Cross country skiing is an efficient way of travelling long distances across snow. The skis are narrower than the usual downhill and slalom skis, and the poles are longer to help you pole along. You can go cross country in a prepared track or outside in fresh snow, the latter often referred to as ski touring or back country skiing. Skis to go outside of the tracks tend to be a bit wider than the skis you use in tracks, to help you to float better in the snow outside of the tracks. Boots are usually made of leather or some synthetic flexible fabric.
You might want to go for a skiing trip instead of jogging, for variation at a ski resort or as a means to get to the true wilderness in wintertime.
Cross country skiing is the original form of skiing and was developed as a common mode of transport in Northern Europe. There are two different techniques for competitive skiing cross country: "classic" and "freestyle", where the former means mostly gliding forward with the skis in the tracks, while the latter resembles skating. In deep fresh snow classic is the only feasible way, likewise if there is no space besides the tracks on a prepared route. Routes with groomed tracks often offer space for both. If the temperature has varied around the freezing point (0°C, 32°F) there may be hard snow on or near the surface, allowing the skating technique in fields. Frozen lakes and rivers with thin snow cover also invite to this. Competitive skiers use special equipment for freestyle or "skate skiing". Recreational and back country skiing use both techniques depending on the terrain and snow quality. Freestyle or skating is easier with light skis. Skating creates superior speed on hard, even surfaces.
Classical skiing is based on the principle of traction or friction to allow the backward kick. In groomed tracks, traction is usually achieved with grip wax (a sticky substance applied to the mid part of the ski), while in the back country traction is also achieved with a waxless ski sole or with a removable "skin". The mid part of the ski should touch the track firmly when kicking, but rise when gliding, which means the skis have to be chosen to fit your weight. Some skis are more forgiving, which is an advantage when having a backpack that might be more or less heavy. There are also differences in how carefully the ski has to be prepared (waxed) for the specific kind of snow facing you on a route.
There is a trade-off for length and width of the skis: long and wide skis are good in thick loose snow in open terrain, but long skis are cumbersome in woods, bushes and steep hills and extremely wide skis may not fit in prepared tracks (also some bindings may be problematic).
When getting the equipment, be prepared to choose between several options depending on what you are going to do and what you are prepared to pay (at least in specialist shops, others may offer only one kind). The skis, bindings, boots and poles may be optimized for either classic or skate skiing, for tracks or for true cross-country with deep loose snow, for mostly flat terrain or offering a possibility also to downhill skiing with the telemark technique. Skis, bindings and boots should match and are often sold as a package; consider whether you want to be able to replace some without replacing all of them.
Skiing downhill, in tracks and in untouched snow are very different experiences. Do not expect the thrills of one when performing another. And while some techniques are easy to adopt to another environment, there is much to be learnt for somebody lacking experience in the current one.
Ski types by purpose
There are rough categories of skis for different purposes. The division here may not be universal and there may be compromises, but you should probably decide which types make sense for you. The skis for different purposes and techniques differ in length, width, stiffness and possibly other aspects. If there is a chance you will ski in tracks, in loose snow (other than downhill) or in mountains, try to find a ski that is adequate in all your uses. In wilderness backpacking, the important thing is not to get the best possible performance, but not to have a situation where the ski makes you miserable – avoid the extremes.
Also bindings and poles differ by intended use and skiing boots are usually made to fit one specific model of binding (there are often two big brands with different bindings for any type of ski, and possibly many obsolete designs). Bindings differ, in addition to usability for a specific type of skiing, by how easily frozen snow can stuck the fastening mechanism, to what extent they can be repaired in the field etc. There may be variations in this respect between bindings that fit the same boot.
A traditional all-round ski is about as long as the user with a raised arm. This length allows turning on the spot (after some training). Much longer skis are clumsy in dense wood and going downhill. Somewhat shorter skis are easier to handle for the beginner, in dense wood and in steep terrain. The corresponding poles reach from the ground to the armpit.
The width of older skis is about 5–10 cm (2–4"). Machine made tracks allow up to 65 mm (2.6 in), which is worth taking into consideration. Wider skis can be made shorter and still carry the user in loose snow (and allow more curvature for going downhill).
The stiffness is usually chosen so that the ski touches the ground under the foot when the user's weight is put on it, but not when the weight is evenly on both skis. This allows effective skiing in tracks as the rougher middle part touches the track only when kicking, but using a gliding-one-way-only structure a less stiff ski can do its job.
Normal alpine downhill skis are useless in flat terrain, as you cannot lift the heels. Alpine touring bindings allow freeing the heel and thus walking in flat terrain and uphill.
Telemark skis can be used at least for walking in the snow; there are also compromises that allow more or less efficient skiing in flat terrain.
Poles for downhill skiing are too short to give significant help in flat terrain.
Skis for skiing in exposed terrain with steep hillsides, such as above the tree line, are a compromise between telemark downhill skis and normal backwood skis (as were the original telemark skis). The bindings allow good control over the skis and metal edges get a grip also in hard snow. The skis are often quite wide (but some are less than 65 mm) and curved to ease turning. The skis are of about traditional length or shorter to allow easy handling. "Skins" (originally stripes of seal skin or similar) are used to give good grip in the snow going uphill and removed when not needed, to get better glide.
Where deep loose snow is to be expected the skis need to be long and wide. There are extreme skis, but skis of traditional length and of width fitting in machine made tracks are enough (and more practical) in most circumstances. Even track skis are mostly usable in compact or thin snow, if there is a hard layer near the surface or if skiing in a track made by the rest of the company.
The bindings are often made such that most boots will fit, although boots intended for this use should normally be used (other boots will have less good a fit and wear down quickly). These bindings are wide and do no necessarily fit well in machine made tracks.
Poles should have moderate to big "baskets", to keep the end of the pole near the surface also in loose snow. Old poles found at flea markets are usually adequate, while track skiing poles are quite miserable (the baskets of the former resemble wheels with spokes, those of the latter are compact pieces of plastic).
Track skiing skis
When skiing in ready made tracks ("classic" skiing), in dense snow or in snow with a hard surface, narrower skis can be used. Skis for skiing in tracks are often 45 mm wide or even less. The bindings are narrow and give good control, but are not meant for big side-way forces (as in downhill skiing) and impossible to repair en route.
Skis for the skating technique ("freestyle") are stiffer than traditional skis and quite short. Poles are long. The skating technique can also be used with traditional skis.
Learn to ski before you try longer trips on your own. There are courses at many ski resorts, but if you are able to train at home you can benefit from more advanced advice or more easily head for the real adventure at your destination.
You might want to get skis, poles, boots and other equipment at home or buy or rent at or near the destination. In the latter case, find out what is available, when and where.
Learn about your destination: what kind of routes are available, what services at the hub and en route, what to expect about the weather etcetera.
Most skis need waxing depending on temperature and structure of the snow. For competitive skiing this is a tedious procedure, while there are short-cuts for the less ambitious. Depending on the ski right waxing is essential in any weather or only in some circumstances. Regular maintenance waxing (or other procedures, such as tarring for traditional wooden skis) is needed for any skis.
In "classic" skiing the middle part of the ski should give a good grip while kicking and the rest of the ski should provide gliding. Traditionally different wax is applied on this section, but the surface can also be rougher here. A fish-scale structure in this section (and some high tech solutions) gives traction when kicking, still allowing gliding. This allows skis not matched to your weight – an important feature when carrying backpacks of varying weight.
- Ski resorts. There are cross country routes around many of them.
- National parks and similar at the right latitudes or altitudes.
- The back yard or near-by park at many destinations in the north, such as in the Nordic countries. Oslo for instance offers an extensive network of groomed tracks within reach of the metro.
- Amateur races, such as Vasaloppet in Sweden.
Backpacking by ski
Think of the skiing route as of a similar hiking route. In good conditions you will be able to cover somewhat greater distances – very seldom will you get the speeds of track skiing with a backpack and without groomed tracks.
There might be prepared tracks most of the way, but be prepared to cope without them, as you might have to diverge from the route or you might lose them in snowy weather.
In many types of terrain heavy snowfall will reduce your ability to orienter – it is difficult to keep a course while seeing only snow. In some cases wind or quite moderate snowfall will be enough. If above the tree line, you must be prepared to find a safe place and wait as long as needed.
When in a national park or similar there are often cottages for lodging. They may be unlocked and unmanned, available only after reservation or full-fledged hotels. Be sure to find out the local conventions and the locations of cottages you might want to use.
In some locations you can hire a guide or buy a full service package including somebody making tracks with a snowmobile, preparing the food and arranging visits and programme on the way. In others (especially if you are on a budget) you will be more or less on your own, which means you need experienced company and some training yourself.
In winter you will need warmer spare clothes, more food (quite a lot of energy is used to staying warm), a better sleeping bag, and a tent or similar even if you plan using cottages (a snow storm might force you to camp earlier). For areas where firewood is available you might even take a tent with stove. On the other hand you should not carry too much, as a heavy backpack will influence your balance (pack the heavy stuff low).
You can use a toboggan, ahkio, pulk or similar to pull some of your equipment instead of carrying, which means you can have more stuff if you really need to (such as when crossing Greenland). For going downhill the thing should have semi-stiff shafts, hindering it from overrunning the person pulling it, and a possibility to attach a rope enabling the person behind to help braking.
Check what parts of the ski can break, whether they can be fixed or replaced with an improvised substitute in field and what spare parts and tools to carry. Discuss with somebody experienced. Walking in deep snow is no fun after the first kilometre, and even with (improvised) snow shoes much harder and slower than skiing.
If you stay overnight outdoors, note the possibility of snowfall during the night. If you leave equipment outdoors, other than in your backpack, it may be very difficult to find in the morning. With tents, the usual sticks to secure it to the ground will be unusable (as the ground is deep down and frozen). Instead you can use nearby trees, your skis and poles or bury big branches in the snow as snow anchors.
If there is snow for skiing, the weather is or may turn cold enough to pose a risk. See cold weather for general advice.
- Always tell somebody where you are going (including alternative routes), when to expect you back – and when to call for help if you did not turn up.
- Do not leave your party or your equipment when snowfall may hinder you from finding them.
- Clothing and gear
- You do not want to go for a longer trip in heavy clothing, get wet by sweat, get tired, slow down and get cold. Instead you want to be able to use quite light clothing most of the time (covering also head and hands, though), but also to protect yourself against wind and have a sweater ready for the breaks.
- Sunny weather and snow means very strong light. Sunglasses might be necessary on longer trips to avoid snow blindness. Also sunburn is possible, which might be hard to notice in time in otherwise cold weather.
- When going wilderness backpacking or on any longer trips without an experienced guide you need to be able to navigate. Do have a suitable map, a compass and the needed skills – GPS (satellite navigation) is not a substitute.
- Be prepared for changes in weather. Will you get to your base before dark if you lose the advantage of prepared tracks because of snowfall?
- If you intend to cross rivers or lakes, or use them as part of your route, be sure to know how to avoid thin ice, how to get up if you are unlucky anyway and how to keep yourself warm afterwards.
- Many lakes are water reservoirs: cracks and weak ice may develop when the reservoir is tapped during winter. This is particularly the case in Norway with the country's countless mountain lakes and extensive system of hydro power
- In mountainous areas there might be cracks or steep hill sides obscured by snow. Always know where you are when near potentially dangerous places.
- There may be risk of avalanches or snow storms on some popular cross country routes. Do know how to cope. Avalanches start on slopes steeper than 30° or 50 % grade (roughly the same slope as traditional pitched roofs in Norway and northern Europe). Skiing on steeper slopes than 30° requires an accurate assessment of snow stability – if in doubt keep a safe distance. Skiing in a narrow valley below a 40° hillside is not better: even a small avalanche can bury you in such places.
- Glaciers are treacherous and in winter hidden under snow.
If the skis become wet underneath – which happens easily if there is water under the snow, such as often in ditches or on sea ice – go on skiing energetically, without stopping. As long as what you have under the skis is slush, it will wear away in the snow while skiing, but if it freezes, it becomes hard to get rid of. If unlucky, you have to take off the skis and try to clean them (without damaging the ski; your nail or a sharp piece of wood may be usable). Even a small patch of ice will prevent the ski from gliding well.
Consequently, avoid putting the skis in the snow directly when coming from indoors, let them cool a moment first. Also when having a pause, cleaning away any snow is a good practice, as it can melt and freeze to ice in certain conditions.
When crossing roads or skiing along roads, there is often gravel. Scratches on the ski will hurt performance, so take your skis off or find another route, unless you intend to often use them in such environment. If so, you could use them on short stretches, but should try to walk with the ski instead of gliding.