Back Country Skiing

Snow was made for sliding on.  Its just one of those laws of nature.  Back country skiing is the art and science, and just pure fun of getting off the groomed trail and making your own tracks out in the vast winter landscape of frozen lakes, bush trails, and mountains.  Winter day tripping or trekking and hauling sled in open terrain – back country skis are a superb way to travel.  Skiing in the classic cross country style is so easy because it’s a natural stride.   If you can walk then you can ski.   You can keep to the flats and ski at whatever pace you desire, or you can ramp up the tempo and ski up and then down mountains.  Once you get into it, you’ll wonder why you haven’t been skiing all your life.

“Back country” is the official term for an entire genre of skiing and class of gear, which distinguishes it from groomed trail, track set skiing.  Back country skiing is “cross country” skiing the way it originally was…in essence the pure form of cross country where you literally go “cross country”.   Back country skiing itself is also evolving into myriad sub forms based on terrain, i.e. different gear and techniques for skiing in the mountains vs. the flats and low rolling terrain.

Modern super skinny, “light touring” skis designed for the resort’s groomed track are essentially racing skis, and will sink like a stone in “real” snow of the back country, and they will snap like twigs in the bush when traversing rough conditions.   Back country skis are wider for floatation, and overall are much stronger than track skis.  They are usually steel edged for strength, carving downhill turns, digging in for hill climbing, digging into logs to cross, and to protect the ski’s bottom edges.    Racing boots that we all wear on the resort’s groomed track will not keep your feet warm in deep cold when out all day.  Back country boots are bigger, over the ankle or higher for support, with a wider binding mount area, and sized big to allow for several layers of socks for the cold.  The racing bindings are not wide and strong enough to handle the torsional forces of off trail skiing.   Back country bindings have a wide attachment point for more strength and control of the ski.

There is now an extremely wide range of “back country” designs available for the full spectrum of back country forms, from extreme downhill performance, to flat land skiing to cover distance efficiently.    In this website we will be describing the flat land niche of the back country spectrum, designed to “kick and glide” efficiently over long distances of flat and rolling terrain.   Kick and glide is the classic cross country technique where the “kick” grips the snow and pushes you foreword, and the “glide” is the all important glide of the ski which allows for gliding a distance between kicks, making locomotion more efficient and for covering distance actually skiing rather than walking on skis.  This niche is often called “light back country touring”, or “Nordic back country” in the literature.  The downhill skiing part of the back country spectrum is called Telemark, which is a free heel downhill skiing technique and for touring;   and Alpine Touring (AT) (or Randoneé as it is often called outside of North America), which has a lock down heel option for downhill and free heel for touring.   The trade off of the newer Telemark and AT gear is that the skis and boots tend to be very heavy (except for the racing class), and don’t perform well for flat land touring, since the skis have little “camber” and very soft flex, and so don’t glide efficiently on the flats.  They are radically side cut so they don’t tour well in straight lines – they want to turn all the time.  They are so soft that they actually flex backwards like wet noodles (relatively speaking) to effect tight downhill turns, eliminating efficient flat land glide possibilities.   They ski downhill extremely well but seriously compromise the kick and glide on the flats.  (“Camber” will be defined below in the Skis subsection).   Light back country touring skis on the other hand are highly cambered with a stiff flex to resist backwards bending so that they glide better and tour very well on the flats, but they are poor performers on the steep and deep downhill runs.  They are very difficult to turn, although with high levels of skill they can be turned and there are some models designed to cross over into light Telemark and AT uses.

There are several fine websites and books dedicated to Telemark and AT downhill back country gear and skills, so we won’t be covering this part of the spectrum here.   There are very few resources dedicated to flat land light back country skiing and traditional winter camping activities hauling sleds, and so this website is dedicated to that style of winter trekking and living.  However in order to navigate through the labyrinth of ski gear designs and styles you will encounter in gear stores, catalogues, popular articles and websites, it will be necessary to contrast the attributes of the gear against attributes of Telemark and AT which dominate the industry and floor space.   Don’t worry, we’ll sort it all out!

The following discussion for light back country touring skiing gear is broken out into sub sections of Skis, Waxing and Waxless, Boots and Bindings, Poles, and, and Skins.

Ski-hauling sleds down the lake in the wind and snow. Its not always sunny and bright, but the rhythm of skiing seems to brighten the hard slogging. Instead of lifting each leg, boot and snowshoe very step, when skiing your entire leg just slides forward and your foot rolls up to press down and push (kick) you forward. Over the long haul this saves energy and time, snow conditions permitting. Hit a bad slush situation on the lakes, and you have to change to snowshoes to pack a float.