Skis for Creating Winter Survival Options: The Norwegian Edge, by 60 Degrees N., in Norway

Norwegians know winter. It’s ingrained in their culture. In 2002 this country of under 5 million ranked first in Olympic gold medals and third overall. Imagine Colorado, and only people born in Colorado, doing this and you begin to realize what an accomplishment this is.

Ask a Norwegian to name the top items needed for a winter emergency and they will likely not mention skis (cross country skis). The reason for this omission is obvious, at least to a Norwegian. With skis, a situation would be far less likely to be considered an emergency. 

On moving to Norway 10 years ago I learned that, contrary to my impressions, cross country skis are as much for climbing up mountains as anything else. Skiing in Norway is more akin to hiking, where skis provide access to high and wild places where trolls live. Norwegians use skis for sport, recreation and transportation – and it’s this third category which provides lessons that may save you and your family when SHTF. If you live in an area of extreme winter weather (Redoubt?), or if the route to your bug out location can be blocked to vehicles by snow – or physically closed by authorities for reason of snow – then I suggest an open mind to skis.

I suspect that the average prepper would be skeptical toward this nerdy or trendy ‘sport’ – your view depending on what you’ve seen. Honestly, I was too (nerdy). Though consider that skiing was invented a thousand years ago and skis have been leveraged militarily from day one. In WW2 citizen Norwegians on skis prevented the Germans from developing the atomic bomb (see the 1965 Kirk Douglas film “The Heroes of Telemark’’ for the Hollywood version; research the full story and learn what ordinary men can endure and accomplish when all others fail). The Olympic sport of biathlon, or ski shooting, developed from the military requirements of traveling long distances on snow, at speed, then slowing heart and breathing enough to accurately shoot at distance. There seemed a natural link between skiing and prepping, but it took time for me to see and embrace this.

Transportation to remote areas
My first time on cross country skis was a 30 min trek, uphill, at midnight with a 40 pound pack and a headlamp. Norwegians have a culture of the ‘hytta’ or cabin, traditionally a small log cabin with no electricity or running water. Most are inaccessible by vehicle in the winter, reached only by ski or snowcat. I was lucky, my friend’s hytta was in a ‘developed/recreational’ area, many are much further off the grid. Full families make these trips, kids and grandparents included, carrying all supplies needed for their stay. If your bug out location is in a vehicle-inaccessible location in winter, even by a few hundred yards, consider skis as an effective option. In fact, skis might make it possible to place you retreat somewhere you might previously have considered inaccessible, and allow for additional options for collecting water, wood fuel and food via hunting, fishing and trapping. My ‘grandparents’ comment raises another point: I routinely see 70 and even 80 year olds on skis. I plan to be one, come what may. Don’t stop reading just because you’re not a 25 year old ex-special forces type.

I find skis superior to snowshoes, except when the terrain is very steep with deeply drifted snow. Skis are more energy economical and versatile than snowshoes, and ultimately do the job of snowshoes, if poorly, when needed. A pair of skis weighs only about 4 pounds. You can strap them to the outside of a pack when walking or bungee them to a vehicle roof rack using no special devices – though length makes them admittedly cumbersome despite their great value. One solution is to have old ‘beater’ skis at your ski-out destination stored in a locker-type box for the sole reason of crossing the distance to your retreat.  

Long distance travel
Skis offer an incredibly efficient means of traveling long distances over snow and ice. Depending on conditions, a novice skier in average shape might cover 15 miles in 3 hours, potentially with gear (see pulk below), and still feel reasonably good at journey’s end. In the annual ‘Birkebeiner’ or ‘birch legs’ race, above-average amateurs cover 34 miles of up/down terrain in 3-4 hours (the winners in less than 2). When SHTF and plows don’t clear the road to your bug out location, skis provide a means to travel long miles of roads, trails, railroad track, frozen lake or open ground for all members of your family (including infants and toddlers). And in a normal winter stranding, while I’d be reticent to leave my vehicle on foot, the ski’s I often have in my vehicle would provide other options. Many Norwegians leave skis in a locked ski box on the roof of their vehicles all winter.

The benefits of skis aren’t limited to remote areas. If you live in New England you’ve probably seen someone ski down the street after a big storm. Skis can provide mobility in temporary winter situations in urban areas, and could be the best way to move about if vehicles became inoperable for lack of gas in a long term power outage (Google the ‘Ice Storm of 1998’) or as the result of an EMP. The Birkebeiner race, by the way, is held to commemorate a feat in 1206 when two soldiers smuggled the infant King Haakon IV by ski over mountains in a storm to prevent his murder – vintage SHTF.

Gear: Skis and Poles
Incorporating skis into prepping is a skill that needs to be honed long before needed. You need to practice, develop different types of skills and learn what works for you – otherwise your skis will be useless if not dangerous. I bought skis, boots, bindings and poles for about $125 ten years ago and I still use these skis as backups. I strongly recommend skis with metal edges (at higher cost) as this will significantly increase your downhill control, and therefore speed – saving you energy by carrying your downhill momentum into the next uphill. Greater control also reduces the chance of injury by hard fall, especially when wearing a full pack.

Another option is a ‘backcountry’ ski, also with metal edges, a wider base (that does not typically fit in prepared ski tracks) and sturdier boots/bindings which are better for ‘off pist’ skiing in remote areas. I routinely break trail, traverse and ski off pist with my regular skis. I’d suggest that the litmus test for backcountry skis would be if you are doing overnight trips or consistently break trail in rugged uphill terrain (though in full TEOTWAWKI I’d want the sturdier backcountry ski).

There are also ‘waxless’ skis which have unidirectional ridges on the base that (supposedly) grip the snow to provide forward traction but allow glide. They work a little on sticky snow, and maybe powder but not at all on granular ice. I’d likely not take a pair if you gave them to me, though in a pinch you can still put wax on them and make them serviceable. I might take a pair as a backup up to a backup while I looked for something else. Waxless skis are good for training kids. Mine, ages 2 and 4, use them, though I sometimes apply wax for extra grip.

You’ll need ski poles for training. I still use lower cost metal poles compared to the fancy composites. However in an emergency you can leave your poles behind and can cut new from saplings. In fact, ski poles (as a pair) have only been around for about a 100 years. Before this people used a single pole about 5 feet long as a staff for going uphill and dragged like a boat rudder (held at one end) or kayak paddle (held from the center) for going downhill. Before that it was often a spear.

Gear: Boots & Bindings
Decent cross country boots, though somewhat minimalist, are designed for all-day cold weather use. I frequently pack (or wear) only my ski boots to save gear space. You can drive in them so you don’t need to change boots when you arrive at your ski-out destination. With a pair of leg gaiters to keep the snow out of your ankles they are pretty effective all-purpose winter boots. Gaiters are the only purpose-made clothing I’d recommend as cross country gaiters have the proper hooks and straps for use with cross country boots.

There are 2 or 3 different boot/binding brands that are not interchangeable (you can’t use a Salomon boot with a Rottefella binding and vise versa). Try to determine the brand most common in your area so that your boots will fit the widest number of skis – over time you may want to scavenge old skis as backups for multiple locations. Don’t bother with any out-of-date boot/binding systems even if the skis are free. Stick with the system where the boot toe has a small horizontal bar that clicks into a joint in the ski binding. There‘s a reason that old system skis would be free – the dumpsters are full of them over here. The technology and materials are out of date and they will only frustrate you. Though as they would technically be serviceable, I suppose it couldn’t hurt to throw them in your shed as a last prayer in a winter full-scale disaster.

Gear: Clothing
First and foremost, no cotton, ever. Cotton kills. Natural fibers hold moisture next to your skin and water extracts heat from your body at a rate 7 times faster than air. Use a base layer of wool (best), polypropylene or the like as these materials wick moisture away from your skin. In Norway there are three basic outerwear approaches: purpose-made cross country cloths (usually expensive and form fitting), regular mountain gear (Gortex pants and jackets) and traditional garb (knickers and wool socks, anorak or wool sweater). I’ve worn them all, but regular mountain wear is the most versatile and safest when even a day trip can go bad. My point is that anything goes fashion-wise as long as it’s weather appropriate. No one should tell you that you need to make additional investments in clothing beyond appropriate winter wear – what you would need and use anyway. It’s best to adapt to your SHTF gear in training.

I love Mountain Hardware – top marks – and use a lot of (quality) North Face and REI gear. I like Marmot, see quality in Arcteryx, and there are good Norwegian brands like Bergans. I buy quality, not brands, off season and often discontinued models (colors). I watch for ‘used twice’ items discarded by ski fashionistas. If it works, my family will use it. I get 10-15 years out of most items and nothing get’s permanently retired. With quality, Nixwax and duct tape we now have multiple gear stashes – we travel light, for weekends or TEOTWAWKI.

I recommend outerwear pants with full zippers along the legs as this lets you to take them off without removing your boots – which is more convenient and safer in the snow. You can also open the side zips to cool down as these pants can be a little heavy for milder temperatures (‘mild’ can still mean below freezing). You’ll want thinner than average winter gloves as your hands will generate a lot of heat. I wear a medium thickness, tight-knit wool hat then supplement this with my jacket hood if I get cold. I pack dry spares of each if I’m planning to stop mid-trip, usually thicker as to provide another margin of safety. Yellow or orange tinted glasses will protect your eyes from falling snow, ice chips kicked up by skis, and wind-tearing. In an emergency or storm I’d want full goggles as a backup.

You will overdress at first. Skiing generates a lot of body heat and you will sweat even if it is very cold or you are not breathing very hard (where you will also be expelling a lot of moisture). This makes it essential to 1) layer clothing so you can adjust to temperature and activity level, 2) choose clothing that breaths and wicks away moisture, and 3) to stay properly hydrated. Cold weather dehydration is a serious and underestimated threat, and it’s hard to judge because cold and cloths mask the amount of much moisture you expel. Pay attention to your fluid intake. Eventually you will learn what to wear and under what conditions. And note that learning to dress for harsh conditions, with or without skis, is a survival skill in-and-of itself. This is best captured in a Norwegian rhyme that is as amusing as it is true: There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.

Gear: Personal Carry Items
Items I carry on my person include: signal whistle (clipped externally where I can reach it with my mouth), compass, fire making implements, folding knife, headlamp, small multi-tool, energy bars (Clif Bars stay edible, PowerBars freeze solid), thermal blanket, reflectors, backup map of the area, cord, neoprene half face mask, lip balm, trial size tube of sun block, temperature-appropriate ski wax (chosen that day) and cell phone.

Keep your phone close to your body as cold depletes the battery and NEVER depend on it –consider it a luxury; it won’t be there at TEOTWAWKI. In backcountry Norway you can often get a signal to emergency services (only). Triple check that your keys and wallet are securely zipped, then check again. Snow is unforgiving to dropped keys and lost keys are one of the worst, and potentially most dangerous, things you can discover in the cold, dark and empty when you are already exhausted.  

Gear: Packs
Fanny packs are good for short trips and small backpacks for day trips. Packs with hydration bladders are useful. You’ll want a quality pack with decent straps including chest and waist straps. For larger packs, a lot of Norwegians still use external frame packs, though I think this is more tradition than practicality. An internal frame pack provides a lower center of gravity (important for skiing) and there are less places for snow and ice to accumulate. You can also sleep on the empty pack in a snow cave for insulation. I use an old Lowe Alpine I that has side pockets for skis (the bases goes in the pockets and you fasten the tips in an A-frame arrangement). If you strap skis to the side of a pack with the lower half hanging down the skis can catch on things. Sometimes I wear one pair of skis with another packed (one alpine, one cross country), and I don’t want to catch the spares on anything while I ski – though with the A-frame arrangement I do need to watch for hanging branches.

Gear: Pack Items
I don’t have the space to talk about pack gear; most of this might be what you’d expect. Pack plenty of food and water (or the means to make water from snow) – the best way to keep warm is to eat. Pack first aid and tape. Two other items of note are a packable snow shovel and a folding saw. Purpose-made pack shovels are expensive, but keep your eyes open and you’ll eventually find something passable for a fraction of the cost. Saws are lighter than hatchets, and I think more efficient. I hate working up a sweat banging on a frozen piece of wood while simultaneously knocking snow from above on my head.

Gear: Wax, Klister and Skins
There are three secrets to cross country skiing: 1) developing a basic balance on skis, 2) learning that efficiency of motion, or technique, is more important than muscle effort, and most importantly, 3) how to wax skis. Waxing skis is an art and science. There are people whose only job is waxing skis for pro athletes. The mechanics of a ski is a flexible camber, or bending ability within in the form of a slight arch. When you have your full weight on one ski the arch flattens for total contact with the snow. This is where the wax comes in, providing traction so that you can push yourself forward. When your weight is evenly distributed across both skis, the arch reforms, lifting the wax off the snow and allowing you to glide. You might be surprised that I rate waxing over technique, but without the right wax you will not be able to perform your technique.

Different grades of wax interact differently with different types of snow and temperatures. At one temperature a grade of wax will be perfect, at another it will be your worst enemy – clumping snow on the base or doing nothing at all. Despite the availability of about 100 grades of hard and soft waxes, I stick to the three standard rub-on waxes of Green (very cold), Blue (cold) and Red (at or above freezing). You’ll need to do more research, but the basic idea is to rub on, then smooth in (with a cork or stone tool) successive layers of wax starting with the harder Green and ending with the color most appropriate for the day’s temperature. So if it’s 35 degrees, you might put on 9 layers – 3 Green, 3 Blue and 3 Red. If it’s 10 degrees you just apply 3 Green. You wax each time you use your skis, cleaning wax off and starting over as needed. Carry 2 colors with you, the color you think you will use and the second most likely color for the day. If there is any doubt about temperature, only put the lower temperature wax in advance and make the final decision on the spot. I don’t carry a cork or stone with me, in the field I rub the wax in with the heel of my palm. Some days I’ll just wax pre-trip. If it’s icy I might to wax 3-4 times mid trip as the ice will wear away the layers of wax.

Store plenty of wax if you are planning for a situation where it would not be available. I imagine wax would be a very valuable (barter-able) commodity in post-TEOTWAWKI Norway. And if the world does not end you might be able to sell your stash in 40 years for more than you paid. I’m serious – search ‘vintage ski wax’ on Ebay. You might even make an effort to find an uncommon brand to increase the potential for value (SWIX brand, universally common now, would not be uncommon later). A prepper to the core, I have long term preps for a world that does not end as much (if not more) as one that does.

Equally important is finding the proper dividing line between your wax (grip) and no wax (glide) areas of your skis. You’ll do this once when you first get your skis. This dividing line is different for everyone depending on weight and the properties of the ski – you will mark this permanently with a marker. It will likely be different between your two skis, so you will also need to mark left and right ski. This is a two person job involving sliding a piece of paper under your skis while you stand on them. Don’t wax beyond the heel of you binding in the back. You also need to rough up the waxing area with light sandpaper so the wax has a surface to grip. Ask someone or find a Youtube video that demonstrates this process.

In addition to wax there is also klister, which is an adhesive in a tube or spray can for use on warm days when there is high water content in the snow. Finally, there are skins for uphill trekking. My first pair of skins was literally skins – ski-length strips of reindeer pelt hooked to the tip of the ski by a thong and attached down the length with a re-usable adhesive. When going downhill the hairs lay flat allowing some glide, but going uphill the hairs bend back producing grip. You put skins on for the uphill part of the trek, then take them off and store them in your pack for the downhill. My homemade skins (purchased) were smelly and messy so I switched to store-bought synthetic, but you could certainly make your own using a similar pelt and store-bought adhesive. In a true TEOTWAWKI situation you could field manufacture these in the original manner using animal-derived adhesives or tying them on. Pull out a pair of skins on an uphill trek and you’ll draw groans of jealously; cross a mountain pass when SHTF and they may save your life.

Gear: Pulk Sleds for Supplies, Gear and Family
There’s no point making it to your destination without the gear and supplies you need to survive. You don’t want to face the choice of staying put in a bad situation or leaving someone behind if they can’t travel unassisted. Norwegians commonly use a pulk sled in the backcountry. A pulk is a version of the sleds used by arctic explorers; their primary use in Norway is for infants and toddlers. Mine is a bullet shaped tub with stabilization runners, a nylon cover and removable seat and windshield (Google ‘pulk sled’ images to see variations). The pulk is both dragged and held at bay by two aluminum poles connected to a belt around the skier’s waist. The poles keep the sled from running wild and taking out the skier on the downhills. The stabilization runners, not included on most of the pulks in the Google image gallery, are critical for preventing tip-overs when skiing downhill. My kids bagged their first mountain top in a pulk at the age of 9 months.

Pulks are multi-purpose, used for hauling gear and supplies to cabins and on backcountry trips. My kid-friendly pulk cost $400, but it’s a small job to improvise a pulk by screwing a wooden box to blocks and a pair of alpine skis, running lines down 8 foot lengths of PVC and tying these off to the sides of a fanny pack (Google ‘build a pulk’ for better guidance). A toy sled could be made serviceable in an emergency, and if pipe wasn’t available use wooden poles – again, soldiers used spears in the old days. If your bug out route includes a point where you know passage may become impossible, I’d lay odds that a MacGyver’ed sled cached in a strategic location would be there when you came back. Incidentally, Norwegians insulate pulks and all-things-baby (strollers, car seats, cribs) with sheepskin. We have 8 skins, all in use. Sometimes the old ways are still best.

Dogs: A Survival Force-Multiplier
On a typical outing you’ll see Norwegians skiing with their dogs. The dog wears a harness connected by a 10 foot leash to a belt on the skier’s waist. If you have a dog that likes to run this is a great activity for you both. In a SHTF situation a dog might increase your range by a factor of 3 or more. The dog is not pulling you – you are skiing on your own – but you are leveraging the dog’s effort in the flats and uphills. This increases your overall efficiency by maybe 20 or 30 percent. My 200 pound friend (not muscle) had a 45 pound English Pointer that increased his range by 5 times. You’ll need to properly care for your dog including ointments for paws/nose and booties/coats as needed. Check that the foreleg harness does not cut or chafe and pack a water bowl. Don’t use metal edged skis as these can injure a dog. I once saw a horse and rider pulling two skiers.

Skills Development
It’s no joke heading into the backcountry, and even ‘recreational areas’ can turn deadly. There are many cases of experienced skiers and even famous athletes going into the woods never to be seen again. Skis will push you to develop additional survival skills. This list is long, but includes: building snow caves, making fire in subfreezing conditions, map reading, navigation, reading dangerous snow and weather conditions, rescue procedures, driving and maintaining a vehicle in harsh conditions, extricating yourself from an ice breakthrough …  the list is so long it’s likely a whole separate post.  

Moving Forward
Training yourself and your family to ski will take more than reading a single post. At first skiing will seem more like a recreation or hobby than a hardcore survival skill. While enjoyment is a benefit in-and-of itself, as you gain experience you’ll start to see the applications of skis to SHTF situations and begin to challenge yourself more. You don’t need to learn winter survival any more than you need 700 pounds of wheat in your basement – until you do. Skiing is a survival and military skill that’s time-tested for over a thousand years. Skiing will challenge you to develop other skills, get you fit and provide survival options where no other may exist. All you need to do is begin. So as the Norwegians say, ‘lykke til og god tur.’ Good luck and good journey.