The Wacky World Of Touring Bindings

The Wacky World Of Touring Bindings
November 2, 2016 Phil Tomlinson

Re-posted from my handy dandy blog.

Much like how buying skis used to be simple but is now hilariously complex, the same goes for bindings. I’m going to try and demystify it a bit. I will probably fail.

**Disclaimer: Bindings are serious stuff – failure to get it right can result in your knees exploding if you’re lucky, or death if you’re not. I am not a professional, just some guy who’s looked at bindings a bit over the years. I’m presenting this information as I understand it – anything and everything could be wrong. I have not torn apart most of these bindings; I have not even skied most of them. Unless you 100% know what you’re doing, I don’t recommend working on your own bindings. The purpose of this article is to share what I’ve read and maybe help you figure out what might be best for you. I strongly recommend you consult a reputable shop before using anything I say. **

In an age long gone (4-5 years ago?) buying touring bindings was pretty straight forward. There were basically two players in the game and choosing was easy. If you’d ever tried Dynafit, you had Dynafit. If you hadn’t yet tried Dynafit, you probably argued about how you liked the flexibility and durability of the Fritschi Free Ride bindings even though (based entirely off of my own anecdotal evidence) they weighed way more, had a worse pivot and broke way more than the flimsy looking Dynafits. There were then a few niche players – Marker made resort bindings that were big on beef but still broke and a tour/walk mechanism that iced continuously and G3 had their knock-off of Dynafit called the Onyx which was an abomination that was impossible to get your boot into in deep snow.

So, if you knew what you were doing and had a dedicated backcountry rig, you had Dynafits. They were the lightest option, they were the strongest and they did what it said on the box. They also had enough patents on their tech that it was almost impossible for new players to compete.

Then those patents expired after years of Dynafit seemingly not doing a whole lot of development.

Then Dynafit released the Radical series with their fancy anti-rotation heel and heel towers started exploding so the durability argument for Dynafit went out the window. A few iterations on and they seem to be finally sorting things, but they burned a lot of the community’s good will getting there.

Then G3 learned from their mistakes and came out with the Ions which were basically Dynafits, with some new safety features and without the same volume of failures.

Then Marker came out with the Kingpins which promised Dynafit-like weight in a resort-able package.

Then Fritschi basically conceded defeat on frame bindings and came out with a tech binding that I have only seen a single pair of in the wild.

Then Salomon/Atomic came out with both a Fritschi clone AND an ultralight ski-mo Dynafit clone.

Then Dynafit came out with the Radical 2.0 which attempts to move them into the modern era of tech bindings.

What follows, is going to be my attempt to describe each binding – what it’s trying to accomplish is just to help you make an informed decision without having to resort to either a sales person who doesn’t actually know what they’re talking about or reading 9 million pages on the internet.

As usual, a few caveats

  1. I am just some f—wad on the internet. You shouldn’t implicitly trust anything I say.
  2. This is all (both preceding and proceeding) my personal opinion based on not much more than my own anecdotal evidence and reading what other random people on the internet have said which means you really shouldn’t trust anything I say.
  3. I am only looking at general backcountry bindings – no ski-mo stuff and no slack country/freeride stuff.
  4. Bindings are arguably the most important part of your ski setup. They’re what keep your knees from exploding. I cannot overstate how seriously you should take them.

Frame vs. Tech

There are two and a half major classes of binding Frame and Tech.

Frame Bindings

Frame bindings resemble resort bindings with a pivot. In the backcountry, Fritschi Free Rides are probably the most iconic example. They have a resort style heel and toe pieces that are connected by some sort of spine that goes under your boot. In a fall, generally the toe and/or heel piece rotates allowing lateral release and the heel piece actually slides backwards slightly while pivoting up which allows vertical release. The pivot during touring comes from a mechanical pivot on the binding – by necessity it is forward of the boot.

Pros: Frame bindings have historically been safer for your knees. The reason for this is that the heel piece is in continuous contact with your boot and as the ski flexes, the heel piece actually moves forward and back without affecting how hard it is to release the binding.

Cons: With every step, you lift not only your boot, but the whole damn binding. Not only is the system generally quite a bit heavier, but the weight is lifted. On a tech binding, everything stays on the ski. Forward pivot location leads to a less natural gait.

Tech Bindings

Tech bindings use pins at the toe and heel to hold your boot in place. Dynafit is obviously the most famous here. Traditionally, vertical release came from spreading the two pins in the heel while lateral release came from rotating the whole heel tower. The pivot during touring comes from the two pins in the tech insert in the toe of the boot. Because there’s no mechanical pivot to accommodate the axis of rotation can be farther back towards the ball of the foot giving a more natural gait.

Pros: Super light – ski-mo variants are featherweights. Despite this, they’re historically tougher. Also has a much better touring gait than frame bindings.

Cons: Release is a bit more binary than a frame binding – binding can release unexpectedly in choppy conditions where a frame binding would absorb a bit more chatter. Biggest historical con: the tech gap (more on that later).

Hybrids

Hybrids are new and they combine a pin toe with a resort style heel trying for the best of both worlds – the pivot of a tech binding with the release of a frame binding. Marker Kingpin is the most prevalent.

Pros: Lighter than Frame Binding. Better release than a traditional tech binding.

Cons: Heavier than a true tech binding. Can’t use the crazy light tech-specific boots because you need the heel welt of a boot designed for frame bindings.

The Tech Gap

Okay. The Tech Gap. Get ready for some geometry.

Skis flex. It’s a wonderful thing they do that lets them turn. Take a piece of paper and draw two points 10cm apart. Now ‘flex’ that paper like a ski and measure the straight line distance between the two points. It’s now shorter. If you stuck a 10cm stick on the paper between those two points, the paper couldn’t flex under that stick. Got it? That stick is your boot. In order to allow your ski to flex under the boot, tech bindings have traditionally had a gap between the heel tower and the back of your boot.

For Dynafits, this gap is normally 5.5mm (but depends on the model because uh, some reason). This gap allows the pins to slid in and out of the tech insert at the back of your boot. Everything flexes and everything is happy.

Except there’s one tiny (possibly huge) problem. Those pins sliding in and out of your boot are actually connected by a spring. In a Dynafit Radical heelpiece, when the binding releases vertically, the pins have to get past the tech insert in the back of your boot. To do this, they spread. This spreading compresses a spring. As the pins slide deeper into your boot, the amount of force required to spread the pins increases as the leverage on them decreases. All of a sudden that release value of 7 you dialed in is actually something higher. So what does this mean?

Well, let’s say your knee is precisely calibrated to explode at a release value of 7.5 but you know that at an RV of 6.5 your ski likes to come off your foot when nuking. So you pick an RV of 7 as a nice happy balance. Except then you get your weight too far forward, hit a compression and go ass over teakettle mid-turn. Because you’re mid-turn, your ski is flexed, the pins are more deeply engaged into the tech insert. So is that RV still 7? Well, probably not. It’s something higher. Sure hope it’s below the explodey-knee level.

This has traditionally been my biggest beef with tech bindings – I’ve twice injured my MCL in a forward fall when my ski didn’t release and I attribute that failure to release to this tech-gap issue. I could be totally wrong. Luckily, I ski like a pansy, so now I just keep my RV super low and I haven’t had an issue since – but I resort to ugly hacks like locking toe-pieces to keep my skis from coming off in no-fall zones which is a really, really bad idea. I’m stoked for something better.

Making Tech Bindings More Knee Friendly

Dynafit was the eight-million-pound gorilla that everyone was trying to take on – so they needed to differentiate. The way most of the brands did this is by trying to make bindings – which are basically a safety device – safer.

Everyone had a different tact that they tried. Fritschi’s big claim to fame is that their toe can do a lateral release which is I think unique and cool, but I hear it’s fiddly. Marker and Trab combined tech toe pieces with something that looks more like a traditional resort heel piece. And G3 got it right (in my humble and always correct opinion).

What G3 did is spring load the heel piece and eliminate the ‘tech gap’. Basically, as your ski flexes, instead of the pins moving in and out of the tech insert in your boot, the entire heel tower moves back and pin engagement remains the same. In theory this should make for a much more consistent release.

Dynafit thought this was such a wonderful idea that they did the same thing on the Radical 2.0 while also incorporating a rotating toe piece to theoretically facilitate rotational release. Oh, and to be fair, now that I think about it, the spring loaded heel piece might have actually first showed up on the Dynafit Beast bindings, but those are so weird I’m not even considering them in this article. Not sure who ripped off who, but it’s becoming a prevalent industry trend.

The important thing is that almost everyone in the industry seemed to realize that having a consistent release force was really important.

Okay, now let’s compare specific bindings.

Frame Bindings

Just don’t. The only reason to buy frame bindings (in my heavily biased/correct opinion) is if there’s some serious reason why you just can’t use tech bindings.

Just look at the weight – Fritschi Eagle: 1kg/ski, Salomon Guardian: 1.5kg/ski, Marker Tour F12: 1.1kg/ski. Now look at the heaviest model G3 ION Model – the ION 12 with Brakes: 585g.

You will save at least a half a kilo per foot AND you won’t be lifting the binding with every step.

IF you don’t have tech compatible boots, don’t want new boots and MUST get a set of skis right away, go look at frame bindings, but otherwise when it comes to frame bindings, it’s either old tech (Fritschi Eagle) or it’s stuff meant for people who spend most of their time at the ski resort and only head into the back country long enough to hit a trick booter and get rescued by SAR.

That was easy.

Tech Bindings and Hybrids

I’m starting with the oldest tech.

Dynafit TLT Speed Radical

Weight: 370g/ski

Notes: No Brakes, Release Value (RV) 4-10

The speed Radical is basically the model that Dynafit has been selling for a few years but with the brakes chopped off. It’s older tech and basically still exists as a budget/lightweight option. It has no anti-rotation tech, so while touring, sometimes the heel tower will spin around and lock your foot down. This has been known to drive people insane when they get a little nob of built up snow on the sole of their boot and every third step puts them in ski mode requiring that they take their bindings off.

Pros: Light, cheap, really good chance that someone has spare parts since I’m pretty sure it uses the same basic heel tower as the rest of the Radical and Vertical lines which have been around for ages. I personally have three sets of Radical/Vertical bindings.

Cons: Old tech means no fancy knee saving features. Non-locking tour position in the heel will make you hate life. No brakes so they try to run away.

Dynafit TLT Radical ST 2.0

Weight: 600g/ski

Notes: Comes with Brakes, DIN 4-10

The new hotness from Dynafit, though they’re continuing to sell the original Radical (even if MEC  doesn’t seem to carry it). Weight has increased by 13% over the previous generation but that extra weight has brought a few interesting features I mentioned earlier.

First up, there’s the new rotating toe piece. The idea is that this promotes a smooth lateral release. Secondly, they’ve mounted the heel tower on a spring loaded track so that it moves as the ski flexes. Sum total, this binding is aiming to give you a more consistent vertical release and a smoother lateral release. This is sort of a big deal. In fact, this is one of the first tech bindings to be certified by TUV (fancy standards group) to be DIN certified (like a resort binding).

The mounting pattern has been made wider than before. This is a double edged sword though – on the one hand, a wider mounting pattern has been long overdue with tech bindings – skis are fat now, bindings should use that by using a wider mounting pattern which diminishes the torque on the mounting screws. I’m perpetually terrified of tearing my bindings out – and in fact they get scary loose at times and need to be retorqued and epoxied – so I really like a wider mounting pattern. The downside is that you’re going to need to re-drill your skis if you’re upgrading (but remounting in the same holes always makes me feel squiffy anyway).

Dynafit Radical FT 2.0

Weight: 630g/ski

Notes: Comes with Brakes, DIN 5-12

Okay, I’m going to be honest, I did 2 seconds of research on this binding. Now, before you call me lazy, I promise there’s a reason. That reason is the previous generation of Radical bindings.

<begin diatribe> The difference between the Vertical ST/FT and the Radical ST/FT bindings was the same.

First, there was some sort of plate that connected the heel and toe piece. The marketing material said that it provided extra stiffness or something. As far as I could tell after looking at the things, is that it was a piece of plastic. Even if it did do something, a ski is designed with a specific stiffness profile; why you would want to increase the stiffness of the ski exclusively under the boot, I have no idea.

The second difference was that the original FTs (Vertical and Radical) had a din that went from 6-12 instead of 5-10 thanks to what was claimed to be a stiffer spring. Um, actually, they just stuck a washer in there to let the adjustment screw get a little extra compression out of the spring.

Price difference between the ST and FT? $100. Difference? A piece of mostly (all?) plastic and a washer. Maybe there were further differences that I couldn’t find – but if so, they were pretty well hidden. <end diatribe>

But, that was then, and this is now. The Radical FT 2.0 is 30g heavier than the ST 2.0 and doesn’t have the connector plate between the heel and toe. Instead, the toe and heel pieces apparently mount on aluminum plates that are plastic in the ST and according to Dynafit, it increases the torsional rigidity by 12% but I haven’t seen anything that backs that up.

I like that Dynafit is really upping their development again. I’m disappointed that it took them losing their market dominance for that to happen, but I’m not totally surprised.

Personally, I’m worried about durability though. The Dynafit Radical 1.0 had a pretty rough few years of them exploding with numerous iterations and recalls. Matt Breakey alone had two heel pieces break on major trips. Dynafit used to make bulletproof gear, but went through a rough patch. Maybe they’re back to making bomber gear, maybe not. Time will tell.

G3 ION

Okay, I’m not going to outline every single binding in the ION family. There’s 3 – ION 10 LT, ION 10 and ION 12.

Weight: 460g/585g/585g

Notes: ION 10 LT has no brakes, the others do. RV is 4-10 on the 10 models and 5-12 on the 12.

The ION 10 is the competitor to the Radical ST and the ION 12 goes up against the FT. I haven’t been able to find any evidence that they have TUV certification, but they do have the spring loaded heel piece which should offer a more consistent vertical release. They don’t have a rotating toe piece like the Dynafits, though I’m not totally convinced how useful that particular feature is.

The ION 10 LT ditches the brakes and shaves a few parts down to save a pretty significant amount of weight. Personally I really like brakes and I wouldn’t give them up, but if you’re looking for a ski mountaineering solution, could be an interesting option.

There are a few things I really like about the G3 Binding. First, they have that moving heel piece for consistent vertical release – I haven’t scientifically fallen on them a bunch of times (or ever), but the tech makes sense in my head. Second, I haven’t heard many people complaining about them exploding.  Given the recent Dynafit problems, I like not hearing about bindings exploding. The last thing I really like about G3 is that they’re a Canadian company takin on the best in the business. They were one of, if not THE first company to take Dynafit on in the tech binding space, and they’ve been learning from their mistakes. The G3’s are price competitive and I think it’s their appearance on the scene that helped force Dynafit to start really innovating again.

Also, I always root for the underdog.

Fritschi Vipec

Fritschi made frame bindings forever. Then everyone started putting tech inserts in their boots and got over their fear of tiny bindings and the writing was on the wall for ‘light’ frame bindings so they decided to come out with a tech binding – the Vipec.

It was an instant mess. There were problems with non-standard boot geometries would actually open the binding in certain situations. Adjustable toe pins mean toe pins that can have problems. Getting back into them after they’d released was frustratingly hard. They then did weird things like releasing silent updates to the European version, but NOT the North American version which led to a roaring black market for the Euro one. Like I said, it was a mess. In fact, it was so confusing that I just stopped paying attention to it.

The biggest thing about the Vipec – it’s claim to fame – is that it offers lateral release in its toe. I think it might be the only one that has that.

Long story short, my personal opinion is that I’d rather let the design settle down and stabilize and I’d like to hear more real world reviews.

Marker Kingpin

Weight: 730g/ski

Notes: With brakes, DIN 5-10 or 6-13

I desperately tried to get a set of these when they were first released and struck out, eventually settling for (yet another) a pair of Dynafit Radicals. I’m sort of glad I did since there were immediately extensive problems with the toe pins loosening which led to Marker advising all owners to regularly check their toe pins for any slop and return them to the place of purchase if there were issues.

Okay, so what makes the Kingpin special? It’s a hybrid. Tech toe piece, resort style heel piece. The heel piece slides back and out of the way in walk mode.

Marker claims that this is a tech binding that is at home at the ski resort. It’s portly by tech binding standards, but if you’re looking for a freeride rig, this a compelling option. It’s light enough for a general touring rig and it should offer the progressive release of a resort binding.

The toe pieces use 6 springs instead of 4, but Wild Snow didn’t find this made any difference and in fact it’s the G3 that has the most secure retention.

Conclusions

Okay, so there’s a lot of bindings out there – so what the hell should you actually buy?

Beats me, do your own research. But sort of like the case studies I did on the ski sizing article, I’ll consider some basic case studies and tell you what I’d get for my different setups if I was buying something today. This is only my personal opinion and what I would do which is not exactly a ringing endorsement. Huge biases and all that.

Lightweight ski mountaineering/traverse setup: I’d get the G3 ION 10 – and NOT the LT version. I really like brakes, they’re worth the weight to me. If I was happy with leashes, I’d get the LT version.

One Ski Quiver: I’d still get the G3 ION 10. It does what I want, it’s portly but not fat and it’s got the consistent vertical release I really want. If Dynafit durability seems better on the ST 2.0, I’d be really tempted the go that way, but enough of my friends have bought the G3 ION bindings at this point that for the purposes of having common spares, I’d still be inclined to go G3, but it’s worth seeing what’s popular amongst your friends.

Touring ski that goes to the resort: I’d go Marker Kingpin 10. I haven’t skied it, but in days gone by when I actually went to ski resorts, my resort bindings offered a more planted feel and a more progressive release in the heel. I would guess – with very little to back that up, that the Markers would give you a bit more of that.

So, how about you guys? Who likes what?

Phil Tomlinson

4 Comments

  1. Reade Wolansky 3 years ago

    Phil!

    I believe both radicals are 2014 vintage pre toe swivel for sure. I no longer own the ST though.

    I really like the Ion. I do need to delve into the wildsnow article as I also came across that post today.

    Personally, I think the spring loaded heel is the big difference on the way the binding behaves for me when I am thumping around on crap snow.

  2. Phil Tomlinson Author
    Phil Tomlinson 3 years ago

    Hey Reade, which ST/FT bindings were you on? They’ve used those designations all the way back to the Vertical.

    I’m probably buying some bindings tonight and I’m really torn between the Radical 2.0 ST and the ION 10. The ION seems to be the way my ‘crew’ is going, but I’m intrigued by the rotating toe piece…

    Oh, and WildSnow just today released some more discussion on the safety of tech bindings – but mostly related to their safety during avalanches. The both the video and the commentary is really interesting.

  3. Reade Wolansky 3 years ago

    Here is some anecdotal beta for this thread.

    I am 6 ft and a bit, 195 lbs. I have ski toured in Dynafit ST’s, FT’s, and ION 12’s. All with brakes and all bought used. I have also taken all these bindings on the resort to see how they perform when crushing chalk and ice, torsion-ally flexing the ski, and basically using the bindings harder then surfing hero snow.

    In order of how confident I felt with what was attaching me to my ski, which to me, means a lot;

    – Ions
    – FT’s / ST’s…….cannot really differentiate yet.

    There is something about the spring loaded heel on the Ion’s that gives the subconscious mind some relief from fear of vertical ejection. That being said, I think all these options are good, but being a bigger guy, who has also skied these bindings outside of the consistent blower pow I know we all ski, that’s my feedback.

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