Cross-Country Skiing 101: What to Know, What to Wear, Where to Go

Swish, swish, swish. There’s something special about hearing nothing but your own skis as they fly through the snow. Cross-country skiing is one of the quietest sports out there, meaning you’re more likely to encounter winter wildlife than you would be at a traditional downhill ski resort. Because you don’t need steep hills or lift access to cross-country ski, you can do it just about anywhere you have access to snow cover, and it’s an excellent full-body workout. Ready to kick and glide, but not sure where to begin? Here’s what you need to know.

What is Cross-Country Skiing?

Cross-country and downhill are both types of skiing, but that’s where the similarities end. Unlike downhill skis, whose bindings lock your heels in place for added stability, cross-country ski bindings only lock in the toes of your boots. The free heel allows you to easily move the skis forward. Cross-country skiing is often called Nordic skiing, which isn’t inaccurate—cross-country is a subset of Nordic, which refers to any skiing with a free heel (so it includes telemark skiing and ski mountaineering, for example). You can call it either one, and folks will know just what you mean.

Within cross-country skiing, there are two different subsets. One is classic skiing, which is where the kick and glide come in. Classic skis are often a little fatter and more stable, and they typically have a fish scale pattern etched into the bottom of the ski and sometimes even a metal edge for additional traction.

The other is skate skiing, which is much like it sounds: skate skiers use a skating motion to propel themselves forward on super-skinny skis. There are undoubtedly classic ski races in many iconic cross-country skiing destinations, but skate skiing is where you’ll see the really fast times. It’s what Olympic biathletes are doing, and is much like the winter equivalent of track racing.

Which Type Should I Try?

Classic and skate skiing are both great ways to get out and explore the winter wonderland, but they’re quite different—and they serve very different purposes. If you want to take the scenic route and feel a little more in control, classic skiing is probably the best place to start. Many Nordic centers have groomed classic tracks (more on that later), and this is also the type of cross-country skiing you’ll use if you’re interested in venturing beyond groomed trails and checking out the backcountry.

If you’re interested in getting in a killer workout and are reasonably confident in your motor skills, give skate skiing a shot. The skating motion is somewhat natural, especially on flat ground. Going up and down hills, however, adds some challenge and can often be intimidating to new cross-country skiers.

What Equipment Do I Need?

Regardless of whether you’re skate skiing or classic skiing, you’ll need very similar equipment. Cross-country skis are much skinnier than the fat powder skis you see at downhill resorts. Check out the bottoms of the skis, too: Classic skis have that fish-scale pattern on the bottom to help the ski grip while pushing forward. (These are also known as waxless skis, which are something of a misnomer, since portions of the ski can be waxed to improve the glide. But before this innovation, cross-country skis required a grip wax to help with the forward push. These still exist as well, but for beginners, waxless is the way to go.)

Skate skis are smooth on the bottom, like a traditional downhill ski. They need a coat of wax as well to help with the glide, but since you’re pushing off from the edge of the ski, you do not need any grip patterns on the bottom. The folks at your local Nordic center or outdoor store can help you pick out the correct length of skis and poles. (Hint: both will be much longer than the skis or poles you may have used for downhill skiing.)

If you’re skate skiing, you’ll typically use NNN (New Nordic Norm) or NIS (Nordic Integrated System) bindings. Classic skiers also often use NNN bindings, or, for a touch of old-school coolness, three-pin bindings—this is what you’d see on a traditional downhill telemark ski. The most important thing is that you choose boots that are compatible with the bindings you mount on your skis. These systems aren’t interchangeable—definitely ask an expert if you’re not sure.

When it comes to boots, if you’re just learning to cross-country ski, you should be looking for is comfort. You may eventually want to upgrade to a boot that’s stiffer or more aerodynamic—but in the meantime, it’s impossible to learn and have fun if you’re cold or uncomfortable. Stick to comfort at the start.

How Should I Dress?

When you’re downhill skiing, it’s important to dress for the cold so that you don’t freeze on the lift. For cross-country skiing, though, you’ll want to ditch the bulky snow pants, as you’ll get way too hot. A good rule is to dress as if you’re going for a jog in very cold weather. Wear clothing that’s breathable and manages moisture, and dress in layers so you can peel one off if you get too warm.

Clothing that incorporates 37.5 Technology is always a safe bet for cross-country skiing since it keeps your core temperature at the sweet spot for optimal performance and also keeps you from sweating profusely. Rossignol makes excellent pants and tights for classic and skate skiing, respectively, while Salomon has a warm moisture-managing baselayer that functions extremely well. Pair with a windbreaker or softshell to keep out the cold. A light hat or buff to keep your ears warm and runner-friendly gloves or mittens (not too heavy) will round out your outfit.

Where Can I Go?

A local Nordic center is a great place to get started on your cross-country ski journey. Check out the ski resorts in your area—many have a Nordic center in addition to their downhill opportunities. These cross-country ski havens often have a small lodge where you can rent gear and ask questions. Nordic centers typically groom trails with a wide, compact corduroy pattern for skate skiers, along with two parallel grooves, known as the classic track, for classic skiers. Check your local park district for options as well, as sometimes golf courses or other facilities are available for cross-country skiing come winter.

If you don’t happen to live near such a ski area, you might still be in luck—although it’s important to note that if you’re not finding groomed trails, you’ll want to be on classic skis, not skate skis. The Cross Country Ski Areas Association maintains a database of places to cross-country ski, and most trails on national forest and BLM land are open to human-powered recreation during the winter.

Cross-country skiing has lots of things going for it—it’s relatively easy to learn, a great winter workout, and, once you buy your equipment, it’s very affordable if not free to do. Why spend the winter inside the gym on a treadmill when you can enjoy the snow and still get a cardio workout? It won’t be long before you’re thinking of winter in a whole new way.

Written by Emma Walker for RootsRated in partnership with 37.5.

Featured image provided by Jon Flobrant