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Backcountry skis – Navigating the wilderness

Backcountry Nordic Skis

Backcountry, or BC, skis are available in something of a bewildering variety of shapes and sizes, all designed for something just that little bit different from each other. So, how do you choose the best option for your personal skiing objectives? With a bit of introspection, and a little advice, it’s not as overwhelming as you might think.

The first thing to consider is what sort of BC skiing you enjoy? Possibly just as important is what sort of skiing you hope to do in the future – skis can last for many years, so to get the most out of a pair at least considering your potential future requirements (what you might like to do in 5 years perhaps) is frequently a very good idea.

There are probably two primary classifications of BC skier to consider – what we refer to as the AT (Alpine Touring) skier and the Backcountry Nordic skier. The AT skier is out looking for runs and to do turns – they will frequently climb a mountain primarily to come down it. The Backcountry Nordic skier tends to put on a backpack and disappear into the wilderness. Both types of skiers can be found in similar places, and sometimes with similar gear. However, the activities intrinsically offer a different reward. Gear wise, the AT skier often prefers to utilise a form of all terrain downhill skis often using ‘tech’ bindings and plastic boots. Avalanche forecasters, professional ski guides, ski mountaineers, etc. mainly use AT ski equipment. We do not sell ski equipment at the store for the AT skier unfortunately. From here, we will be mostly discussing the Backcountry Nordic skier and his/her gear requirements, as that is our area of expertise.

3 types of Backcountry Nordic skis:

Hybrid skis: These skis are the closest to classic cross-country skis in that they are narrow enough to fit in a groomed trail, but with a bit more surface area and a ¾ or full steel edge to give them some added functionality in light BC journeys. As the name implies, they are a compromise. Due to their camber being a lot softer than a dedicated track ski, they don’t perform as well in track (specifically in regards to glide). Additionally, a full steel edge can drag slowing you down in the track. These are probably at their best if you have a property as you can use them to break your own trail, or if you genuinely ski half your time in track and half off track and only want one set of skis. In the later case, the ideal solution is definitely two dedicated sets of skis, but that has to be within your budget of course.

Light Touring skis: Defined by their soft camber and relative light weight, these skis often have full length steel edges and some sidecut for control. They range from almost narrow enough to fit into a track out to a somewhat wider ski that overlaps with broader or Telemark style skis. These sorts of skis will travel best in a direct line (like any classic style Nordic ski) – making it more efficient for long distances. Definitely the choice for many folks with plans of heading into backcountry lodges.

Heavy Backcountry or Telemark style skis: Often heavier (but not always), this category of skis is distinctly wider and generally has more sidecut for control down hills. The additional surface area keeps you on top of soft snow making them vastly superior in fresh snow and untracked terrain. AT skiers can mainly be found on a more downhill oriented version of this ski. Due to the wider nature of these skis, the same float performance can be achieved with a little shorter length than their narrower cousins, allowing them to be more nimble. Wider skis are often recommended in steeper terrain and deeper snow making them an excellent option for those that enjoy both the touring and hills aspects of their journeys.

Once you have selected the right skis for your adventures, the next step is your binding/boot type choice. This is generally regulated by the type of ski you have chosen (or, more accurately, by its width) and by the conditions and distances that you’ll be skiing. Our general rule of thumb tends to be that the further you’re skiing from any assistance, the stronger your gear should be.

Binding ideas for Backcountry Nordic skis:

Hybrid - standard NNN for in-track skiing, or NNN-BC for primarily out of track skiing.

Light Touring - NNN-BC bindings preferred.

Heavy Backcountry - 75mm binding preferred for deeper snow and steeper terrain.

Which binding you choose will depend on your activity, and the type of terrain you will be in. If you are unsure, you can always chat with our staff about different options for your skiing style.

Hopefully some of this will help clarify things for you a little. As you do you research and gather opinions, feel free to come in and have an obligation free chat with one of our BC specialists to help narrow down what might be the perfect skis for you.