Post-holing through knee-deep snow is the preferred method of winter hunting in America. On the other hand, skiing is generally embraced by those who lap groomed runs until the legs give out or the après booze starts flowing. There's nothing wrong with this contemporary version of skiing, but it's poles apart from the sport’s original purpose—a tool for traveling, warring, and hunting.
Origins of Skiing and Ski Hunting The Chinese, Russians, and Scandinavians were all early adopters of those practices. According to the International Skiing History Association, skis preserved in peat bogs and petroglyphs depicting figures riding planks suggest that humans have been riding the snow for over 5,000 years. But some evidence indicates that the sport could be much older than that.
Travel writer Mark Jenkins experienced traditional ski hunting first-hand with Tuvan and Kazakh tribesmen of Central Asia. In a National Geographic article, Jenkins wrote of the ongoing practice of hunting Asian elk on skis. In what looks like a subzero rodeo, traditional hunters run down elk in deep snow using a lasso and a pair of rudimentary planks.
Once in range, they toss the rope around the antlers or neck and allow the fleeing animal to drag them behind. It's only a matter of time before the beast tires from scrambling in powder. When the elk finally admits defeat, a hunter can approach with a knife, cutting his prey's neck. While the Chinese Communist Party has ended the tradition of ski hunting inside its borders, Central Asian hunters are still permitted to do a form of "catch and release." Fatefully, the elk Jenkins successfully photographed being lassoed were tracked down and killed by wolves later that week, likely due to fatigue.
Ski hunting is still celebrated today in a much more modern and possibly surprising sense: the Winter Olympics. The popular biathlon event pairs cross-country skate skiing with precision rifle shooting, a space-age callback to the Nordic tradition. The exercise and shooter training elements of this sport should make it quite attractive to hunters seeking an offseason hobby.
Modern Skunting Gear Luckily, you don’t need to build your own planks or obey the Communist Party to slip over the snow after hares, grouse, or squirrels this winter. Skunting has grown in popularity in recent years as mountain town residents make the logical connection between skiing and its origins and break out the same gear they’d use on the slopes to access snow-bound hunting areas.
Picking out the correct gear before leaving the house can make or break winter hunting, however. When traversing the high desert of Wyoming hunting for hares or the flat woods of Minnesota in search of squirrels, the best option is a cross-country ski setup. These skis are nimble, providing easy maneuverability through sagebrush and dense trees.
And Nordic ski technology has drastically improved over the years. Backcountry, scaled skis are available that will perform better in deeper snow conditions and changing terrain than their skinner counterparts designed for speed on groomed trails. Cross-country skis are the ideal choice targeting small game in hunting areas with relatively uniform elevation, but they have an undeniable lack of control on big inclines. If you’re hunting mountainous country in deep snow, it’s worth investing in alpine gear.
Alpine touring backcountry, or telemark ski setups with heavier plastic boots and climbing skins makes more sense in a steeper scenario or when hunting sizeable game. As opposed to Nordic skis, they have the added control of locking down or at least controlling the heel on descents which becomes immensely important when skiing with a heavy pack.
Stiffer skis with climbing skins on the bottoms function like snowshoes for ascending in deep snow, providing a major leg up on other hunters punching through. You may be able to retrofit your existing downhill rig with touring bindings that allow you to release the heel for climbing, in conjunction with a set of skins. Poles with wide baskets will also make a big difference in staying afloat while skiing the ungroomed woods in search of game.
Skunting Weapons The omnipresence of snow means moisture is impossible to escape. And as much as we try to keep the gun dry, it's guaranteed to get wet on winter hunts. Opt for a bolt-action with a stainless barrel and components. Fewer moving parts in the action reduce malfunctions in a freezing climate, and stainless steel impedes rust. Consider buying lens caps or a neoprene cover for your scope, as snow will inevitably pack into the eyepiece, rendering it a useless optic. Or you could even purchase a cover for your entire rifle if the snow is really coming down.
Think light and short like a scout rifle when finding the correct firearm dimensions—funny things happen to depth perception when you’re flying down a hill. Branches seem to want to grab and buck you out of your boots. A barrel sticking 10 inches above your head will quickly become a nuisance. Remember to snag a two-point sling and a good backpack as both hands will be clutching poles.
Skunting Techniques The swiftness of a cross-country ski allows the skier to cover more ground. The sustained movement combined with frequent pauses pressures rabbits and other small game to flush by heightening their anxiety levels. Look for areas with suitable cover and lots of tracks in the snow. I’ll often ski an area of high animal traffic repeatedly. The same technique can be used for jackrabbits, though there will be more tracking opportunities with snowshoe hares, grouse, and other gamebirds.
When it comes to big game hunting, I think of skis as a mode of transportation to get from point A to point B. Pick a location where elk or deer will likely concentrate, find an adequate trail, and start skinning up the mountain. Hide the skis upon arrival and wait for the game to show up. If hunting with a partner, consider buying a sled to pack out the animal. Tie the sled between the two skiers and cautiously descend off the mountain.
Nowadays, recreational skiers claim ownership of fur coats and never-ending stories of triumph, but the true originators of the sport have always been hunters. Whether it's a January coyote chase, a rabbit run, or a late-season elk quest, skis have proven a hunting asset over millennia. In regions with brutal winters, hunters can expend less energy while covering greater distances—just like countless generations before us.