At a basic level, skiing is purely about gliding from one place to another across the snow. What was once a way of traversing across snow-covered landscapes is now mainly a leisure activity.

How you get across, what boots you use, and how free your movement is are all different. This is largely down to the terrain, which determines the equipment you wear and the techniques you use to move.

Both involve enjoying the outdoors in the winter season and both are great forms of exercise.

Nordic Skiing

Nordic skiing vs alpine skiing

Almost all skiing has its historical background in Nordic skiing. In fact, the word ski comes from ancient Norse and means a split piece of wood.

The Nordic region, also known as Norden, developed skiing as a way to get from A to B across snow-covered landscapes during the winter. The skis they used have significantly improved since then though the technique largely hasn’t changed.

This is partly why Nordic skiing is called “back-country skiing” in the United States but is generally known as “cross-country skiing”.

This is a more sedate version of skiing than the faster, more glamorous Alpine skiing. There are also fewer hills and a gentler pace to enjoy the landscapes. With more flat terrain comes a more meditative experience, and there are specific techniques to move across the snow.

As Nordic skiing involves less demanding terrain, it does not require tracks or dedicated ski resorts up in the mountains. Instead, this variation of skiing needs a trail with a few low slopes.

That is not to say Nordic skiing is easy. The terrain can be demanding. More cardiovascular exercise is included and significantly impacts your large muscle groups.

Cross-country skiing involves generating your own power and using more of your own stamina to get across. If you’re like me and tend to pack on a few pounds during the winter, Nordic skiing is a great way to work off some calories.

The Style

Nordic skiing justifies a free heel, offering the skier more freedom to push their heels. The terrain also differs, Nordic skiing occurs on more rolling landscapes than downhill runs.

A gentler topography that comes from its Nordic background of moving skiers across long distances of deep snow. The ski boots are of a soft and flexible build, increasingly lightweight yet snug. The skis are narrower and longer to glide and cut through on top of the snow.

One significant difference is that you may have to go uphill while Nordic skiing. That’s where the poles come in to grab at the snow and propel a skier forward.

The impact is lower, and you need to turn and move forward with the body rather than a downhill terrain dictating the pace.

There are two types of Nordic Skiing:

  • Classic Nordic Skiing: In a forest or wide-open space, classic skiing uses the diagonal stride of keeping your skis parallel while gliding. It is also helpful to have already prepared parallel tracks.
  • Skate Nordic Skiing: With shorter skis, this skiing style is closer to ice skating, where you kick the skis to the side to move forward. This also requires a smoother, more prepared trail.

Instead of using gravity, there is an increasingly rhythmic push from the arms and legs. You may also have the odd uphill slope to deal with, and you could cross several types of mountain terrain instead of simply swooshing down it.

Alpine Skiing

Double Black Diamond Skiing

If there is one determining factor for Alpine skiing it is the hill. Whether in a sled or wearing a pair of skis, it is simply more fun going down a slope that is covered in snow.

Alpine skiing is downhill skiing which we all know is an exhilarating activity to be enjoyed with family and friends. Snow-covered slopes are great to see from the bottom, and the view improves when lifted to the top.

At a higher altitude, the air is fresher, which also characterizes this type of skiing. A certain glamor is attached to Alpine skiing that comes with the ski resorts where it is practiced.

Where Nordic skiing involves getting across the snow under your own power and pace, Alpine skiing relies on gravity and a skier’s control of their skis to cover a distance. With that inclined speed, as a result, Alpine skis are designed for swifter movement.

The ski boots are more complex, rigid designs and securely attached to the skis.   It’s important with these rigid boots to ensure the right fit.

The Style

Alpine skiing is typified by fixed-heel skis, and the style involves poles and specialized boots. The movement differs, too, with Alpine skiing featuring powerful, fast turns.

The mobility comes from the different construction of the skis themselves. Metal edges mean that turning in the snow is from a cutting and carving technique. Using a fixed heel is a key difference in the ski boots used in Alpine skiing.

Without being able to move the heel means that the ski boots are increasingly controlled from the edges. The ski boot is attached to the skis with bindings for stability and maneuverability.

Specific equipment also helps aid a skier’s movement and applies to their safety in Alpine skiing. Downhill skiing at speed requires a helmet. Even an impact with snowpack at high velocity necessitates the need for head protection.

In downhill ski competitions, the helmet can help performance through aerodynamics. The skis themselves are wider to help gain traction on deeper snow and shorter for a more manageable balance.

For added control, the boots are less flexible with stiffness, making them easier to manage on downhill slopes.

The sort of high-powered, swift turns that Alpine skiing is famous for requires a significant amount of high-intensity energy. Going downhill means covering much of the slope in a short time.

Much like sprinting, Alpine skiing is a demandingly short and intensive sport involving small movements. With your heels fixed, a lot of technical skill is involved, as well as core and muscle strength.

Your hamstrings, quadriceps, and upper body are all challenged. Not to mention your balance, agility, and coordination, which are all put to the test. Alpine skiing can also be great exercise and a way to burn calories.

Final Thoughts

The main difference between Nordic and Alpine skiing is the terrain. For those who enjoy day hiking, Nordic skiing has some similarities. It is performed over several different terrains and inclines and requires more stamina to continually generate the power to move across snow.

For speed junkies, the steep slopes involved in Alpine skiing are the main attraction. You’re generally headed in one general direction: down! You’ll require a lot from your muscles with short bursts of muscle strength and control.

Regardless of which type of skiing you prefer, being outdoors among the pristine white snow and the clear blue sky is what makes either form of skiing something to enjoy.

To learn more about these two types of skiing, we recommend watching this video:

Scott Meldrum

Scott founded FunOutdoors to connect his professional life with his passions. When Scott isn’t working, you’ll find him on the bike trail, riding a wave, or skiing down a mountain.

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