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Ski Touring Equipment Guide

Are you after some new adventures away from the pistes? If you're looking to get into ski touring then you're going to need some new gear. The range of equipment out there can be overwhelming, not to mention expensive. This article will explain what it's all for and whether you really need it.

1) Skis

Yep, you'll be needing some of those. There's a few differences between a touring ski and a regular downhill ski, but also many overlaps. Basically, the fatter the ski the better it will float in powder. Whilst your piste carving skis may only be 60 or 70mm underfoot (that's the middle of the three dimensions quoted for a ski), for touring and backcountry skiing you'll need something a bit wider (80mm +) to cope with all that unconsolidated snow.

To pick a ski, think about what you're going to want to do with it. If you're planning on hut-to-hut touring trips with little emphasis on the downhill and more on the distance travelled, go for a lighter and skinnier ski. If you're going to ski tour only to access the best untouched powder runs then something heavier and more downhill focused will be the way to go. If you're already a regular off-piste skier then your current skis may well do the job with different bindings mounted.

2) Bindings

The binding is really what changes a ski set up from a lift-accessed only set to a touring set-up. Touring bindings differ in design and mechanism, but all have the function of being able to release your heel from the back of the binding and pivot around the toe end in order to walk uphill with the skis on your feet. When it's time to ski down, your heel clicks back in and functions like a regular downhill ski binding.

The two main styles of binding are 'step in' and 'pin' styles. Step in styles such as Markers and Diamirs are the easiest for beginners to use as you step and click into them like a regular binding. For going uphill, the whole back end of the binding releases from the ski and pivots around the toe end - so the binding is still attached to your boot. These are compatible with all ski boots, including downhill boots, so are the only option if you're planning on using your regular boots (see Boots below).

Pin styles such as Dynafit and Plum require a compatible touring boot (see this picture for details). These have two pins at the front of the binding that slot into holes on either side of the toe of your boot and a pin mechanism on the back of the binding that clicks into a specially designed slot on the back of your boot. To go uphill, your heel releases from the binding and pivots purely on the front pins.

3) Boots

Ski touring boots differ from downhill boots in having a 'walk mode'. When engaged, this makes the ankle cuff more flexible to make walking in them much more comfortable. They are generally lighter than downhill boots - this also means they aren't as stiff. Most are now Dynafit compatible (see Bindings above).

If you're just getting into touring and don't have the money to spend on all the kit, you can get away with using your regular downhill boots for a while, as long as you have step in style bindings - just undo them completely for walking in. It will be no where near as comfortable as using a touring specific boot, and heavier, but if there's one item of kit you can't afford at the beginning it has to be the boots.

When you buy boots it's very important that you get them properly fitted, otherwise it's likely you'll be put off for life with blisters and pain! This is why we do not sell boots online, it is impossible to get a good fit without seeing you in person and we believe that it is better not to offer a product for sale than be unable to offer a full service for it. If you're struggling to find touring boots, give us a call and we'll do our best to recommend a boot fitter in your area.

4) Skins

Skins are what make skis stick to the snow when you're going uphill. There are different makes and styles of skin, but they all essentially do the same job. All are two-sided, with a sticky surface (glue) on one side, and a 'hairy' surface on the other (this can be synthetic, mohair or a combination of the two). A tip loop attaches the skin to the front end of your ski. The glue then sticks the skin to the base of your ski. Most skins also have a tail attachment that snaps over the back of the ski to hold it in place. The hairy side of the skin has two directions - when pushing the ski uphill the hairs will all flatten down meaning you don't have to push it too hard (this is referred to as the 'glide'), but the hairs push back the other way when the ski tries to slide back downhill, providing friction against the snow and stopping the ski obeying gravity. If this sounds a little complicated, imagine stroking a dog's back. Going towards it's tail is very smooth (ie. pushing the skin uphill), but stroking it from it's tail towards the head would push all the hair the 'wrong' way and provide friction (ie. stop your ski sliding back downhill).

Skins generally will need to be cut to fit the curves of your ski, to ensure that the whole base is covered for maximum friction. If you buy both skis and skins from Facewest we'll do this for you so you don't have to worry about it, otherwise this video will show you how.

5) Poles

For touring, most people use a lightweight, adjustable length pole. If you're just starting out then using your regular ski poles or a pair of good quality adjustable trekking poles will be fine - just make sure that you fit a larger sized basket to the bottom so they don't sink too far into powder.

6) Ski Crampons (Couteaux)

These are basically pointy pieces of metal that wrap over the top of your ski attached to your binding and dig into the snow on each side. They provide extra grip when skins aren't quite enough - on very steep slopes and in icy conditions. You'll need to get a crampon that's specific to your binding type, they are not interchangeable.

7) Avalanche Gear

The bare minimum is a transceiver, shovel and probe, and the knowledge of how to use them. This is an article in itself.

8) Clothing

You won't want to be wearing your insulated downhill ski gear, it will be way too hot as soon as you're headed uphill. For the top half, a base layer, fleece and softshell jacket provide a more versatile layering system for changing conditions and exertion levels. Add in a thin down or synthetic jacket to keep you warm while you're eating lunch. On your legs, thin thermals and softshell pants are the best option. Add a pair of waterproof pants you can put over the top if you think it might get wet or cold. Your regular ski socks will be fine. For gloves, a thin liner pair teamed with a pair of softshell gloves will see you through most things; add a thicker pair in your pack for cold days and descents. Keep your ears warm with a beanie or Buff (also good for your neck).

9) Pack

The size of pack you take will depend on how long you're going for. For doing short day-tours out of resorts a small (20L) pack will work fine, with just enough room for your shovel, probe, a spare layer, lunch and a drink. For long hut-to-hut tours a pack of around 40L will be better. Some ski-touring specific packs have a section designed to neatly hold your shovel and probe where they're easily accessible and separate from the rest of your gear.

10) The Other Stuff

As well as your lunch and a drink you'll need to remember some other basics. Sunglasses and/or goggles are a must, together with suncream - a cap is also a good idea on sunny spring days. Spare batteries for your transceiver are useful, as is a small first aid kit, phone, map and compass/GPS. Many people wear a ski helmet on steeper descents, though they are generally too warm to skin uphill with. If you're venturing onto a glacier you'll need a rope and crevasse rescue equipment, together with the knowledge of how to use it of course! On longer tours a small repair kit, warm/waterproof layers and some emergency food could be lifesavers.

If you're planning on doing any ski mountaineering (that is, ski touring mixed with shorter sections of climbing, generally to a summit) then you'll need some lightweight crampons for your ski boots (different to ski crampons), an ice axe, and appropriate climbing gear. Leave this until you've got the hang of touring, so you don't need these items right away.

11) Enjoy it!!

Ski touring is a fantastic way to see some beautiful areas, ski some great lines and spend time in the mountains with friends, well away from the hustle and bustle of resorts. Getting into the sport can seem a little overwhelming with the kit and knowledge required, but if you've got some ski and hiking gear already then there isn't too huge an outlay to get the basics. Booking yourself onto an avalanche safety course is an absolute must, and an intro to ski touring course with a guide will give you a huge amount of knowledge, skills and fun it would take many years to build up without.