Author: Kip Roberts. Kip is the general manager at Onion River Sports in Montpelier, VT and has been helping others get outside and have fun for as long as he can remember. He is a veritable encyclopedia of information on bikes and skis and when he make a suggestion you should definitely listen.
Welcome back, dauntless Catamount skiers! We’ve managed to make it through yet another horrible summer and fall, plagued by seemingly endless stretches of sun-drenched bike rides, cloudless hikes on sun-warmed rocks and merciless, care-free wanders through crackling autumnal leaves. How refreshing it is to be back in the 8-month season of winter, where we’re thankfully sheltered from daylight for all but 4 hours of the day, lucky enough to get to box up all our flip-flops and shorts for long-term attic storage in favor of knee-high, insulated boots and flattering, Marshmallow Man-esque puffy jackets, and blessed by snowy roads that grant us the ability to bond with our neighbors over our identically-matching Subarus. What’s that? Why, yes, I have been stuck inside behind this glowing, blue screen for a little too long. Thanks for the suggestion—perhaps I will go for a walk and then wax some skis in the name of relaxation.
In our previous installments, we covered point-to-point backcountry touring skis, mid-to-fat-width ski options for increased turnability and flotation and even delved into resort-capable skis that are equally at home on a backcountry powder excursion. And while we most often head to the ski wall at Onion River Sports to begin the discussion of what type of package will best suit a customer’s needs, choosing the right boot for the job decidedly comprises the most time and thought in the selection process. Head on down to the shop during any busy winter Saturday and you’re likely able to navigate your way through our ski department via randomly placed “boot cairns”—the name I’ve affectionately dubbed the trail marker-like stacks of boot boxes that inevitably pop up during a ski package sale. Does the boot make the package? Well, as any seasoned Catamount Trail skier knows, if the boot doesn’t pass muster, that 3 hour “relaxing” ski just seemingly became thrice that length and not in a “I think I’ll take my time ‘cause the mountains are so beautiful today” sense, more along the lines of “my toes feel like that long-forgotten hunk of mystery meat at the back of the freezer, I’ve never seen a heel blister cover my entire foot before and I’m pretty sure I’m going to perish within sight of the parking lot”. My point? Take the time to get the boot that fits—fits both your foot and the type skiing you’ll most often be doing.
Seeing as how a majority of you out there will most likely gather with a group of friends and either embark on a half-a-day out-and-back on the Catamount Trail or drop a car and complete a point-to-point portion of the CT, let’s focus for a bit on the boot and binding combination that will best serve this type of excursion. To begin the process, you really have two main categories to choose between: 1) 75mm backcountry “duckbill” boots and bindings and 2) backcountry (BC) systems—SNS BC or NNN BC systems comprising the latter. Which one is better? They each have their advantages and limitations, but both are equally at home on the Catamount Trail. I would hesitate to call BC systems the “lighter” of the two options since there are exceptionally supportive NNN BC and SNS BC boots available, but because “75mm” encompasses lightweight backcountry touring options such all the way up to full-on, plastic Telemark resort boots, 75mm (or backcountry 3-pin) can be referred to as the heavier duty option. On the lighter end of the spectrum, however, a minimal 75mm BC boot is going to perform very similarly and be suited to the same terrain as a more substantial BC system boot. It really comes down to what width of ski you’ll be on, your level of comfort with the equipment and the focus of your adventure: “the tour” or “the turn”.
NNN BC and SNS BC systems both rely on an oversized (vs. touring versions) bar in front of the toe of the boot that pivots in the clamping mechanism of the binding, matching grooves (boot) and ridges (binding plate) underfoot to provide lateral control and a rubber bumper on the binding in front of the boot toe that provides resistance for the classic stride and a level of downhill control. BC systems are generally favored for longer tours where challenging downhill sections are limited; this is due to the attachment system between the boot and the binding, allowing freer rotation and minimal resistance when kicking and gliding. BC systems are also friendlier to the casual backcountry skier or those who want minimal “fuss and muss” with their gear. Both BC systems come in manual and automatic flavors, the former being the preferred option for the Catamount Trail skier. The manual version relies on a camming mechanism to clamp the boot’s toe bar to the binding, providing a more positive connection with less chance of mistakenly releasing in challenging terrain and it has better ice-clearing ability. The automatic BC system binding is “step-in” and features push-button release, but stepping in to the binding is often more troublesome that it’s worth (you have to push your toe down and forward, which often results in the ski sliding away from you) and since the automatic system relies on a strong spring to keep your boot pin connected to the binding, icing resulting from fine powder infiltration or a thaw/freeze cycle can result in an unwanted, semi-permanent connection to your ski. I’ve experienced this a few times using automatic bindings: after a 2-3 hour ski in the early spring, the sun-melted snow had caused the internals of my binding to become a solid chunk of icy plastic by the time I returned to my home after a shaded, sub-freezing ski back through the woods. Luckily, my better half was home and we freed my boot from the binding with the help of a cup of hot water, saving me from a chilly sprint into the house in my socks! Being 5 miles out on the Catamount Trail with the temperatures well below freezing and having the same thing occur would obviously override any convenience gained at the trailhead by the automatic feature. If you’re going with a BC system setup, stick with the Rottefella NNN BC Magnum or Salomon SNS BC Raid manual options.
75mm backcountry boots and bindings can perform equally well at the lighter end of the BC spectrum and with increased height, construction and stiffness, bridge all the way up to ski resort power. Whereas the BC (SNS and NNN) system relies on a rubber bumper, moderate boot flex in the toe and plastic ridges under the foot to provide an adequate compromise between touring efficiency and downhill control, the 75mm setup is a bit more “old-school” in its mechanics. The “rat trap” front bail of the binding clamps onto the duckbill, 3 pins extend upward from the binding plate and match into 3 holes in the duckbill and metal “wings” that extend back on either side of the boot provide additional retention and lateral control. Forward flex is achieved through bending the boot sole and bellowing the top of the toe box, so while the flex is less “hingey” than BC systems which rotate on the front toe bar, sometimes undesired flex points and an extended break-in period can be the downside of this setup. If you’re powering bigger boards on an extended tour, are willing to sacrifice a bit of boot weight gain for a more secure downhill experience or desire the simplicity and traditional reliability of a 75mm binding, this setup gets the nod over BC systems. A lightweight, fabric with plastic cuff or leather boot can clamp into a 75mm BC binding just as easily as a 7 pound, 4-buckle plastic Telemark boot, meaning that there is not much of a limit to the lateral power once can achieve using 75mm bindings. Adding the cable option to a 75mm binding (Voile’s 3 pin with spring cable) also adds redundancy to this setup—a good thing in the backcountry—and adds optional (the cable is removable for freer touring) downhill power and control. If the cable were to fail, the front 3-pin attachment and clamp would allow you to continue on your trip. And if the front bail were to fail, the heal cable would keep you jammed forward into the binding. Also, if you’re way out there on the CT and you have a catastrophic failure of both retention systems, bailing wire and duct tape would fix this setup more easily than a BC system could be salvaged.
Excellent boots are available for BC systems and 75mm setups—the main question to ask is how much of a compromise do you want between lightweight, touring efficiency vs. downhill turning prowess. On the BC system side of things, the aforementioned new-for-2012/2013 Rossignol BC X10 is a noteworthy touring-with-control option. With its tall, hinged cuff, built-in gaiter and Thermo Adjustable Fit Thinsulate lining—a heat-moldable interior that increases fit comfort and reduces break-in time–this boot offers great lateral control and support, but still tours well due to the free-flexing nature of the NNN BC binding. Similar heavy-hitting system boots include the Fischer BCX 8 (NNN BC), Alpina BC 2250 (NNN BC) and the Salomon X-ADV 8 (SNS BC). (Note: NNN BC and SNS BC boots and bindings aren’t interchangeable, but offer similar features and perform very closely. Salomon is the only company offering a boot with the SNS BC sole system, but NNN BC is used by a number of Nordic manufacturers. If you have a tough-to-fit foot, NNN BC will give you more options.) If you want a simple system that’s easy to walk in (as opposed to a duckbill type boot that is kind of awkward), skis well over long distances and matches well with a mid-dimensioned ski such as the Madshus Eon and Rossignol BC70, look here. Lighter options, including the Rossi BC X2, Alpina BC 1550 and Fischer BCX 5, err on the side of efficiency, but still provide adequate support in order to drive narrower metal-edged skis.
On the duckbill side of things, Alpina’s stalwart BC 1575, Rossignol’s new BC 6 75mm and Fischer’s newly redone BCX 675 (with wool-blending lining and partial leather exterior) offer similar touring performance with increased downhill control over their BC system brethren. Taking it up a notch, Garmont’s Excursion lightweight plastic boots offer double-boot warmth, easy forward flex (compared to other plastic boots) and unmatched lateral control vs. “soft” 75mm options or BC system boots. Scarpa’s T4 does the same, though the lace-up liner and stiffer bellows may be too much for some Catamount skiers. The tradeoff for plastic? Weight, price and touring ease. Grab one of our rental setups this winter and discover the differences for yourself!
So what’s the takeaway from all of this? Just as in the plethora of metal-edged waxless skis available to the Catamount Trail skier, there are many different boot options that achieve different goals based on your desires. But don’t take my word for it—swing on in to your local Nordic ski shop—hey, how about Onion River!—and see the differences yourself. There are many different opinions out there as to why one system is better than others, but if you head down to your local shop and seek experience-based knowledge from an active staff, it’s win-win. So keep those tips up and we’ll ski you later! (yes, I did just write that)