Nate Smith, store manager of Algonquin Outfitters in Huntsville, wrote up a piece on SkiShoes for my latest book A Complete Guide to Winter Camping, 2nd edition. Unfortunately, the editor said there wasn’t room for it. Nate is well-versed in this winter sport, so I’ve shared it with everyone in my blog instead.
If you've ever found your snowshoes slow or cumbersome, or if your cross-country skis just aren't working in deep snow or keep catching on brush in the woods, skishoes, or sliding snowshoes, are your solution.
Over the years I've come to use mine whenever I'm heading off-trail into the woods for a day trip after a snowfall, pulling a sled for winter camping across rolling terrain or crossing a powder filled moonlit field for fun after work. For me and many other winter backcountry travel enthusiasts, they're a near perfect combination of ski and snowshoe. Many first-time users who may balk at the idea of trying unstable traditional skis or clumsy, unwieldy snowshoes, surprise themselves at how intuitive and stable ski-shoes are. After the easy half-step and glide forward to get going, one afternoon in some fresh snow or on a winding trail through the woods is all it takes to become totally and completely hooked.
Of course, there are detracting factors, one being that while they offer flotation akin to snowshoes, they simply don't offer the same amount of surface area for flotation in deeper snow like a traditional properly sized snowshoe would. Another is that they won't give quite as much "glide per slide" as a lengthy backcountry touring or Nordic ski and of course are not meant to fit inside a groomed trackset Nordic trail. Like many hybridized pieces of gear, they're not perfect at any one task, but for a growing number of people, they're like a Swiss army knife for the snow traveler looking for a quicker, easier (read: fun) way to get around in snow-covered terrain.
SkiShoes, Sliding Snowshoes or SkinBased skis are all terms for short, wide skis with a grip section underneath the middle of the ski. This type of ski derives its roots from a long line of north Asian and northern European ski construction design and is at home wherever there is snow for bushwhacking, pulling gear, hunting, ice fishing or just touring around your local snow covered patch of woods or trail system.
These skis at their best offer flotation and traction underfoot like a snowshoe but with some control, forward glide like a ski and are especially effective in dense woodland areas where maneuverability as well as speed are of equal importance.
Skishoes or Skinbased skis range in length but are usually between 125 and 147 centimetres. Length is chosen based on not only skier weight but intended usage. A shorter ski will offer more control and maneuverability than its longer counterpart but has less glide and less flotation in deep snow for heavier skiers. Most are commonly available with an adjustable length "universal" free-heel binding with ratchet straps that will accommodate regular winter boots or winter hikers and function much like a cross country ski binding. Wearing a stiffer insulated hiking boot will give the skier the most control and response through the binding and over the ski, although a softer winter boot or MukLuk will work and can provide a bit more of a forgiving "snowshoe" feel for shorter excursions. A better-quality ski will use a mohair or mohair/synthetic section for the underfoot area which offers superior grip in a wide variety of snow conditions as well as enough traction in most snow depths to pull a loaded pulk. As most skis in this category aren't designed to turn parallel downhill like a telemark or touring ski, the skin section also functions as a sort of "brake" while descending, slowing the skier for more control on downhill sections.
The remaining portion of the base, or glide section, is usually made of porous, waxable p-tex like a ski, or a hardened, low-maintenance epoxy. Models such as the Altai Hok series and OAC KAR have metal edges for added control, which are especially effective in hardpacked and icy snow conditions, and for help steering on well-used and packed down trails.
One (or more commonly, two) poles are necessary for support as well as assistance in maintaining a sustained forward glide and can be used as a supporting tool for tricky ascents and descents. Sturdy, adjustable two or three-piece trekking poles with a powder basket are best, although slightly shorter Nordic poles work as well. Length of pole should be adjusted as per snow conditions and terrain and are usually somewhere between sternum and shoulder height.
While there are a handful of different designs, the two most prevalent high-quality manufacturers are Altai (based in NE Washington) and OAC (made in Tampere, Finland) both with distribution and retailers in Canada and the US. Both manufacturers most popular models for backcountry use offer steel edges, mohair grip sections and fully adjustable bindings. Many outfitters and outdoor retailers that rent Nordic skis and snowshoes will also rent skishoes or skinbased skis, giving the prospective buyer a chance to try before a purchase.
While I am still a big fan and enthusiast of snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, the next time the snow falls and I head out my front door and into the woods to enjoy it, it will be my skishoes I'm grabbing on my way out.