NORDIC BACKCOUNTRY BINDINGS

Last Updated: 01/31/2006


OVERVIEW

There are 2 basic choices for bindings for nordic backcountry touring. The first are modern binding systems such as NNN-BC and SNS- BC, which rely on a laterally positioned metal bar in the toe of the boot. The other choice is the 75mm nordic norm, which relies on a 75mm wide "duckbill" on the toe of the boot.

Boots and bindings are best understood as integrated systems and each binding system has its own set of characteristics and its own advocates. This means that you should be aware of how the different binding systems differ as you consider which boots to purchase.

Caveat: By far, I have the most experience with 3-pin bindings and their close cousin, the 3-pin cable. This bias should be pretty obvious to any person who reads this page and who has experience with the system bindings. I'll attempt to describe system bindings to the best of my ability, but be aware I'm relying almost entirely on what I've been able to read and on the (very helpful) input provided by others.

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SYSTEM BINDINGS

Obviously, bindings must match the boots, so if you're using a system boot, you need to purchase a matching system binding.

The 2 system bindings available for backcountry use are the Rottefella NNN-BC and Salomon SNS-BC bindings. Essentially, these are beefier versions of the system bindings that are made for track skiing; designs that have been optimized for classic kick and glide or skating techniques. System boots attach to the binding by way of a metal bar that is mounted in the front of the boot's sole.This bar acts like a pivoting hinge, which accounts for this system's unsurpassed striding efficiency. For this reason, if you are choosing bindings for traditional narrow touring skis and if your intended use is for seeking out striding or skating opportunities in the backcountry, these bindings should be seriously considered.

Both NNN-BC and SNS-BC are available in step-in versions and manual versions. While the step-in versions are certainly convenient, they have a reputation of getting jammed with ice in the field. This may be manageable at a touring center, this is not what you want in the backcountry. Proponents of system bindings are pretty much in universal agreement that the manual versions are better for backcountry use.

The general agreement of the comments I've heard about system bindings used to be that they don't provide the same amount of turning control as 75mm bindings (pins or cable bindings). Perhaps the biggest factor in the lack of turning control of these boot/binding combos is the unavailability of more supportive boots. In the mid to late '90s, burly system boots like the Alpina 2500 were available. These boots were arguably on par in heft with today's plastic Excursion class boots. However, tall system boots disappeared from the market. In general, today's system boots are beefed up versions of skate boots designs that are, at best, comparable to Snowfield class 75mm boot designs.

Some luminaries like Steve Barnett, author of "Cross Country Downhill" (among other titles), have been outspoken proponents of system bindings in general, and of the SNS-BC system in particular. The SNS-BC has a ridge that runs the length of the binding plate that matches a groove in the SNS-BC boot sole. The proponents of SNS-BC bindings often say that this grove provides a noticable increase in turning power compared to similar 75mm boots. I can't comment on this since I've not been able to find SNS-BC boots big enough for my feet, but when you hear this sort of claim consistently and when some of those claims come from people like Steve Barnett, then I have to assume that SNS-BC offers a real advantage.

System bindings have a rubber bumper inside of the binding that interfaces with the toe of the boot. The stiffness of this rubber dictates how freely the binding will pivot at the toe. According to many, this nearly free pivoting at the toe and the relatively stiff soles of the system boots can conspire to make them feel tippy-toed when forced into a telemark turn. Some claim that while experienced skiers can make telemark turns on system bindings, they are harder for beginners to learn on, since it is harder to put pressure on the ball of the foot. To counteract this, the rubber bumpers can be replaced with a stiffer rubber, which in turn will make the boot more likely to bend at the ball of the foot. Some people report good luck with approach, although a decrease in striding efficiency is to be expected. Others report the increased stiffness makes the tips of the skis dive in soft snow. Again, I can't comment as I have no experience with these bindings.

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3-PIN BINDINGS

Once upon a time, 75mm 3-pin bindings were made for track skiing. The corresponding track boots had relatively thin, flexible duck-bills and the bails on the binding were made from light metal. Eventually, a second 75mm norm developed for so-called telemark boots which had much thicker soles. Since the more supportive boots could deliver more force to the bindings, the bindings were made sturdier and sturdier with thicker toe plates and sidewalls and more durable bails. Today, Rottefella and Voile are the only 2 manufacturers of these "telemark" capable 3-pin bindings.

The Rottefella Super Telemark is, in my opinion, the easiest 3- pin binding to get in and out of. This ease of use is a result of the long tongue on the front of the bail, which allows you to grab the bail, hold it open while you put your boot in and then slam the "rat-trap" shut with a single move. This longer tongue also gives you a bit more leverage when closing the binding with the tip of a ski pole.

In my opinion, the Super Telemark is a slightly better binding for kick and glide compared to the Voile bindings. It gives just a tick more heel freedom. The downside of the better heel freedom according to some is slightly less turning control and, according to some reports, a greater chance of damaging the boots in a bad fall. I've not logged enough miles on Rottefellas to report on the boot durability issue but I've seen it reported (rumored?) enough to pass it along. If you look closely at the Super Telemark next to the Voile bindings, you will see that the bail does not wrap back along the side of the boot toe as far on the Super Telemark. As a result, the the Voile tends to clamp down on the duck bill a tad more securely while the Super Telemark is more free. I should emphasize 2 points in this regard. First, this effect is more noticeable to me with stiffer plastic boots. With flexible leather boots, the bindings are practically indistinguishable. Second, this effect is very much related to how tight you set the bails. A Super Telemark set on the second notch will feel more secure than a Voile Mountaineer set on the first notch (and vice versa).

Voile offers the most variations on the 3-pin binding. In my opinion, the Heavy Duty Mountaineer is the core of the line and is the best one to get to match most backcountry boots made today. The rivets for the bails are set high enough to better accommodate the thicker soles of plastic boots and thick Norwegian welts.

Voile also offers a lighter version of this binding called the Telemark 3-Pin (a.k.a. the 201). These bindings have a slightly lower rivet for the bail, which makes them better for boots with thin soles. I've used these bindings with plastic boots and they appear to work acceptably, although the bails are much, much harder to latch. Who knows; perhaps someday the bails will explode and pop off, but I've never had a durability issue of any sort with the basic model. That said, since all of my boots have (normal) thick soles, I'm using this binding less and less these days. They are just too hard to latch with the thicker soles and I'm getting more lazy in my old age. The Mountaineer and 3-Pin Cable are easier to operate and that alone is worth the extra money to me.

One place where I really notice the difference between the Mountaineer and the lighter Telemark 3-Pin is when climbing or striding. With the Mountaineer, I can typically get the binding to latch on the first 2 latches. I can ski them loose for freer climbing or striding or tighter for more turning control. This sort of creates a poor man's version of a dual mode binding. With the lighter Voile binding and my (normal) thick soled boots, I can only get the binding latch on the first setting which is very tight.

One of the most popular variations of the Voile binding is the 3- Pin Cable. This binding has cables that easily attach or detach depending on your needs. With the cables off, the binding appears to be just like the Voile Mountaineer in terms of its bail height. While I personally can't stomach touring in a cable binding, cables do help deliver more turning power, especially in rough skiing conditions. If you are skiing on a Cirque class (80/60/70) or classic AT class (90/ 70/80) ski with an Extreme or Excursion class boot, the 3-Pin Cable is a binding that needs to be considered.

Another important reason to consider the 3-Pin Cable is the redundant nature of it's design. With all other cable bindings, a broken cable will disable you. With the 3 Pin Cable, you can still ski with the pins alone. Going the other way, it is not unheard of for boots to fail at the pin holes in a way that would make the plain pins not enough. One mode of failure is a split in the boot sole or mid-sole along the pin line. With the 3 Pin Cable binding, you can still ski with the cable attached. In this mode, you are only relying on the binding bail to hold the boot toe down. It is the cable that keeps the boot in binding in this case, not the pins. This redundancy makes the 3 Pin Cable a common choice for trips where boot or binding failure would be a really bad thing.

One of the more important tweaks to this tried and true binding is the incorporation of a slightly higher heel plate that is designed to mate with the cable closure. When this plate is mounted correctly on the ski, it allows you to fasten the heel of the cable to the heel plate on the ski deck. This gives you the ability to transport the skis without the cable flopping around.

Even better, if you are using shims, you can leave the cable on and secured to the heel piece when you are skinning or climbing. When the heel of your boot is down, the heel plate and shim is high enough that your heel will not hit the cable assembly. What this means is that you can easily switch from cable to cable-free mode without the need of removing the cable from the binding or even taking off your skis. Just undo the binding from your boot and affix it to the heel plate on the deck of the ski, or vice-versa.

Voile has recently introduced rigid Hardwire cables. Those who have skied them report that they produce an even more powerful binding. The 3-Pin Cable Hardwire would seem like a logical choice if you will be skiing on wide backcountry skis with Excursion class boots and you want the touring freedom of 3-pin binding freedom combined with full-blown telemark binding power. I haven't skied on them yet, so I can't comment

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CABLE AND PLATE BINDINGS

By far the most popular telemark bindings today are cable bindings or plate designs. In my opinion, these bindings should be left to do what they do best -- telemark skiing.

If you are using plastic boots that are burlier than an Excursion class boot and if you are using skis that are wider and stiffer than a classic AT profile (90/70/80) type ski, then these are almost certainly the bindings for you. However, for backcountry touring, these binding either restrict heel lift so much or weigh so much that they noticeably impede my ability to kick and glide. Even the most touring friendly cable bindings that I have tried are restrictive compared to 3-pin bindings.

Having said that, there are those who claim that the 3-pin interface is too trouble prone and that cable bindings are more reliable. I personally don't buy this argument as I've seen more failed cables than I have failed 3-pin bindings, but enough people have made this argument that fairness demands that I should pass it along.

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