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.
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.