On the Wild Side

By Lou Dzierzak

Anticipation runs high in November. At this time of the year, cross country ski enthusiasts become impatient waiting for the winter snows to fall on their favorite trails. Over time, those familiar trails can elicit a different emotion. After traversing the same groomed trails weekend after weekend, experienced skiers reluctantly admit boredom can temper their enthusiasm. When a loop becomes so familiar it can almost be skied blindfolded, it may be time to look for an alternative.

For many, that alternative means breaking some trail of your own. In the last few years, interest in backcountry skiing has increased steadily. Phil Leeds, owner of Skinny Skis in Jackson, Wyo., says, “People may be happy skiing at a touring center and enjoy the aerobic element associated with that. Other times, they want the tranquility of exploring or the thrills of skiing on more rugged terrain. People are getting into it.”

Ryan Doyle, outdoor leadership coordinator at Lake Placid’s Adirondack Mountain Club, adds, “The appeal is wanting to get away from the crowds and enjoy a wilderness experience. Getting out in the woods and the sense of adventure is stronger there than at a golf course or ski center.”

While some perceive backcountry skiing as a young person’s epic adventure in the Rocky Mountains, skiers across the country are going off track. Charlie Lozner, ski division brand director at Karhu Sports, says, “I don’t think there has ever been more mainstream interest in the backcountry. Once people reach a certain level of skill, they want to ski on untracked snow and have more of a wilderness experience, no matter where they are. Ski centers certainly have their place, but there’s no feeling of wilderness. It doesn’t touch your soul the same way as when you can’t see any tracks.”

Lozner continues, describing the shift in the type of skiers who enjoy exploring the woods. “The target audience used to have to be a little kooky to be interested in backcountry skiing, but it’s become much more mainstream as product has improved, allowing people to do things that one used to have to be an absolute expert to be able to do. Now it’s much more approachable. Intermediate skiers are getting that first taste of skiing a slope with no one else around and they are hooked.”

Getting started requires sorting through questions about equipment and application. Leeds notes enthusiasts should start by defining the kind of backcountry terrain they plan to explore. He explains, “One of the stumbling blocks people run into when they are starting out is talking about the backcountry generically. We need to determine if they are talking about backcountry touring versus turning. Both are in the backcountry but they are different. Some people want to cross country ski tour in the backcountry and their gear will be different from someone wanting to ascend hills and peaks and enjoy the turns on the descent.”

By not taking terrain into account, a skier can spend a lot of money on skis, boots and bindings and have a less–than-ideal experience. Leeds says, “They shouldn’t end up with heavy plastic boots and wide Telemark skis and embarking on that routine, when they just wanted to do some backcountry touring where there is much lighter gear and more flexible boots that are much less expensive.”

Doyle agrees, “As far as equipment, everything has gotten more specialized. At first there is some confusion, but the first thing we do is educate people about the types of skis, bindings and boots that work for the terrain. There are some obstacles, but once folks delve into it and do a little research and ask people, it’s not too tough to clear it up.”

As with classic and skate ski disciplines, backcountry equipment can be purchased as packaged sets or individual elements. There are pros and cons to both approaches. Leeds says, “The biggest issue, when it comes to people exploring different packages or collections of brands, is compatibility. Finding the appropriate boot/binding combination for a particular kind of skiing and type of terrain is the key. Staying within a brand isn’t a bad way to go, but even brands have a full spectrum of gear. People really have to be careful about which boots work with which bindings so you don’t get into something too light or too heavy for the terrain. You want to be careful about problems with compatibility.”

Doyle points out that backcountry skiers prepare differently than those headed for a quick trip to a local trail. “Backcountry preparedness is a big part of what we talk about. There’s certainly less room for error if there is an injury or you are out a little longer than you originally anticipated. It’s important to have the right equipment so you are not only skiing well, but you are safe, too.”

A month into the 2008-2009 winter and your favorite trail isn’t giving you the same thrill? Look into the woods for a way to enjoy your passion. Doyle says,

“It’s something that everybody can do. There are many different levels to enjoy in backcountry skiing. Do your homework and educate yourself before you dive in and you will have better experiences.”

Backcountry Basics Sidebar

The best way to sort through all the backcountry boot, binding and ski options is to attend a ski shop’s clinic or spend some quality time with a shop’s gearhead.

Here are some basics to start the conversation.

Backcountry Skis

  • Designed for skiing outside of set tracks and in deep untracked snow.

  • Backcountry skis are shorter and wider than classic cross country skis.

  • Backcountry skis come in a range of widths and lengths. Narrow skis will work with set tracks and may offer enough flotation for exploring park and logging roads closed for winter travel. Wider skis are best suited for off-trail adventures in deep, untouched snow and offer more flotation in deep snow and improved stability when turning.

  • Ski length decisions require considering the application. Long skis glide easier, and shorter skis turn faster.

  • Deeper side cuts improve a skier’s ability to turn on downhill sections.

  • Full-length metal edges for control and stability in a wide variety of terrain and snow conditions.

  • Wax and waxless options are available and should be considered, depending on the application.

Bindings

Backcountry bindings resemble classic ski bindings but are heavier to handle more rugged conditions. Three main options:

  • Three-pin

  • Cable bindings

  • Systems: NNN-BC (for NNN boots) or SNS X-Adventure (for Salomon boots – SNS)

Boots

  • Backcountry boots resemble heavy-duty hiking boots. Taller cuffs offer more ankle support that’s needed when turning off-trail. Stiffer soles also assist control and turning the wider skis.

  • NNN Boots only compatible with NNN-BC bindings / SNS Boots only compatible with SNS X-Adventure bindings

  • Construction materials range from colorful plastic to traditional leather.

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