What Is Nordic Skiing?

There are multiple ways of skiing, each with its own gear and terrain. Ski Expert Elizabeth H. answers common questions about the different types of skiing.

Photo courtesy of Atomic

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Nordic skiing is the original form of skiing, early skis were used for winter travel and hunting purposes. The first skis were found in Northern Russia and can be dated back to 6000 BC. By 1800 the Norwegian Army was using skis for military exercises and their training races evolved into many of the Nordic ski events that you see in the Olympics today. Nordic skis have bindings that attach only the toe to the ski, leaving the heel free. This ranges from the idyllic recreational sport of cross country skiing to the, “I can’t believe someone thought this was a good idea and then kept convincing other people to do it” sport of ski jumping.

If you have more questions, I answer common questions below that I've fielded as a Ski Expert here on Curated about all of the different kinds of skiing!

What is Nordic skiing?

Nordic skiing is any type of skiing where the toe is connected to the binding but the heel is free to move. This includes recreational types of skiing such as cross-country and telemark skiing. The competitive ski events of ski jumping, biathlon, and Nordic combined are also considered Nordic ski events.

What is cross country skiing?

Cross country skiing is a mainly recreational form of Nordic skiing where you guessed it, you ski cross country. This is an affordable and approachable way to get outdoors during the winters. Many communities have groomed ski trails that are free to use and some ski resorts will have both downhill and cross country ski passes available. I love the idyllic nature of cross country skiing. It is a lovely way to explore beautiful areas in the winter. Touring set-ups are also available for those who want to venture off the groomed trails and deeper into the woods

A woman on cross country skis smiles at the camera.

Bluebird cross country ski day! Photo by Elizabeth H.

What is the difference between skiing and cross country skiing?

Skiing and cross country skiing differ in the style of ski and the type of boot and binding used. The motion itself is also different. Downhill skis are shorter and stiffer than cross country skis and always use metal edges to allow the skier to make quick turns at high speeds. Cross country skis are longer and more narrow and often feature fiberglass edges to reduce weight, they are designed to glide easily across snowy trails or be used for skate skiing with a kick-and-glide motion. Downhill ski boots are heavy, stiff, and go higher up the calf than cross country boots which are flexible and lightweight. Those who do the skate style of cross country skiing use boots that have rigid ankle support that aids the kicking motion.

What is alpine skiing?

Alpine skiing is any skiing that is done downhill with fixed heel bindings. Alpine skiing is most commonly done at ski resorts due to the convenience of ski lifts. For those who enjoy “off-piste” or backcountry skiing snowmobiles, helicopters, or special touring bindings are used to reach the top of the slope that will be skied down. Alpine skiing made its Olympic debut in the 1936 winter games.

What's the difference between Nordic and alpine skiing?

There are many differences between alpine and Nordic skiing, including the type of binding, shape of the ski, and type of boot. Alpine skis have bindings that attach the full length of the boot to the ski and are stiffer and wider than Nordic skis. This design is built for fast downhill travel. Nordic skis have a binding that clips the toe to the ski while leaving the heel free to move. The boots are much softer to allow the ankle to flex for a wider range of motion. Nordic skis are longer, narrower, and more flexible than alpine skis and are designed for travel across flat areas or low-grade hills.

Someone in a purple jacket nordic skis through trees.

Photo by Simon Berger

What is heli-skiing?

Heli-skiing is a type of backcountry skiing that uses helicopters to take skiers to the top of the mountain instead of a traditional chairlift. This allows skiers to get to places that would be unreachable on foot. Heli-skiing is a luxury way to ski and it has been criticized for its large environmental impacts.

What is freeride skiing?

Freeride skiing is skiing in ungroomed and untracked snow. It is also known as backcountry, off-piste, or big mountain skiing. The term freeride originated in the snowboarding community and was later adopted by skiers. Freeskiing was the original skier term, but now the term refers to the sport of freestyle skiing which includes events like the halfpipe, slopestyle, and big air. Freeride skiing can also refer to using the natural terrain to perform tricks similar to ones that can be done in the terrain park of a ski area.

What is the difference between freeride and freestyle skis?

Freeride and freestyle skiing differ in the types of terrain they are performed on. Freeride skiers use natural features such as rocky cliffs, deep powder, or steep slopes. Freestyle skiing is done in a terrain park using man-made jumps or boxes and rails. Skis used in this sport have a more narrow waist width for the best control over turning, while freeride skis have a wide waist width that will provide flotation in deep powder.

What is telemark skiing?

Telemark skiing is a type of downhill skiing where the heels are free to move allowing skiers to do “tele” turns with bent knees. This type of binding allows skiers to travel uphill in the backcountry and enjoy some backcountry turns. Telemark skiing is becoming less and less common with the rise of Randonnee and AT style bindings that allow the heels to be free for uphill travel then clamped down.

A man smiles at the camera while telemark skiing.

My dad celebrated his 59th birthday telemark skiing. Photo by Elizabeth H.

What is the difference between telemark and cross country skiing?

Telemark skis are designed for vertical travel, climbing up backcountry slopes to enjoy some untracked turns on the way down, while cross country skis are mainly designed for travel on flat or mild hills. Telemark skis are similar in size and shape to alpine skis with free-heel bindings that allow the skier to climb uphill and do telemark-style turns with a bent knee on the way down. Cross country skis are much lighter, longer, and narrower which encourages long gliding motions and rapid travel across flat areas.

Chat with a Curated expert today to get set up with some Nordic gear of your own for this ski season!

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Written By
Growing up in the mountains of Northern Utah, you are pretty much born with skis on your feet. I've been skiing Nordic since I started walking and alpine skiing since age 4 at my hometown resort of Beaver Mountain which is still one of my favorite places to ski! I've skied at almost all of the Utah...

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