How To Choose AT Bindings

How to choose AT bindings | Outdoor Gear Exchange

Once you have picked out a touring boot that suits your needs, the next step is to find a binding to accompany them. Much like boots, the selection of bindings currently available on the market is vast, and can be a little overwhelming at first.

It can be useful to divide the spectrum of bindings down into three major categories: Resort Touring Bindings, Backcountry Bindings, and Ultralight Bindings.

We will talk about the differences in these categories and why you might choose one over the other. We will also call out a few bindings in each category and talk about the technology and features that might make them right for you.

The spectrum of AT bindings

Resort Touring Bindings

Let's start with resort touring bindings as this category will be more familiar to those entering the world of touring from an alpine background. These bindings are best suited for skiers to use on lift serviced terrain a majority of the time, while also affording them the potential to access backcountry terrain. Resort touring bindings are also often referred to as “sidecountry bindings” or “frame bindings” because they are essentially an alpine binding affixed to a pivoting frame.

Resort touring bindings

Classic examples of bindings in this category are the hard-charging Marker Royal Family including the Baron 13 and Duke 18, their more weight conscious cousins in Tour Family the F10 and F12; Salomon also brings a high quality competitor to the table with their Guardian 13 binding. Sidecountry bindings also offer great compatibility with many styles of boots: they can be used with boots which conform to the traditional alpine boot soles as well as most touring boots with treaded, rubber soles.

Why You Would Be Stoked:

Why should you choose a frame binding? Frame bindings are perfect for skiers who want all of the downhill performance of a traditional alpine binding but want the ability to access some backcountry terrain. DIN certified release values in both the toe and heel combined with the downward pressure of a vertically oriented spring in the heel tower provide exceptional performance for freeride and freestyle skiing. If you like to ski aggressively and hit jumps and drops and you want a binding that is going to keep your skis attached to your feet through all of those features right up to the moment your knees need them to come off, frame bindings might be right for you.

Why You Wouldn't Be Stoked:

So why wouldn’t you choose a frame binding? In a word, efficiency. Frame bindings are heavy, in addition to the weight of a standard alpine binding, you are also going to be dragging the weight of the pivoting frame and the baseplate up to the top of the mountain; that can add-up to as much as 6 lbs of added weight on your feet. Along with the weight of the binding, you are also paying a penalty in terms of the biomechanical efficiency of your stride because the pivot point is located in front of your foot. Humans walk efficiently by rolling (pivoting) on the balls of their feet; the further forward that pivot point is the less efficient the stride.

The Bottom Line

Frame bindings are perfect for skiers who will be spending most of their time skiing at the resort, but want the option to go touring from time to time.

Backcountry Bindings

If you are looking for a high performance binding that will get you out into the backcountry more than 4 out of every 10 days you go out, a true backcountry binding will probably suit you better than a sidecountry binding. True backcountry bindings have shed the heavy, inefficient frame of their sidecountry siblings in favor of a “low-tech” or “pin” style toe piece. These bindings can only be used with boots which feature metal inserts in the toe piece of the soles; all modern touring boots will come standard with these inserts. In addition to the considerable weight saved by ditching the pivoting frame (typically 2 lbs or more) the position of the pin inserts in the toe piece of the boot sole brings the pivot point back closer to the ball of the foot, the body’s natural pivot point for maximum efficiency in walking.

A photo of the Salomon shift binding in the middle. At the top is the Black Diamond Tecton, and at the bottom is the Marker Kingpin 13

Bindings like Marker’s Kingpin 10 and 13 and Black Diamond/Fritschi’s Tecton 12 set the standard for backcountry bindings which prioritized downhill performance by pairing a pin style toe piece with a more traditional alpine heel tower. The downward pressure created by the roughly vertically oriented spring the the heel tower does a great job of keeping your ski attached to your feet through the high dynamic force loads generated by landing bigger drops and jumps. This feature has made these the bindings of choice for freeride skiers who like to take freestyle-inspired skiing into the big mountains of the backcountry.

Then, a couple of years ago, Salomon and Atomic released their revolutionary SHIFT 13 binding, which allowed users to travel uphill with a pin style toe piece before transforming, through a couple of easy steps, into a more traditional style alpine toe piece for the descent. So what is the catch with these bindings you ask, surely they can’t be perfect? Unfortunately the range of release values on these bindings is 6-13, making them unsuitable for lighter or less aggressive skiers who need a release value lower than 6.

The Bottom Line

These bindings are perfect for skiers looking for a set up that will still be fun and capable at the resort but will allow them to take more aggressive freestyle skiing deeper into the backcountry on a regular basis.

Low-Tech Bindings

For skiers who are looking to spend more than 7 out of 10 days in the backcountry over the resort or those looking for a dedicated backcountry set-up, a full “low-tech” binding is the way to go. These bindings will feature pin style toe pieces and a heel turret with two pins or a U-spring which fit into slots on the heel of the boot sole. Dynafit first developed this system more than 30 years ago and have continued to produce innovative technologies and features to compete in this rapidly expanding market alongside newer manufacturers like G3 and Black Diamond.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of how these bindings work and why you would want them we should talk about release values.

Most low-tech bindings will have adjustable release values, however they will not be certified by the DIN organization in the same way release value settings on traditional alpine bindings have been. That does not mean these bindings will not release or will not retain you, it just means they have not been certified by the same organization. Some bindings, like the Black Diamond Tecton, have been tested and certified by other standards organizations like the TUV.

Is Low-tech Good For Me?

At the bottom is the G3 Ion 10, above that is the Dynafit Rotation, and at the top is the G3 Ion LT

So why would you want a low-tech style binding? These bindings are going to be considerably lighter than their more downhill oriented counterparts, often weighing in at 2 lbs or less for a pair. Some examples of bindings in this segment are the Dynafit Rotation series, the G3 Ion and Zed, and the Black Diamond Vipec bindings. The Dynafit Rotation series features three bindings with adjustable release values topping out at 12, 10, and 7, respectively. The Rotation 7, which has a release value range between 2.5-7, is ideal for lighter or less aggressive skiers. G3 offers the Ion 10, 12, and LT12 and their lighter sibling the Zed 12. The Ion LT12 is a brakeless version of the regular Ion 12, and the Zed comes with the option to add brakes if desired. The Black Diamond Vipec Evo binding stands apart from its competitors in the low-tech binding category because it features an adjustable lateral release value in the toe piece as well as the heel.

Going Brakeless

The G3 bindings come in versions with and without brakes; the advantage of a brakeless binding is weight savings (~10 oz for a full set). Dynafit also makes several lighter-weight bindings without brakes. It is worth noting that if you do want to ski your light, brakeless bindings at the resort most will require you to use leashes to prevent your skis from rocketing off down the mountain if they release.

The Bottom Line

Low-tech backcountry bindings are perfect for skiers who value weight and efficiency for longer and/or more demanding tours but still need good downhill performance.

Ultralight Bindings

Skimo racers and ski-mountaineers need the lightest bindings they can get. Ultralight bindings keep your skis on your feet, what more could you want out of a binding? These low-tech bindings prioritize weight savings over all else; most of them will have fixed release values and a single riser which doubles as the touring mode

Skiers looking for an extremely light binding which still features adjustable release values and a few different riser levels the Dynafit Superlight 10 or 12 are great options and weigh in at only ~13 oz for a full set. Those who want an extremely lightweight binding but would prefer not to deal with leashes will be happy to hear that brakes are also available for the Superlite bindings.

Folks who don’t feel the need for adjustability in their release values will be happier with the weight savings of the Black Diamond Helio binding series. The Helio bindings feature interchangeable U-springs with fixed release values roughly equivalent to 6, 8, or 10 respectively. The Helio 180 comes with an adjustable baseplate on the heel piece lending it ~28 mm of adjustability and the whole set weighs in at ~13 oz. It’s lighter sibling the Helio 145 ditches the adjustable baseplate, meaning it will only work for boots with identical sole lengths once mounted, and weighs in at only ~10 oz for a full set.

The Bottom Line

Ultralight bindings are intended for skimo racers, ski-mountaineers, and other backcountry enthusiasts who are looking for the lightest ski set up they can get

Picking The Right Binding For You

Hopefully this information will help you navigate the vast world of alpine touring bindings. There are a ton of other brands and bindings out there on the market which weren’t mentioned here, each with their own unique technology and features; but hopefully this has given you some tools to help pair down the selection to find the perfect binding for you.

When picking a binding it is best to start by thinking about how you are going to use it; will you be spending most of your time in the backcountry, or will you only really be straying from the resort a couple of times a season? What kind of terrain do you prefer, and how aggressively do you like to ski that terrain? Answering questions like these will help to qualify the suitability of each binding for your wants and needs.

This is a pretty basic overview so if you have more questions or really want to dive into the subtle differences between these bindings we encourage you to come in to the shop and talk to some of our gear experts. We are always happy to help you find the perfect binding for the type of skiing you are looking to do, or even just to talk about the best places to go and share tips and tricks to help you get the most out of your backcountry experience. And of course our ski techs are ready mount and tune your skis so you can get out and start enjoying the snow.

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