Best Alpine Touring / AT Bindings for Backcountry Skiing
Marker Alpinist 12
: 1.18 pounds | ISO/DIN Certified?
Downhill forward pressure
Compromised heel lifters
Unproven brake and durability
The Marker Alpinist shares this award, in this category, with the excellent Atomic Backland Tour. (Incidentally, these two have to share the award with the otherwise untested Salomon MTN binding. The Salomon MTN and Atomic Backland are identical in design and function and construction.) The Marker Alpinist is newer than the Atomic, lighter, and offers a slightly improved downhill skiing function. Both hit the sweet spot for weight to performance ratio and offer all the basic features we look for in a touring binding. You wouldn't be wrong to flip a coin in your choice for an all-around AT binding for human-powered backcountry skiing, as the Atomic and Marker award winners are both that good and that close in scoring.
The Marker Alpinist is a new product. We now have more than a full season on them and only reinforce our findings with ongoing testing. We'll keep hammering on them, but are confident they will hold up. These bindings are marketed and understood as "ultralight" ski bindings, implying a specialized niche. We beg to differ. The Alpinist is capable of virtually all your human-powered skiing needs. For resort use, the Alpinist is indeed "ultralight", with all the caveats that label implies. If you wish to ride the same equipment in bounds and out, first check yourself. Is that really a compromise you are willing to make? Human-powered skiing is our focus, and the Marker Alpinist does all you will need to do in that environment. Others are lighter, but far less featured. Others offer at least a couple more downhill skiing attributes, but are way, way heavier. We are confident that you will dig the Marker Alpinist bindings for all your backcountry skiing.
Read review: Marker Alpinist
Another Best Alpine Touring / AT Bindings for Backcountry Skiing
Atomic Backland Tour
: 1.82 pounds | ISO/DIN Certified?
Super reliable and simple
Has adjustable release, but does not have a release certification
Highest heel lifter is a little lower than others
We consider a full function AT binding to be one that has adjustable release, adjustable boot sole length, three touring heel levels, and optional brakes. The Atomic Backland Tour (and identical, but co-branded, Salomon Mtn) is nearly the lightest binding we have ever tested with all four of these key attributes. Only the co-award winning Marker Alpinist betters the weight of the Atomic. These award winners are lightest by quite a bit; that attribute means a lot. It was easy to grant this our Editors' Choice award, and it is easy to recommend these bindings to you.
Now, this choice may be a little intimidating. First, these AT bindings are relatively minimal in appearance. Fear not, as we have tested them thoroughly and have had no performance or durability issues. If anything, the simple construction is its greatest performance and durability attribute. Next, there is no certification of the release values. So-called "DIN" certification is something that alpine skiers are conditioned to look for. And this binding does not have that. Nor does the Marker Alpinist. To attain that certification, though, the bindings need to be almost double the weight. That is not worth it. These bindings release, but are not certified in that release by a third party. Further, if you feel you need certified release to ski as hard as you want, you are likely skiing harder in the backcountry than maybe you should be. The backcountry is a high consequence environment regardless of the certification your bindings have. Nonetheless, if you absolutely insist on having high-energy downhill performance and DIN certification, check out the Marker KingPin, Fritschi Tecton, Dynafit Rotation ST, or Top Pick Salomon Shift.
Read review: Atomic Backland Tour
Best Bang for the Buck
Dynafit Speed Turn 2.0
: 1.63 pounds | ISO/DIN Certified?
Lacks a brake option
Difficult to engage heel risers
Limited size range
The Dynafit Speed Turn 2.0 is the best deal available for a tech-style binding, costing much less than most other models. It doesn't come with a brake, nor is it compatible with one. At 1 pound 10 ounces, it's one of the lightest options that has adjustable release value (like the Atomic Backland and Marker Alpinist, the release value of the Speed Turn is not DIN/TUV certified). It is pretty light; ski mountaineers who want to save weight can easily save money and sacrifice very little performance with this binding.
With its tried-and-true yet straightforward design, the Dynafit Speed Turn is built to last, and we wouldn't hesitate to use it on remote trips. However, because of its brakeless design, it takes more skill to deal with the nuances of skiing, transitioning without a brake, or considering and employing a leash in certain conditions. The Dynafit Speed Turn 2.0 is the result of very incremental upgrades and refinements over 30 years of development. Speed Turn bindings don't look much different than the Dynafit tech bindings of the early 1990s; this is a good thing.
Read review: Dynafit Speed Turn 2.0
Best for Downhill Performance and Resort Use
Salomon S/Lab Shift MNC
: 3.99 pounds | ISO/DIN Certified?
: Yes, Alpine and AT
Dual DIN certification
Compatible with some touring boots and all alpine boots
Great downhill performance
Poor to mediocre uphill performance
The Salomon S/Lab Shift MNC is a very clever product. First, it is exactly the same as the Atomic Shift MNC. We tested the Salomon version, but know that everything we say can be extrapolated directly to the Atomic. The Shift is, essentially, a resort alpine binding that, with the correct boot choice, can go uphill. Downhill, there are virtually no compromises over your average resort binding. The TUV organization has certified the Shift binding to the DIN alpine standard (just like all alpine bindings) and to the DIN AT standard (like the Marker KingPin, among others).
Uphill, though, the Shift is very basic. It works, but other options are way, way better. The Shift is prone to icing, has limited pivot range, fewer heel riser options, and, most importantly, is much, much heavier. The Shift is lighter and more user-friendly uphill than now-outdated "frame bindings". You will see, especially in paid promotional materials, comparisons of the Shift to these options. When ad copy says that the Shift makes "no compromises", this is in comparison to frame bindings. Relative to them, the Shift goes up hill great. On the other hand, compared to any dedicated, modern touring binding, the Shift is just too heavy for regular use. As such, we recommend it for only those that demand maximum downhill performance from their backcountry ski gear. This is really a product for someone that skis the resort with a backcountry trip maybe once or twice a year.
Read review: Salomon S/Lab Shift MNC
Best for Ultralight Applications
Black Diamond Helio 180
: 0.8 pounds | ISO/DIN Certified?
No heel lift option
Limited release value options
Among ultralight bindings, the Black Diamond Helio 180 is our favorite. It is a proven design, durable, and gave us no troubles. The heels adjust for different boots (and you can get the same performance in an even lighter package if you give up length adjustment; check out the Black Diamond Helio 145), and all the limited functions work as advertised. Finally, Black Diamond's branding, customer service, and distribution network mean that these bindings are widely available and readily serviced. All lightweight gear is subject to issues. Having excellent support is crucial.
All lightweight bindings like this have limitations. There is essentially no option for different levels of heel lift, for instance. Also, you must choose, and commit to, your release value at the time of purchase. Finally, downhill skiing release is less sophisticated than any of the above options. Many skiers justify these drawbacks in exchange for the super-efficient uphill travel. We think you should consider ultralight bindings for your ski touring. You will dig the feel of going uphill that way.
Read review: Black Diamond Helio 180
Testing bindings and hunting powder high in the Tetons.
Why You Should Trust Us
To test AT ski bindings, we leveraged the background of our most knowledgeable tester for all things snow. Jed Porter is an internationally certified IFMGA/UIAGM mountain guide, holds AIARE pro level 2 certification, and instructs avalanche safety courses. Jed's primary gig is guiding backcountry skiing in his home Teton Range and around the world. Jed spends a great deal of time climbing mountains and skiing back down them. He has notched a summit to sea descent of Mount Saint Elias and made the first integral and first solo completion of California's historic Red Line Traverse. Jed consulted with peers, partners, and clients for feedback on bindings in general and for extensive sharing of the tested bindings. For 2020 he expanded and formalized his Teton region test team to include an even wider range of backgrounds.
Testing backcountry ski bindings involved some lab time, and then a whole lot of skiing. We weighed each binding to the nearest hundredth of a pound. We obtained measurements of the stack height and binding delta for each binding, to get a numerical idea of the edge-to-edge leverage and forward-to-back weight distribution. Next, things got fun. We put in tens of thousands of vertical feet, in all sorts of conditions. Our team put each of these bindings through the wringer to take the guesswork out of your decision-making experience. Virtually all of our backcountry ski binding testing took place in the actual backcountry.
Related: How We Tested Alpine Touring (AT) Bindings
Analysis and Test Results
Touring bindings offer a great opportunity to save weight, but choosing them is difficult. We review, compare, and report on bindings for human-powered backcountry skiing for this very reason. Climb up, ski down. Some or all of this gear can and will be pressed into other uses, but our reporting and scoring is based on classic, popular, human-powered backcountry skiing. The bulk of our information is based on real-world, true backcountry skiing, conducted by a team of widely varying experience and skill, so as to get you the best possible information.
Related: Buying Advice for Alpine Touring (AT) Bindings
AT ski bindings span a wide range of prices. Price increases in two directions. As bindings get lighter, they get more expensive. In the other direction, bindings get both more expensive and heavier with incrementally greater safety and downhill performance. Spend more in the lightweight direction and you can cut the weight in half. Spend more for greater downhill performance and that downhill performance increases by a few percentage points. If you are looking for "bang for your buck", going lighter is a better value than going for more downhill performance.
The least expensive bindings are light and straightforward, but not super light. Paradoxically, there is an inverse relationship between price and durability. Normally we might expect more expensive products to last longer. In the case of AT ski bindings, the least expensive are the most robust and longest-proven designs. We love this sort of synchronicity.
Subtract weight from something like the Best Buy Dynafit Speed Turn 2.0, and it gets more expensive and less durable. Add features (and, inherently, weight) to that same binding, and it gets more expensive and less durable. A good value in AT ski bindings is an excellent, lasting value.
With the addition of the Salomon Shift to the market, our review, and the award selection roster, we must continue a discussion of its value. With high level resort performance, we know that it is tempting to choose the Shift as bindings to anchor a sort of "quiver of one" for resort and backcountry skiing. We'll elaborate below, but basically we advocate against this strategy.
If you are a skiing minimalist, for budget reasons, and want a "quiver of one" set up that will work both inbounds and out, you can theoretically do that with the Shift. Let's assume that you envision skiing "50-50" inbounds and out and that you start with the Shift. For that much resort skiing, you must get durable skis. Touring skis just won't hold up to the vertical you can get in a week or two of resort skiing. You need either heavy touring skis or light resort skis at about eight pounds and about 800 dollars, at least. You'll get sturdy touring boots at about eight pounds and 700 dollars. With the Shift, this set-up is 20 pounds and about $2100. In bounds, you get the performance of a budget, intermediate level resort ski set up, and out of bounds you lug 20 pounds uphill.
On the other hand, you can match the inbounds performance of this set-up with a basic, intermediate level resort set up for about $1000 (maybe you're already skeptical… "I need more performance at the resort than intermediate budget gear provides". If that's what you're saying now, steer clear of any touring-oriented gear in the resort. Average touring gear performs about like budget resort gear. You can get better downhill ski performance from your touring gear, but it gets even heavier and much more expensive). And then get backcountry gear that vastly exceeds the uphill performance of your compromised "quiver of one" set up for about $1400. (Best Buy bindings, 1.6 pounds, Best Buy AT skis, six pounds, Best Buy AT ski boots and six pounds) In this latter scenario, you spend a total of 14% more, but save 32% of the weight for your human-powered excursions. Further, in terms of value, your touring gear will last much, much longer if you save it for just touring and use dedicate resort gear from the lifts. "Quiver of One" is an appealing and noble goal, but it just isn't the value you'd hope it to be.
If you seek the "quiver of one" to streamline frequent ski travels, your calculus may be different. Realize, though, that there are ski bags that fit two pairs of skis. Realize also that, for most airlines, a ski bag is limited not by how many skis it holds but by its overall weight. In most cases, that weight limit is 50 pounds, just like regular luggage.
For our touring comparison, we tested and compared heel riser range, variety, and deployment, touring range of motion, and the binding's resistance to icing up during certain conditions. We kept weight and ease of use separate for this comparison category even though these things also affect touring performance.
We assessed heel risers. First, how easily does each heel riser engage and disengage? What does it take to switch between modes? Most of the products we tested have three levels of touring mode. All the bindings we tested have a "flat on ski" mode, except for the Top Pick Black Diamond Helio. We compared how easily the heel risers were to engage and disengage while using our poles, ideally so we wouldn't have to bend over when we wanted to use them. As a whole, manufacturers have taken note of the consumer desire for easier and quicker to engage heel risers and have answered with continuously easier-to-use designs.
Adjustable heel risers accommodate differing steepnesses of skin tracks. The middle riser of most bindings is appropriate for a bio-mechanically efficient track, but not all tracks are so pitched.
The Speed Turn requires twisting the heel piece to change modes. This is seen as "outdated" and is indeed more complicated to learn, and it is much harder to change between mid and high levels on the twist style than on the flip style. We'd like to point out a critical examination of these twist style lifters. If your most common heel lifter change is (and it should be, for maximum biomechanical efficiency) between low and mid, and you practice extensively with your chosen bindings, our test team can confidently report that the twist style heel lifters are actually faster to change than the flip style lifters.
The G3 Ion LT, G3 Zed 12, Fritschi Vipec, Fritschi Tecton, and Plum Summit all have the easiest to change, engage and disengage risers. The Dynafit TLT Speed has three levels of heel risers, and they flip back and forth to change. However, the difference between lowest and highest is more like the difference between the lowest and middle of the Dynafit Speed Turn, and the flipped heel levers are difficult to "grab" with your pole.
Touring Range of Motion
Some touring moves require more hinge range at the toe than others. A "normal" touring stride requires a little bit of heel lift, and all the bindings we tested allow enough for this. Steep uphill terrain requires specialized "kick turn" technique. The most efficient kick turners get the tip of the ski to their knee (and the top of the toe of their boot, therefore, near the top sheet of the ski) during a kick turn. Most bindings we tested allow all the range of motion you need. However, there are notable exceptions to this rule.
The complicated toe piece of the Fritschi Tecton has bulk and parts that limit the range of motion. In efficient kick, turning this compromised range of motion is noticeable and unfortunate. The close competitor Marker KingPin has less range of motion than other bindings but more than the Tecton. All the other award winners, including the Editors' Choice Atomic Backland Tour, have all the range of motion you need. While no one in our test team had actual issues with it, very reliable sources indicate that the Dynafit TLT Speed can come dislodged when in touring mode and hinged to its maximum extent.
Resistance to Icing
We compared how each contender resisted icing. All bindings ice up to some extent and need to be chipped free from time to time. The simplest, lightest bindings in our review are also the least prone to icing. The Shift, Tecton, and KingPin bindings have more moving parts that collect ice. Any binding with brakes is more prone to icing than those without brakes.
How resistant they are to icing up should be a factor you consider when purchasing Randonee bindings. There is a large difference between the best, most resistant products and the ones you need to bring an extra 3mm scraper for while touring on any warmer storm day.
The ultra-low profile heel piece of the Top Pick Black Diamond Helio 180 collects virtually no ice. In sticky snow conditions, the Best Buy Dynafit Speed Turn gathers ice that simulates informal "heel lifts", even when the binding is in low tour mode. Almost all "traditional" tech toes collect ice under the center of the toe piece. This manifests as toe pins that won't close entirely. In this case, the ski needs to be removed, turned upside down, and the ice cleared out. It may appear that your boot toe holes are full of ice or dirt, but the more likely culprit is ice beneath the toe piece.
The Dynafit Speed Turn and Plum toe pieces are especially vulnerable to this problem. The G3 Ion LT and G3 Zed 12 seem less prone to toe piece icing than nearly every other binding we have used. The Editors' Choice Marker Alpinist is in line with the G3 bindings. The beefier and bulkier Plum Summit, Dynafit ST Rotation, and Marker KingPin collect more ice than most.
While backcountry touring you expend a ton of effort going uphill and the last thing we feel most users want to do is waste effort trying to get into bindings. We compared how easy each one was to get into and out of through a series of side-by-side tests. Here Ian Nicholson skins up the Boston Glacier on the Forbidden Tour, North Cascades WA.
For our downhill performance score, we compared how well each AT binding performed on the down. We divide our assessment into two main categories: how does the binding perform in "routine" downhill, and how is it designed and built to work when a release is required? While most felt great in softer snow, we made sure to compare them in harsh, icy, and variable snow and at higher speeds where our testers could feel more of a difference.
Several factors are contributing to downhill "routine" performance that include but aren't limited to the overall rigidity of the design, amount of elasticity of a binding, its stack height, and the ramp angle/heel-toe-delta. A more rigid connection between ski and boot lends better downhill performance. Binding "elasticity" is the distance your boot can move within the binding before it is released. Some binding elasticity allows the boot to get deflected by normal skiing forces and then return to center for the next turn.
The Helio heel piece in downhill mode. Simple. You can see here some of the range of adjustment available. Without the adjustment plate, the binding is lighter and a different color and called the "Helio 145".
With theoretical zero elasticity, every lateral boot force past some threshold would result in a complete release. Longitudinal ski flex creates the same sort of issue. This is undesirable, as normal skiing forces "appear", to a binding, to be the same as the forces associated with an injuring fall. Your binding cannot "decide" which forces are leading to an injury and which forces are just "normal". Elasticity gives you some time, measured in split seconds. If the force is short lived, you won't get injured, and the elasticity of the binding will pull your boot back in line. If that force continues, the ski comes off, and the force is relieved before it is transmitted to your bones and connective tissues; in theory. Of course, binding release isn't perfect, and people get injured all the time. This is a risk you must be willing to take.
Steep and high energy skiing, under an expert practitioner, on ski bindings without DIN/ISO certification. Good idea? Or accident waiting to happen? We think the former.
Release performance is difficult to objectively assess, as we can simply not crash enough to collect reliable data. What we look for here first are certification standards. Then we consider the range of adjustment and type of non-certified release methodology.
AT bindings that have a more positive connection as well as more surface area (touching both between the boot and the binding) within the binding itself, and between the binding and the ski, generally perform better. Only the Salomon Shift, Fritschi Tecton, and Marker KingPin have the sole of the skier's pressing onto the ski. The Tecton and KingPin press the heel, while the Salomon has firm downward hold at toe and heel both. These three also provide some "forward pressure" that assists in the elasticity of the binding.
The G3 Ion LT, Dynafit ST Rotation 12, G3 Zed 12, Ski Trab Titan Vario 2.0 and Editors' Choice Marker Alpinist also provide some simulated "forward pressure" that, theoretically at least, lends both elasticity and security. In our testing, the remainder of the bindings have the same downhill performance as it pertains to positivity of connection and elasticity.
You'll notice the benefits of lightweight more on the uphill than you will the drawbacks of minimalist bindings on the downhill.
Binding geometry varies from one product to the next. Each binding puts your boot sole a different distance from the ski, and each binding has a different "heel-toe-delta". The distance between the boot sole and ski top sheet is called "stack height". While some ski racers like more stack height, most skiers, especially backcountry tourers, prefer to be closer to the ski. This gives the user better balance and "feel". Generally speaking, most manufacturers compete to see who can get the lowest stack height possible. The more sophisticated tech bindings have a greater stack height. The Kingpin, Tecton, Plum Summit, and G3 Ion LT all have stack heights over 39mm. The simpler TLT Super Light, Speed Turn, and Atomic Backland bindings keep your foot closer to the ski. The lightest bindings have the lowest stack heights. Both the Top Pick Black Diamond Helio 180 and Editors' Choice Marker Alpinist are more than a full centimeter lower than the other Top Pick Tecton.
Editors Choice Atomic Backland in use. The brakes are simple and stow out of the way much like those on your alpine bindings.
Skiing ramp angle is the angle between your foot sole and the ski top sheet. This angle depends on boot size, insole choice, boot sole geometry, and binding construction. We focus here on the binding component of this equation. The binding affects your ramp angle in that different bindings have different relative toe and heel heights. We call the difference between toe and heel height "toe-heel-delta" and we measure this by measuring the distance from ski surface to the center of the effective toe pins and to the center of the effective heel pins (not all bindings have heel pins and one does not use its toe pins in downhill mode). AT bindings tend to feature a greater toe-heel-delta than most downhill bindings to, theoretically, help make up for generally softer, less aggressive and forward-leaning boots.
Unless you know you have strong preferences in ramp angle and you know your boot geometry and boot size (as it pertains to ramp angle), we don't recommend thinking too much about binding toe-heel-delta. If you know it matters to you, realize that the Marker Alpinist, G3 Zed and Dynafit TLT Super Light have really low binding delta, and the Dynafit Speed Turn, Salomon Shift, Dynafit ST Rotation, and Plum Summit have high binding delta. Otherwise, the remainder are relatively similar to one another, falling in the middle and sitting within a few millimeters of each other.
Stack height basically refers to how far your boot is above the ski, while a handful of folks like more stack height as a whole most binding manufacturers compete to see who can have the least because most backcountry skiers prefer to be closer to the ski.
There are three main categories of AT bindings, in terms of release value adjustment. First, some have no adjustment to the release. The Black Diamond Helio is in this category. However, with the Helio, you have the option of choosing different release values at the time of purchase. Next, there are those with an adjustable release, but no certification. Most touring binding models are in this category. Finally, there are the bindings that have ISO/DIN certification of their release.
The Salomon Shift Marker KingPin, Dynafit ST Rotation, and Fritschi Tecton are the only bindings we reviewed that have this external, third-party endorsement of their certification.
It is important to make further notes on ISO/DIN certification and the "alphabet soup" that surrounds this topic. DIN is a German organization that defines binding release parameters. ISO is an international organization that does the same thing. ISO and DIN parameters are the same. ISO and DIN both write standards for alpine bindings and for AT bindings. The Tecton, KingPin, Rotation, and Shift all meet the AT binding release standard. The Shift also meets the alpine binding release standard. The alpine release standard is more stringent than the AT standard. TUV is a company that tests ski bindings to the ISO/DIN standards. You can't actually have "DIN certified" bindings. The bindings are "TUV certified" to the DIN standard. Semantics, but perhaps important to you.
Overall durability is tough to determine, we talked to as many folks as we could, several backcountry shops and a handful of sales reps to help figure out where all AT bindings stood. What we do know is that you don't want to be several ridges back and have them catastrophically break.
As you ponder your binding choice, especially as it pertains to downhill performance, consider the following. Yes, you are here for the downhill. We all are. It is downhill that makes backcountry skiing, skiing. Otherwise, it would be hiking, and we would choose different gear. Nonetheless, you have to accept the fact that you will spend 80-90% of your backcountry skiing time going uphill. Lighter gear gets you up the hill faster, with more energy to spare at the top. Bindings that go downhill better are heavier. Bindings that go downhill a little better are a lot heavier. The heaviest bindings we have tested are more than 4 times as heavy as the lightest but go downhill, with some practice with each, marginally better.
All the bindings we tested go downhill just fine. We've skied 50 degree, no-fall high altitude lines on the lightest race bindings tested here. Sure, something beefier would be better in that instant. But overall, the beefier bindings just weren't the right choice. That is likely your situation, as you investigate your purchase. The certifications and the springs and the retention and the mass is appealing; you want to enjoy that downhill part. Further, heavier bindings look more like the resort bindings you are accustomed to. This perception and familiarity and its biasing role in your decision-making cannot be ignored. But, after watching dozens of skiers of all abilities use dozens of different bindings, we can say on good authority that more minimalist bindings enhance your experience more than beefier ones do, all else equal.
The absolute best case to be made for this might be in what Grand Teton National Park's guide pool is using. As we sit here and envision the entire team of human-powered ski guides in the Teton region (arguably the most voluminous ski touring guiding community in the whole US), we can't envision a single guide regularly using bindings that weigh more than 300 grams per foot. And all are skiing downhill at a high standard, in legit terrain, with high energy and confidence.
Ease of Use
Ease of use is summed up (you guessed it) by how easy the bindings were to use. First, we looked at how easy they were to step into and out of, as well as how easy it was to transition to touring or downhill again. We also compared how easy it was to make adjustments to release value and boot length.
Ease of Entry and Exit
Ease of entry for tech bindings is hands down where the G3 bindings take the cake and was the feature that impressed us the most about their two tested bindings. Instead of nearly all other tech bindings, where you need to either "hook" one side or line up your toe holes and use downward pressure to engage the front pins, both G3 bindings feature two vertical levers that when lightly pressured, engage the side pins. For folks that struggle with getting into tech bindings, we think the ION or Zed is the answer. The toe piece of the Fritschi Tecton is engineered entirely different, but the end result is similar in terms of ease of entry. Its spring-loaded closure was very sensitive, and when most folks first start trying to use it, their toe closes before their boot is in position. Once accustomed to it, getting into the Tecton goes smoothly.
The Marker toe piece locks with a familiar lever. Getting in and out is similar to any other typical tech binding.
The Marker Kingpin was likely the next easiest of the tech bindings to get into. Similar to the Dynafit TLT Speed, it features two "posts" that help line your boot up correctly. The toe piece of the Atomic Backland Tour has a sort of guide that helps you to line up the toe pins.
Ease of Transitioning from Up-to-Down and Down-to-Up
Different products have different advantages while transitioning, after skinning up to skiing down, and then once you've finished your run at the bottom while transitioning back to skinning up.
Where it Matters
From up to down matters more and nearly every backcountry tour will have at least one of these types of transitions. Many skiers regularly take their skins off without having to take off their skis. A binding that allows you to do this is an advantage, particularly while in deep snow, where if you step down with a "ski-less" foot, you will plunge up to your hip (we've all been there) in snow.
On the flip side, it is challenging to put skins on your skis while they remain on your feet, so being able to transition on this end more quickly is a slightly overrated, over publicized feature. The one time we dig being able to go into "cross country" mode where you want your heel free, but no skins on, is during the descent and while traveling on long, flat, snow-covered roads and frozen lakes.
Fritschi Tecton. The advanced performance of this binding requires more bulk and moving parts than usual. This collects snow and ice more dramatically than other products.
The Atomic Backland Tour transitions pretty easily but requires an extra step with the brakes. The brakes must be manipulated by hand every time you switch from down to up or vice versa. The Fritschi Tecton snapped between walk and tour mode very easily, whether below our feet or in our hands. Transitions with the Top Pick Black Diamond Helio are quick and easy.
Transitions with the Plum Summit and Dynafit Rotation ST are very similar and about average. Salomon Shift transitions are among the more onerous. Disengaging the brake from tour to ski mode can be downright dangerous. One tester lost a fingernail early in the process. Further, you absolutely have to remove the Shift from your boot to go either direction between tour and ski mode.
We compared the performance of each products heel riser as well as how easy they were to deploy and stow. Heel risers are important useful features, but remember don't use them on terrain that's not steep enough to warrant them, because it will keep your leg from being able to straighten out completely and will wear you out more quickly. Ian Nicholson breaking trail on his way up to Bro-Bowl on peak 5500.
Depending on where you ski and how much springtime touring and ski mountaineering you do, ski crampons can matter a tremendous amount or very little. We find ourselves rarely bringing ski crampons mid-winter while conditions are consistently cold, and we are often skiing at or below treeline while basically looking for powder. However, once the melt-freeze cycle starts and you start thinking about skiing corn or higher elevation mountains, ski crampons can save you a tremendous amount of effort. In very windy climates (High Sierra, California, you listening?), you will use ski crampons all year long. Ease of use rating considers the option and complication of employing ski crampons.
Ski crampons, while not necessary for every tour especially during mid winter, during spring and ski mountaineering trips they can save an incredible amount of time, energy, and frustration when the slope is just too steep and firm to skin, but booting would involve punching in.
While weight is a factor regarding touring performance, we kept it separate for our OutdoorGearLab scoring purposes. More than most other types of gear, the difference in weight from one binding to another is quite large. Look at the 3.2 pounds difference between our review's lightest binding, the Black Diamond Helio (.8 pounds), and the heaviest, the Salomon Shift (4.0 pounds). That 3.2 pounds of difference is the weight of a tent! The Salomon, while the heaviest in our review, isn't even the heaviest touring binding on the market, nor is the Helio the lightest. Overall, touring on lighter bindings is noticeably easier. The old saying of "A pound on your foot is like five on your back" runs at least slightly true, as people can endure noticeably more vertical gain with less weight on their feet.
There is a significant difference among tech bindings, especially when comparing our Editors' Choice, the Atomic Backland Tour (1.8 pounds), to the Marker Kingpin (3.2 pounds), and the G3 Ion LT (2.1 pounds). The Kingpin and Tecton have all the same major features as the Backland but weigh much much more. The G3 includes fewer features and weighs more.
We compared the performance on the down of all of these bindings both in the backcountry as well as inbounds skiing at the resort. Here Chris Marshall airs it out in "The Duffy" BC Coast Range.
Both the Atomic Backland Tour and Marker Alpinist earn our Editors' Choice award in great part due to their weight. We have scoured the market and have found no lighter binding with the feature set of the Backland and Marker Alpinist. For absolute lightweight performance, check out the Top Pick Black Diamond Helio 180. Unmounted, these bindings look more like jewelry than technical equipment. They are that tiny.
"Ski Mountaineering" is often standing around with skis on one's back. In this case, the Plum Guide XS.
In scoring weight, we took the raw data and adjusted it for features. To compare "apples to apples", we corrected for optional add-ons. For instance, some bindings have optional brakes. When we tested with the brakes, their weight is indicated in the raw weight data.
For our durability test, we did our best to compare how burly each product was. For this comparison, we not only pooled our own experience, but talked to over a half dozen reputable backcountry ski shops, mountain guides, and a few sales reps; we wanted to see what broke, how often, and on which models. Overall, there is a pretty strong correlation between durability and simplicity. Simple, proven products will last better. The Dynafit Speed Turn 2.0 shares the bulk of its working design with decades of lineage. It is a proven design and has been shown to go for literally millions of vertical feet of ski touring. In either direction, weight-wise, from the Dynafit Speed Turn, durability suffers. Go lighter, and you risk issues. Bindings heavier than the Speed Turn weigh more because of added features. Added features add more things to fail.
The Dynafit ST Rotation, in use, in Wydaho's Teton westside.
Many of our testers going on long, super remote tours still reach for the tried-and-true design of the Dynafit Speed Turn. It has proven its durability and has relatively few problems for the number out there. The Atomic Backland Tour is a relatively new product, but it employs largely proven technology. In our extensive testing, so far, we have had no issues with the Backland. We are confident that the Atomic will be a durable legend. We have more than a full season now on the Atomic Backland Tour. Durability and function continue to be reliable. We have had zero issues with the binding)
Both the Tecton and the Kingpin had a few early, fairly significant issues with mechanical integrity, and both companies seem to have dealt with that issue. Some versions of the Marker KingPin are currently under recall. Marker seems to be standing by the product, but this is a real issue for some products in some circumstances.
The Top Pick Salomon Shift is a whole new design and incorporates more moving parts than is typical for touring bindings. We carry around a little concern for its durability. So far, in our testing and in the experience of known users, we have not encountered any patterns in durability issues. The Shift seems to be holding up. We'll keep testing to be sure.
Competitors like the G3 Zed and the Marker Kingpin haven't quite been around long enough for us to see exactly how they compare in durability for the long haul. Thus far, the Kingpin has impressed us with how durable and long-lasting it could turn out to be. Most of its aluminum parts are sourced and produced by the climbing company DMM in Wales. This shows us that Marker cares quite a bit about the production quality of this product. The Fritschi Tecton is a little less robust feeling than the Marker KingPin, mainly because of the more extensive use of plastic in the construction. This plastic makes it lighter weight. We have yet to have any problems with the Tecton and durability.
Top PIck Plum Race Tech 150, showing an issue we had early in our testing. The binding on the right is stuck on the user's boot. Removing it required miles of mandatory tour mode, a thorough drying out inside, and then tools, four hands, and some swear words.
Before purchasing a pair of AT bindings, you need to determine where you will be using them and how much emphasis you place on the respective tasks of AT bindings. Think of uphill, downhill, and durability cost. The tests and ratings in this review are designed to help you make this decision and find the pair of bindings that best fit your needs.