Maintenance and Repair of Backcountry Equipment 

By Jake Urban

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to backcountry ski repairs.  Despite having the technical skills to make most repairs in the backcountry I avoid them at all costs. Rarely is a mechanical failure “fixed” in the backcountry. Rather it is “rigged”, or “good enough”, to get you out. A bit of preventative maintenance can go a long way. Here are a few to consider that may just help you avoid “rigging” your equipment.

Ski binding manufactures recommend that ski bindings should be inspected at least once a year. This is ideally done at the beginning of the season. Inspection should also occur every thirty days of use. Inspections include: proper retention settings for the skier’s height, weight, age and skier type, proper boot to binding fit, a full function test of the binding release mechanisms, and mounting screws that are not stripped. In my 22 years of ski binding mounting experience, incorrect boot to binding fit was the most common reason for the pre-release of boots from bindings.

Next, binding screws are rarely ripped from the ski without previous damage. Normally one or two screws fail before catastrophic failure -the whole binding being ripped off the ski. When a screw backs itself out of the ski or becomes stripped it allows moisture to enter into the core of the ski. Every time after the ski is used, it goes through a freeze thaw cycle and thus rots the ski core from the inside out. Stripped screws are a simple fix if caught early. When caught after failure, in addition to some level of rot, the binding often needs to be remounted in a different place on the ski, permanently changing the performance of the ski you have come to love. Deal with all problems immediately.

Another bit of maintenance that can go a long way is the tuning of skis. I have heard it over and over again, “You don’t need a good tune to ski powder!” While this may be true you are missing many of the benefits of a well-tuned ski. First, a base or edge that is damaged is more susceptible to further damage. Base gouges, scratches and burred edges are more likely to hang up on something and create further damage. Second, consistent and temperature appropriate waxing not only improves glide, and makes it easier to turn, but hardens your base and ultimately protect it. A base that has not been regularly waxed begins to dry out which makes it more susceptible to damage. Finally, by sealing gouges and waxing regularly you seal your base from damage-causing moisture. I have been waxing my own skis after every three to four days of use. I recommend the same for yours.

While regular binding maintenance can be expensive I really don’t recommend that you do it yourself. Half of the problem with doing it your self is having the proper tools to do it right. Additionally, many of the boot to binding issues that I had dealt with as a technician were created by the “can do!” mentality. You can normally get your bindings serviced for around $20. Consider it an insurance policy on your skis and your knees. With that being said, learning how to properly wax skis is fairly easy and with minimal investment can improve your technique and protect your skis.

The final preventative maintenance tip would be to occasionally tighten all the screws and bolts on your boots. While losing a buckle or pivot point screw from your boot might not strand you as anyone who has lost one will attest -your performance will definitely be compromised. The quick field fix is wrapping gorilla tape around the cuff of the boot. A few minutes with a screwdriver every 15 days of skiing could save you the bother. For those pesky repeat offenders, add a drop of loctite to the threads.

Even the best laid plan needs a back up. When the unexpected equipment failure happens you should have a few items that can potentially save the day. Here are my recommendations depending on the type of tour you are engaging in.

Things I carry all of the time.

  • Binding Tool - T-grip socket wrench with several different attachments. Brooks Range Mountaineering makes a great one.
  • Gorilla Tape – I like this stuff better than duct tape. It is a little more rugged. You can wrap as much or as little you need on to a ski pole or on a pencil.
  • Wire – Between the Gorilla Tape and wire you can mend most anything. A few feet should do the trick.
  • Hot Hands – If you have to do repairs you can count on your hands getting cold while you’re doing it.

Things I carry depending on the temperature.

  • Glob Stopper Wax – This is a rub on wax made by Black Diamond Equipment that helps keep snow from balling up on your skins in marginal temperatures.
  • Rub on glide wax with cork applicator – This can save your legs on those wet spring days when your skis are sticking.

Things I carry when I go really far away.

  • An extra toe/heel piece – if you ski on Dynafit an extra toe piece is all you’ll need as you can break a heelpiece and still make it out of the backcountry. With a broken Fritschi toe or heel piece you’ll want a replacement. Otherwise you’ll need to be creative with wire and tape!
  • Hand drill with bit

The above items add negligible weight to your overall pack weight. And with some preventative maintenance and a little luck you might never need them.  Caveat! This advice and list of items are only as good as your understanding of the workings of the broken devise and your ability to improvise its repair! Owner’s manuals, technical manuals and online forums can be a great source of product information. Read up and brush up on your “rigging” skills.

Happy wrenching, I mean touring!

Jake Urban is a Volunteer for Teton County SAR and Co-Owner of Jackson Hole Outdoor Leadership Institute. When he’s not tuning his skis you can find him evaluating his wax choice in the mountains surrounding Jackson Hole.