SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Skiers are increasingly seeking a more intense, pure experience by going beyond the groomed slopes and lifts of resorts — and that's making special boots, bindings, skis and skins for backcountry skiing among the hottest items this week at the world's largest outdoor retail show in Salt Lake City.
Many of the leading outdoor retailers now feature specific lines of gear for skiers and snowboarders who participate in what the industry calls "alpine touring."
The equipment allows them to lift their ski boots up and down in a walking motion to go up the hill, then lock in the boot to ski down normally.
Some go deep into the wilderness to carve down tight chutes with untouched snow. Others stay within the boundaries of ski resorts, using the equipment to hike up groomed slopes to inject more exercise into the sport. A growing group use resort ski lifts and then veer into what is known as the "side country," sliding down ungroomed terrain connected to resorts.
An estimated 7.6 million skiers and snowboarders ventured into the backcountry in 2014 — up 70 percent from 2009/10 ski season, according to research from SnowSports Industries America. A large chunk of those people went into the "side country."
That's still far less than the nearly 13.3 million who went to ski resorts, but it's growing in popularity.
The $32 million in sales of alpine touring boots, bindings and skis last season marked a 5 percent increase from the year before, SnowSports Industries America data shows.
"We're seeing a lot more regular, traditional skiers buying the equipment so they can have the option," said Kelly Davis, director of research at SnowSports Industries America. "They're looking for a little more freedom, trying to ride and ski things they didn't think they could before."
A look at how the equipment has evolved and some of the hotter items this week at an expo that brings 22,000 people to Salt Lake City so store owners can meet with manufacturers and preview new products:
The days of having to telemark down the mountain or put your skies on your back during the hike up are long gone. Today's hybrid bindings allow for the boot to unbuckle so a person can hike up the mountain efficiently. But they also allow the boot to buckle back in firmly so people can ski down normally rather than using the knee-bending telemark technique that was difficult to master.
Dynafit's "Radical 2.0" is the company's newest binding and top seller, with a retail price of $549, said sales manager Ross Herr. The binding allows adventure seekers to buy one set of equipment and ski wherever they choose, he said.
Marker's "Kingpin" binding hit the market in the fall of 2015 and retails for $599-$649. Mike Curtis of Marker said it allows efficient climbing and high performance downhill skiing. He likened the gear to owning a mountain bike versus a road bike.
"It's a way to get more out of the sport," Curtis said. "You can have a resort experience where you are riding the lift with your friends or a more tranquil experience where you are out climbing."
WIDE RANGE OF SKIS
Backcountry skiers can opt for different widths and weights in skis. Wider and heavier skis will generally perform better downhill while skinnier, lighter skis are more efficient for climbing.
The countless offerings in skis was visible on the showroom floor of the expo, with elaborate displays of skis showing a plethora of colors, shapes, widths and lengths.
The Salt Lake City-based DPS Skis has three new models in a "Tour One" line dedicated to adventure-seeking backcountry skier. They include a wider version called the "Wailer 106" ("Zelda 106" in a women's version) that sells for $1,050.
"It is a ski that can pretty much handle any condition, from spring touring to powder," said Mike Cannon, DPS sales manager.
The new "Cassiar 87" is a narrow ski similar to the kind that has long been popular in Europe that offers optimal climbing performance, while still affording good downhill skiing, Cannon said.
Salomon is coming out with its own skinny, light ski called the "S-Lab Minim" that is super light thanks to the Karuba wood that's part of the construction. Sold for $850, it was designed for boundary-pushing mountaineers like Kilian Jornet of Spain, said Joe Johnson of Salomon.
Backcountry boots are lighter and designed in a way that makes them useful for hiking up the mountain, but sturdy enough to withstand the force exerted by skiers making hard turns as they speed down the mountain.
Salomon's new "MTN explorer" boot fits this mold, with the same forward lean and thick plastic on the side of the shell like a regular boot but with a walk mode and thinner plastic at the tip that to make hiking easier, said salesman Joe Johnson. It sells for $950.
The company will debut a version of the boot designed specifically for women in the fall of 2016 that will sell for $725, Johnson said.
Not to be forgotten for backcountry skiers are the skins, a basic but vital piece of equipment.
With small hairs on the outside, the skins stick to the bottom of the ski — latched on at the top and bottom — to give traction and help people avoid slipping as they climb up the mountain. Once at the top, skiers peel them off, roll them up and put them in their pack.
Kohla, an Austria-based company, is selling a skin called "Vacuum Base 2.0" that uses a new gummy type material salesman Pipi Fischer says is easier to peel off, roll off and handle compared to traditional skin that use a stickier glue substance. It sells for $180, compared to about $120 for normal skins.