The Right Backcountry Ski Gear for YOU:Telemark, Randonnee (AT), Cross-Country and Snowboard Compared

With so many choices, how do you decide? Find the one that will be the most FUN for YOU. Nothing else matters.

Are you itching to get away from the ski areas and ski virgin snow far from the crowds? There is no winter pleasure quite like backcountry skiing and I love to prod the willing into self-powered skiing off the groomed trails. I hope to see you out there. But what do you need to make the move from the industrial skiing of the resorts to the tranquility of the backcountry? There's no simple answer, but I'm going to try to give a basic overview of the types of backcountry gear so you can decide which is right for you.

My Bias

I've been alpine skiing since I was three years old (two and a half actually), started cross-country skiing, both at resorts and in the backcountry, when I was nine. I did my first telemark turns in about 1984 and shared it with my friend Jim, who ended up making PSIA nordic downhill dev team and becoming nordic downhill director at a major ski resort. In 1991, I moved to Switzerland and was introduced to alpine touring, also known as randonnee skiing. The one thing I have not done is use a split board snowboard in the backcountry. That's another totally viable tool for finding your backcountry bliss, but I just can't say much about it from personal experience, though I do snowboard a few days a year and have done some off-piste adventures with boarders.

So which do I think is best? This is a little like the Windows, Apple, Linux debate. The snowboarder versus skier animosity of a decade ago is mostly gone. For reasons that are beyond me, many tele skiers still tend to get pretty snooty about their choice of equipment. So it is with great bravery that I say that personally, I like heavy-duty cross-country equipment for easy terrain and randonnee gear for steep backcountry descents. But isn't telemark synonymous with backcountry? "Free the heel, free the mind" and all that? We'll get to that. I'm not against telemark skiing as a technique. In fact I do it all the time. Many years I make more tele turns than alpine turns in the backcountry, but I usually telemark ski on a very light setup (metal-edged, pattern-based heavy-duty touring ski if you must know, more like the equipment telemarkers were using when the tele revolution started than what they use now). I think that the equipment sold as telemark gear is not the best gear for the backcountry for most people a variety of reasons. I have friends and family members who can shred the backcountry on tele skis and will never pop into alpine skis again, but all of them are or were awesome alpine skiers before converting to tele skiing. More importantly, while I think that tele gear and alpine gear have their merits and demerits for resort skiing, alpine touring gear wins hands down in the backcountry. That's a long discussion that we'll get to later, but I will say that tele gear in recent years has been adopting several of the features that make AT gear better, so the gap is narrowing.

So in brief, my bias is as follows:

  • Rolling terrain: lightweight, metal edged, pattern-based cross-country gear, much like the stuff that started the telemark revolution
  • Resort skiing: whatever floats your boat and gives serious downhill performance.
  • Steeper backcountry routes: alpine touring gear

So What are Your Options?

Enough about where I'm coming from. Let's look at your four basic options:

  • cross-country gear ("XC")
  • split board snowboard
  • telemark ("tele")
  • alpine touring ("AT")

Which is the best? I'll discuss the merits of each in detail, but here is a shortcut: if you are already good at one discipline, use the same method for trying out the backcountry. If you're a resort snowboarder already, use a snowboard. If you're a strong tele skier, just use your tele stuff. If you're an alpine skier, use alpine touring. If you are NOT a strong skier, I would recommend getting started either as a cross-country skier or with AT gear, but we'll get to that.

Gear Advantages Disadvantages
Cross-country Lightweight, inexpensive, excellent for covering long distances Poor downhill performance. Non-releasable bindings (avalanche risk)
Snowboard Many find it easier to learn after that brutal first day. Lets snowboarders use the same skills they've learned at the ski area. Good performance on breakable crust and windblown snow Terrible glide on the flats. Where skiers ski, snowboarders often have to walk or get towed by their skier friends (I once towed a snowboard friend for two miles). Most complicated conversion from climbing to descending. Feet locked together which has resulted in some deaths from boarders getting stuck head-down and suffocating. Non-releasable bindings (avalanche risk). Heavy compared to cross-country gear.
Telemark Same gear works well for ski areas and backcountry. Some people really like having the heel free. Second easiest conversion between uphill and downhill travel (after XC). The highest performance resort setups can still be used in the backcountry if you don't mind the weight. More difficult to learn to ski steeps than AT. Usually non-releasable bindings (avalanche and injury risk). Less comfortable for steep uphill travel (though several new bindings correct his problem). Boots are not crampon-compatible. Ski-crampon systems don't work that well. Heavy compared to cross-country gear (about the same as AT). Releasable systems have no ski brakes (injury risk from retention straps).
Alpine touring Easy transition for alpine skiers. Easy conversion between uphill and downhill modes. DIN-certified releasable bindings common with brakes available. Excellent ski-crampon systems for firm snow. Boots are compatible with crampons. Same gear works well for ski areas and backcountry. Excellent integrated heel risers. Least comfortable boots and least natural gait on the flats. Heavy compared to cross-country gear (about the same weight as telemark gear). Not as high performance as a dedicated alpine setup.

Cross-country gear

This is lightweight gear optimized for covering distance rather than threading steep chutes and hucking cornices. The skis typically have significant camber, metal edges, some sidecut but not much, and a patterned base. They are wider than resort/track skis (perhaps almost twice as wide as a racing ski) and typically somewhat shorter. The boots are typically lightweight leather or synthetic boots, sometimes with a plastic stiffener cuff and usually come up just past the ankle bones. Twenty five years ago, many backcountry telemark skiers would have been on a similar setup.

Many people think metal edges are the essential for downhill performance and are some sort of magic pill, but it simply isn't true. What really determines downhill performance are camber and sidecut. When you put the skis together with the bases touching, the gap under the feet is the camber. Sidecut refers to the hourglass shape of the ski (i.e. the characteristic of being wider at the tip and the tail than in the middle). Essentially, downhill-oriented skis have less camber and more sidecut and that's what really helps with downhill performance. A high-camber ski will tend to put your weight on the tips and tails and that makes the ski more difficult to control on the downhills, but it also makes your touring more efficient. Cross-country skis are usually designed so that if you stand with your weight evenly distributed on both feet, the pattern or wax under foot will not actually touch the snow on a groomed trail. This gives you much better glide on the gentle downhills or when double-poling.

Who's it for?

If you will typically be spending a lot of time on rolling terrain, won't be tackling particularly steep hills or are willing to take some spills on the downhills, this is probably your setup. A cross-country setup is for travel above all. The gear is light and comfortable and gives an incredible sense of freedom compared to heavier systems. If you are a strong skier, you can ski some pretty steep hills and have some great fun on these, but if it's icy, crusty or real steep, you will eat snow (but that's half the fun, right?).

What to look for

Having grown up waxing my cross-country skis, I always preferred the performance of waxable skis, but I make an exception here. It's just a lot less hassle and much simpler for a backcountry setup to have an aggressively patterned base. You can climb steeper hills and they're less likely to slip or ice up than waxable skis.

Second, you will need to go wider than resort skis in order to get some extra flotation. How much depends somewhat on where you live and how light the snow is. Perhaps in the Rockies you'll need to go fairly wide, but in the Sierra or the Northeast, I prefer a ski around 70mm. Why 70mm? Simple, that's the widest ski that will ski comfortably in the groomed tracks at cross-country resorts. When you are starting from a resort to access the backcountry, it's nice to be able to fit into the tracks. If you won't do this at all, you might consider going a bit wider, because 70mm really doesn't give you all that much float.

Personally, I like to keep the setup pretty light overall. I think skis like the Atomic Sierra and the Rossignol Outbound are about perfect. You can step up to skis like the Rossignol Rebound or Outtabounds, which are heavy-duty patterned skis. These latter skis border on the weight of a lightweight tele or AT which will have much higher performance.

Assuming that this will be a touring-oriented setup, you want enough camber (see above) so that when your weight is evenly distributed on both feet, you can slide a sheet of paper under the ski for roughly the length of the patterned part of the base. This lets you glide downhill with minimal weight on the pattern so it grabs less and makes touring more efficient.

Boots too should be fairly light. Common choices are Alpina 100s or Rossignol BCX2. The Rossignols can up bumped up to the BCX 5 without gaining much weight but with a noticeable gain in weatherproofness and performance (because they're taller and stiffer). Obviously, boots that fit are essential, just like for hiking or running shoes.

Poles should be "cross-country" height, meaning about shoulder high. This is inconvenient on downhills, but is essential for efficient touring. On a lightweight setup like this, it's not worth the weight to carry adjustable poles. Just take the wrist straps off and choke up on the poles for steeper downhill terrain.

Snowboard

The first split board was born when someone took a saw and cut a board down the middle. Now they've progressed to nice commercial versions with solid systems to lock the two halves back together for the descent. For the ascent, it works a lot like AT or tele skis. You put skins on the two halves and shuffle along. Simple as that. At the top, you lock it together and you're good to go. The transition is a bit more complicated than with skis, but the fact is that even with skis you still have to get the skins off and stow them in your pack or jacket, so it isn't that fast anyway (though sometimes you can flip your ski up on your shoulder and pull the skins off, but that's another story).

Who's it for?

If you are a strong snowboarder and not a skier, I can't see the point of learning to ski just to get into the backcountry. You'll just be way happier on gear you know as you venture into terrain you don't. If you're just starting as a skier or boarder, try both and see what's more fun for you. Ultimately, there's no reason you can't go skiing in a group of three with one on AT, one on tele and one on a split board, so just maximize fun. A word of warning: your first day on a snowboard can be wet and punishing, but by day two it will get a lot better, so give it three days before you commit to skis or a board.

Alpine Touring versus Telemark Gear: The Great Debate

First off, I would give the same advice that I gave regarding snowboarding: try them both and see which one you like. The point is to have fun and there's a reason that both have their following - they're both fun. Simple as that. Which is more fun? That depends on the person so the best way to decide is by renting both and trying them at a ski area (though try to get off-piste in the crud with both). For strong skiers, either one will be a blast. For weaker skiers, I think alpine touring is easier to get comfortable with in the backcountry, but again, don't take my word for it. Find a place where you can rent both and give it a try.

Let's look at how they compare in terms of:

  • uphill comfort and performance
  • weight
  • downhill performance
  • safety
  • versatility

Uphill Comfort and Performance

How much this matters to you will vary depending on your goals. If you want to ski steep and scary terrain, you'll be willing to sacrifice a lot of comfort on the uphill in order to get the performance that you need on the downhill. You should remember that when you're backcountry skiing, you will spend roughly five to ten times as much time going uphill as going downhill, so no matter how you cut it, comfort and weight are important in a backcountry setup.

These Boots Ain't Made for Walkin'

Time was when tele boots were incomparably lighter and comfier than alpine touring boots which, truth be told, tend to be less comfy than even alpine boots (they use the same cheap "box" construction as plastic tele boots, not the more sophisticated, higher performance and better-fitting "envelope" construction that good alpine ski boots use). Nowadays, though, if you look at the uppers, telemark boots and randonnee boots are practically indistinguishable from each other. In fact if you watch people in the stiffest tele boots walking around a resort, they have the same stiff gait as the folks in alpine boots. At the touring-oriented end of the spectrum, though, the tele boots will be the hands down winners for comfort with both more flexible uppers and, like all tele boots and unlike almost all alpine touring boots, some flex in the toe. Since practically no alpine boots flex in the toe, they are simply cumbersome to walk on dry ground in (actually Scarpa does make an alpine touring boot with some flex in the toe but it is hard to find and not popular at all). AT boots do have a rubber sole that is "rockered" (turns up at the toe), so they are much easier to walk in than downhill boots, but they ain't no sneakers. The lack of toe flexibility means that the comfort difference between the high-performance and touring-oriented AT boots is not that great. So though the gap has been reduced dramatically over the years (mostly by tele boots getting less comfy and a bit by AT boots getting more comfy), with skis off, it is more comfortable to walk in tele boots than alpine boots. With round toes and rockered soles, an AT boot is a lot like a heavy version of a plastic mountaineering boot (remember those?). So who cares? Well, in the early and late season, it's common to hike a mile or two to get to the snow. Frankly, in either case, I prefer to throw my heavy plastic boots on my back and hike in trail runners until the snow gets deep enough to ski on, so I don't actually care that much, but that's just me.

If you're looking to do ski mountaineering where you'll be headed up some steep icy slopes to bag summits or to get to the top of a steep icy slope you plan to ski down, alpine touring boots have a major advantage. For many steep routes in the Sierra and the Alps (and probably other places), you often want to climb up with skis on your back and crampons on your feet. Alpine touring boots are compatible with virtually every step-in crampon and they don't have a big duckbill toe that effectively shortens the front points of the crampons. So whereas I've climbed five-pitch WI4 ice climbs in my AT boots, I wouldn't do that in telemark boots.

Uphill Skiing Performance

On most tours, though, you'll spend the large majority of your time skiing uphill rather than walking. On low-angle hills, the telemark setup will give a more natural feel to your stride because of the bend in the toe. As the uphills get steeper, though, the typical AT setup will ultimately be more comfortable because:

  1. AT heel-lifters are more adjustable. For going uphill, both AT and tele bindings provide heel lifters, sort of like wearing high-heel shoes. This keeps your calves from getting burned as it creates a more level surface to stand on when your skis are pointed steeply uphill. Randonnee bindings allow for at least three and sometimes four settings, whereas tele bindings usually only allow two settings (with and without lifters).
  2. AT bindings pivot on a hinge rather than depending on bending at the toe. The same thing that makes the tele setup superior on low-angle terrain makes it tiring and even painful on steep terrain. Basically, if you get the heel lifted too high with tele boots and heel lifters, you just don't have the bend in the toe anymore, so unless you're in the habit of running in ultra high-heeled shoes, this becomes wearisome. With AT setups, you pivot over a hinge which, on modern bindings, is placed somewhat back from the toes, but not truly under the balls of the feet, which is why it is inferior on low-angle ground (where it would be easier to just bend at the balls of the feet like normal walking) but superior on steep terrain because no matter how steep it gets, you can always keep your foot in a position that is comfortable for both your toes and your calves. As of 2006, though, some tele binding manufacturers figured this out too (after twenty years) and they are now built like AT bindings. If you have one of these new setups, there is no longer an advantage here to AT bindings (and if you are buying bindings, look for that feature).
  3. The hinged binding makes direction changes easier when cutting a track up a steep slope. When you're on steep terrain, you eventually have to start traversing back and forth (and sooner on tele than on AT as just mentioned). When you get to the end of one traverse and turn around, there are basically two ways to do it: the tiring and scary way, and the efficient and less-scary way. The tiring way is the obvious. You pick up your uphill foot, turn in so it's pointing the other direction, and then bring the downhill foot up to match. You can do this with any setup, even dedicated alpine. This can be extremely fatiguing in deep snow. The so-called "Swiss" (even the French say so) efficient way is to finish your traverse with a short section (about a ski length) on a contour, and then to kick the uphill ski back so it almost comes to the knee and step so it points in the new direction. Then to match, you kick the other ski back until the tip comes up, and then you step it around, without having to lift your foot high to get clear of the hill and the snow, using less energy and keeping you in better balance so you are less likely to tumble down that nasty couloir. The thing is, because of the limitations in how much the toe can bend, you can't use the efficient and less scary method with a tele setup, which makes going up steeper hills (above say 15 degrees) nicer in AT gear than in tele gear as a general rule. As I say, as the new tele designs become more prevalent, though, this will be less and less true as the hinged tele bindings allow the same technique.

Twenty years ago I would have said that telemark setups were vastly superior for going uphill. For the last dozen or so years up until the 2006/2007 season, I would have said that alpine touring systems were slightly superior for going uphill, but not to a degree that it would be a major influence on my choice. Randonnee setups still have better heel lifters, but in 2006/2007, G3 came out with a tele binding called the Targa Ascent, a lightweight binding that according to the Mountain Gear catalog is

Guaranteed to alter the future of tele bindings, this new, lightweight binding features a pole-activated system that switches between free-pivot touring and downhill modes. For effortless touring, the toe plate pivots on a stainless steel axle, like an AT binding.

So in other words, that binding effectively takes care of two of the three disadvantages mentioned above. There's no reason that someone couldn't make better heel lifters for tele bindings as this is merely custom and I think like the pivot, these will come soon. At that point, I would say the slight advantage that AT setups currently enjoy will pass to tele setups which will have everything that AT setups have, plus the ability to bend slightly at the ball of the foot. For now, though, with the exception of that one binding, I would rather be on an AT setup for most of the terrain that I ski in downhill-oriented gear and for the rolling terrain, I'll stick to my touring stuff.

Weight

Of course a major component of uphill performance is weight. On a good hard tour, you might lug that gear up 7000 vertical feet in a day and an extra five pounds on your feet will make a big difference in how much effort that requires. There is a persistent belief that tele gear is lighter than randonnee gear. While twenty years ago an alpine touring setup might have weighed twice as much as a tele setup or more, they have converged on similar weights for similar performance levels.

The following chart compares various ski setups as listed in the Mountain Gear catalog for the winter of 2006/2007. If you look around, you can certainly find lighter and heavier gear in any category, but this is a decent representation. Of course, one can find a much heavier "heavy touring" set and a much lighter basic telemark set until the one nearly shades into the other. The point here is to choose a downhill-oriented but touring-capable telemark setup that would be a good equivalent for a lighter randonnnee setup, not a competitor with a cross-country setup. Similarly, the heavy touring setup is not all that heavy, since if it gets too heavy, you're just better off bumping up to a lighter AT or tele setup.

As for AT and Tele skis, there are just so many variables depending on the type of skiing one does and in terms of weight and price, AT and Tele skis are pretty similar and in many cases virtually interchangeable, so I haven't compared specific models.

Setup Boot Binding Skis Package
Heavy Touring 3 lb 8 oz (Alpina NNN BC 1550, $135) 15 oz (Alpina BC Magnum Manual, $68) 4 lb 3 oz (Fischer Rebound Crown, $239) 8 lb 10oz ($442)
Alpine Touring (medium weight) 6 lb 14 oz (Garmont Mega Ride, $600) 1 lb 11 oz (Dynafit TLT Comfort, $400) about 4 lbs for a light pair (several choices, say $500) 12 lb 9 oz ($1500); releasable but not DIN-certified
Telemark (medium weight) 6 lb 15oz (Scarpa T2x, $559) 2 lb 8 oz (Targa Ascent, $290) about 4 lbs for a light pair (several choices, say $500) 13 lb 7 oz, non-releasable ($1349)
High-Performance AT 7 lb 8 oz (Scarpa Denali TT, $529) 4 lb 8 oz (Fritschi Diamar Freeride Plus, $425) about 8 lbs (several choices, say $500) 20 lbs ($1454); DIN-certified releasable
High-Performance Tele (and w/ releasable bindings) 8 lb 4 oz (Scarpa T1, $649) - 4 lb for releasable bindings (Karhu Power Tour 7TM, $299)

- 3 lb 11 oz for non-releasable (Black Diamond O1, $300)

about 8 lbs (several choices, say $500) - 20 lbs 4 oz, with non-DIN releasable bindings ($1448);

- 19 lbs 15 oz with non-releasable bindings ($1449)

A few notes:

  • The light AT setup is releasable and generally reliable (it's been around for years and many of my friends ski on it exclusively), but not DIN-certified (so the release is not as predictable as it might be).
  • There is a huge difference in weight and price between touring on the one hand and both tele and AT on the other
  • There's not that much difference in weight or price between similar performance levels of randonnee and tele.
  • The tele release mechanisms have had difficulties over the years because of the added complexity of setting release when the heel could be in many different spots. Black Diamond / Fritschi tried to enter the market some years ago and couldn't get the release binding to pass DIN certification.
  • With a telemark or AT setup, you will have the added weight of climbing skins, but with a touring setup they are not strictly necessary, which makes the weight difference even more significant.

So basically, I would say that weight and possibly price are good reasons to choose a touring setup over randonnee and tele, but not a good reason to choose between randonnee and tele. As with other aspects of the uphill skiing performance, the differences are minor enough that you should pay more attention to what you find more fun to ski downhill on. In fact, there is more variation between one tele setup and another or one AT setup and another, than between performance-matched tele and AT setups. In other words, you can find a light or a heavy system in either discipline.

Downhill Performance

I have friends, great skiers, who say that anything they can do on alpine skis, they can do on telemark skis. I haven't invested as much time on tele skis as on alpine skis myself, but in general I'm comfortable tele skis on most terrain you would find at a typical ski area, though not on truly steep and narrow couloirs. There can be no denying that alpine skis outperform telemark skis by a wide margin. Consider the following:

  • In open competition on a race course, telemarkers are nowhere close to alpine skiers. The best telemarkers in the world probably couldn't even break into the top 100 at an NCAA Division I slalom. The best tele skier in the world probably couldn't break the top 1,000 in international FIS competition. As far as I know, FIS rules require full release bindings, but they do not require locked heels. If free heels gave better performance, you can be sure it would have been tried on the World Cup circuit but it hasn't and it won't be, no matter what the rules, just like you wouldn't see a NASCAR car win a Formula 1 race. You can simply generate more force more precisely with alpine skis than with telemark skis. No contest. At our local NASTAR course, telemarkers are several seconds back and even one telemarker who until last season hadn't even owned alpine skis in twenty years, was much faster on alpine skis than on teles.
  • Most technically difficult first descents (that is "extreme skiing") are done on alpine equipment. In places like the Alps, where the easy lines were skied long ago, virtually all first descents are done on alpine skis and, occasionally on snowboard, but pretty much never on tele skis. Again, the best telemarkers just simply cannot follow the best alpine skiers on the hardest terrain. I know of some kick-ass tele skiers who nevertheless can always be seen on alpine boards for difficult and dangerous first descents. Again, no contest.

But so what? Who cares? You and I aren't racing in the World Cup or going to ski first descents in the Alps anyway right? No matter what level you are, a little extra stability and control doesn't hurt. My observation after watching my wife struggle to learn to ski as a telemark skier, then switch to randonnee is that the switch immediately opened lots of terrain she couldn't ski on tele boards and then going forward, her progress accelerated dramatically. After a few years of skiing tele she was still frustrated and uncomfortable on black runs at a ski area and was really a hopeless skiing off-piste. On one of the best powder days we've ever seen, she was just wet, crabby and frustrated. Thanks to an incompetent boot fitter in Chamonix who put a hole in her tele boots and was unable to find a replacement in her size, she scored a pair of randonnee boots and reluctantly tried it. Shortly, she was hooked. Now that she can drop into 45 degree couloirs with confidence (albeit with fear too) she could no doubt pick up tele skiing easily with much more enjoyment and success.

The moral of the story?

If you are a strong skier of any type, you may as well stick to what you're already good at. In my experience, good alpine skiers don't have any difficulty learning to tele ski and vice-versa. If you are a strong cross-country skier, you may feel more comfortable on tele and anything will feel strong and stable compared to your skate skis! If, on the other hand, you want access to the widest variety of terrain and you still find the single black diamond and blue trails at the ski area challenging, you'll probably find it a lot easier to make those descents in the backcountry with locked down heels.

Safety

As my friend Jim says: "Remember Tom, Safety Last!" So last but not least, are some safety considerations. Here I just have to say flat out randonnee skis are superior in pretty much every respect for one simple fact: releasable bindings with ski brakes. First, this makes it less likely to break your leg. Breaking your leg at a ski area is one thing, but breaking it in the wilderness, ten miles from help with darkness coming on and below zero temperatures forecast is not a laughing matter. My main evidence is anecdotal, but in my family we have thousands and thousands of ski days both alpine and cross-country, and less than 10% as many on tele setups. Those 10% account for all three broken legs (if you count my grandmother who was on a similar setup back in the day; only two if you count just my brother and my wife on setups actually called "telemark" skis). After seeing two broken legs in a fairly short time, I am a lot more leery of skiing far from help on non-releasable bindings. I would say that injury rates at ski areas are not necessarily comparable, because high-performance alpine skis let you generate so much force that many injuries happen without a fall at all. You don't typically generate those forces in the backcountry though.

There are some releasable tele bindings, but unfortunately, even releasable tele bindings require retention straps, because no tele system that I know of has ski brakes. The only serious ski injury I ever received was because of retention straps and I have seen other people seriously injured because of them. There is a reason why retention straps disappeared from alpine resort skiing within a couple of years of the invention of ski brakes: "safety straps", as they used to call them, were one of the most unsafe components of the alpine ski setup and to go back to them is in fact a major step backwards.

Even if you're not worried about breaking your leg or getting whipped in the head with a whirling ski attached to a "safety" strap, there's still the problem of getting caught in an avalanche. If you do, your skis will be like anchors on your feet whether because the bindings don't release or the "safety" straps don't. Whenever skiing avalanche terrain you should have releasable bindings with brakes rather than retention straps, and either no pole straps or breakaway straps. Is there a chance you might lose a ski or a pole? Yep, but powder straps can help and, in any case, walking out is bad, but not walking out is worse!

So basically, until releasable tele bindings with brakes become available, I'll always feel safer in the backcountry on randonnee skis. At the ski area where avalanches are controlled with blasting and a broken leg is a less serious event, that's another matter. That's why I always say that with current technology, telemark is better suited to resorts than the backcountry.

Versatility

Okay, safety wasn't last. There's one more advantage to randonnee that is worth mentioning, though it won't matter to most people. The randonnee system is, in my opinion, more versatile because step-in crampons work well with AT boots and some AT bindings will accept any mountaineering boots that take a step-in crampon. Yep, it's tough to ski in a lightweight leather boot, but it sure beats having them in your backpack as you telemark ski into an ice climb, and then having frozen ski boots to come back to at the end of your climb. In fact, though, as ice climbing boots and AT bindings diverge, in practice you're probably stuck with two pairs of boots anyway on a hard climb. In any case, most people probably don't care about approaching ice climbs on skis.

Summary

  • Uphill performance: slight nod to AT, but with the latest tele bindings, I think the gap is narrowing and perhaps the advantage has passed to tele, but the differences have become virtually insignificant.
  • Downhill performance: clear victory to AT skis
  • Weight: both very similar these days and likely to stay so
  • Safety: prevalent releasable bindings make AT the clear winner
  • Versatility: the edge goes to AT, but only with certain bindings and in any case, few people will end up using AT skis on ice climbing approaches.

Conclusion

I warned that I am biased towards AT gear and think it's a better tool for the backcountry than tele gear, especially if you are not a strong skier already. I would not say it's a lot better and if you really prefer a tele turn to an alpine turn, far be it from me to talk you out of it, but if that were the case, I doubt you would have read this. I wrote this for people who haven't really mastered either an alpine or a tele turn and yet want to get into the backcountry. For you folks, I think life will just be easier on AT gear. That may not matter to you. I asked one friend who was really struggling to learn how to tele why he preferred it and he said "Because I like challenges and tele skiing was the hardest thing I had tried since learning to talk." Other folks tell me they just like the feel. Personally, I like to get out on my skinny cross-country skis and throw tele turns because it makes me feel like a kid again to take rolling tumbles down powdery slopes and because it makes low-angle slopes that would be a bore on a heavy duty setup (AT or tele) suddenly become much more interesting. When I'm looking to go steep, though, I'll take AT gear.

The key is to get out, have fun and not let your mind be fettered because someone told you that tele is better than AT or AT is better than tele. Like I say: rent each a couple of times and decide based on which puts the biggest smile on your face.