By Charlie Scott
Quebecers are clever at finding fun, active ways to enjoy snowy weather. Downhill skiing, cross-country, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and skating – we strap all sorts of winter gear to our feet. Now there’s some new kit in town. Hok skis. While it’s relatively new to this part of the world, hok skiing (or ski-shoeing) has been popular in the Altai Mountains of central Eurasia (where Russia, China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan meet) for thousands of years. Originally used by hunters to navigate the remote, snow-covered landscape, ‘hoks’ (the word for ‘skis’ in the local Tuva language) have evolved into a convenient hybrid of ski and snowshoe.
Hoks are about 50% wider than typical downhill skis and only two-thirds as long, making them relatively light and surprisingly maneuverable. The simple bindings attach to the skis only at the front, allowing the skier’s foot to lift and pivot much like a snowshoe or cross-country binding. No special footwear is needed. Any winter boots will fit just fine.
The real genius of the hok ski is found underneath, where the ski meets the snow. Traditionally covered in animal skins, the base of modern hoks is partly covered in synthetic ‘skin’ made from nylon fiber. This soft velvet-like material allows the skis to glide forward, but prevents the skis from sliding backward. Most hokkers use a regular pair of ski poles, while purists opt instead for a single long wood pole.
So what’s it like to ski on hoks? And what sort of landscape and conditions are ideal? From my experience, learning how to hok is considerably easier than picking up downhill or cross-country skiing and it’s immediately fun. It might even be easier (and certainly feels more natural) than snowshoeing.
Basically, if you have any aptitude for walking, you’ll be a hok star in no time at all. Hoks are brilliant in any depth of snow and work beautifully on almost any terrain: flat, hilly, wide open fields, trails, or deep in the woods. While some hoks do have metal edges, it’s generally best to avoid icy conditions. Steep uphills may require side-stepping and aggressive downhills definitely require a strong nerve.
If you’re tired of feeling uncoordinated and/or out of control on cross-country skis, frustrated that your snowshoes don’t slide, and looking for a simpler alternative to downhill skiing, then give hok skiing a whirl (and yes, you may spin out of control the first time you try turning). A pair of hoks with bindings will cost around $475-$650. Owing to a surge in popularity they can be a little hard to find, but they’re out there. And they’re waiting for you to discover.