Alpine touring, or backcountry skiing (also called ski touring), is a type of skiing that combines the best of alpine hiking and skiing for a sport that lets you hike (called skinning) up hills so that you can ski down them.
Alpine touring (AT) requires special equipment, including specialized AT or backcountry ski bindings. Today, we’re going to teach you everything that you need to know about alpine touring bindings, and prepare you for trying out what could become your new favorite Winter sport.
What Is Alpine Touring?
Alpine touring, known also as ski touring or backcountry skiing, is a type of skiing that allows you to travel not just downhill, but also up and across pretty much whatever snowy terrain you come upon. While it might sound difficult, the reality is that alpine touring can be done by basically anybody, as long as they have the right equipment, the right attitude, the right knowledge, and the right conditions. If you love exploring the backcountry, blazing new trails, or just walking in a winter wonderland, alpine touring might be your new favorite activity.
This is a great short video that gives you an idea of how ski touring equipment is used:
Where Can You Go Alpine Touring?
Unlike the type of resort skiing that many people are familiar with, alpine touring often does not happen on groomed trails. Some resorts do allow uphill travel, and skiing down, which can be one of the safest ways to learn how to ski tour (check your local mountain’s “uphill policy”). You can go alpine touring basically anywhere there is snow. Advanced skiers may opt for hazardous terrain, but you can get started anywhere there’s enough snow to ski.
What Do You Need For Alpine Touring?
Alpine touring requires different equipment than resort skiing or other types of skiing. You need:
- AT Bindings
- AT Boots
- Ski Skins
- Ski Poles
In addition, alpine touring often occurs in avalanche terrain, requiring a beacon, a shovel, and a probe. Helmets are also highly recommended for downhill.
The skis and ski poles can be very similar to what you might use while resort skiing, although some people like a fatter ski to keep them from sinking into fresh, loose snow. Also, some may want much lighter skis to make the uphill easier. There is a lot of preference here. Ski skins allow you to ski uphill (read our guide to ski skins). But AT bindings and AT boots are a little different.
What Are Alpine Touring Bindings?
Alpine touring (AT) bindings are the bindings that keep the skis attached to your boots, but they also allow the heel to rise from the ski to make uphill walking possible. They also allow your boots to eject out of the bindings when enough force is applied, which means that your skis come off safely when you fall.
AT bindings are not the same kind of bindings used for resort skiing, or even cross-country skiing. The thing that makes AT bindings unique is that they allow you to move uphill because the heel boot can lift from the ski while the toe stays attached to the ski and binding. This improves your mobility and allows you to move uphill. Then, they can lock the heel in for downhill traveling similar to a regular ski binding.
Types of AT Bindings
There are three types of AT bindings: Frame bindings, tech bindings, and hybrid bindings that are somewhere between the two.
Frame bindings are essentially a traditional downhill alpine binding that sits on a hinged frame that unlocks for going uphill. These bindings are great for beginners to alpine touring because they are so similar to more familiar types of ski bindings, they don’t required changing boots, and they have safe downhill performance.
If you are a skier that is looking to get into touring, but only want to use one ski setup, this can be a great option as they work well in ski resorts, and are able to get you uphill as well.
Advantages of Frame Bindings
- Great downhill performance
- Easy to use- skis like an alpine binding
- Fully DIN-certified for safety
- Compatible with nearly all ski boots- you can use the boots you already have
Disadvantages of Frame Bindings
- Very heavy
- Less efficient
- Can affect the ski flex negatively
Example Of Frame AT Bindings:
You can see examples of many different types of AT frame bindings here.
Tech AT bindings use a set of pins and springs to hold the toe and heel in place. These bindings require special boots to work because they connect directly to the toes of the boot using pins, and the heel using another set of pins.
Tech bindings are lightweight and allow for a natural walking motion as you’re going uphill. They also make it easy to switch between ski modes easily.
Advantages of Tech Bindings
- Extremely light, sometimes several pounds lighter than frame bindings
- Doesn’t affect ski flex
- Natural pivot point when going uphill
- Lots of options
- Lots of specialization
Disadvantages of Tech Bindings
- Less elasticity, transmits more feedback while skiing
- Need boots with tech inserts
- Are certified to a different standard than alpine bindings, or not certified at all (therefore, certain types are considered less safe)
See examples of Tech Bindings here.
Hybrid bindings combine the best of both worlds. These bindings typically have a tech toe piece for reduced weight and a traditional DIN-certified heel piece for responsiveness and safety. These versatile bindings have become increasingly popular since they can be used in both the backcountry and on groomed resort trails.
Advantages of Hybrid Bindings
- Doesn’t affect ski flex
- Natural pivot point for going uphill
- Powerful, responsive handling
- Downhill performance is similar to alpine bindings
Disadvantages of Hybrid Bindings
- Boots require tech inserts
- Heavier than tech bindings
- They tend to be the expensive options.
- There used to be a worry about not having high DIN rating options, but newer models have eliminated that concern
See an example of a hybrid binding here.
AT Binding Comparison Chart
|Type of Binding||Weight||Ease of Use||Boot Compatibility||Safety||Use these if…|
|Frame||Heaviest||Easiest||Compatible with virtually any ski boot||DIN/ISO certified||You’re new to alpine touring; you want to use your skis on resort slopes and for touring|
|Tech||Lightest||More challenging||Boots need a tech insert||No DIN/ISO certification on many models (now models do have certified options)||You’re a confident, experienced skier; you have a second pair of bindings for resort use; you plan on lots of long uphills|
|Hybrid||Middle||Relatively easy||Boots need a tech insert||Heelpieces have DIN/ISO, but toes do not||You want something versatile enough for multiple types of skiing; you enjoy aggressive backcountry freeriding and need bindings that are both light and supportive|
Alpine Binding Certifications
Many AT bindings state that they are TÜV SÜD (TUV) or DIN/ISO certified. This certification is an important safety feature. The performance of your AT bindings isn’t just a measure of how well they perform in the snow; it is also a measure of how they can keep you safe.
If your AT bindings say that they are TUV certified, it means that they have gone through testing by the company TÜV SÜD and have been found to release consistently and safely, even with significant dirt or snow accumulation.
DIN/ISO certification refers to two European-based international organizations that set safety standards for manufacturing. DIN stands for “Deutsche Institut für Normung,” and ISO is the “International Organization of Standards.” These organizations oversee, create, and promote international standards for numerous industries, including sports equipment. DIN originally set the standards, and, currently, the ISO publishes the information.
DIN can also refer to an important value based on information set forth in the safety standards. Your DIN release value is the setting that tells your ski bindings when to release based on the pressure or torque that’s put on them. Your DIN release value is two calculated numbers that signify how much forward falling force and twisting force will release you from your bindings.
So when your ski bindings say DIN/ISO certified, it means that they have been manufactured to these international safety standards.
TUV vs DIN/ISO
TUV and DIN/ISO both represent binding safety, but they perform different roles in the safety certification process.
- TUV is a third-party testing company
- DIN/ISO are safety standard organizations
- DIN/ISO create and set standards
- TUV does not set its own standards
- DIN/ISO does not perform certification testing
- TUV only performs testing
The bottom line here is this: DIN/ISO sets the standards; TUV tests and guarantees that those standards have been tested. With frame bindings, you will usually see DIN/ISO and TUV certifications. However, tech bindings are manufactured differently and don’t have those same standards. This doesn’t mean that they’re dangerous; it just means you need to be careful when choosing tech bindings.
There are now many tech binding brands that do have DIN settings and TUV tests, so it is possible for skiers to find tech bindings that have these safety features. A couple examples are:
Even though DIN/ISO doesn’t exist for for many tech bindings, there are TUV tech bindings that are a great option for people who like to tour but need something a little safer and more durable than typical tech bindings. If you like ski touring on big, steep, technical terrain, look for TUV-certified tech bindings.
How To Choose Alpine Touring Bindings
Now that you know what the different types of AT bindings are, you can start thinking about what kind to choose.
The kind of binding you choose ultimately depends on the performance you need from the binding. There are a lot of factors that go into your bindings’ performance that you need to consider, including safety, weight, and the technical aspects of what any given binding can do.
Importance of Certifications
Remember that frame bindings are the only bindings that are normally fully DIN/ISO certified, while many tech bindings don’t have DIN settings or TUV certifications. If safety is a huge concern, frame bindings or hybrid bindings might make you feel more comfortable. Your local ski shop can adjust any kind of bindings to make sure they release with the correct pressure, but tech bindings will not have the same certification as frame bindings (for the most part).
Importance of Weight
When you’re alpine touring, you will be walking uphill with your skis on. This isn’t as hard as it sounds when you have the right binding, but weight is still an issue. Tech bindings are the lightest kind of binding, so if you’re planning on spending lots of time going uphill, those may be the bindings you want.
Ski Brakes vs Leashes
This is a subset of weight consideration. Ski brakes are the little wings on the side of your ski bindings that can flip down to hold your ski in place in the snow. They do add weight to your skis, so some people find that a leash that ties your ski to your boot is a better option for alpine touring.
This is really up to your preference. Many believe ski brakes are a safer option that ski leashes as a leashes basically make it so the ski stays attached to the skier with some capacity (via a leash) if they happen to pop off.
Everybody knows that what goes up must come down. Your ski bindings’ downhill performance is a major factor in the decision to buy.
If you like ski jumping and getting big air, tech bindings might not perform the way you want. Hybrid bindings and frame bindings are better for getting air, or simply skiing hard and fast.
Frame bindings have a more traditional downhill performance, and can be used effectively on ski resorts.
When buying boots, there are a few different certifications that you should pay attention to. We have created a chart to help you understand boot standards and binding standards, and which is compatible with each type.
|Alpine Boots (ISO 5355)||WTR / WTR+ Boots (ISO 9523)||GripWalk Boots (ISO 9523)||Touring Boots (ISO 9523)||Non-Compliant Touring Boots (AT Boo|
|Alpine Bindings (ISO 9462)||Compatible||Not Compatible||Not Compatible||Not Compatible||Not Compatible|
|WTR Bindings (ISO 9462 & 13992)||Compatible||Compatible||Compatible||Not Compatible||Not Compatible|
|GripWalk Bindings (ISO 9462 & 13992)||Compatible||Not Compatible||Compatible||Not Compatible||Not Compatible|
|MNC Bindings (ISO 9462 & 13992)||Compatible||Compatible||Compatible||Compatible||Not Compatible|
|Tech Bindings (Pin Pindings)||Boot must have tech inserts as well||Boot must have tech inserts as well||Boot must have tech inserts as well||Compatible||Compatible|
If you’re used to resort skiing and already have boots for that, you might want to look into frame bindings first. These will be compatible with your boots, so you can save some money by not having to buy new boots. Do remember that boots without a “walk mode” might not be as comfortable while skinning uphill.
If you find that you really enjoy alpine touring and want to take it to the next level, you can always buy tech boots and tech bindings later.
Do You Buy Boots or Bindings First?
We recommend purchasing boots first. The boots are most important to get right and be comfortable on your feet. When buying boots, we recommend buying boots that have tech inserts and also GripWalk soles so that they are compatible with tech bindings as well as most newer alpine bindings. That way you have a boot that works at the resorts as well.
AT boots are also a little different from resort boots. They’re typically more flexible and have a lighter weight (though they make touring boots that also have incredible downhill performance). They need to keep your feet comfortable while you’re traveling uphill. They come in a number of different styles, and the most important thing is comfort. You don’t want to exhaust your feet and ankles!
That said, not all boots will work with all bindings. Because tech bindings and hybrid bindings use pins to connect with the boots, they require a boot with that type of connection. Frame bindings use fins to hold the boots in place, so they’ll work with basically any boot.
Do You Buy Bindings Separate From Skis?
You can, but many ski shops will sell you skis with the bindings already attached. You can also frequently find great secondhand deals on skis and bindings on Facebook, Gearswap, and at ski stores. These often come as a ski and binding set.
How Do You Use AT bindings?
This is much easier to see in action. Here is a video of a pair of Dynafit bindings. While not all bindings exactly like these, most AT bindings operate very similarly. You can find videos for most of the bindings on the market to look up exactly how your bindings operate:
Where To Buy AT Bindings
It can be extremely overwhelming to buy your first pair of alpine touring bindings. Backcountry skiing can be a bit expensive to get into due to all of the essential gear you need to buy, and the importance of safety when purchasing that gear. With this in mind, we have a few recommendations:
- Local ski shops can be incredibly helpful in answering questions, giving you opinions on different bindings, and helping you get setup with a full AT setup. If you are willing to spend a bit more for help, and getting a great setup, a local ski shop is a great way to go. In addition, you are supporting a local small business.
- In our experience, there are a few extremely helpful online retailers. We are listing the following retainers because they have great service, educated staff to help answer questions, good return and warranty policies, and generally have great prices as well, especially at common sale times of the year:
- Budget conscious individuals shoudl do research online, ask questions to local shops, and search for local shows that have gear swaps or consignment. They often have incredible prices. Secondarily, if you can’t find that, local backcountry skiing Facebook groups or Facebook marketplace is becoming a great way to find gear. You just need to be careful with this direction as buying used gear you’ll miss out on warranties and such.
Alpine touring bindings might look confusing at first, but if you take what each type is supposed to into consideration as you shop, the choices become much easier. Just remember that the three types of bindings were built to different things, and you’ll be good to go.
Max DesMarais is the founder of Hiking & Fishing. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. You can read more about him here: hikingandfishing/about