Cross-country skiers in western Norway.
Cross-country skiers in western Norway.

Snowshoes or Cross-Country Skis: What’s Best for Exploring Backcountry?

I'm unable to invest in a lot of new gear this snow season, so should I go with cross-country skis or a pair of snowshoes?

Cross-country skiers in western Norway.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

“They’re both great!” says Jonathan Wiesel, principal at Longmont, Colorado-based Nordic Group International and author of Cross-Country Ski Getaways. “It depends on personal preferences, experience on snowshoes or skis, and if you’re willing or interested in trying something new.”

If you already cross-country ski or snowshoe, you might feel more comfortable pursuing the more familiar option. If you haven’t practiced either sport before—and you’re short on time—you’ll likely become a proficient snowshoer faster than a good skier. (And when it comes to skiing, “we’re talking about relatively light ski touring equipment, not alpine touring skis with full metal edges and heavy boots,” Wiesel notes. “That’s a whole different ball of wax.”)

If time is not a factor, take into consideration the following:

WEIGHT: If you’re carrying a lot (perhaps for an overnight camping trip), and you’re not already a good skier, opt for snowshoes.

SNOW DEPTH: With deep, new snow cross-country skis can be hard to maneuver. However, keep in mind that a lot of fresh powder means you need snowshoes with a lot of flotation (surface contact), so you don’t sink too far.

TERRAIN: If your route includes a steep and prolonged uphill, skiing might be tough. “Picture a somewhat significant hill,” Wiesel says. “Using modern snowshoes with cleats, you can often head right up the hill (which is not to say it’s easy). Cross-country skiing is not—except for expert uber-athletes—a straight-up-a-formidable-hill proposition and will probably require you to switchback, which is not a bad thing. You’re still in the great outdoors and getting in shape—it may just take longer to gain that altitude.”

FALLEN TIMBER: Wiesel suggests using snowshoes so you don’t dive your skis under logs and come to abrupt and painful stops. (“There’s the voice of experience!” he says.)

Wiesel recommends talking to friends and ski shop employees who might be knowledgeable about the area you want to explore. And though he happily endorses both means of exploration, the founder and director emeritus of the Cross Country Ski Areas Association does have a personal preference. “I’d take the glide of skiing on rolling terrain over snowshoeing,” he says. “Cross-country skiing down a hill—whatever the technique and possible number of falls—is a lot more thrilling than walking or running down on snowshoes, and it makes a lot of switchbacks worth it!”