Throughout the winter, it’s easy to get idle and exercise less. This can lead to loss of fitness and often more weight gain than we would like. This guide will get you started with the basics on how to cross country ski.
There are few activities in the outdoors that emphasize fitness and provide relief from seasonal boredom. Cross country skiing is a great way to get active in the middle of winter.
Consider taking up cross-country skiing as an alternative to wasted weekends. As an active hobby, it is quite affordable, especially if you are an outdoorsy person, to begin with. You may already have some of the clothing necessary to get started.
As an exercise, you won’t find much better in any season to keep your cardio up and burn more than enough fat to keep you ready for your warm weather hobbies.
Consider this your introduction and a simple guide to the basics of cross country skiing. Getting a good start with a qualified instructor should be a priority but for basics and how to stay safe on the trails, we will get you started here.
What You Will Need
Skis, Ski Boots & Ski Poles
Your skis should be appropriate for cross-country. These skis differ from downhill skis in a variety of ways, make sure you are getting the appropriate tool for the job. Many cross-country skis will require waxing but for your first set, consider getting a pair of waxless skis. For most people, they won’t see much of a difference between the two and less maintenance is always a bonus when starting out.
Cross-country skis will have a grip pattern on the bottom that will allow you to get traction when pushing backward but will slide easily forward. There are a variety of different possible configurations, just like hiking shoes. Most reputable skis will have appropriate levels of grip but starting out, a little more grip is probably preferable.
When it comes to boots, just make sure you get boots that fit well and don’t move around on the foot. This is vitally important or you can end up with some really rough blisters. Most ski-boots made for cross-country skiing should work with most skis but its always good to confirm that fit just to make sure. Sticking with a single brand for both items is preferable.
If ordering your skis online, ensure they have bindings which is the interface between the foot and the ski. Most all of them will but some skis are intended to be customizable and will have separate bindings.
Ski Poles are your extra method of propulsion and serve a lot of utility purposes when you are out in the snow. They come in a variety of materials from Aluminum to Carbon fiber but a good starting set of poles would probably be fiberglass. It is more durable and flexible than aluminum but more cost-effective than carbon fiber. If you find you like a stiffer set of poles, aluminum is a good choice. Carbon fiber poles are great but often very costly. Make sure the poles you get are intended for cross-country and not downhill skiing.
Clothing for Skiing
If you spend much time outdoors in bad weather, you knowing that sweating in the cold outdoors can be dangerous. Well, you are going to sweat when cross-country skiing and that’s a guarantee. It’s kind of the point for a lot of people that use it for fitness. You need proper clothing to ensure you can sweat and that the sweat wicks away from your skin effectively.
As with most cold weather hobbies, layers are your friend. Everything starts with the all-important base layer, then an insulating layer, and finally a shell layer. This layering system gives you the best ability to regulate your body temperature as you heat up and cool down.
For a base layer, my preference has always been wool blends but there are a number of 100% synthetic fabrics that serve very well. Make sure that what you get is moisture wicking and breathable. The whole goal of a base layer is to aid in keeping you dry. Avoid cotton long johns and similar that will only hold moisture against your skin.
I have found fleece to be an amazing choice for an insulating layer. Down-filled coats are also a good alternative. They both provide adequate insulation for long periods of time spent in the snow. I find fleece to breath better than down and handle moisture better.
These are only two options amongst hundreds. If you spend any time outdoors in the cold, I am sure you have your own preference and it will work fine as long as it doesn’t get soaked from sweating.
Many skiers use purpose made skiing clothing that is water and windproof while still being breathable. These are perfect for cross-country skiing. Many of the larger outdoor companies like Marmot, Columbia, and Patagonia offer great ski clothing. Budget brands like REI and others can be a great source. Opt for something that is less bulky unless you need the warmth and make sure its water and windproof.
The ski-boots take care of your feet other than socks. Once again, I prefer a wool sock but there are many brands of synthetic socks that will suit your needs. Don’t skimp on your feet or you will regret it. Get socks that are high quality and durable.
You are also going to need a pair of gloves that have sufficient grip and insulation. Most snow gloves are thick and you will not properly be able to grip your poles. Your gloves need to be waterproof and well fitted. A preference for gloves that have a sleeve that fastens over your coat sleeve is probably a good idea.
For your head, you will need a toboggan for starters. You also want something to protect your face. This can be a neck gator, face shield, buff, or even scarf but make sure you have something over your nose. I also like to use a set of ear warmers or muffs to make sure my ears are always covered. That is usually the first place to get frostbite and no one’s looks improve from losing an ear.
You can never get away with just the necessities, you always need a little more to get by. No matter if these are safety items and those little things that help make your trip a little more enjoyable and easier.
The first thing you are going to need is a small pack to keep your things organized. No one wants to ski with a heavy pack and you shouldn’t. It makes the whole process a lot harder with balance and weight distribution. Still, a small daypack that can hold what you do need is very important.
Specific to skiing, you are going to want some ski wax, even for waxless skis. For normal skis, get a wax that is appropriate to the temperature range you are skiing and perhaps one at the next range down just in case. For waxless skis, some glide wax packets should do the trick. This will help make the most of your trip and make things much easier in the long run.
If you are going to encounter hills, consider some climbing skins. These are a lifesaver, especially for new skiers. There is nothing as frightening as starting down a hill backward halfway to the top. Make sure the skins you get are appropriate to your skis. The best way to do this is at a pro shop or by getting skins specifically designed for your skis.
You are going to want a good set of ski goggles or, at a minimum, a pair of polarized glasses. Snow blindness is inconvenient at best and absolutely horrible at its worst. That’s not to mention the feeling of cold air blowing into your eyes all day, or worse blowing snow. Keep your eyes safe, goggles are cheap!
Water, food and the 10 essentials are a great idea to make sure you stay safe on the trail. You should also carry a couple of spare pairs of socks, an extra pair of gloves and preferably an extra insulating layer. There are other advanced items that are good to have but for starting out, you should do fine without them. Just stay on designated trails and out of avalanche areas.
Like all things in life, proper preparation ensures you have the best time possible. Make sure your gear is in order. Ensure that anything that needs batteries has fresh batteries, and that nothing is damaged from shipment or storage. The rest we can get a little more specific with.
Get your skis checked by a professional if they are new to ensure they don’t need to be tuned. If you have second-hand skis or ones you have used before, get them tuned so they perform correctly. There is zero sense it trying to learn on something that doesn’t work correctly.
In preparation for the skiing season, try to get in some distance walking on varied terrain. Cross-country skiing is very cardio intensive, any boost you can have to your performance before heading out into the snow can only help. If you are older and/or sedentary, consider getting a physical from your doctor just to be safe.
Hydrate! You need to drink when you go out skiing. Dehydration is very common, about 70% of people stay in a permanently dehydrated state. Most often you won’t even feel thirsty in the cold but you will still be dehydrated. That can cause problems from frostbite to hypothermia or at least make you more susceptible to them. Hydrate!
It’s very easy to get sunburnt when on the snow for long periods of time. Make sure you have proper UV protective clothing, sunglasses, and sunscreen on any exposed parts of your body. This can be a serious inconvenience and on very bright days with crisp, reflective snow it can happen in no time at all. It may feel silly putting on the sunscreen you bought for the beach when its only 12 degrees outside but do it anyway.
Warm up and stretch before you snap into your skis. As stated above, cross-country skiing is a workout and it will tax your muscles in ways they likely haven’t been taxed before. Get in the habit of stretching before and after skiing to get the most out of your body and avoid injury. Proper warm-ups and stretching can preserve your ability to be active as you age. Improper warmups lead to injuries that can debilitate you as you get older. Start now!
How do you do this Cross Country Skiing thing Anyway?
Let’s start off by not pretending that cross-country skiing is easy. It’s a challenge and it does take some very specific muscle coordination and fitness. Instead, let’s start with cross-country skiing is something that most anyone can learn to do well and work at until they are very proficient.
Like most physical activities, you have to be able to feel the motions and get your body adapted to moving. No amount of reading is ever going to do that. The basics of these moves are simple enough to explain in text. The goal is for you to get the THEORY of the movement. You need practice and preferably instruction to actually learn the moves.
When it comes to learning, you are far better off practicing on prepared and groomed trails. They should have tracks laid in them for the purpose of learning. If you don’t have access to this, find a level spot in a field or your own backyard with lightly packed powder to practice in. Stay away from hills until you are sure of your balance.
Attaching your Skis
Though there are several different mechanics behind how the skis attach to the boots, the method to attach them is nearly universal. There will be a small bar on the front of your boot that attaches to the bindings on the skis. Unlike downhill skiing, your heels will remain free. This makes proper attachment of the boot at the toe vitally important.
Start with your skis about hip-width apart and parallel. Most skis will have a marker that shows you where to place your toe. Position your toe at this location with your toe pointed very slightly down. Press your foot straight down until you hear an audible click. Your foot should be firmly attached to your ski, for better or worse. The second ski is a little harder but you can manage!
If you have never been on skis, standing still may not be something you consider a skill but you would be wrong. When you have three foot long boards strapped to your feet, rotating your ankles more than a little is a bad idea. This makes balance and even small adjustment difficult. The basic stance in skiing is with your feet placed no less than hip-width apart and no more than shoulder-width apart.
Your torso should be straight from the hips up and your ankles and knees bent just enough to place your nose over your toes. This may feel uncomfortable at first but this is the basic stance that your movement will come from. It will feel more natural as you start your movements.
Moving Side to Side
Now that you are in your basic stance, you need to position yourself to start going forward. With any luck, you should be lined up to from the get go but if not, you may need to move slightly left or right. This should be done in very small steps. Moving your lead foot first and following with your trailing foot. Keep your skis parallel the whole time to avoid getting them tangled. If you have to move more than a few feet this way, it gets tedious. In that case, you may want to turn and move forward to get there.
Turning in your Skis
When you have skis on, learning not to walk normally can be a challenge. This definitely applies to turning your feet. You have just a few degrees you can rotate your feet before your skis get tangled and you will fall. But that’s ok. Falling happens.
To properly turn on your skis, slightly lifting and turning your leading foot just far enough to bring the rear of your skis close together. Follow with your trailing foot, bringing the skis back to parallel and hip-width apart. Take as many small movements as you need and don’t rush things.
The basic movement of cross-country skiing and the one you are most likely waiting for. But we need to slow it down and cover it in two steps. You can’t just start sliding around and hope for the best. Learning to control your momentum can ensure you don’t have a really bad day. Put your poles aside, you won’t need them yet.
The first thing you want to work on is the shuffle step method. There are skiers that never move past this method, so get it down. Its good to fall back on if you need it and takes far less energy than other methods. Start by sliding one foot forward, you are looking for a point where you get some movement but don’t lose balance or your stance. Once this foot is forward, plant it and slide your other foot in past it, just like walking. Plant, slide, repeat.
If you get that down and you want to try something a little faster, its time for the kick and glide. A special note here is that this is not the move you see in competition cross-country, it’s far more simple and slower but more controlled. There are a lot of things happening at once but it’s not more complicated than running once you have it down.
Start by planting your left foot and using it to push your right foot forward. As you do this your right arm should move backward and your left forwards, just like running. Once you start to move forward, shift your weight over your right foot as you hopefully glide along. Your left foot should slowly be pulled even with your right and be directly underneath you, now do the opposite by pushing off with your right foot.
This motion is much like running without fully extending the leading leg. Getting the movement down until its fluid and easy while maintaining your balance is a matter of practice. Most people can pick it up in a few hours to a rather proficient level.
Adding Ski Poles
Once you have the method down, grab your ski poles and let’s get them working for us. Just as you swung your arms backward as you pushed off in the steps above, you are going to add a push with your ski poles. When you weight is on your right foot, push with your left pole. It should be a natural movement and getting the right amount of push no to throw you off balance can get a little tricky but comes easy with practice.
The use of ski poles takes some of the workload off the legs and gives us a longer push stroke that grants more momentum. While you can move without them you will be working a lot harder for the distance you get.
Now that you are moving, knowing how to stop is probably a good idea. The first method you can use to stop, especially if you are out of control is just to sit down between the skis. While this is effective, it does present a couple of problems. Getting up on skis isn’t exactly easy and you are going to be stopped for a bit while. It puts a stop to the action, for good or ill.
The preferred method of stopping is the snow plow. This is a universal method used on either downhill or flat ground is more effective than it may seem. With your skis parallel and a slight forward momentum, you are going to use your heels to push the skates out into a forward facing V shape.
Put your weight more toward your heels but not enough to feel like you are tipping backward. Slowly and evenly start pushing your heels outward while rotating the front of your skis together. Both skis need to move at the same pace to keep the V even at the front. You should immediately feel yourself slowing down.
Don’t let the front of your skis touch and DO NOT use your poles to try to slow down further. Using your poles is almost a sure fire way to fall. You will stop but not the way you want to. Practice this movement as much as possible before you hit the actual trails, it’s probably the most useful tool in your skiing toolbox.
A great way to practice this is to have someone slowly pull you using your ski poles while you form the V shape. See if you can get to a point where they can no longer manage to pull you. If you can get close to that, you have an effective snowplow maneuver.
Going Up Hills
For going up hills, we are going to use a herringbone maneuver. To do this, you are going to point the nose of your skis out and form a V where the backs of your skis are close together. Start by pushing the inside edge of your right ski into the snow until it is firmly in place. Follow this up by planting your right ski pole into the ground to keep your balance. Transfer your weight to the right foot and move the left foot up.
Repeat the steps with the left foot and keep going until you get to where you need to go. This is a slow and difficult process but one that you will need and use frequently in your cross-country adventures. Might as well get good at it now. The important thing is to keep the weight on the planted foot until the other foot is planted and don’t let your weight pull you backward.
Going Down Hill
For most people, myself included, this is the whole reason for cross-country skiing. The downhills are fun but are also where most people get hurt. Starting out, make sure you are going down shallow, controlled slopes with no obstacles.
If you aren’t comfortable gliding downhill, you can always step down. Start with the snowplow stop from above. Once you have your feet planted, pick one foot up and place it in front of the other while preserving the angle of your V. Use your poles to keep your balance.
Some people will use the side step method as described in the ‘Moving Sideways’ technique above. While you can do this, I find it more likely that the skis will get away from you easily and can send you down the hill at an angle you likely aren’t ready for.
If you choose to glide down, you will simply maintain the basic stance with your skis parallel and about hip-width apart. Bend your body slightly forward until your weight is around the ball of your foot to prevent a backward fall. If you find yourself going faster than you would prefer, start to slowly employ a snowplow stop. You can do this slightly to slow down or go all the way into the V shape to come to a complete stop.
Getting up from a Fall
It is often said that there are two types of skiers, those that have fallen and those that will fall. It just happens, even to the best. Unfortunately, with two four-foot sticks strapped to your feet, getting up isn’t exactly easy. There are so many ways to fall and positions you can end up in. So, I am going to give you this rule of thumb first: Get to the point where you are kneeling on your skis.
Now with that said, here are some methods:
It all starts with getting on your side. From there, pull your legs up into a fetal position with your skis untangled and parallel. The tricky part is rolling into the kneeling position on our skis. Some people will start from their back and roll back and forth until they can propel themselves into that kneeling position. Some will use an arm to push themselves into position. Finding what works for you will take practice but you will likely get plenty of practice.
There are more advanced methods of cross country like the skate method you may have seen in the Olympics. Get the basics down first before moving into this method. It is much faster but requires more balance, timing, and endurance to do well. You have plenty of time, no need to rush!
Once you do have the basics down and your fitness has improved, you should consider giving this method a shot. Until then, get out there and have fun! You will find cross-country skiing a much more rewarding hobby than many others and overall cheaper than downhill skiing. Plus, you get a little of that along the way anyway.
This winter looks like it may shape up to be a great one for skiing and an even better one for learning. Embrace the cold air and get some exercise. You will have a beach body before its even beach season! And more than that, you will have a lot of fun!