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..