Nordic Ski Touring: Head 'off-track' this winter

Written by Lindsay Cannon 08 December 2020

Last modified on 20 June 2021
Freedom to explore 'off-track' Freedom to explore 'off-track'

If there was ever a winter when cross-country skiing was a perfect ‘fit’ then this is it! No lift queues, no cheek to jowl crush in the cable car, no teeming lunchtime bars and restaurants. Why would you do that when you can head into the wilderness instead, and enjoy perfect 'social distancing'?

We already offer a wide range of cross-country adventures, but now we’re also giving you the chance to get ‘off-track’. By this we mean cross-country skiing away from the prepared trails - a true mountain journey. 

For Tracks and Trails this is a new departure, but be assured this type of skiing is not new to us. For many years the staff at Tracks and Trails have ventured away from the trails and into the big ‘white’ unknown and we have now decided the time is right to offer you the experience also. We will be working with highly trained off-track ski guides and instructors who just love to get away from it all and for whom off-track is their passion.

How does off-track differ from ‘track’ skiing?

Very simply off-track means there are no prepared trails to follow. This means we have the joy and the challenge of making our own tracks across the winter landscape. With the correct skills and the right attitude it really does open up a whole new world of skiing. It certainly does mean you can experience more of a ‘wilderness’ adventure as there are normally no signposts, and the route from one accommodation to the next will often not have any markings either. Around Easter time in Norway they will often mark the popular routes with birch twigs, known as ‘wands’ which does make route finding easier.

 Glorious day 'off track' in the mountains of Norway 

What’s in a name?

This type of skiing is often referred to as Nordic ski touring as it usually takes place in the Nordic countries, especially Norway, the birthplace of skiing. It is, however, still cross-country skiing and the equipment is similar to the equipment you will have used for cross-country track skiing, in that the boot is attached to the ski only at the toe. This is very different to what is known as alpine or downhill skiing where the whole boot is attached. 

What equipment do I need?

The skis and boots for ‘off-track’ are similar to track skiing, but are more robust as they are required to tackle what are often tougher and more demanding snow conditions.

The skis will still be long and ‘skinny’, but nevertheless they will be wider than classic track skis, and they will usually have a metal-edge to increase efficiency when snowploughing. So, all in all a wider more stable ski. That's got to be good!

Fischer E99 'off-track' skis have a metal edge, and are wider and more stable than 'track' skis 

The boots will be more like a walking boot and should be warm and waterproof. They will attach to the ski only at the toe and because we are talking about ‘off-track’ the toe bar which clips your boot onto the ski will be thicker, wider, and stronger than track boots to better deal with an uneven snow surface which will put more force through the ski and the binding. 

An 'off-track' boot is more robust than a 'track' boot - comfortable, warm and waterproof

In general the equipment must be hired in your country of residence as it is quite difficult to be able to hire in Norway. At first we were confused by this but, of course, all Norwegians are born on skis and they all have their own, hence the lack of hire shops. It took us a while to work this out!

This system of hiring before leaving home has always worked well. It’s just a case of being prepared and organising it in advance. Of course, having your own boots does make life easier (and more comfortable) and removes one more variable when it comes to hiring kit.

Which skills do I need to go ‘off track’?

You do require an additional skill set to get the most out of off-track. You need to be able to use a kick turn or star/step turn to deal with deeper heavier snow, in other words if you find that due to conditions you cannot snowplough or parallel turn you need to find other techniques, such as a kick turn.

You should be able to traverse a slope to control your speed, and to react to changes in the feel of the snow under your skis. You will also have to adapt your position to take account of a slightly heavier rucksack as mostly we are skiing from mountain hut to mountain hut and you will need a few extra items for your overnight stays. The great thing about venturing off-track is that you will develop new skills and confidence that will cross over into your other ski disciplines.

Mental attitude is also very important as you might have wild weather to deal with, but as always your Tracks and Trails ski guide will help you learn and adjust to what may be a new experience.

From personal experience being faced with the challenge of getting from one cosy mountain hut to another is to be savoured. How often in todays society do we really have the chance to push ourselves out of our comfort zone and into the big wild world of winter mountains. A wonderful excuse to tell the ‘office’ you are incommunicado and to avoid the news, and social media!

Why Should I hire a guide?

We would strongly advise that you commence your off-track career with a guided trip. You need to be an experienced navigator and route finder to undertake off-track journeys from one mountain hut to another, and it is an undertaking that cannot be taken lightly. On a Tracks and Trails trip you can relax and enjoy the scenery while your ski guide does the route finding.

Above we referred to mental attitude and we would like to point out your ski guide will often have to focus on the route finding which means that we need you to be prepared to manage your own needs in terms of warmth, nutrition, hydration etc and to work as a team.

For many this is one of the best elements of Nordic ski touring - relying on each other and working together to reach a common goal, a journey in the winter landscape that is truly shared.

The film below gives a wonderful example of the terrain that 'Expert' off-track skiers might tackle. Our introductory trips are conducted in terrain which is gentler and less remote allowing skills to be honed before attempting journeys which are more committing.

Film by Geordie Stewart - the Army Training Regiment Winchester skied 200km in 7 days across Hardangervidda and Jotunheimen mountain range.

How do I begin?

To help you make the transition from being a ‘track’ skier to an ‘off-track’ skier we have created our ‘Introduction to Hut to Hut Touring’ week based at Geilo and Finse in Norway. You will spend several days learning and perfecting new skills, before embarking on your first hut to hut journey. 

For those already experienced in off-track we also have three fantastic week long touring trips in Norway in the world famous Hardangervidda, the stunning Jotunheim, and the Skarvheimen north of Finse.

Please note that due to temporary accommodation closures caused by Covid-19 restrictions this winter we are only offering the Hardangervidda Crossing, and our Jotunheim ski trips. However, dates for winter 2022 are already on line for all our off-track trips. For a full description of our trip grades for off-track please check out this page

Best time to go?

One of the reasons we hope that off-track might get a boost this winter is that most trips take place in late March, early April, when there are more daylight hours, AND when, fingers crossed, the impact of Covid-19 might be waning.

It is also an activity where the number of other skiers we come across is limited. And, of course, we are in the great outdoors and the pristine fresh air of the Norwegian mountains.

What is the accommodation like?

We love the accommodation on these Norwegian trips. We often spend the first and last night in an hotel, usually in a remote location in the snowy mountains. Sometimes we even have a cosy hotel in the middle of a trip such as the Jotunheim Pines to Peaks trip.

 

The DNT hut at Fondsbu - a welcome cosy haven in the winter wilderness

However, Nordic ski touring is synonymous with the world famous DNT hut system. This is essentially the Norwegian Trekking Association which manages a system of 550 mountain huts, either staffed or self-service, as well as 7,000 km of ski trails. At the staffed huts you can expect your meals to be prepared by the staff, and often they have more twin rooms, rather than small dormitories. Some such as Fondsbu and Haukeliseter even have hot tubs!

 At Haukeliseter DNT hut there is even a hot tub - what a view!

In self-service huts, as the name suggests, it’s a case of DIY (Do-It-Yourself). We all share the jobs such as gathering snow to melt it for tea and washing. Chopping firewood for the wood burning stoves that are in every hut, and generally tidying up and leaving the hut spick and span for the next visitors.  It really does feel like an adventure. We love it!

You will need to carry a sheet sleeping bag liner for hygiene reason, though blankets and pillows are provided, but otherwise it’s just a case of some extra clothes, a small wash kit, and a few essential items. We do, however, share out some group kit such as shelters, snow shovels, and ski waxes and you will be expected to participate. 

What are ski ‘skins”?

If you have previously only done track skiing you will be familiar with skis that are either fishscales, skintec or similar, or grip waxes. All do the same job - the textured zone under your feet grips the snow crystals allowing you to propel the ski forward. The only difference with off-track is that we use 'skins' which are not permanent and can be removed from the ski. For track skiing we would mostly use grip wax, or fishscales, but due to the nature of the off-track terrain we may need more ‘stick’ or traction for skiing up steeper ground to perhaps reach a summit. Those of you who have alpine ski toured will understand the concept as its basically the same for Nordic ski touring.

Dates for 2021 and 2022?

We only offer one set of dates for each of our off-track trips, however, if these do not work for you and you are a group of friends then we are always flexible with regard to adjusting to suit if possible. Do not hesitate to get in touch to discuss our off-track trips, you may find a whole new ski world has opened up to you? Don’t we all just love an excuse to indulge in some new kit? 

For more information about our off-track ski trips, speak to one of our expert team by calling +44 (0) 20 8144 64442 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. We also offer snowshoeing in winter, and in summer hiking and trail running.