Tired of crowded lifts? Try cross-country skiing

Cross-country skiing
Cross-country skiing is the oldest form of skiing there is, passed down from Nordic hunters who used it as a way to get around frozen landscapes. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com

If there were ever a reason to pick up cross-country skiing, it’s this: Some scientists say global warming could mean the end of Utah’s ski industry.

And if fear mongering isn’t working on you, there’s this: According to data compiled by Snowlink.com, an adult can burn up to 700 calories per hour with a moderate cross-country pace.

Whatever your reason for giving cross-country skiing a try—long lines at the ski lift, waning fitness resolutions, a hand-me-down set-up—there’s no better time than now to clip into some “skinnies” and hit the track.

What is it?

Cross-country skiing, or Nordic skiing, is the oldest form of skiing, passed down from hunters who lived in isolated communities in snow-covered Norway. Norwegian army units started skiing for sport in the 18th century, with the first race on record in 1842. The sport eventually debuted at the first Winter Olympic Games, in 1924. (Traditionally, the competition gets pummeled by athletes from Nordic countries.)

It differs from the skiing you’re probably used to in that you’ll be using thinner, lighter skis and your heels aren’t locked into the binding—they lift up and down as you ski across a flat, groomed track or backcountry terrain. It’s easier to learn than downhill skiing, cheaper to do, and chances are, if there’s snow on the ground, there are ideal conditions nearby for you to ski on.

What to wear

Common opinion says to dress as if you were jogging—so layer up in synthetic or wool blends as if it’s 10 to 20 degrees warmer than it really is outside. Once you start moving, you’ll get warmer. Protect your hands with lightweight mittens or gloves, and don’t forget wool socks.

Gear up

Local ski rental shops will likely carry the equipment you need to go cross-country skiing, and if you’re close to a resort that has groomed cross-country trails, they can fit you for the right size and type of boots and skis. All you need are boots, poles, skis, and bindings (the boots and bindings need to be compatible).

cross-country ski
Unlike downhill skiing, with cross-country skiing, only the front of your boot is clipped into your bindings. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com

Find your tracks

You’ll be able to master the motion of cross-country skiing more quickly if you start on groomed trails —the smooth, machine-made tracks are easier to glide on than having to break your own trail. “My favorite conditions are when the snow is firm and cold and has been packed down well—the tracks are super fast and you can just rip,” says Andrew Newell, an Olympic Nordic skier who’s been on the U.S. team for 10 years. No tracks near you? Find a snow-covered walking trail or head into the “backcountry,” knowing that it can be more difficult to navigate around rocks, sharp turns, and uneven terrain, and you may find yourself breaking trail.

Lock and load

Take a lesson from a ski resort or guide to learn the basics, which include locking your boot to your binding. Unlike downhill skis, only your toe is bound, freeing up your heel. With skis parallel to each other, holding poles for balance, line up the bar on the underside of the toe of your boot with the binding and press down until you feel your boot lock in.

Pick your style

The two most common types of cross-country skiing are track skiing and skate skiing. Track skiing is done on tracks compressed into the snow by machines—with your skis pointing straight in front of you, you’ll glide forward using your legs and arms.  Skate skiing takes place in the “skate lane,” a wide area of flat snow. You’ll be on shorter skis held in a V-shape, and you’ll push off side to side, as if you’re rollerblading.

Cross-country skiing
Cross-country skiing lets you bypass crowded ski lifts in favor of groomed tracks and backcountry trails. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com

Push, kick, glide

“The posture should feel natural, just like running,” says Newell. “Proper technique comes from being in a good body position, where your feet are under your hips, your weight is forward, and your shoulders square, not twisting or rotating, just like anyone would be in while running.”

Newell says the hardest part is maintaining your balance—people tend to sit back and end up in a bad body position. To prevent this, keep your weight forward with knees slightly bent. Slide your right ski forward, pushing off your back leg, while moving your left pole forward. Think about gliding from one leg to the other, not just shuffling.

Prepare to stop

If you’re not on a track, you may pick up speed on slight downhill slopes. Stop yourself by bending your knees, leaning forward, and pushing the front of your skis toward each other to make a wedge (or a pizza slice, as you learn when you start downhill skiing). You can use the pressure form the tip of your pole to press the button on your skis that releases your boots form the bindings and regroup if you’re feeling flustered.

Be cool

The general etiquette on the trail or track is that downhill skiers have the right of way, so side-step your way to the side of the trail. Faster skiers have the right of way, too; step off the track and let them pass.

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