By Indrek Kongats
Over the years, we have lost sight of why skiing was originally invented some 6,000 years ago, pre-dating even the wheel. The word “ski” comes from an old Norse word “skid,” meaning a board that slides. Skis were used for hunting and gathering and a means of social communication between villagers in distant communities. Skiing didn’t become a sport until the mid-19th century; until that time, it was solely a very efficient mood of winter travel over snow covered terrain.
Unfortunately, as the sport of skiing evolved, so did the sophistication and specialization of the equipment to the point that the original usefulness of skis as transportation has been lost, replaced either by snowmobiles or four-wheelers. Nowadays, skiing is almost entirely a recreational sport, but still has its usefulness for those that work and play in the outdoor wilderness.
As a young’n, I remember my father going ice fishing, crossing lakes to secret honey holes not accessible by foot or vehicle, using only his old wooden skis. He would talk about using skis growing up as a boy in his native Estonia all the time. Before he could afford his first snowmobile, he always used his trusty skis to go ice fishing, crossing vast open spaces much faster than with a pair of snowshoes or on foot.
The practice of using skis for ice fishing has almost completely disappeared, not because people have lost interest in doing so, but because they are now so specialized that they have become entirely impractical. For one, the skis are either too skinny or too short, and the boots are not useful except when attached to the ski. Standing around or trying to walk in modern ski boots on ice is almost impossible without your feet freezing or you end up falling on your butt.
After much searching, I found equipment that is not only practical, but may even be an improvement to my father’s handy old boards. By this time, you are wondering… “Why even bother, just go out and buy one of those highfalutin machines with skis and a motor, they’re just a few thousand dollars!” A few thousand dollars? That’s exactly why—plus all that noise, yuck!
I discovered a special binding that allows you to use your everyday hiking boots on a pair of skis. How great is that? Now when you decide to go cross-country skiing, you can jump out of your car and strap on your skis without having to change boots. Whether you go for a quick trek through the forest or cross open lakes to your favorite ice fishing hole, you’ll have safe, warm and comfortable footwear. If you need to hike out because of broken equipment or stand around on a frozen pond waiting for a nibble, you are all set. The binding is called the Universal Pivot Binding, developed in Canada and goes for under $200.
Of course, this is just part of the equation; you now need the right ski to go with the UPBs. With all the skis on the market, you would think it a simple matter to find a good pair of Nordic Touring skis for going off the beaten path. As I mentioned before, the skis I found were too short and stiff, ideal for Alpine touring or telemark backcountry skiers using stiff randonnée or tele boots with compatible bindings but slow, heavy and cumbersome on open and flat terrain.
Conversely, a typical Nordic cross-country ski is designed to be used on a groomed trail and not for venturing onto a foot or more backcountry snow. These skis are way too skinny to provide any sort of float over deep snow and are now much shorter than the first generation skis that topped 200 cm, making them even more useless.
My ideal Nordic backcountry touring ski has to have a minimum of 60 mm under foot and be up to 200 cm in length to be 100 percent efficient and useful in deep snow. The tip of the ski has to be soft in order to float over snow, verses plowing through and under it, and have the ability to easily and quickly glide you over open lakes or fields. Too short a ski makes the ski tip too stiff to accomplish this. The ski doesn’t need metal edges, as this only adds weight. The ski needs to have enough camber under foot to glide forward, but also be soft enough to bite into the snow for the push forward.
The Breidablikk Hunting ski made in Norway is such a ski. This ski has great specs, lengths up to 200 cm, 62 mm under foot, soft tip and weighs in at a mere four pounds, and is compatible with climbing skins for those steeper slopes. Coupled with the UPB and your comfortable, warm and well broken in hiking boots, you have something practical for under $500.
To fully prepare yourself for backcountry adventures, include a supportive external frame backpack like the SJK Rail Hauler 2500 and carry a pair of Faber Winter Guide snowshoes (that incidentally work with those same trusty hiking boots) for those situations where the skis become long and gangly in tight situations or on steep icy slopes. With the pack and shoes, your backcountry budget is well under $1,000.
Ask your local ski and gear shops about these cool products.
Have an out-of-body experience and enjoy nature at its best, without spending a fortune.