There is a lack of information (and marketing) for multi-day, long-mileage, backcountry ski tours, where distance and scenery are the objective rather than downhill skiing. This guide is a collection of insights from the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classics, 120-200 mile wilderness tours where there are multiple binding/boot/ski failures each year. Refer to Fast and Light Winter Travel for a review of winter camping equipment and general strategy, as well as suggestions for an as-light-as-possible Backcountry Ski Repair Kit.
Skis are the least likely part of your equipment to completely break, meaning that nearly any model should work. When skis do break, it is most likely to be edge failure or delamination, both of which aren’t that big of a deal. Complete breaks are almost always when the ski splits in half at the mounting holes. For this reason, it is probably not a good idea to remount bindings in different positions, and use shallow screws for the heel plate.
Each ski comes with a size chart depending on your weight. The sales reps say that the weight includes a pack, but I don’t believe it. If you are between sizes, step up to the heavier option. Longer skis can be more of a pain navigating through trees, but having a functional wax pocket is more important. You can expect the skis to lose some of their flex each season.
We do as much double-poling (on ice or overflow) and skate skiing as possible, so less sidecut is better. If you are planning more of a powder hunting mission with fun downhill sections, you probably want wider and more shaped skis than discussed below.
If your skis don’t have a toe-hinge line to guide the mounting, a good rule-of-thumb is to put the hinge 1 inch in front of the balance point.
Metal edges make a huge difference in off-trail terrain, especially when you encounter ice. If you plan to do anything remote, or on trails that might be icy, get metal edges. Several brands (Madshus and Anses, probably others) make skis with 3/4-length metal edges to save weight.
Most touring skis are available with and without fish scales. Scales make rolly-polly terrain easy to manage, but their inefficiency adds up on long tours. We did a Classic, two of us on scales, one on wax, and the difference in glide was significant. I’ll never forget the ‘zzzzz zzzzz zzzzz’ sound of scales reminding me how much energy I was wasting, and I haven’t skied scales since. I was intimidated about the complex wax options, but the reality is that you don’t need to know much about it. Slipping? Add wax. Too sticky? Scrape wax off. I carry a tube of ‘special blue’ and something colder and typically use about half a stick per 50 miles. I use my knife to remove wax when the conditions are skateable.
The classic proven touring skis are the Fischer Europa 99/E99, which date back to the 1970’s. Used E99s can be found cheap and are a good option. I broke a pair of E99s (snapped underfoot at the second set of mounting holes), and when I looked to replace them, the modern Fischer E99s either weren’t made, weren’t the same, or weren’t available; I can’t remember the details. Fischer is currently making E99s that look similar to the classic version, but I don’t know anyone on the new model. I suspect they are an excellent option.
I researched the best replacement for the E99s and decided on the BC55 because it had nearly identical dimensions and weight (68-55-62mm vs. 66-54-61mm). The BC55 has proven itself reliable and durable. You can expect 3 years of hard use before the metal edges crack and begin to peel out of the ski. I’ve snapped a BC55 under heel, through the heel-piece mounting hole.
Madshus also makes a lighter option (by 100 g), the BC50, which is narrower and has a ¾-length metal edge (60-50-55mm). These lighter skis might not be as durable, and definitely don’t have as much float, but they have held up well on the Classics. If your route will be on trails or involve much skate skiing, these are a great option.
The obsolete GTX has a good reputation. The 10th Mountain and Guide turned into Madshus Annum and Epoch, but, in my opinion, both are too wide and shaped for these kinds of trips.
Asnes makes high-end skis that have similar dimensions to the E99/Glittertind/BC55. The Asnes options are lighter but more expensive. The integrated kick-skin is supposed to work well, but I don’t know anyone with Asnes skis.
The classic 3-pin binding is still the most reliable (and cheapest!) option, and even in the case of a failure, repairs are often easy because the binding is so simple. Voile’s HD binding (without cables) is most popular in the market, and Rottefella’s Super Tele binding has an even better reputation.
One disadvantage with 3-pin bindings is that they don’t offer much lateral support, which makes side-hilling and skate-skiing difficult in leather boots.
3-pin boots are the most comfortable boot option, especially if your route involves much walking, but unfortunately, good (new) 3-pin boots are hard to find.
Popular boots are Crispi’s Antarctic, available via Telemark-Pyrenees, but buy a used pair if you can. Crispi has switched to synthetic leather, and Vibram changed (downgraded) their resin. A used pair of Asolo Alaskan boots would be a good option too. Resoling an old pair of boots is probably a better option than buying a new pair. The word from Norway is to go with Alfas, but I’ve never seen a pair in Alaska.
Typical 3-pin boot failures are:
You can also count on your boots getting soaked and freezing solid overnight. A pair of ~liter water bladders filled with hot water inserted into the boots will thaw them out in the morning.
For backcountry use, the toe-bars are a major gamble. Don’t do it.
The advent of BCNNN/BCSNS boots has done a serious disservice to long ski touring market. The boots became so popular with the low-use (weekend) market that they edged out the more reliable 3-pin options. The BCNNN/BCSNS boots aren’t built to withstand a long or rugged trip. Don’t be fooled by the marketing, they fail all the time and your boot will end up strapped to the ski at some point. Dave Cramer, the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic organizer, says: The fact that the skiing public puts up with it [BCNNN/BCSNS boots] is either a testament to the power of mass marketing or a measure of how few people really get out and do the multi-day mixed terrain trips anymore– probably both.
BCNNN/BCSNS bindings are pretty reliable, the problem is with the boots. The most common complaint with BCNNN/BCSNS bindings is about icing up. In addition to being annoying (Eben Sargent’s boots were frozen onto his skis for 2 days in the Brooks Range), icing can lead to bending or breaking pieces within the binding. BCSNS has a slightly better reputation for ease of de-icing.
All boots are reviewed as being somewhere between ‘OK’ and ‘they suck,’ so there aren’t any specific recommendations. The great hope are Alfa boots, but I don’t know anyone who has used them. The Alfa Polars are the go-to for Greenland traverses and look really promising for cold weather trips.
The most common boot failure is the toe-bar loosening or completely pulling out of the boot. The boot material and seams also fail with low mileage, especially on the top and sides of the toe box where the boot flexes. Zippers break and ice up too. The waterproof models are not waterproof, though you probably don’t want a waterproof boot on a long trip, you can be certain to soak it from the inside, if not out.
Despite these problems, BCNNN/BCSNS boots are light, comfortable, and skate-ski well. If you aren’t too far removed from the road system, they might be worth considering.
Frustrated with BCNNN/BCSNS failures and concerned about cold temperatures, many people are using backcountry boots and tech (downhill backcountry) bindings for long tours. The plastic boots are completely rigid, which sacrifices comfort and toe flex when trying to kick-and-glide. However, this setup still works surprisingly well for skate skiing. For many applications, the reliability of the boots and bindings outweighs the disadvantages.
A tech toe piece is a light and reliable binding. I’ve heard of an occasional broken throw-lever (Dynafit), and seen rare complete failures of the toe piece (La Sportiva and Plum). Dynafit heels break fairly frequently, but we save weight by not mounting the heels (Kreuzspitze heels might be worth their weight if you expect more downhill skiing). The most common failure is that the mounting screws come loose. Make sure the screws are glued, and carry extra mounting screws. Gorilla Glue has worked well for me, and if I need to remove the screws (at home) I place a soldering iron on the screw heads for ~10 seconds to loosen the glue.
Telemark-Pyrenees is the cheapest source of bindings, though you can buy just the toes from Spark R&D. If you buy the full binding you might want to use inserts so that you can keep the heel on a pair of downhill skis and just swap the toe piece back and forth. I also like the inserts because you get more screw surface area in the ski, which makes me think the mounting is stronger.
What you gain in reliability with a tech toe-piece is lost in the disadvantages of the boots. Backcountry boots are heavy and not designed for flat touring. There is a lot of debate about how much worse these rigid plastic boots are for blisters, but all the other boot options have destroyed plenty feet as well. In general, experienced nordic skiers dislike these rigid boots, and people that come from more of a backcountry background are more comfortable with this setup. There is no doubt that the plastic boots are less comfortable and that you lose some of the kick compared to 3-pin and BCNNN/BCSNS options.
The disadvantages of weight, comfort, and limited kick are compensated to some degree by several advantages. The rigid shells are ideal for use with toe-bail crampons, a nice feature if you expect much ice. The plastic shells can be heat-molded (DIY boot punch) to accommodate pressure points, and you can glue/tape closed-cell foam around the cuff to customize the fit/comfort.
We spent several years modifying the boots for ultralight touring. This mostly involved removing the forward-lean locking mechanism, tongue, and cuff, which can remove more than a pound of material. One disadvantage of a modified boot is that skiing downhill can be a real challenge, especially without a heel piece. The other problem is that the boots will take on snow unless you sew/glue/tape/rivet gaiters to the shells, but they often don’t last the length of the trip. Forty Below‘s overboots are a good gaiter option for cold weather.
The newest boots are so light that they don’t need any modification, more on this below.
The closed-cell foam liners are by far the best option for cold temperatures and multi-day trips. The liners don’t absorb water (other than the thin fabric that encloses the foam), which means the liners insulate when wet and are easier to dry out. I love how easy it is to slip my feet out of the boot and liner, allowing moisture to evaporate whenever we take a break. The liners also thaw out and warm up more quickly when you start moving in the morning. Intuition after-market liners are significantly better than the stock liners, the Pro-Tour model is popular.
Skimo (ski mountaineering) race equipment is approaching skate-ski weights, but it all costs a fortune, so I don’t have any experience with it. The boots go on sale each spring, otherwise you can expect to pay $1000 for boots (but don’t worry, the 75-gram bindings are only $900). Check out skimo.co for gear options. I think skimo is popular in Europe, but the only guy I know in Alaska is Brian Harder, his blog posts about gear might be of interest.
A lot of people break poles. Make sure to include appropriate supplies in your repair kit!
If we plan for a fast pace or expect supportable crust, snowmachine trails, ice, or overflow, we carry full length skate ski poles (chin to nose height). Double-poling on ice is just about the best thing ever. Some folks have successfully added a second grip at classic pole height (shoulder), which can be as simple as a webbing loop hose-clamped to the pole.
If you aren’t looking for speed or don’t expect ice, a classic pole height (shoulder) is probably better.
In theory, adjustable poles are less likely to break because the pole segments are shorter and therefore stronger, but they are breaking just as often as one-piece poles.
The general suggestion is to avoid carbon and anything over-engineered or suspiciously clever, however some guys still swear by carbon and the advantage of the light swing weight. Aluminum is nice because it generally bends and can be bent back, but they snap too.
Ski tips often break on ice, and baskets can crack at cold temperatures, especially if you use them through rocky sections. We carry spare tips and baskets and use them often. Broken tips can be removed by heating over a stove until the glue is reactivated, and there should be enough glue left on the pole to just slide the replacement on. If not, you can use superglue, but you might not be able to replace the tip again. If you are doing this at home, use a pot of boiling water to heat and remove the broken tip, and use heat-gun glue on the replacement (you might consider including a small nub in your repair kit).
I like the angled nordic tips better than the round backcountry tips because the angled tips grip the ice so much better. I prefer steel to carbide because the steel is easier to sharpen before each trip. Carbide is nearly impossible to sharpen; you risk melting the plastic if you use a grinder.
You might need to replace the wrist leashes with larger loops to accommodate bulkier gloves.
Different people have different systems, all of which have worked well enough depending on how much climbing you anticipate: kicker skins (just covering the area under foot, make sure they aren’t wider than the ski), skinnies (~1 inch wide skins that extend the full length of the ski), 3/4 length skins (from tip to behind the heel), and full width/length skins. I would definitely look for thin and pliable skin material, something like the (discontinued?) BCA Low Fats as compared to the bulky Black Diamond options. Pomoca makes light and pliable skins, but the glue has a bad reputation, especially in cold weather. You can buy the Pomoca skin material by the roll, and I’d consider scraping the glue to replace it with Black Diamond glue (I use a heat gun and metal putty knife to remove glue).
We don’t really consider sleds for pack weights under 70 lbs. I feel like sleds significantly slow me down on rolling terrain, even though they take the load off my back. When we do pull sleds, we use the cheap kids sleds (Paris), and run cord under the perimeter lip so that the cord is being pulled, not the plastic (I’ll add a photo soon). The pros and old-schoolers use bigger sleds with pvc or metal pipes over the attachment cords to prevent the sled from ramming into you on downhills.
This guide will continue to be updated as I get more feedback. Contributors include Dave Cramer, Andrew Cyr, Ben Histand, Luc Mehl, Greg Mills, John Pekar, Toby Schwoerer, Nicholai Smith, Katie Strong, Aaron Wells, Chris Wrobel, and John Wros.