Salomon Backcountry Gear Review: MTN Tech Binding, MTN Explore 88 Skis, MTN Explore Skins and MTN Lab Boot
Introduction and Summary
Salomon has been making a determined push to become part of the conversation for gear-choices among “serious” backcountry users. “Serious” has various shades of meaning of course. However if we start with the premise that all ski touring equipment is about a balance of compromises between uphill and downhill performance, the Salomon MTN line is directed at those who tour relatively large distances or lots of vert for pow and steeps.
What I found during the course of this review is that Salomon’s gear design ethic has resulted in equipment with a large useability band. Skis, boots and bindings that would formerly have been thought of as being oriented for more mellow soft-pow skiing are robust while having enough performance chops that the gear could be pushed to more aggressive terrain.
Weights (actual) and cost in USD (except where noted)
- Salomon MTN Tech binding – 592g (each binding with screws; without leash – CAD $699 (not available in US till 2017-8 season)
- Salomon MTN Explore ski (184cms tested) – 127 – 88-113 dimension. Turning radius 18.3m – 1348g (per ski) – $ 650
- Salomon MTN Explore skins (cut for Mtn Explore 88 skis) – 274g (per skin) – $ 220
- Salomon MTN Lab boot (sz 26 tested) – 1555g (per boot) – $ 800
About The Tester
At just 160 pounds I am not a big guy but do spend 100+ days a season skiing, with most of those days in backcountry. I’ve had 25+ days on all of this equipment with almost all of the days spent in either backcountry of Whistler, the Duffey and the B.C. Interior with some inbound resorts soft-skiing day. My skiing is usually in high moisture-content snow. Accordingly, my preference is for bigger skis and relatively stiff boots.
The main focus of this review is on the Salomon MTN Tech bindings which were mounted on MTN Explore 88 skis (paired with MTN Explore skins) and used with a variety of boots including the Salomon MTN Lab. I’ve had extensive experiences on tech bindings including Dynafits, Fritschi, Marker and various other boots. If you have questions about one versus the other, please ask in the comments.
MTN Tech binding
Salomon enters the tech binding game with a wonderfully minimalist binding designed around a “less is more” philosophy. The MTN Tech binding will be familiar to any user of Dynafit bindings; indeed the toepiece smartly uses the same ski crampon attachment. The heelpiece is an elegant affair boasting 30mm of adjustment, two separate heel risers; a wide mounting platform and an easy to use release value (RV) spring adjustment where one spring controls both vertical and horizontal release.
The MTN Tech binding is not for sale generally in the US until the 2017-8 season (lawyers) but is sold in Canada and has been out in Europe for a year. Brakes are not yet available in North America but are reputedly a reliable affair; something which cannot be said for all tech bindings. Weight of the MTN Tech toe/heel (with screws, without leash) is 292g.. With brakes Salomon says that the MTN Tech binding will be 390g per binding, certainly balm for weight – weenies in all but the race binding weight category (see weights compared here courtesy of Wildsnow).
Construction and More Details
The toepiece is made of 6061-T6 alloy. Toe pincers are made of steel and are peened-riveted into the wings; a particularly strong method of construction. Anyone who remembers the farcical early Plum bindings will cringe at the thought of alloy toe pieces so I spoke to a materials engineer about this. He declined to speculate on the strength of the Salomon toe piece without an x-ray scanner and access to materials sheets but did offer that any material will work “given appropriate design” and then nodded approvingly when seeing the Mtn Tech’s toe piece. Mounting pattern for the toe is wide with holes 40mm apart.
Suffice it to say that 30+ days of skiing on this binding has revealed no issues. Canvassing other users of the binding in Canada (caveat is that there aren’t that many) reveals no other toe breakage issues.
The heelpiece is also a simple affair but there are a lot of features packed into this elegant mechanism. As mentioned previously there is 30mm of heelpiece adjustment via a worm screw. There are two heel risers providing a 7°/13° rise based on a 305mm bsl (another 8mm of lift is provided in the high mode). The way in which the walk mode is engaged is that the heel rotates on a platform separately from the lifters which stay parallel to the ski. You then engage/flip up the lifters with your pole.
RV is adjustable via a spring in the heel. Three springs are provided; “Expert”, “Mens” and “Womens”. I tested the Expert and Men’s springs with a 305mm bsl and obtained readings of 11 (Expert) and 9.5 (Mens). Bear in mind that RV does NOT equate to DIN and that all these numbers are but approximations. Mens is recommended for riders between 130 to 180lbs so that is what I used. The spring controls both lateral and vertical RV and is easily exchanged via an allen fastener.
The boot heelpiece interface requires a 4mm heelgap and is inline with the minimalist ethos. Accordingly there is no forward pressure mechanism in the heelpiece with the heelgap providing spacing when the ski is cambered.
The Salomon MTN Tech is a binding that simply works well. It’s relatively light (without being skimo-racing binding light), has massive adjustment for BSL, a flat skinning mode and a high lifter. The MTN Tech has that satisfying positive feeling when you step in with toe jaws closing with a satisfying thunk and heel pieces clamping with conviction. There’s not much in the way of bells and whistles and there shouldn’t be.
The MTN Tech skis well. There is 10mm of delta between toe and heel which puts the binding into the more modern lesser ramp angle category (thanks to Wildsnow for comparisons of binding ramp angle). This works well with a more modern ski technique emphasizing lateral ski movement as opposed to the older fashion of driving tips necessitating a forward pitched ramp angle. The MTN Tech won’t have the vibration absorption characteristics of tech 2.0 bindings (ie bindings without a heelpiece-boot gap) but then you didn’t buy the MTN Tech to rip icy moguls did you? The MTN Tech is easy to use in the field. Lifters snap into place and do not flop around. When going from tour to walk mode all one has to do is to push or whack the heel piece and it returns to ski mode. The heel piece also does not auto-rotate from walk to ski mode due to design features.
There are some minor quibbles. Snow builds up easily in the heelpiece underfoot but a whack with the pole cures this. The “Expert:” spring (which I did not use) requires so much force to turn that I would have concerns about going from walk to ski mode in the field without some serious torque. These are exceedingly minor issues in the scheme of a minimalist very strong entry into the tech binding market.
MTN Explore 88 Skis and MTN Explore skins
The Salomon MTN Explore Skis is part of Salomon’s “Adventure Touring” line; a dedicated lineup of touring skis with dimensions ranging from 88 waisted (tested) to 95. In the 184cms length tested dimensions are 127 – 88-113mm with a turning radius of 18.3m. In this length the actual weight of the MTN Explore 88 was 1348g. Various other aspects of the ski touted in the marketing literature and noted by this reviewer include:
- Karuba 3D Woodcore; essentially a highly engineered woodcore. Think of it as wood stringers glued together and laid up in a structure to minimize weight while promoting a certain type of flex pattern and vibration absorption)
- A carbon and flax reinforcement layer (to aid in stiffness and dampen vibration)
- A plastic tail protector with a notch for skins
- Added strength via ABS sidewalls.
- Monocoque construction at tip and tail for added strength while keeping weight down. Traditional sandwich construction at highest stress points in midpart of ski.
Remember the Pocket Rocket? Well the MTN Explore 88 isn’t a twin tip like the Big Blue Noodle but it sure skis as easily, turns on a dime and is as playful as the old crowd favourite. There was a time when 88 underfoot was considered to be “fat” and my biases certainly were hard to dismiss when first getting on the MTN Explore 88 skis with MTN tech bindings. The overall combination is so featherweight light it felt insubstantially etheral underfoot. Then you start going downhill and that goshdarned marketing hype about dampening and vibration absorption is REAL.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing like momentum/inertia afforded by the sheer weight of a heavier massed ski, binding, boot combo that allows one to mach schnell inbounds mank or run over small children without noticing. One would be lying to say that the MTN Explore 88 has the sheer stability of an inbounds charging big-waisted setup. However, there is an alarmingly high speed limit to the MTN Explore 88 FOR THIS TYPE OF SKI. Not only do the tips and tails not chatter on cut up snow or hardpack but the edgehold is also magnificent. Something that can no doubt be attributed to the new Solly carbon/flax wondertechnology layer incorporated into the ski. Another area where the MTN Explore 88 also shone was in float and stability in pow. The ski is amazingly centred and I took it on many pow expeditions in Southwestern BC’s remarkably snowy 2016-17 ski season where I fully expected the ski to be undergunned yet still had control beyond expected.
MTN Explore Skins
The MTN Explore skins are pre-cut for the MTN Explore 88 skis. They are a mohair-synthetic blend. Tip attachment is a sewn wire. Tail attachments are a flap on a ratchet.
At 274g these are light skins and roll up in a compact form factor. The glue on the skins is also light. Particularly at tip and tail the skins tend to get contaminated by snow especially on yo-yo skiing days with multiple transitions. I hit the tip and tail with additional glue to beef up stickiness but you had better be judicious in managing the skins on heavy snow days. The wire flap is also prone to breakage and I tore one off when trailbreaking waist deep pow and inadvertently kicking a skin with a ski tip. Glide is superior probably in large part to the mohair/synthetic blend. The MTN Explore skins work for their intended purpose but if you are not as concerned about weight/packability and want some skins that aren’t quite so high-maintenance consider other options.
MTN Lab Touring Boots
The Salomon MTN Lab boot is a known quantity so there’s no need to belabour many points. Construction details are recounted in this seminal article by Tom Pietrowski in Newschoolers. The MTN Lab is a classic two piece touring boot with a stated 120 flex. The upper part of the shell has a carbon spine intermixed with Pebax plastic while the lower shell is full Grilamid. My test version in size 26 was 1555g per boot.
Grilamid is light, stiff and can easily be punched and hold forming; useful for the lower cuff (more on that in Fit later). While Pebax is also light and stiff it’s not quite as stiff so a carbon spine is used to reinforce the upper cuff. Both plastics have the advantage of not drastically changing characteristics overmuch as temperature varies.
A forefoot buckle keeps things in place on the lower shell while a cuff buckle and a beefy cammed powerstrap tightens things up on the upper shell. The lack of a mid ankle buckle means that lower shell and instep fit is crucial for downhill performance. In place of plastic at the forefoot Salomon includes a cloth membrane to aid in breathing. The membrane did not let in water even in deep pow conditions.
The walk mode is an elegantly designed (and hidden) mechanism that ties together the lower and upper shell best referenced in the NS article linked above. An articulating spine linked to the lower shell pivots fore and aft. The upper shell pivots on this spine and is locked into place by way of the exterior shell locking mech. In walk mode the articulated spine moves freely (47 degrees of motion fore-aft). When actuated the walk mode locks the upper/lower shells together making for an exceptionally solid play-free platform. It’s impressively simple and works. Of note the Mtn Lab has 13.5 deg of forward lean; a tad more upright than many other boots that tend to come in around 15 deg of forward lean or so. It would be quite difficult to modify the forward lean bracket without doing some crazy plastic molding and metal fabrication so you are stuck with that forward lean.
The sole of the MTN Lab is a traditional rockered touring sole with tech compatible fittings. A Beast fitting can be easily installed. The MTN Lab can be used with frame style touring bindings such as the Duke, Warden, Guardian or Freeride. There’s also plenty of boot welt to work with so there’s no issue using the boot with crampons.
The Salomon liner is notable in being one of the few OE liners I have not immediately binned for an Intuition. It’s not packed out over the 30 day test period and at 320g not a boat-anchor. The liner is heat moldable.
Salomon’s sizing runs big. I am a Dynafit, Scarpa and Atomic sz 27 but my feet swam in a Solly 27 so I sized down to 26 in the Mtn Lab and elected to punch with the aid of Tom at Comor Whistler.
Ostensibly a 98mm last the Salomon Mtn Lab runs narrow throughout the forefoot, medium in the arch/instep and medium-low in the ankles. Not only is the forefoot narrow, the entire toebox is narrow. Low volume feet people rejoice but for my 110mm duckfeet I was willing to take on the challenge of getting the Mtn Lab to fit only with extensive punching. An aggressive cook of the Salomon thermo-conformable liner also helped with efforts.
The MTN Lab performs well on the touring end of the spectrum. ROM is constricted unless the power strap is slackened off and buckles loosened all the way. To me this is a limitation found moreso when skinning on mellow terrain where a longer stride is often more effective. If on steeper slopes, or shorter uphills where one might care less about a longer stride the MTN Lab’s simplicity is quite apparent. Simply disengage walk mode and the two buckles and the powerstrap; the boot then does its Jekyll/Hyde transmogrification from downhill slayer to uphill walker. The MTN Lab’s rockered sole, fine walk mode and fairly light weight aids on the uphill.
Couple the MTN Lab’s walkabilty with superior downhill performance and you now have an excellent touring boot. There is no single way to measure a boot’s progressive feel on the downhill but suffice it to say that the MTN Lab does NOT feel like it hits a brick wall when skiing. This is particularly evident on variable terrain (think chopped up snow) when the MTN Lab can soak up and cushion fore-aft hits with some forefoot pressure. At the same time when arcing turns the MTN Lab has plenty of lateral support.
One issue with the MTN Lab is personal to my feet and the fit but is worth mentioning because it seems that the same issue may pop up for many others. First, due to my collapsed arches and typical Asian flat feet there is simply too much room at the instep. Some shops have added a custom modded instep buckle to the MTN Lab for that reason. Another one for the wish-list is a tad more forward-lean. This is something which can be somewhat alleviated by adding heel shims and/or a spoiler. As a band aid using the MTN Lab with a binding which has massive ramp angle (eg old school Dynafits) mitigates the MTN Lab’s upright stance as the older Dynafit pitched-forward ramp angle offsets the boot’s upright stance.