By Lee A. Green, MD MPH
Nordic ski touring is also known as backcountry cross country, off-track cross country, or light touring. it is in many ways a return to the roots of skiing, the days when cross country meant just that: across the countryside, not in groomed tracks, carving turns with heels free. (Snowflake pattern sweaters and wool knickers optional.)
The ski industry is beginning to awaken to the renaissance of Nordic touring. There are sections for it now on the websites of the big retailers like MEC, which has an “off-track ski gear” heading under cross-country skiing, and Lacordee, which features a whole section on “back-country cross country skiing.” Most of the major manufacturers now offer Nordic touring skis: Madshus’ Annum, Eon, and Epoch; Rossignol’s BC line; Fischer’s S-Bound series; Alpina’s Discovery skis, to name a few. Alpina, Rossignol, and Fischer all have Nordic touring-specific boots, and the NNN-BC and 75mm bindings are widely available.
What does Nordic touring gear look like? The skis are usually 75-90mm wide at the tip (though some are as narrow as 59mm and some as wide as 130), with metal edges and a fairly pronounced sidecut, so they turn well. They have a single or one-and-a-half camber, less than an in-track cross country ski’s double camber but enough that they will kick and glide reasonably well. Most have fishscales, to deal with the constantly changing snow conditions in the backcountry, but waxable bases are available, and skin-based skis (the hot new thing among in-track Nordic skiers and racers) are starting to show up in this category now too.
There are three major types of bindings for Nordic touring. NNN-BC bindings are a wider and beefier version of the familiar NNN cross-country bindings, and are probably the most popular. (They’ve long since fixed the reliability problems of their early years.) 75mm three-pin bindings are widely used as well, with or without cables, and pure cable bindings without pins are still available too. All are most often mounted directly to the ski, as free heels, flexible boots, and non-breakneck speeds don’t pose the hazard to knees that alpine gear does. However, if you are going toward the stiffer end of Nordic gear, you may want to mount the bindings to a Telebry or other release plate. The 75mm and cable bindings can be equipped with heel risers for climbing (mine are).
The most commonly used type of boots have considerable lateral stiffness for control but otherwise are similar to hiking boots, and just about as comfortable. Most of them are quite reasonable to wear driving to the trailhead, in fact. However, plastic boots such as the two-buckle Scarpa T4 are available for those who crave downhill control, while at the other end the narrower skis can be used with regular NNN or Salomon bindings and the stiffer models of cross country ski boots.
Poles for Nordic touring are usually the same models as used for AT or tele skiing. A few people still use fixed-length sticks, but most these days use good quality adjustable trekking poles. Either way, powder baskets are a must. Our summer hiking poles are our winter touring poles, with just a swap of the baskets.
Can you really ski the backcountry on Nordic touring gear? Modern Nordic touring gear is very similar to (though much improved upon) the telemark gear of the 1950s through 1970s. Most of the traverses in the Canadian Rockies were first accomplished with that gear, and its improved descendants are even better.
You can cover a lot of ground in a day on modern Nordic touring gear, and without having to use up your blister kit. It’s efficient, light, and comfortable. It’ll take you just about anywhere. The skis are wide enough to stay up in deep snow, climb moderate slopes without skins, and with just kicker skins (light and compact, easy to carry) will climb pretty steep stuff. Skiing into a hut with a full pack, they’re hard to beat.
Ah, but downhill? Yes. Nordic touring gear does quite well using either telemark or stem christie turns, and the single-camber ones will parallel turn reasonably well too. You won’t carve big lines and make videos for Red Bull on Nordic touring skis, but you can have some fun on the slopes with them, and with practice and a conservative approach you can descend safely under control even on quite steep terrain. (We also take ours to ski hills for practice; blue runs are no problem.)
We find that our Nordic touring gear is ideal for the trips in Chic Scott’s book, Ski Trails in the Canadian Rockies, that are labeled “ski touring.” Given our age (a lot) and ability (not a lot), we stick to the “intermediate” and “intermediate/advanced” grades. Day tours like Chester Lake (8km return, 310m climbing) and Maccarib Pass (24km out and back, 740m climbing) are perfect Nordic touring outings. There are many such tours to choose from, enough to fill all the winter weekends we can get away and leave plenty for next year, so there’s no shortage of wonderful places to do what we do on skis.
A typical three-day Nordic touring weekend for us is skiing in to the Wates-Gibson hut, spending the middle day touring the Tonquin Valley or up Eremite Valley to Arrowhead Lake from the hut, and skiing out the last day. Most often the only places we need our kicker skins on the way in are the climb up Penstock Creek and the final push up the ridge to the hut. The fishscales take us up everything else, and we really cruise across the flats along the Astoria where others on heavier gear are trudging.
We’ve been into Skoki Lodge (11km, 540m climbing) several times. It takes us 3 1/2 hours from the Temple Lodge trailhead to Skoki Lodge. We’re not particularly strong skiers, and we don’t push hard – we’re out there for the scenery, we stop for tea, we take pictures – so that should give you a good idea of how efficient Nordic touring gear is. And we do get in a few nice turns coming down Deception Pass.
Nordic touring is a great way to get out into the backcountry, whether it’s skiing into a hut for a few days or just up a scenic valley or pass for tea and cookies on a day tour. The gear isn’t very expensive, is fast and comfortable to ski in, and will take you to all but the gnarliest places. It is, as the cliche goes, “about the tour not the turns.” It’s for being out there and enjoying the place. If you want to go steep and deep, you’ll choose AT gear, but if you want to roam far and wide, enjoy the whole trip, and get in a few turns too, you’ll find that Nordic touring is making a comeback for good reasons!