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Reader Poll: BC Nordic Ski Gear – What Do I Need to Get Started?

Backcountry Nordic Skiing
Backcountry Nordic Skiing

I want to get back into XC skiing this year, something I did with my dad when I was a teenager. But I also want to venture off track and dip my toe into backcountry skiing for off-trail winter bushwhacking adventures with nordic style equipment.

I realize that I might need to buy a set of gear to get started and another later that’s more appropriate for more difficult adventures , but that will be a year or two down the road. I also know I should probably start by renting at a ski center, but there’s no doubt in my mind that this is something I want to do, so why defer the purchase? I want to start getting out as soon as we have snow.

I’ve read a bunch, but I can’t seem to remember the difference between NNN and NIS bindings, and all the buzzwords the fly around in the XC gear space. How does anyone figure this out and assemble a workable combination of products?

The problem with these guides is that they don’t give you specific product suggestions:

http://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/crosscountry-ski-touring-gear.html

http://www.backcountry.com/sc/cross-country-ski-guide

http://www.sierratradingpost.com/lp2/nordic-skiing-guide/

What I need is some good gear advice about specific products I should get:

What’s some gear I can buy at REI or EMS (good return policy) to get started and that will give me 1-2 years of use, for touring and possibly some  BC trips where I can dip my toe into more remote terrain. I’ll be skiing in New England,  exclusively.

Less expensive is better than more expensive and last year’s gear is just fine with me.

Any help or pointers would be much appreciated! (please leave a comment)

27 comments

  1. I’ll be skiing in New England, exclusively.

    So you anticipate mostly terrain that has you going up and then back down? As opposed to rolling or flat terrain.

  2. Hey Philip,

    For rolling, ungroomed terrain, I would probably go with an NNN-BC binding and a ski like the Rossignol BC70. It gives you some width for flotation, metal edges for the backcountry, a waxless base, and a binding wide enough to handle them. There are other brands of skis with similar specs (like Madshus and Fischer), but I am most familiar with the Rossignols as that is what is available locally here.

  3. If you really have any interest going off trail that means being able to turn, and that is where stiff boots and burly 3 pin bindings shine. NNN and SNS can’t deliver the kind of power for quick turns to avoid trees. Check out ORS Sports’ series of videos on YouTube about XCD ski equipment. They do a concise job of breaking down the options for skis, boots and bindings.

  4. Philip,

    Check out orscrosscountryskisdirect.com. I have dealt with them a number of times and they have been very helpful and have guided me in the right direction for a couple of setups. For an example…..A couple of years ago I was looking for a setup for BC touring in terrain with flats ,rolling hills and something for a little fun on some steeper (Not very steep) sections.I stated that sometimes I would be carrying a 30 pound pack and other times I would not have a pack at all. I wanted to be sure I had good glide and gripping power for both situations. The choices I was looking at were all good but they recommended a less expensive setup of Madshus Eon skis with a voile 3 pin binding and Fischer BC675 boots, What a great setup! Does everything I wanted effortlessly.

    I just picked up a wider pair of Epochs with a three pin cable binding as the hills I am playing on are getting steeper and I want more turning power. I don’t need as much glide to get where I am going and these have a bit softer flex than the Eons and more side cut.
    I would definitely check out the Eons and a good BC boot with a heavy duty 3 pin binding.
    This is not XC ski center equipment.

    Price wise, I have checked many places and can find some parts of a “package” that ORS might offer a little cheaper but when you add up shipping costs and the fact that most of the places with the cheaper skis and bindings charged for mounting the bindings. The cost savings were not that much and like I said, the service has been great from ORS.
    Delivery time has always been 3 days for me. (I am in NH)

    Bruce

  5. I believe Glen Hooper’s Winter Trekking site has information you may find useful. This site is a boreal forest analog to your SectionHiker site. The ‘Back Country Skiing’ section has information on ski’s, skins, poles, and bindings. http://www.wintertrekking.com/community/index.php

  6. Philip,
    Having spent decades as a “competition/performance” skier, I decided about 10 years ago to venture into the back country. Wanted to slow down, explore some trails I’d hiked in summer, avoid long drives and rising fees for groomed trails. I selected a package at REI, I believe they classified it as a “backcountry touring” package. Rossignol BC X6 Cross-Country Ski Boots, Rossignol BC 70 Positrack Backcountry Skis, and Rottefella NNN BC Magnum Backcountry Ski Bindings. Note the BC designation on the bindings and boots – not the same as regular NNN. This outfit has served me well for its intended purpose: Rolling terrain, untracked (or tracked with snowshoes and pock-marked by hikers not using snowshoes), with packs varying from 10# daypack to 40# overnighter. At the time, REI assembled a handful of packages for different types of skiing and offered a discount (20% ?) for the packages. This was in late November, so if you are willing to wait a bit you might be able to take advantage of package pricing.

    It sounds like you’re not ready to take the leap into pure backcountry touring – you’d like an outfit that’s comfortable in groomed tracks, but could go off-track a little just to see what it’s like. So you’d be shopping in the “crosscountry touring” domain. Rossignol has a compromise on-track/off-track boot: Rossignol X5 OT that might fit your needs. Match them with a non-metal edge ski with traditional side camber (wider at tip and tail than at foot) with no-wax bottom, and bindings to match the boot.

    In checking out REI’s current touring ski offerings, I was dismayed to find so many skis being sold with pre-mounted bindings. It looks like the manufacturers are trying to force ski buyers into also buying their brand of boot. Unfortunately, the rational way to approach the boot-binding selection is to first find a boot of appropriate design that fits, which will determine which binding you need. With their present behavior, this just eliminates a bunch of skis from consideration.

    • Mike:

      Why go without the metal edges? There are edges skis that fit groomed tracks but still offer the bit of extra control on hard packed and icy surfaces.

      Also, I don’t think it’s the manufacturers pushing the pre-mounted binding packages because in Europe you can mostly (or always?) buy yous skis and bindings separate and they come (mostly) from the same manufacturers after all. But I do regocnize the trend on turning things into easy bundles. Often they are good compromises but if you know what you want or your needs vary from the ready made model, it’s not very good thing.

  7. I was in the same position last year. I bought a pair of, then last years Rossignol BC65’s, poles and boots for something like $180 at a pre-season sale. I have been very happy. They’re just enough to get into the woods on the carriage and jeep trails here in NH/VT Upper Valley. Very helpful and fun on the Ravine Rd at Moosilauke last winter. But I wouldn’t go beyond the lodge on them!

  8. My experience comes from mainland Scandinavia and glaciers in Svalbard and Vatnajökull so the advice might not be best for your conditions. I usually ski on wind packed snow on flat and rolling terrain avoiding steep ascents and descents because I usually haul expedition load of gear in a sled as I go…

    But what I use personally and recommend for my clients for ski expeditions is:

    – Relatively narrow steel edged skis, Madshus skis are well available and quite affordable here so usually I recommend VOSS (with MGV+ fish scale bottom) or Glittertinds if more control is wanted for steeper stuff (still far from alpine touring skis!). Length according the manufacturer recommendations unless more agility is for needed, then go 10cm shorter.
    – NNN BC bindings for easy going on long days of hauling. Not as much control as you would get from 75mm tele bindings but enough for easier terrain and for the narrow skis. I use auto bindings but have had occasional problem with them and had a binding failure on expedition in Iceland after some 1200km of use.
    – For boots I personally use Alpina BC1600 as they offer good fit for me. I don’t feel the need for any extra cuffs or buckles. Many people use Madshus Glittertind boots and find them good (and quite warm also) but the fit is little more narrow than on Alpinas. And for cold weather (below -20C) overboots are needed.
    – For poles I have little longer than recommended alu poles with medium baskets. Oh, and for skiing long distanes on falttish ground the wrist styarps come handy.

    Sooo… Either light and efficietn set up for easy terrain: VOSS MGV+, NNN BC and compatible leather boots (this set up also fits groomed xc skiing tracks!) or for little more control for little more demanding use Glittertind, Voile 75mm bindings and 75mm leather boots. And in both cases boot covers for cold temps.

  9. I second Bruce’s recommendations for both ORScrosscountryskisdirect, and their Eon, Voile 3-pin, and Fischer boot setup. It sounds like you’re skiing in pretty much what I encounter here in Lapland (though hopefully with less fluffy snow). That’s what I use and it’s a great basic set up. I’m no ski expert, but it suits me fine. You need a bit of floatation if you going off trail and the snow isn’t wind-compacted (as Jaakko’s kit is more optimised towards). I also used that setup in Minnesota and it was nice. Skins are a bonus though – not essential, but they’d make some things a lot easier and more fun even in gentler terrain.

    I also have a pair of Hoks, and they are great fun.

  10. Why go without the metal edges? Well, I could go either way. But, Earlylite said he wanted to start with one setup for touring and maybe some BC, then a second set later on for more serious adventures. There’s no argument that one set to do both in-track and BC would compromise both functions, so my thought was to bias the first set towards handling well in tracks, and let his experience guide him towards the right outfit (for him) for BC when he’s ready.

    On further exploring, I don’t see anyone but REI selling the skis with bindings pre-mounted. Wish I understood what they’re up to.

    Add http://www.akers-ski.com to the list of knowledgeable outfits to buy skis from.

  11. Check out Dave’s Backcountry Nordic Page: http://home.comcast.net/~pinnah/DirtbagPinner/dirtbag.html The specific skis and boots are not updated, but the TYPES of skis/boots combo is spot on. Figure out your skiing style and desired goal and take it from there.

    Personally, I think the advice above about NNN-BC boots and waxless Rossignol BC skis are spot on. For people looking to get in Nordic backcountry, it is a great combo esp for the terrain you described.

  12. Phillip, if we get snow the Middlesex Fells can be good skiing!
    I got lucky last year and grabbed the last pair of Madshuss Glittertinds REI in Reading had. I REALLY like those for the mixed groomed and easy back country skiing I do. Sadly Madshuss now is selling rebranded Karhu ski’s. Nothing wrong with the Karhu’s but I like the Glittertinds and my old Rondanes better.
    The Glittertinds measure 68mm(tip) – 55mm(waist) – 62mm(tail). Something in that range will turn OK while still gliding pretty good. More extreme sidecut will turn better but sacrifice some glide. Wider will float you better in soft and or deep snow but might hurt you on tracked or groomed trails.
    Metal edges add weight but help on solid ice. Most of the ice I encounter is the jaggedy kind you break through when you least expect it. I’ve mixed feelings about the value of metal edges.
    I still use 75mm bindings with leather boots. But the NNN or SNS Backcountry rigs are just as good and somewhat more available. If I were starting fresh I’d go with whichever I could get the best deal on.

    Finally, be aware that so called waxless skis should be glide waxed. It’s sad to see folks grinding down trails when they could be gliding.

  13. I use NNN-BC bindings, Rossi BC boots and old Karhu BC skis. They just fit in the tracks, but are short and easy to turn. They’re sort of like the Karhu XCDs. Great for BC skiing in the Boundary Waters. I ski a few river canyons and they work fine, but I’d like to have a pair of Marquette skis and some three pins.

  14. For sure ORS they are great, though try boots on locally if you can’t get up to their Montpelier location. How much touring center skiing do you want to do? If predominantly than I would go with a systems Boot/binding and the widest, metal edged, waxless ski that will fit in track. If you will only go enough to work things out before hitting untracked terrain then I think Bruce is right on target. A 75 mm light and comfortable boot with good control, 3 pin binding, and a good mid sized xcd ski. This will get you from your local ski center to an overnight Pemi traverse no problem and be ok on much of VTs Catamount trail as well as a majority of New England’s bc touring and multi-use trails. Try on lots of boots! Fit is king, I really wanted to love the Fischers but couldn’t get them to fit at all.

    I have been on Karhu 10th mountains (madshus epoch), mounted with voile 3 pin cable bindings, and Garmont Excursion boots. This has been a great set up. Last Spring I picked up Rossignol BC 125s on clearance for additional floatation and down hill performance. A heavier and more expensive set up but with lots of control for venturing down hill and lots of float for deep snow. Though heavier than the hybrid backcountry boots I love the excursions for their control and for the ultimate warmth (double plastic) they provide for multi day trips, they are also quite comfortable and light for plastics.

    Great deals will be tough this time of year unless you can find last years models. When you decide to upgrade later shop in the spring I have saved many hundreds that way. Have fun it is a great way to enjoy winter.

  15. Madshus Eons in waxless. If you’re between sizes w/r/t weight go for the shorter one. You’ll have more pattern drag on groomers, but they’ll turn easier and be more manueverable. Madshus skis are more durable and have a better climbing pattern than either Rossi or Fischer. The Rossi skis mentioned above have too much camber and tend to be hard to turn, though for a good skier they’re faster in a straight line. Stay away from Alpina skis. They’re heavy and I’ve seen too many delams.

    Voile Mountaineers with anti-ice tapes. System bindings ice too easily.

    Whatever fabric/leather duckbill boot fits. The Fischers have a forefoot on the narrow side which didn’t work for me. The Rossi BCX11s I had last winter fit great. I had a serious delam issue in the toebox, but Rossi warranty was great to work with and gave me a new pair of BCX12s. The Alpina 2500 series is wider than the Rossis. Odd thoguh it may seem, duckbill boots are better for hiking than system boots, mainly because that frickin metal bar is so slippery.

    50mm wide kicker skins. BD makes a good one. Get some skin wax and never leave home without it.

    Durable, adjustable poles which are long enough. You can get away with perhaps 5cm shorter than the classic nordic recommendation for your height, but no more.

    The hard part will be learning to read terrain and snow conditions and pick good routes for the gear. Snowshoes are so much more forgiving in this regard.

    Have fun!

  16. Buying new can be an expensive proposition, but STP has a handful of items at a steep discount that might suit your needs. All you would need is a Voile Mountaineer/3-pin cable binding to add to the items below. To make the purchase less painful on the wallet you would have to use their frequent extra 35%/free shipping codes to bring the cost down. The skis and boots linked to definitely fall into the off trail/rough trail category of XC skiing.

    http://www.sierratradingpost.com/atomic-rainier-posigrip-cross-country-skis~p~5901y/?filterString=s~rainier%2F&colorFamily=99

    http://www.sierratradingpost.com/alico-backcountry-touring-nordic-ski-boots-3-pin-for-men~p~66492/?filterString=s~alico-%2F&colorFamily=27

  17. My tip is: use poles you can change the length of. Snow density changes as you know, and small steep hills and such is easier with a long and a short one, but i’m sure you know. You need them for setting up your ul tent as well :)

    Have a nice winter, I find it hard to concentrate now after I saw the picture on top, looking so much forward to winter and and trips far in to the mountains.

  18. Over the years I have made several backcountry hut trips, a couple of trans-sierras, and winter camping trips in the Sierras. In my experience, for backcountry exploration the advice to get 3-pin bindings, metal edges, and adjustable poles is spot on. If you want to go faster and you will be skiing a lot in tracks and less challenging terrain then lighter gear and narrower skis are appropriate. By the same token, as in backpacking, you don’t want to go so heavy you’re encumbered. You’ll have to decide where to make this compromise.

    One other thing I would recommend is to get ski skins. We flailed around a few years without them but what a difference they make. When the ski pattern starts to loose its grip, skins allow you to climb with considerably less effort. In the trees where there is often restricted room to maneuver, they allow you to go straight up steeper undulations in the terrain where the use of the herringbone or sidestep is impossible or extremely taxing. And, in a pinch and while your skiing skills improve, they can slow you down enough on moderate downhills to keep you in control. They allow some of the control of snowshoes with the flexibility and fun of skis. Happy skiing!

  19. I’m with Jaakko, I myself use Madshus Glittertind MGV+ skis, Rottefella Backcountry bindings and the Madshus Glittertind boots. Great setup, reasonably light, good flotation in the backcountry, fast on wind-compacted snow and also fits into tracks.

    http://hikinginfinland.com/2011/01/backcountry-cross-country-skiing.html

  20. I do similar skiing. I started in Colorado (powder!) and now I ski mostly Canaan Valley in West Virginia (not much powder). Lots of good info at the link below. My wife has the Eons. She first had them set up with NNN-BC, but found control on downhills limited so she switched to 3-pin and is very happy. The problem with Eons and similar shapes skis is that they don’t fit in groomed tracks very well and they are quite squirrelly on groomed or otherwise packed snow. They don’t track straight. I have the Epochs and it’s worse with them. Too much side cut for kicking and gliding in a straight line. But they’re great in untracked snow and great for turns.

    I’d get something with less side cut. The glittertinds from Madshus were very highly rated among the Telemark Talk forum (which is now gone). I use an old pair of Kazama Mountain Highs for tracked snow (somewhat similar to the glittertinds) and they’re much better for kick and glide.

    So look for something in the 55-70 mm width (at the shovel) and make sure they’re long enough for your weight (that will give you some floatations in deep snow).

    I’ve read good things about Solomon’s boot/binding combo (similar NNN-BC) but haven’t tried them. I use three pin and am happy wib them. But if/when I get a set of glittertinds I’ll get NNN-BC or Salomoms (depending on boot fit). The tradeoffs is generally better kick and glide with NNN-BC vs better downhill control with three pin. Finally, get a pretty stiff pair of boots. That will determine control almost aside as the binding type. The fisher boots are very good in this regard, while the Rossi boots (bcx 11a) are more floppy (I have both).

    Good luck!

    http://home.comcast.net/~pinnah/DirtbagPinner/dirtbag.html

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