OK, no matter what you have read in ski magazines, or heard at the ski shop, the 3 pin 75mm Nordic Norm boot and binding system is not old fashioned or dead. In fact it’s the leading back country touring ski boot-binding system. Mountain folks have always known this, but for most of the population living in the flatlands and used to cross-country club skiing, and urban chic ski stores full of spandex outfits, you may not see much of the gear around. The sales staff may not be back country skiers. In fact the racing track setting machines used at ski clubs now set too narrow a track to even fit back country skis and 75mm bindings. Oh well, we are going off track anyways! There are also back country toe bar boot-binding systems that are excellent and we will be describing those too. We will stick with the light back country touring bindings, and will not be including the heavier bindings and big heavy plastic boots of Telemark and AT designed for extreme support for cranking downhill turns at high speeds. However for a complete resource on the latter, you may want to refer to http://www.telemarktips.com/ which, although it has some significant crossover to our subject, is mainly geared to the downhill part of the spectrum. Backcountry Magazine also covers part of our niche from time to time, although it is mostly focused to the downhill interests (which is understandable since its so fun), http://www.backcountryworld.com/ . I have learned a great deal from these two resources in order to adapt to light back country touring on the flats when my local ski shops did not cover the niche.
3-Pin Boot-Binding Systems: There are ancient flimsy wire bail 3-pin bindings you may have seen around, but that’s not what we are talking about. We are talking about the modern, rugged but simple and light 3-pin binding in a true back country system that is extremely strong, dependable, and has the wide platform for lateral stability. The wide platform for the toe and ball of your foot is important for keeping the ski flat in deep snow, and for digging in hard for hill climbing. Racing ski narrow attachment point boot-binding systems are not wide enough for stability, nor strong enough to survive many back country trips.
All the skis shown above are mounted with Voile 3-pin “Mountaineer” model bindings, no heel cable. http://www.voile-usa.com/ Voile also offers this binding with a removable cable for downhill telemark turning, which is a handy option should you be in the mountains with gravity assist and crave some turns. The Mountaineer is made from aircraft aluminum with a steel bail and stainless rivets which are field repairable. For all their ruggedness, Voile’s design is elegant, simple and flawless, and their bindings are remarkably inexpensive and will last a lifetime. Since when did you hear that about a piece of gear these days?
Rottafella also makes a great simple and rugged 3-pin binding with or without cable, of similar quality to Voile’s, called the Super Telemark 75mm, http://www.rottefella.com/english/start.htm
Bindings mate with boots, so with a 3-pin binding you need a 3-pin boot such as the full leather Garmont Tours shown in the photos. http://www.garmontusa.com/
Full leather boots over the ankle gives warmth and support. Most leather back country boots will have some insulation, but get them at least a ½ size bigger than your normal size to ensure you can shove enough socks in them to keep you warm in deep cold. In milder winter temperatures you can camp in these boots since they have a Vibram treaded sole, and no toe bar to worry about damaging. You can wear these in snowshoes too. (However I always bring my Sorel snowboots on trips and change into them for snowshoeing and in camp). Small sand grains can clog up the pin holes so have a tool like a micro screwdriver found on multi-tools to pry it out. Garmont’s plastic Excursion boot is one of the world’s standards for light telemark, and a very fine boot, but it’s a pound heavier per boot, and in our niche of light back country touring on the flats and winter camping, we will be advocating the lighter leather and composite material boots. If you were trekking in the mountains looking for turns, then a boot like the Excursion would be better for its higher and beter ankle support, and stiffer sole which resists torsional forces.
There are other makers of full leather and leather/synthetic 3-pin boots, but they are getting hard to find. Heavier stiff soled plastic boots, driven by the downhill Telemark and AT market forces seems to be driving the boot industry away from full leather boots. This is sad, since full leather seem so perfect for the niche of light back country on the flats. Alico of Italy makes very fine, beautiful full leather 3-pin boots, and thank goodness they and Garmont are keeping these boots alive and well. http://www.alicosport.it/TELEMARK%20BOOT.htm .
Karhu makes a composite 3-pin light boot, http://www.karhu.com/.
Toe bar boot-binding systems:
There are two different boot-binding systems using the toe bar attachment design, and they are not interchangeable, so if choosing one of these systems, you have to match the boot to the binding. The two systems are Salomon’s X-Adventure/Raid system (formerly “Back Country”, which I believe are all the same so older used gear may be compatible with the X-Adventure/Raid)), and Rottafella’s “New Nordic Norm”, or NNN system. Each binding has boot manufacturers other than their won company, which make boots to fit the binding. NNN seems to be the current leader in the industry with more boot manufacturers offering more models in NNN. They are both high quality systems, and I am not aware of quality or performance differences, so pick your system.
Rottafella’s NNN System: Details for boots and bindings can be found on their website: http://www.rottefella.com/english/start.htm . They also list some compatible boot manufacturers.
Salomon’s X-Adventure System: Details for boots and bindings can be found on their website: http://www.salomonnordic.com/ .
Both are offered in manual and automatic step-in. I strongly recommend staying with the manual for back country trekking for strength and reliability. Automatic bindings are prone to icing up making re-entry in automatic versions very difficult, to impossible. Manual relies on you moving the clamp with a simple mechanism, whereas the automatic uses a spring mechanism which does ice up and is one more thing to go wrong.
The toe bar systems look much the same as the racing versions that everyone now uses at cross country ski clubs. However they are in fact quite different, being wider to provide that extra strength and platform for control over the ski in deep snow, hill climbing, and light telemark turns. So a racing groomed track boot cannot fit into a back country binding and visa versa.
Various boot models with more or less ankle support and stiffness of sole are available for these bindings.
3-pin vs. Toe Bar Systems:
This is an ongoing interesting debate, and we expect lots of activity in our Discussion Forum, which is a good thing. Personally I am not convinced that the toe bar boot-binding systems are as strong and reliable as the back country 3-pin. My buddy had a pair of boots where the toe bar housing in the boot’s sole cracked and the bar pulled out. Luckily he was close to home and not on an extended winter trip, because I doubt that would be field reparable.
3-pin boot toe pieces can also crack around the pin holes, losing the attachment of the binding. The attachable cable option design can solve this problem for 3-pins and make the pins redundant eliminating the issue, but its extra gear to carry on a trip, and if you did not purchase and install bindings with the cable attachment option (like I did not!), that option is not available. The cable also adds compression (for turning techniques), and so the kick is harder and it takes more energy, so its not free insurance.
So all boot-binding systems can fail, but it’s not a common occurrence when skiing the flats and normal hill climbing. When light downhill telemark turning is added however, far more stress is put on boots and bindings and failure risk is increased, but still the overall risk is low, and failure is not common. The bindings and newer soles are still incredibly strong, and sometimes the binding is more likely to pull out of the ski, stripping the binding screws out before it breaks. But you need a field repair kit when a long ways from home. For back country trips for the 3-pin Voile’s I use, I think I have a bomber repair kit that packs small and light: extra binding screws, a screw driver (see note below), 5-minute epoxy, small spool of wire which I can cut with my multitool, small nut/bolts/washers for the bail and bail spring catch. We welcome hearing stories about boot-binding failures, and how you field repaired them.
Note: For some reason, back country 3-pin Telemark and AT binding companies long ago decided that the world standard for binding screws is a Posidrive #3. In North America, this screwdriver is almost impossible to find in hardware stores! It looks like a Phillips, but its not. It has a square-ish center. However there are now a variety of shapes for Phillips #3, and the fat broad version with the big square tip can reasonably fit in a Posidrive screw, but still beware of stripping the screw head. The pointy Phillips #3 will not fit and will strip a Posidrive screw head. One fortunate accident of design is that the Robertson #3 will fit reasonably well and may do in a pinch. I cannot guarantee it won’t strip it however if cranked hard. In the shop I have used it with no problems. (As all Canadians know, the Robertson is so superior to any other screw head, and the world would be a better place if everyone just switched to Robertson screws as the universal standard – but alas, they don’t listen to us!). Ski shops sell small ratchet tools with a Posidrive #3, but it’s a detachable bit, and if you drop it in the snow, its gone. One excellent ski tool resource that does sell a light field kit screwdriver Posidrive #3, and a heavy shop driver, is Tognar Toolworks, http://www.tognar.com/. This is probably the Web’s single most comprehensive resource on ski maintenance tools and techniques for everyone from beginners through to expert ski shop professionals.