The Altai Mountains of central Asia are a birthplace of skiing where for centuries herdsmen relied on horsehair-covered planks to traverse the rugged land. A new company, Altai Skis, takes inspiration from those ancient techniques with a unique backcountry ski advertised to blend the qualities of snowshoeing and Nordic-style skiing.
This winter, I’ve been testing Altai’s Hok model, a stubby wood ski with steel edges and a climbing skin integrated into the base. They cost about $200 and come with two binding options, three-pin or a universal binding that cinches onto any winter boot.
I skied in the company’s universal bindings, which fit snugly on my boots and were comfortable on the move. Striding in the company’s 125cm ski, I have put many hours on the Altais this winter in rolling woods and backcountry areas that I would normally hit with snowshoes.
The skis’ short profile allowed me to go over uneven surfaces, including tromping through the woods. I could make quick turns and adjustments to my line thanks to the metal edges. Best of all, I was able to glide over deep snow, something not possible in snowshoes.
While the indigenous people of the Altai Mountains use a single pole to control their skis and move about, I used my trekking poles, which worked just fine. If you want to go the traditional route, the company recommends a pole that is slightly taller than your height for single-pole propulsion.
In my tests, in a foot of snow, I had no problem staying on top of the pack. While I like to snowshoe, there is often a bit of an awkward gait. Not so with the Hok ski — their profile is thin enough that my stride was unaffected.
While the glide is slower than Nordic skiing, I went faster than I expected down moderate slopes. The synthetic skin on the base gripped better than my fish-scale Nordic skis going back up.
Overall, I had fun on the Altai skis. They are not speed demons. But they are faster than snowshoes in a lot of terrain, and the glide factor makes them faster, and more fun, going back down.
Related content: For a similar ski concept, see our post on the “part snowshoe, part ski” Marquette Backcountry Ski.
—Pam Wright is a contributing writer for GearJunkie and an editor at UpNorthica, a publication on canoe camping and the North Woods.