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.
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.
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.
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.
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.