Have you always wanted to try cross country skiing, but have no idea how to actually go cross country skiing?
If you’ve never been cross country skiing, finding the equipment, figuring out where to go and what to wear can seem intimidating, let alone, how do you actually stand up and move on cross country skis without hurting yourself!
Don’t worry, I got you covered. I’ve found that cross country skiing is easier (and cheaper) to break into than downhill skiing. Start here to figure out the essentials like what to expect, what to wear, where to go, and some basic cross country ski technique.
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I hadn’t learned to cross country ski until well into adulthood when I moved to upstate New York. I loved it so much I ended up teaching cross country ski lessons to middle schoolers and family groups. My point is – you’re never too young or too old to go cross country skiing!
What is cross country or Nordic skiing, exactly?
You might already be familiar with downhill, or alpine, skiing. That’s where you strap two, extremely stiff, sort of heavy, relatively short and wide skis on your feet and let gravity pull you down a steep slope at sometimes terrifyingly high speeds.
Cross country, or Nordic, skiing is nothing like that. Cross country skis are typically longer, skinnier and lighter than downhill skis. Ideally, you cross country ski over relatively flat land and propel yourself with your own legs and arms. The stronger and more efficient you are, the faster and farther you can get your cross country skis to glide across the snow.
Traditionally, people traveled by Nordic skis to hunt in the winters or simply to travel from one place to another over snowy tundra.
Today, cross country skiing is viewed more as a sport that people do for winter exercise or even race in competitions.
What to expect your first time cross country skiing
Your first time cross country skiing may be a little awkward! That doesn’t mean you should avoid it, it just means you may have more laughs along the way.
You will probably fall at least once – and that’s ok too! Falling on cross country skis is much less treacherous than falling on downhill skis.
Is cross country skiing hard?
‘Hard’ is subjective. As with most outdoor activities, the better shape you’re in, the easier and more fun this will be. Do you have to be superhuman ready to run a triathlon? No way! But any exercise and aerobic training you can do leading up to ski season will help.
Cross country skiing is a full body, aerobic workout. Start out on flat, easy trails or even do a few laps around the lodge, parking lot or a field to begin and get a feel for how your body moves on skis.
Work up from there, explore more terrain and allow yourself time to take lots of breaks throughout the day.
I like to bring a small, lightweight backpack to stash any extra layers I may lose as I warm up and to carry water and a snack – just like when I’m hiking! A fanny pack or waist pack would probably be more comfortable, but I haven’t made the investment into one yet.
What to wear and bring cross country skiing
Think of cross country skiing like running, and dress accordingly. Even though it’s cold and snowy outside, you’ll be working up a sweat. So, wear comfortable, synthetic layers you can move easily in.
I typically wear warm wool socks from FITS, synthetic leggings (two pairs if it’s really cold out) a long sleeve synthetic shirt, a fleece jacket, a puffy vest if it’s very cold out, and I usually bring a rain jacket in case it starts to snow or is very windy. If I’m not skiing on groomed trails, I also wear waterproof gaiters to keep the snow out of my shoes and off my pants.
It doesn’t matter what shoes you wear to go skiing – they’ll give you cross country ski boots with your rentals. These will enable you to clip into the skis.
Where to go and how to find cross country ski equipment
You can go anywhere where there’s deep snow or groomed trails! I’ve gone cross country skiing in upstate New York, Northern Maine (it’s real big up there in potato country!) and of course, in Colorado.
I went once while I lived in Ohio. The one and only time enough snow actually stuck around to go skiing while I lived there. I digress.
In places that get a lot of snow that sticks for the winter, it’s common that resorts, like lodging resorts not just downhill ski resorts, will groom trails on their properties for cross country skiing and snowshoeing.
Golf clubs will often groom ski trails in the winter. Even downhill ski resorts may also have groomed cross country ski and snowshoe trails.
Some municipalities will groom some local trails for skiers. Or if you’re really adventurous – look for easy(ish) hiking trails that are covered in snow and just go for it!
Cross country skiing through the snow in the woods on your own will be slightly more difficult than going on a groomed trail with tracks, but it’s not impossible and can be really fun once you get the hang of it!
Most resorts or lodges that have groomed trails may also provide ski rentals right on site. If they don’t, I would still start by asking the local resorts where to get rentals – they should be able to point you in the right direction.
Or, search in the local ski towns and check with the chamber of commerce to find cross country ski rentals near you.
Your rental should include the skis (or course) along with Nordic ski boots that clip into the skis and two poles to help propel you forward on the trails and provide some stability while you’re starting out.
Basic cross country ski technique and safety
Always let someone know where you’re going and when to expect you back, especially if you’re going alone!
Be sure to stay hydrated, bring water and a snack if you’ll be out for more than an hour or so.
Wear appropriate synthetic layers of clothes along with a buff, hat and gloves to protect your skin if it’s cold or windy.
If you’re going on groomed trails, get a trail map and stick to easy trails if this is your first time. Moving on to harder, steeper, more advanced trails too soon can lead to injuries. If you’re not on groomed trails, sticky to hiking trails rated as easy and take it slow.
Ask the staff who rent you your skis to show you how to clip your boots into the skis, this will vary depending on the boot style and binding.
Once you’re outside, clipped in, standing up and ready to go, start super simple and slow.
It may seem robotic at first, but imitate a robot walking. Slide your left foot/ski forward at the same time as your right arm and plant your right pole. Then slide your right foot/ski forward and plant your left pole.
Practice this until it feels natural for your left foot and right hand to move forward together, followed by your right foot and left hand to move forward together.
If you haven’t noticed, you won’t move very quickly or efficiently that way. Nordic skis are made to glide across the snow.
Here’s the slightly complicated part – but with practice, you’ll get it in no time:
You want to ‘launch’ off of your right foot while lunging your left foot, and right arm forward.
Your skis should remain in contact with the snow pretty much the whole time. It’s a waste of energy to be lifting up your feet and skis off the snow.
So back to our lunge. Push off with your right foot and transfer your weight onto your left so you’ll end up gliding across the snow on your left ski. You can (and should) also use your left arm and left ski pole to help push and propel you forward even more.
Now that your weight is transferred to your left ski, push off with your left foot, lunging your right foot forward and slowly transferring your weight onto your right ski – gliding along mostly on your right ski this time. Simultaneously, you should push off with your right ski pole.
Once you get a rhythm and some momentum going, you should be gliding forward continuously, just shifting your weight from one foot to the other, and pushing one ski forward in front of the other.
Until you have to stop and take a breather of course!
That is what we call classic skiing. Your skis stay parallel to each other and are just moving forward in a line. On groomed trails, there will often be two divets in one side of the trail to make lovely tracks for your classic skis to fall into.
Skate skiing is a whole other beast that more closely resembles roller blading on snow and skate skiers use the wider, flat section of groomed trails.
I’m not a skate skier so we only cover classic skiing in-depth in this post.
How to stop on cross country skis
Stopping is important! Even more important than knowing how to stop, is knowing how to ski in control, just like on downhill skis.
Since we cross country ski on relatively flat terrain most of the time, stopping is stupid easy – you just stop moving and your skis will also stop fairly quickly.
But if you find yourself approaching a hill or picking up momentum going downhill, it’s important to know how to stop. When I was too afraid to pick up any speed at all on cross country skis, I would approach the top of the hill very slowly and even come to a stop at the top, before gravity started to pull me down it.
Then I would pop out of the deeper, grooved tracks for classic skis so I was on the wider, flat skate skiing section. And I would start to snow plow, or ‘pizza’ as they say in downhill skiing.
I’d start to move forward ever so slightly while also letting my knees and toes point in towards each other and push my heels, and the back of my skis outward. So, your skis make an upside down V with your tips almost together but NOT touching or overlapping, that’s key, pushing the backs of your skis outward and almost digging into the snow with the inner edge of both skis.
This will keep you grinding down the hill very slowly as long as you keep digging in those inner edges of your skis.
Use this same ‘pizza’ technique to slow yourself down if find yourself going to fast.
Another option is purposefully fall over, or start to sit or squat and fall over – definitely not the most graceful thing, but if it will stop you from colliding with another skier or tree, it’s worth a shot!
I’ve only ever cross country skied in areas with short hills, so I always just ride them out and you stop or slow down once you get to flat ground. One tip for going down hill on cross country skis: you can pick up your feet very freely to tweak the direction of your ski.
Not like on downhill skis where your skis keep contact with the snow pretty much constantly on the downhill. Especially if you’re going downhill and around a slight curve, you’re probably going to have to lift up the tip of your skis one at a time and realign them with the direction of the curve.
This was terrifying for me at first. I don’t know what else to tell you other than you may fall while attempting that, and try to practice this technique of lifting up your skis to change your direction on gradual hills at first before you go on steeper hills that will give more momentum.
Whatever you do, don’t let fear or simply not knowing how to hold you back from cross country skiing this winter. Cross country ski trails can be a great way to escape the crowded downhill ski resorts and still find a way to connect with nature and stay active even in the cold, so get out there and let me know how it goes.
Leave any cross-country skiing questions in the comments below!
Be sure to check out these other winter hiking and snowshoeing guides:
About the author, Mallory Moskowitz:
After studying Recreation, Park & Tourism Management, Mallory spent several years teaching environmental education, guiding hikes, and leading backcountry trips. Her life-changing trek from Georgia to New York on the Appalachian Trail is what sparked the creation of Your Adventure Coach, to share backpacking tips and resources with as many new hikers as possible.