Nordic vs Alpine Skiing: What’s The Difference?

by Simon Knott | Updated: October 27th, 2022 |  Skiing Articles

Some people have vague ideas about what Nordic and Alpine skiing entail, while plenty more haven’t got a clue. They both sound sort of European but where did they come from? How do they work and who takes part today?

Nordic skiing developed in Scandinavia and has been around for thousands of years. It has evolved into five different disciplines including classic cross-country skiing, free cross-country skiing, ski jumping, Nordic combined skiing, and Telemark skiing. On the other hand, Alpine skiing includes the downhill skiing we all enjoy recreationally, as well as the competitive downhill events of downhill, super G, giant slalom, slalom, and Alpine combined.

Ski Alpin

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Nordic Skiing

As the name suggests Nordic skiing originated in Scandinavia more than 5000 years ago, but throughout those days skiing was used solely as the quickest and easiest method of transport over the flat, frozen wastelands. Basic by today’s standards, the skis were made from solid wood, up to 4 m long and about 80 mm wide. The solid wood construction meant each ski weighed several kilos, so how they managed to catch any reindeer is still a mystery.

With no skins or grip, wax skiers usually took the skis off to climb up hills, helped along with one single pole instead of the usual two. Ski and boot technology changed little over the years until in 1915, a Norwegian, Thorleif Haug, saw the benefits of steel toe plates, screwed onto the top of the ski, making the existing toe straps redundant. Bindings improved in design but with cross-country skiing, only the toe is locked to the ski with the heel free to lift with each pace.

This created a more effective fit between boot and ski, allowing the adoption of shorter and narrower skis, which were considerably lighter and easier to control. Over the years a total of five separate disciplines of Nordic skiing have evolved, which are both viewed as recreational and competitive:

Cross-country Skiing (Traditional)

In the 1970s cross-country skiing started to grow in popularity. Partly as a rejection of the expense of conventional resorts but also as a desire to get away from the sheer numbers of skiers who were over-populating resorts. The attraction of peace and quiet among nature still exerts a powerful force.

At the same time, an offshoot of classic cross-country skiing started to emerge. It was called free cross-country skiing. Instead of keeping the skis parallel and driving forward with each pace, as in cross-country skiing, the skier uses the inside ski edge to push away on the snow surface and drive forward, in much the same way as a speed skater moves across the ice. In free cross-country skiing, the boots are attached to the boot bindings at both front and back, which enables the skier to apply force sideways to the ski and push forward. One of the earliest proponents of free cross-country skiing was Finnish, Pauli Sitonen, who was a top-class competitor in ski orienteering. He transferred the skills he had developed to transform classic cross-country skiing.

So now, cross-country skiing has two distinct disciplines, classic cross-country skiing, and free cross-country skiing. So much so, that today more than 5 million Americans and 3.5 million Canadians take part in some form of cross-country skiing every year. From the 1980s onwards, further innovations in material science revolutionized sports with a new range of waxing products, no-wax skis, skins, and lighter and stronger skis. Improved bindings make boots more comfortable to wear and more controllable too.

Competitive Cross-Country Skiing

Photo by Special Olympics 2017 licensed under CC0 1.0

Competitive cross-country skiing is now well established throughout the world. Athletes often compete over flat terrain against the clock. Both free cross-country skiing and classic cross-country skiing are individual disciplines, although some competitions involve both. Competitors can either be started individually against the clock, or the entire field can start at the same time.

Ski Jumping

Also an Olympic discipline, ski jumping combines the skills of skiing down and launching off a high man-made ramp, to make a controlled flight towards the landing area. The ski jumper slides along two permanent channels down the ramp, which is filled with ice to ensure good acceleration.

There are four stages to each ski jump. The in-run, where the ski jumper crouches to accelerate down the ramp. The launch or jump is where the competitor launches off the end of the ramp. It is vital the ski jumper jumps at exactly the right point to gain the best momentum. The flight is the third stage, where the competitor adopts a forward lean and aligns his skis into a V-configuration to maximize lift and distance. Lastly, the skier prepares for a controlled and accurate landing to achieve better scoring.

Nordic Combined Skiing

Nordic combined is an Olympic discipline, which consists of a timed 10 km cross-country ski race combined with an adapted ski jump competition. Competitors earn points for their combined performance in each discipline.

Telemark Skiing

Telemark Skiing is a downhill skiing style that always attracts a few comments for its apparently bizarre technique. It combines elements of Alpine and Nordic skiing and while not widely adopted always attracts a few enthusiastic devotees. The ski boot is only attached at the toe to enable the bent knee, which typifies the style. Telemark skiing is a more difficult skill to conquer, needing excellent balance and plenty of strength in the legs. There is no right or wrong with telemark skiing, it is simply another skiing technique that some like to conquer.

Alpine Skiing

Alpine skiing includes any recreational or competitive downhill skiing, where the toe and heel of the boot are permanently connected to the ski. Most recreational downhill skiing takes place in ski resorts around the world, where prepared runs or pistes make for an easier descent.

The ease of climbing the mountain via a chairlift or gondola makes downhill skiing easily achievable and consequently very popular, with more than 135 million skiers in the world today. The sport evolved in the late 19th century in the European Alps and was recognized in downhill racing in 1930 by The International Ski Federation (FIS). The first world Championships for downhill and slalom took place in 1931, while women’s events started in 1950.

Competitive Alpine Skiing


One of the fastest and most spectacular skiing events is the downhill. The competitor’s aim is simple, to get to the finish line as quickly as possible while negotiating a series of poles marked on either side of the course, which must be 8 m (26 feet) apart. A typical downhill course covers between 2.6-5 km and during that distance will drop about 1000 m.

Skiers use racing skis, which are set up for cornering and speed, and must contend with an icy run surface, which requires considerable courage. The competitors make one timed practice run, the speed of which determines the order of the second run. The winner is the fastest to the finish line without missing any poles. Skiers wear body-hugging ski outfits, adopt a tuck position, and use bent ski poles to minimize wind resistance and increase speed.

Super G

Super G or Super Giant Slalom combines the technical skill of slalom with the thrill of the speed of downhill. The gates are more spaced out for increased speed and the course is more winding than the standard downhill route. The number of changes in the direction taken by the competitors must be 6% of the total course descent in metres.


Often regarded as the most technical of the Alpine skiing events slalom involves a timed race to the finish, while employing superb cornering to negotiate slalom poles or gates, which are a minimum of 4 m apart. The skis need to be very short and agile, with a minimum length of 165 cm for men and 155 cm for women. The course tends to be short and fast, often only dropping a descent of about 200 m.

Giant Slalom

As a discipline, Giant Slalom sits in between slalom and super G. Giant slalom gates are always wider and set farther apart, and the course is longer than in the slalom. The aim is the same as the other Alpine disciplines, where the fastest time to the finish inside the slalom poles is the winner. In the giant slalom, the gates are spaced further apart down the run than in the slalom but closer together than in the super G.

Alpine Combined

The Alpine combined event pulls together a downhill run or a super G run followed by two slalom runs. The aim is to test competitors’ ability in both speed and technique. However, at the competition level skiers tend to specialize in either speed or slalom but less commonly both, so the number of Alpine combined events tends to be limited.

Photo by specialolympicsusa licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0