I have been doing Nordic and Alpine skiing, off and on, for about fifteen years. Due to my
interest in hiking and backpacking, I wanted to do cross country skiing on hiking trails.
This led me to explore alternative skiing equipment and techniques. To do backcountry
skiing requires covering all types of terrain from climbing the mountain, traversing flat
areas, and skiing down the mountain.
Nordic or Cross Country (XC) Skiing
Cross country skis are long, skinny, straight without sidecut, lightweight,
flexible skis, with a double camber, and without metal edges. They are extremely efficient
for traversing flat or gently undulating terrain. They are very difficult to turn on even
the easiest terrain. Skilled telemark skiers can make them turn. These skis
are optimum for gentle uphills and flat terrain. Locomotion is via an efficient kick and
glide. The double camber allows the unweighted ski to only touch the snow at the tip and
tail. The center part of the ski is called the wax pocket and either contains wax or, on a
no wax ski, a fish scale pattern. Either the wax or no wax pattern grips the snow under
the weighted ski for kicking, while the unweighted ski glides forward.
XC skis are the most efficient way to traverse snow on foot as long
as its not too deep. Three types of bindings are typically used. A three pin which is the
traditional binding, a cable binding which is preferred for backcountry use, and the New Nordic Norm
(NNN) which consists of a horizontal pin molded into the toe of the boot which is then
attached to the binding. All three binding styles lock the toe of the boot only, leaving the
heel free to rise when touring. The foot pivots around the toe connection. Backcountry
versions frequently have a cable that attaches around the back of the boot to increase the
stiffness of the boot / ski connection. Touring boots are typically lightweight leather or
fabric. Backcountry boots are very similar to heavy leather backpacking boots with the
appropriate fixture at the toe to attach to the binding. Poles can either be fiberglass or
Waxable XC skis provide better performance but require a commitment to learning which
waxes to use, ski preparation, and possibly changing waxes during the day. In the Mid
Atlantic states, no wax skis are preferred by many for their simplicity, and their
relatively good performance around freezing temperatures. In my opinion, XC skis provide
about 1-2% of the control of an alpine ski/boot/binding combination relative to turning
the ski, particularly when going downhill. XC skiing is much easier to learn than Alpine
Ideal terrain: flat, gentle undulations, groomed trails at XC resorts, golf courses,
parks, no significant downhill
Alpine or Downhill Skiing
Alpine or downhill skis are what most people are familiar with. They are
single camber, heavy, torsionally stiff, metal edged skis with lots of side cut for easy
turning. They are suitable only for downhill skiing, but are optimum for that type of
skiing. They would be used with very high, stiff, plastic boots and a binding that locks
the toe and heel in place. This provides an extremely rigid and torsionally stiff
connection from the leg through the foot/boot/binding to the ski which results in
excellent control of the ski in fast, steep, and icy conditions. They are extremely
efficient at what they were designed to do, but not much good for anything else.
Ideal terrain: moderate to steep downhill only
The two ski regimes described above are the most popular and common,
particularly on the East Coast. Both are very well suited to their specific ski regime. If
you want to go into the backcountry, you need something else. Alpine skis/boots/bindings
are useless at flat touring, and going uphill. XC skis are terrible at turning and
downhill. We need a hybrid ski that does some of both. Unfortunately it will be a
compromise because it's not possible to get a ski that does everything perfectly. The
compromise is between turning and touring ability. A classic backcountry ski is a beefed
up XC ski. It is a (usually) shorter, wider, slightly stiffer, double camber ski with
metal edges, and some sidecut. Its flexibility and double camber still provide very good
touring performance. The metal edges and sidecut make it somewhat easier to turn. You can
ski uphill, tour the flats, and ski downhill with this ski as long as the downhill
portions aren't too steep. Backcountry skis are available in wax or no wax styles.
Boots are high topped, and heavy leather - similar to backpacking boots. Bindings can be:
three pin only, three pin and cable, or step in with a cable. The cable goes around the
heel of the boot to increase the stiffness for turning. I really prefer the step in
variety. Poles should be aluminum because of the metal edge of the skis. Fiberglass poles
will break if they hit the ski edges too hard. This is probably the optimum ski for the
northeast if you are doing about 70-80% touring and uphill and 20-30% downhill. I would
estimate that backcountry skis/boots/bindings provide about 15-25% of the downhill and
turning control of an alpine ski/boot/binding. Even though they are better than XC skis,
they are still relatively hard to turn and use on the downhill portions (relative to Alpine
gear). Backcountry skiing is much more difficult than alpine skiing. If your skill level is high
enough, these skis will work well for most aspects of backcountry skiing.
Ideal terrain: flat, uphill, gentle to moderate downhill
Telemark skiing is the most difficult and highest level of backcountry
skiing. Some describe it as the downhill portion of XC skiing. Telemark skis are very
similar to alpine skis. They are used with a touring binding that locks the toe and allows
the heel to be free. You can use exactly the same binding and boot as for backcountry
skiing. It's also possible to buy heavier, stiffer, plastic telemark boots which provide
more control. These skis are intended for steep terrain where turning and downhill ability
are more important than touring ability. They are typically what is used for backcountry
skiing out west with their much steeper terrain. The steep uphill portions would be done
with climbing skins on the bottom of the skis. Wax can be used for less steep uphill
climbs. Telemark skis are normally not available in a waxless version. In the East, you
would use them to ski steeper terrain or use at lift served ski areas.
Telemark really refers to a type of turn rather than a specific type of equipment, but
most ski equipment manufacturers do make specific skis and boots for telemark skiing. This
turn was invented many years ago by the inventor of XC skiing and it will work with any
type of free heel ski.
Ideal terrain: anything, flat touring performance average
Alpine Touring (AT) Skiing
Alpine touring (or Randonnee) is an attempt to short circuit the long
learning curve of telemark skiing. It is attractive to people who already know how to do
Alpine skiing and would like to use those skills for the downhill portion of backcountry
skiing. The equipment consists of AT skis and AT boots with an AT binding that can be used
in a heel lock position for downhill skiing, and a heel free position for uphill and
touring. This is much more popular in Europe than here. AT skis are very similar to Alpine
or Telemark skis. AT boots are multifunctional plastic boots that can be used for
Alpine skiing, Nordic skiing, backpacking, and mountaineering. The steep uphill portions would be done with climbing skins on the bottom of the skis or
wax for less steep uphills.
Ideal terrain: anything
If all else fails, go snowshoeing ! Its a lot of fun and a lot easier to
learn than some of these ski techniques. Just strap them on and start walking. Get
shoes that are large enough to support your weight plus backpack. Larger wood and gut or
neoprene laced shoes are probably better in deep, fresh powder. The nylon reinforced
neoprene is strongly preferred over natural gut for reduced maintenance. The smaller
aluminum framed shoes with solid plastic decking are lighter and will provide more
floatation in a smaller shoe. They would be better for backpacking where you are trying to
cut weight. If you're going on somewhat steep or icy terrain you will want crampons,
preferably at both the foot pivot point and the heel, and possibly along the sides. Poles
help to keep your balance when traversing the side of a hill. Adjustable length poles work
well for traversing hillsides on skis too.
Ideal terrain: anything that isn't too steep
Hut to Hut Skiing or Snowshoeing
Some recent books & magazine articles about Hut to Hut skiing include
information about these elusive mountain huts which seem to be gaining in popularity in
Powder, January 1996, Powder Tracks - "Hut Tripping, Yurt Just Gotta Go"
Outside Magazine, Winter Travel Guide 1996, "Snowbound Bliss"
Men's Journal, January 1997, "Cross Country's Heavenly Huts"
Brian Litz, Colorado Hut to Hut, Second Ed., Westcliffe Publishers, Englewood, CO,
Chris Townsend, Wilderness Skiing and Winter Camping, Ragged Mountain Press,
Camden, ME, 1994.