The Best Backcountry Skis and Bindings of 2016
Alpine-touring equipment continues to evolve
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Backcountry gear is getting really damn good. So good, in fact, that it’s time to ditch your dedicated alpine setup if you make any turns on the other side of the ropes. Take boots: even models from traditional alpine companies are getting lighter, and they perform almost as well as their resort-bound siblings. Skis are shedding ounces, too, with clever carbon constructions and skinnier waists. But they still shred. In tech bindings, the concept that Dynafit pioneered 31 years ago has become a ubiquitous platform for others to build upon, and the results are safer and more user-friendly. To help you pick the perfect kit, we tested 207 products and then narrowed the field to the 13 most exciting.
Black Crows Corvus Freebird
Gear of the Year
Black Crows, based in Chamonix, France, has a reputation for building powerful freeride skis. But its boards weren’t light enough for touring—until now. The Corvus has the heart of a big-mountain charger and the backcountry chops of a lighter ski, with a carbon-fiberglass layer under a wood core. The subtle “beak and a half” profile pairs rocker up front with a more traditional (albeit still turned-up) tail for edge hold. “Precise and multifunctional,” said one tester. At 8.5 pounds, it’s heavy for big tours, but that’s a small price to pay for superb downhill performance. 139/109/122; 8.5 lbs
Price $840 Tourability 3 Power 5
DPS Wailer 99 Tour1 skis
Best For: Turning the mountain into a snowy playground.
The Test: It’s a full 15 percent lighter than its predecessor, but the 2016 Wailer 99 still shines on the descents. Credit the new Tour1 engineering, which combines ounce-saving cap construction (the company’s other skis have sidewalls) with aerospace-grade carbon around a featherweight balsa core. It remained stable and damp even in tricky spring conditions, while rocker in the tip and tail kept it quick and playful. With a wider 99-millimeter waist, it floated a bit better in the deep stuff than the La Sportiva. “Probably the most fun I’ve had on a DPS,” said one tester.
The Verdict: Now even lighter, the supremely capable Wailer 99 will have you whooping with joy. 125/99/111; 6.2 lbs
Price $1,050 Tourability 4.5 Power 3.5
Dynafit Radical FT 2.0 bindings
Best For: Skiers who want a smoother ride.
The Test: The Radical 2.0’s turntable toe takes the edge off hard, unpredictable snow. Testers found it more elastic and forgiving than its competitors. “Feels natural when skiing fast in tough conditions,” one tester said. The 2.0 also has a true forward-pressure setting that reduces the chance of prerelease (a weakness of the original). Simply put, it instills plenty of confidence when you’re pointing down the fall line.
The Verdict: A tad heavier but much more reliable than its predecessor. Sets a new standard for tech bindings. 2.8 lbs
Price $650 Tourability 4.5 Power 4
La Sportiva Vapor Svelte skis
Best For: Ski mountaineering.
The Test: Last year, La Sportiva changed how we think about ultralight, high-performance skis with the Vapor Nano, which layered woven Kevlar over carbon nanotubes for an unbeatable weight-to-surface-area ratio. The Vapor Svelte features the same technology—on a diet. At 96 millimeters underfoot, it’s a good deal narrower than the Nano, and it has slightly less tip rocker. The result: the best option for going fast uphill, then powering back down. “Superlight, but with guts and a backbone,” one tester said. “It’s more confident in crud than many skis with wider waists.”
The Verdict: Astonishingly impressive on the downhill given its weight. 126/96/113; 4.6 lbs
Price $1,200 Tourability 5 Power 3
G3 Ion bindings
Best For: Newbie tech-binding buyers.
The Test: The user-friendly Ion returns for the second year in a row technically unchanged, with easy step-in and intuitive heel risers. But skiers now have three options to choose from: the lightweight Ion 10; the even more lithe Ion LT (a brakeless option for the weight-conscious crowd); and the burly Ion 12 (shown here), which features brakes, a release value to 12 for all-mountain versatility, and a forged-aluminum body for impressive strength. “Looks elegant, skis elegant,” as one of our testers put it.
The Verdict: A sturdy binding that comes in three flavors. 1.3 lb.
Price $600 Tourability 4.5 Power 3.5
K2 Pinnacle 95 skis
Best For: Going fast no matter the conditions.
The Test: K2 built its new line of mountain freeride skis to rip downhill. A metal laminate parallels the edges of the composite core, making for superb stability and energy transfer at high speeds—albeit with a small weight penalty. Combine that construction with long, gradual tip rocker and light tail rocker, and you get a narrow board that blasts through crud, carves down ice, and surfs surprisingly well in deep powder. Testers called it nimble, speedy, and “a highly tuned thoroughbred” of a board. Unless you ski powder every day (and you don’t), this could be the only ski you need.
The Verdict: Performs brilliantly on both sides of the ropes. 132/95/115; 7.8 lbs
Price $850 Tourability 4.5 Power 4.5
Marker Kingpin 13 bindings
Best For: Replacing your alpine setup.
The Test: One of the few DIN- and ISO-certified tech options on the market, the Kingpin releases just like an alpine binding in back, thanks to the wide heelpiece. It’s also easier to get into and out of than its true tech competitors. Six springs in the toe (instead of the usual four) gave testers more confidence skiing and hucking at speed. And while it’s heavier than your standard tech binding, it’s also much burlier. One tester called its performance “on par with alpine bindings. Just bomber.”
The Verdict: Unmatched power and safety—at a price. 3.2 lbs
Price $840 Tourability 3 Power 5
Dynastar Cham 2.0 97 skis
Best For: Smearing buttery turns.
The Test: This year, Dynastar traded the metal in its Cham for a paulownia-wood core, which offers a lighter, more forgiving ride. It also reduced the amount of tip rocker, to give the ski more control at speed, and added rocker to the tail, to make executing lively turns even easier. Quick and springy underfoot, it’s ideal for the skier seeking soft snow and spring corn. Take note: at 7.5 pounds, it’s best suited to short tours close to the resort, not all-day backcountry adventures.
The Verdict: This playful yet stable ski is back and better than ever. 133/97/113; 7.5 lbs
Price $700 Tourability 4 Power 4
22 Designs Outlaw NTN bindings
Best For: Telemarkers seeking ultimate power.
The Test: This is the latest addition to 22 -Designs’ gang of stainless-steel (read: nearly indestructible) telemark bindings. It’s also the company’s first NTN offering, which means it’s step-in and compatible with NTN-specific boots from Crispi, Scarpa, and Scott. Maintaining the brand’s hard-charging pedigree, the Outlaw has a six-hole mounting pattern for better grip on your ski, custom spring-tension settings, and 50 degrees of free pivot in walk mode. “Old-school tele feel with the stiffness of NTN,” one tester said.
The Verdict: All the power and edge hold of NTN from a performance leader. 3.5 lbs
Price $400 Tourability 3.5 Power 4.5
Blizzard Zero G 108 skis
Best For: Doing it all.
The Test: The widest ski in Blizzard’s new Zero G line, the 108 is neither the lightest nor the hardest-charging ski we tested. But it might be the perfect compromise. The paulownia core and carbon-fiber frame matched with a fairly wide waist and early rise had testers raving about the floaty ride in powder. On icy steeps, it held its edge and carved quick turns, with traditional camber underfoot and sidewall construction. It sailed through variable conditions, too, with embedded carbon from tip to tail dampening vibrations through chunder.
The Verdict: The best performance-to-weight ratio here. 136/108/122; 7.3 lbs
Price $960 Tourability 4.5 Power 4
Salomon Guardian MNC 13 bindings
Best For: Resort skiers who dabble in touring.
The Test: Widely regarded as the best frame binding on the market, the Guardian (identical to the Atomic Tracker, just with different paint) returns unchanged this season. With a maximum DIN of 13, it’s built for big, bold descents, but take note: it will inflict suffering on the way back up, given its weight—about double the next heaviest binding on this page. But when it comes to easy operation (a flick of the pole puts it in walk mode) and compatibility (it works with most boot soles—AT, alpine, or Walk to Ride), the Guardian can’t be beat.
The Verdict: Does everything an alpine binding does, with the added option of touring. 6.4 lbs
Price $450 Tourability 2.5 Power 5
Armada KUFO 103 skis
Best For: Going from powder to crud.
The Test: The new KUFO is the same width as last year’s, but it’s 16 percent lighter, with nary a drop in downhill performance. The board’s caruba-wood core makes for a buoyant ride, while carbon and Kevlar throughout give it crud-busting stability. Armada kept almost everything else the same, including the early rise and camber underfoot, which contributes to its playfulness, and a flat tail for driving turns. “Kudos to Armada for making a ski that both surfs and rails,” one tester said.
The Verdict: A powerhouse all-mountain option, now lighter and with more float. 119/102/123; 7 lbs
Price $775 Tourability 4 Power 4
Dynafit Beast 14 bindings
Best For: The hardest chargers.
The Test: The Beast 14 uses the same turntable-toe technology as Dynafit’s Radical 2.0 (page 102) and the same heelpiece as the Beast 16. The result: a binding that smooths out harsh bumps, locks your boot in place, and releases safely in a crash. Oh yeah, it’s also about a third of a pound lighter than the 16 without sacrificing down-hill performance. We do have two complaints: AT boots must be modified with a metal heel fitting (included) to be compatible, and there’s no zero-degree option in tour mode for the flats.
The Verdict: Best-in-class downhill performance with some touring limitations. 3.5 lbs
Price $750 Tourability 3.5 Power 4.5