WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF SKIING?
Skiing, or making progress across snow by spreading your weight over two planks of wood, has been around for millennia – since people first hunted for survival, travelled and worked using them in the snowy north. It wasn’t until the mid 1850s however that the modern style of ski we know today, with a camber and sidecut (arched shape and narrower middle), was developed by the Norwegian, Sondre Norheim.
These days it’s hard to imagine a world without skiing – that joy of clicking into your bindings, grabbing your poles and gliding down a mountain. Today, it counts as one of the biggest sports and leisure industries out there. But there are numerous types of skiing. So, here’s an overview of the different styles of skiing and what they involve.
Also known as alpine skiing, downhill skiing is the most common type of skiing practiced in ski resorts around the world. It involves using a chair lift or other means of getting to the top of the mountain, and then skiing back down it. The route back down the mountain is on groomed, marked pistes. In downhill skiing, the skier’s boot is fixed to the ski using a binding and the focus is on the downhill aspect of the activity (the clue’s in the name).
Downhill skiing can also take you away from the groomed pistes, or what is known as off-piste and into the sidecountry (next to the pistes), or slackcountry (where lifts are used to access the backcountry or off-piste areas) but this is not ski touring.
Downhill skis come in many shapes and sizes depending on the terrain and style of skiing you’re after. In general, skis can be categorised as:
- Piste skis
These can range from forgiving skis for beginners to stiff, hard-charging beasts for advanced skiers. They are shaped for carving turns on groomed pistes and will therefore have a narrower waist and be wider at the tip and tail (hourglass shape). Softer flex along the ski will benefit beginner to intermediate skiers, while advanced skiers will be looking for a longer ski with a stiffer construction for good edge grip and stability at high speeds.
The turning radius of a ski is another factor to consider and determines whether you can make short, tight turns (slalom) or big arcing turns (super GS). The radius is determined by the difference in width between the tip, waist and tail of a ski i.e. a ski with a narrower waist in relation to its tip and tail will have a shorter sidecut radius and can make tight turns. One with a bigger radius, e.g. > 22m, and therefore wider waist in relation to the tip and tail, will be better at long arcing turns.
- All-mountain skis
Probably the most popular ski these days. They are designed to be a go-everywhere ski – from piste to crud and park to powder. With a shape similar to that of a carving ski they are still great when skiing on groomed snow, however they are wider, particularly underfoot. While piste skis will have a camber profile when you look at them from the side (raised in the middle of the ski), all-mountain skis may have a rocker or reverse-camber profile (upward curve) for better float in deep powder.
- Freeride skis
For skiers who spend all their time exploring the mountain, off-piste. These skis tend to be wider than all-mountain skis and usually with a rocker profile. They are longer than freestyle skis and with stiffer flex for stability at speed. They are designed to perform well off-piste but also on the piste when needed.
- Freestyle /park skis
These tend to be shorter with greater agility for skiing, jumps, rails, boxes etc. They tend to have twin tips, where the tail as well as the tip is shaped and raised to help with landing tricks going backwards, and also have highly durable edges.
- Race skis
Designed like carving skis but much stiffer and longer. They also come in slalom and giant slalom (GS) shapes with radii to match. A skier without race experience will find race skis extremely difficult to handle.
- Touring skis
(see ski touring below)
Downhill skiers wear stiff plastic ski boots that partially restrict forward/backward lean to a set angle to keep skiers in the correct position and help with controlling their skis. These also come in a range of categories to suit the style of skiing you’re most likely to undertake (piste, race, freeride, freestyle).
Downhill or alpine ski boots are made up of a stiff plastic shell to keep your foot firmly in place, with an insulating, more comfortable liner inside. They are secured with buckles and usually a strap at the very top. A well-fitting ski boot is essential, so take your time finding the right style and fit for your feet and level of ability, and take expert advice where possible.
As a general rule however, the stiffer, the more tight-fitting the boot, the more responsive it will be, which is important as your skiing improves. Alpine ski boots come with a flex index or flex rating (the range that a boot can flex forward when skiing), ranging from about 75 (soft) to about 115 (very stiff). The greater the number and stiffer the boot, the greater the power transfer to the ski and the ski’s outer edge. But this comes at a cost of leg power and ability so don’t go too stiff or they’ll be very uncomfortable.
Downhill ski bindings are designed to keep your heel (and entire boot) firmly in place and are not designed for ski touring or skinning but could be used for boot-packing uphill on shorter forays into the backcountry.
They need to be strong, durable, easy to use and safe. They will feature an adjustable release mechanism so that your boot is released when a pre-determined level of strain is exerted on it i.e. during a fall. For beginners this should be relatively loose whereas more advanced skiers will need a tighter hold to prevent skis from popping off at high speeds or on steep, choppy terrain. Most bindings come integrated with skis these days.
Not obligatory but certainly advisable if you look at the stats.
Non-retractable lightweight poles with ‘baskets’ at the bottom to prevent them from penetrating deep into the snowpack and wrist straps.
For UV protection and to help see in bad light, wind, fog, snow etc.
For downhill or alpine skiing techniques, we’ll focus on piste or groomer skiing because that’s where most people will spend most of their time. On prepared pistes using your ski edges to turn is what keeps you in control. Your body should be in a forward position with knees bent and ankles bent – like sitting on a chair – which puts pressure on your shins, and in turn weights the skis’ edges for greater control. Pared down, there are three steps to a carved turn: Initiation, shaping and finish.
- Initiation – During the turn initiation, you will focus on the ski that’s about to become your downhill ski and roll your knees and ankles in that direction.
- Shaping – Driving your outside knee down towards the toe of the binding will shape the turn. The greater the pressure you exert, the tighter the turn. Leaning into a turn with your hips and shoulders also exerts greater pressure and control.
- Finish – Rolling your knees and ankles back upright – and therefore rolling your skis off-edge – means you can shift weight in the opposite direction for the next turn. A transfer of weight occurs from one outside ski to the other while maintaining snow contact with the other ski for stability.
Classic XC skis: Classic cross-country skis are lightweight, long, skinny skis. They have a camber profile, which means the section of the ski underfoot is not in contact with the snow when your weight is evenly distributed across both skis. Traditionally, cross-country skis used wax to give them traction underfoot for uphill sections. Nowadays they come in waxless or waxed versions – with waxless being more popular as they are easier to use. Waxless skis achieve grip by etching or moulding textured scales into the ‘kickzone’ (the middle third of the ski base). Even though they are waxless, these skis still benefit from glide wax at the tip and tail. Waxable skis require different types of wax for different snow conditions: hard wax for fresh, crystal-like snow and klister for old, granular snow. A third option in the kick-zone is to have permanent skins in this zone.
Classic XC Poles: These tend to be lightweight with a small basket and should reach up to your armpit – with variations in length and materials used depending on whether you intend to race or go on untracked snow.
XC boots: Much like hiking boots, these are flexible mid- to high-cut boots (depending on whether or not you are going through deep snow in the backcountry) and will need to be compatible with the bindings you have mounted on your skis. We recommend choosing a ski boot that fits really well first and then go with the binding system to match.
Bindings: NNN (New Nordic Norm) is the most common Nordic binding and secures the boot to the ski using a metal bar across the front of the ski boot that clips into the binding. SNS-Profil (SNS stands for Salomon Nordic System) – is the main Salomon proprietary system and is very similar to NNN. SNS-Pilot– is the newer Salomon system which uses two metal bars, making it easier to get into the bindings and skate the ski. SNS Pilot boots can fit onto Profil bindings, but not the other way around. Very important: Any binding you use must match the boots you have and are not usually cross-compatible. Finally, there is the NIS (Nordic Integrated System) which installs easily onto skis with pre-mounted NIS plates. Also compatible with NNN racing/touring boots.
The main difference is the profiled ridges over the rest of the binding which mirror those on the boot to give skiers better traction and a more stable stance on the ski.
Much like walking on skis, classic style cross-country skiing involves striding out with your arms and legs swinging in opposition and your back leg ‘kicking out’ (or pushing off) more as you generate more speed – now closer to running on skis (known as diagonal stride). The overall effect is of kicking and then gliding. One of the greatest advantages with classic XC is that little technique or experience is needed to enjoy it straight from the start. Obviously, there is a lot of technique involved but compared to skate skiing, a beginner can still pretty much ‘walk’ their way round a track.
Generally, several inches shorter, lighter and shaped differently to classic XC skis, a skate ski’s entire length is dedicated to gliding i.e. there is no kick-zone for traction here. Skate skis tend not to have a sidecut i.e. the ski is not hourglass shape. Some skate skis might even be slightly wider in the centre to give more edge grip in skate motion. The camber is also less pronounced than in a classic XC ski and the skis are stiffer too.
Skate boots are stiffer, higher cut with more ankle support and a more rigid outsole that helps with lifting the ski up and prevents any twisting movement. There are some boots out there that can be used for both skate and classic skiing, combining the softness of a classic boot with the ankle support of a skate boot – and it means skiers can train in both disciplines but only need one pair of boots, not two.
The same binding systems are used as for classic XC skis. See above.
Skate poles are very long and reach from the ground to somewhere between your chin and your mouth – about 90% of your entire height. They must be stiff and sturdy as they come under considerable strain. They have special hand grips so you can use them behind you in the skate style without losing them.
Skate skiing is more anaerobic than classic skiing and demands greater power. Unlike classic XC, skate skiing does not take place on tracks, it takes place on wide, flat, groomed trails. In skate skiing your legs work at a V-angle, a bit like a duck. Using alternate legs, you will push off the snow with your outer edge and use your poles to generate power through your core. It takes great balance and the skill has to be practiced. As the incline gets steeper, the V-angle gets wider.
This is the kind of skiing you’ll see in the park, with jumps, tricks and air. As a competitive sport the disciplines include:
- Aerials (jumps)
- Acro (choreographed routines)
- Moguls (bumps on a ski slope that are skied and jumped over)
- Big air (twists, spins and various moves in the air)
- Dual moguls (where two competitors go head-to-head on the moguls)
- Half pipe
Freestyle skiing will tend to be on twin-tip skis for versatility in direction of travel and better landings.
Ski touring, alpine touring or Randonnée in French is a type of backcountry. As opposed to regular downhill skiing, ski touring makes use of special adapted touring skis and/or touring bindings that can convert from free-heel to fixed-heel mode. These allow you to go uphill on your skis, with your heels moving freely, using climbing skins (strips with fur-like synthetic or natural fibres to give grip) for traction, a.k.a. skinning.
When you get to the top, you remove your skins, lock your heels back into the bindings and ski down again, just like you would on the piste. It is a great means of accessing remote, untouched faces and becoming immersed in the natural winter mountain landscape. More recently, ski touring has also become popular as a means of combining fitness training with regular piste skiing – where skiers skin up the sides of the pistes and then ski down on the piste.
As with any backcountry or off-piste skiing, it is essential to have the right equipment with you and be fully versed in the use of avalanche safety equipment and rescue procedures.
Making progress uphill on skis can be hard work. It is important you conserve energy by sliding your skis along the snow, not taking too big strides. Get into a steady rhythm. When going up steep sections, cross the slope in a zigzag line so that you are not having to tackle such a steep incline – your skins will keep your skis from slipping backwards but they do not turn you into Spiderman!
Use uphill kick-turns to change directions on the traverse. Practice these so you are confident with them before you set off. Doing them for the first time on steeper ground when you are pushing your physical limits is not the right approach. You can also use the risers on your bindings to help keep you more level on steeper ground. When you get to the top, take the skins off your skis and pack them away (they might come with a sheet of plastic to cover the sticky sides). You might want to adjust your layers and now’s a good time to put goggles on if you had sunglasses on for the ascent.
Before setting off downhill, make sure you click your bindings back into ‘ski mode’ (with the heel fixed in place and with the riser back down) and also make sure your skis are in ‘ski mode’.
Originating in Telemark, Norway, this style of skiing involves skiers making turns with a ‘free’ heel, i.e. the boot is not attached to the ski at the back. Effectively it’s a combination of alpine skiing’s downhill-oriented travel and Nordic or cross-country skiing’s kick-glide motion. Telemark skiers are often referred to as ‘free-heelers’.
- Skis: Generally speaking, telemark skiers use alpine/downhill skis but fit them with telemark bindings. Telemark equipment has the advantage of being able to be used, on- or off-piste, for ski touring and even in freestyle parks.
- Telemark boots: These used to be heavier versions of cross-country/Nordic ski boots, often made of leather. Nowadays however, free-heelers can choose between piste-oriented stiffer, more alpine-style boots and lighter-weight more flexible touring telemark boots. As with all ski boots, fit is paramount and for telemark ones the flex underfoot is also a factor.
- Telemark bindings: These bindings leave your heel free and never locked down so you can always pivot on your toe. Most telemark bindings wrap a cable around your heel for tension and control when making turns. Some newer bindings do away with the cable, and keep the heel tensioned with springs under the boot. There are both touring and non-touring telemark bindings. The touring bindings allow your toe to pivot more for better uphill mobility.
You’ll instantly recognise telemark skiers on the slopes, as the technique used is so distinctive and different to alpine skiing. Telemark turns use a bent knee in a lunging motion to engage the ski in a powerful arc. The inside or uphill ski is set further back, with that foot fully flexed, while the downhill ski has the full foot planted on it. The skier’s centre of gravity should be evenly weighted over the middle of both skis. When transitioning to the next turn, the skier’s legs will then ‘scissor’ to lunge in the other direction.
Cross-country skiing, also known as Nordic skiing, Langlauf (German) or XC, is another form of free-feel skiing that uses long, skinny skis to cover more gentler ground. Any uphill inclines are mastered with human power alone. This style of skiing is the oldest style of skiing and originated in Scandinavia where it was used as a means of travel. It’s a fantastic way of keeping fit, and at a competitive level is one of the most intense sports in the world.
There are 3 sub-styles of cross-country skiing:
This is the older of the two techniques and involves keeping skis parallel and using a kick-glide motion to make forward progress. Classic XC can be practiced in the backcountry by breaking trail or on prepared pistes or loops (Loipe in German) with two parallel tracks already set in the snow.
Developed in the 1970s, skate or free skiing, uses a technique similar to ice skating where the skier pushes the inside edge of the ski outward at an angle of about 45° to generate speed. Skate skiing usually needs to be on a trail that is groomed for skate skiing.
This involves getting away from the trails and the skis used are designed to be used in deeper snow and are longer, wider and usually have a metal edge.