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.
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.