Alpine Touring (AT) bindings have been around for several decades, but the recent explosion of the touring scene has really brought them into the spotlight.
AT bindings differ from their alpine counterparts in that they aren’t meant only for skiing downhill. Instead they allow the skier to free the heel of the boot, while staying clipped in at the toe, which creates the ability to “walk” naturally uphill on skis. When it’s time for that ski descent you’ve been working toward all day, simply step back into the heel of the binding and make some turns!
There are two types of AT Bindings: Frame bindings and Tech bindings.
Frame bindings are essentially traditional alpine bindings connected to a frame or rail that runs from the toe to the heel.
Just like traditional alpine bindings, frame bindings have integrated brakes and adjustable release settings that comply with the DIN ISO standard for alpine binding safety releases. Additionally, many frame AT bindings are compatible with both AT and traditional alpine ski boots. Since frame bindings feature a design very similar to regular alpine ski bindings, they offer a great deal of downhill performance.
When it comes to touring though, frame bindings do have a few drawbacks. First, they are quite heavy, and because of their traditional interface with the boot, a lot of that weight is carried directly on your heel. This added weight really affects efficiency when you factor in the thousands of times you’ll be lifting your heels on a tour.
Besides the added weight, frame bindings can also affect the flex pattern of the ski by creating a “dead spot” when locked down in ski mode. This happens because frame bindings have a relatively long platform, and maintain a rigid connection between the toe and heel pieces when in ski mode.
Despite their drawbacks, frame AT bindings are an excellent choice for those who are just getting into alpine touring, will be spending considerable time skiing on-piste on the same setup, or those who intend on using their current alpine ski boots with the bindings. Additionally, frame AT bindings are very attractive to skiers who are willing to climb with a little extra weight to avoid losing downhill performance and the safety of a predictable ski release, especially if the plan is to tour into a zone with the intention of hitting big backcountry jumps.
Tech bindings, originally released by Dynafit in 1986, are quite different from their framed counterparts. Instead of “fins” on the binding that hold the boot in place, tech bindings use metal pins that connect directly to steel inserts in the boot. As a result, special tech-compatible alpine touring boots are required when using tech bindings.
Although tech bindings require special tech-compatible ski boots, the uphill efficiency provided by their extremely lightweight design is hard to overlook. Unlike frame bindings, where every time you lift your heel the binding comes with it, the heel of a tech binding stays attached to the ski, eliminating any weight being carried directly on your heel. Additionally, tech bindings are much more streamlined than frame bindings, making them up to several pounds lighter; when I switched form frame to tech AT bindings, I saved almost 2.5 pounds per ski.
Besides the incredible amount of weight you can save by converting to tech bindings, their design also allows for faster skinning-to-skiing transitions since, unlike many frame AT bindings, you don’t have to remove your skis to transfer from touring to ski mode (assuming you’re flexible and have mastered removing your skins without taking your skis off). This can save you time, stress, and frustration, especially on steep terrain or in deep snow.
From here we can break tech bindings down into two categories: those that are TÜV-certified, and those that are not (I’ll call these traditional tech bindings).
Before we dive in, it’s worth explaining what TÜV is. TÜV is an independent organization that tests and certifies consumer products. One of the certifications TÜV provides is the DIN ISO 13992:2007 standard for safety release in alpine touring bindings. This coveted certification in the alpine touring marketplace essentially means that any tech binding that passes the laboratory and practical testing conducted by TÜV provides a safety release that’s close to that of alpine ski bindings. In short, TÜV-certified bindings are a little safer and more reliable than non-certified models.
Traditional tech bindings (those that are not TÜV-certified) usually feature a heelpiece with independent vertical and horizontal release settings and a toe with a high, fixed release value (somewhere around the DIN equivalent of 12).
Although the heelpiece may display adjustable release values similar to those on traditional alpine bindings, they are not to be compared to the DIN on your downhill ski setup. On the extremely pared-down race and ski mountaineering tech bindings there is no release whatsoever–once you’re in, you’re in.
I’m not saying that tech bindings will guarantee a trip to the knee surgeon, but true tech bindings definitely aren’t intended for sending huge drops or going for the speed record on your resort’s mogul run, as their safety release has not been TÜV-certified and may be somewhat unreliable when used aggressively.
Brakes have also been omitted from many (but not all) traditional tech bindings. This means that if a ski pops off, it will instantly turn into a downhill death rocket, especially on hard snow. As a result, most skiers using brake-less tech bindings will use a leash system, connecting the skis to boots with a length of wire or cord. While this seems like a great solution, it can be pretty dangerous to have a ski tethered to your feet while tomahawking down the fall line or caught in a slide. If you fall often, ski risky lines or are still uncomfortable stepping into tech bindings on steep terrain, look for a pair with brakes–you’ll add a little weight but they are quite a bit safer and easier to step into in most conditions.
It can go without saying that traditional tech bindings are not recommended for everyone. Skiers who aren’t completely confident in their abilities, those who like to be in the air, and those doing a lot of inbounds resort skiing should lean more toward a frame or TÜV-certified tech binding. They are, however, the ideal other option for experienced skiers who plan on spending most of their time in a skin track, or have a second pair of skis for resort use.
Quickly winning the hearts of many backcountry enthusiasts are tech pin bindings that, similar to regular alpine ski bindings, hold full TÜV-certified safety-release values. At the cost of a little added weight due to an increased amount of material and a pair of brakes, TÜV-certified tech bindings take the reliability of frame AT bindings and combine it with the tech pin design that greatly increases uphill efficiency.
Besides the small amount of added weight that TÜV-certified tech bindings carry over their traditional tech counterparts, the only real disadvantage that they have is that, just like traditional tech bindings, they require special alpine touring boots with tech fittings.
Although requiring new, special boots may make them cost-prohibitive to many, TÜV-certified tech bindings are an excellent option for someone who will be spending their time around 50% on- and 50% off-piste, or those who like to tour but need something a little safer and more durable than traditional pin-style options for going big and fast on steep, technical terrain.
Almost all AT bindings have mounts for ski crampons. Ski crampons are spikes / teeth that extend below the ski, providing an incredible amount of extra purchase on the slope when touring up steep, icy terrain where skins alone may not provide enough traction.
If you plan on touring a lot I highly recommend picking up a set of crampons that are compatible with whichever bindings you choose. They are especially handy for touring in spring conditions and on dawn patrols.
If you are just getting into alpine touring and a true touring setup isn’t justifiable yet, there’s still an option for you. Alpine Trekkers simply click into your regular downhill ski bindings and provide a platform similar to a frame AT binding to tour on. These are relatively inexpensive, but add a good amount of weight to your setup, limiting efficiency on long, technical tours.
As you can see, TÜV-certified tech bindings are a great middle ground between frame AT bindings at one end of the spectrum and traditional tech AT bindings at the other. They are excellent for the dedicated AT skier who charges hard and needs a binding that can take the beating without greatly affecting uphill efficiency.
Traditional tech bindings are the go-to for serious skiers who are focused on lightweight setups for maximum uphill efficiency. This does come at the cost of a reliable release rating and other safety features.
Finally, frame AT bindings are heavy, but a great choice for those just getting into touring or those who will be spending considerable time at the resorts and therefore cannot justify purchasing touring-specific tech-compatible boots. They are the safest of the bunch and generally provide the most alpine-like feel when skiing downhill, also making them great for skiers who ski hard and like being in the air.
If you have any other questions regarding AT bindings, feel free to reach out to one of our Gearheads who will be more than happy to get you into the skin track.