A beginner’s guide for picking skis for the woods
By Mike Lynch
Picking the right skis for a backcountry outing is essential before heading out into the woods. There are numerous factors that must be considered, including terrain, weather and your own ability level. Below we’ll give you some suggestions for matching the right gear with different types of terrain. We also recommend reading this informative article from our archives by Zach Lawrence about being properly prepared for winter recreation.
Classic cross-country gear
You can explore a lot of backcountry terrain with a pair of cross-country skis that are made for groomed terrain. Cross-country skis are longer and narrower than downhill ones, making them fast on the flats. They don’t have metal edges, making it difficult to turn them on ice and steep hills, unless you’re an experienced skier. But you can get a lot of mileage out of them on frozen ponds, gentle woods trails, golf courses, and seasonal roads. With that said, talented skiers have used cross-country skis on some of the more difficult backcountry trails when snow conditions are good. But that’s not recommended for most people. Skiers often use poles that are as tall as their armpits. (Related: Skiing enthusiast Andy Cohen shares his tips for choosing cross-country skis in this post on our Adirondack Almanack community forum)
If you’re looking to get a little more adventurous and test out rolling hills with some steeper terrain, you’ll want to get Nordic skis with metal edges and a pair of adjustable poles. Skis with a maximum width of three or four inches are great for places like the popular Jackrabbit Trail that goes through Saranac Lake, Lake Placid and Keene. Three-pin and backcountry NNN bindings are common. There are various types of materials that provide traction for these skis, including scales and skins. These types of tractions are convenient but can be slower than waxable skis. For backcountry maintenance, buy some glide wax and a scraper. The glide wax will help keep the snow from clumping up under your skis, which tends to happen when the temperature is above freezing or you hit a wet spot, such as crossing a brook. The scraper can help remove snow that’s collected underneath. Kick wax can be used on skis that don’t have scales or skins. Adjustable poles are handy because you can change the length for uphill and downhill travel.
If you’re looking to explore mountainous terrain, you may find yourself in a pair of alpine touring skis. These skis look similar to ones you’ll find at downhill resorts and can be used at them. They’re commonly used to ski glades, expert trails, and slides in the backcountry because they offer good control on the downhill. In addition, the heel can be freed to act like a Nordic binding for travel on flat, rolling, and uphill terrain, or locked for downhill. You’ll need skins (fabric that sticks to ski’s bottom) for uphill travel. Putting kick wax is on the bottoms is a common way to navigate approaches with rolling terrain. Use a helmet when skiing on terrain that requires alpine touring equipment.
Before alpine touring became popular, people carried their skis uphill or used telemark gear. Telemark skis are wide downhill skis that have Nordic bindings but the heels don’t lock down like Alpine skis. They are meant to be skied using telemark turns, which requires doing knee bends and having one ski slightly in front of the other. As with alpine-touring gear, you’ll need adjustable poles, skins, and a helmet.
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