My backcountry Nordic touring ski setup excels on ungroomed or unbroken trails through rolling terrain. I used this equipment during my Alaska-Yukon Expedition (see the video above), and it’s my preferred setup for ski trips in Colorado.
It does fine on the flats, but cross-country skis are lighter and will track and glide better. It’s even less optimized for groomed tracks, where I get lapped by skate skiers with far less aerobic fitness.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, I can get down moderately steep slopes. But don’t expect to see my ugly and slow descents featured soon in an upcoming Teton Gravity Research film. However, I figure the time I lose to an alpine touring system here is offset by being faster everywhere else.
Indeed, backcountry Nordic touring equipment is imperfect, and has both limits and tradeoffs. But it’s perhaps the most versatile ski system out there, performing well in most conditions and scratching by in the others.
In comparison, skate skis can only be used on open, groomed trails, plus the rare days with a bulletproof crust. Cross-country skis sink in deep snow and struggle to turn. And alpine touring skis are miserably heavy, stiff, and slow on flat and rolling terrain. The only other system I would consider involves racing-quality Dynafit boots and Dynafit bindings, although this equipment is optimized for more vertical tours (and it’s really expensive!).
Unfortunately, backcountry Nordic touring seems like a dying niche, and applicable products are increasingly difficult to find. I hope that this gear list provides some ideas and insight.
Skis || Asnes Nansen
My skis are 200 cm long, have some camber, measure 76-56-66 at tip-waist-tail, and feature metal edges and waxable bases.
With these skis, I can track fairly straight, kick-and-glide, make easy turns, break trail, and edge across crusty slopes. Skiers who are willing to give up some maneuverability and floatation for improved glide and tracking should consider the Fischer E99 Crown or similar. Skiers who want some additional sidecut and surface area should consider the Fischer S-Bound 98 or similar.
While there are decent options for backcountry skis of differing lengths and sidecuts, there is a dearth of backcountry touring skis with waxable bases. There are only a few outdoor speciality shops in the country that still carry them — thankfully including my local shop, Neptune Mountaineering — and there are a few more dealers online. Otherwise, waxless bases — the “fixed gear” of ski touring — prevail. More on that later.
Boots || Crispi Antarctic
If my skis sounded “old school,” then my boots definitely are. They are decidedly low-tech: leather uppers, Thinsulate lining, Vibram outsoles, and compatibility with 75 mm 3-pin telemark bindings.
Leather boots are expensive and have a long “breaking in” period. But long-term they are a better investment than boots made with synthetic leather or other materials. To protect the leather and restore waterproofness, at least annually treat the boots with Atsko Sno-Seal. Keeping leather boots dry is critical — once they get wet, a lot of time and heat is required to get them dry. For this reason, even brand new or freshly Tectron-treated boots may be a bad choice in really wet conditions, e.g. soaking wet snow, river fords, and overflow on rivers.
As with the skis, there are other touring boots available with subtle performance differences. The Crispi Mountains are lighter and lower-cut, resulting in more comfort but less power transfer in turns. I used these on my Alaska trip, which had more horizontal terrain than I find in Colorado. Meanwhile, the Fishcer BCX 875 features two ratcheting buckles and a stiff, plastic ankle cuff.
For my purposes, I prefer boots that are compatible with 75 mm 3-pin bindings instead of NNN-BC bindings, which are a burlier version of the “New Nordic Norm” system used on cross-country and skate skis. Two reasons:
First, hiking in 3-pin boots feels natural. They are based on a mountaineering boot design and normally feature a sticky Vibram outsole. Moreover, there is no risk of critical damage to the boot/binding connection when hiking (i.e. no toe rod).
Second, the 3-pin system is more reliable. It is less likely to get jammed with ice. And there is redundancy: if my pins fail, I can rely on my cables to stay attached to my skis; if my cables fail, I can rely on my pins.
Ultimately, however, the boots must fit. Thankfully, I found 3-pin boots that do.
Bindings || Voile 3-Pin Cable Telemark
My boots are only compatible with 3-pin bindings, not NNN-BC bindings. So the only binding decision to make was whether I wanted heel cables, which offer additional turning power.
The Voile cables are easily detachable. I only use them on noteable and/or sustained descents. On flat or rolling terrain, they stay in my pack.
If noteable and/or sustained descents are not part of your backcountry ski experience, consider the Voile 3-Pin HD Mountaineer, which consists of just a toe-piece with no cable option.
Kick waxes || Swix Hardwax V (3x)
Depending on the temperature and texture of the snow, I apply different kick waxes to the “wax pocket” on the base of my skis, which is centered under the binding.
These waxes vary in hardness. For warm, old snowpack — which consists of rounded, soft snow crystals — I apply a soft wax like “Violet.” For cold, new snowpack — which consists of sharp, hard crystals — I apply a hard wax like “Green.” In Colorado at least, for everything inbetween we use Blue Extra.
If I waxed my skis correctly, the wax will grip the snow when I weight the ski, allowing me to kick forward. As I unweight the ski, the wax pocket lifts off the snow and I will glide forward. It’s a sublime feeling. However, ski waxing is an art, and a poor wax choice is quickly obvious. Snow will clump to the ski if a too-soft wax is used. And a too-hard wax will offer no grip.
Waxless skis, which feature “fish scale”-like patterns etched into the bases, are a simpler solution than waxes. However, these skis are typically slower because they do not glide as well.
Climbing skins || Black Diamond Mohair Mix Kicker and GlideLite Mohair Mix STS
There are three scenarios when I will use climbing skins, which offer superior grip but inferior glide versus kick waxes:
1. On moderate or steep climbs that require extra grip;
2. Breaking trail through deep, crust-capped snow, which causes the lead ski to pitch upwards at an angle that exceeds the gripping power of wax; and,
3. In the springtime as a substitute for klister, which is designed for warm and slushy snow and which is as sticky and messy as tree sap. Note: If my skis had waxable bases, I could probably forgo this purpose.
Because my backcountry Nordic touring skis do not excel in steep terrain, I typically avoid it. As such, I rarely need my full-length climbing skins — my kicker skins are adequate for most moderate slopes, especially if I position them more towards the front of the ski.
Poles || Fischer BCX Variolite
All else being equal, fixed-length poles like the Swix Mountain Poles will be lighter, stiffer, and less expensive than a telescoping model. But for inconsistent snow and trail conditions, some adjustability is worth the tradeoff. For example, when touring on an open snowmachine trail I keep my poles at 145 cm. On a narrow skin track lined with deep powder, I will shorten them by about 10 cm. And when I work on my telemark turns at our local ski hill, Eldora, I bring my alpine ski poles, which measure 125 cm.
For Nordic touring, I prefer a cross-country-style handle (top) made out of cork or faux cork, and I keep the straps on. The snow baskets are a must for ungroomed trails. Carbon fiber shafts are lighter and stiffer than aluminum, but add cost.