The State of Alpine Touring Bindings

 Some reports are saying that backcountry ski equipment sales are up 65% for the 2012/2013 season over last year, which makes it the fastest-growing segment of the snowsport industry.

Many years ago there were only a few bindings on the market, from specialty brands like Dynafit, Fritschi, and Silvretta. The market was so small and specialized to elite ski mountaineers and Randonée racers in Europe.  It was largely ignored by major ski manufacturers, but recently ever since Dynafit’s patent for tech fittings  has expired, and the preeminent binding manufacturer Marker decided to join the fray, there have been a huge new crop of bindings on the market.  In this post we’re going to talk about some new, unique, or particularly burly AT bindings from the crop of newcomers, as well as the best offerings from the old guard.

The Dynafit Beast
Set to win pretty much every award the industry has to throw at it, the Dynafit beast brings Dynafit’s long-standing technology into the next level of backcountry performance.  Building upon the success of the Vertical and Radical, the Beast is designed to be the best-performing tech binding on the market, with a DIN setting up to 16, new lateral-release technology, and elasticity built into the binding to absorb energy from big air landings.  This is the binding built with the influence of wunderkind Eric Hjorleifson, and is designed for literally any terrain out there.  The heaviest of Dynafit’s bindings (4.1 lbs per pair), these are still lighter than anything else of comparable performance.  This may be the best combination of comfort during the ascent and power during the descent ever made.  Multiple climbing angles in the heel are easily adjusted on the fly, and if you’re really set on not losing your skis, this, like all tech bindings can essentially set to “infiniDIN” by locking the toe in place.  An amazing evolutionary leap from the first Dynafit bindings released in 1982.   Only 2500 will be made next year.  $1000.

The Fritschi Freeride Pro
Freeride performance in the backcountry is what everyone has been talking about ever since Fritschi released their first binding.  Built on their aluminum-alloy center bar, the Freeride Pro offers a DIN 12 setting and a wide body, designed to accommodate the industry’s fatter powder skis.  Their proprietary “Gliding Technology” toe allows makes for efficient skinning, and eliminates the “hinge” or “tiptoe” feeling associated with other bindings.  DIN certified for both Alpine and AT boot soles.   Easily swaps between tour and ski mode with a 4-level heel elevator.  Definitely a contender for the best balance of efficiency and power.  Unfortunately, it’s not a super light binding at 4.8lbs a pair.  $599

The Marker Duke
The new version of the Duke, the first binding to bring frontcountry performance to the backcountry, has a new frame chassis 28% wider than the original for better power transfer.   This is the binding that showed the other big companies that there is money to be made in the AT market, and that a heavy weight doesn’t seem to hold people back.  This is no petite binding–it’s designed for big guys, big lines, and strong legs, as the binding weighs in at a burly 6.1lbs per pair.  With a DIN setting of 16, this sucker can take 50 foot cliff drops all day.  Some folks complain about the fact that you need to take your skis on and off to put the binding in and out of touring mode, but that’s a small sacrifice considering that it performs like a burly Marker binding should perform.  For people that tour frequently, a tech binding is probably a better choice simply for the weight savings, but if you’re a frontcountry skier that wants occasional access to steeper lines and deeper pow, this is a great quiver of one binding.  $495

The Plum Phatboy
One of several companies to jump on the tech binding bandwagon when Dynafit’s patent expired, Plum is specializing in lightweight-yet-burly bindings designed with a wide hole pattern to match today’s modern fat skis, using Dynafit’s Low Tech design philosophy.  The Phatboy is designed to be used specifically on skis that are wider than 105mm under foot.  They feature 3 heel riser positions for uphill mode, and have a release setting of 12, with a small 30mm of boot length adjustment.   One of the lightest DIN 12 bindings on the market, being beaten by 50 grams only by the TLT Vertical from Dynafit, but with a much wider stance.  $819

The BCA Alpine Trekkers
For folks that aren’t looking to shell out $600-$2000 on a new AT setup, these bindings convert your current alpine skis to a free-touring mode.  Like all inexpensive options, these have their drawbacks.  At 2lbs 11oz, they’re light, but if you factor that they go on top of bindings that are already there that means you have a very heavy setup.  Also, assuming you’re also using your current alpine boots, the touring mode is going to be pretty stiff.  However, they’re only $180.

The G3 Onyx
The first binding company to jump at the expiration of Dynafit’s patent, G3′s Onyx was designed to fix the one major problem associated with tech bindings.  While tech bindings can easily go from tour mode to ski mode simply by stepping into the heel, to swap back into touring mode you have to release from the binding.  Now, that’s certainly a lot better than the system Marker uses, but it’s still inconvenient for many people.  Enter the Onyx, which can go from ski mode to tour mode and back without ever stepping completely out of the binding, thanks to a heel fitting that slides backwards and forwards.  DIN settings go up to 12, making this a stout offering for aggressive skiers.  It’s also releasable with forward as well as lateral twists, making it a very safe binding.   It’s pretty light, too, at 2.8lbs.  $499.95

The Tyrolia Adrenalin 16
The first major competitor to the Duke from an established Alpine binding manufacturer, the Adrenalin 16 was meant to offer downhill performance but be easily put in and out of touring mode.  The climbing bars are easily adjusted with a pole.  Performance comes in somewhere between the Freeride Pro and the Atomic/Salomon binding, just like the weight.  Decently weighted at 5.8 lbs, the Tyrolia offers similar performance to other 16 DIN bindings with a significant weight savings, although everyone still pales in comparison to the Beast.  Thermoplastic elastomers offer a soft ride while skinning, and some binding elasticity to prevent pre-release.  This binding won multiple awards when it was first released.  $525

LaSportiva RSR Binding
This binding is kind of out of place here in the sense that it’s designed purely for randonée racing, and isn’t meant to compete against the other bindings here in terms of performance.  However, it’s a newcomer to the block and the only binding LaSportiva has released so far in their partnership with binding company ATK.    And it also happens to weigh only .6lbs–they claim to be the lightest bindings on the market, although the reported weight of the Dynafit Low Tech seems to be lower.  No DIN setting.   If you are serious about mountaineering racing then every gram counts and the RSR is an excellent option.  $799

Atomic Tracker 16/Salomon Guardian 16
This new binding, which is being shared under different names by sister companies Salomon and Atomic, proves to be a pretty formidable contender in the new arena of 16-DIN AT bindings.  It’s lighter than the Duke by a wee bit at 6.5 lbs per pair, although not as light as the Beast.  However, it offers similar performance to the Duke with a much easier touring mode switch in the heel, which can be operated while your skis are on with your pole.  Double rails down the center harken back to the days of the Silvretta, and the overall profile of the binding is very low and wide for better performance.  They are designed with hard-core AT boots in mind, as this binding will not accept a rockered AT boot like the Duke.  However, it’s a much better binding to tour in.  $449.99

By Hans Schneider