Cross-Country Skiing for Beginners
It’s often said that if you know how to walk, you know how to cross-country ski. Not so fast, says John Downing, director of the World Masters Cross-Country Ski Association. “It may be true in that, yes, you’re capable of doing it,” he explains, “but it doesn’t mean you have the skill sets” necessary to succeed.
So we asked John to help us compile a guide to cross-country skiing for beginners, backed by his 40 years of experience in the sport. From where to go to what to wear, these cross-country skiing tips will have you strapping on those skis and moving like a pro in no time.
Know Your Herringbone from Your Snowplow
Sure, learning how to cross-country ski might be simpler than the sport’s big brother, downhill skiing. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a learning curve involved. The best thing a beginner can do is take some lessons and master the basic techniques before hitting the trail.
If you don’t want to start with a lesson, at least find a quiet spot with a slight slope where you can practice the two basic moves. A little beginner’s guide to cross-country skiing terminology: the herringbone technique is used when you’re climbing, and the snowplow technique is used when you’re descending.
Rent Before You Buy
You may be tempted to go out and buy a bunch of gear in the excitement of learning a new hobby. But that’s particularly a bad idea with cross-country skiing. In the sport, Downing says, “there are two different techniques—two different ways to propel yourself—and you don’t know what style you’re going to prefer.”
He recommends renting gear from the ski area you’ll be in, as opposed to renting skis closer to home and taking them up with you. This will ensure that you get the proper equipment for the type of snow and track you’ll be skiing on. And don’t even try to use alpine skis. The bindings are different, and the equipment in general is a lot heavier.
Don’t Forget to Stretch
Cross-country skiing might look relaxing, but looks can be deceiving—it’s actually a fairly rigorous, full-body aerobic workout. “You’ve got four limbs working,” Downing explains, “and you’re propelling yourself over snow, which a lot of times has a high degree of friction.” Give your limbs a good stretch before and after to minimize soreness, and start out slowly so you don’t burn out within sight of the trailhead.
Dress Appropriately—and Apply Sunscreen
Learning how to cross-country ski will really get your blood pumping and raise your body temperature. So you don’t need the heavy parkas and snowpants you might wear to downhill ski—avoid the temptation to overdress. As a general rule of thumb, Downing says, wear what you’d choose for running a couple of miles outdoors.
Consider light, breathable layers such as light athletic pants or tights, a moisture-wicking top and jacket, and thin gloves. And don’t forget sunscreen and sunglasses, either. Blinding light may reflect off the snow, and there’s a risk of sunburn even on overcast days.
Bring a Friend
It’s tough to carry on a conversation while you’re careening downhill at top speed. That makes cross-country skiing a better partner activity than other winter sports, such as alpine skiing. The sport is usually very social, and it allows you to talk to friends while enjoying the wintry scenery around you. Taking along a friend is also a great safety tip for beginners learning how to cross-country ski.
Stay on the Trails
Perhaps the best thing about cross-country skiing is you can do it without heading to a mountain resort. But while backcountry skiing is popular among veterans, Downing doesn’t recommend it for beginners. Instead, he advises, look for designated cross-country trails, where tracks are prepared by a machine for easier traversing. These trails are smoother, flatter, and much more predictable. This doesn’t mean, however, that you’ll be in for a boring session. “Cross-country ski trails are almost always built on a rolling terrain,” Downing explains. “That’s what makes the sport fun.”