As the ski industry responds to the surge of interest in touring and skiing outside of ski area boundaries, the variety of boots and bindings designed for backcountry travel is growing immensely. And because of the varying needs and interests of skiers, there are a lot of different styles of gear out there intended to get skiers up and down mountains.
Of course, with the increase of available “AT” (alpine touring) equipment, we’ve seen a big increase in confusion about (1) what all of this gear is really for, (2) what type of skier it is really for, and (3) which boots are compatible with which bindings.
So we’ve put together this breakdown of the different categories of bindings and boots currently available.
This is not an exhaustive list, but it should be a good start for anyone trying to wade through the marketing hype, acronyms, and hyperbole surrounding this equipment, and it is a document that we can and will be updating.
First of all, we’ll try to clear up boot sole standards as determined by the International Standards Orginization, typically referred to as ISO. For our purposes we’re mainly going to reference ISO 9523 and ISO 5355.
The ISO 9523 standard applies to most dedicated ski touring boots, and is characterized by boot soles that are rockered for easy walking and have soft rubber for better traction than the hard plastic of a traditional alpine boot sole provides.
Notable exceptions to this include randonee racing boots, the Dynafit TLT6, and the Atomic Backland boots, which are for tech bindings only and do not adhere to ISO 9523 because they are not compatible with any types of frame bindings (see below) due to the sole blocks being too short and not shaped correctly for those bindings.
The ISO 5355 standard refers to most standard alpine boots that are designed with flat soles and standardized dimensions. They are designed to work with any alpine binding, and are also compatible with frame-style touring bindings.
A third and newer standard is Walk To Ride (WTR). WTR boots are less rockered than a typical 9523 sole, have hard plastic pieces at binding interfaces, and are intended to work with specially designed ski bindings that also bear the WTR moniker. WTR boots are typically close in design to traditional alpine boots, though they can also have tech inserts.
Alpine Touring Bindings
AT bindings also come with their share of confusing language, which we’ll try to clear up a bit:
Tech bindings (sometimes mistakenly referred to as “Dynafits” — in the same way that waterproof-breathable fabrics are all mistakenly referred to as “Gore-Tex,” or tissues are called “Kleenex”) use a series of pins that interface with “tech inserts” in the toes and heels of compatible boots.
Most of the boots mentioned below except for the some of the “alpine boots with walk mode” have these inserts. We’re including newer style tech bindings like the Marker Kingpin and Dynafit Beast in this “Tech Bindings” category.
(For more on the difference between alpine bindings and tech bindings, please see our article Skiing 201: How Bindings Work.)
Frame-style bindings are AT bindings on which the heel and toe resemble traditional alpine bindings and are connected by a metal or plastic frame.
When in walk-mode, the entire binding lifts off the ski with the boot. Examples of frame bindings include the Fritschi Freeride series, Marker Duke, and Salomon Guardian / Atomic Tracker.
Most—but not all—frame bindings are compatible with ISO 9523. A notable example of frame bindings that will not take ISO 9523 is the original Salomon Guardian, which was only compatible with WTR boots and alpine (ISO 5355) boots. Newer versions of the Guardian are designated “MNC” (Multi Norm Compatible), and are compatible with ISO 9523 boot soles. So check before you buy if you’re not sure which version you’re getting.
Traditional alpine bindings are only compatible with ISO 5355, unless otherwise specifically stated by the manufacturer. Despite all of the ski patrollers and others you might see in the tram line who ski rocker-soled AT boots (ISO 9523) in traditional alpine bindings, this combination is not designed to have a reliable interface and safe release.
WTR (Walk to Ride) Bindings
WTR-designated bindings typically work with all traditional alpine boots (ISO 5355) and all WTR boots. Some WTR alpine bindings, specifically the Marker Lord and the newest version of the Salomon Warden MNC (see below) are designed to work with all three standards, including ISO 9523.
MNC (Multi Norm Compatible) Bindings
One final category is called MNC, and these are alpine bindings that will accept all three standards discussed above: traditional alpine bindings (ISO 5355); WTR; and rocker-soled AT bindings (ISO 9523).
To my knowledge, there are currently only two non-touring alpine bindings in this class, and they are the Marker Lord and the 2016 Salomon Warden MNC. These bindings are designed with a sliding “AFD” (Anti-Friction Device—it helps with lateral release), and they have a large range of adjustment in toe height to facilitate consistent release when using grippy rubber, rocker-soled boots.
NEXT: Alpine Touring Boots