A primer on the different ways you can Nordic ski

You’ve undoubtedly heard the term Nordic skiing thrown around, but have you ever stopped to think about what exactly it means? Many people use “Nordic skiing” and “cross-country skiing” interchangeably, but that’s not technically correct. Nordic skiing actually is a term used to encompass a number of skiing disciplines that stem from the Nordic region of Europe, cross-country being one of them. There’s a lot to love about these ski styles, so let’s take a look at what Nordic skiing is all about.

Nordic Skiing vs Alpine Skiing

First and foremost, how does Nordic skiing differ from alpine skiing, its more popular cousin? We’re all very familiar with the sport of alpine skiing, but Nordic skiing differs from it stylistically and functionally. Nordic skiing is characterized most prominently by its use of a free-heel binding system, different of course from the flat-foot bindings of alpine skis. That reason for this functional difference is because of the need to traverse across flat and uphill terrain, which the free-heel style makes possible. That is just the basis for Nordic ski styles though; there are a number of different varieties that all have unique takes on this free-heel style.

The Different Types of Nordic Skiing

Nordic skiing is most commonly broken down into three separate disciplines: Cross-country, telemark and alpine touring. Each of these methods requires a specific style of ski, and they differ in their purpose and ability. Cross-country skis are meant only to travel across flat or tame terrain, while telemark and alpine touring skis allow for vertical travel. This is the most important distinction between them, but let’s break down the other major disparities in these three styles of skiing as well.

Cross-Country – A Style for Everyone

Nordic Skiing
Nordic Skier

Cross-country seems pretty simple, but there are a number of ways that you can go about it. Let’s break down the various types of cross-country skis:

Classic – The most popular form of cross-country skiing is the classic style. This takes place on well-maintained “tracks”, in which you are limited to only skiing within. The tracks make it easy to glide along without having to exert too much energy. Classic cross-country skis are stiff, narrow and lightweight so they can glide quickly and smoothly on the neatly-packed snow.

Skate – Skate cross-country skis are similar to classic skis, except are usually shorter and more torsion-resistant. The difference with skate-style cross-country skiing comes in the technique. The push-off is reminiscent of the way that you propel yourself forward when wearing ice skates, hence the name.

Light Touring – If you’re feeling a little adventurous, light touring cross-country skis allow you to ski both on-trail and off-trail. Light touring skis are slightly wider, providing extra sturdiness so you can venture off groomed paths and onto mild ungroomed terrain, such as through a snow-covered park.

Backcountry Touring – Backcountry touring skis are made to handle the toughest of cross-country terrain. Wider and heavier than light touring skis, these skis also have a metal edge that adds stability on harder and deeper snow.

Alpine Touring vs. Telemark – What’s the difference?

Nordic Skiing
Telemark Skier

Functionally, alpine touring and telemark skis accomplish the same thing. The purpose of these skis is to act as a sort of intermediary between alpine and cross-country skis. Both alpine touring and telemark skis not only permit skiers to explore the backcountry and climb steep terrain, but to also then ski down those sharp downhills.

Telemark and alpine touring skis are designed similarly, as well. Shaped similar to an alpine ski, these two ski types are stronger and stouter than cross-country skis. They need to be robust enough to handle the rigors of both uphill and downhill travel. So, what’s the difference between telemark and alpine touring skis?

It all comes down to the heel. Telemark skis utilizes a free-heel much like cross country skis do, while alpine touring skis have bindings that allow the skier to have a free heel on the ascent and then lock down the heel before the descent, effectively turning it into a traditional alpine ski.

Alpine touring has become very popular in ski mountaineering circles because of its versatility; you can use it to get to the best backcountry spots, then lock your heel in and ski away like you would on any alpine ski.

On the other hand, Telemark skiing, because of the permanent free-heel design, requires the skier to master the so-called “Telemark turn” when descending down the mountain. Life-long alpine skiers may not want to take the time and practice to master this turn, but there are many skiers out there who prefer the graceful knee-drop turn technique of telemark skis and will swear by it.

Biathlon and Ski Jumping?

Nordic Skiing
Ski Jumper in Mid Air

Depending on who you ask, Biathlon and ski jumping are also considered styles of Nordic skiing. These two sports have their roots in Nordic countries, but the rational goes beyond that.

The Nordic influence is clear when it comes to Biathlon. Biathlon is a sport that combines cross-country skiing with gun shooting. It pits contestants in a race across snowy terrain, at which they periodically must stop and shoot targets before continuing on. It is a test of skill, speed and, most of all, endurance.

Ski jumping may seem like an odd addition to the collection of Nordic ski sports, but the reasoning again comes down to the heel. Ski jumpers’ boots are attached to the ski only by a cord connected to the heel of the boot. This connection cord prevents the skis from wobbling while in flight. For this reason, the binding setup of a ski jumper more closely resembles that of the other Nordic sports.

One of the best things about Nordic skiing: there are so many different varieties and styles for you to choose from. Whether you want to take a fun stroll through a local park or climb to the summit, Nordic skiing will have a variety that will strike your fancy. Head to our Cross-Country Ski Gear Buying Guide for a more in-depth look at the differences in cross-country skis , or if you’re ready to buy, check out our full selection of cross-country gear. We’ve also got alpine touring skis and alpine touring bindings for the ski mountaineers out there.