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Understanding Backcountry Cross Country Skis

Classic and Skate skiing are usually what comes to mind when people think of cross country skiing. But backcountry nordic skiing was the original form of cross country skiing (and skiing in general) not that long ago! Backcountry nordic skiing allows you to travel to places that less people go to or have ever seen - you can explore new mountains and meadows without being bound to set tracks. There are a variety of different elements that make backcountry skis different from their classic and skate ski counter parts. Let’s dig a bit deeper into what makes these skis unique and what skis are best for your next adventure in the back country!

What about backcountry skis makes them different from classic or skate?

  • Width

  • Sidecut

  • Metal Edges

  • Flex and Kick Zone

  • Supportive Boots and Varying Bindings

Width of the Ski:

One of the most obvious differences when you compare BC skis to a classic ski is the width. They vary from a little to much wider than a classic or skate ski - in fact, they generally won’t fit into regular groomed tracks (and if you try to fit them in the track you will destroy the track setting, so please don’t!).

BC skis are wider to provide you with better floatation in deeper and softer snow. Some people prefer their BC skis to be quite a bit shorter so that they are more nimble in treed areas, others prefer them to be longer for even better float in the deeper snow and more open areas. Even though these skis are wider it will still be a workout breaking trail - but significantly easier with wider skis than a standard classic xc ski. 

More Sidecut For Better Control:

Sidecut refers to the variation of the width of the ski from tip to middle to tail. For example, classic skis are long and skinny all the way down, and even if they vary (have a side cut) it will be fairly minimal – usually only a couple of millimeters. BC skis on the other hand, will usually be notably wider at the tip, a bit skinnier under the foot and then wider again at the tail. This sidecut will vary depending on the intended function of the ski. 

The reason for the variation in sidecut is all about control. More sidecut gives you varying edges to turn onto, giving you more control going downhill and turning. Less sidecut creates a ski that tracks a straight line more efficiently (like a standard Classic ski). Many BC skis are designed to give you better turning and control for challenging areas such as trees or steeper mountain trails. 

Metal Edges:

Since you aren’t skiing in a groomed track, there can be more potential obstacles, debris and rocks, as well as varying conditions, that you need to navigate around in the backcountry. Metal edges increase the durability of the ski and give you the opportunity to have a run in with an obstacle and not completely ruin your ski. 

The metal edges also give you much more control when traveling on hard compact snow or down hills. Most BC skis will have metal edges with one of the few exceptions being a unique ski made by Asnes. This ski differs in that it was designed for hunting or skiing with dogs - there are no mental edges on the skis to make it quieter, lighter and safe for use around your dogs feet. You can check it out here.

Some narrower hybrid skis have a ¾ metal edge for use in track as well as for icy conditions or a little off track use.

Backcountry skiing

Different Flex and Larger Kick Zone:

Classic skis are designed for a firm flex underfoot, and a super firm snowpack to push off - as you push down on your kick you get traction and then release it as you glide. 

BC skis are designed very differently due to the likelihood of a much softer surface beneath the ski. They bow significantly to give you traction by compressing the snow directly underfoot, meaning camber is a lot less important than with track skis (hybrids being something of the exception).

BC skis come in waxable and scaled bases, depending on your personal preferences, and often pair well with a kicker or climbing skin for harsher and steeper terrain. 

BC terrain is a lot more unpredictable and can vary drastically throughout the trip so the skis need to be able to accommodate this. In response, BC skis generally have a much larger kick zone than classic skis, allowing more traction to let you travel more efficiently in these varying conditions. 

Different Boots and Bindings:

BC boots are designed differently to classic boots to be far more like a hiking boot and less like a running shoe. They are designed for all day use for longer backcountry treks so they tend to be warmer, stiffer and significantly more robust. The correct boot will depend on the binding that is best for your skis and the type of treks you want to go on (and fit, of course). 

Simple NNNBC bindings are great for backcountry skiing on trails that have already been skied, and not too far from assistance. 

The upgraded Xplore binding is a good option for people who want a bit more control and a moderately wider ski for more remote adventures. 

Then there is the 75mm bindings (generally thought of as Tele bindings) which will provide the most support for wide skis and easier turns in challenging conditions and terrain. 

If all you are looking is to hike up a trail and find turns on the way down then considering an AT rig might be more appropriate for what you’re looking to do. 

There are definitely a few excellent nordic backcountry ski options that will allow you to add on an AT binding but it all depends on what you want to get from your skis. 

Backcountry ski bindings

Overall backcountry cross country skis will allow you to ski to places where few other people go, trek out to a backcountry hut for the weekend, or even just travel off trail on other skier set paths. Selecting the gear appropriate to the adventures that you have in mind is vital to an enjoyable trip, so try to have a conversation with someone knowledgable about different types of skis, and ask yourself what do you want to do with them? Where do you want them to take you? From there you can find the combination of gear to help you complete these objectives safely and enjoyably. 

Backcountry skis are a fantastic way zip through new mountains and meadows and immerse yourself in the beautiful winter wonderland we get to call home.

If you have any questions about backcountry skis or want to find out what ski might work for you, please give as a call or come pop in to check out the different options. Happy trails!


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