Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Fast Shoes: The lightest binding is no binding

Have you ever found yourself in early summer, high in the mountains, far from a road, confronted with miles of lingering snow wishing you had skis? I know I have. Think: Montana’s Beartooth Plateau, California’s High Sierra, or Wyoming’s Wind River Range. 

Late season skiing along the crest of the Wind River Range

With the goal of lightness, versatility and travel I have spent recent years experimenting with a ski rig coined: Fast Shoes. The term Fast Shoes is a play on “Slow Shoes”— a derogatory term for snowshoes.  For many venturing into winter snowscapes, snowshoes are the best option. Snowshoes are light, relatively inexpensive and user-friendly. I, however, am a skier and love the efficiency and motion of skiing. I don’t do snowshoes.

Fast Shoes 1.0: The earlier version of the L.L. Bean Boreal is the same ski as the Karhu Karver.

For my first pair of Fast Shoes (Version 1.0) I screwed a pair of Neos Villager Overboots onto an older version of L.L. Bean Boreals that in reality are the discontinued Karhu Karver Ski with an L.L. Bean logo. This worked reasonably well. The short and fat Boreal/Karver ski (120cm x 120/100/115) only weighed about three pounds per ski (with overboot), floated in unconsolidated snow, and strapped neatly on my pack or packraft. The down side: on hard firm snow it is all but impossible to edge, turn, or skate. Trail runners inside Neos Villagers are simply not enough boot for such a wide ski. Additionally, the Boreal/Karver utilize skin inlays (climbing skins permanently embedded in the base) that grip well and negate the need for climbing skins, but are terrible to glide on. I wanted something faster.

Fast Shoes 2.0: A Neos Overboot bolted to a waxless Karhu Nordic Ski

For my next pair of Fast Shoes (Version 2.0) I bolted Neos Villager Overboots on a pair of Karhu Pioneer Junior Nordic Skis (130cm x 63/57/60). At only 2 pounds per ski with boot, Version 2.0 is the lightest ski rig I know of.

For most snow conditions Karhu’s Omintrack NoWax base provides a fair compromise between grip and glide. In order to climb steeper slopes I fashioned kickers skins (2 ounces per skin) from the trimmings of a pair of climbing skins for my fat powder skis. To keep the kicker skins on the skis I used a Speedy Stitcher to attach a Voile Strap at one end.

Kicker Skins: constructed from leftover skin trimmings and Voile Straps

The Karhu Pioneer Junior Nordic Skis are more efficient traveling on firm snow than the Karver Skis, but tend to wallow in unconsolidated powder or temperature gradient facets. They also lack metal edges.  For my next pair of Fast Shoes (Version 3.0) I will likely try a compromise between the stability and floatation of the Karver Ski with the speed and lightness of the Pioneer Junior Nordic Ski. Maybe something slightly wider with metal edges like the Salomon XADV 89 Grip Backcountry Ski (168cm x 89/60/78).

Another take away lesson from my first pair of Fast Shoes regarded how to attach the overboots. To maintain a bend at the ball of the foot, that is both comfortable and efficient, they need to be bolted as close to the toe as possible. The Karhu Karvers are pre-drilled for a Nordic Norm 75mm binding — so that’s what I did. Doing this, unfortunately, creates a problem: the two rear screws are too far from the toe of the Neos Overboot creating a fulcrum that does not match that of the human foot. The Neos Overboot needs to be attached closer to the toe. To accomplish this in my second pair of Fast Shoes I just used two bolts, an inch apart, aligned along the long axis as close to the toe as possible. In order to securely attached the overboots to the ski I drilled holes completely through the skis and then used short bolts with one inch washers on the inside of the boots. The holes on the bottom of the skis can be back-filled with P-tex.

 Overboots are attached to the skis using two bolts about an inch apart.

To complete this versatile ultra light cross-country ski rig I use Komperdell C3 Duolock (6.9 ounces per pole) adjustable carbon trekking poles. While some believe the added weight of an adjustment mechanism superfluous, I find the extra grams a worthy investment. When collapsed the poles easily fit inside my pack. I’m also in the habit of shortening my poles on climbs and lengthening them on flats. Inside the Neos Overboots I have found the La Sportive Raptor (12.28 ounces per shoe) trail runners a versatile, comfortable, light and durable option.

If you shop around you can find the Karhu Pioneer Junior Skis on sale for under $40 and the Neos Overboots for under $50. Total construction cost of Fast Shoes: $100. My entire Fast Shoe 2.0 rig (including skis, overboots, trail runners, poles, and climbing skins for both sides) weighs in at 6.65 pounds. With trail runners and trekking poles already part of standard hiking gear; the skis, overboots, and ability to travel efficiently over snow adds only 4 pounds.

A few hours in the garage, $100, and four pounds is all that is needed to efficiently ski across those high altitude late season snowfields.

Fast Shoes 2.0 in Acton: Grand Teton National Park


  1. So the bolt goes in through the ski from the base and secured with a nut inside the overboot?

    I must say, it a great 'outside the box' solution to those trips where you may or may not need skis or as you say, sufficient snow pack sits at higher altitudes.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Nope - the other direction. I used a flat headed bolt (with a large washer) from inside the boot and counter sunk the nut in the base of the ski.

  2. This is very interesting. Thanks for sharing. Have you considered using Altai hok. I would love to know how it works out.

    1. The Altai Hok are very similar to the Karhu Karver. This type of ski is a great option for deep unconsolidated snow (like there is in the Altai Range of central Asia). But they are wide skis and wide skis require a beefier boot. It becomes difficult to edge when your ski is wider than your boot.

      I have also found skin inlays inferior to kicker-skins. Skin inlays create too much drag to efficiently glide. Kicker-skins, on the other hand, can be removed when you want more glide and less grip. I like having that option.

  3. Yes, truly thinking out of the box, like it very much. And also the no-nonsense approach of just drilling straight through the skis. How limited our minds tend to become because of 'it is not done that way'.

  4. Forrest,

    Awesome idea! I spent a couple hours this afternoon doing a similar ski mount. I had a pair of the Kahtoola Flight Boots. I removed the crampons from the sole and attached them to a pair of Salomon XAdventure Raid Blade skis. They are metal edged, 145 cm long, with dimensions of 102/68/94. The total weight came in at 3 lb 3 oz per ski.

    In a quick ski around the neighborhood, they ski well.

    Flight boot:
    Raid Blade: