The 6 Most Common Types of Skiing

Man back country skiing on Parker Ridge, Banff National Park, Alberta Canada
Cultura RM/Mike Tritel/Collection Mix: Subjects/Getty Images

Skiing has been around for thousands of years, but it's only in the past 150 years or so that the sport has evolved into the many types of today. Cross-country skiing is the "oldest" style, harkening back to its roots as a means of transportation across the snowy regions of Scandinavia and Russia. Freestyle, on the other hand, is a much younger type of skiing. It became popular with the emergence of extreme sports in the 1990s.


Cross-country skiing is the oldest form of the sport, with competitions held in Norway as early as the 1860s. Also known as Nordic skiing, cross-country skiers traverse the relatively flat countryside, rather than downhill terrain. Most cross-country skis are long and thin, allowing the weight of the skier to be distributed quickly. Unlike in downhill skiing, poles are used in cross-country to propel a skier forward, and boots are attached to the ski with a binding, but the heel remains free. Biathlon is a competitive version of cross-country skiing that also involves target shooting at fixed intervals along the course.


Perhaps the most popular form of skiing, downhill or Alpine skiers ski down mountains and strive to ski well on challenging terrain. Downhill skis vary in length and shape depending on a skier's physical size, type of terrain, and snow conditions. Downhill skiers use ski poles primarily to facilitate turning, while boots are stiff and fixed at the toe and heel to the ski.


Backcountry skiing, called off-piste (meaning "off-course") skiing in Europe, is nothing more than Alpine skiing over ungroomed trails that aren't marked or patrolled. These areas promise plenty of fresh powder and solitude, but they're also very challenging. Backcountry skiers must know how to negotiate trees, rocks, steep slopes, and frequently encounter hazardous conditions.


Telemark skiing, sometimes called free-heeling, is similar to downhill skiing with one exception. Telemark ski boots do not attach the heel to the ski. The skis themselves are more flexible than traditional downhill skis. People who prefer this type of skiing say they love the additional freedom of movement that it offers and the range of motion it allows.


This type of skiing owes much of its inspiration to snowboarders and their athletic feats on the halfpipe and in the terrain park. Freestyle skiers practice many of the same tricks and jumps, while others prefer to negotiate the challenge of mogul runs. Some freestyle skiers use twin-tip skis, which allow for more freedom of movement than traditional downhill skis. Others use snow blades, which are extremely small skis.


Adaptive skiing allows disabled persons to experience the joys of skiing with modified equipment or assistance from guides. Mono-skis, tri skis, and outriggers allow people who can't walk to ski independently, and many resorts have specially trained staff who can accompany blind skiers as they negotiate the slopes.