If you're getting into ski touring, what do you need? Figuring out all of the different gear can be daunting. This thread is for people interested in getting into this niche of skiing.
This should be your first step. If you're getting into touring, you should take AST (Avalanche Skills Training) level 1. Sure, it's possible to learn all the necessary skills from experienced friends, but courses are carefully put together to give you the skills you'll need.
As for books to read, there are a number of good options. The classic text is Bruce Tremper’s "Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain". "Snow Sense" by Jill Fredston and Doug Fesler is another good option. A third is "Backcountry Avalanche Awareness" by Bruce Jamieson.
There are two common styles of bindings - Frame bindings and Tech bindings.
Frame bindings essentially create a frame around your boot. They look like the normal downhill alpine binding everyone grew up with, except that they have a base plate underneath the bottom of your boot (like a riser). When in "touring mode", which is the mode you switch them to when you want to walk uphill, the heel of the binding lifts up off the ski with your boot, while the toe stays attached by a hinge. Because they’re basically just a normal binding, you don't need special boots to use them.
Frame bindings are best if you're not going to be using the ski they're mounted on for long treks, but rather short uphill climbs or for accessing sidecountry. However, many people who aren't comfortable on tech bindings or don't want to buy another pair of tech-compatible boots use them in all situations. They have certain advantages – they’re fairly strong, they're DIN certified for release (unlike almost all tech bindings), and they feel like an alpine binding when skiing. The downside is weight. Even the lightest option is over 1kg per binding, and because the whole heel detaches from the ski, you’re lifting the weight of the heelpiece every time you take a step when touring. Over a few km, that extra weight adds up and things get tiring. Frame binding makers include Fritschi, Naxo (also branded as Dynastar), Marker, Tyrolia, and Salomon (also branded as Atomic).
Tech or Pin Bindings are designed to hold your boot in the ski by means of two pincers that fit into holes in the toe of your boot. The heel of the boot – in most cases - sits on two pin inserts. As a result, they release in a totally different fashion than traditional alpine bindings. When in touring mode, your toe stays hooked into the pincers, but your heel comes free of the heelpiece, so you don't end up lifting additional weight. The point where the toe pivots gives you optimal leverage when skinning, which also saves energy. When skiing, because of the design, there is a direct energy transfer to your toe, which means these bindings feel different than alpine bindings, especially when you’re not in soft snow. Tech bindings are generally much lighter than frame bindings, ranging from about 300 grams to just south of 1kg. The design and weight savings makes them a better choice for longer treks or for a dedicated touring setup that you’re not going to use inbounds. They work inbounds, sure, but it’s generally not the best use for them. Tech makers include Dynafit, G3, Plum, and more recently Fritschi and Marker.
There are also a number of methods people have come up with the modify alpine bindings for use in touring.
CAST System - Also known as the SI&I Green Mountain Freeride system. It is a set of plates that allow you to quickly switch between a tech toepiece to an alpine toepiece at the top of your line before you ski. It requires a set of plates, a set of tech toes, tech inserts if you don't already have them, and a set of alpine bindings (usually FKS). The heels get rotated out of the way and are used as climbing bars. The setup is expensive and you have to lock the brakes up with a rubber band for the uphill, but it's the only way to use a tech setup on the way up, and an alpine setup on the way down.
MFD Plates - They're a plate that screws into your ski and then you mount your regular bindings onto it. They're big, they're heavy, and they're only for use with a limited set of alpine bindings. OK for very short approaches, but because of the weight, not very many people use these.
Alpine Trekkers - They click into your existing bindings just like a ski boot and have a snowblade-binding-type attachment that is hinged into the ski. They're heavy, take up lots of unnecessary room in your pack, and they totally lack torsional rigidity making sidehilling extra sucky. OK for very short approaches, but there is a reason they’re called "day wreckers".
Threaded Inserts - Often called "Binding Freedom" and "Quiver Killer" inserts. These are threaded inserts that allow you to change between bindings so you can use a regular screwdriver to swap your bindings around like a snowboard. The idea is that you can switch, for example, between a pair of dukes for a day where you aren’t going to be going very far uphill, to a pair of Dynafits for a day on which you are. Each set of bindings is at least 16 screws. They're a pain to install yourself, and not many shops will. However, they're great if you have one pair of bindings that you want to use on multiple skis, or multiple pairs of bindings that you want to use on one ski. Make sure to use thread locker.
You can mount touring-capable bindings on just about any ski. But when touring, you have additional considerations to think of. There are two main reasons. First, you have to think about getting the skis uphill, and second, the specific snow conditions where you’ll be touring. When it comes to weight, a few hundred grams of added weight can make a huge difference to the strain on your legs over the course of the day.
However, weight doesn't exist in a vacuum, because obviously a longer or wider ski is going to weigh more, and you may want a longer or wider ski for the type of skiing you'll be doing once you’re done walking uphill. For example, a 174cm Dynafit Cho Oyu weighs only 1180 grams, while the 190cm Moment Exit World weighs almost double – but maybe you need the extra width, length and stiffness and are willing to put up with the additional weight on the way up for that. In terms of ski weights, Lou Dawson keeps an updated chart going here that compares surface area and length to weight - https://www.wildsnow.com/9657/ski-weight-comparison-surface/
If you have a frame binding, you can use any kind of boot, but again, keep weight in mind. Touring-specific boots are made for frame bindings; they generally have a rubber (Vibram) Sole for added security on bootpacks and scrambles, plus a walk mode which releases the upper cuff for a greater range of motion and more natural stride while hiking.
Tech compatible boots generally look a lot like other ski boots, but are designed so that they'll fit into tech bindings. Often designed with the walk up in mind - they’re lighter, usually softer, and have a lower cuff to make the hike up easier. They're not all like this, though - based on your preference, you may be willing to put up with a bit more discomfort on the way up for performance on the way down, and if so, boot manufacturers also make beefy boots with tech inserts. Depending on your needs, you should be able to find something that works, from the ultra-light ski mountaineering style boots to others that look more like plug boots. Along the same lines, as touring has gotten bigger, boot manufacturers have created hybrid alpine / touring boots, some of which allow you to swap the toe of the boot between a normal sole for alpine bindings and tech compatible soles.
These are what your put on your skis, so you don't slide backward while going up a hill. They're designed to be smooth when moving one way, but create friction when you try to slide them the opposite direction. Most have clips or loops that go over the tip of your ski and a clip that goes on the tail to hold them in place. Most have a glue-like adhesive to keep them sticking to the bottom of the ski. Nylon skins tend to have better grip (so you don’t slide backwards going up steep hills), but are a bit heavier and bulkier. Mohair skins are a bit more packable and glide better, but generally have less grip.
Beacon - This is how you find someone buried under the snow, and it is not an optional piece of gear. You need one, even if you're touring solo (which is generally not advised). The beacon sends out an electromagnetic signal when in send mode, and tracks the signal when in search mode. There are tons of different models to choose from. Stay away from Analog and dual antenna beacons - they're dated technology. Buy a three antenna beacon. But just buying a beacon doesn't make you safer; you need to know how to use it. The best way is practice. You can get this from avalanche safety courses, or just do it on you own – many ski hills have beacon practice zones. The beacon should be securely fastened to your body and under at least one layer of clothing, so it can’t get ripped off.
Electric devices, like your phone or ipod, can interfere with a beacon signal. They can mislead you to a false signal in search mode and they can interrupt the signal being sent out in send mode, making you harder to find. In search mode, once you're about 1.5 ft from an electronic device it will start giving it bad signals, so if you absolutely have to use your GoPro, don't keep it on a chest mount.
Shovel - Get one made with metal blade. Lexan is worthless and will break if you're ever shoveling through avalanche debris. Save your back the strain and keep it efficient with a telescoping handle. Make sure the blade is an appropriate size to move snow. Practice digging with it when you do beacon practice.
Probe - This is what you poke into the ground when you've zeroed in on your victim with your beacon. Get a long one (240cm is ideal) that is easy to assemble. If you get a probe that’s shorter than the depth at which the person you're searching for is buried, you won't be able to find him or her. Carbon probes are lighter, but can break more easily.
Avalung - This is the first optional piece of safety gear on the list. The Avalung is made by Black Diamond and is intended to keep you from dying of suffocation if you're buried. When buried in an avalanche, general wisdom says you have about 15 minutes of air to breathe (depending on a number of factors). The Avalung draws air from the snow around you and deposits the carbon dioxide out the back, with the result that some people have survived being buried for over an hour. The first caveat is that it has to be on the outside of all other layers, or the CO2 has nowhere to go. The second is, you have to have it in your mouth when you're buried, or it's useless. Many people advocate skiing with the mouthpiece in, because it can be hard to get in your mouth during the panic of a slide.
Airbag Pack - The airbag pack contains an airbag (or two) in one of a number of configurations, which is designed to inflate when you pull a cord. The purpose is to give you extra flotation when caught in an avalanche, making you less likely to sink as far under the snowpack so you aren't buried as deep, or at all. It's a great invention, with the caveat that it does not make you immune to avalanches. Some people act like they're invincible if they have an airbag. This is wrong. It does not fully protect you from deep burials, especially in terrain traps like gullies. Second, it doesn't prevent you from being injured in a slide from running into rocks or trees – many deaths in avalanches are caused by trauma. Third, unlike the Avalung, it's useless for snow immersion suffocation situations (or NARSID, as they used to be called).
A Competent Touring Partner – This is the most important piece of safety gear you can have. Ideally, go with someone who has a similar acceptable level of risk, similar skiing ability, and similar level of physical fitness as yourself. Most importantly, they can't be someone who is afraid to tell you they think something isn't safe. You need to be able to have a frank discussion about whether it’s a good idea to do something on that particular day.
Other Stuff To Take With You
Backpack - You're going to have to carry extra stuff, and if nothing else, you'll need somewhere to put your skins. Generally, a 30L is about the right size for a day trip, and allows you to pack all your gear, food, some extra layers and have room for your skins. Some Black Diamond backpacks have an integrated Avalung.
Food - If you're on a day trip, you need at least a solid lunch to keep your strength up. You may not be planning on spending the night, but sometimes stuff goes wrong and you're out longer than you planned on. Always keep some extra in case you need the extra energy.
Water - Don't get dehydrated. It's bad for your health, and it makes you weak. Certain packs have hydro reservoirs, like a camelback, but these have the potential to freeze. In general, a big Nalgene bottle or two (or something similar) will work. Try to take more than you think you need.
Medical / First Aid Kit - Because shit happens. But if you have something in your kit that you don't know how to use, there's no point in carrying the extra weight. At minimum, it's a good idea to bring some bandages.
Ski Straps - These weigh almost nothing, cost almost nothing, and have tons of useful purposes, so there's no reason not to carry them.
Extra Layers - Mountain weather changes quickly, and you're much warmer when you're moving than when you're not, so it's not unusual to start off wearing warm clothes, take off a layer as you're hiking and heat up, and then add layers when it comes time to ski. What you need is obviously dependent on the weather. Extra clothes also serve as safety gear - insulating victims in shock, staving off hypothermia, and creating a splint.
Glop Stopper - Skin wax. It keeps snow from building up on the bottom of your skins on a hot day. Only costs about $10 and makes your life way easier.
Compass - Maps are useless if you don't know which way you're facing. Many have a clinometer built in.
Extra Batteries - Just in case your beacon needs a recharge. Alternatively, maybe your buddy forgot to check his. Your touring partners' beacon operability is just as important as yours.
Clinometer, snow saw, magnifying glass - These are tools for snowpack analysis. This allows people to determine whether there are layers in the snowpack that create a risk of an avalanche. There’s no point going into detail here - if you want to know more, you should do some reading on the topic and / or take a course.
This is a community effort. if you have something to add, let me know. Thanks to tbatt (who wrote much of this), Drail, pudge, Loco-Deer-Slayer, paige, and everyone else who has contributed.
**This thread was edited on Jan 3rd 2015 at 11:08:28am