A Lifetime Of Winter Fun

What is Cross Country Skiing?
How good of shape do you need to be in? What about age or physical problems?
Is real skiing similar to Cross Country Ski exercise machines?
How complicated are the equipment requirements?
What is the difference between skiing on packed trails and just skiing anywhere?
What about races or organized tours?
What is the best way to go skiing the first couple times?

What is Cross Country Skiing?

Cross Country Skiing (aka Nordic Skiing or XC Skiing) is, in the opinion of many exercise physiologists and researchers, the world's best aerobic fitness activity. The sport involves simultaneous use of arms and legs utilizing ski equipment including boots, poles, and skis.

Want to see some proof of XC skiing's fitness punch? Check out this link featuring a chart showing caloric expenditure while XC skiing versus other aerobic activities.

The primary functional difference between Cross Country Skiing (XC) and alpine (downhill) skiing is that in XC skiing, the skier is attached to the ski only with the toe of the boot--with the heel "free". In alpine skiing, the entire foot is attached to the ski. The free heel allows a XC skier to climb, descend and traverse terrain making the sport a truly "cross country" activity. In alpine skiing and snowboarding, the participant is limited to the range of downhill slope.

 With origins in Scandinavia 4000-4500 years ago, Cross Country Skiing has come a long way from being the sole method of transportation for snow and ice-bound Northerners. You can Cross Country Ski on every continent on Earth and in many island nations at Cross Country Ski Centers featuring prepared tracks as well as off-track in parks, woods, mountains--just about anywhere! Competition in Cross Country Skiing spans the globe with a third of all the Winter Olympic medals being awarded in Cross Country Skiing and the other Nordic sports.

Although commonly thought of as a minor winter sport in the U.S., Cross Country Skiing is actually the great-great-grandparent of all ski sports since both alpine skiing and snowboarding were only recently derived from this free-heeled ancestor. A member of the Nordic sport family, Cross Country Skiing is divided into two styles or competitive disciplines; Classic (aka Traditional or Diagonal) skiing which involves a straight-ahead gliding motion, and Ski Skating (aka Freestyle) which involves a V-style glide and edge motion much like ice skating or roller blading.

Other members of the Nordic sport family are: biathlon--cross country skiing and rifle marksmanship, ski jumping, Nordic combined--combined scoring of jumping and cross country skiing events, ski orienteering--a marker search on skis with aid of compass and map, and telemark--a distinctive decent technique performed with free heel equipment.

How good of shape do you need to be in? What about age or physical problems?

Although Cross Country Skiing definitely lives up to it's reputation as the "world's best aerobic workout", newcomers should not be frightened by images of sweating figures struggling through the wilderness. Cross Country Skiing can be as easy as a pleasant glide through a neighborhood park...or it can be the best overall fitness experience of your life. Go at your own pace, pick a destination, and off you go. That's all there is to it!

The quick learning curve, low injury rate, and natural motions of XC Skiing allow folks of all ages, fitness levels and interests to participate. Even toddlers just learning to walk can often be found on XC skis. (Interestingly, many alpine ski instructors encourage parents to make Cross Country Skiing a child's very first experience on snow due to the lightweight, inexpensive equipment and the general freedom of movement.). At the other end of the spectrum, super-Masters up to 100+ years young come out every winter to enjoy the rhythmic, low-impact feeling of gliding across gentle terrain.

Because you can XC Ski just about anywhere with snow, you can match the terrain to suit your fitness level and interests. Medical problems, intimidation factors, and low fitness levels are only rarely an obstacle to participation in XC skiing. As always, check with your physician before trying any new fitness activity. Note: Disabled skiers are commonly found out on the ski trails including sit skiers in specially built sit-ski sleds. The U.S. is a global leader in disabled XC competition.

I've tried or heard about the Cross Country Ski exercise machines--is the real thing similar to that motion?

All the XC Ski exercise machines try to emulate the Classic motion with a rythmic opposite-leg/opposite-arm motion. All we'll say here is that some get closer than others.

The primary functional difference between the machines and "real skiing" is the fact that you actually have to balance out on the snow which is not a real factor with any of the exercise machines we've tried. Of course, not having to balance can be a good thing for some of us :-)! In addition, even the best exercise machines can only provide a fraction of the "total package" involved in cross country skiing. Nothing can compare to the joy of actually cruising across a sparkling winterscape feeling perfectly at ease with the motion and the wilderness.

How complicated are the equipment requirements?

Industry-wide, cross country ski gear is some of the best designed and most affordable outdoor sports equipment available. To go skiing you will absolutely need the following: skis with bindings attached, poles, and boots. Most beginner Classic skis are "waxless" skis meaning you just put them on and go. This makes the ski a little bit slower but much easier to use.

Much more in-depth information on equipment and waxing is available in the Waxing and Equipment sections accessed via the navigation bar above. For comfort and safety, appropriate active winter sports apparel and some basic accessories (such as sport-specific gloves) are a good idea. All of this equipment is available at affordable prices at a number of specialty retail stores and mail order firms (some of the very best are banner advertisers on this site).

What is the difference between skiing on packed trails and just skiing anywhere?

Depending on the snow conditions there can be a huge difference in terms of speed and glide between skiing on packed trails and skiing "off-track". On packed surfaces your skis will glide much further and with classic tracks, you actually have two grooved channels to follow. Off-track ski conditions, on the other hand, are up to the weather and any previous skiers. Sometimes you may have a beautiful experience with previously "skied-in" tracks or, particularly in the Spring, you may get to experience cruising on frozen "crust" stretching to the horizon. On the downside, off-track skiing can feature numerous obstacles (downed trees, swollen rivers, rock fields, etc.), winter dangers (avalanches), and very inconsistent snow quality (everything from ice to 10 feet of powder).

These off-track obstacles are hard to find at most commercial areas where summer trailwork yields flat "roadways" anywhere from 2-6 meters (6-25 ft.) wide. Logs, rocks, and high shrubs are removed much as on Alpine trails to allow for fast, safe skiing and easy grooming. Most commercial XC Centers use a snow groomer with hydraulic attachments to press two grooves in the snow for the Classic skiers and to pack a nice flat "road" about 2-4 meters wide for the Skate skiers. The groomer also usually has a tiller which works the track just like a farming tiller working the soil. Tilling the snow breaks up ice and hard packed snow conditions and leaves a great skiing surface even when the surrounding snow is virtually unskiable. Trail "systems" include the total distance of all a Center's trails and range from 5-10km (cross country skiing uses metric measurements) to several hundred kilometers. Usually commercial XC Centers provide a host of amenities including food, shelters, and special events in addition to lessons and rentals. Virtually every U.S. and Canadian commercial area charges a "trail fee" for use of the trail system. The cost can range from $5-25 (U.S.) depending on the area and the time of day.

In many areas, public agencies and ski clubs often pack Classic and/or Skate trails with snowmobiles and drag attachments. Track quality at such places can be excellent or it can be pretty sketchy depending entirely on the snow conditions and the budget of the grooming entity. Nominal fees or donation requests are common for the use of these systems as are parking permits for public "Snow Park" lots in heavy snow regions. Flat packed trails are also often provided by snowmobile clubs but you should always ask first as to whether or not skiers are welcome on such trails.

Of course, one of the big reasons many people love Cross Country Skiing is "to get away from the things of man" and groomed trails are only one aspect of the sport. For some folks half the fun is in "breaking trail" to a certain destination. To each their own and the beauty of Cross Country Skiing is that the sport has something for everyone! Be advised that off-track skiing or "touring" can be pretty tough work in deep snow and in hilly terrain. Make sure you have mastered basic techniques and have significant experience in a outdoor winter environment before tackling any ambitious tour without a professional guide. Without question, the American Cross Country Skiers recommends that beginners spend their first several XC ski experiences on professionally groomed trails in order to learn the necessary skills to go off track.

What about doing some races or organized tours?

Just about anywhere in the world you find groomed trails and/or consistent skiing you will find some sort of competitive event or organized tour. Cross country ski racing is one of the world's great participation sports with the biggest events attracting up to 18,000 participants and the smallest as few as a couple dozen local skiers. The best international skiers are global celebrities and widely recognized as some of the greatest (if not the very best) aerobic athletes on the planet. However, the vast majority of skiers in "citizen" races are folks just like yourself that just wanted to get together with some other people and have a good time. The American Cross Country Skiers produces the annual celebration of citizen skiing in the form of the Subaru National Masters Championships. Please visit the official AXCS section to find out more about this exciting annual event. Also, the Event Center section offers several sites listing local, regional, National event calendars from around the world.

For younger folks, school leagues and junior racing programs are offered in many parts of the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, the U.K., and Australia. Check out the Family section for more information on junior racing.

What is the best way to go skiing the first couple times?

Look over the Equipment, Training & Technique and Where To Ski sections to get a good handle on the sport and how to get started. The best possible way to go skiing for the very first time (or after several years) is to head for a commercial cross country ski center. There you can rent an equipment package, get a professional lesson, and ski on packed ski trails all for a very reasonable price. Even if you just plan to ski off-track, this is a great investment for future enjoyment of the sport. Packed trails make learning or re-learning the basic motions a snap and the quality instruction available at most commerical areas will yield benefits for years to come. Usually you can get a package including lessons, trail pass, and rentals for less than the cost of a lift ticket at a major Alpine resort.

Most commercial areas recommend learning how to Classic ski first before trying to master the Skating technique. The basics of the Classic motion can be learned within an hour for most folks while the Skating technique can be a frustrating activity to try to learn without any Classic background. The exception to this rule-of-thumb would be individuals with an extensive alpine skiing background and/or experts in ice skating or roller blading. Even then, most top instructors and coaches advise learning the Classic technique as your first introduction to cross country skiing.

If you live in an area without cross country ski centers you can always give the sport a try on your own--preferably at a fairly flat and well-protected location such as a park. Word Of Warning: Although snow-covered golf courses offer attractive terrain and can be great places to ski, always check with the owners before venturing out! Please note, however, that skiing for the first time or first couple times on ungroomed snow and without professional instruction can often yield a less-than-optimal day on snow.

One last thing...if you have a hard time your first time out, DO NOT QUIT! Just make a point of going to a groomed area the next time and getting a professional lesson.

The Energy Bar Nature Intended
The Energy Bar Nature Intended