10 Must-Haves for Ski Touring
As a guide I’m able to get out skiing a lot, both professionally and recreationally. And by a lot, I mean a lot. A typical season will see me strapping on skis for over 100 days. At least half of which will be ski touring. The rest will involve helicopters, ski lifts or some other device (or cheat) that helps me maximize the downhill. Anyway, because I spend so much time skiing and testing gear I often get asked about ski related products and what brands or types I prefer to use. Well, here it is: my favorite ski touring gear!
Pack: Mammut Pro X Removable Airbag 3.0
There are a lot of airbag packs on the market now-a-days making it hard to decide on what to get. To complicate matters further, different brands are using a variety of different technologies including canisters, batteries and capacitors. And you don’t want to make the wrong choice as these packs can come with an impressive price tag. Luckily, I’ve had the fortune to test out a variety of different airbag systems and packs over the past few years including various offerings from Mammut, BCA, Snow Pulse, Black Diamond and Arc’teryx. This has given me a good feel for what each brand has to offer and lead me to my go-to bag: Mammut’s Pro X Removable Airbag 3.0.
An absolutely terrible name for what’s an amazing avalanche airbag backpack. It features Mammut’s new Airbag 3.0 which is an upgraded version of their time tested canister system making it a bit lighter and more compact the previous offerings. Not to mention removable and transferable into other packs. The pack itself is amazingly well thought-out, well featured and comfortable to carry.
How do some of the other brands stack up?
- BCA: Well the BCA packs just don’t have the workmanship of the Mammut bags so wear out much quicker and aren’t quite as well thought out. Not a bad option though.
- SnowPulse: They were great back in the day but have been absorbed into Mammut.
- Black Diamond: The JetForce technology is cool but it’s like BD put all the effort into the airbag technology and absolutely no thought into the actual pack. The Pro version is poorly designed and carries like a sac of potatos.
- Arc’teryx: Again the actual airbag technology is amazing, unfortunately I find the pack to be a bit too minimalist and prohibitively expensive.
Of course there are other airbags out there so if you find one that you think we should be testing let me know!
Probe: MSR Striker CX 320
Probes are a fairly simple piece equipment but small differences in design can really impact durability and ease of use. When I’m purchasing a probe I look for something that’s 280cm or longer, anything shorter is quite restrictive. I also want it to be fairly light and have a simple locking mechanism that’s easy to use when wearing gloves. And finally, I avoid probes that are made of small diameter tube as they’re easy to break and, in an emergency, I need my probe to work!
So, what’s my go-to? MSR’s Striker CX 320. It’s at the longer end of the spectrum so it’s great for snow science work as well as touring. But what makes the Striker CX special is the unique composite aluminum-carbon fiber design. The lower half of the probe is made of large diameter aluminum tubing while the upper half is made of carbon fiber. This provides durability and strength where it’s needed while cutting weight where it’s not. This makes it quite light for such a long probe. The only thing I don’t like about it is the dull grey color.
Shovel: Mammut Alugator Light
Mammut’s line of Alugator avalanche shovels are light, durable and very well designed. Of course light is key as no one wants to pack around extra weight if they don’t have to. When it comes time to use your shovel, whether in an emergency, to dig a profile or build a snow shelter, functional design suddenly becomes extremely important. In fact the UIAA has recently come out with a standard for avalanche shovels in an effort to institute a minimum design requirement. This means that certified shovels are now available. Of course Mammut’s entire line of shovels meet this new certification, but the Alugator Light is my favorite.
The Alugator’s shovel blade is big enough to be functional but not so big that it’s hard to fit in a pack. The extendable shaft is brightly colored and has an oval shape to keep the locking pins lined up. And while the Alugator is quite strong and durable, it’s also light so I’m not packing around a bunch of extra weight.
Poles: G3 Via Carbon
The best ski touring poles I’ve ever owned. Every winter I get sent a few new sets of poles to test out and, invariably, I go back to my Via Carbon once I’m done. G3 really hit it out of the park with these simple but functional poles.
They’re light, as you would expect with a carbon fiber shaft, but it’s all other little refinements that really make them stand out. An extension lock that doesn’t come open when skiing through brush. An ergonomic handle with prominent nose that’s designed for raising a heel lift or lifting the toe piece of a tech binding into walk mode. A wrist strap that clips into place so it’s easy to remove. And the list goes on but you get the idea. Well designed and functional.
Skins: Colltex v. Pomoca
Over the last couple of years I’ve tested some Black Diamond skins, a bunch of G3’s new Alpinist+ skins as well as a pair of their Minimist Universal skins. But before all that I had a pair of Colltex and a pair of Pomoca skins which are still my favorite. It’s really a toss-up between the two. They were both great to use: durable, compact, light with solid climb and glide characteristics.
The BD skins come as a bit of an arts and crafts project. The box contains all the pieces for you to build some skins yourself, a bit annoying. Aside from that, the nylon skins I tested worked reasonably well with good grip and ok glide but they’re a bit bulky and heavy. The pure mohair skins I tried out were terrible, luckily for consumers, they’re no longer available.
G3 has done a great job with their new(ish) line of Alpinist+ skins. The only downsides that I’ve experienced is that they can be a bit bulky with the large plastic tip and they haven’t quite nailed the perfect glue. I’ve put about 80 days on a set of the Alpinist+ Universal skins and I’m getting lots of patches with no glue. That’s quite a few days mind you, but I’ve had glue on other skins stand up to that type of service.
So I guess what I’m saying is that my go-to skins are not currently in service but you can bet that I’ll pick up a pair this summer when everything’s on sale.
Ski Touring Bindings: G3 Ion 12
Since Dynafit’s patent on tech bindings expired in 2014 the field has really opened up with an amazing amount of innovation. Some of the new hybrid free-ride bindings like the Shift or Tecton are really blurring the difference between downhill and touring bindings while companies like ATK are trimming them down so much that they weigh about the same as an energy bar! However, in-between the free-ride beasts and the up-hill focused pseudo-bindings are some amazing touring bindings that balance downhill performance with uphill efficiency. At the top of this list is the G3 Ion 12.
Unlike most lightweight tech bindings they utilize forward pressure to absorb energy and provide a more reliable release. On my old Dynafit Radical bindings I’d have to lock the toe whenever skiing anything icy as just a bit of edge chatter and the ski would pop off my feet. Not an issue with the Ion’s. Basically, G3 found the sweet spot when it comes to weight, reliability and performance making the Ion 12 my favorite all-round touring binding.
Helmet: Mammut Wallrider MIPS
I’m a big fan of wearing a helmet when skiing whether it’s at the resort, backcountry, slack-country or mechanized. However, due to the testing requirements for ski helmets I personally find that they tend to be a little hot and over-designed for ski touring. I just want something that will fit over my touque (a beanie for you non-Canadians) and protect my head on the downhill. It doesn’t need a bunch of fancy vent closures, padding, speakers and so on. This led me away from traditional ski-certified helmets to the Wallrider MIPS.
Now the Wallrider is technically a climbing/mountaineering helmet. That means it’s more designed to protect the wearer from falling objects than from high-speed crashes. However, it features MIPS technology which is a multi-directional brain protection system common in ski and bike helmets. The addition of this technology in the helmet made me feel better about using it for skiing. The Wallrider even has a goggle clip on the back!
Gloves: Arc’teryx Venta AR for the Up & Hestra Army Leather Heli-Ski for Down
I’ve divided this glove section of the review into two parts, a pair for the up-track and a pair for the decent. Of course glove (or mitten) choice depends on the weather, but I find that this combo works quite well for most of the season. The Arc’teryx Venta AR make a great glove for skinning uphill as they breath well, have durable leather palms and fingers and of course are quite dexterous. The Hesta gloves on the other hand are great for the downhill and they’re quite warm, almost as dexterous and of course quite durable. I’ve found that I don’t need to use mittens in any but the coldest of temperatures as the Hestra Heli Ski gloves are quite warm. The downside of course is the price, nothing Hestra is inexpensive!
Jacket Layering System:
There are just so many options when it comes to layering and it can be a very personal choice based on what fits well, colors, availability and so on. That being said, my favorite jacket layering system for ski touring is outlined below. I seem to have gone primarily Arc’teryx with my selection but could just have easily gone with Mammut or Patagonia (though their sizing is all over the place) or so on. It’s the type of jacket/insulation that’s key.
Light Wind-Breaker Jacket: Arc’teryx Gamma SL. I wear the Gamma SL right over my base-layer as a thin and breathable sun/wind protection layer. The Gamma SL is ideal as it’s stretchy, fits great and breaths amazingly well. It could use a chest or media pocket though.
Mid-Layer: Arc’teryx Proton FL. I wear the Proton FL directly over the Gamma SL for additional insulation on the up-track and as my top layer when skiing down. As an active insulation piece I find that it provides the warmth I need while still breathing quite well. The snug cuffs and the trim fit also works great to keep snow out.
Extra Insulation Layer: Arc’teryx Nuclei FL. Lightweight, warm and packable, I always have the Nuclei FL (or the AR) in my pack when I’m skiing in all but the coldest of temperatures. I ski a lot on the west coast and so prefer a synthetic jacket as I don’t have to worry about getting it wet! I just throw it over whatever else I’m wearing if I get cold.
You may have noticed that I didn’t include a hard-shell in my jacket layering system. I tend to avoid wearing Gore-Tex shell jackets unless it’s quite windy or wet/snowy and so opted to focus more on the insulation layers.
Pants: Outdoor Research Trailbreaker II Pant
When it comes to ski touring pants I’m a huge fan of softshells. They breathe better than a hardshell and offer superior freedom of movement as the fabrics have more give and stretch. Of course they’re less waterproof but unless I’m sitting on chairs at the local ski hill they’re water resistant enough to keep me dry. My personal go-to softshell ski touring pants are the OR Trailbreaker II. They’re comfortable to wear and well featured with big vents on the side, pockets where I need them and a powder cuff. A simple, well designed pant. I’m not sold on the colors though, brown and back are just a little hum-drum.
As I’m sure you noticed, I didn’t name any skis or boots for this review. The reason is that they’re such a personal choice. The right boots are the ones that fit your feet the best. The right skis are the ones that match your skill and style and the objective.
Note: Black Sheep Adventure Sports is at times provided with test samples for review, of course this does not influence us in any way.
Un-credited photos were taken by Monte Johnston.