Cross-Country Skiing and Ski Touring: Whats the Difference?

travel guide
The View from the top.
Guenter Kast
The View from the top.

Cross-country or ski touring?

What is the difference between cross-country skiing and ski touring? To help clear things up, we are laying it all out, so you know what and how for each; the “where” is already settled: it’s Iceland!

Hótel Sigló at Siglufjörður
Hótel Sigló
Hótel Sigló, where you will stay on the "peaks of Siglufjordur" tour

Ski touring (AKA Alpine Ski touring) 

Hike up, ski down. When hiking, skins are attached to the bottom of the ski to provide traction on the walk-up. Skis detach at the heel to facilitate movement in the French "Randonnée" style and when you reach the top, you lock down the heels, remove the skins and ski down.

Ski touring uses wider, shorter skis and there is no or very little mechanical assistance such as ski lifts and other infrastructure as in more conventional alpine skiing. In ski touring, you will never see a snow machine and you are very likely to get the first run on virgin powder. Here, the mantra is "earn your turns" since you put in the hike to get yourself up there. A lot of skiers prefer ski touring to conventional alpine skiing with lifts because it affords access to remote locations, incredible views, and most importantly, almost nobody else.

In Iceland, you can see from peak to fjord and spend several days touring the north taking in some of the finest ski touring this side of anywhere. Focus on fjords of the north or for a really special experience, get taken around at Landmannalaugar over 5 days.

Skier, fjord and sea
Jan Zelina
Skier, fjord and sea

Cross-Country Skiing

Cross country skiing - "Langlaufen" in German or "Long Walking" - is an entirely different ball game. Cross-country skiing requires almost no infrastructure, save for the huts where the travelers/skiers will sleep as they pass along their journey on most flat land. Skis are longer and more narrow, and the purpose of cross-country skiing is to cover large amounts of flat territory with relative ease. It's an ancient practice that has roots going back thousands of years to ancient China.

The "Kick and glide" is the primary technique, means of movement, and control of speed.  The heel disengages facilitating the kick. Here, you use one ski to kick-off and the other ski to "glide" with more efficient movement.

If you have never cross-country skied, it's very easy to learn and we can take you out for a half-day practice before the start of your tour in order to get the technique down.

The Sprengisandur Traverse
Róbert Þór
The Sprengisandur Traverse

Epic Cross-Country Adventures!

The first pre-condition for cross-country skiing is usually level or only slightly inclined terrain, and Iceland has plenty of that in the right places for some truly unforgettable journeys. For example, at 13,920km², Vatnajokull is the largest ice cap in Europe, and you can get across it by cross-country ski!

Sprengisandur: it's Icelandic for "Explosion of sand", although the winter variant is more like "snow explosion". This is an ancient route through the highlands that opens in the summer for 4x4 car traffic, and in late winter/early spring, cross-country skis become better than wheels. Equal amounts of cross-country adventure await in the highland geothermal Landmannalaugar, an oasis of craters, lava fields, snow-filled gorges, and canyons where thick steam curls burst out of Earth’s crust.

Live to Ski

Now that we have laid out the essential differences between these two different but related winter activities, it's in your hands. Go out there and grab some huge snow this winter. We'll take you there!

Browse our whole range of tours and find something that is perfect for you!

About the Author

Joseph Mattos-Hall

Joseph Mattos-Hall

Hailing from London and born into a British/Brazilian/Italian household, Joseph came to Iceland originally to complete a master’s degree in Environment and Natural Resources from the University of Iceland: the rest is history.

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