Before delving into the range of different binding options, it is important to understand a few basic concepts about telemark bindings and how they work.
First, all 75mm telemark bindings have springs that stretch as you lift your heel. This resistance keeps the motion smooth and controlled as you finish your turn, and returns your foot easily and tightly back to the ski. Without a spring, you would be quite unstable and immediately flop forward every time you bent your knee.
But not all springs are the same. A stiff spring will keep your foot closer to your ski, which is great if you don’t like to get too low in your turns. If you do like to get lower, look for springs with a softer flex. Spring stiffness might need to be adjusted depending upon your weight. Those on the heavier end might max out the tension in the standard spring of a given binding. Some binding manufacturers give you multiple options for spring strength, but as you will see, that is not always the case.
Another concept to understand is the pivot point, or the point at which your foot lifts off the ski as you make a telemark turn. This usually happens around the ball of your foot, but can be farther forward or farther back depending on the binding. This also affects how high you can lift your heel and therefore is another factor that determines how low you can go. It also greatly affects your control. Imagine trying to steer your whole ski with the tips of your toe. Tough, right? The farther back the pivot point, the greater control you will have.
The last major component of telemark bindings is the recent addition of a “free-pivot” release, which is a tour mode for skinning in the backcountry. This means that with a flick of a switch, the pivot point moves from underfoot to a point in front of your toes, which releases all the tension from flexing your foot and allows you to walk uphill much more easily. You can still take any telemark binding into the backcountry, but a free-pivot system will make life easier.
Some More Specific Binding Options
There are several manufacturers making many different styles of bindings with a range of materials, all of which have a variety of pros and cons. There are too many variables to include every detail in a 101 article, so a simple approach is best to break down bindings into a few different genres.
Cable bindings have been around for years and are made by a number of manufacturers, all with slight variations. But, generally speaking, they are the lightest, cheapest and simplest option. G3, Voile, and Black Diamond all make popular cable bindings offering options for spring stiffness and a range of fixed pivot-point locations. These bindings are well suited for backcountry use, but are not the leaders in downhill performance for an aggressive skier.
Twenty-Two Designs makes a few bindings that are tougher, stiffer, and geared toward a more aggressive skiing style, but they are a little bit heavier than the cable bindings. Their first binding, the Hammerhead, does not have a free pivot release, which makes touring more of a chore, but is one of the sturdiest bindings out there. It replaces spring cartridges with a stiff front coil and has adjustable pivot points that allow you to fine-tune where you pivot and how much power and control you’ll get. Their new binding, the AXL, uses a similar design and construction and adds a free-pivot release, giving you the ability to tour with ease.
The list above encompasses a quick glance at a few of the 75mm bindings on the market. Currently, the only NTN binding option is made by Rottafella. It has a tour mode, although it is not a true free-pivot binding: you don’t have the same range of motion as a free-pivot 75mm binding. (That is, your heel doesn’t lift up quite as much). But it still tours well, eliminates resistance going up, and provides a sturdy, smooth ride down. And it is the best in terms of lateral control as well as power and precision.
Other interesting NTN attributes include a mounting plate, which allows you to have one binding for multiple sets of skis, and brakes. And stepping into a binding does feel pretty great after years of bending over to get my skis on my feet. It will be exciting to see how much NTN catches on and what other boot and binding manufacturers will contribute in the future.
When selecting bindings, keep in mind your intentions and your style of skiing. If you are brand new to the sport and don’t see yourself charging too hard, going for a cheaper, simpler cable binding offers a suitable introduction. If you plan on skiing only in the backcountry, you’ll want to consider binding weight and make sure you get a binding with a free-pivot release. If you are coming from a strong alpine skiing background, are more inclined to quickly progress, and want a binding you won’t grow out of, you might just head straight for one of the burlier 75mm options or try out the NTN.
Next up: Boots.