Get Started Cross-Country Skiing with these Pro-Tips

Intrigued to try cross country skiing? Here's a beginner's guide for you.

The cold wind whips at my cheeks, leaving them rosy and raw. The snow falls hard, in sheets of white, and I can hardly see 10 feet ahead. My fingers are cold, my toes are numb, my nose … you can guess. But none of that matters.

With my skis propped over my shoulder, I’m buzzing to be the first one on the trail this February morning. Hurdling the snowbank, I trudge to the groomed corduroy trail and step into my skis. I chop at the snow as though kitchen knives are strapped to my feet — edges carving, I’m off with a step-glide-step. 

Soon I’m flying along. My heart rate rises, new self-produced heat revives my aching fingers, and my cheeks lift into a grin. 

That’s just a window into what’s on offer during a cross-country ski trek this season.

You may be wondering: Don’t you mean downhill skiing? Or maybe snowboarding? Nope, you read it right: I’m talking about cross-country skiing — or more properly, Nordic skiing. 

Now, I may be biased — I spent the last winter season teaching Nordic technique at a ski resort, so I’m more than a fan. But the passion and intrigue for the sport that I saw in my students this past winter reveals that anyone can benefit from the ways this sport connects us with nature and ourselves. So don’t sleep on cross-country skiing!

The pandemic forced us all to embrace winter, so there’s a resurging interest in Nordic skiing. And with due cause — the sport has something for everyone. For the summer marathoner yearning to keep their distance training through the winter, Nordic is the perfect way to get in miles. For the sprinter who’s itching to keep their gains on the track, the full-body workout of skiing uphill will give you more intervals than you can handle. Even for the amateur who just wants to enjoy the solitude of the outdoors, a leisure ski opens a door to the snow and the trees and the January vistas. Through this sport, winter has so much to offer.

Hopefully, this has you buzzing to try it for yourself this season. If Nordic skiing is new to you, here are some things to keep in mind as you get started.

Technique! Technique!

Beginners are often surprised to learn there are two forms of Nordic skiing. The more traditional style is the “classic technique.” A forward-focused stride, it’s like running — this is what most people think of when they imagine the sport. The step-and-glide that creates the stride is enabled by a section of friction in the middle of the bottom surface of the ski. Some skis have a fish-scale pattern etched into their surfaces to create this friction; some skis need a sticky kick-wax applied. Then you can just step on the snow and push off.

The alternative style was popularized in the 1980s by an American named Bill Koch, and this is “skate skiing.” Without friction on the bottom of a skate ski, a skater digs into the snow with the inside edge of their ski to push off and create momentum on the slippery surface. If you like to rollerskate, you may want to try skate skiing. I’ll warn you though: while skate skiing gives you more velocity than classic technique, you’ll also be breathing a whole lot harder.

For either style, the fundamentals are the same: Stay loose. Focus on your balance. Remember that the snow can be a cushion. Adopt a measured fearlessness.

Location, location, location

Nordic trails are more accessible than you might think. Resorts may have the best snow and trail grooming — and you can find resorts specifically for Nordic skiing — but remember, cross-country is more geographically versatile than downhill skiing. We don’t need a fancy mountain or a flashy chairlift. 

Check out local state parks. Summer hiking trails are often converted into cross-country ski trails once snow falls. Those closer to the cities should check out local golf courses. Grooming Nordic trails in the winter is a great opportunity for courses to stay in business year-round, and the rolling hills are perfect for our sport.

But what should I wear?

Wardrobe can be complicated. Plan ahead for what kind of skiing you’ll be doing. Leisure skiers should prepare for the weather first and foremost, with layering and maybe hand-warmers or an extra scarf. A heavier workout demands something breathable. Nordic skiing can be a high-intensity sport. Be ready to heat up and get sweaty — and be mindful that sweat can freeze once you slow down.

Finding skis can be tricky because the pandemic caused demand to outstrip supply. If you’re visiting an official Nordic trail, you can often expect rental equipment on hand: boots, skis, and poles. Those who are looking to purchase can check out REI, local outdoors shops, sometimes even bike shops. Online marketplaces like Facebook and Craigslist are great sources for second-hand skis. Or you can always order directly from ski providers like Fischer, Rossignol, or Atomic — just be ready for a delay in delivery.

Bring a buddy

Whatever your skill level, know a larger ski community is ready to welcome you. Cities often have associations and local races that you should check out. Training for an event — small or big — is a great motivator. Follow big ski stars like Jessie Diggins for inspiration. Take lessons, or watch REI’s video tutorials on skate and classic techniques.

That cold February morning when I strapped skis to my feet and started carving, I met a long hill. Knowing that ascents are always rewarded with a descent, I started to climb. When I broke over the crest of the hill, I came to a stop. For a moment, my chest heaved as it fought to catch my breath. When it slowed, I opened my eyes and took in my surroundings. The snow had stopped falling, and the flurry was replaced by peace — unbroken white over trees and trails. 

Winter transforms the outdoors with a stillness that has the capacity to draw us out of ourselves and put us in touch with something deeper. Often, we feel stuck inside when the cold settles in, but Nordic skiing is a great way to embrace what the season has to offer.

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