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Evolution of Skiing and Its Equipment

Skiing has grown from a utilitarian solution for getting around in winter into a highly-evolved, multifaceted sport that is all about having fun in the snow. Technological innovation has brought about continual improvements in equipment and encouraged development of new ways to use it. The evolution of skiing is an ongoing story of adaptation and specialization that has resulted in a vast collection of sub-sports, each of which is suited to a particular snowy environment, and each of which has its own specialized equipment.

Understanding skiing from a historical perspective is helpful because it explains why there are so many ways to do something as seemingly simple as sliding around on the snow! When a sport becomes as complex and diverse as skiing has, it is very easy to lose sight of the big picture. When this happens, the resulting tunnel vision can easily distract us from the many opportunities to have fun in the snow that skiing offers.

What follows is a discussion of how skiing has evolved. Most of the changes discussed have happened in the past fifty or so years. This is not intended to be a precisely accurate historical account so we have taken some liberties in the interest of staying focused on how the sport has evolved rather than describing specific historical events. We have divided skiing’s evolution, somewhat arbitrarily, into four periods.

Wooden skis

It started with wood

Before 1970 - transition from utility to sport
People have been sliding over snow on boards for a very long time! If you have ever tried to walk through deep powder you understand why something bigger than feet is essential for travel over unconsolidated snow of any depth. You simply can’t go anywhere when you are mired in snow up to your waist! Skis or snowshoes (which have also been around a long time and evolved greatly) can provide the flotation required to avoid wallowing in deep snow. Flotation is mostly a function of surface area which can be achieved in a short and fat configuration with snowshoes, or a longer and thinner configuration using skis. With similar surface area, either tool (or a snowboard for that matter) will provide similar flotation but staying on top of the snow is only part of the problem.

Snowshoes provide flotation with excellent maneuverability but they do not offer the glide that a ski can. Skis are less maneuverable in tight quarters but, with sufficient room to maneuver, their ability to glide gives them a huge efficiency advantage over snowshoes. In the right environment skis are more efficient and more fun than snowshoes but in the wrong one they can be a frustrating nightmare. In thick trees or other confined places, especially on steeper slopes, there is no place to glide and thus snowshoes make more sense. Overall, neither skis nor snowshoes are inherently superior but in certain environments one can be vastly more effective than the other.

Initially, skis were mostly used on gentle terrain that consisted of flat areas and rolling hills. On gentle terrain, where skiing is really more like walking, it makes sense to allow the heel to remain free so a more or less natural stride can be used. Early bindings consisted of leather thongs, attached so the heel could lift easily and the skier could shuffle along, almost like walking. But, when steeper slopes were encountered, maintaining control became problematic and solving this problem was the first evolutionary step for skiing.
Specifically the concern was (and still is) that with a free heel (one that lifts up to facilitate a walking stride) you can fall forward quite easily. Two solutions to this problem, one a technique and the other an equipment modification, were devised. The technique solution was the invention of the telemark turn which involves advancing one foot in front of the other to provide fore and aft stability. When sliding downhill, skis encounter varying friction due to terrain and snow conditions and the telemark position allows the skier to effectively react to these changes to avoid being flung forward or back. Combining this position with a turn (not as easy as it sounds) made it possible for skiers to tackle hills with far more control and thus skis became useful in more places.

The other solution to the inherent fore and aft instability of a free heel changed the essential nature of skiing. When bindings were devised that locked down the heel, the boot could provide the required fore and aft stability and the need for the difficult-to-master telemark turn was eliminated. So too was the ability to walk on skis! At this point skiing diverged and the two sub-sports each evolved independently for many years. The free-heel version of skiing became known as ‘nordic’ or ‘cross-country’ and the fixed-heel version became known as ‘alpine’ or ‘downhill’. This distinction remains to this day.

Nordic skiing focused on improved tools and techniques for skiers to move over relatively gentle terrain as efficiently as possible. Boots and skis became lighter, skis got narrower, and binding improvements allowed unimpeded striding while maintaining better control over the lightweight skis. Skis with ‘double camber’, that provided a ‘wax pocket’, were introduced and waxes were formulated that allowed both kick and glide. By the 1960’s nordic technology, driven mostly by racers, allowed skiers to practically fly over the snow and this form of skiing began to resemble running in many ways. With the introduction of fiberglass and plastics, skis were made even lighter and far more durable. Nordic ski areas, with miles of groomed trails and prepared tracks, plus lodges and other amenities were constructed and attracted many more skiers to the sport. Grooming eliminated most variations in the snow and with it the need to deal with them while skiing. By 1970 many nordic skiers were content to stride along in a set track and many did not even really know how to turn or slow their skis down! These folks were lost without the groomed track but there was no need for these skills as long as they did not venture into untracked snow.

Meanwhile, alpine skiing focused on gaining as much control as possible while skiing downhill. Ski lifts and downhill ski areas, with trails designed to eliminate the need for climbing or walking on skis, allowed equipment to focus solely on skiing downhill. Boots became so rigid and supportive that releasable bindings were invented to reduce the number of leg injuries. Skis became wider and shorter and metal edges were added to provide better control. Ski engineers, armed with new materials, experimented with flex and sidecuts to design skis that emphasized ease of turning, speed and stability, or other characteristics. Snowmaking and grooming provided a far more consistent surface for skiing and, without the need for techniques to deal with varying snow conditions, downhill skiing exploded. By the mid-1960’s long lift lines were common on holidays and weekends, and slopes were crowded. Some ski areas installed lights on their slopes and night skiing was born. Moguls, caused by lots of skiers, provided a new challenge for better skiers and where they were not wanted, grooming machines could remove them each night. Racers continued to push the limits of the sport in slalom, giant slalom and downhill competitions and equipment specific to each kept improving. Large ski resorts attracted winter vacationers throughout North America and Europe. For most people, ‘skiing’ meant ‘downhill skiing’. By about 1970 the idea of climbing on skis, with the heavy and rigid equipment of the day, seemed silly when you could just ride a lift instead.

The early 1970’s were an important turning point for skiing. On the one hand, nordic skiers could zip along quickly on flats and gentle terrain but going up or down more than a small hill was almost out of the question. On the other hand, alpine skiers could ski down very steep and difficult terrain but travel on flats was awkward at best and climbing more than tiny hills was almost unheard of. With one group of skiers focused on skiing flats, another on skiing down steeper terrain, very few who could ski off groomed snow at all, and even fewer willing to climb, it’s no wonder that skiing away from ski areas (which requires all of the aforementioned) was not even considered possible my many skiers! And then, it dawned on a lot of people that specialization had left a huge gap in skiing. It was this realization that fueled backcountry skiing’s popularity and growth. That, and the fact that there was far more skiing to be had in the wilds than in ski areas.

Although skiing diverged into its nordic and alpine specialties for most folks, a few hardy souls continued to ski away from groomed surfaces, in the backcountry, where skiing began. These folks could easily ski through the mountains for days without seeing a single person. Fresh tracks were virtually guaranteed, along with complete solitude in the winter wilderness. Heavier nordic equipment was the choice for many skiers but some, especially on the steep terrain of the European Alps, employed early versions what would become alpine touring equipment. Some of these skiers sought more challenging, wilder terrain, and to access it they combined mountaineering with skiing to invent ski mountaineering. None of the equipment of the day was particularly well suited for skiing up, down and on flats but skiers made do with what was available. Most of the small handful of backcountry skiers in those days were rugged and very determined individuals with a deep passion for wild skiing.

1970 thru 1990 - big changes
The early 1970’s saw skiing’s evolution shift into high gear and in some ways this was the ‘golden age’ of skiing. More improvements in synthetic materials allowed equipment to become even lighter and more effective across all types of skiing. And creative new ideas spawned many variations on the basic notion of skiing. This period also marked the beginning of skiing’s return to its roots in the backcountry.

In the alpine world ski and boot designs, fueled by much better materials and manufacturing capabilities, took off. As a result skis performed better on ice, powder and everything in between and they became more durable as well. In addition to better equipment, new ways to enjoy skiing were conceived. Freestyle stretched the limits of what was even thinkable on skis. Ballet skiing drew from figure skating and people began to ‘dance’ on skis. Aerials incorporated diving and gymnastics into skiing and skiers learned to fly through the air while flipping and spinning. And mogul skiing proved that skiers could ski straight down the fall line at breakneck speed, through huge moguls, while constantly turning. Around this time people also began to experiment with “surfing on snow” and the snowboard was born. Pretty much any conceivable way to slide on snow was fair game in the quest for new ways to have fun. And better grooming along with more snowmaking coverage allowed alpine skiers to pursue their sport even when mother nature was not in the mood to provide good conditions.

Backcountry skiing in the 1980's

Backcountry skiing in the 1980's

In the nordic world, waxless bases and increasing interest in fitness helped ‘cross country’ skiing become a very popular winter activity. The invention of waxless bases changed nordic skiing forever. Skiers could simply put on their skis and go without having to deal with the bother of waxing. Unlike wax, the new bases worked in all snow conditions and, although glide was slightly impaired by the waxless bases, the reliable kick more than made up for that. For the vast majority, nordic skiing was just more fun without waxing. The other major innovation in nordic skiing, skate-skiing, happened in the 1980’s. Rather than using the diagonal stride, with its kick and glide propulsion, skate-skiing relies on a more vigorous but faster technique. Skate-skiing’s lightweight equipment relies on the edges and poles for propulsion and thus neither kick wax nor waxless bases are required. Although it can be faster, skating technique is not well suited to the backcountry because it requires a very high energy output and it is awkward and inefficient without a wide, smooth, groomed trail.

The 1970’s, partly fueled by a generally increased interest in all things wilderness, also saw more skiers begin to leave the confines of ski areas and head into the backcountry. Some sought solitude and wilderness, others were after terrain that could not be found ‘in bounds’ and many wanted to ski on the untracked snow that had largely disappeared from groomed ski areas. Most folks chose nordic equipment for their explorations and it didn’t take long for them to realize they needed much more control to ski the narrow trails and widely varying snow conditions of the backcountry than was required to toddle along in a set track at a touring center. On the lightweight equipment of the day deep, variable snow and hills were a real problem – and the backcountry often has a lot of each. The telemark turn was ‘reborn’ and learning it became a key element in a backcountry skier’s arsenal. With a good telemark, it was possible to ski the narrow trails and sometimes steep downhills in the variable snow found in the wilds. This turn was so helpful that some hard-core skiers, affectionately referred to as ‘telemark evangelists’, began to tout it’s inherent superiority over other turns. For some skiers, the tele turn was as much a statement against the skiing establishment as it was a way of skiing. Rebellion notwithstanding, the rebirth of the telemark was a landmark in skiing history.

Increasing numbers of nordic skiers in the backcountry also created a market for skis and boots better suited for this type of skiing. Metal edges, wider skis, and rugged boots along with more robust bindings became available and were quickly embraced by nordic backcountry skiers in search of better control.

At the start of the 70’s few skiers had even heard of the telemark turn but by the end of the 80’s they were commonly seen in the backcountry as well as at downhill ski areas where ‘telemarking’ became a popular way to ski downhill with free heels. It took a few years but ski equipment manufacturers began to market skis, bindings and boots designed just for this new craze. Like alpine ski boots, the new telemark boots boots were heavy, tall, supportive and not well suited for much besides going downhill, but they allowed the telemark turn to power around the the wider and heavier skis suited for lift-served ‘tele’ skiing.

Inevitably, some skiers lugged their heavy tele equipment into the backcountry, paying dearly on the flats and uphills, in search of descents that made the lugging worthwhile. Open slides, stream beds, steep tree shots, couloirs and lots of other previously un-skiable terrain were now possible with this new equipment, plenty of skill and an open mind. Many significant nordic descents were done for the first time during this period.

Concurrently another group of skiers sought the same kinds of terrain on alpine equipment. New alpine touring equipment approached the problem of control from the downhill perspective. Alpine equipment and technique, with its locked heels, has always maintained a control advantage on the steepest, most difficult terrain. Alpine touring (sometime called randonée) equipment enjoys the security and control of alpine equipment while skiing down, along with an optional hinged toe for climbing and flats. In essence it is alpine equipment with a special binding that offers both a downhill mode and a touring mode. The early development of alpine touring equipment took place mostly in Europe’s Alps where skiers would ride lifts as high as possible and then, using climbing skins and the touring mode on their AT gear, travel away from ski areas. When ready to descend, skins were removed, bindings were changed to the downhill mode and the security and control of alpine equipment and technique allowed skiers to enjoy more challenging terrain than they could handle on free-heel equipment. Because lifts were employed to minimize climbing, the burden of the heavy gear was minimized. In North America, oppressive liability concerns prevented ski areas from allowing their lifts to be used for backcountry access and thus alpine touring was impractical until laws and attitudes changed many years later. This popular approach, now often called ‘sidecountry’ skiing and enjoyed worldwide, allowed alpine skiing in the backcountry and helped extreme skiing to get its start in the Alps.

Backcountry skiing

Backcountry skiing –
taking it to the edge

1990’s - refinement
This decade was a period of refinement for skiing and saw snowboarding rise immensely in popularity.The single biggest advance in skiing during the 1990’s was the introduction of ‘shaped’ skis. Shorter, fatter and easier to turn, shaped skis made everyone a better skier – overnight. Beginner and intermediate alpine skiers could progress to advanced ability far more quickly and experts found they could do even more on skis. On groomed slopes, shaped ‘carving’ skis allowed big, fast and stable turns at higher speeds with far more security. In powder and variable snow, shaped skis allowed better flotation and more reliable control. At downhill ski areas, with their newfound ability to turn in any snow, skiers started heading for the woods, steeps and out of bounds in large numbers. Some downhill ski areas responded by opening glades and other previously closed terrain. Others, as a result of changing laws, allowed access to out of bounds skiing. Some even began to tout it and ‘sidecountry’ skiing/boarding was born. This lift-served, almost-but-not-quite form of backcountry skiing opened up lots of new terrain and made it relatively easy to access.

New laws that relieved ski areas of responsibility for skiers leaving the boundaries of ski areas, and their avalanche control, grooming and rescue services, were met enthusiastically by skiers who were tired of ducking ropes illegally to ski great, but serious terrain. Initially, many skiers went out of bounds unwittingly, with little understanding of, or regard for, the consequences. A few never returned. Many skiers assumed that being close to a ski area somehow made them safer than skiing many miles into the wilderness. In fact, avalanches can happen anywhere snowpack is left alone and unmanaged, even just barely outside ski area boundaries.

For many skiers, avalanche hazards and limited rescue capabilities seemed like a small price to pay for fresh tracks and wild terrain. With many more skiers exposed to avalanche hazard, more skiers were injured or killed by them. Fortunately, informed backcountry skiers, including ski patrollers, guides, avalanche educators, equipment manufacturers and pretty much everyone who understood the risks, made a concerted effort to inform every skier who chose to ski out of bounds. It became highly unfashionable to go any place with even a remote chance of avalanche without a shovel, probe and beacon. In some western ski areas many people even skied in-bounds with these items, sometimes for safety and often for fashion. Increasingly, skiers became aware that knowing how to use these safety items was actually far more important than just having them. Enrollment in avalanche courses and a general increase in awareness resulted and this trend has continued.

Improvements in equipment also allowed skiers accessing the backcountry via hiking trails and venues other than ski areas to gain more control and comfort without as much weight and, by the turn of the millennium the backcountry had become a draw for many people.

Two more events impacted skiing in the 1990‘s. First, the marketing engine of the ski industry started to introduce new terminology and ways of understanding skiing. Words like “free skiing” replaced extreme skiing. Skiers ‘skied’, snowboarders ‘rode’ and a whole new lexicon of terminology arose. In truth, a lot of it was just marketing hype. But it sold equipment.

The other event was the undeniable evidence of climate change that started to show up. The Alps, formerly one of the world’s most reliable skiing regions, had a few almost-snowless winters, temperatures way outside of ‘normal’ were common, and it became obvious that winter was no longer what it used to be. Northern regions, such as Alaska and Canada, fueled by the growth of helicopter skiing, became more popular for those who could afford it.

2000 thru 2013 and beyond - more options and more refinement

Along with more ‘warm’ winters, equipment kept getting better. New materials, once again, allowed lighter equipment across the board. Snowboarders started heading into the backcountry aided by split boards, that allowed access striding on two feet and descents on a single board. Rocker was introduced to ski design and, because of this important innovation, soft snow conditions became much easier to handle. Alpine touring equipment exploded in popularity on two fronts. New binding technologies allowed ‘sidecountry’ skiers to enjoy the reliability and safety of alpine equipment for descents, while still having a touring mode to allow skinning, rather than being forced to hike and carry skis. Simultaneously, alpine touring equipment designed specifically for the backcountry became much lighter and this gear started to displace free heel nordic equipment on steeper backcountry terrain. Toward the end of the decade the question of whether to use alpine touring or beefy nordic gear on backcountry steeps was no longer a matter of weight or comfort. Instead, it became more a matter of which style of skiing you preferred.

Better materials, better engineering and creative designs have given skiers amazing new tools. Skis designed for specific conditions or environments allow skiers to tailor their gear to a variety of particular skiing situations. Many skiers now own several skiing setups. And there is every reason to expect this trend will continue. There has never been a better time to be a skier!

For a much more comprehensive history, check out Lou Dawson's Chronology of North American Ski Mountaineering and Backcountry Skiing.

Backcountry skiing

Climbing for turns

Some Skiing Terminology

The ski industry’s engineers have given us some amazing technology over the years (kudos for that hard work and creativity) but the ski industry’s marketing efforts have introduced an ambiguous lexicon that nobody can really understand!

Here are some terms as we use them:

Backcountry Skiing - This term came into common usage in the late 1970’s as increasing numbers of skiers began to seek out hiking trails, glades, slides, stream beds and other features away from civilization. The point was to differentiate this type of skiing from skiing at a ski area with groomed snow, lodges and, in the case of ‘downhill’ skiing, ski lifts. The backcountry is also different from a quick spin around the local wood lot, suburban park or golf course. Ski areas and their lifts are sometimes a convenient means (often saving thousands of feet of climbing) to access the backcountry and this approach is sometimes called ‘sidecountry’ skiing, especially when skiers use lifts, ski out of bounds and then return to the ski area later. Occasionally you will also encounter the term ‘frontcountry’ skiing which simply refers to skiing within a ski area. Another term is ‘front-side’ which refers to skiing both frontcountry and sidecountry, usually some of each over a day of skiing. These different locations offer different experiences, mostly distinguished by how much the skiing environment has been manipulated by humans.

Backcountry (or sidecountry or frontcountry for that matter) skiing tells you where the skiing is taking place but not much more. Nordic or alpine, heavy or light; all sorts of gear find their way into the backcountry, frontcountry and sidecountry. Your choice of equipment may well impact how much fun you have but it won’t change where you are skiing! In certain areas particular types of equipment tend to be more popular, usually because of the prevailing terrain or conditions. For example, the relatively narrow nordic skis popular for hiking trail skiing in the Adirondack backcountry would be frustrating in the deep light powder found in Utah’s Wasatch backcountry but both are backcountry environments.

Although we enjoy sidecountry and frontcountry skiing, our backcountry skiing programs do not utilize ski areas. There are no lifts, set tracks or posh ski lodges in the backcountry!

Off-Piste - This European term simply means skiing away from groomed trails and ski area services. It is, more or less, a synonym for backcountry/sidecountry skiing.

Nordic vs. Alpine - This is the most significant distinction in skiing technique and equipment. Nordic equipment allows the heel to lift, alpine does not. A ‘free’ heel facilitates walking or striding on flats and uphills; a fixed heel (heel locked down) facilitates control during descents. Although it is common for nordic equipment and techniques to be used on gentle terrain, and alpine equipment and techniques to be employed in steeper, more severe places, this is not always the case. If the heel is free it’s nordic, if it’s fixed it’s alpine. Except... alpine touring bindings (sometimes called randonée, and rarely called norpine) allow both free heel and fixed heel modes! These bindings are essentially alpine bindings (fixed heel) with the ability to somewhat effectively mimic a nordic setup for climbing and flats. Although it would be theoretically possible to start with a nordic binding and lock down the heels for descents, alpine touring bindings meet these crossover needs more effectively.

Cross Country/Ski Touring - These terms are often ambiguous. Generally, cross country skiing refers to nordic skiing, using classic techniques. The distinction is more about the terrain and thus, as long as it’s not too mountainous, cross country skiing could happen at a nordic ski area, on a golf course or in the backcountry. Usually, cross country skiing equipment is assumed to be fairly lightweight. ‘Touring’ is more or less a synonym for cross country but it often assumes equipment is a bit heavier and distances covered may be longer. A confusing, but common, hybrid term is ‘backcountry touring’. This implies skiing in the backcountry on relatively lightweight (for the backcountry) nordic equipment. Because it is limited to relatively gentle terrain and a high degree of skiing expertise and fitness are not required, this is the most popular way for nordic skiers to experience the backcountry. In the Adirondack backcountry we sometimes refer to skiing this type of terrain as ‘valley tours’ since they avoid the steep mountainsides. Touring can also be thought of as a skier’s wintertime term for hiking.

Skate Technique vs. Classic Technique - These terms are very clear. Skating relies on the inside edges, ski poles and a skating motion for propulsion whereas classic technique (sometimes called the diagonal stride) uses a striding or walking motion to propel the skier. Skating is effective only on fairly wide, groomed trails so it is not often useful in the backcountry.

Telemarking - Technically, this is nothing more than the name of a specific position where one ski is advanced in front of the other to facilitate fore and aft stability. It also refers to a type of turn employing the telemark position for stability. Telemark technique is a major asset for nordic skiers because, in most cases, it offers greater control with a free heel than other techniques. It is especially helpful in the variable conditions and terrain of the backcountry.

The ski industry jumped all over this term, creating a new category of equipment to capitalize on its popularity in the late 1980’s. The heavy, supportive boots, bindings and beefy skis were designed for use at downhill ski areas since the equipment was really too heavy and stiff for comfortable touring. ‘Telemarkers’ (or ‘tele’ skiers) in today’s ski lingo, use a nordic turn to ski in an alpine environment, usually alongside other skiers using alpine equipment. It’s just another way to have fun.

Alpine Touring (AT) - Sometimes called randonée skiing or norpine. Most skiers use alpine touring gear to gain access to attractive ski descents. Often via the sidecountry, skiers start out in touring mode and convert their equipment to fixed heel mode for the descent using alpine technique. Alpine touring and ski mountaineering have much in common although ski mountaineering usually focuses on extremely difficult terrain and alpine touring may not.

Ski Mountaineering - A hybrid of skiing and climbing. Either alpine touring skis are employed to make access to climbs easier, or climbing gear and techniques are employed to allow access to extreme skiing terrain that would be difficult or impossible to ski otherwise. Expert skiing and climbing skills are required and often this is a high-stakes endeavor.

Kick Wax/Glide Wax - Glide wax makes a ski more slippery to help it go faster and keep snow from sticking to it. Kick wax does the opposite. By engaging snow crystals, kick wax allows the skier to gain purchase so the ‘kick’ portion of a stride will have something to push against and propel the skier forward. This wax must be matched to the snow to avoid too little or too much kick. All skis can benefit from glide wax but kick wax is only useful on traditional waxable nordic skis. In some snow conditions waxing is highly effective and takes about 30 seconds to apply. In other conditions wax works poorly no matter how hard you try!

Waxless Skis - This term refers only to kick wax since ALL skis can benefit from glide wax - even waxless ones. Waxless skis eliminate the need for kick wax with nordic skis by employing a stepped pattern in the base that slides forward but not not back. Often resembling fish scales (or sometimes fur), these ‘one-way’ bases allow the skier to ‘kick’ backward and gain the purchase needed to slide forward. Waxless skis eliminate the problem of getting a good kick in difficult waxing conditions but they also impair glide. With fresh snow and temperatures up to about 25ºF waxing is easy and more effective than any waxless base. With warmer temperatures and/or recrystalized snow, waxless bases are easier and more effective. We use waxable skis when we can (which is a lot of the time in the Adirondacks) but we switch to waxless skis when it makes sense.

Climbing Skins - At some point a slope becomes too steep for wax or waxless bases to keep the skier from sliding backwards. For short sections of steep climbing, herringbone or sidestepping techniques will suffice but long climbs call for climbing skins. Originally made from seal skin, skins are now synthetic but resemble the one-way fur of an animal. Early skins were strapped on but a better approach involves a sticky glue-like substance that adheres the skin directly to the ski base along its entire length. Once attached, skins can climb quite steep slopes without slipping. Normally skins are applied only for long climbs and usually only two or three times, at most, per day because getting them on and off the skis is somewhat time consuming and messy. Waxless base patterns can allow snow and water to get between the skin and the base and cause it to come loose, although careful application of the skin can minimize this problem. Thick, soft kick wax can also impair the effectiveness of skin adhesive. These minor annoyances notwithstanding, for long steep climbs skins are a valuable asset.

Camber - Ski designers employ camber so the skier’s weight can be distributed throughout the length of the ski. This is accomplished by manufacturing the ski in an arched configuration and it can be seen when a pair of skis is held base-to-base. With lots of camber, the skis will be touching at tips and tails yet far apart in their middle sections. With less camber, the skis may nearly touch in their middles. To greatly oversimplify, stiffer skis need less camber and softer ones require more. Camber is useful for both nordic and alpine skis. Camber generalizations are tricky because so many factors come into play.

A ‘double cambered’ ski employs a ‘camber within a camber’ and is specifically used for some nordic skis to provide a ‘wax pocket’. The idea here is that by having a pocket under the foot the skier can exaggerate the force on the pocket during the kick part of the stride, thus allowing the wax (or waxless base pattern) in that area to engage with the snow. Once the weight is released during the glide portion of the stride, the wax pocket no longer has enough force on it to cause it to contact the snow and the wax therefore disengages. Double cambers are only found on nordic skis designed for both kick and glide. Alpine skis employ only a single camber since they do not use kick wax and since skins work well enough even without a second camber. Nordic skis sometimes omit the wax pocket for designs that are likely to be used in alpine terrain or with skins most of the time. We use both single and double cambered skis. We also use skis with a hybrid one-and-a-half camber!
Single cambered skis are sometimes called alpine cambered and double cambered skis are sometimes called nordic cambered but those terms are used less often as ski designers have learned to break the rules and end up with better skis!

Sidecut - Most skis are wider at the tips and tails than underfoot. The resulting curved shape is the ski’s sidecut. All things being equal, the more sidecut, the easier it is to turn a ski.

Sidecut Profile - Expressed as a set of three numbers, eg; 102/64/87, these numbers measure the width of a ski at it’s tip, underfoot, and at the tail in millimeters. These numbers are the numeric expression of a ski’s sidecut. Although useful to know, a ski’s sidecut is really only meaningful in light of camber, rocker, flex, torsional rigidity, length and other factors.

Rocker - This is a relatively new ski design idea that was borrowed from snowboards. Skis with rocker are basically bent slightly upwards in their front section (behind the tip) so the ski can plane over the snow and turn more easily. Alpine and alpine touring skis frequently employ rocker and some nordic skis do as well. Rocker can also be applied to the tails of skis. Well-designed rocker can give skis almost magical abilities.

Ski Specs - Lots of numbers that may tell you a bit about what to expect from a ski - but maybe not.

Demo - The only way to find out how a ski really skis! Without actually skiing on a ski, you are buying the proverbial ‘pig in a poke’.

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Alpine Adventures, Inc.
10873 NYS Route 9N, P.O. Box 179
Keene, New York 12942 USA

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