With the huge cold front and storm system that rolled through much of the country in October, many places have already experienced their first significant snow. Yet, the resorts aren’t open, limiting the opportunities for alpine and especially piste-skiing. But for skiers who can’t wait to get out there, gliding over the snow on their skis, Nordic skiing is the way to do it.
If you ask us, we’ll tell you that Nordic skiing is the better option overall, anyway. But since there’s no trade-off with the resorts and ski runs still not ready to go, you can eat your cake today and save the rest to have for later.
If you’re also looking for a sense of solitude, it’s kind of a crapshoot. Certainly, you’ll be able to avoid the tourists. But in the most popular and populous ski towns with plenty of locals also looking for the peace and quiet offered by the backcountry in winter, there’s certainly no guarantee that you won’t see others out on the trails. Nonetheless, it’s likely to be less crowded than the heart of winter and ski season.
It’s also hard to trust the weather and temperatures for much longer than a day trip. You need to be ready to go when the early-season snows arrive because it’s often not around for very long, especially in terms of maintaining a reasonable ski surface. Cross-country backpack skiing should wait for more reliable snow cover across the entire landscape and duration of the trip.
Of course, not all Nordic skiing is backcountry skiing, and if you’re still new to this style of skiing, then you might do better to stay closer to the resorts and civilization in general during your first few runs. Finally, if you’re looking for that sense of solitude but you’re not yet comfortable with your Nordic skills, it’s not a bad idea to go snowshoeing this time of year, while you continue to develop these skills. Have fun and be safe out there!
Many athletes come to Nordic skiing as an alternative to downhill. Whether they want a day away from the resort or to experience nature in a more intimate, less adrenaline-fueled setting, many new Nordic skiers have some alpine experience. However, those coming down from the mountains are often caught by surprise at the difficult of Nordic skiing. Though the sports are closely related (there’s snow, skis, and poles, after all), alpine skiers shouldn’t pass cross-country touring off as an easy sport. Here are some of the largest differences and challenges one should anticipate when trying Nordic skiing for the first time.
- Equipment stability—Nordic skis are markedly less stable than alpine skis. The latter are heavier, have a wider base, and include metal edges to increase friction when the ski is angled. Nordic skis have none of these features, instead presenting as slender, light, deeply cambered equipment. Additionally, an alpine skier’s center of gravity will be lower because of the weight of the equipment; this is not the case for Nordic skiing.
- Equipment mechanics—Differences in design and construction mean that the mechanics of the equipment are not identical. They may look similar to the uninformed, but different mechanics necessitate different skills. When moving downhill in Nordic skis, for example, skiers must use step turns in order to change direction. Additionally, skidding—a method of stopping—is much more difficult in Nordic skis, as there is no metal edge to cling to the terrain.
- Terrain—Cross-country trails are often narrow, icy, and rutted. Trails are often cupped by both skiers and other recreational enthusiasts (snowmobilers, snowshoers, &c), making skiing on the edges nearly impossible. Additionally, Nordic skiers must follow the contours of a trail, continuing straight even when downhill portions may seem too steep. In contrast, alpine skiers have much more flexibility, and trails are often well maintained by resorts.
Alpine and Nordic skiing are challenging in different ways. However, alpine skiers should never turn to cross-country skiing as an easier alternative; the sports have essential differences in equipment and required skill. Overconfidence can lead to accidents, so remember to do your research and practice before heading out.
When it comes to Nordic skiing, most athletes will tell you about two specific styles. The first, Classic, will allow you to glide easily through snowy landscapes on classic ski trails. You will leave behind to parallel tracks, and the movement is natural and smooth. The second style, Skate, guarantees speed and a killer workout. Skating is a free technique, meaning the trails don’t offer must guidance (as a classic XC trail might). The key to skate skiing is the v-style, where you create speed by pressing the edge of your ski into the snow and pushing hard against it. Most Nordic skiers are familiar with these two styles, but which is best for backcountry?
To tell you the truth, neither is exactly right for backcountry Nordic skiing. That’s why the sport has its own, distinct style! Backcountry style allows you the freedom to explore a range of terrain without difficulty. The style is similar to Classic skiing, but there is a small difference. Backcountry style incorporates a kick and glide phase while keeping the skis parallel. However, in incorporating a slight, skate-like push, you’ll feel more comfortable in deep snow. The style is not meant for speed, but instead designed to address the range of conditions one might experience in the forest. If you find a flat stretch of path, you can utilize the Classic style to glide through. If you encounter steeper and deeper conditions, you can begin to incorporate a Skate-like push to get through even the toughest snowpack.
The key to finding your perfect backcountry method is simple. Adapt. Don’t stick to Classic skiing just because it’s more comfortable. Don’t stick to Skate skiing because you want the speed. Backcountry style is, necessarily, a combination of all popular and useful Nordic ski methods—take the time to figure out what works for you, your skill, and the terrain you’re on.
And one more thing—get yourself some proper equipment. I have a post about choosing good backcountry skis.
Backcountry trips are intense regardless of your chosen movement method. They can be especially straining while using Nordic skis—some stretches of terrain will require you to carry the skis and traverse on foot. The high likelihood of this occurrence means you must pack lean and smart. You’ll need everything from emergency gear and avalanche equipment to layers of clothing and a compass.
Below, I have written everything I keep in my “essentials” pack. I add necessary equipment, such as extra food, water, and sleeping supplies, on longer, overnight trips, but every excursion to the backcountry requires these suplies.
- Skis, boots, poles (obviously)
- Water bottle
- Goggles (and/or sunglasses)
- Small shovel
- Ski shell
- Ski scraper
- Spare gloves
- Radio or walkie-talkie
- Clothing layers
With strategic placing, you should be able to fit everything into a pack for a day in the woods. Finding jackets and snowpants with easily-accessible pockets is always helpful, especially when storing small and important items like a compass or radio. If you have this equipment, you’re ready for a fun and safe day outside.
As I’ve established in previous posts, backcountry Nordic skiing differs slightly from other types of XC skiing. In addition to having a separate style and equipment, the form must deal with different terrain. It is therefore essential to know how to address unexpected slopes and turns. You don’t need to hone your technique before heading out, but you should know the basics of how to deal with this type of terrain. Below, I have described the best methods (in my experience) for tackling level ground, uphill climbs, downhill slopes, and turns.
Level ground—Okay, this one is pretty easy. Most Nordic skiing is done on level ground—that’s why it’s called “cross-country.” On level ground, use the classic kick-and-glide. As one foot slides forward, push down with the opposite pole and kick forward with your back foot. Plant the opposite pole in front of you with each stride to retain balance, and work on keeping an even rhythm.
Uphill—If you encounter a steep uphill slope, try switchbacking instead of powering straight up. Never try to climb too steeply; most textured bases start to slip at just 15 degrees. Instead, put weight on your uphill edges to keep from backsliding. If the steep slope is short, utilize the “herringbone” step—with toes pointed out, put our weight on the inside edges and walk up. This should form a backward, downward-facing wedge with your skis, and the weight on your edges will prevent you from backsliding.
Downhill—If you’ve skied downhill on Nordic equipment, you know how necessary it is to have a game plan. Most newbies will assume they can attack a downhill slope as you might with alpine skis. However, the unattached heel means you won’t be able to turn and stop as easily. If you come across a downhill area, lean back slightly to keep your tips from diving under the snow’s surface. Assume an athletic stance with your feet shoulder-width apart. If the slope is very steep, step down while keeping your weight on the uphill edges. You can also “snowplow” as you would with alpine skis.
Turns—On gentle terrain, completely pick up your ski and put it down in the direction you want to go. If you are moving downhill, ease into a snowplow position and put additional weight on the outside ski. Move your skis back into the parallel position as soon as the turn is complete.
If you’re familiar with Nordic skiing, you’re aware of the differences between Classic and Skate skis. One is longer than the other, one has a greater camber, one is heavier, etc. You may not be aware, however, of the third class of Nordic skis—backcountry. the backcountry Nordic ski style is very original, and the equipment has to be sturdy enough to support you during longer tours in untracked and dense terrain. Therefore, if you’re in the market for a new pair of XC skis, ask your retailer about their selection of backcountry skis.
These skis are wider than usual Nordic skis. This will allow you to float on top of both loose and packed powder, similar to how a snowshoe works. However, the edges comprise the biggest difference. Backcountry ski edges are made of steel, allowing you to have a firm grip on the ground no matter the terrain. The gliding surface is pretty similar to a general ‘no wax’ ski, and you can find equipment with built-in climbing skins. This will look like a fish scale (or similar) pattern on the undersides of the skis and is designed to add traction.
Backcountry Nordic ski boots are also available. They are sturdy, stable, and warm—similar to hiking boots. These boots are designed this way because, in most cases, you’ll have to do quite a bit of walking. Some boots even have integrated gaiters, which will protect you from falling into deep, untracked snow. The sole will attach to the ski through either a toe nip or a metal stick.
Even backcountry Nordic ski poles are different. They are often a bit shorter, which will allow you to be more agile. The baskets are larger than usual to prevent you from falling through untracked terrain. I recommend getting yourself a pair of height-adjustable poles with large baskets—you’ll be equipped for backcountry, Classic, and Skate.
If all of this backcountry-specific information is overwhelming, take a deep breath. If you’re not committed to the backcountry lifestyle, you can rent or lease equipment to test it out. When choosing your weapon(s), be sure to talk to the sales or rental associate at your retailers—they’ll be able to steer you in the right direction.
Backcountry sports are the most thrilling winter activities imaginable. From snowshoeing and cross-country skiing to alpine skiing and hiking, nothing can match the feeling of adventure and discovery experienced while traveling, literally, off the beaten path. Unsurprisingly, this type of adventure comes with its share of risks. The most common, obvious, and deadly? Avalanches. Yes, you heard that right—Nordic skiing requires a careful study of avalanche warnings.
You might be thinking: I thought avalanches only affected mountains. I thought only downhill skiers needed to worry about them. In fact, an avalanche will destroy everything in its path; it one occurs far enough down the mountain, or if it gains enough speed, it will blow through roads, towns, and valleys. This means your backcountry Nordic skiing—even your trail-specific Nordic skiing—could be at risk.
Take note: I am not advocating for Nordic ski abstinence. In fact, this danger makes the sport even more thrilling. I am, however, advocating for proper education and preparation in case you get caught up on an avalanche while doing some backcountry exploring. Appropriate preparation begins with reading the Avalanche Danger Scale. Before setting off on a backcountry trip—whether you’re planning to just take the day or do a week-long camp—check the Avalanche Danger Scale reporting for your area and date. This tool is used by avalanche forecasters to broadcast the potential for avalanches in a specific area. Avalanche terrain is often defined as a steep slope, but if you see a high avalanche danger reading, avoid that particular area—a steep slope inevitably leads to a soft plateau, and when the snow starts spilling, it won’t matter that you were on flat land.
In addition to reading the daily avalanche forecast, all backcountry explorers—whether you’re doing some alpine skiing, hiking, or Nordic skiing—should have an avalanche pack. No matter your chosen sport, you should always carry a small shovel and an avalanche receiver and probe. If you’re caught up, these tools will allow you to create an air pocket and send out a signal with your exact location. Most importantly, always wear a helmet.
Now, this post is not meant to scare you. It’s not even meant to make you afraid of avalanches. These natural slides occur with enough frequency that they have become a part of backcountry life. I just want you, dear readers and fellow Nordic ski enthusiasts, to be safe, stay prepared, and anticipate danger.
For some, okay for many, downhill runs and terrain parks are the best—if not the only kind of skiing. For thrills and technical expertise, they can’t be beat. But cross-country skiing has a ton going for it, too. Now, it’s easy to think there are two “camps,” cross-country vs. downhill, but pretty much every instance I can remember with friends and acquaintances, it’s more like a sibling rivalry—or even a lover’s quarrel. Now ski vs. snowboard…that’s a legit kerfuffle.
Me? I love it all, but I do think it’s cross-country skiing that gets my vote for most underrated thing you can do on skis and maybe the most underrated winter sport overall. The thing is, I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how cross-country skiing is a “full-body workout.” Okay, I’m not going dispute that cross-country is an amazing workout experience, but it’s not as though downhill can’t also be intense exercise to go with its thrills and lift rides. I will say, too, that I’ve never really understood the significance of a “full-body workout.” Golf is a full-body workout in the sense that it uses all your muscle groups, while simultaneously engaging your sense of balance. But a round of golf is not comparable to a day in the alpine backcountry on your skis and poles. It’s just an experience unlike any other. The quiet and the not so quiet. The solitude of the wilderness broken by the sight of wildlife, sometimes the terrifying sight of a mountain lion or an agitated moose. The conversation and social aspect of those who are with you on this adventure. The personal challenge of determining what you’re capable of. The initial excitement and novelty of getting dropped off by a snow-cat or heli-skiing. I’m an unabashed Nordic Nerd.
Cross-country skiing, for me, means exploring the western United States in a truly intimate way. There’s Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and California. There’s also the question of personal safety. The occasional encounter with large alpine fauna notwithstanding, serious downhill skiing can be hazardous to your health. Whether you’re a youth telling your friends to “Watch this!” or you’ve become increasingly susceptible to strains and sprains over the years, you never know when you’re going to get a serious injury. Who follows best practices all the time? All right, fine, I admit the prospect of turning out a knee or seriously throwing out my back could get dicey pretty quickly, but it hasn’t happened yet. I mention it, too, because I’ve been going on more and more overnight backcountry ski trips.
Look, I can do the mountain resort experience with the fine dining and hot tubs in your private room and bar scenes with live music and strong drinks. But I also love roughing it and don’t need every meal to taste like someone sacrificed a piece of their soul to make it. Plus, there’s nothing like getting back to the lodge after a long backcountry ski trip. I guess, it’s kind of like my version of a soft masochism in which the focus isn’t just aimless flagellation so much as the relief that comes after the pain is over. It’s kind of a cure or at least a treatment for the claustrophobia I feel when I’ve been on the same mountain or terrain park for too long. Skiing has always been getting to the next horizon for me, and it’s true literally even more so than figuratively.