Alpine touring ski bindings get better and better as time goes on, with an ever-widening range of options available. The casual and discerning user alike have options that were unheard of ten years ago, with performance better than we could have ever expected. The catch to these improvements and options is that shopping gets trickier all the time. Some bindings resemble jewelry more than technical equipment, and there are products that look remarkably similar to your alpine resort bindings. Of course, there are options everywhere in between. How do you discern between these wide-ranging options? How do you know what is best for you? How do you sort through the options to make sure that you equip yourself well? Bindings are one of the most defining pieces of backcountry skiing. Choosing them, informed and intentionally, will only enhance your overall experience.
Background information on AT Ski Bindings
At their simplest, AT ski bindings are the devices that attach your boots to your skis for backcountry skiing. They must attach just the hinging toe for uphill travel, and they must attach toe and heel for downhill travel. Weight really matters, and safety release must also be considered.
Types of AT Ski Bindings
Once you eliminate "frame bindings" from your consideration, you are left with three major types of AT ski bindings. Of course, many products blur the lines between these categories.
Ultralight "race" style
Originally stripped down for "skimo" or "randonnee racing", these tiny miracles are achieving wider appeal and application. In any human-powered endeavor, weight is paramount. These are the lightest bindings available and go uphill like a dream. They typically weigh less than 200 grams per binding but have limited features. They can still be very durable and more than secure enough for even the most extreme skiing. They aren't necessarily suitable for super high-speed downhill skiing. Every race-style binding eliminates one or more of the major features we look for in backcountry bindings. The best race-style bindings we've used in recent years are the Black Diamond Helio 180.
All-around AT ski bindings are those that include adjustable release, adjustable length (for different boots), three levels of heel elevation, and ski brakes. Some or all of these options may be removable or customizable, but the all-around models of bindings have all these options.
All backcountry skiing is "downhill oriented"; we go up to go down. It is the down that defines the whole experience. It is the down that differentiates hiking from backcountry skiing. In that way, all the above categories of products work for the downhill. However, for a variety of reasons, many skiers want additional downhill performance from their ski bindings. The primary reason many choose a downhill-oriented backcountry ski binding is for familiarity. The downhill-oriented bindings look more like your resort gear and can feature release certification that is cousin to resort binding certification. That said, everything that has been skied has been skied on less "downhill oriented" bindings; many users are simply more comfortable with the look and stamp of approval associated with what we call the downhill-oriented bindings. Further, there is a tiny (and we mean very small. It probably isn't you, to be blunt) subset of super-hard charging skiers that will need the enhanced retention and more sophisticated release function of the downhill oriented bindings. Finally, those that will use their backcountry gear extensively at a resort might consider downhill-oriented AT bindings.
How to Choose AT Ski Bindings
Now that we understand some different types and backgrounds of this product category, how should you make your own choice? For the most part, a huge percentage of skiers will choose bindings from the middle category. All-around, full-function basic AT bindings do the job for all from beginners to experts. Especially if it is your first backcountry set up, we think you need a very good reason to not choose a basic all-around AT ski binding. They have all the usability features, while all tech bindings share basic learning curve limitations. Within the "all-around" category is a range of weight differences. The lightest all around bindings are simply race bindings with all the features tacked on. The heaviest ones are DIN/ISO certified and have downhill skiing characteristics that approach that of resort gear.
Within the category of all-around full-function bindings, the primary determinant is weight. If you read the above descriptions of the three categories and identified slightly more with the uphill crowd, aim for something on the light end of the spectrum. An example of a lightweight all-around AT binding is the Atomic Backland Tour. If you identify more with the "downhill oriented" crowd but know you don't really need the slightly enhanced performance of the downhill-oriented bindings, an all-around choice like the Dynafit Rotation ST is suitable.
Examine some of the factors that differentiate the all-around bindings from one another. Each additional feature and functionality generally adds weight and cost. Again, we'll assume first that all "all-around" bindings have to have brakes, three heel levels, adjustable release, and adjustable length for changing boots. Further differentiating characteristics are enhanced durability, heel piece "forward pressure", and DIN/ISO certification.If you think you might wish to select a race-style binding, consider a few things. First, the most significant concession made with race-style bindings are in release characteristics. Race style bindings usually have little to no adjustment available in their release characteristics. The release function they provide is limited and straightforward. If you have poor knees and/or abnormally low-risk tolerance (consider that all backcountry skiing is quite dangerous… the difference between certified release and non-certified release is pretty small, relative to the difference between participating and not), steer clear of the race-style bindings.
The other features eliminated from the race bindings are easily addressed with planning and technique. The lack of multiple heel risers quickly becomes a feature instead of a bug. When you have no options in how high to lift your heel, you don't have to choose how high to lift your heel. The freedom from decision-making is liberating. Technique quickly adapts, as long as you are using light and flexible modern AT boots with your race bindings. The lack of brakes requires care and pre-empts resort use, but you should always be attentive in the backcountry, and you should likely have more sophisticated release characteristics for any in-bounds use. In short, the major issue with race-style bindings remains the downhill release characteristics. Many great skiers make it work with race bindings, but do so knowing the limitations.
If you are drawn to the downhill-oriented bindings (Tecton, Shift, Duke, etc) ask yourself some hard questions. Are you drawn that direction for true performance reasons, or are you compelled by the more familiar appearance? There are real performance increases with these bindings, but it is our experience that you will not realize those gains until you are skiing very fast, very hard, with excellent and discerning technique. Few of us ski the backcountry like that if we are being honest with ourselves. If we do ski that hard and that fast, we have potentially bigger problems than our bindings with the consequences of any fall. More speed equals more energy for injury, regardless of the release characteristics of your bindings. More energy equals bigger injuries. Bigger injuries are exponentially more serious in the backcountry than at or even near a resort. Choose your bindings with your holistic level of risk tolerance in mind. More sophisticated release does indeed protect your connective tissues in more complicated falls. But do you really want to be exposing yourself to the potential and other consequences of such high-energy tumbles?
The above outlines most of the secondary concerns when selecting AT bindings. Because ultralight bindings do such a good job, and because AT ski bindings cover a weight range that is nearly an order of magnitude (the heaviest bindings are almost 12x the weight of the lightest!), weight will be the primary determinant in your selection. Weight really, really matters for the uphill portion of your day, and the weight of AT bindings is less closely related to downhill performance than the weight of your ski boots or skis. If you wish to cut weight while not losing much performance, bindings are a great place to do so. Cut your binding weight in half, and your ski performance might decline by just 10-20%. Cut your boot or ski weight in half, and the downhill performance drops considerably more. Even more than in most cases, lowering the weight of your backcountry ski bindings is an easy investment in efficiency.