Now is the best time of year to buy ski gear. It seems every online shop is trying to unload last year’s product at deeply discounted prices. If you’re considering new backcountry bindings, consider this…
I’ve been (un)lucky enough to have skied almost every modern backcountry binding: Naxo 22s, Fritschi Freerides, the G3 Onyx, Marker Dukes, the Silvretta Pure, and an assortment from Dynafit. I’ve ridden over 100 days on many of these binding systems, and no fewer than ten days on any but the G3 Onyx. The pair of Onyx I was demoing broke within a few days.
In my experience, only three of the many binding systems available have proven themselves both fun and reliable in the backcountry: the Marker Duke, the Fristchi Freeride, and the beefier models from Dynafit. Each of these unique binding systems have their own niche within the realm of backcountry skiing. No matter what you style of skiing, one of these three bindings should be just right for you.
The Marker Duke (5.8 pounds per pair, DIN 6-16) is essentially a high performance alpine binding with touring capabilities. It feels HEAVY during ascents but descends like a normal alpine binding. It is ideal for chairlift, snowmobile, bootpack, and road-accessed backcountry. Personally, I wouldn’t plan on switching a pair of Dukes to “tour mode” except in the case of emergencies and would never take them on a serious uphill tour. Once you’ve ascended on lighter bindings, there’s no going back. In fact, after slogging these pigs uphill for three to six hours, your legs will probably be too shot to rip anything but an ACL. That said, the Dukes are perfectly suited for traversing a ridgeline, taking another shot at a backcountry booter, or slogging back to civilization after your sled shits the bed. Also, they’re perfect for inbounds skiing since they rip bumps and crud like an alpine binding and, in fact, look like an alpine binding: you’ll get no silly questions in the lift line about a pair of Dukes. I can’t say the same about other touring bindings.
Fritschi Freerides (4.5 pounds per pair, DIN 4-12) offer decent skiing at a weight acceptable for the occasional long tour. They are more durable and reliable than other backcountry bindings of similar design. In both labratory testing and my own experience, they clearly ski a little sloppier than the Duke and Dynafit bindings, but better than most other backcountry bindings. Their biggest advantage is compatibility with both AT and Alpine ski boots. Ski them inbounds with your Alpine boots. Take them for a tour with your AT boots. They are also easily adjustable so switching between boots isn’t too big a hassle. If you’re planning to ride lifts, hike more often than skin, regularly huck 20+ footers, and only occasionally go for an all-day tour, this is the binding for you.
My only gripe with the Frischi Freeride is that they seem to loosen up and eventually wear out if you tour on them reguarly. It seems like the bushings wear out and you’re eventually left with a worthless wobbly contraption with zero resale value (excluding pawning them off on a sucker). If you plan to tour extensively day in and day out, this isn’t the binding for you either.
Dynafit Bindings (0.35-2.3 pounds per pair, DIN 5-12 on FT models) are my personal backcountry binding of choice. In addition to being far lighter than any other setup, Dynafit bindings have proven to ski better than all other backcountry bindings but the Duke. In both laboratory flex tests and in the experience of the converted, they ski stiff and sure in all but high-speed icy chatter. You can lock them on for icy steeps or crud but then they won’t release without the binding physically breaking. Odds are your knee will break first. It’s nice to have the option of locking them on, especially for ski mountaineering applications where losing a ski isn’t an option. On a typical tour, I don’t lock them for the descent: the DIN to 12 is ample for all the skiing I do. I’m 180 pounds (210 with gear on) and prone to pointing em’. I hit every pillow line I can and any appealing cliff under 20 feet. Dynafit bindings have always served me well.
The only times Dynafit bindings have accidentally released on me resulted from snow/ice buildup below the toe connection point. A little crud below the mechanism can keep the binding from entirely engaging. As such, when you try to make your first hard turn, the ski doesn’t come with you. This problem is easily remedied by checking and, if necessary, clearing buildup below the toe before stepping in.
If your goal is to ski tour extensively, log a lot of vert, explore new zones without fossil fuel assistance, and slay a lot of pow, Dynafit Bindings should work for you. They do well in all conditions including death cookies. You just can’t point them through with the confidence offered by a beefier (and much heavier) binding option. Also, if your goal is to make craters off 30+ foot cliffs, find another binding: these will fly off.
For all but the meat huckers, the only disadvantage of Dynafit bindings is that they need Dynafit compatible AT boots. Generally touring boots cost about $40 more with the Dynafit plugs. They’re worht it. Whether you have Dynafit bindings or not, get compatible AT boots upgrading is less financially painful.
If you don’t know how Dynafit bindings work, watch this video:
Regarding less ideal binding types, all Naxo bindings ski loose, are prone to breaking (cheap plastic), and weigh in just slightly lighter than the piggish Dukes. Don’t bother.
All varieties of Silvretta binding ski like crap and are downright fragile. I also know firsthand that their customer service sucks. They’re lighter than the Fritschi but not significantly. They’re still much heavier than the Dynafit. I dread having to ski these again.
This year G3 came out with the Onyx, hoping to offer a “beefed up” version of the Dynafit. They are heavier (3.2 pounds per pair without brakes), but certainly not beefier. I had a pair start to fall apart on me within the first week of trying them. The risers were prone to falling off so I lost two of them immediately. The whole binding feels and looks cheap. Too much plastic. Hopefully G3 fine tunes it into a lightweight touring binding that outdoes Dynafit. Until then, I’ll stick with what I trust.
Another binding option I’m excited to look into are the ultra light all metal racing options coming out of Europe right now. They’re designed to be locked on so should be ideal for fall-die ski mountaineering applications. Additionally, since they’re so light– less than .4 pounds a pair– you could clearly upgrade to a fatter, and funner ski.