Musings on tech nordic

First; define your terms. Here, and just about everywhere else I’ve written about ski gear, I’m talking about multi-day rugged nordic touring. Distance oriented travel in unbroken, mixed terrain. Like what is featured here, in my still all-time favorite ski video.

Conditions and preferences will dictate skis; anywhere with overflow and/or significant wind exposure you’ll want at least full metal edges. I’ve been pleased with 200cm skis in the classic 60/50/55mm profile for most things this winter. It takes steep and tight terrain or deep trail breaking in heavier snow for fatter and shorter skis to seem more efficient. Choose according to your predominant terrain, or build a quiver.

For bindings your have two choices, which will dictate boots; 3 pin or tech (Dynafit). Just like last winter (and the winter before that), on every single trip this year where someone had something in the NNN universe there has been at least one boot frozen in or out. You can futz with this if you like, but it is not for me. 3 pins and tech toepieces will ice up, but can even in the worst cases be chipped free.

3 pins with fabric/leather boots and tech toepieces with modern plastic boots have comparable ranges of fore-aft motion, which is to say enough that this isn’t a limiting factor. Where that freedom comes from is different for each, and this effects performance. Ankle motion is similar for each, while modern rando boots (with the exception of the Scarpa F1/3) have rigid forefeet. The metatarsal bend of flexible duckbill boots is necessary because of the limited range of motion in the boot/binding interface, while the same interface in tech bindings has effectively unlimited range.

The result is that each system is better suited for certain things. Tech is superior for deep trail breaking and skinning, while the metatarsal bend of duckbill boots makes the grip aspect of kick and glide more effective. This has been the most interesting finding of putting tech race bindings on my old Karhu Guides, that all other things being equal the rigid boot sole allows less force to be transmitted to the wax pocket, and thus the fishscales don’t work as well. The lost grip is significant, my wild guess would put it between 20 and 30 percent. The full free pivot interface of tech is also a disadvantage when herringboning up a hill or moving the skis through deadfall or tight woods, the tighter and more restrictive interface between a 3 pin binding and a duckbill boot can be very valuable in select circumstances.

So the question comes back to boots. Plastic boots are warmer than any extent fabric/leather job, and thermo-foam liners deal with the inevitable internal and external moisture problems much better and more easily. Plastic boot provide more downhill control, even with a free heel and unlatched cuff. The best modern plastic rando boots are also considerably lighter than any duckbill boot even vaguely appropriate for the skiing here discussed. So why would you want a duckbill system? Aside from much lower cost, and performance advantages mentioned above, the big talking point is comfort. I do not believe that a rigid boot can ever be as comfortable and indeed, efficient as a more flexible one. After a three day trip this past weekend, in a foot of nasty snow the last night put my tech touring system to the test, I was was struck by the inextricable positives and negatives. I skinned and descended much more efficiently, and on the second day was able to lock in and farm a chute for some great turns. I did flail and have to skin up when I wouldn’t have had to otherwise (with different boots), which cost time and energy, but the most striking testimony was back at the truck. Even after a 12 hour day of leg-crushing trail breaking through cement, my feet had the most tired muscles. Tired from straining and laboring within such a foreign prison.

With hindsight I might still make the same equipment choices for the same trip, but foot fatigue and comfort, as well as the diminished utility of scales or wax, are real issues. I’ve made my choice on this matter, at least temporarily. A new pair of skis is on the way, the Plum bindings and Siderals will be relegated strictly to AT, and I’ll have happier feet and sketchier descents on my nordic trips. Though if I could get ahold of some size 28 F1s I’d be tempted to experiment..

8 responses to “Musings on tech nordic”

  1. Good read. Find myself debating this very choice right now, and since i can run as much as i want in Boulder all winter I appreciate getting the insight of someone who absolutely needs floatation if they want to get out.

    Seems as if there is a gap still between horizontal-oriented equipment and race-oriented downhill equipment. The horizintal guys like us are drawn to the weight and said performance advantages of AT gear, but it simply is not as comfortable to wear all day, or to afford. Seems like there should be enough of a market to support the development of something that fills this niche, but it certainly is not as sexy.

  2. The superlight constructions used in rando race skis are becoming more widespread, in what are hopefully more useful dimensions. It will be interesting to see how durable those skis are.

    And my kingdom for a flexible 3 pin double boot. I’m not holding my breath.

  3. At some point you’re going to have to make another masterpost of all your setups, b/c they’re getting hard to follow as you keep adding gear.

    1. Will do. I’ve actually thinned the herd a fair bit this winter.

  4. I was wondering how the Guides were treating you with the tech setup. I’m rather curious to see what you think of the Currents, looks like a promising blend of weight, width and rocker.

    1. The Guides are reaching the end of their life. The bases and top sheets have so many dings and scratches that keeping them from icing is become increasingly difficult. They’ve also gone from soft to downright floppy. Still a great ski, fantastic in todays powder.

      The Currents are an investment in spring peak skiing more than anything. More weight, and hopefully more edgehold and dampness as a result. Still almost no info out there about them, so we’ll see how it goes.

  5. Great post dave! As a three pin to tech convert I agree with most of it. I do have two thoughts on bushwhacking and related shenanigans with tech bindings. One is that, on a ski with a modern centered/forward mounting point the ski always ends up parallel to your shins when you raise your foot. I’ve come to prefer this for lifting skis over logs etc. Another is that I find tech bindings much easier to take on and off which is great when you want to quickly transition to cross a melted out stream or boot/scramble a small section. I might shave the duckbill of my 3 pin boots to make things easier but as it is it can be quite fiddely to get the 3 pins in the holes, especially with any ice or snow in the binding or boot.

    I’m recalling one early season tour up a snowed in road in the Olympic mountains where we seemed to encounter a melted out deep rocky stream gully every few hundred yards…Marting Volken’s recommended technique (see his book and youtube videos for OR and K2) of stuffing the poles between ones back and pack and using the skis in like poles for short sections of unskiable terrain like this kept us moving at a reasonable rate.

    Looking forward to your thoughts on the Current.

  6. Excellent post. I think you covered the main issues in the ski equipment debate that go through my head all of the time. I will say that for the most part, I don’t care too much about boot warmth or my gear freezing. I rarely go out in sub zero temperatures or camp in the winter. I worry more about rain than I do really, really cold weather (such is the life of a Seattle guy).

    Anyway, for the most part the issues are the same if you are comparing (NNN/SNS) BC boots and Tele/Randonee boots. The plastic boots offer a lot more control, but at the cost of foot comfort. I’ll admit I’ve never found a plastic boot that I want to wear all day, but I haven’t given up. Maybe I’ll find one I can tolerate, but I don’t think it will ever be as comfortable as a three pin or BC boot.

    For now I’ve been managing OK with BC boots and a couple of different skis. The Atomic Rainiers are fairly similar to your Guides, and I think they are a great all purpose ski. But they struggle when things get really tough (using the BC boots). I bought a pair of Alpina Lite Terrain to go with the BC boots. They have a really short turning radius for a narrow ski. They work great in the Spring, but I’ve really struggled with them in the winter. They are really stiff and heavy, so my boots can’t push the sloppy snow around. They work great on the groomed area, but what is the point of that? Basically, I would love to get a lighter, softer ski with similar side cut (and the same pattern base). So far as I know, such a ski doesn’t exist.

    But as long as I’m dreaming, I would love a real combo system. I would love a boot that was as comfortable as a regular cross country ski boot, with a Dynafit attachment at the toe. To work like a bumper, you could attach something to the back of the boot. The key piece would be a plastic over-boot that snaps over the whole thing. So, for those rare times when you have to do down something steep, you are ready. Transition would be pretty slow (snap on the overboot, unsnap it, etc.) but that is the price you would pay. The thing is, I doubt anyone will make that, since the main advantage is comfort. I’m afraid the racers are the ones that drive innovation, and they don’t care too much about comfort.

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