When you hear the word “skiing,” a ski resort with groomed runs and chairlifts is probably the first thing that comes to mind. That’s an extremely popular style of skiing, but there are many more types of skiing to explore.
In fact, I’d break skiing down into 6 different categories:
- Downhill skiing
- Backcountry skiing
- Cross-country skiing
- Freestyle skiing
- Ski mountaineering
- Adaptive skiing
Each of these types has a wide range of sub-categories and styles for different types of skiers to try. I’ll explain what each of the types of skiing are all about so you can decide which is best for you.
Downhill skiing, also known as alpine skiing, is the most popular type of skiing. As the name suggests, it’s all about skiing from the top of a mountain to the bottom.
Most downhill skiing is done at ski resorts on groomed slopes. You get to the top of the hill using a chairlift or gondola, then make your way down on marked runs. At some resorts, you can also ski off-piste—that is, on terrain that isn’t groomed or marked as an official run.
Downhill skiing also encompasses several styles of ski racing. Downhill, super-G, giant slalom, alpine combined, and mogul skiing are all different types of downhill ski racing that take place at high speeds.
It’s also worth noting that a chairlift isn’t the only way to get to the top of a mountain to go downhill skiing. You can get to untouched snow by booting your way up a slope or taking a snowcat, snowmobile, or even a helicopter. Heli-skiing is a popular way for very experienced skiers to access large, remote mountains for downhill skiing.
Backcountry skiing, or ski touring, forces you to earn your turns. Instead of taking a lift to the top of a slope and then skiing down, you have to get up the slope under your own power.
For most backcountry skiers, that means using a pair of backcountry skis with Alpine Touring (AT) bindings. These bindings swivel or unlock so that your heel is free when you’re travelling uphill, then lock your heel into place when you’re ready to ski downhill.
To go uphill, you’ll also need a set of climbing skins that stick to the bottom of your skis. These act like one-way carpets, letting you glide forward easily but gripping the snow in the other direction so you don’t slide downhill.
Backcountry skiing is the fastest-growing category of skiing. Backcountry ski sales shot up 81% in 2020 alone and the number of people trying out backcountry skiing for the first time has only continued to climb.
I’m a huge proponent of trying out backcountry skiing, especially if you’re an intermediate to advanced skier who’s looking for a challenge beyond the resort. However, bear in mind that the backcountry brings a very unique set of challenges and risks. For starters, you need to know how to travel safely in avalanche terrain. Make sure you invest in education, not just backcountry skis, before you head into the backcountry.
Cross-country skiing, also known as XC skiing or Nordic skiing, is a popular way to explore flat or rolling snow-covered landscapes. You won’t want to take on anything more than a gentle uphill or downhill when cross-country skiing.
Cross-country skis are much skinnier than downhill skis and only your toe is locked into the binding. The skis can have ridges on the bottom to provide grip or they may rely solely on specialized ski wax to provide grip.
There are two styles of cross-country skiing:
- Traditional (classic) skiing involves moving in a walking-like motion with your skis parallel to one another. It’s a good workout if you move fast, but it can also be pleasantly relaxing if you want to move at a more leisurely pace. You can take traditional XC skis on a groomed Nordic trail or on ungroomed paths in the woods.
- Skate skiing involves angling your skis to form a V and then pushing off with one ski, then the other to propel yourself forward. It’s a high-energy workout for those who haven’t skate skied before and there’s a surprising amount of technique involved. Skate skiing only works well on groomed cross-country trails.
Freestyle skiing is technically a type of downhill skiing, but it’s sufficiently different that most people—myself included—put it in a category all its own. Instead of simply making their way downhill, freestyle skiers, or “freeskiers,” jump, flip, and somersault their way down the mountain. For many freeskiers, the goal is to link together as many acrobatic stunts as possible.
Most people who try freestyle skiing go to a ski resort’s terrain park. It’s a good place to practice freestyle movements because you can take the chairlift up and explore premade jumps, rails, and halfpipes of various sizes.
However, professional freeskiers often perform their tricks on giant mountain faces. They might jump off a 30-foot cliff and execute a triple backflip before landing. Even if freesking doesn’t sound like something you want to do yourself, it’s definitely worth looking up some videos of the pros in action.
Ski mountaineering is closely related to backcountry skiing. Both disciplines of skiing use backcountry skis with AT bindings. They also both require avalanche safety training and a good amount of skiing skill.
However, the objective of ski mountaineering isn’t just to go skiing and have a fun day, but rather to summit a mountain and then ski back down it. Ski mountaineers will often make it part of the way up a mountain with their skis on, then strap them to their backpacks and boot or even rock climb the rest of the way up. On the way back down, ski mountaineers often encounter ice, crud, and other types of snow that aren’t very good for skiing.
Altogether, ski mountaineering is a much more Type II style of fun than ski touring. However, it’s also a really unique form of skiing that can be pretty addictive once you get into it.
Adaptive skiing is any type of skiing that’s been adapted for people with disabilities. There are many different types of adaptive skiing, but some popular examples include monoskis and sit-skis.
Almost every major ski resort now has its own adaptive skiing program, which is great for improving access to skiing. There are even some adaptive skiers on Nordic trails and in the backcountry.
For the majority of beginner skiers, it makes the most sense to get started with downhill skiing at a resort and get the fundamentals down pat. Once you’re looking for a challenge beyond the resort, you can try out disciplines like backcountry skiing, freestyle skiing, or even ski mountaineering. Cross-country skiing offers a way to explore gentle and rolling terrain, while adaptive skiing enables anyone with a disability to enjoy the sport of skiing.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.