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.
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.