Friday, November 4, 2011

Five Steps to Buying a Cheap Telemark Ski Setup

Gered makes his own climbing skins out of snow.
November is a tough month for skiers. Your mailbox is filling up with ski magazines, your inbox is getting blasted with announcements for ski movie premiers and resort lodging specials, and you've already dusted off your gear and put the ski rack back on your car. Still, the season still seems so very far away. Sure, you may get an October treat to tide you over for a few days but pretty soon it's brown and bleak again and you're counting down the days until you can make some real turns.

In northern New England we call this post-foliage purgatory Stick Season but, for skiers, November is really Gear Season. It's a time to start second-guessing your trusted setup, to start atoning for when you said last year "I can get one more season out of this." This time last November you made what seemed like a responsible, rational plan to squirrel away the funds to either upgrade your standard gear, buy a set of powder boards, or to finally get a telemark setup.

Well here it is, one year later, and you're still broke. Your equipment is looking sorrier than ever and you really want to get into the backcountry. I'll spare you a lesson on fiscal discipline and instead tell you how to build your tele setup on the cheap. For a few hundred bucks and some Yankee ingenuity you can easily cobble together a telemark package that will get you into the backcountry this winter.

Like me I'm sure you initially thought that backcountry skiing was a cheaper alternative to resort skiing. After all, backcountry skis tend to be less expensive and you don't have to shell out $70 for a lift ticket and $9 for a bowl of bland chili to get into the backcountry. It doesn't take a gear addict like Andy to realize that it's not quite that simple. Price out a new telemark package and some backcountry essentials and soon you're looking at a total well over a thousand bucks.

A few years ago I desperately wanted to telemark ski but wasn't ready to give up alpine skiing nor spring for an expensive package until I tried it out for a season. Here's how I managed to buy the telemark basics for around $400 (and a few other items I purchased along the way).

Step 1: Boots

Any skier who has thumbed through a November "Gear Issue" has read that boots are a skier's most important piece of equipment. It's true. And your feet are even more important to take care of when you're spending two thirds of your day skinning uphill and one third skiing on tired legs. For this reason I started my bargain hunting looking a pair of boots, and ended up finding an unused pair of Garmont Syner-G boots (retail $599) on eBay for $218. Bonus: The guy was in Maine and I avoided shipping by picking them up in person on my way to Thanksgiving dinner at Nana's house. While eBay and Craigslist can be hit or miss, if you do your research, start searching early, and be patient, you are likely to land a good deal.

Backup Plan:, the e-commerce arm of Burlington's Outdoor Gear Exchange, has limited sizes of vintage 2006-2009 Syner-G boots in stock for $399.

Step 2: Skis & Bindings

If you're serious about getting some tele skis on the cheap, cancel whatever plans you have this weekend and take a trip up to the Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington. In addition to being a place to make any outdoor sports fanatic drool, the Gear Exchange maintains a large supply of consignment gear that is a great place to find skis and bindings. If you can't get up there yourself, send a scout: Gered called me from Burlington to tell me he'd found the perfect setup for me: A beat up old pair of purple Black Diamond Mira skis with G3 Targa bindings. Price tag: $120 plus a couple of beers for my courier. The Mira's didn't have much life left in them but the bindings were in good shape and they did get me through my first season.

Backup Plan: The next fall I found some closeout Black Diamond Machines for $99. Yes, new skis for $99. I bought them. Gered and Andy both sprung $250 for a pair of Black Diamond Voodoos, still a great price. Not sure what you want in a ski? Andy has compiled an exhaustive comparison chart of 2011-2012 backcountry skis.

The twins.
Step 3: Climbing Skins

You're going to notice a trend in my shopping habits: I got a great deal on climbing skins at the Outdoor Gear Exchange. They seem to have cornered the market on closeout Black Diamond Ascension STS skins, and currently have several pairs on their website under $100. I was lucky enough to find a fitted pair that worked with both the Miras and the Machines and cost somewhere around $60. (Note: I did have to drop $12 on adjustable tip loops to fit over the wider tips of the Machines, which you'll likely have to do for any newer ski.)

Backup Plan: If you want to stick to the resorts while you perfect your tele turn, hold off on the skins until next year. But keep in mind that backcountry skiing is a lot more about going up than going down and a good pair of skins is money well spent.

Step 4: Backpack

I had already purchased a Dakine Heli Pro backpack on Steep and Cheap a few years earlier for around $60. A quick Google search suggests that this is still an achievable price point. A comfortable backpack that can carry your skis and has room for your skins, extra layers, food and water will keep you in the trees all day. Bonus points if it's set up for a hydration pack so you don't have to stop and unzip while you're slogging up the skin track.

Backup Plan: Track down your monogrammed L.L. Bean school bag and figure out a way to lash your skis to it. Suffer through this once and then pony up for a real pack.

Step 5: Poles

Most adults ski with poles these days, and tele skiers are no different. Actually, we are a little different in that adjustable poles make for a better experience. You won't want as much pole length tele skiing as you would on alpine skis, since you're dropping down low into your turns. Conversely, on the ascent, lengthening your poles helps you climb more efficiently. I bought a pair of Black Diamond Traverse ski poles at the Outdoor Gear Exchange for around $70.

Backup Plan: You can get by with your alpine ski poles, but it might be worth swapping out the baskets if you have those weenie little race ones.

Freeheel Accoutrements

Once you have the essentials, you'll soon find plenty of other things to buy (if you don't believe me, check out Andy's winter camping checklist).

I made a few small purchases during my first year of backcountry tele skiing that were worthwhile:
  • Aftermarket insoles for my boots, $45. No, I'm not one of those people that puts custom insoles in everything; the boots I bought were missing an insole and after a few blisters I bought a set.
  • Knee pads, $40. Make all the jokes you want until you smack your knee on a rock and spend the rest of the winter on your couch. I picked up a set of Black Diamond Telekneesis knee pads before my second season and gained a lot of confidence.
  • Climbing Bars, $20. My G3 Targa bindings didn't come with climbing bars and it only took one skin up a steep trail before I broke down and bought them. G3 has both short and long bars but I just got the long ones.
Time to put all that gear to work.
The Final Tally
If you do the math I procured the five essentials for $528. In reality, since I already owned the backpack and a pair of ski poles, I spent just $398 for boots, skis, bindings, and skins. Considering that the Syner-G boots alone retail for $599, I'd say I did pretty well. Your mileage may vary, but the reality is it's possible to be making tele turns for about the price of your phone's annual data plan (I'll leave it up to you to prioritize). If you're having a hard time keeping costs down, check out your local ski swap or, better yet, make friends with a gear addict like Andy who is bound to have some equipment you can bum until you fill in the gaps.

While it may seem like an eternity from now, the ski season is just around the corner. Start hunting for deals now and you'll be a full fledged backcountry tele skier (or at least look the part) by the time the snow flies.


  1. Hey Brad!

    Nice write up. Easy and fun to read but most of all, it's useful!


  2. Great write up Brad. I can't wait to find out how much the tele set-up sells for when you decide AT skiing is more fun.

  3. the thing that stands out most about this article is how well it was proof read.

    and that you forgot to talk about how you'll never be a real tree fairy because you just don't believe, and you refuse to sell your filthy alpine boards.

  4. one aspect to equipment you need to add - avalanche gear (beacon, shovel, probe - maybe avalung, and down the line - ballon pack)