A First-Timer’s Guide to Cross-Country Skiing

Still wondering if cross-country skiing is hard? Hardly. Here’s your cheat sheet to getting started.

A First-Timer’s Guide to Cross-Country Skiing

Pure bliss: Cross-country skiing through the forest near Mount St. Helens, Washington state.

Photo by Leland R. Beaumont / Shutterstock

Cross-country skiing debuted at the inaugural Olympic Winter Games in 1924, a decade before Alpine skiing, but you don’t have to be a superhero in spandex to go ski touring. That image of a cross-country skier covered in sweat, falling over the finish line, may not have helped the sport’s popularity—but during the pandemic, everything changed.

As individuals rediscovered their love for being outdoors last winter, U.S. sales of cross-country skis, bindings, and poles jumped 158 percent over the previous year, according to a Snowsports Industries of America report, and equipment is still flying off ski shop shelves. Meanwhile, the United States saw a 16 percent increase in cross-country skier days in 2021 compared to the previous prepandemic winter season, according to a survey by the Cross Country Ski Areas Association.

What many realized is that cross-country skiing is actually pretty easy. Plus it’s socially distanced and a heck of a lot cheaper than downhill skiing. “With COVID limitations on air travel and access to indoor facilities, cross-country skiing became a great recreational and fitness activity,” says Yuriy Gusev, executive director of Central Cross Country Skiing, a nonprofit that promotes cross-country ski operations in North America.

People are clicking into these skinny skis for every reason under the sun, and even the sun itself: for a rejuvenating breath of cold fresh air or to find solitude in nature that’s becoming harder to achieve. Some go chasing after winter scenes of deer tracks, snowy owls, and chipmunks foraging in the backcountry, while others just glide to get where they need to go—like down the street in a snowstorm. Dating back thousands of years, cross-country skis have been a mode of transport for Norwegian hunters and gatherers, explorers, military patrolmen, and a mailman named Snowshoe Thompson who’s credited with bringing cross-country skiing into the U.S. in the mid-1800s.

Much like the growing sport of backcountry alpine touring, cross-country skiing is attracting downhill skiers who are tired of paying to wait in line for the chair lift. “Cross-country skiing and uphill skiing are piggybacking off each other,” says Emily Lovett, cross-country ski team coach for Professional Ski Instructors of America, who as an instructor at Lake Catamount Touring Center in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, saw a 150 percent increase in cross-country skiing ticket sales during the 2020–2021 season.

Today, it can be as easy as taking a loop on your lunch hour or corralling the family into the backyard—just get the kids and Grandma suited up, and your pup can tag along. If you’re hoping to avoid pricey consolidated downhill passes, break off from the group and hit up a cross-country ski center, which offers lessons, rentals, and more man-made snow than ever—at or near most alpine resorts. “When people can count on groomed trails, regardless of natural snow, they’ll make a commitment to purchase or rent equipment,” says Gusev.

So whether you’re gliding on crystalized corduroy, taking the tracks (two grooves for your skis to slide in the snow), or cutting through a glistening open field of fluffy fresh powder (check out your local park or golf course), with a few pointers, anyone can hit their stride on cross-country skis.

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A family tries cross-country skiing at the Breckenridge Nordic Center in Colorado.

Photo by Margaret Wiktor / Shutterstock

Cross-country skiing tips for beginners

Cross-country skiing can be a cinch, but first things first: Get the right equipment. Nordic centers will size you for skis that are narrower and lighter than downhill skis, boots that fasten to bindings at the toes, and poles; and don’t forget your ski pants, parka, gloves, and insulated clothing—wool or synthetic socks and a moisture-wicking base layer will keep you dry.

Of the two basic cross-country ski techniques, beginners will want to go classic. (Skate skiing, on the other hand, requires more finesse and balance on more slippery skis with longer poles to maintain a lateral movement for more speed, similar to ice skating. It’s this style that has earned the sport’s reputation as a hardcore cardio workout.) “The misconception of difficulty comes mainly from first-time skiers trying to use skate technique versus classic on a more challenging trail than their skill and fitness level permits,” says Gusev. “If someone can walk, they can cross-country ski,” adds Gusev.

On classic cross-country skis down an easy trail don’t worry about face planting. Simply alternate your poles in the snow diagonally from your legs, sliding one ski forward after the other to establish a rhythm. Bend your knees so that, under the ball of your foot, the bottom of your ski (known as your grip zone) grabs the snow and propels you forward in a “kick and glide” motion. Ski at your own pace. It can be as easy as a gentle jaunt in the woods or an aerobic uphill run in the snow. Just crawling along, an average person will burn about 500 calories an hour.

Tips from the pros

  • Before even putting on skis, practice balancing on one leg.
  • Choose flat or easy rolling terrain.
  • Shuffle forward with small strides.
  • To ski uphill, try the herringbone technique—tails together, tips apart pointed in opposite directions up the hill.
  • Beginners should avoid skiing down a hill. Take off your skis and walk if you have to. Cross-country skis are lighter with straighter edges than downhill skis, which makes gaining stability down a hill tricky. Experienced skiers learn to control speed and direction downhill by taking fast, small sideway steps or by sliding or snow plowing.
  • Avoid ice patches.
  • Take a lesson.

Where to try cross-country skiing in the U.S.

Methow Trails Winthrop, Washington

Boasting the largest cross-country trail system in North America, this nonprofit association delivers 120 sprawling miles of cross-country trails against a striking backdrop of the North Cascades. Attend its annual onsite December film festival to kick off the season with some inspirational footage of the trails and Methow Valley.

  • Day passes: $25, seniors and kids under 17 ski for free, dogs $50 annually, bundle deals
  • Lessons: $90 for a four-week class through Methow Valley Nordic
  • Rentals: Available at nearby retailers

Carter’s XC Ski Center Bethel, Maine

This scenic spot sits at the edge of Maine’s second-largest ski resort, Sunday River. A season’s pass ($150) gets you unlimited access to sweeping mountain views and half price at nearby New England resorts like Pineland Farms and Rangeley Lakes Trails Center. There’s snowshoeing, fat biking, and a few rustic on-site cabins for a weekend getaway.

  • Day passes: $20, seniors $16, children or dogs $12, bundle deals
  • Lessons: $65 group lessons include rentals and a day pass
  • Rentals: $12–$25, pull sleds for $12
  • Tours: $85

Jackson XC Jackson, New Hampshire

In the heart of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, this cross-country ski epicenter offers 93 miles of groomers, tracks, and racecourses (for the overachievers). Looking to venture into the backcountry? The trail system connects with Appalachian Mountain Club’s network of backcountry adventure trails, skiable thanks to private landowners.

  • Day passes: $21, seniors $17, juniors $10, children 10 and under free, bundle deals
  • Lessons: $54–$65 includes rentals and a day pass
  • Rentals: $15–$20, pull sleds $20

Devil’s Thumb Ranch Resort & Spa Tabernash, Colorado

As if 75 miles of groomed trails at the base of the continental divide weren’t glorious enough, this upscale award-winning homestead is a rancher’s dream, with horseback rides along winterscapes, sleigh rides, snowcat tours, ice skating, snowshoeing, a sport akin to dog sledding dubbed skijoring, a full spa, daily yoga, dining options galore, and even a laser rifle biathlon. Alpine skiing at Winter Park is a free shuttle ride away, and after a full day, fall asleep by the fireplace in an on-site log cabin tucked into 6,500 acres of Rocky Mountain wilderness.

  • Day passes: $25–$30, seniors $15, kids $5–$20, bundle deals
  • Lessons: $45–$60
  • Rentals: $15–$50

>>Next: The Essential Guide to Après-Ski

Anna Fiorentino is an award-winning storyteller and freelance writer with a focus on science, outdoors, adventure, and travel. Her work has appeared in AFAR, National Geographic Travel, Outside, and Boston Globe Magazine, among other publications.
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