Approach Skis vs. Snowshoes: Best Approach Skis for Snowboarders

For skiers that want to explore the backcountry, the solution is simple enough: add a pair of skins to your skis.

However, snowboarders face more difficulty when going off-piste.

They face several choices between specialized equipment such as snowshoes, splitboards, approach skis, and more.

It can be overwhelming to understand how each type of these backcountry gear items work, and how to decide between the several alternatives.

In this article, we’ll explain what approach skis are, how they differ from snowshoes or splitboards, and recommend the best approach skis currently on the market.

3 snowboarders using approach skis in backcountry terrain
Photo provided by Union Binding Company

What are Approach Skis?

Approach skis are a type of short or mini ski that are primarily intended for snowboarders to access and maneuver through backcountry terrain. For instance, they are generally between 100 and 150 centimeters in length.

Approach skis are sometimes referred to as trekking skis, since their primary function is for exploring terrain outside of maintained piste within ski resorts or cross country ski trails.

This type of equipment has been used as an aid to backcountry snowboarders for the past few decades. However, several types of shorter skis meant for functional purposes have existed for a long time throughout the history of skiing.

Here is a brief summary of the recommended approach skis, but each product will be covered in more detail further down in the article.

Approach SkiLength (cm)Weight (lbs)BindingsPrice
Black Diamond Glidelite127 cm, 147 cm2.6 lbsGlidelite Universal Binding$489.95
Union Rover85 cm, 100 cm3.4 – 4.4 lbsNot Included$399.95
Union Rover Carbon85 cm, 100 cm2.9 – 3.5 lbsNot Included$499.95
Alta Hok125 cm, 145 cm4.5 – 5.5 lbs (w/o bindings)Universal Pivot Binding$398.95
Best Approach/Trekking Skis

Are approach skis used for uphill or downhill?

They are generally used for climbing uphill, while a snowboard is attached to your back. When traversing downhill, approach skis are then stowed to the back.

There may be short sections of rolling or steep downhills that approach skis can still handle very well, especially compared to snowshoes.

What other gear is needed for Using approach skis?

There are “3 Bs” to remember when it comes to additional gear for snowboarders in the backcountry:

  • Boots – Any boot or shoe can be used with most approach skis.
  • Bindings – Some skis will have universal bindings included, and others use standard splitboard bindings that may need to be purchased separately.
  • Backpack – a pack is necessary to stow a snowboard when going up / skis when going down

How are Approach Skis Different than Snowshoes?

The main advantage of using approach skis rather than snowshoes is that approach skis can glide on certain terrain that will save time and energy on backcountry hikes.

Another big advantage is that approach skis can fit in skin tracks, whiles snowshoers will stick to the side and often have to tread new ground.

There are hundreds of models of different snowshoes that fall into several categories. For the purposes of this post, let’s assume a comparison to backcountry snowshoes that are purposefully designed for ascending steep winter terrain, such as the MSR Lightning Ascent.

Let’s compare approach skis against backcountry snowshoes on the basis of control, weight, and price.

Control

Control refers to how easy it is for users to maneuver their equipment in the backcountry.

In general, shorter approach skis are more similar to snowshoes and better for maneuverability and control and navigating through thick brush, while longer approach skis have a better glide and function better on downhill and in deep snow.

When it comes to steep, uphill trail sections, both snowshoes and certain approach skis can have crampons that help dig into icy terrain and provide stability.

Weight

Every pound counts when lugging gear in the backcountry, and lighter equipment is always preferable, all else being equal.

Overall, modern backcountry snowshoes and approach skis are comparable from a weight perspective. On average, snowshoes are slightly heavier, but individual products will vary based on the design and construction material.

For reference, the standard 25” MSR Lightning Ascent snowshoe set weighs about 1950 grams, or 4 pounds and 5 ounces (The smaller 22” model is 4 pounds and 3 ounces while the larger 30” model is 4 pounds and 15 ounces).

That is a comparable weight to the Union Rover skis, heavier than the Black Diamond Glidelite and Union Rover Carbon, and lighter than the Altai Hok.

Finally, the weight distribution of snowshoes can feel more awkward while strapped to a backpack compared to a pair of mini-skis.

Price

Price point is one area that snowshoes come out on top, although the difference is closer than you might expect.

Approach skis can usually be purchased for under $500, and the typical range is $300 – $500. Expect to pay on the lower end of the range if bindings are not included in the setup.

Meanwhile, a durable pair of backcountry snowshoes will typically be slightly cheaper and run between $200 and $400.

For instance, the MSR Lightning Ascent retails for $349.95 through the MSR website. Another popular backcountry snowshoe, the Tubbs Mountaineer, is priced at $269.95 through REI.

Unless you are on a strict budget, saving $100 by purchasing snowshoes might not be worth it you can access backcountry experience faster and easier.

How Are Approach Skis Different than Splitboards?

Splitboards are another alternative to snowshoes for snowboarders looking to access backcountry terrain.

The main difference is that approach skis allow you to ride any of your existing snowboards in the backcountry, while you must ride down the splitboard (unless you feel like carrying up two boards!)

Approach skis also tend to be shorter and lighter than splitboards, and feature built-in climbing skins. This makes them more manageable and easier to carry than splitboards.

Splitboards are almost always more expensive, with a range anywhere around $600-$1000 for a basic setup. Many approach skis actually use splitboard bindings, which may need to be purchased separately.

The downside of approach skis compared to a splitboard is that you have to carry equipment on your back going both uphill and downhill. When going uphill, your snowboard will be stowed, and your approach skis will be on your back when snowboarding down.

Best Approach Skis

Three popular brands and models of approach/trekking ski that we recommend are the Black Diamond Glidelite, Union Rover, and Altai Hok.

Union Rover Approach Skis

The Union Rover Approach Skis from Union Binding Company are a highly recommended approach ski.

Union Rover skis are hand-crafted in Austria, and composed of fiberglass and wood. The design features steel edges and the Alpine V2 Camber – lower-body camber and reverse cambered nose.

Similar to the Black Diamond Glidelites, Union Rover skis feature integrated climbing skins that are a blend of mohair and nylon. As an approach ski, they can climb steeper lines more easily since they have a large surface area covered with this climbing skin. 

The Rover is offered as the standard Union Rover or as the Union Rover Carbon. Both models are offered in 85 cm and 100 cm lengths.

Bindings must be purchased separately for the Union Rover, such as the Union Explorer or Union Charger.

Union Rover 100cm vs. Union Rover Carbon 100cm Approach Skis – Photos provided by Union Binding Company

The Union Rover weighs 1560 grams (85 cm model) or 2000 grams (100 cm model), equivalent to 3.4 – 4.4 pounds. Meanwhile, the Union Rover Carbon weighs 2.9 pounds/1320 grams (85 cm model) or 3.5 pounds/1600 grams (100 cm model).

Buying Options:

Altai Hok Skis

Altai Skis was formed in 2009 and is named after the the Altai Mountains of Northern Asia.

The company makes the Altai Hok Ski, a type of trekking ski that is sometimes referred to as a “sliding snowshoe” or a “skishoe”. This type of short ski includes universal bindings.

The Alta Hok comes in a 125 cm or 145 cm model, or even in a 99cm kids version called the Balla Hok, which is recommended for ages between five and ten, depending on the size of the child.

With bindings included, the 125 cm model weighs 7 lbs and has a capacity up to 170 lbs, while the 145 cm model weighs 8 lbs and has a capacity over 175 lb.

When comparing the Altai Hok vs. Black Diamond Glidelite or Union Rover as an approach ski, the first difference is that Altai Hok is noticeably heavier. This can make the world of difference when trekking through the backcountry.

Also, it should be noted that while Hok skis can function as approach skis, their best use is for skiers and snowshoers to have a cheap and easy way to start getting into the backcountry. The Hok bindings are not compatible with a rigid soled boot that some snowboarders prefer.

Altai Hok Ski – Photo provided by Altai Skis

Buying Options:

Black Diamond Approach Skis

Black Diamond produces high-quality gear and equipment for climbing, skiing, and other adventure sports.

For backcountry snowboarders, they offer the Glidelite Trek Skis. This approach ski comes in two sizes: a longer 147 cm model and a shorter 127 model.

Note: the Glidelite skis have been discontinued for the 2022-2023 season, but previous models are available for purchase through several retailers, often at steep discounts.

All Glidelite Trek Skis feature an elastic foam core, and integrated Glidelite skins for easy uphill access.

The Glidelite 147 Trek Skis are 147 cm long and weigh 2.6 pounds (1200 grams) without bindings. With bindings, the setup weighs 4.9 lbs.

Buying Options:

The Glidelite 127 Trek Skis are 127 cm and weigh 1000 grams (2.2 lbs) without bindings, or 2050 grams (4.5 lbs) with bindings.

Buying Options:

This ski is also sold under the Finnish outdoor brand name OAC, known as the OAC KAR 147, and was available through REI.

Other Models of Approach Skis

There are other approach skis currently on the market that we have not thoroughly reviewed, along with a few other models that are discontinued or no longer actively being sold.

Drift Boards

Drift boards are another ski/snowshoe hybrid and can be considered a type of trekking ski. Models include the Carbon Drift, Oxygen Drift, and Cascade Carbon. Drift products are advertised as made in the USA.

One distinguishing feature of drift boards and other approach skis is that they do not feature a metal edge.

MTN Approach Skis

MTN Approach Skis are an older model of approach ski combined with a backcountry pack. Each ski weighs 4 pounds or 1814 grams.

As of 2022, their site appears to be unavailable for purchasing products.

K2 Approach Skis

Another older model of approach ski is the K2 Clicker, from the K2 Ski and Snowboard brand. This model was on the smaller side at 108 cm, and weighed 2500 grams. These were popular in the mid 2000’s.

Conclusion

To summarize, approach skis can be a great method for transporting you and your gear uphill. The Glidelites, Rovers, or Hoks are three great options that can provide a much more enjoyable experience if you don’t want to deal with hiking and carrying snowshoes.

If you don’t want to invest in a full splitboard setup, or want to ride any of your own board(s), then consider adding this piece of gear to your arsenal.

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