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Nordic back country skiing: What’s it all about?

Written by Fiona

January 09 2023

Before moving to the Scottish Highlands, I knew of several different types of skiing but not Nordic back country skiing specifically. I was aware of downhill skiing, back country ski touring and Nordic cross country (or track) skiing, but Nordic back country was new to me.

I only discovered there was a difference between Nordic cross country skiing and Nordic back country skiing when I was invited to go “ski touring” with new friends last year.

I thought they meant back country ski touring, like I have done many times in Scotland, the Alps and further afield. This type of skiing sees you “skinning” uphill on back country skis with bindings that allow the heel to be free for the upward push. When you want to ski downhill, you remove the skins from the base of the skis, affix the heels and ski the descents.

But, no, my friends meant Nordic back country. I asked a bit more and I discovered this type of skiing is similar to Nordic cross country, but not quite.

Let’s take a closer look at the different types of skiing and skis.

Claire and Michael.

Nordic skiing

The common denominator of Nordic skiing is that the boot heel is always free. The toe is clipped to the ski but the heel is always free to move.

Skis are generally narrow and lightweight. The underneath of the skis has a design that prevents some slippage backwards, while still allowing for a smooth movement forwards. This design might be what is called “fishscales” – a fishscales pattern on the base of the skis – or a strip of “skin”, or sometimes both.

Nordic ski poles are long and around shoulder height.

The aim of Nordic skiing is to kick-and-glide forwards, using the poles for better propulsion. Think Nordic walking but on skis and snow.

There are different types of Nordic skiing. The first is Nordic cross country skiing, or track skiing, and this is usually done on maintained trails or groomed tracks.

This type of Nordic track skiing requires the skinniest skis and you would normally expect to maintain the fastest pace on groomed snow. Track skis do not usually have metal edges because you are on purpose built tracks and generally do not need edges for turns (to cut into the snow). Most are waxable (that is, you can wax the base of the skis for a smoother and faster pace.)

There are also Nordic skate skis, which are like track skis but generally shorter. The skis are stiff and used rather like skating, as the name suggests.

Next up are light touring skis, which are wider than track skis. They can be used on both tracks and some easier going off-trail skiing, such as on a golf course or in a park where the terrain underneath is smoother and there is little undulation.

Nordic back country skis are the widest – although even then there are different widths – and the heaviest. They are still much narrower and lighter than Alpine back country skis but they are similar. They have a metal edge, like Alpine skis, which offers greater ability to ski and maintain stability on deeper snow on more challenging off-trail terrain.

Nordic cross country skis.
Nordic back country skis.
Alpine back country skis.

These skis also include the most robust type of skin or fishscale pattern underneath because they need to be able to aid the skier uphill, without slipping backwards. You do not remove the skins or fishscales at any time as they are integral to the skis.

Nordic back country skis are most similar to Alpine back country skis except they are narrower and lighter and the boot heel stays free. With Nordic back country skiing you do not usually stop to transition from skins to non-skins but simply aim to try to keep going on the downs as well as the ups.

As you might imagine, this type of skiing is easiest where there are few ups and downs.

Nordic back country skis are what my friends have and this is what I have been trying on forest trails and countryside tracks. The tracks and paths are rough and uneven and have varying depths of snow. There are some hills and undulations.

Telemark skiing

Telemarking skiing also has a free-heel binding. However, the skis are more like a traditional Alpine version. You can easily spot a telemarker because when skiing downhill they do a drop-knee telemark turn. This isn’t easy to master!

Telemark skis are versatile enough to allow the skier to carve steep downhill pistes and also do back country skiing. You can use skins with telemark skis if you want to ascend in the back country.

Alpine touring skis

Alpine touring skis are what I call back country touring skis. This is the type of skiing I mostly do in Scotland. The main difference between Nordic and Alpine touring is the bindings, which have a mechanism that allows the skier to lock down the heel before a descent.

Again, skins are attached to the baser of the skis to allow skiers to ascend hills and mountains without slipping backwards. Heels remain free on the ascent.

Then, when you want to descend, the skins are removed, the heel becomes fixed and you ski as if on traditional downhill skis. these skis can also be used on pistes , as well as non-groomed terrain.

Also read:

My first try: Nordic back country skiing

While I am a fairly experienced back country skier, I was a little nervous as I clipped into my new Nordic back country skis at Slochd car park, south of Inverness.

The skis are skinnier than my back country skis, plus I was aware I would not be able to secure my heels, so the downhill sections might be tricky.

I also worried I would be much slower than my friends Claire and Michael, who are more experienced Nordic back country skiers.

However, there was also a feeling of excitement at the anticipation of trying a new sport.

The tracks in the Slochd area, just off the A9, are high, which means they hold snow fairly well, and also undulating rather than hilly.

We started with a little descent and then continued on to many kilometres of mostly flat terrain.

I watched how Claire and Michael ski-glided and also used their poles to propel themselves forwards. Sadly, the excellent snow of the day before had melted a bit overnight and there were patches on the track that were more mud or ice than snow, but we still had the opportunity to enjoy some long sections of relatively good snowy tracks.

I quickly got into the swing of things, slide-gliding my skinny skis forwards and pushing on my poles with my upper body. The width of the skis meant you need to use many muscles, including core, glutes and quads, to maintain balance.

I also realised that this style of skiing requires concentration to make sure you choose the best line in the snow and don’t end up skiing into bits of stone, rock or heather. If you hit too large an obstacle, it can easily send you off balance.

The more you can push and glide the faster you go, although when I picked up too much speed I sometimes found it harder to maintain my balance.

The ascents were similar to Alpine ski touring and while I sometimes slipped backwards on steeper sections, I was mostly able to maintain a forwards motion.

One trick I remembered was to ensure I was standing upright with my weight on the middle of the ski, where the section of “skin” is located, so as to create the best traction, rather than leaning forwards with my weight off the middle of the ski.

The descents were the most difficult part. Without fixed heels, I became wobbly and felt rather out of control. I tried to trust that the downhills would be fine, even if it felt too fast, but then I became worried I was picking up too much pace and tried to turn, only to find it is not at all easy to turn without fixed heels. Several times, I fell spectacularly, landing in the snow and in a heap of legs, skis and giggles.

While Claire managed to stay upright on her skis for the entire 10k out-and-back ski, Michael also fell on a descent. He was stopped in his tracks by some stones sticking through the snow and fell head first.

Fortunately, the falls are not painful because our speed was actually quite slow and you do not fall far.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed the outing. The skiing style is quite easy to master on the flats and ups. The pace is perfect for maintaining a good chat. The views as we skied were frequently lovely.

I felt that I had used muscles similar to running muscles, which means it’s a great sport for maintaining and potentially improving fitness.

I can imagine the skiing will be a lot easier and even more pleasant on days when there is a thicker covering of snow.

Nordic back country is an activity I am keen to have as an option on days when the weather and snow conditions are less favourable for back country touring in the mountains.

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