- Free of charge by club members on organised LXCSC trips and events
- For hire (£5 a day per set of equipment) by LXCSC members for personal use (rates for longer-term loans can be negotiated)
- For hire (£5 a day per set of equipment) by non-club members for use at Snowsport England or affiliated club events
To arrange use, email: LakelandXCSki@gmail.com
Club member Stephen Johns has provided this article to advise anyone starting out with ski-touring on the type of equipment choices they can make.
SKI TOURING EQUIPMENT
A Guide on How to Select Ski Equipment
You'll have come to realise that free heel Nordic skiing covers a wide range of activities. Fifty years ago decisions on equipment were much simpler. One set of skis, boots and bindings would be used for racing, a bit of downhill and for a long cross-country tour. As the equipment has developed, it’s got more and more purpose specific. Other pages deal with the light equipment needed for track and cross country racing and other pages deal with the heavier Telemark equipment. Off track and touring equipment straddles the two extremes of track/racing and Telemark and has its heritage in the original gear that tries to do it all. Inevitably there is a compromise and on a tour, for example, there will be occasions when it would be nice to have a caddy with the equivalent of a golf bag out of which you would select a set of skis for the wide variety of terrain and conditions encountered. On the flat he would hand you a set of light narrow skis to enable you to zoom along. When you come to that powder bowl he will pass you a set of big wide tele skis and a change of boots. Unless you've just won the lottery this is not going to happen. We inevitably have to compromise so that a series of more restrictive decisions have to be made to get a collection of equipment together that best suits the sort of skiing that you want to do. This is a guide to assist.
In England and the rest of the UK, gear is not easy to track down and when you do, it's not going to cheap. If you're buying ski touring gear for the first time you'll want to get it right. Your previous mountain experience, your budget and of course your personal preferences will dictate what kind and what level of touring you are most likely to undertake.
At this stage an equipment guide would usually now tell you about the various options of skis, boots, bindings and peripheral gear. This guide will take an unusual but more structured approach to helping you make equipment choices. So ask yourself and get answers to these questions before buying anything.
· What sort of terrain am I most likely to ski?
· Which skis best suits this terrain?
· Which binding systems best suits this terrain?
· What sort of boot best fits the grade of touring I shall be doing?
Your answer to the first question is likely to point you to one of the four tour areas mentioned in the Ski Touring article (see home page). So let's look at these areas in turn and we'll see what the gear options are to enable you to answer the other two questions and to get the most out of your trip.
Unless you're going to ski near to the west coast where the mountains plunge suddenly down to the fjords, for the most part the mountains inland are fairly well rounded with many flat frozen lakes. The fantastic hut systems, particularly in Norway, make multi-day tours ideal. Direct routes between the huts are usually marked with birch twigs so there will be few surprises in terms of challenging terrain. Get away from the marked routes and you can make your trip more challenging but without having to go for the heavier equipment needed in say, the Alps.
You will probably reject heavy Telemarking equipment on the grounds that lugging around all that weight will undoubtedly slow you down and increase fatigue. On most Scandinavian trips, slopes suitable to Telemark will be relatively few in number. At the other extreme you will probably reject racing skis on the grounds that whilst they're great crossing those lakes, the lack of metal edges made that long traverse difficult and dangerous. Those narrow skis are great in tracks but sink out of sight in untracked snow and skitter about on ice. The sort of skis that the Scandinavian manufacturers make for just such a purpose is usually a good indication of which ski to use for touring in this area. You'll find several metal edged skis with a medium camber and a ski tip in the region of 65 - 80 mm.
A very important factor not to be ignored at this stage is whether you will use skis with fishscale bases or will you use grip wax. Having got this far, I'm going to assume that you are familiar with these two types of bases. The additional subject of “climbing skins” which applies to both types of skis bases is dealt with below.
75mm Binding - Up to just a few years ago if you were touring in Scandinavia, the 75mm Rottefella binding system was de rigueur. There was nothing else really suitable for touring. The Norwegian binding manufacturer Rottefella derives its name from this binding whose literal translation is "rat trap". All the boots had what is called a Norwegian welt. It's a sort of square bill at the front of the sole. To engage the binding, the boot toe is pushed into it and a hinged bail swings down onto the welt, clamping the toe of the boot to the ski. The bail is secured by a ratchet, thus leaving the heel free. To increase security, three holes in the toe welt, underneath the boot, engage onto three pins pointing up from the binding. except that the three holes in each of the boot soles which accommodate the three pins of the binding, can get bigger with prolonged use. Small stones or grit have also been known to lodge themselves in the holes. These are usually very difficult to see and may explain why sometimes you can't get your boot onto the pins. Even though this binding has completely disappeared from lift-served piste skiing areas, Telemark skiers in the USA with all the latest high tech gear are still referred to by Alpine skiers as "Pin Heads" because of this binding. Whilst it sounds like a term of abuse, it's usually used with affection. This binding started life in the 1950s, or perhaps before, and has been gradually beefed up to the Super Telemark, to keep pace with ever beefier boots and stronger skis. The Super Telemark 75mm binding, still remains popular today because it's tried and tested and there's nothing much to go wrong. It’s probably fine for use with leather touring boots. It is however not unknown for the bail to fail when used with plastic boots which may overpower it.
If you want to go up the scale of weight and power you may consider:
Cable bindings - Throughout all these developments, a version of the original Kandahar cable binding system was always available for touring because of its relative lightness and simplicity, but perhaps only selected by those tackling the more serious and steeper trips. The toe part of the binding is similar to the three pin - except that there are no pins. It works by fixing a cable from the front of the binding around the heel of the boot, thereby holding and pushing the boot firmly into the toe piece. Cable bindings will have a minimal detrimental impact on the ease of touring on the flat and has the advantage of improved stability on steep terrain. Although heavier than the 3-pin binding, they are a better match for plastic touring boots.
In recent years the system is making a comeback partly due to the fact that the bindings are now stronger but mainly because the latest versions incorporate a touring setting. One advantage that Alpine ski mountaineering gear always had over tele gear was that the hinge point was in front of the toe rather than under the ball of the foot as in Nordic bindings. Most of you having read thus far will probably be aware of the difference between Nordic skiing and its cousin - Ski Mountaineering or Alpine Touring as it's sometimes known. If not: read on. Ski Mountaineering uses equipment very similar to standard Alpine Skiing gear in that descents are done in boots with solid soles locked down fore and aft, so that only standard downhill Alpine turns can be executed. You can't telemark on this equipment. Generally, much steeper gradients are more frequently encountered in the Alps than in Scandinavia, and Ski Mountaineering equipment allows the ascents to be done with the heel unlocked but with the boot attached just at the toe similar to Nordic. However, the pivot point is a simple hinge and it's positioned forward of the toe. This allows for resistance free steps to be climbed. This advantage makes climbing much less tiring because there was no resistance offered from the binding. Some of the latest Nordic bindings now have a switchable climbing setting so that you have the advantages of both systems and can switch to the climbing mode when donning skins (see below) for a steep ascent. Inevitably this extra ironwork has a weight penalty. It's going to depend on the proportion of steep work you do on your tour, but if for example you like to tour the Jotunheimen and attempt the big stuff, this could be the binding of choice
Back Country System (BC)
Several years ago, the BC binding system was launched. Exactly what BC stands for is open to dispute but it's commonly thought to stand for Back Country. Just as the 75mm system was beefed up so has the Cross Country Ski NNN and SNS binding system. The BC binding system comprises a metal bar recessed into the toe of the boot which engages with a slot in the binding and looks similar to track equipment, but they're a bit bigger, heavier, more robust and perhaps less likely to break if you decide to tour. You'll also have better capability to initiate turns because of the extra rigidity provided by a more robust boot/binding combination. The boots too are bigger, heavier, usually made from leather and they'll look much more like a hiking boot than their track brothers. This system is becoming increasing popular with the Norwegians. If your trip is likely to venture away from the main marked routes into undulating Norwegian fjells, this BC Binding system could be for you. Many prefer this binding system although some would say that downhill control is inferior to the 75mm system.
Having decided on the binding system, we can now look at boots. This decision on bindings will already have weeded out a large selection of boots that won't fit your bindings. BC & 75mm boots are not interchangeable. The traditional leather boots used for touring can be bigger and heavier than BC boots; the object being to generate even more control on the descents. These traditional boots will have a square and extended welt in front of the toe to accommodate the pins and the metal bail of the "rat trap" should you use this binding. The boots are commonly described as boots with a "Norwegian Welt". Ten years ago 75mm leather boots were the norm but they're not only becoming more difficult to find, but they're now often more expensive than plastic.
A range of lower cut plastic boots suitable for touring is now available from all the major boots makers and they're no heavier than the leather ones that they replaced. They're probably cheaper than leather, often lighter, more rigid (in the right places) and they won't lose their rigidity over time like leather ones will. Unlike Alpine ski touring equipment which has a solid rigid boot sole, all Nordic plastic boots have bellows above the toes which allow them to bend naturally at the ball of the foot. It's interesting that all plastic touring boots still have the Norwegian Welt with the three pin holes so that they can be used with any available binding. In general, BC boots tend to be less rigid than boots to fit the 75mm system. Whichever system you're buying into, it's an advantage to get your boots fitted by a good reputable boot fitter. Everyone's feet are different and it may be that you will benefit from different foot beds to the ones that come with the boots. They'll give your feet extra support.
The advice in this section applies to ski touring in any area. There is much merit in the advice to get the strongest but lightest poles that you can afford. A broken pole in the middle of a tour is no fun. Some opt for extendable ski poles, thus obviating the need for several sets and these best come into their own on a long, steep traverse where you need one short pole and one long pole. You can adjust them to your exact requirements. There is however usually a weight penalty for telescopic poles over their fixed-length equivalents. Some skiers question the reliability of telescopic poles because, with wear, you could find that the joints become sloppy resulting in the poles gradually diminishing in length as you put pressure on them. As a general rule, the fewer joints along the pole, the less likely they are to cause trouble.
In whichever area you are going to tour, get poles with a large basket. Small baskets for track skiing will sink through untracked snow and impede your progress. There are some large plastic fixed baskets, but the floating baskets that you see in the oldest of black and white ski photos are hard to beat. These consist of a hoop attached to the bottom of the pole by four straps as the spokes and it automatically adjusts to the level of the snow. Many of the new ones have plastic spokes attaching the hoop but you may find them too springy. You can still get ones with leather spokes and these soon adjust themselves to the angle of your gait and become "yours".
Whether you've plumped for fishscales or for grip wax, no guidance on longer tours can be complete without a mention of "skins". They're not essential for most tours, but you can save yourself a lot of effort for those inevitable steep sections in difficult snow. Not only do they get you up the steepest of slopes but they also come in handy when the snow conditions are so awful and varied that fishscales can't get a grip and even klister has let go.
But what on earth are skins? They're long strips of material attached to the bottom of skis as a way of getting skis to grip the snow for forward and most importantly, upward propulsion. "Skins" is short for "seal skins" but don't worry, seals no longer need to lose their lives to provide us with traction.
Originally fitted to only one ski, the natural nap of seal skin fur allowed the hairs pointing backwards to grip the snow but then to compact when the ski is slid forward thus allowing the ski to glide forward. The principle is still the same, except that synthetic materials and/or mohair have replaced fur and we now use skins on both skis. The 20th Century produced many fantastic inventions but not many reach the pinnacle achieved with the invention of skins glue. Modern skins stay put on your skis by using a glue that not only sticks your skins to the bottom of your skis but it also allows dozens of removals without apparently losing any of its adhesive qualities. If they do come adrift, a common reason for them not to stick is usually either that there was snow on the ski bases or the bases were wet when the skins were applied. Skins are usually stored by folding the skins, glue side to glue side in quarters and then pulled apart when you want to use them. This method prevents foreign bodies finding their way onto the glue and reducing their effectiveness. Drying them after use will help to prolong their life.
When selecting a set of skins there are a number of things to look out for.
Effectiveness - The best and (usually) most expensive of this carpeting has tenacious grip yet very good glide. Another important criteria is the fixing system. There is a surprising variety; some tip fixing only and some tip and tail. Whilst they are all effective, some are more fiddley than others. There's no way of predicting which you'll prefer. It's best to try them first if you can. The most common fixing for Nordic touring is the one that loops over the tip and the skins are cut a couple of centimetres short at the tail.
Full length or half length; Full length skins are the most common, but for Scandinavia you should consider half length ones. The half length ones cover the area where either the fish scales appear or the area that you would normally put grip wax. Half length skins can work quite well on easy gradients except that you do lose traction when you hit a slight dip under the grip area when your weight's only on the tips and tails. They are cheaper than full length fully fitted carpeting but they may be all you need if you're not going to go too steep.
As well as getting the length right you'll also have to think about width. You probably won't have too much side cut on your Nordic touring skis so it's unlikely that you'll have to worry about trimming the shape of your skins. Your skins need to be about 4 to 6 mm narrower than the narrowest part of your skis. This will allow room for your metal edges to engage the snow/ice during a traverse. If your skins are too wide the ski edges will be kept off the snow surface and will not grip properly.
You'll also have to make a choice between synthetic/mohair combinations. Mohair generally has the better glide but is more expensive, whereas synthetic skins will last longer. Some have a combination of both.
Whatever you do and no matter how scared you are of the descent, don't be tempted to ski downhill with skins still attached to your skis thinking that they'll slow you down. Perhaps they will but not only will you have a miserable descent, you'll be an accident waiting to happen.
Only a few years ago many Norwegians were quite dismissive of skins. They believed that waxes were more than sufficient and that skins were for Alpine ski mountaineers. This is largely true, but in the last few years the short (half-length) skins have emerged. They have the same kind of skins glue but they strap round the ski. Many claim that these short skins are particularly suitable for Scandinavian touring because not only are the slopes generally not as steep as Alpine slopes but they can be useful in difficult waxing conditions. They grip where they should but allow the tips and tails to do what they do best - glide. A further advantage is the saving on weight and pack space over full length skins. The latest development in short skins is from a Norwegian ski manufacturer. Instead of a strap, these short skins have two prongs at the front end which engage with two slots in the ski base just at the start of the kick zone.
I suspect that it may be some time before Professor Petrenko's invention will be marketed. His idea is to use an electrical impulse in the base of a ski to melt a thin layer of snow crystals in one millisecond. For grip the base can also re-freeze in one millisecond. He's been working on this idea of electronic skins for 10 years. Until he's perfected it we'll just have to put up with skins with hairs.
Spade or Bivvy Bag?
You will of course eventually make your own decisions about the safety gear that you will carry, but the general rule about selecting gear - that it has at least two uses - also applies to safety equipment. If you decide to take a small spade, it will have a number of uses other than digging people out of avalanches or digging a snow hole in an emergency. You'll be surprised how often you use it for collecting snow for melt water or digging out a seating area at lunch time, to mention but two. It's worth noting that should you get benighted or caught out in bad weather and need to build a snow hole, a spade may be of little use if snow cover is thin or the weather has changed to force 10 and you can’t stand up. In these circumstances a bivvy bag made of breathable material could make a significant difference. When it's not saving your life, a bivvy bag is a good thing to have in a snow hole or just to put under you if you encounter a damp bed. You can carry your sleeping bag in one just to keep it extra dry.
A pulk is a low-slung sled looking rather like a sophisticated tray pulled behind the skier for the carrying of all the stuff that you need but can’t carry on your back.
This is a good time to remind oneself of the Silva compass moto “The more you know, the less you need to carry” because unless you’re going snow camping perhaps north of Trondheim where the huts don’t have food or if you’re in training for a crossing of Antarctica, you’re unlikely to need one. There are exceptions of course. I have seen the more alcoholic dependent ski tourer getting their dog to pull a pulk laden with cans of beer but this is perhaps a little extreme. Another exception may be those taking young children ski touring where they need one of the specially made pulk for protecting their offspring from the elements. They look a little like a sidecar. (The pulk that is). Pulks are best suited for flat or undulating terrain although they can be used on steeper slopes.
Instructions can be found for building your own but you’ll need to think about the pulk base to ensure that it tracks in line behind you when on a traverse. Pulling a pulk with rope is a no-no. You need rigid rods and a harness that connect you to the pulk. Some cross the rods for extra stability. Don’t economise on the rods especially if you go on steeper slopes. Descending will be nightmare unless you can hold back your cargo.
Undoubtedly the Alps offer some of the greatest challenges to the free heel ski tourer. There will be stretches on the plateaus which are very similar to the conditions that you'll experience in Scandinavia but the ups and downs are likely to be much steeper. You will find it difficult to avoid glaciers and you will need the necessary know-how and safety equipment for these parts of your tour. The Alps are further south than Scandinavia and so you are likely to encounter a greater range of snow conditions.
Most manufacturers make a ski aimed at the ski tour/randonnee market, but an alternative would be a ski often termed an all-mountain ski. One important factor to consider when selecting gear for touring as opposed to selecting gear for the piste, is weight. There are papers calculating the additional energy needed in each footstep for every gram of weight attached to the bottom of each leg so you'll need to carefully strike a balance between the strength of your gear and its weight.
Unless you intend some low level day tours just away from the ski tracks, the use of the BC system for a tour of the Alps is unlikely to be the best choice. If your free-heel performance is going to approach or match that of Alpine Ski Mountaineering equipment it's going to have to be big and strong. Fortunately there is a wide range of strong and reliable free heel bindings capable of dealing with an alpine tour. You may want to narrow down your choice to include only those bindings with a switchable tour setting. (See Scandinavia/cable bindings above)
Poles - See Scandinavia above.
Skins & Traction
Full length skins are considered essential for the Alps. There will be lots of long steep ups and whilst grip waxes could do the job, there will be a number of times when you'll lose traction, time and waste much energy slipping back. One item of equipment that you're more likely to need in the Alps than in Scandinavia is the harscheisen. As its name suggests, it's a bit of alpine kit that clips either to the ski or to the bottom of the ski boot and will grab hold of hard snow and ice with which skins cannot cope. Most practitioners prefer the ones that attach to the boot because they allow you to slide your ski forward without the teeth catching.
With these steep slopes, avalanches will be an ever present concern. The quantity of safety equipment carried will differ from that needed in Scandinavia in that greater emphasis will be placed on emergencies on the glaciers and in possible avalanches.
Scotland has lots of terrain suitable for ski tours. Neither purely Scandinavian nor purely Alpine, your choices will be dictated by a number of factors. Firstly, there will be no nice ski huts in the mountains for you to stay in. A to B tours from one hotel or village to another in settled weather can be undertaken but the reality is that even in a good year this will involve quite a bit of walking where the snow has run out at low level. Secondly, with mountains no higher than 1,343 metres, the snow will be less than reliable thanks to the nearness of the gulf stream and the maritime climate. Ski tours are more likely to be day tours from a fixed base. The hardy could camp with all the extra gear that this entails. Unless you’re sure of continuous snow cover, a pulk is likely to be a burden.
Skis, Bindings & Boots
Because the weather is such an overriding factor for Scottish touring, this is largely going to dictate the sort of equipment that you decide to take. Whilst settled periods of dry cold weather are not unknown in Scotland, allowing you to travel light on undulating hills with BC equipment or even lighter, the reality is that you must be prepared for everything and expect the worst. Scotland is an area where you may be glad that you chose skis with waxless bases otherwise you may be faced with frequent changes of waxes. If only to cope with the variable snow conditions, skins will find a place in most Scottish tourers’ sacks.
In the current financial climate the Rockies is unlikely to be your first tour venue but it is somewhere that every free-heel skier should visit at least once before they die if only to experience the quality of the snow. Although it's much further south than any of the three preceding areas, it has the benefit of high mountains and, as a consequence of being a long way from the sea, it has a proper cold winter. The mountains may not be as spectacular and the challenges not quite as great as in the Alps but there is fine ski touring to be had.
The Americans sometimes complain about their poor snow conditions but it’s unlikely that they would if they came to Scotland. If Scotland had the same snow conditions found in the Rockies in June that Scotland has in January, Scotland would think that it’s had a bumper winter. Ski in the Rockies, particularly on the Wasatch front and you will encounter powder snow that's often five per cent (or less) water content. What's more, because the trees go up to 3,000 metres and beyond, they hold the 13 metres of powder that falls every year. This means wide skis will be needed to keep you on top of much of the snow that you’ll encounter here.
Bindings and Boots
The only hut system that Europeans would recognise is found in Colorado, 10th Mountain Division Hut Association and could be described as posh bothies. Each night must be booked well in advance and most touring to these huts is done as a short tour. The alternative is a camping tour, often with a pulk. Day tours are very much "earn your turns" tours looking for that untracked powder bowl. Wide skis inevitably means substantial bindings and boots otherwise there will be a mismatch the skis will overpower the rest of your gear. Your ski gear is probably going to be heavier than the touring equipment that you'd use elsewhere. As in the Alps, your bindings will benefit from the tour/climbing setting to make the long ups easier.
Peripheral Equipment - See Alps above
Skiing is inherently dangerous. This guide does not purport to teach you anything about mountain safety. Understand and accept the risks involved before participating. You are responsible for your own actions and decisions. Avalanche is a possibility in every mountain area. None are exempt. You can never learn enough about avalanches or about how to assess snow conditions and avalanche risk.