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Choose Your Tools: Skiing light, fast, and far.
Going fast and light is, among a small but growing crowd, all the rage these days. This makes a lot of sense considering the currently plummeting gear weights and the growing popularity of backcountry touring. In small, speedy enclaves throughout the Mountain West, folks are experimenting with the low-end of the weight spectrum, stealing techniques and technology from mountain-racing disciplines to push the limits of minimalist weight and maximum vert.
Going Light is defined here as seeking to use the minimum gear possible to achieve the greatest amount of mountain travel. Lightening you pack, clothing, boots and skis frees the energy that would be used to tow those pounds around, and that energy can be applied to traveling farther or faster in the hills. Just as fast-packing and distance trail running are coming to dominate classic backpacking routes, so too is lightweight skiing turning previously multi-day traverses and enchainments into impressive day trips.
Going light isn’t just for endurance freaks in spandex setting world records. Even if your resting heart rate isn’t in the 40s, lightening your pack and your gear is a liberating experience for several reasons.
The first is the most obvious: weight. No one but macho marine corps survivalist types get off on carrying more weight than is necessary. The problem is, most people have a skewed view of what really is necessary. The lightweight approach uses well-designed products made of newer, lighter materials, which are multifunctional and allow for lighter and fewer pieces of gear. It is not uncommon for a committed lightweight nut to have a pack weight under 5 pounds (w/o water), including the pack. That’s likely twenty pounds that you’re carrying, and she’s not. Add to that the significant differences in ski, binding, and boot weights, and weight differences become huge. That’s a lot of extra energy wasted on carrying yourself around.
The second is simplicity; carrying less means dealing with less. When you have less gear to worry about, a smaller pack to sort through, fewer layer options, etc., your day is simplified. With less gear, there’s attention spared that can be redirected towards your friends and your environment. If classic ski touring were a form of literature, it would be a short story, whereas fast and light touring is like a poem: it is as wonderful for what isn’t there as what is.
The third is a product of the first: when you go light, you can go far, and you can go fast. When you come to own the mentality that underlies the fast and light approach, it becomes clear that much more is possible than you had previously considered. If you want to ski as much vertical, as many miles, or across as many summits as possible, then this is the way.
The easily-anticipated and tolerable limitations of fast and light skiing are functionality, cost, and durability.
While lightweight gear has in all ways improved radically over the last five years and continues to do so, lightweight skis, carbon fiber boots, and race bindings will never ski as well as beefy alpine equipment. Understand before you go down this path that skiing on lighter gear requires you to be a better skier, and to learn to ski differently. While huge, rockered skis make everyone look like a good skier, lightweight skis deflect easily, don’t float as much in soft snow, and generally reveal your weaknesses as a skier. It is very enjoyable to learn to use such tools, and very satisfying to be able to ski well on limited equipment, but if you expect to ski the same as you do on your alpine skis, you’ll be disappointed.
Lightweight gear is also, unfortunately, expensive. This is because the lightweight gear scene is a small and specialized market, and because the materials and processes required to make lightweight gear are inherently more expensive. It seems crazy to spends hundreds of dollars per ounce on a binding that weighs just a few, but consider the engineering and manufacturing standards required to make that little piece of titanium trustworthy. On the upside, costs are decreasing becoming similar to that of alpine ski gear. Expect to spend, for new equipment, in the neighborhood of $600 for skis, $900 for boots, and $350 for bindings. It’s not that different from alpine gear, but it can be harder to stomach, because you’re likely buying it in addition to what you already have. Those dollars, though, they’re freedom! Plus, you can pay half this or less for barely used equipment with a little bit of snooping about.
The third limitation is durability. This is a tricky subject to broach because, frankly, most normal alpine skis only live for 1-2 seasons worth of skiing before they fall apart. That’s a function of poor manufacturing. Lightweight gear, on the other hand, tends to break when used for purposes for which it wasn’t designed. If completely carbon-fiber boots go hiking through boulders, they can get punctured. Hit drops on your race bindings and they can pull out. Use your race pack while chimneying on rock and it can tear. When using lightweight gear, it’s simply important to recognize the limitations of your gear. With the enablement that the gear brings also comes a modicum of responsibility to take care of it.
The following breakdown is not exhaustive. Necessarily, you’ll have to play around with different systems and feel out what you like. Use the information below not as gospel, but to guide you on your own path to enlightenment.
A lightweight clothing system should provide breathability on the uphill and adequate protection on the down, with minimal need for layer changes. One basic and widely used system is that of a base layer + wind layer, which provides good heat-shedding for skinning and good protection from the elements when descending.
The upper-body base layer (1) depends on your environment, the time of year, and how warm you run. I prefer a zip layer with a hood because the zipper allows me to vent off heat, and the hood doubles as hat. The wind layer (2) is light enough that it’s not significantly insulating, but it blocks wind and also dries quickly. It is additionally sun shielding, and it weighs almost nothing.
On the lower body is a lightweight base layer (3) which again depends on your personal heat and environment, and can vary from a lightweight fleece on the very warm end, to capilene boxer shorts. Over that, wear a lightweight softshell pant (4). Or spandex, if you’re down with that. Extremely lightweight and stretch-spandex versions are available, and it’s almost impossible to go too light. Legs make a lot of heat when you skin uphill, but don’t readily become cold. They’re easy to over-insulate, and remember, cool muscles are more efficient than warm ones.
For periods of slower travel, belaying, harder precipitation, heavy winds, etc, a lightweight insulating layer (5) is nice to have. Down and Polartec Primaloft 1 are standard for their extreme warmth to weight ratios. The nanopuff packs down to the size of a baseball, stays warm when wet, and weighs almost nothing. With a nano puff under a wind layer, you might as well be wearing a Goretex ski jacket for how warm you’ll feel. Other down sweaters, pullovers, or vests make good substitutes for tuning your clothing system.
For most of the day on a tour, a lightweight glove (6) is perfect. Good characteristics include a grippy palm, and wind-blocking qualities. Waterproofness is not needed or desired, as sweaty hands are cold hands, and these are the gloves that you’ll wear while skinning. In my experience, there’s no such thing as a durable lightweight glove unless you’re buying leather work gloves, so buy the cheap ones. Finally, and not always necessary, are a medium weight waterproof glove (7). For when it Gets Western put there, or for you switch to booting/climbing/crawling up something, slightly more hand protection is a nice addition. For me, little makes a day worse than not being able to use my frozen hands.
Pictured: 1) Patagonia R1 Hoodie, 2) Patagonia Houdini Jacket, 3) Patagonia Merino 2 bottoms, 4) Patagonia Alpine Guide pants, 5) Patagonia Nanopuff, 6) Black Diamond Windweight Glove, 7) Black Diamond Punisher Glove.
Conspicuously absent from the above list are anything GoreTex, and anything extra, superfluous, or spare. The heavier gloves may even be considered extra by some.
For keeping your head warm, a helmet is likely all you’ll need if using a hooded baselayer and a wind jacket with a hood. Helmets have grown extremely light and well-vented in the last 3 years, and most consider it foolish not to use one, especially on technical objectives. I ski in a Petzl Meteor 3+ (235g), because it’s also my climbing helmet. The CAMP Speed helmet (210g) is also a popular choice.
Lightweight touring boots should be, without exception, tech compatible. This means that they have metal toe and heel fittings to make them compatible with Dynafit-style bindings. No other binding will do– any step-in style binding is far too heavy for this weight class. These boots all walk amazingly well, generally have a 1-buckle flip to change from touring to downhill. Generally, they also some kind of carbon fiber, because it’s extremely stiff for its weight. Dynafit and Scarpa are the industry leaders that you’ll see outside the boundaries of the race course.
The Dynafit PDG (1) is a poor-man’s adaptation of the D.N.A Evo race boot. A plastic lower boot is protective, and warmer, while the carbon cuff is stiff. This is the choice for a minimum of weight. The Scarpa Alien 1.0 (2) is said to feel like a running shoe on your feet. Plastic hides a full-carbon boot, and protects it from puncture. Some weight is saved by having no tongue in the boot, so the boot comes with a thin stretch-gaiter to keep out snow. They’re expensive, and not perfect, but these are everywhere now and for good reason. The Dynafit TLT5P (3) is perhaps the most versatile, and it’s the boot that I ski in. More durable and skiable than the prior options, it is also somewhat heavier. It adds a removable tongue, and with this added stiffness can be used with bigger skis on other days. Stripped down, it’s still light, but it skis well. Finally, the Scarpa F1 Race (4) is a classic choice, though a bit old-school. Some like the forefoot bellows, though most have now deemed these unnecessary (they won’t really hold you back though, and they’re comfortable to walk in). These will lighten your load with a lesser hit to the wallet. There are, of course, a hundred other options for boots, but the majority of folks going fast and light in the backcountry are equipped with these boots or their close cousins, and for good reason. The cutting edge of the boot world produces a lighter and better-skiing boot every year, by leaps and bounds. Having better boots makes the biggest difference on a tour, and as an added bonus, these can be used with crampons as a technical climbing boot (not counting the F1 race).
As I mentioned above, there’s no point in using anything but a tech-style binding if you want to lighten up your world. They walk better than alpine-style clampers, and they’re worlds lighter.
These bindings exist along a spectrum from pure race-style bindings (pictured) to heavier models with more features. What race models lack is a flat walk mode and normal release characteristics. As you can see in the image to the left, a small tab covers the heel pin in walk mode. Because of this, there is no setting in which the boot lies flat to the ski. This takes some getting used to, but with a flexible boot (see above), this will only be noticeable when skinning long distances on truly flat or down-sloping terrain.
Race caliber tech bindings also automatically lock in the toe, and have limited lateral release characteristics in the heel. Because of this, they are, frankly, less safe for your knees than an alpine binding. Slightly heavier models, like the TLT Speed Superlight, or Plum Race, have more modes of release, but they have yet to meet DIN standards.
What your bindings shouldn’t have are brakes, which are heavy and unnecessary. Leashes are preferred, or with well-tested gear and some attention to detail, you can use no tether at all. Also consider buying bindings with a crampon slot, to allow the use of ski crampons. Some models, like LaSportiva bindings, come with these slots, while others require that these be bought as an add-on.
Skis for going fast and light are tools, not toys. They need to be light, hold an edge, carry well, and they need to be skiable is a variety of snow conditions (technique required). They range in width from 65 mm underfoot in race style skis to about 88 mm in superlight all-mountain platforms. Length is a matter of preference and of your height. As a general rule, size these skis 10-15 cm shorter than your big alpine skis. Superlight tourers will generally go as short as 160 cm for men and 150 cm for women. These are the international minimums for racing, and frankly, to go shorter would be rather miserable.
Within lightweight skis there is a spectrum of available qualities. The Dy.N.A. (1) is a true world-class race ski (3 lb 2.8 oz, 160 cm, 65 mm) and is only for those who are uncompromising in weight savings. The LaSportiva RST (3) is a slightly bigger platform (4 lbs 13 oz, 167 cm, 77 mm) and accordingly will be slightly more versatile and skiable, though noticeably small. The Mustagh Ata Superlight (4) is a classic lightweight ski mountaineering ski (5 lbs, 169 cm, 86mm) and approaches dimensions of small alpine skis in it’s larger sizes. A relatively new addition to the North American market is SkiTrab, a European powerhouse. The SkiTrab Polvere (5) is light for it’s size (6.2 lbs, 171 cm, 88 mm) and has received really excellent reviews for it’s skiability and progressive flex. Lastly is an anomaly of width in an otherwise skinny game, the Freerando Light (2) (5 lbs 4.6 oz, 171 cm, 110mm!). These skis are just examples of what is a relatively large quiver of available skis. Try to demo on-snow if you can, or if you’re buying blind, subtract ~12 cm from the length that you ski now and look for a ski about 75mm underfoot. From there, your dollars will determine how light you can go.
All of these skis are very light, but the Polvere, the heaviest in the category si almost double the weight of the lightest, the Dy.N.A. It is important to spend some on-snow time with these skis before spending your hard-earned dollars on them. The Freerando and Polvere will be most similar to traditional skis, while the RST and DyNA will be lighter and require more finesse. Your preference and wallet will determine what’s best for you.
Oh! I’m forgetting something. The K2 Mt Baker Superlight (6)! This ski was made several years ago and is manufactured no more, but it’s here to make the point that with some hunting, you can make your dollars go farther. At 6.5 lbs, 88 mm underfoot, 170 cm, they’re competitive with all of these and will cost a quarter of the above. I bought my sub-7# skis for $100, 1-year-old. Look around for use gear and you can get into the game on a budget!
Little has changed in skin technology in the last 20 years. There are essentially 3 types of skins: Nylon, Mohair, and Blend. Nylon skins are heavier, thicker, more durable, and have better traction. Mohair skins are favored by racers for their enhanced glide, easier fold, and lighter weight. They also afford less traction. Skin blends are exactly what they sound like– some combination of nylon and mohair that tries to find a compromise between weight and traction.
Skiers in Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado can get away with using mohair skins because the dry snowpack allows for steep skin tracks and good traction. These same skins would be misery on a volcano in the cascades as they slipped and slid all over the icy snowpack. If you live in the Rockies or in a similar snowpack, by all means, use mohair. It is vastly more efficient over long distances– racers say that the speed is in the glide. If you live in California, Washington, or Oregon, or in a similarly wet/heavy/icy snowpack, try the blend. Both the blend and straight mohair will require better technique than the heavier nylon (notice a theme here? Better technique = less weight).
Skins can also be cut to the full length of the ski, the full width, or less than these. If you can only afford one pair of skins, then cut them wall-to-wall, leaving only the edge showing. Then, if you find a little bit more cash, you can get a second pair and cut them as a strip down the middle of the ski that is slightly skinnier than the waist size. You’ll have a better glide, and less skin to carry around, and you can use these on days when you’ll be in softer snow that won’t require using your edges on the skintrack. Extreme racer types cut the length of their skins to shorter than the length of the ski, sometimes to just behind the back of the rear binding. This is getting into the voodoo science of skins, and if you delve into this too deeply, soon you’ll be waxing your skins. You can always cut skinnier or shorter, but you can never go back.
Lastly, skins come with a variety of fasteners, some of them proprietary. Companies like K2, Dynafit, Trab, and LaSportiva sell pre-cut skins with attachments that work specifically with their skis. Others, like Black Diamond or G3 are universal attachments. Essentially, all of them work. Brand specific attachments likely won’t work with non-brand skis, but used as intended, they’re pretty slick. The only thing to consider is whether you want a tail-clip. Most skins, if taken care of, both at home and in the field, will be adequately fastened to the ski with just a tip attachment and their tackiness. This saves some weight, but if you don’t have the discipline to be nice to your skins, you may want the tail clip.
Pro Tip: All skins break in with use, improving their glide with time. If you’re impatient, take them to your local ski hill and ski them downhill on icy groomers a few times. Just be careful not to eat it too hard.
How many people have you seen touring with the pack on the left, or something similar? Cordura Nylon, buckles, pouches, clips, 6-way carry, airbag compatible, built-in harness, with parachute, slick red accents, and barista. 3 lbs.
Now consider the pack on the right. It carries all that you need, has a pocket which can be accessed without removing the pack for water or crampons, and a ski carry system that can be loaded and unloaded while you wear it. It weighs 1 lb. Sorry, you can’t carry a snowboard with it. I know, you’re disappointed.
Race-style packs like the Camp Rapid 260 and Dynafit RC 20 come in easily under 1 lb. They still carry loads well, especially because you don’t need to carry much weight if you’re going light. They also have the now-popular diagonal carry with ski hook that allows for blind and fast loading and unloading. This is a dream compared to the A-frame-and-a-ski-strap method.
These lightweight packs generally have more than enough space to accommodate avy gear, your spare layer, food, water, crampons, sunscreen, etc. The smallest and most-race like won’t accommodate more climbing gear, so the slightly larger packs like the Dynafit Broad Peak or CAMP X3 Light allow you to carry extra gear, a skinny rope, etc while staying under 2 lbs, about half what an overbuilt nylon back will weigh.
The velcro side pocket on CAMP backpacks is great and allows for blind access to a water bottle or crampons while moving and without removing the pack. Likewise, a loop-and hook diagonal ski carry is very nice for moving fast. As I’ve mentioned before, taking your pack off and putting it back on several times throughout the day becomes a huge time waster. Good packs facilitate fast transitions.
Other nice features include hip/shoulder strap pockets to hold small items like gels or chapstick. A water-bottle cage on the shoulder strap is great for hydration on the move, as is hydration bladder compatibility if you’re into those. Large mesh-side pockets are also favored by some for easy stashing of skins or layers, though personally I’m scared of losing things and like to have gear more enclosed than that.
One nice thing about packs is that unlike other sections of this article, these are relatively cheap. You can spend $150 and get a great pack. These won’t last you as long as cordura nylon pack, but they’re worth the speed and convenience, and will last several seasons if you treat them well, and longer if you repair them.
Jumping into the lightweight game wholesale and new would cost several thousand dollars and I can’t advise it. You won’t know what you like until you try it out. Spending $3000 would make me want to quit skiing. But you can start to lighten up now.
First, carry less. Then, priority two, get on the tech binding train if you aren’t already. Hunt around on TGR Forums, CascadeClimbers, and similar gear outlets for dynafit-style bindings. (Don’t buy the G3 ones). You can buy Dynafit TLT Speeds for about $350 new, and they don’t get worse with age. Of course, you need a boot that works with these, so this is the big leap if you aren’t tech compatible. But buying a real boot, like the TLT5, will change your perspective on everything. Then, slowly but surely, you’ll lighten up and start reaching further into the mountains. It’s spring! Everything is on sale!