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Cross-country skiing, Nordic skiing, alpine touring, skate skiing… Who knew there were so many ways to explore the wintery outdoors and get your blood pumping at the same time? But if you just want to escape the city and enjoy the quiet of the wilderness without the constraints of well-groomed trails or the traffic they generate, nordic skiing is for you. Whether you are heading out for a few hours to discover a new snowy area or travelling to your winter camping spot as part of a multi-day hike, SAIL expert Éric Pérusse answers all your queries on the equipment you’ll need for a successful nordic skiing adventure.
In this article, you will learn:
nordic skiing simply means skiing off-piste, away from marked or groomed trails. “Think of it as hiking deep into the wilderness, but on skis,” says Éric. Also called nordic skiing, it could easily be confused with alpine touring, which is a little more focused on going up steep hills to ski or snowboard down. But nordic skiing is not about the thrill of the downhill run: it is usually used to reach a specific destination, or as a quick escape from the hustle and bustle of daily life.
The first question Éric often gets is: “Can I just use my cross-country skiing equipment?” In short, not really. Skis, poles, boots and bindings designed for performance and speed on a groomed trail, or a hard-packed surface designed for skate skiing will not give you the level of control you require when going over untouched snow. Whatever the terrain, from fresh powder to soft snow or icy patches, you’ll want gear that gives you enough flotation and stability to keep moving efficiently, without too much effort.
Nordic skis are generally wider than your usual alpin skis, and provide more flotation surface. The chosen width will depend on the type of terrain you intend to explore. While fresh powder would require wider skis, a narrower option would help in hard snow or icy conditions. If you are unsure, opt for something versatile that works relatively well on any terrain you come across. Your skis’ camber will also be less pronounced than that of standard skis, as nordic skiing isn’t so much about speed or performance, and therefore requires less propulsion.
Éric’s top tip when it comes to nordic skiing poles? Go for adjustable ones. This way, you can push evenly on both sides even when the terrain is uneven (for example, when skiing along the side of a mountain), with poles set to different lengths. You can also shorten or lengthen your poles as you ski up or down to give you a bit of extra support. One more expert tip: roll some duct tape around your ski poles. Should one of them snap, or should any part of your equipment break, you’ll always have some duct tape handy for quick fixes that should last until you reach a destination where you can make more permanent repairs.
nordic skiing boots are quite different from the small, light cross-country skiing boots we are used to. Similar to walking boots, they are higher, more rigid and offer more ankle support, and have slugs underneath. This allows backcountry skiers to take their skis off and walk around freely in the snow, whether during a short break, to traverse a difficult bit of terrain or to camp for the night. Boots are often insulated so your feet stay warm on long outings, and they double up as hiking boots which multi-day skiers will appreciate. Not having to add a separate pair of boots to your gear list can considerably reduce your pack’s overall weight.
Just like other ski gear, your nordic skiing boots, skis and bindings are all part of a system that needs to fit together. Consider compatibility when purchasing new equipment.
As a rule, backcountry ski bindings are wider (to fit on a wider ski) and give you more stability and control. If you expect to encounter some steep hills and therefore to ski downhill, look for an Alpine Touring (AT) binding, which allows you to lift your heel as you ski, and to lock down your boot when going down. However, if your main goal is to ski over fairly flat terrain without necessarily chasing the thrill of the downhill run, stick to backcountry (BC) bindings such as those produced by brand Rottefella, which don’t lock in your heels.
As mentioned, it can sometimes be hard to predict the kind of terrain you’ll encounter when nordic skiing. As such, consider adding a helmet to your pack so you can ski downhill when required, or goggles for windy or snowy conditions. Seal skins could be useful in more extreme cases where added traction is required to reach the top. You can also find out more about what to wear during your skiing outings in our blog.
And if this article has whetted your appetite for all things skiing, find out everything you need to know about alpine touring.