The Very REAL Difference Between Cross-Country and Backcountry Skiing

by Alaina Johnson | Updated: October 27th, 2022 |  Skiing Articles

Though not completely different from each other in their core form, backcountry skiing and particularly groomed cross-country skiing are often differentiated by the terrain on which the skier is traversing.

Backcountry skiing is not on marked trails but in wooded forests and valleys. There is an element of danger that isn't found on neatly groomed designated cross-country trails. Both types of skiing differ from downhill skiing greatly, which is the most popular form of the sport.

backcountry skiing

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Cross-Country Skiing vs Backcountry Skiing

Backcountry skiing is technically a form of cross-country skiing in that the skier relies on their own body to move across the terrain. You don't have access to ski lifts or gravity pulling you downhill. However, cross-country skiing to many people is done across neatly groomed trails.

Photo by Roderick Eime licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Backcountry skiing is a much more adventurous and often extreme form of the sport, as there are no markings and you're basically making your own way forward. Previously, cross-country and backcountry skiing was used as primary methods of transportation.

These days, people often participate due to the great exercise and thrilling nature of the activity. You're at a much higher risk of encountering an avalanche when you're in the backcountry. Caution is recommended and you should follow proper safety precautions (such as equipping yourself with beacons and an airbag backpack).

While backcountry skiing is a form of cross-country skiing, not all cross-country skiing is necessarily in the backcountry. In fact, many ski resorts have designated cross-country trails that are kept freshly manicured with parallel tracks for easy movement.

Photo by Matt Squirrell under CC BY 2.0

By its nature, backcountry skiing is done outside of the bounds of ski resorts. There are no ski patrols and no avalanche safety checks being done, which is where the element of danger comes into play.

Choosing Between Cross-Country and Backcountry Skiing

Backcountry skiing certainly isn't for everyone and if you're risk averse, you likely won't find yourself well suited to the activity. Those who are looking for adventure often gravitate towards the backcountry with its unknown territory and the on-the-fly problem-solving that's sometimes required.

Older adults who use skiing as primarily a form of cardio exercise should probably stick to the groomed trails within a recreational area. These trails are well-maintained and are patrolled by employees and there is always help nearby if an emergency arises.

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Backcountry skiing isn't often well suited to young children. A high degree of experience is necessary to safely take on forested areas. If a child is just learning how to ski, this experience could quickly become overwhelming.

Those who have been skiing for quite a while and have confidence in their abilities may seek a stronger sense of adrenaline outside of the bounds of a resort. Taking a class on avalanche safety is a recommendation before you consider going out on your own.

Backcountry skiing saw a rise in participation during COVID, as people were eager to get away from the crowded resorts and confusing pass systems that were implemented in response to the pandemic. Safety glasses were pushed to keep these newcomers alert to the inherent dangers of the activity.

Avalanches can quickly become deadly if a skier doesn't know how to react. Even if you do everything correctly and carry all of the proper safety and rescue equipment, sometimes avalanches are too powerful to recover from.

Is Backcountry Skiing Harder Than Groomed Cross-Country Skiing?

Groomed cross-country trails often already have parallel lines in them, making it easy to place your skis instead and begin moving forward. In the backcountry, you're making your way through unmarked territory and you have to forge your own path.

Cross-country skiing on trails can be a great cardio workout, as it requires you to stay moving and you'll notice that your heart rate rises as you go. There also may be hilly sections that require you to work your way up the elevation, which can be difficult at times.

The powder can be deep at times and you'll have to manage it with your skis. Oftentimes, backcountry skis are lighter weight than their downhill counterparts — which can make this part a bit easier.

However, instead of allowing gravity to do all the work for you and pull you down the mountainside, you have to propel yourself forward on your own accord with cross-country skiing. Even when you're tired, you have to keep moving forward if you don't want to camp out in that spot overnight.

skier forest

Backcountry skiers require a significant level of stamina and endurance to reach their destination, wherever that may be. There is certainly an extra level of exertion required than on the neatly groomed resort trails.

What Equipment Do You Need for Backcountry Skiing vs Cross-Country Skiing?

If you're an experienced cross-country skier but you've always used parallel groomed tracks, you may find that you need to pack a few extra things before you go out into the backcountry. Oftentimes, you'll want to invest in a new pair of backcountry-specific skis if you intend to do this frequently.

You can use your normal XC skis to get a feel for the backcountry, preferably on short trips. This will allow you to determine whether or not it's even something that interests you. Your regular cross-country skis may feel a bit heavy when you're pulling them through deep powder.

You'll want to pack a map or some other form of navigation before you head out into the country. Compared to groomed trails where it's a bit more difficult to become lost, it's quite easy to lose your way in the densely wooded forest areas with no markings in sight.

First aid supplies, nutritious snacks and hydration, and illumination (such as a headlamp) are also other important items to check off your list. These will ensure you can treat any minor injuries and will allow you to see in the dark if you get held up longer than you expected.

A shovel and a beacon are important avalanche safety tools. In addition to learning the signs of a potential avalanche and how to test for one, you'll want to be prepared just in case you find yourself in a sudden emergency situation and you need to send for help quickly.

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Depending on how far you intend to travel, you may also want to pack overnight gear. Some backcountry skiers also enjoy backcountry camping. You'll want to pack according to the distance you want to cover and account for any potential mishaps along the way.

Recap This Article

Backcountry skiing is a form of cross-country skiing. Groomed cross-country skiing differs greatly from the backcountry, however, and many people aren't clued into what all the differences are.

If you're used to skiing on neatly groomed tracks with parallel grooves, you'll want to prepare for the journey that is venturing into the backcountry. You'll have to forge ahead on a path of your own making and you won't have such easy access to emergency personnel or the safety precautions that resorts often take.