Cross-country skis vs snow shoes

10:09 a.m. on December 8, 2013 (EST)
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I used to cross country ski and snow shoe a lot in Alaska,Jackson Hole and Yosemite back in the late 70's and early 80's. But I am sure both have changed since then. Back then there were already lots of new fiberglass skis with grooved bottoms for different types of snow. How have these changed over the last 30 years.

I used Tubbs wooden snow shoes back then in the long Yukon variety. And in them what I have seen in gear stores and online outdoors shop that most now are either metal or lighter weight nylon. What is best to look for in these now a days?

We just got over a foot of powder snow here in SW Utah during the last 36 hours. Its a dry powdery snow that is fluffy and slides away like sand when disturbed.  What is best for this kind of snow in both snow shoes and cross country skis?

10:02 a.m. on December 9, 2013 (EST)
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Slopes with snow fitting the conditions you describe can be dangerous, prone to slide.  It doesn’t take a big hill, either, to generate a deadly slide.  Hang low until the snow stabilizes, or at least stick to the flats.

The best way to describe the changes in XC skis over the decades (in America) is they are easier to control.  Addressing the skis that have replaced the boards you used to ride: backcountry skis have gotten shorter, wider, and have side cut profiles that more closely resemble a down hill ski than XC skis from the early 80s.  The boots now are primarily plastic, stiffer and more heavy.  I don’t particularly care for today’s boots, and still use my old leather double boots, which back then were in the heavy touring/exped duty rating.  They were plenty adequate, I can generally out ski most alpine skiers with my set up.  In any case if you were to ski the back country in a manner that required the support of today’s tele boots, you probably are doing stuff too risky to consider attempting any distance from a road head (rescue).  Back then bindings were also evolving, offering additional options besides old school 3-pin and cable options.  These alternative systems have improved significantly over the decades, but I still prefer the 3-pin system, both for simplicity as well as durability. 

A specialty ski which is a variation of the back country and tele skis described, above, is the powder ski.  These skis are designed specifically for fluffy, deep, powder.  They are much wider, than other XC skis.  This is the ski for the conditions you describe - Utah powder - but just because they are designed for these conditions, using this equipment does not minimize any of the dangers I allude to in my opening paragraph.

The set-ups I described, above, are used for inclined terrain.  If you intend to ski only the flats and mild inclines the equipment available to intended for that purpose performs pretty similar to its forerunners.  The biggest change to kick and glide (traditional) style XC skis is the bindings and foot ware are lighter; many of this type of ski sold nowadays use binding systems other than the 3-pin and cable options.

Another innovation that occurred about the time you last skied was the advent of skate skiing – the skier uses a ice skating like motion to zip along  groomed routes.  The equipment for this activity is very light, not particularly well suited for sking the standing country in the part of Utah you currently reside.

Lastly waxless skis are the most common base technology in use today.  There are a variety of patterns cut into the base of the skis.  I find them noisy, and less effective than a properly waxed base.  And in fact you can still buy skis requiring wax, mostly skis with basic p-tex bases or similar compound.  The old school XC skis (with wooden bases that required an application of tar to hold waxes) are still available, if that suits your fancy.  I have a pair of these old school boards too.  They are great for for your area, I used to ski the cuts cleared for power lines in your area using old school XC skis.  Regardless of which ski you use, you will find climbing skins useful if you have to climb or descend terrain with significant slope.


11:19 a.m. on December 9, 2013 (EST)
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Gary, Ed covers the skis very well. The basic difference between now and then, is that the skis have become much more specialized to terrain and type of skiing. When you last skied, there were a lot of "General Touring" skis. Wide enough to do some off piste, but still narrow enough to fit in groomed tracks. There are very few of these type made today. Tele skis became more extreme and if you buy a pair of these today, the bindings, skis and boots will remind you of alpine gear, except for the free heel.

I prefer a ski that I can use to access the back country, but also ski some tracks. They won't have much side cut so they don't turn as easily as dedicated back country skis, nor be as fast as track skis. 

As Ed says, bindings have changed. When you last skied, there were light weight three pins and cable bindings for more stability. The cables dropped away in favor of heavy weight three pins, and then about twenty years ago, cable came back. 

The Vermont Tubbs Alaskan that you used, with its babiche and wood is a beautiful shoe, but heavy. It has a lot of floatation for deep powder and a long upturn. I still like mine. However, for most work, the plastic and other lightweight shoes are the way to go. They turn easier and climb better.

A wide ski, and a big snow shoe would be the best for the powder conditions you describe. However, as Ed says, the conditions you describe are not the type you want to be in right now. Wait until the snow stabilizes and then rent some gear to see which you prefer.

1:12 p.m. on December 9, 2013 (EST)
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No place around here to rent, closest big town would be St George or Cedar City both nearly a 100 miles away, and for me being only on a bicycle too far to go for rentals. I was thinking, if I bought them to do it as I do everything else through the mail/UPS. 

Last time I skied they were fiberglass not wood. My brother has a old pair of wooden downhill skis from the 60's. Last time I used them I rented in Yosemite in the months of Jan-May 1980.

8:31 p.m. on December 9, 2013 (EST)
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Gary, take a look on for a look at wooden snowshoes suitable for travel on powdery snow. Also, another good site for info is a New England site. Unfortunately, Telemarktips is no more; that was the go to place for backcountry ski info. Maybe someone will revive it. Here is another ski site with a great obit of TTips by one of its regulars-

I had a pair of Atomic Rainier XC skis with Garmont boots. They worked fine on packed snow, but not enough float on lighter stuff. Also, on hilly terrain, on the one hilly trip I used them on, I was towing a sled and wished I was on snowshoes. I now have a pair of new snowshoes (Atlas), but haven't tried them out yet. One more thing, whether on skis or snowshoes, I would get heel lifts-saves some wear and tear on your calves, hamstrings and ankles from what I read.

7:06 a.m. on December 10, 2013 (EST)
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Around here the cross country skiing and snow shoeing would be on relatively  flat ground composed of ancient sand dunes covered with brush and snow. The few places where I would be going up hill are old forestry roads staying fairly easy grade. There are no slopes where downhill type skiing would be possible as the snow does not usually get deep enough to cover the sagebrush, manzanita and small juniper,cedar or pinion pines.

I would mostly be traveling along long wide braided stream beds like the Parunuweap (East fork of the Virgin River) and Muddy Creek of flattened eroded sand washes and old ATV trails through the woods of before mentioned trees and brush.

I think I also should get some gaiters to keep the snow out of my hiking shoes and boots.


The East Fork of the Virgin River also called the Parunuweap. 


This is Muddy Creek canyons mouth looking NW, a flatter canyon than the Parunuweap being it has been plowed for hay and cattle production since the late 1800's.


This is Sand Wash which leads back to some of the most interesting slot canyons 20 miles east of Zion NP.


Entrance to Red Hollow canyon country.


This is the top of Glendale Bench a plateau area where the sagebrush and smaller pines are dense in some areas like above. The Pink Cliffs (Bryce Canyon) formation can be seen on the distant horizon.


Last but not least is Long Valley canyon where the main East Fork of the Virgin River flows down from the Pink Cliffs and all the before mentioned canyons,washes and creeks flow into, except the Parunuweap which is where the East Fork drains into before entering the main Virgin River in Zion NP. This image is from the top of Glendale Bench looking northwest.

Its canyon country like this I travel and hike along. All pictures by me taken last summer here.

This link show the topography of the country I live in. 

The white areas on the topo map are flat canyon country or the tops of the plateaus like Glendale Bench on the right. Muddy Creek canyon is flowing SE near Mt Carmel near the center and the Parunuweap is flowing SW in the lower left corner. I live in Orderville in the upper middle area along the highway just south of the town of Glendale on the top right of the map.

It is very richly covered with canyons,gulches,hollows,slots and broad river valleys. Plenty of wild country for a person like me to explore where Indian,cowboys,mountain men and pioneers have lived.

10:58 a.m. on December 10, 2013 (EST)
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light touring XC gear made for kick and glide technique will best suit your objectives. Think along the lines of the light gear sold in the north east.  You can get by without metal edges, but they will add control if you happen to purchase skis equiped with meatla edges. The boots will range in design from heavy walking shoe to light hiking boots.  There is some light telemark gear that will also work, albeit they are not as great on the glide after the kick.  Nevertheless the light tele gear is what I would choose. especially if your are blazing fresh tracks (as you are not going to miss the kick and glide).  Additionally light tele better affords getting off the road cuts, should your curiosity lead you.  Some may suggest the wider powder skis but a light tele set up will work ok in deeper powder, and work well over a wider range of conditions.

I would caution agsinst buying ski gear without first knowing what you are purchasing.  Talk to locals who ski.  test ride skis if you can.  Trips to distant towns represent a big commitment for you, I know, but I would strongly consider a bus ride to Salt lake City or Park City, as there is a bounty of XC ski expertise and merchandizers in these areas.  It is where I go to buy BC skis, and I live in LA.  

About wood skis.  Wood is still considered a preferred core for most modern skis.  They may be plastic outsides, but many skis have wooden cores.


4:43 p.m. on December 10, 2013 (EST)
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Ed, has it right Gary. Getting the local and expert advise is the only way to check into the new skis. If not wanting to lug back skis, most shops are more than willing to ship them to you, though a fee may apply. Also the Geartrade link from this site is also a decent resource if wanting to look at mildly used gear, though there is always some risk.   As for snowshoes, the whole game has changed. I haven't looked, but checkout forums on what is available. Last I looked carbon fiber snowshoes were being used as an ultralight alternative, and can only have gotten more durable since the time. And if a hobbiest, there are some really easy, and fun plans for making a pair of your own. Instructables being a good resource to start from.   Skis for the long stretches and snowshoes for the hillsides with the sharp turns and dodging the top of sage brush. Enjoy.

6:21 p.m. on December 10, 2013 (EST)
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while you could still do wood snowshoes, ones with a metal frame and synthetic decking are more common, lighter, and have better traction if you need it.  some have outer frames stamped from sheet metal that actually help prevent slippage; others have serious claws beneath your feet, as long as crampon spikes, if you need traction for climbing.  all are highly durable.  i have used the same aluminum frame, neoprene strung/deck snowshoes for nearly 30 years, replacing various parts along the way.

snowshoes are also better for navigating tight spaces or lots of tree/brush cover, sometimes, than skis. 

like comments above, I would ask locals what kind of shoe works best in the conditions you are in, and whether people prefer skis vs. snowshoes.  a lot depends on terrain and anticipated snow conditions.  what's good for me in the icy Northeast might not be so great out there. 

finally, Ed is 100 percent right about slopes that are loaded with fresh snow.  check localized avalanche conditions before you venture out, and take that risk seriously.  for your edification:


12:49 a.m. on December 11, 2013 (EST)
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Theres not that much snow here for avalanche danger. This snw we had was 14 inches last Friday now its melt/settled down to 6 and next week its climbing back to 50 degree's. by then it will be all but gone.

I did snow shoe and cross country ski in 1980 in Yosemite's high Sierra and know about the use of which for different types of terrain I was just curious about the new types of both snow shoes and CC skis as its been 33 years since I skied and about 6 years since I last went snow shoeing. 

But I may just stick to the sandy route in the canyon country I live in here . In summer the sand is very soft and hard to walk in, but in winter especially after a good snow as we just had the sand is frozen together and is much easier to hike on.

But thanks for all the advice and answers t my questions about the subject. I recently ordered some winter studded tires for my mountain bike which is also easier to ride now that the sand is stiffened up from the moisture and freezing. The sand here is actually more like silt or further eroded sand It becomes like clay when its wet during the monsoon season in the later summer and either dry or wet its impossible to mountain bike on unless it has gravel mixed in.

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