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If cross-country skiing makes you think of kicking lazy laps across your local golf course, it’s time to change your image of the sport. With thicker skis and beefier bindings, today’s backcountry nordic gear is capable of handling steeper trails and rougher snow than its inbounds counterparts. Start with this tester-approved kit.
Skis: Fischer S-Bound 112 with Easy Skin
When it comes to taking your Nordic rig into the backcountry, bigger is better. These relatively fat skis have huge, 112mm shovels for better stability, maneuverability, and float when you dip off of the groomed stuff. “On lower-angle downhills, I could carve with these,” one tester says. Steel edges help on descents, while the scaled bottoms stuck like glue on an uphill charge at Montana’s Chief Joseph Pass. Add the mohair-nylon Easy Skin climbing skins ($75), which cover the kick zone, for added traction. $425; 5 lbs. 15 oz. (179); 169, 179, 189
Boots: Alpina Alaska BC
These burly boots are what we want for rough, steep terrain and deep snow. Full leather uppers lend excellent durability, a waterproof membrane keeps feet dry, and the medium flex is stiff enough to handle fatter skis like the Fischers, but soft enough for comfort on all-day missions. A layer of Thinsulate insulation kept a tester’s toes cozy down to -20°F on a tour in Montana’s Yaak Valley, and he reports that he never had a problem with swamp foot in warmer temps. $250; 4 lbs. (size 9); unisex 6-14
Bindings: Rottefella NNN-BC Magnum
Our testers say there’s only one choice in this category: The super-stable, 67mm-wide Magnums deliver the best control on ungroomed terrain, thanks to increased contact area between boot and ski. But they’re still versatile, since they fit on skis down to 52mm wide (meant for groomed tracks). And manual bindings like these—you have to bend over to lock and unlock your toes—outperform automatics in deeper snow. “They’re less likely to have problems with icing and are easier to clean out if snow gets packed in,” notes a tester. $90; 1 lb. 3 oz. (pair)
Poles: Black Diamond Razor Carbon Ski Poles
Made for backcountry alpine skiing but perfect for off-piste cross-country, too, the Razors combine tough aluminum on top with ultralight carbon fiber on the bottom for a just-right combination of durability and weight. These two-section poles’ 10 inches of adjustability let us shorten up for climbs and then extend for level kick-and-gliding. “Plus, the rubber grips and wide straps are much more comfy than those on typical cross-country poles, especially with bare hands in warmer weather,” one tester reports. $120; 1 lb. 4 oz. (39-49 in.); 39-49 in., 45-55 in.
Pant: SportHill XC Pants
These slim, polypropylene/spandex bottoms roll four-way stretch, breathability, warmth, and weather protection into one lightweight package. They’re windproof up to about 35 mph and sufficiently water resistant to shed snow for several hours. A brushed, wicking interior also kept us warm down to 0°F without a baselayer. Twelve-inch ankle zips make for easy boot adjustments. $140; 15 oz. (m’s M); m’s S-XXL, w’s XS-XL