The evolution of cross-country skis: the original winter survival gear

When it comes to winter survival, we modern humans have it pretty easy. We can warm our homes with the touch of a button, and stay well-fed without tracking a herd of bison across the frozen tundra. Today our biggest threats in winter are boredom and a few extra few pounds, and historically, that’s pretty chill.

Our ancestors had to work a little harder to make it through the long, snowy months of winter. Their daily tasks were directly related to survival; and skis, like many great inventions, were born of necessity. Tracking game, escaping enemies, and finding shelter was a lot easier with skis on, and we’ve never looked back.

Now skis are rarely used for hunting or warfare, but they’re still important for our survival in a new way. Getting outside for fresh air and exercise is how we stay sane and healthy during our dark, magical snowy winters, and a ski trip is one of the best ways to experience winter in Maine. Whether for the afternoon or a long-weekend getaway, going cross-country skiing is one of the best ways we know to survive the winter with your health and happiness intact.

Let’s look at how skis (and their purpose) have evolved:

Evidence of skis dates back to over 6,000 years ago, to the Sami people of northern Scandinavia. They’re the ones who famously had over 400 words for snow, so they clearly had winter pretty well figured out. Not long after, the Daxing’anling from China were tackling their mountainous terrain with skis, and the Old Norse get credit for the name- ski is derived from the Norse word "skíð" which means stick of wood… a pretty accurate description.

The first skis were quite cumbersome; built for trekking across extreme and variable terrain, but they did the trick. Speed was an afterthought, and maneuverability would’ve been tough. In the 13th Century, the Danes took it to the next level. While they’re not known for their warfare prowess, they made history when they put their mountain troops on skis, and swished their way to victory. Their skis looked more like what we use now, and were built for speed, efficiency, and agility.

Today, cross-country skis have evolved into three basic types: classic skis, skate skis, and backcountry skis. While all three can be used here at Maine Huts & Trails, classic skis are the most common, and always a safe bet. Skate skis are awesome when the conditions are pristine, and backcountry skis are the best choice for big mountain adventures with steep terrain.

Classic skis are probably closest to what the Sami would’ve used. They lived in a landscape not much different than ours; rolling foothills leading to taller mountains, with a good mix of dense forests and wide open fields. Classic skis can handle it all. Today they’re lighter than ever, but still heavy enough to feel sturdy on an icy descent. Metal edges increase control, and scaled bottoms make climbing relatively easy. Most casual skiers opt for a waxless version- they’re not quite as fast, but they’re easy to maintain. If you only get one pair of skis, classics are a good bet to tackle the trails in any weather.

Skate skis are like the sassy little sister of classic skis. They’re quick, light, and just a little high maintenance. Those war mongering Danes might find them familiar… speed and agility are their number one goal. They’re not an everyday ski, since they demand pretty specific conditions- only experts would want them on an icy descent, and they’re a slog in deep snow. But when it’s good, it’s really, really good. On a groomed trail with soft, light snow, skate skis glide through the forest at high speeds with a Zen-like grace. It’s heavenly.

Backcountry skis are probably the closest relative to the Daxing’anling skis. If you have big, steep mountains on your itinerary, this is your best choice. They’re fairly heavy and wide, making them extra stable in hairy situations. They combine the travel capacity of classic skis, but their slight sidecut gives them the downhill turning prowess of an alpine ski. They’re made for big days, climbing for the morning and skiing down steep, powdery, untracked terrain in the afternoon. Backcountry skiing is a true adventure, and for some, a lifestyle all its own.

From the ancient Sami to the modern weekend warrior, skiers experience winter a little differently. For us, it’s not defined by shorter days and icy roads, but by powdery pillows of pristine sparkling snow and the satisfying ‘clack’ of clicking into our bindings. We’ve come a long way in our evolution as skiers. It’s now a decidedly light-hearted pursuit, but its transformative effects remain. Winter in the forests of Maine is pure magic, and getting out into the heart of it by ski is the experience of a lifetime.

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