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Perhaps more so than in any other sport, equipment is central to skiing. Different types of skis, boots, and bindings make for totally different experiences. Skiers use telemark and Alpine Touring skis (also called randonee skis) to go up & down the mountain. And yet they are not the same, so what are the differences?
Alpine touring (AT) and telemark skis (Teles) both allow skiers to free their back heels, which make uphill climbs much easier to traverse. AT skis tend to look and ride more like resort skis, while Teles only lock in the front of your boots, allowing you to raise your heels while skiing downhill.
Both AT and telemark skis have different bindings, require different boots, and are shaped differently. This makes them suited to certain kinds of terrain. So which one is right for you?
Advantages Over Downhill Skis
Before getting into the nitty-gritty technical details of how AT and telemark equipment differ, let’s talk about the different uses for each kind of ski.
Both AT and telemark setups help skiers tremendously on uphill and flat terrain. If you want to ski the backcountry or if you think the thrill of going downhill ought to only come after a sweat-inducing uphill climb, resort skis are not for you. AT and telemark bindings make going uphill and traversing flats much easier.
But backcountry skiing isn’t the same everywhere. Depending on the terrain and your own preferences when it comes to skiing, AT and tele skis each have their own advantages and disadvantages. We’ll get into that after a quick look at how they differ in terms of boots, binding, and shape.
Boots and Bindings
This is the primary and most obvious way that telemark and AT skis differ from the downhill sort. Telemark skis (or just ‘teles’) only lock in the front of your boots, enabling users to raise their heels while making turns. An adjustable cable connects the rear of skiers’ boots to the back of the binding so skiers’ can lift their heels only to a limited degree.
These days there are two kinds of boot/binding setups for tele-skiers: the traditional duckbill (aka 75mm or 3-pin setup) and the NTN. Duckbill boots get their name from the flat part of the boot which juts out 75 millimeters from the toe. Telemark boots tend to be lighter and shorter than boots used in downhill skiing.
The toe on New Telemark Norm (NTN) boots is much closer to those seen on alpine skis. The hallmark of NTN boots is their ‘second heel’, a bit of plastic jutting backward in the open space between the boot’s toe and heel. This ‘second heel’ connects with the binding, keeping the boot in place while still allowing the skier to lift their actual heel while turning.
NTN boots are living up to their name, and have become the new normal of the telemark world.
AT boots and bindings look much more similar to those found on downhill resort skis, only a bit lighter and lower. The defining feature of an AT setup is the ability to lock in the heel or let it rise freely. With the heel locked in, AT skiers get a ride more akin to a resort ski setup. When the heel is free, they can ski in a manner more like telemark skiers.
The Skis Themselves
Compared to the differences between AT and telemark boots and bindings, the variations in shape, camber, and length are much smaller. AT skis tend to look and ride more like resort skis. They are also lighter than telemark skis, in part because telemarks have a heavier binding.
Whether you are riding on AT or telemark skins you’ll need to pack skins. Skins are strips of synthetic material which skiers attach to the bottom of their skis to provide traction while walking uphill.
Both AT and telemark skis are supposed to be a bridge between the downhill glory of resort skis and the superb ability of traditional nordic (cross-country) skis to speed across flat terrain. They are intended to be usable (and fun) going downhill while allowing skiers to complete the climbs and traverses needed to ski down in the first place.
But they are not the same. Personal preference probably plays the biggest role in whether any given skier will prefer AT or telemark skis, but each has specific advantages and disadvantages compared to the other.
Advantages of AT Skis
AT skis are more similar to the kinds of skis most of us learned on: downhill skis meant for use in resorts. Because the heel can be locked in, going downhill in an AT setup is not much different from cruising down a groomer in racing skis. The technique used to make turns is more or less the same: keep your feet flat and apply weight on the downhill foot.
Most people are more familiar with making turns on alpine skis where both ends of your feet stay in the binding. For the growing number of skiers keen to venture out of the resorts and into the backcountry, AT skis have a gentler learning curve.
While you will still need to learn proper climbing techniques and backcountry safety, making your descent on AT skis shouldn’t present any new challenges.
The ability to fully lock in their boots also makes AT skiers much more comfortable making quick turns in steep terrain, something even the most skillful tele-skiers can struggle with.
Though all skiers are familiar with knee pain, the intense bends required to turn on teles is an added strain that proves too much for many would-be tele-skiers.
An alpine touring setup allows skiers a great deal of versatility, giving them the ability to handle steep terrain on both the uphill and downhill faces.
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Advantages of Telemark Skis
Despite what I’ve just written above, many skiers prefer the feeling of making turns with free heels. Turning with regular knee-drops is undeniably a uniquely graceful way of getting down the mountain. Those who have mastered the technique enjoy it and many see no reason to change the way they make their turns.
While AT bindings obviously allow users to free their heels, this is generally only used while climbing and presents multiple difficulties to anyone who tries to ski down with a free heel. And when it comes to downhill, if the terrain you intend to ski isn’t particularly steep, many of the advantages of AT skis disappear
When it comes to skiing over flat or rolling terrain, toe-hinged telemark skis offer a more classic experience. AT skis imitate this style but, because of their more complex design, many feel that the effect is inferior and prefer their tried and true telemark setups.
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What’s the Final Verdict on Telemark vs AT Skis?
Both telemark and AT skis allow skiers to free their back heels, making uphill climbs much easier. For this reason, both kinds of skis appeal to those keen to explore the wide-open world of backcountry skiing. The key difference is that AT bindings allow skiers to snap in their heels for easier downhill action.
There’s no question about the popularity of AT skis. Since their creation early this century, AT skis have come to dominate the world of backcountry skiing, prompting countless articles about the death of telemark skiing. And yet the avid tele-skiers are still out there, making their free-heel turns and writing their impassioned retorts.