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I finally got to demo backcountry skis this past weekend and generally liked them better than regular skinny skate skis like they use for competitions because I like exploring off trail. However, I had regular (NNN, I think) bindings and I still felt like I could use more heel control upon turns as my feet would pivot around the binding clip in the front as that is the only point of attachment between the foot and the ski.

Then I saw a lady that had skis as wide as mine and with a steel edge but she had telemark style bindings with a harness going around her heel and I think her toes didn't clip in but were just pressure gripped to the front part of the binding. At first sight, it looked like that kind of binding would give me the heel support and control upon turning and in deeper snow. Of course, that system requires a different boot.

I would like to hear some more aspects of this telemark style binding vs the one I was using (front clip or NNN).

SOMEWHAT RELATED: Why don't XC skis have edges?

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It isn't the bindings that give you the control you're looking for as much as it is the boot.

What you're looking at here is the crossover from old-school to new-school technology. Telemarks with the toe bails and heel cables have been around forever. The cables reduce heel friction, and do offer more down hill control, but there are newer technologies out there that pretty much render telemarking obsolete.

enter image description here

You're talking more about the culture of skiing when you start talking about telemarking than you are about superior technology. Telemarks were the backcountry ski of choice for many years, but AT skiing is quickly overtaking it on the Alpine skiing scene, and NNN and SNS have been dominating the X-country scene for years already because they are lighter, easier to use, don't ball up with snow and ice, and are cheaper, leaving Telemark as a kind of niche sport with a strong cult following. But even telemark is evolving more into AT, you'll notice that the telemark boots on the far right in the picture below are also dynafit compatible, so you could use those boots with both telemark or AT bindings.

enter image description here

As you can see from the image above the two styles of skiing both have their extremes but also share some middle ground.

If you're just getting into it, and want to invest in new gear, I would seriously recommend going with an AT setup if the type of backcountry skiing you want to do is going to be mostly looking for an untouched slope to ski down, but if you're more interested in long tours, but want more control, then go with a beefier SNS setup like the one pictured second from the left above. I personally am partial to the SNS system over the NNN system, because they have a deeper heel grove that offers more heel control in my opinion, even more so with the SNS pilot.

SNS (Salomon Nordic System) Binding:

enter image description here

Nordic Skiing interface comparison:

enter image description here

Your other option is to demo some more gear, or pick something up second hand, I typically try a new sport out first on used cheap gear, then if I really like it, save up and invest in something good. We live in a day and age where there are lots of technologies that favour slightly different styles. So who knows, maybe you're a tele-groupie and just don't know it yet and telemark is the direction you want to go. There are still newer technologies coming out for telemarking, like the NTN binding system, and I hear they're developing hydraulic knee braces that allow telemarker's legs to last almost as long as AT skiers on the slopes (jokes, telemarkers will always burn their legs out way faster than ATers).

  • is AT the same as NNN ? – amphibient Feb 9 '15 at 22:26
  • AT stands for Alpine Touring. It's basically alpine skiing that you can switch back and forth into X-country mode by releasing your heel from your ski and putting your boots in walk mode. Like this. – ShemSeger Feb 9 '15 at 22:33
  • so i basically want a "jack of all trades, master of none" type of setup. i know i won't be hauling a$$ with that setup in the flats but i'd like the kick and glide not to be too tiresome and to be able to go up and down, reasonably steep, reasonably fast. you thing BC skis (like 90 mm wide) with an SNS setup is the way to go ? – amphibient Feb 9 '15 at 22:55
  • No, if you want to have only one pair of skis that does everything, Alpine and X-country, but want to feel more comfortable on the X-country, then I actually would go for a lighter Telemark setup. I've gone back country skiing with Telemarkers, we're even on the climbs, AT dominates on the downs, but Tele is more comfortable on the flats, but it still depends on how steep and fast. You could probably still do very well with a nice burly SNS setup. What are you going to be doing most? – ShemSeger Feb 9 '15 at 23:41
  • i really would like to go to random places, like hiking trails and woods where people don't normally go skiing. i don't mind climbing with skis and i do at times like to stay in tracks going downhill. i'm really not into competition skating or fast kick and glide. mostly BC – amphibient Feb 9 '15 at 23:51
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The accepted answer has lot's of useful info, but misses the mark. The problem is that the term backcountry is so overloaded, it can mean anything from a simple tromp through the woods to the most difficult ski mountaineering descents. My reading of the original question is the next step up from classic XC skis meant for groomed trails to a long skinny ski with a metal edge. (i.e. something like the Fischer S-bound or Madhus Glittertind skis)

While you can get an AT setup that will work on "backcountry" skis, you'll need to spend somewhere in the range of $1000 for boots and bindings, and unless you are skiing terrain that is similar to a downhill resort, it will be a very awkward setup with the mode switching that AT gear requires.

The type of ski and skiing mentioned in the original question is often referred to as the "holy grail" among people interested in this kind of stuff. I've spent 30 years trying many various combinations of boots and bindings and all of them work and all of them have serious drawbacks.

Any boot that is light and flexible enough to make kick'n'glide fun on flat and gentle sloping ground is going to make turning on steeper and icier ground difficult. Any boot/binding that provides enough support for turning skinny skis is going to be a dog on the flat ground. You have to pick your poison. I find that I have the most fun when boot, binding and ski are roughly balanced. Putting a burley boot on a light ski or light boots on a burley ski can work, but it just isn't that much fun.

The advice I always give is to pick the boot first, and then pick the binding that works with that boot. How well a light boot fits is by far and away the most important factor in turning light skis with light boots.

If you can find an SNS or NNN/BC boot that gives you a snug ski boot like fit, (no heel movement when you flex the boot), then that's the boot you should get. If you find a 75mm light boot that fits you well, then 3pins would be an appropriate choice. The market for lightweight 75mm gear has shrunk significantly in the last 5 years or so, there aren't that many choices anymore.

I haven't been that impressed by current offerings for SNS or NNN/BC boots, they are all pretty heavy and don't offer much extra control for the weight. I would take a serious look at XC combi boots ( i.e. skate and classic combo boots ) for at least the skinner end of the "backcountry" ski range of skis.

It would be very helpful to this question if you could list the dimensions of the skis you are looking at ( width at tip/middle/tail ) and the typical terrain you want to ski.

  • thanks for your answer. the skis i demoed last weekend were Fischer SBound 88, do they were about 88 mm wide and had steel metal edges. That or Rossi BC 90 – amphibient Feb 10 '15 at 16:59
  • For those skis I would recommend a light plastic boot and a 3 pin or 3pin cable binding. Scarpa t4 is still available. Unless you have really good skills, anything less simply isn't going to give you enough turning power to have fun with those skis. – Fred the Magic Wonder Dog Feb 10 '15 at 19:29
  • so you're saying get 3-pin cable binding (AKA 75 mm) but use a soft-er XC boot and not hard telemarking ones ?? – amphibient Feb 10 '15 at 19:30
  • FWIW, those skis are often packaged with SNS or NNN/BC which IMHO is the worse of both worlds. You've got a relatively heavy slow ski with a twisty floppy boot that can't control it. – Fred the Magic Wonder Dog Feb 10 '15 at 19:30
  • Yes, either the lightest of plastic boots ( i.e. T4 ) or something like the Fischer BCX boots. Old school leathers boots would work as well, but those are almost impossible to find these days. – Fred the Magic Wonder Dog Feb 10 '15 at 19:36

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