gear choices we have these days. Most touring days I use relatively light (Alien RS) boots and minimal bindings with 110 waist skis. Overall the setup is light and the boots can definitely drive the ski, provided I pay attention. My point is to use what you like and not worry too much about going all skimo or all freeride. Experiment, try stuff out, pay attention to what works for you and what you appreciate about different gear. I love light boots that transition easily with huge ROM. I love simple bindings with leashes. I also really like the way wider skis feel.
I got a set of DPS Lotus 124s in Tour1 mounted with Speed Superlites and they are f*#%ing awesome. I’d been getting by with a decade old set of Wailer 99s that were great but I started feeling pretty bogged down in midwinter when there wasn’t much of a base under 3 feet of cold snow. Did I really need them? Probably not but if I’m buying one set of skis every 6-8 years then what the hell?
Great thoughts. IMO a key point is that struggling on the downhills (either through poor technique or poor technique + lightweight gear which punishes bad technique) is VERY energy intensive. If this is you, does the energy efficiency of lightweight gear actually create a net energy benefit on your ski tour?
That is a very good point. And, struggling on the downhill is more likely to cause an accident, while a less ideal (heavier, less RoM) set up on the up is more about comfort and efficiency.
Of course the flip side is also true: if the heavy gear tires you out on the uphill, you may struggle to ski down as well as you could with fresher legs.
Tom, from my experience, lightweight gear( LWG) is easily manageable in good snow, good powder or spring corn and the energy efficiency equation is definitely on the side of LWG in those conditions as you expend most energy on the uphill, and on the uphill LWG makes all the difference, When the snow conditions get manky, the equation changes. Skiing on LWG in challenging snow is difficult no matter how good your form. Ageing also enters the equation. As I got older, LWG made all the difference to a long tour. The young guys are stronger and can put up with heavier gear. The LWG helps me equalize that difference and keep up with them (somewhat). I also practice in-bounds skiing the LWG in bad snow. to improve my technique. I have found I enjoy the challenge of skiing 1000 g skis in bad snow.
Its such a personal choice as the author points out.
To me its all about the tour and I spend 80% of the time going uphill. For some of my friends they are ” all about the downhill” and not willing to compromise on downhill skis performance.
Viva la difference!!
We are blessed to have some many choices in gear these days and no solution is right or wrong..
Hey Chris, I 10/10 agree with you RE LWG and conditions – when conditions are good the equation definately tips in favour of LWG.
I contemplate going for a lighter rig pretty much every year. Then I try on a ton of boots, only to find that my venerable heavy af dynafit zzeros4s with new intuitions fit so well that nothing matches that trouble freeness. With these boots, skis lighter than 1500g make little sense, so I stick with what is a beefy boot and a substantial 1650g touring ski. Still, paired with alpinists this is lighter than what most people used on hut to hut tours 10 years ago. I have done up to 6500ft vert like that, and the usual 4000/day are just fine. Will I stop looking for lighter gear? Oh yes, but the journey starts with the boots. Once I have my feet in something that fits great and feels solid in ski mode, I’m intrigued…
Agreed that boots have to fit first, and are worthless if they don’t. However, once they do then weight and ROM both help significantly, especially if you’re light and not muscular (like me). Endurance I have, brute strength not so much. Since I live in Australia and we have real powder only very rarely, performance on firm snow, crust, and heavy, wet snow matters much more here; skis with super wide waists are aspirational (or delusional) items much of the time here in Oz, with 85-95mm (or less) much more generally useful; these can generally be driven by light boots. Bindings and boots that make mode changes quicker really help too, as does efficient flat and uphill technique. Sometimes the fastest, easiest way up is to walk, not skin, especially if traction is marginal, and with our typically wet snow near 0°C and frequently rolling terrain pattern bases can frequently save a lot of trouble compared with skins.
It seems like the ski companies/dealers—and us skiers—should be getting away from claiming the perfect width/length of skis for every skier and focus more on the proportion of weight/ski surface area. If you weigh 140lbs you can get away with narrower skis whereas if you pushing 250 lbs with gear like I do, you’re going to need a bigger ski for the same amount of float. I think Voile gives weight recommendations on their skis but I don’t see it talked about often.
Interesting point, JCoates. Surface area is controlled by length as well as width, as you said. Lighter skiers can go narrower and/or shorter and still get good results. So many variables! We have not mentioned flex and shape or binding position. Move the binding back to help keep the tips up, and breaking trail steeply upward in deep, light snow gets much harder. I learned this.
Its worth mentioning that 7, 8, even 9k is not unreasonable for a reasonably fit person with 1500g boots, 500g bindings and 1800g skis. Everyone has different goals and abilities but lets not let marketing fool us. Light and fast should not thought of as required for a good solid day in the mountains.
Great article. Could you please clarify what it means “using your toe to pull the ski up the hill, rather than using your toe to push the ski up the hill.”? Not sure i got it. Any further detail is highly appreciated. thanks in advance
Lorenzo… I think the gist of the motion is…. the foot you are moving, unweight, engage the larger muscles to pull the ski forward (your foot basically in a vertical toes pointing down position), once the motion has moved your foot to the point that you are no longer pulling the ski (toes now pointing to the tip/moving to horizontal) the energy to ‘push the ski forward is excessive… I might be off on the mechanics here.
One valuable lesson I learned last year was engaging the opposite side glutes and quads to square up the hips as you ‘pull’ that foot forward and into the transition stage, saving wear on hip flexors. And also was the idea of keeping your iliac crests (hip bones) horizontal through the entire stride to save wear and tear on hips, and energy efficiency.