Randonee racing/ski mountaineering requires some specialized gear. Most of it resembles standard alpine gear on a diet, save for some of the ultralight “tech” bindings that look a little more like an industrial contraption than a traditional ski binding.
The bindings provide the critical functional difference for rando/AT skiers, allowing the heel to be free for climbing or fixed for downhill. In tour mode, they pivot at the toe.
The lightest weight “tech bindings” popularized by Dynafit, which lost its exclusive patent on the design a few years ago but still dominate the market, feature two side pins, or jaws, up front that close onto the corresponding toe points of compatible boots with “tech fittings.”
Most other AT bindings are plate-style step-in bindings that use an underfoot bar that pivots with the boot sole when touring. This adds weight, but the bindings look and function much more like traditional alpine bindings. Most can be used with boots with traditional alpine boot soles.
Tech-style bindings are overwhelmingly the choice of serious rando racers, but any AT binding will suffice for an introduction to the sport. (Telemark gear and even splitboard snowboards can also be used.) Climb your first mountain at race pace though and you’ll quickly appreciate every ounce you can save.
Accordingly, the best AT boots for rando racing are light and flexible on the ascent yet stout enough to provide adequate control on descents. To achieve this, they have a lever on the rear that changes between walk and ski modes. Ski mode locks the boot cuff into forward lean, while walk mode loosens up the cuff making the trek up more comfortable. Lightweight race boots have just a strap and a buckle or two, while beefier downhill-oriented AT boots feature three or four buckles and a power strap. Don’t expect the same level of stiffness and response that you have in a standard alpine boot unless you’re in the heaviest AT boots, the ones least ideal for rando racing.
Many rando races may include boot packing or scrambling over rocky terrain with your skis on your back, so you need to be able to hike in your boots as well as skin and ski in them.
The skis themselves aren’t much different than your alpine planks, just lighter and likely skinnier. As for length, shorter skis are lighter and easier to manage on uphill kickturns and in transitions, so many racers go a size or two shorter than they would on pure downhill skis.
Skins are the other critical component. Skins allow your skis to gain purchase on the snow and attach at the tip and tail. Rando race skins are again lighter and thinner and use no tail attachment; they just affix to your ski base with adhesive so they can be quickly peeled off in transitions.
Helmets are required in some races. Standard ski helmets do not offer enough ventilation so pick up a randonee-specific helmet or you can use a climbing or cycling helmet, if allowed.
Like any such pursuit, the gear gets more technical and specific the further you get into the sport, from specially designed rando racing packs and ski poles to one-piece lycra suits with quick-stash pockets for your skins. But to get an introduction to the sport all you really need are a ski setup that climbs as well as descends, and a healthy dose of enthusiasm. —AJ Johnson