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person skiing in backcountry

Geartrade: A breakdown of the types of Nordic skiing

As a category of skiing, “Nordic” casts a pretty wide net, so, understandably, there’s plenty of confusion around what it means. Technically, Nordic skis have a free-heel binding so you can travel cross-country with ease. This is why “Nordic skiing” is often used interchangeably with “cross-country skiing.” But the category technically includes telemark and alpine touring skis, and people often use those for much more than cross-country, taking them onto the mountain slopes for easy ascent and a fun downhill descent.

Sound like a lot to remember? No sweat; we’ll break it down here into some general buckets. You can choose your own adventure accordingly, including drawing upon the beauteous array of UnNew equipment here on Geartrade for a fraction of the sticker price.


Cross-country skiing: cruise through the woods and get an amazing cardio workout. 

Popular anywhere there’s snow, including flatter places like the midwest, cross-country skiing is a fantastic way to glide through the woods at a brisk speed, with the wind in your hair and heart a-thumpin’. Cross-country skis are very lightweight, and typically you’ll wear lighter clothing since you’ll be working hard and breathing heavily the entire time.

There are two typical styles of cross-country skiing:

  • Classic skiing skis are stiff, narrow, light, and designed to fit neatly into the groomed “tracks” cut into the snow on cross-country ski trails. Some are “waxless” and have a fish-scale pattern etched into the ski underfoot to let you grip when you’re moving forward. Others are waxed to cater your grip to the snow temperatures. Either way, the tip and tail glide smoothly across the snow’s surface as you press forward. Classic skiing is not only a great full-body workout but is incredibly beginner-friendly. You rarely get going too fast, so it’s quite safe—and the movements are easy to learn, and the equipment is much less expensive than resort skiing.

  • Skate skiing skis are usually shorter than classic skis, and the motion is entirely different. You skate across the trail’s surface using just the same movement you’d use to roller-skate or roller-blade. The long, agile sticks on your feet glide smoothly, and you press off with your poles for extra oomph. The feeling of skate-skiing is a delight, and you can cover a lot of ground quickly. The workout is the ultimate calorie-burner, too.

There are also technically additional types of cross-country skiing, which we in the Wasatch don’t see as often—cross-country and backcountry touring skis are suited for going through deeper snow and off-trail terrain. Backcountry touring skis have metal edges, which make for easier turning. They’re a compromise between a cross-country ski and a full-on telemark ski. But, in our semi-opinionated minds, at this point, in the Wasatch at least, you’d do well to invest in a very lightweight pair of alpine touring skis and have an easier time on your descent thanks to locked-down heels.

Telemark skiing: ascend and descend hilly slopes with a free heel all the way.

We’ll be honest: telemark skiing’s popularity has waned in recent years, but there are absolutely many die-hards out there keeping the sport alive. “Free the heel” is their clarion call and one they sound with gusto. Telemark skiing is an entirely different style of ski turning than what you see in the resort. The skier gracefully drops one knee with every turn, performing an admirable balancing act with their heels totally free and just their boots’ toes pinned down.

The ski itself is as wide and shapely as your typical downhill resort ski, metal edges and all. Telemark skiing is very easily suited to backcountry (out-of-resort-boundaries) exploration since it’s so easy to maneuver around with your heel free all the time. (However, the art of masterfully skiing downhill with your heels free is a challenge—admirable, but not for the faint of heart, or faint of knee.) To ascend, you just stick climbing skins to the bases. At the top, you rip the skins off, fold them neatly in your pocket, and ski down.

Alpine touring skiing: the ability to go up anything, then lock the heel on the downhill.

With a meteoric rise in popularity in recent years, alpine touring (AT) skis blend the ability to cover flats, ascend the steeps (with climbing skins affixed to the bases), then lock your heels down and carve alpine ski turns on downhill descents. While these skis are surely heavier than cross-country skis—by a lot—manufacturers have cleverly made them lighter and lighter, with lighter and better binding and boot options, too.

Alpine touring skis are available in fatter sizes (often paired with burlier bindings) as well as quite skinny, light and minimalist, and everything in between. Alpine touring skis are typically what people are referring to when they talk about backcountry skiing these days. While there’s an occasional rogue tele-skier or fish-scaled cross country ski devotee here or there, AT skis are what you’ll see in mountainous terrain.

However you choose to cover cross-country and backcountry terrain, we’re here for you—explore your UnNew options here on Geartrade and get your skis, boots, bindings, poles, and clothing at a fraction of retail. We like keeping gear in the mountains where it belongs—not piled up unused in the back of a closet, or worse, in a landfill. So take your UnNew gear out with pride, and share the pics!

beth lopezBeth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.