AT bindings perform two basic functions: They permit the heel to move freely (think cross-country skiing) while you're climbing or touring and then let you lock down your heel for descents (think downhill skiing). Without trashing telemarking too much, there are four indisputable advantages AT equipment enjoys over tele gear. (1) Control: Locked heels transmit more energy and steering force from leg to ski. If you're clinging to an icy 50-degree slope with 30 pounds of gear strapped to your back, worrying about pitching over the tips shouldn't be the first thing on your mind. (2) Release: Like downhill bindings, AT bindings have adjustable release settings for both toe and heel (some telemark bindings also release, but for whatever reason, tele skiers haven't bought in). That's good news in a crash because less torque on the knees means less chance of injury. Even more important, if you're caught in an avalanche, releasing from your skis can mean the difference between floating and sinking. (3) AT boots have the grippy rubber soles and the crampon compatibility of mountaineering boots. Telemark boots, with their long, awkward toes, don't—which forces you either to plod on, never trusting your feet, or to carry a second pair of boots for technical climbing. (4) AT bindings accept ski crampons, which let you keep your skis on your feet when your skins are sliding on ice or you're traversing a steep slope. Tele bindings don't.
1 BINDING: Dynafit Tourlite Tech $320 We know what you're thinking: "There's no way in hell those two little ball-and-socket pinchers are going to hold me in. I've seen tougher mousetraps." Get over it. Yes, it's true that the Tourlite binding doesn't inspire much visual confidence. But after a full season of testing (including a brutal descent with a 50-pound pack through boot-deep wet cement from Camp Muir to the Paradise parking lot), the Tourlite's durability remains unquestioned. And, lest we forget, at 1 pound, 8 ounces, this is the lightest touring binding in the world—less than half the weight of the closest competitor. During the course of a day, that weight savings translates into an energy windfall, meaning you'll have something left for the descent—which, after all, is the point. The heel piece twists into three touring positions— a simple design that, because the rubber sole of the boot makes contact with the platform, eliminates the annoying click and clatter common to most other AT bindings, where a plate or bar clamped to the boot sole lands on a heel lifter. The Downside? It's difficult to align the pinchers in deep snow, and dirt can get imbedded in the sockets on muddy approaches, requiring a few minutes of Leatherman work before stepping in.
2 BOOT: Scarpa Laser (Also available in a women's version, the Magic) $520 Although quite a few companies now build Tourlite-compatible boots (including Dynafit, of course), the Laser is the best to date. Most lightweight boots are too soft for hard skiing, but the 8-pound, 3-ounce Lasers feature stiff plastic tongues that provide resistance, and more important, rebound. An anatomical rocker sole is comfortable on long hikes in, while the lever that switches the upper cuff from tour mode (free-hinging) to ski mode (locked forward) is so simple it's fail-safe. The Downside? Although it's a mystery endemic to all AT boots, we'll single out Scarpa for the following question: Why the hassle of lace-up liners on plastic three-buckle boots when a simple Velcro tab would suffice? You don't need all those laces just to keep them on your feet at camp. We swapped ours out for some old alpine liners.
3 SKI: Atomic Tour Guide Super Light $300 Keeping with the lightweight theme, Atomic's Super Lights weigh just 5 pounds, 4 ounces per pair. Luckily, though, they don't ski like balsa wood. Moderately fat throughout (96 millimeters at the tip, 67 at the waist, 86 at the tail), they have a smooth, carvy feel on corn snow and float well in powder. The Downside? They're skittish on hard snow (the fix involves adding weight).
1 BINDING: Silvretta Easy Go $365 Unlike Dynafit and Fritschi, who each make a single binding, Silvretta offers three models, including the recently released 500, which can fit any stiff-soled boot—a boon to mountaineers. For ski mountaineering, though, we recommend the Easy Go (3 pounds, 8 ounces). Trust us, bending over to lock a heel piece in place is just too much strain when you're struggling with a heavy pack. The Easy Go is a step-in, and what's more, you can convert it from touring to alpine mode by pressing a button with the tip of your ski pole. A carbon-fiber frame helps keep the weight down, and a pivot point set closer to the ball of the foot makes for a more efficient stride. The Downside? The touring-conversion button is too hard to press (you could break a pole trying).
2 BOOT: Nordica TR 12 (Women's sizes available) $455 When you can't scamper into the base lodge for a cocoa by the fire, you better make damn sure your boots are warm enough to keep your little piggies from freezing into so much bloated blood sausage. The TR 12 liners are built with multiple layers of foam and cloth so they won't pack out to the width of an old sock. Moreover, one of those layers is Outlast, a "microcapsulated" material that moderates temperatures by absorbing heat when you're warm and then releasing it when the mercury drops. At 8 pounds, 4 ounces, the TR 12s compare well with most AT boots in terms of weight, but they also have some nice bells and whistles not found on the competition—like a top buckle that opens up wide for touring and an adjustable rear shim for a better fit on the calf. The Downside? The ski/walk switch needs to click louder so you know the cuff is locked forward (an important piece of information when you're about to side-slip into a chute). The boot also flexes a little too much and lacks the rebound of the Laser or Strucktura. And for the love of God, this isn't Austria—lose the neon-green plastic.
SKI: Evolution Teleporter $600 It's common knowledge that fat skis like the Teleporters (107/83/99) outperform all others in deep, wet powder, but do you really want to climb with them? You bet. With a pair of extra-wide skins, the Teleporters go uphill like dual snowcats—the more skin you have, the more traction. Indeed, if you weigh close to 200 pounds (as our fat-ski tester does), you're at a disadvantage on skinnier skis. But fatties aren't just for big guys or midwinter fluff; they'll also save you in calf-deep mashed-potato snow when you've already skied 4,000 feet of corn. The Downside? It's a lot of ski to haul uphill.
1 BINDING: Fritschi Diamir Titanal 2 $340 Outfitting yourself with AT skis, boots, and bindings costs upwards of $1,100, which might cut into your alpine-ski budget (or wipe it out for the next several years). Don't take the hit all at once. Mounted on your downhill skis and adjusted to your downhill boots, the Diamirs are perfect for area skiing and short backcountry excursions, especially if your boots have a walk feature. Eventually, you'll need a pair of dedicated AT boots for long tours and technical climbs, but with the Diamirs, you aren't forced to buy a full quiver of skis. They're also easy to step into in soft snow or on a newly excavated platform atop a 50-degree couloir: The heel piece locks down with a comforting audible click. Four touring heights can be adjusted with your pole so you don't have to bend over with a heavy pack. The Downside? Everything's heavy compared to the Tourlite, but 3 pounds, 12 ounces isn't too bad. Urethane bumpers on the touring platform might cut down on the noise.
2 BOOT: Lowa Struktura $425 ($450 with Gore-Tex liners) A new addition to the North American market, the Struktura is loaded with features typically found only on high-end downhill boots: bi-injected molding (stiff plastic where you need support, soft plastic on the front of the cuff for comfort), reverse-closure instep buckles that pull the forefoot closer to the inside of the shell for enhanced edging, and adjustable upper cuffs that enable you to better align the lower leg in the boot. For pure skiing performance, the Struktura was the best boot we tested, and it didn't come at the price of touring comfort—the liner is warm and durable, there's plenty of sole rocker for long approaches, and in touring mode the upper cuff flexed as well as any boot we used. The Downside? Wish it were compatible with the Tourlite, but this boot does everything well and only weighs 8 pounds, 4 ounces per pair.
3 SKI: Rossignol Bandit XX $720 Youch, look at that price tag! Relax, you can buy cheaper skis if you live to tour, but teamed with the above boots and bindings, the Bandits (107/74/94) can be your year-round, do-everything boards: Vermont groomers in November, cat-skiing British Columbia in January, hut-to-hut touring the San Juans in April, and, yep, Pacific Northwest volcanoes in June. The Downside? At 7 pounds they're heavy on long slogs, but if that's an issue try the Rossi Big Bang ($500). It's the same ski minus the metal—and $220.