Over the past few years we have tested about 20 different models of Alpine Touring aka AT bindings and watched with joy as they have improved in weight savings, quality and ease of use.
Every AT binding tested saw 20-100 days of use in the front country, slack country and backcountry. They have been thoroughly abused and so far all have stood up to the test, some better than others. All of the AT bindings have been tested by a 6 foot 4 inch, 200+ pound skier who spends almost every day possible on snow.
The last couple years of AT binding testing have seen a decrease in new technology being added to frame bindings, and nearly zero notable improvements to this more antiquated solution, while the tech world has been working towards simplifying and strengthening their products and cutting weight. All of this with a boot market that is pushing right along side of it, creating solutions for people who want to ski harder but carry less.
Salomon dove head first into the touring game a couple years ago, and the MTN Tech Binding is the perfect way for them to continue their dominance as a leading ski brand with a great binding with just a few caveats.
The Dynafit Radical 2.0 makes some big and significant changes from its predecessor, moving it closer to a perfect binding. For a tech binding, the elasticity promoting toe piece is one of its best features and the binding tours and skis very well. This binding is a great choice for all skiers, except for the extremely weight conscious.
The Ion LT is a solid binding for the crowd who wants the security and downhill performance of a heavier setup, but are less concerned with all the extra features such as brakes and step in guides. The Ion LT is a great binding for the experienced tech user looking to lighten their load.
The Superlight binding from Dynafit is a nice bridge between the race world and the more traditional ski touring world. It offers decent security at a low weight class. The binding successfully offers a lightweight option to skiers who ski as much as they walk, but forgoes catering to the freeride scene.
Our tests have eaten up countless days of hard touring and skiing (poor us right?). We have put all of these AT bindings through the ringer and then some. Our tester has spent too much time outside of these tests breaking gear that received good reviews elsewhere, and thus he feels the need to be sure that a binding will stand up to its expectations beyond just a quick test at a ski resort. We find it important to illustrate the differences in uphill and downhill so that the consumer can select a binding based on their intended use.
We look forward to testing some of the other AT bindings coming to market in the future, including the newest offerings from Fritcshi in the Evo 12 and the Tecton, as well as some whisperings about an interesting solution for freeriders coming from Salomon. G3 has revamped their Ion line, and its always fun to see what new gear we might see from the guys over at Dynafit. We think this batch of products is one of the strongest yet, and they will only improve from here. The trend also seems to be drifting away from frame AT bindings as consumers build their confidence in the tech offerings out there to choose from.
Ease of Entry
This years test didn’t show a clear winner in the ease of entry category of AT bindings. The Superlight just barely came out on the bottom, and only because it is a minimalist AT binding without attention to things like beginner-friendly step in guides. All three other AT bindings came in around the same level for different reasons. The Lab Tech has a guide, but often we found that it would “pre engage” and click in before the toes of the boot were properly aligned. The Radical 2.0’s newest safety addition in the rotating toe is also to the detriment of trying to efficiently step in and go. The Ion LT is the lightweight version of their AT binding and thus ditches some of the ease of entry features.
Ease of Transition
All four AT bindings require stepping out of the binding to go from ski to touring mode, but that’s not the only form of transition. We found the Lab Tech from Salomon to do the best job of making transitions easy. The heel piece rotates independently of the lifter levers meaning that if you are just mini-golfing you can just flip the levers down to cover the pins and go uphill as long as you don’t need to skin flat. The lifters are easy flips with either end of a ski pole or whippet. The heel piece of the Lab Tech is easily the simplest in the group, but the way it works is genius. It was a dead heat for second place on our other threeAT bindings. The Superlight has you spending lots of time bending over to put it where you want it, the Ion LT’s flippers work great, but the conventional heel piece leaves plenty to be desired. The Radical 2.0 is tough to switch because of the break, and sometimes needs to be forced to get it back to ski mode.
The Ion LT, Superlight, and Lab Tech all received the same uphill performance score. The Radical 2.0 was the lowest in this category, mostly due to weight and brakes not being removable. If we were to award a tiebreaker here based on weight alone the Superlight takes the win, but all around uphill movement in our mind probably goes to the Lab Tech with its easy to use risers, minimalist design and weight that comes out in the middle. The Lab Tech can be used in flat skinning mode, but can also be used for quick laps by simply flipping the lifter levers over the pins allowing you to quickly switch to downhill for mini laps with lots of transitions.
The Lab Tech and the Radical 2.0 took home top scores in this category. Tiebreaker would go to the Radical 2.0 for its impact dampening toe rotation unit. We like the idea of not pre-releasing on a side impact that otherwise would likely only cause us a momentary loss of balance. The 2.0 skis more like an alpine binding and less like a traditional tech AT binding. We spent days skiing this AT binding hard in and out of bounds and have nothing but good things to say about it on the descent. While the Ion LT and the Superlight scored the same for downhill, our confidence in cranking hard fast turns is probably higher in the Ion LT than the rigid, and lightweight Superlight AT binding.
The Radical 2.0 and the Lab Tech took home top ranks in overall security. We think it’s fair to give the nod here to the 2.0. The rotating toe piece really does keep you in the AT binding when you might otherwise have an annoying or even dangerous tech release that an alpine binding wouldn’t allow. The Salomon leaves little to be desired however, when it comes to being locked in. The click on the toe piece is reassuring and in testing in extreme situations we had zero issues. The Superlight took in the low honors here simply on overall feel — like it needed to be skied with the toe locked out most of the time. No AT binding in this test performed badly in the security department, and our tester had no problem skiing all of them confidently.
What better way to test AT bindings than to tour and ski? And with a tester who is 6-foot-4-inch, 200+ pound, these bindings get pounded on, hard. It’s well beyond what most skiers will do to their own AT bindings.
Ease of Entry
Ease of Entry is tested simply on replication. We realize that every AT binding may have a bit of its own learning curve, and that’s fine. But when we have an experienced tech user who consistently has a hard time stepping into an AT binding, it may leave room for some criticism. A 10 in this category would be stepping in to something as easy as a standard alpine binding, while a lower score would be something akin to strapping in to an old 3 pin.
Ease of Transition
To us, the crown jewel here would be something that has the ability to go from ski to walk and walk to ski without ever stepping out of the toe piece, while maintaining the same burliness that we find in some of today’s most recent pieces like the Radical 2.0, the Salomon Tech and the G3 Ion. The Fritschi Vipec made an attempt at it, but plastic got in the way of durability. So for our tests it comes down to how easy is it to switch modes, switch lifter levels and if applicable, operate the brakes. Like Ease of Entry, there is a learning curve with every style of AT binding, and so it is upon repetition that we figure out which ones are the most user friendly in the test.
Uphill Performance is a combination of weight, lifter use and lifter height. While something like the Superlight will get a boost in rating from being extra light in comparison, it may lose a bit since it only really has two lifter modes and the highest is significantly lower than the competitors. We find this important so users don’t end up hating on their partners for setting a skin track that is uncomfortably steep. Lifters are expected to be easy to adjust with the pole basket or handle. A great example here is the Ion LT with gaps between the lifter tabs that make it very easy to flip between them with almost any part of a ski pole.
We think the best way to see how well these AT bindings ski downhill is with some hot laps on the resort through various terrain. An ideal AT binding transfers power, has similar release capabilities and feels secure like an alpine binding. Now, that may be asking too much for some of the AT bindings that really aren’t designed for hammering moguls all day, but if that’s our holy grail, then we like to see how close they can come. AT bindings like the Kingpin and Radical 2.0 are on the right track, and it will be interesting to see what the future versions of these look like.
This goes hand-in-hand with downhill performance, but can be just as crucial on the uphill. No one likes to step out of the toe piece during a kick turn. Security is both how solid it feels when stepping into the toe piece and clicking into the heel piece. The G3 and the Salomon are good examples of high confidence on the uphill and the downhill. The softer click of something like the Superlight is not only more likely prelease up and down, but also in the world of skiing, confidence is a huge part of what we are willing to do on a binding. We personally look for a nice convincing snap to make sure we are ready to ski how we want to.
What is an Alpine Touring (AT) Binding?
Within the AT binding category there are Frame Bindings and Tech Bindings. Most backcountry skiers these days are trending towards the tech market as that is where most of the research and development is centered as well as providing more efficiency for long days in the mountains. Examples of Frame bindings are The Marker duke or the Fritcshi Freeride. Tech bindings would be G3 Ion, Dynafit anything and Salomon Tech. We are noticing a trend towards higher quality, more thought out products that stems at least in part from a more competitive market. The main benefit from this is the consumer has a lot of choices to fit their needs and a sense of competition for their business.
Tech bindings in particular are not something that you necessarily would want to look for that bottom line price as your only deciding factor, however very few people need to drop over $800 on some top of the line race binding either. Most tech bindings cost $400-$650 and what you choose should be a combination of budget and your intended use.
Dynafit gets the kudos for inventing and producing the oldest versions of the tech binding that we see today during the mid 1980’s. If you haven’t checked out the binding museum over at Lou Dawson’s haunt, it would certainly be worthwhile for the history buff.
AT bindings are typically some combination of plastic with titanium, aluminum, carbon, and steel. Some companies use much more plastic than others while a high tech race binding is likely mostly titanium, and your bank account will show that.
Toe Piece – Two pins that clamp to the outside of the toe of the boot and can lock for uphill or no fall skiing.
Heel Piece – On most tech bindings, it features two pins that insert into the heel of the boot. On most bindings this is where release values are set and the lifters are located.
Lifter -Tabs that flip up to allow your heel to rest higher or lower with each step depending on incline.
Transition – Switching from ski to skin or vice versa.