Oversnow travel tools overview and update

This is a brief revisitation and update of an article I wrote for BackpackingLight three years ago. We’re having a proper winter here in NW Montana, and having Little Bear has significantly changed when and how we go outside, so discussing recent changes in the tools for oversnow travel seems relevant.

It’s worth emphasizing that the three categories I use, fatbikes, snowshoes, and skis, have remarkably little overlap.  Each is best suited to a range of conditions which, with few exceptions (fatbikes and skate skis, for instance) is distinct.  It’s also worth emphasizing that oversnow travel is tough.  Fatbiking and snowshoeing are strenuous versions of their summer analogues, and skiing in all forms requires at least a little strength and quite a lot of technique.  Pick the appropriate tool, not just for your terrain, but for the kind of learning curve in which you’ll realistically invest.

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Fatbikes have exploded in popularity since 2012, though the vast majority of this has been a widening, rather than depending, of the market insofar as actual backcountry travel is concerned.  Gear options have become more and better, with narrow-wide single chainrings and cassettes which go above 40 teeth simplifying bikes while still providing very low gears.  Tire diversity has also improved enormously.  However, the utility of fatbikes has always been restricted, however low the gearing, to packed trails (and thus to human-influenced, rather non-wilderness settings, with a few notable exceptions), until very recently.  These truly fat fat tires might be the biggest development in wild oversnow travel in decades.

I really like riding my fatbike, but snowmachine and groomed nordic trails aren’t my favored terrain, which is why my bike gets more use in summer than winter, and why for over three years it’s experienced almost no alterations in its build.  Narrower rims work well on gravel, sand, and rocks, but wider tires made square by wide rims is without question the way to go for snow.  If the genre continues to mature, and 5+ inch tires do allow for riding truly off the groomed in a range of snowy circumstances, I’ll get reinterested in winter biking in a hurry.  Until then fatbiking will continue to grow in popularity for at least another five years, as it is much easier to learn than nordic skiing, often faster, and better suited to the spotty winter snow coverage which a large percentage of the human populace must needs start to see as normal.

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Snowshoes have changed hardly at all in the last few years, not a surprising thing for such a staid and I assume low-money category.  I summarized my own views just the other day, and while I’d like to see a binding similar to that older MSR widely available, and in a lighter snowshoe, there is clearly not much demand for such a binding, and I don’t use snowshoes enough to pay a premium price for premium weight/performance ratios.  For the moment, Northern Lites provides excellent light snowshoes, MSR makes the best high traction snowshoes, and Tubbs makes affordable snowshoes, as well as options in the often neglected but handy 36 inch length.  Snowshoes will continue to have a place in tight and steep terrain, and for mixed snow and dirt trips, but their justifiable popularity with novices will remains their main reason for existing, which will sadly keep innovation at a minimum.  I don’t expect much interest in this area anytime soon.

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A lot of interesting stuff has happened with backcountry skis in the last three years.  Most of this has been driven by growth in the alpine touring market, developments which in my book only indirectly serve the genuine backcountry market.  Thankfully skimo boots and bindings have been an exception.

Luc recently composed a summary with which I agree and need not bother repeating in detail.  In summary skinny, metal-edged skis are good.  Waxable is best if you don’t have too much wet snow to manage.  SNS/BC/etc systems are crap.  3 pin bindings aren’t bad, but the boots keep getting worse.  Serious, non-field repairable rips are not uncommon amongst folks who put serious torque and flex into these systems, and aside from the all-but extinct full leather pin boots no alternatives seem to exist.

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This leaves the tech toe and skimo boot system, which I’m currently revisiting.  I don’t like the compromised kick a rigid sole provides, and I really don’t like the gymnastics required to get a plastic shell to not create hotspots, but the low weight, warmth, and control add up to a package which is hard to compete against.  The 169cm Fischer Outbound Wax and Plum 145 combo pictured here is a little more than 2.5 pounds a ski.  It has enough camber to give a bit of rebound to a diagonal stride, and is stiff enough for decent edging.  How this rig will play out on multiday trips is yet to be seen, but with 3/4 length 50mm mohair skins it is a kickass chariot hauler.

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4 Responses to Oversnow travel tools overview and update

  1. I acquired a pair of Altai Hok (125’s) this past fall and have been racking up pretty decent miles with them. I’ve never had any luck mastering x-country skis (especially down hill!) and have never down hilled skied in my life, so the vast majority of all of my winter travel has been on snowshoes. With snowshoes I could get to anywhere I wanted- with a catch, it was going to be slow (save running in running snowshoes and even then, the snow has to be good to get any speed). The Hok’s let me cover more ground than when I was snowshoeing, there are areas that I’ve snowshoed that would be treacherous with the Hok’s (looking into a rope traction setup to get me in more difficult terrain). To get the most out of the Hoks you still need skiing “skills”, I’m slowly getting a little better, but it’s going to be a long while before I’m any where near an accomplished skier. I have found these to be a nice transition to skis from snowshoes.

    Mike

  2. Korpi-Jaakko says:

    Very straight-forward and honest summary.

    I liked Luc’s guide too but would’ve wished to comment there, which was unfortunately impossible. My say would be that there seems to be place for the NNN BC system (and why not SNS BC as well).

    This is my 8th winter using the system and I’ve done lately around 1000-1500km per season off-track with them inclusing some reasonably long tours too (up to 600km). And almost all of this in groups (2-12 people) using the same systems and I’ve only seen one minor binding failure (my own binding: the screws closest to the toe-bar had snapped for unknown reason and accumalted ice snapped the plastic turning an auto binding into a manual one needing some extra screws) and some non-critically worn/broken boots. There are also lots of long polar expeditions done with NNN BC systems. But I’d say the success is due to certain type of environment and surface: usually quite flat with hard snow. For mountaneous routes including lots of down-hill and/or heavy slushy snow I would take something else instead…

    Which leads to my frankenstein ski boot idea… Could you take a nice hiking or NNN BC skiing boot, grind part of the sole, attach a tech toe piece and use the front piece of a tech binding with softer, lighter and more comfortable boot? I have no idea and the experiment is kinda expensive but I’d like to try…

    • DaveC says:

      Alpinists have asked for a leather mountain boot with tech fittings for approaches for a number of years now, and the response I’ve always heard is that the metal fittings require a pretty rigid mounting point which isn’t really compatible with even a minorly flexible sole. Ergo Arcteryx’s new boot, which tries to give ankle mobility for frontpointing while keeping the rigid plastic sole.

      • Korpi-Jaakko says:

        If something sounds like a great idea but no one has done it yet, it’s usually too good to be true. Pity to hear that but maybe better to go with the lates skimo gear or wait until they get even better (more mobile and more comfortable).

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