I cringe at that question. It’s not that I don’t like cross-country skiing or skiing down hills, it’s just that in its oversimplicity, this question dismisses a broad range of exciting and worthwhile ski activities. There is more to the ski world than just cross-country and downhill. In fact today, hybridism has blurred the inter-genre spectrum and created so many new possibilities that it is a shame to limit ourselves only to the two most widespread style.
For the casual skier who wants to try something new, this can be confusing. It seems that the lines have all been blurred. Take the skis themselves. There once used to be virtually only two types of skis. Thin straight ones and thick straight ones. Both really long. Walk into to a ski shop today and you might find a near-perfect continuum of sizes and shapes running the entire geometric gamut with no distinctions delimiting where one ski style ends and another begins.
All this can make stepping out of the comfort zone of the familiar ski disciplines can be difficult if you are not familiar with the various styles and corresponding equipment. To help we classified the various styles of skiing into individual categories and discuss in this article their respective gear. If you want to diversify and try a new style but don’t know how, take this as a starting point. If you haven’t considered trying some new ski styles, think about it now. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Check out the different styles below:
A fast, highly aerobic and muscular sport, skate skiing was popularised only in recent decades. This is what they call “freestyle” at the Olympics, where skiers make skating motions with their legs. It can be practiced with regular (“classic”) cross-country skis, and many skis are designated as “hybrid” classic/skating skis. But specifically-designed skating skis are available for those who intend to use this technique uniquely. Skate skis resemble classic skis but will generally be shorter and have much more torsional rigidity to allow a more efficient energy transfer from the skier’s leg to the snow. Skate skis have a flat base to which no grip wax is applied, although other treatments can be applied to improve glide. Boots made for skating will be light, but have rigid ankle support, and skate skiers tend to prefer longer poles.
Skate skiing comes more naturally to good ice skaters, but anyone can learn. At first, however, it is difficult to get the hang of it and it is not unusual for a skier attempting to skate for the first time to only be able to take a couple of steps. With practice, however, arm pushing and weight-transferring techniques improves rapidly and allows the skier to enjoy increasingly longer skating distances.
In order to skate ski, one needs a long relatively flat trail with large firm surface. It is generally unacceptable to skate overtop groomed classic tracks as this damages the tracks. Le Petit Train du Nord, Morin Heights and Mont Tremblant each have excellent tracks for skating.
Skate skiing is daunting at first; it can seem quite difficult to the uninitiated. But with practice, it provides speed on flat ground unparalleled by any ski sport. A fast ride and an endorphin rush await the skier who takes up skating.
This is the Nordic sport par excellence. It’s a Scandinavian invention conceived in Norway and practiced for over 5000 years. If you are one of the many people that “tried cross country skiing once”, this is what you tried.
Classic CC Skiing is practiced on long trails on flat or hilly terrain, usually on 70mm tracks prepared by machinery. The skis may be waxable, in which case they have a flat base on which wax is applied for sticking to the snow, or waxless, in which case a snake-skin pattern under the ski does the job of the wax. The crown (front-to-back curvature, also called “camber”) of the ski ensures that the wax/skin pattern grips the snow only when all of the skier’s weight is on one foot.
To the uninitiated, this sport may take the form of a strange sort of walk, where the skier basically drags his feet as he walks. But with a bit of practice and well-sized skis, one learns to transfer weight to the kicking foot and then glide forward with speed. With good technique a skier can go quite fast almost effortlessly. This is an extremely efficient way to travel on snow, which allows you to cover very long distances.
Here begins the blurring of styles. There are many different styles of skiing which have been labelled “backcountry”. What I mean by Backcountry Cross Country Skiing (BC Skiing) is the type of skiing that is practiced in classic-like equipment on remote ungroomed and often hilly or mountainous trails.
BC skiing is essentially the most preserved version of the centuries-old Scandinavian skiing tradition. Before fancy track-making equipment and ski lifts, in the days when skiing was about getting around and hunting in the winter forest, the early skiiers where essentially backcountry cross country skiers. Today, BC skiing appeals mostly to classic skiers who either want to ski in a wilder environment or who enjoy the challenges of hills and want to tackle tougher terrain. Oftentimes, BC skiing is combined with other winter activities, such as winter camping (similar to hiking camping in the summer) or as an approach means for ice climbing.
In terms of equipment, BC skis are a collection of compromises. They are wider than classic skis to float better in deep snow, but not as wide as downhill skis which would impede flat-terrain skiing. They have a bit of a sidecut but not too much as that would reduce speed going straight. The skis must be made for deep snow of ungroomed trails but oftentimes backcountry trails have been already travelled by previous skiers whose skis have already made tracks, so the BC skis should also be suitable for tracked skiing in my opinion. Moreover, it is not uncommon for back country trails in parks to begin only after a few kilometers of tracked skiing. If a ski is wider than the tracks of a groomed trail (or the tracks made by previous skiers) skiing in the tracks will be difficult or impossible. For this reason, I stay away from some of the widest BC skis. The dimensions of the Fishcher Europa 99 or the Rossignol BC68 are ideal in my opinion, and they fit in standard 70mm groomed tracks. These skis are sized 68-55-62, which means that they are 68mm wide at the tip, 55mm wide under the foot, and 62mm wide in the back. This difference in width is what we call the the sidecut.
Typically, BC skiers will use bindings like classic ski bindings but in a more robust and wider version. Both prevailing types of cross country binding systems (NNN and SNS) have sturdier a backcountry version (NOT compatible with classic ski boots). Back country boots will often be wider and more insulated, as they may be used in deep snow for long periods of time and for winter camping. Some have integrated gaiters, although I highly recommend using separate gaiters like the Outdoor Research Crocodiles or Mountain Hardwear Ascent. The boots will also usually have a bit or ankle support and may even be semi-rigid.
The sturdy bindings and supportive boots, along with the metal edge that typifies most BC skis makes it possible for a skilled skier to go down challenging slopes and even take telemark or parallel turns in good conditions. The use of skins (discussed below) also allows steep uphill travel. In short BC skiing is the best mode of transportation in wild and challenging terrain.
AT skiing is another form of skiing frequently called “backcountry.” Very often, this is an extreme sport for extreme people, but it can also be practiced in a safer moderate terrain.
In what may be the purest form of alpine skiing, AT skiers shun the constraints of the ski resorts and blaze their own trail on unspoiled mountain faces. They go wherever they want and choose where they ski. The price of this freedom is effort. To reach a virgin couloir or to put first tracks on a deep powered glacial bowl, the AT skier must first climb to the top on his own.
To get to the top, many techniques are used. When the approach provides a beaten path, the AT skier walks in his AT ski boots with his skis strapped vertically to his backpack. For this reason, AT ski boots, which otherwise resemble regular alpine ski boots, are made ultralight and have a forward flexion ankle hinge to allow the shins to flex forward. They also tend to have a treaded sole like a hiking boot.
Once in deep snow, or steep terrain, the AT skier will apply skins to the underside of his skis and strap them on. Skins, formerly made of seal skin, are strips of short synthetic hair fibers with a very pronounced front to back grain. Detachably glued to the bottom skis, skins allow some forward sliding while almost completely preventing backwards motion. With these the skier can go straight up very steep hills in deep snow. In order to allow this form of travel, AT bindings, which resemble downhill bindings, can unclip at the back to permit toe rotation like on cross country skis. They sometimes have a raisable heel-support platform to keep the feet horizontally flat when the terrain gets really steep.
In extreme cases, AT skiers will go up some technical terrain or traverse uncharted glaciers. For these occasions, they may carry crampons (to fit over their boots) and other alpine hardware.
Once at the top, skins are removed and heels are locked into the bindings. AT boots will generally also have a lock that blocks ankle flexion for the downhill. We now have a downhill skier ready to conquer his hard-earned descent. The AT skis themselves may simply be standard alpine skis. However because there are so many more snow/ski conditions in the back country than on groomed trails, many different ski geometries have developed for backcountry conditions. For example you may see AT skiers using very wide skis that are made for “surfing” over deep snow, or other geometric variants.
Alpine Touring is perhaps one of the most exciting and rewarding forms of skiing out there. Its demands are not for everyone, only people who like the challenge of the trek up as well as the ride down will truly enjoy this sport. But if you ever find yourself waiting in line for a ski lift wishing for a more adventurous day, you should consider this gem of a sport.
Named after the city of Telemark in Norway, this style can be thought of as a variety to AT skiing, or even as a variety of BC skiing. Many consider this a technique rather than a style of skiing, and indeed some people perform telemark skiing with BC skiing or with AT skiing equipment. But for the serious about telemark, this is a style of its own, complete with telemark-specific equipment.
Telemark skiing is characterised by smooth turns performed by dropping the inside knee and dragging the inside foot behind the other, while keeping the skis approximately parallel. Have you ever seen someone at a ski hill going down on one knee as he makes his turns? That’s telemark skiing. In a way, this technique is as old as Alpine skiing and it was very popular prior to modern heel-locked equipment. Since the 1970’s telemark has seen a revival with an increasing number of people joining the movement.
Telemark philosophy varies from skier to skier and with it varies the equipment used. Traditionally, wide three-pin type bindings (think old “duckbill” cross country ski boots) were used and some people still insist on the superior merits of this setup. Likewise, longer straighter skis that once dominated the skill hill are still preferred by some tele skiers. Modern telemark-specific skis do exist but very often teleskiers us standard Alpine/AT skis. Modern telemark boots resemble AT boots in that they are basically alpine boots but lighter and with ankle flexion. But on top of this, they also have a flexion point about the toes to allow the drop-knee motion of the tele turn. Bindings systems are widely varied although they all allow pivoting (or flexion) about the toe.
Telemark skiing is popular in backcountry settings where the free-heel allows efficient flat and uphill travel. It has also been performed with varying levels of success on BC skis and AT skis as well as telemark-specific skis. While we sometimes see tele skiers on the hills of alpine resorts it is really in the backcountry that this sport flourishes.
This is what most people mean when they talk about “downhill skiing”. This style is all about the ride down. Getting up to the top of the hill is a nuisance, a necessary evil to achieve the ride down, and it is performed with the help of ski lifts or other mechanical aids as quickly as possible to maximize the time spent going downhill.
Most readers will be familiar with this sport. It uses traditional alpine ski equipment: rigid plastic boots, bindings with fixed heels, and alpine skis. The skis come in a variety of geometries according to the style of the skier, but they are generally wide with a very pronounced side cut. Such skis were first introduced to replace the long and straight boards of the 80’s and were called “parabolic” skis to distinguish them from their predecessors. Today, sidecut is an important variable in any ski design.
Because alpine skiing requires mechanized ascent, most skiers frequent ski resorts with mechanical ski lifts. As a result, a large number of skiers congregate on a relatively small number of slopes which are groomed to maintain their surface skiable. This results in a fairly homogenous skiing experience, although moguls and glades add a bit of diversity to the trails.
It is, however, possible to vary the downhill experience by choosing nonconventional ascent means such as driving to the top of a virgin hill and skiing back down to another car, but this is somewhat contradictory to the underlying philosophy of wasting little time on the ascent.
When the conditions are right, alpine skiing can be a huge rush. It’s fast and fun. It can be done alone or with friends and even the ski lift can become part of the fun in a group. Although expensive, this is one of the great pleasures of winter and it’s worth getting into.
These categories are broad and only briefly discussed. Purists may divide them up even further. But the point is this: there is more to life than just classic cross country and alpine skiing. The winter isn’t going anywhere, why not try something new?