That is, I’d rather run 50k than ski it. The simplicity of lacing up and heading out has always been my bias. The rub? I like to play in my sandbox all year long. So I’ve got a small army of skis ranging from AT to Nordic to touring that help me cope until spring. But I still loathe the weight, the amount of gear, and particularly, the time-sucking ritual of strapping and stowing skins.
But I recently had a chance to try out a new pair of boards—Hoks, from Altai skis—that may have me changing my mind. Billed as a combination of snowshoes and cross-country skis, “skishoes” are short (125 cm or 145 cm for the clydesdale or deep powder), wide, and noticeably light (under five pounds for a pair with bindings). The sides have a slight parabolic-cut with a metal edge for durability, but it’s the integrated skin that catches your eye. The theory is you get enough traction to climb, but enough glide to cover ground efficiently. In short, it’s my kind of niche gear.
The skis come with threaded inserts for two binding options: 75mm that fits a 3-pin boot, or a universal binding that can accommodate any boot that has a flexible sole. You can purchase an adapter plate that fits other 3rd party backcountry bindings. Which you choose depends on the boots you have and the terrain your covering; the more serious the terrain the more happy you will be in a boot that can appropriately respond.
Before I took my pair out, I watched videos of people effortlessly genuflecting through backcountry woods. I also watched skiers sitting way back in the saddle, dragging a big pole behind them. Nils Larsen, the co-owner of Altai skis, has spent years researching the birth of skiing. He’s narrowed in on northern Asia—the Altai Mountains, where the Tuwa people have been skiing for thousands of years. Skiers use a long pole (called a Tiak) like a third leg: for balance on the up and as a tripod’s third leg on the down.
My interest was piqued (but I reached for my Lekis instead); I packed my Hoks and headed to the Cascades to give them a try. I had a day to play in the spring mountain snow, so I chose familiar territory. The 30-mile Loowit trail that orbits Mount St. Helens.
Because of my all-day requirements, I mounted the 75mm bindings and reached for my lightweight plastic touring boots. To save time, I packed my skis and boots and ran the solid surface up to the 4800′ mark—passing several backcountry skiers along the way. At timberline, I swapped my trail runners for the boots and snapped into the skis. The skins did indeed slow me down, but the metal-edged, wide base gave me enough speed to zip through the trees with a smile on my face.
On climbs, their shorter length maneuvered easily around tree wells and securely across exposed slopes. When traversing, instead of lifting each step, I simply slid my foot forward. And when I had to dismount to cross the snowless ‘blast zone’, I was able to do so quickly and the skis carried securely without catching a lot of wind.
While the skis had enough float for soft snow, they also had a lot of flex. This was limiting a day prior on Rainier, where skiing through deep powder blanketing sun cupped snow with a 30-pound pack was painfully unpredictable. We ultimately fought with the skishoes more than we hoped. Perhaps the longer, 145 cm would have made the difference.
Finally, they are reasonably priced. At about $200 for the pair and another $50-100 for bindings (depending on if you select 3-pin or universal), they are significantly less than a good AT set up but on par with a quality pair of snowshoes.
Likely geared towards the snowshoer who wants a controlled glide (over the devoutly committed backcountry skier), I’d also reach for them on fast and light trips that start and end low, but bridge spring snow left in the mountains. I’ll certainly be looking for opportunities to broaden my playground.