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Cross Country Skiing 101

A Cross Country Skiing Primer

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Cross Country Skiing 101
David Madison / Getty Images

Cross Country Skiing History

Cross country skiing is the oldest type of skiing, having evolved out of a need to travel over snow-covered terrain. Along the way, about a century or so ago, some of these travelers realized that skiing could also be fun.

Types of Cross Country Skiing

Since then, cross-country skiing has evolved so that it can now be enjoyed in a wide variety of forms. Called variously "Nordic skiing", "ski touring", "track skiing", "skate skiing", "backcountry skiing", or "telemarking", the one common denominator is that the heel of the boot is free. Cross country skiing can be the focus of a week at a posh resort, or a half-hour fitness ski in the back yard at the end of a day of work. It can be a means to reach some remote destination, or it can lead to a racing career that stretches from age four to 84. Many life-long cross-country skiers have done all of the above and likely have a cellar full of skis to prove it.

Up until the advent of lifts in the 1930's, cross country skiing was really the only form of skiing (besides jumping) as every descent began with a climb. Alpine events, for instance, weren't a part of Olympic competition until 1936. After World War II, lifts quickly proliferated on mountains and hillsides across America. As a result, on this side of the ocean at least, cross-country skiing practically disappeared as a distinct sport until a major revival began in the late 1960's. In this revival, an early slogan for a particular brand of ski (which I shall leave nameless) touted "If you can walk, you can ski". The result has been a large number who still believe that cross country skiing means walking on skis; but that misses both the fun and the fitness that are the hallmarks of the sport. Maybe some snowshoe manufacturer could take on a modified version of the above slogan, but on skis the idea is to, well, ski.

Cross Country Skis

The first choice one needs to make is what ski to use. Skis range from light racing "toothpicks" that are 40 mm wide at the tip with little or no sidecut to telemark skis as wide as any alpine ski with the sidecut to match. There are also specialty skis for skate skiing that are less than 40 mm at the tip, generally wider in the middle, and sized to the height of the skier. Coupled with poles that come up to ones ears, these skis allow rapid travel, but are not suitable for anything but the firm, smooth surfaces generally found only at groomed cross country centers. Skate skiing, as the name implies, uses a skating motion to go forward, but also requires a level of fitness, balance and technique not possessed by most beginners. The following discussion thus assumes that one will be skiing with diagonal stride or "classic" technique.

For classic skiing there is next the choice of waxable or waxless skis. Waxable skis rely on a properly chosen wax to provide enough grip to propel one forward and to climb hills; and a perfectly waxed ski will outperform a waxless ski under nearly every condition. By contrast, a waxless ski, which uses a pattern on the base to provide grip, will provide consistent performance with little effort required to gauge both the temperature and the condition of the snow. Most learners start out on a touring ski that is 55-60 mm wide at the tip with moderate sidecut. This size ski with a waxless base is the most commonly rented ski, and is a good choice for a first purchase as well. This "plain vanilla" model will work well in set track at a groomed center, on an ungroomed golf course, and on most moderate backcountry trails. Later one can specialize, whether in the direction of performance racing skis or heavy-duty backcountry skis. Or both directions - remember that promised cellar full of skis.

Modern skis are made of fiberglass and have a double camber construction. There is first of all the "tip to tail" camber that spreads a skier's weight evenly along the length of the ski. Secondly, there is a camber in the middle portion of the ski that ideally keeps the "wax pocket" or "kick zone" less in contact with the snow except when one "kicks" to get grip. This double camber enhances performance, but requires careful sizing with regard to both length and flex so that the user can actually cause the center of the ski to make sufficient contact with the snow to obtain good grip. Renting for the first few times allows one to feel that a particular ski is "right", and many ski shops will apply some or all of the rental fees towards an eventual purchase.

Cross Country Skiing Equipment

Once the skis have been chosen, the boot, binding, and pole choices will follow fairly easily. Except on telemark skis, most modern bindings are "system" bindings in either a Salomon or Rotefella configuration. A steel rod tucked in under the toe of the boot attaches to a pivot point in the binding, allowing very free forward motion of the boot - truly "free heel". Choose a boot with a good stiff (usually plastic and yes, very slippery) sole to minimize lateral motion. (Warning, while the Salomon and Rotefella boots and bindings appear similar, they are not compatible.) Poles can be of fiberglass (light and cheap) or metal (a tad heavier but more durable) and should have a touring basket rather than the tiny "butterfly" baskets appropriate only at groomed centers. A snug fit in the arm pit when standing on the floor is the usually preferred length.

Cross Country Ski Outings

Once outfitted, whether on rentals or a new purchase, a first outing (and perhaps the second or third) should include some good instruction in the fundamentals. To really enjoy the sport and to enjoy the tremendous fitness benefits, one needs to learn how to move at a reasonable speed while also feeling comfortable on a variety of terrain. Part of the instruction should include downhill techniques as, contrary to what is sometimes said, even on the lighter touring skis without metal edges one can snowplow and turn sufficiently to safely negotiate 10-15 degree slopes. With this control, one needs not to be confined to the flattest of trails. And freed from that restriction there's a whole wide world out there just waiting for your ski tracks.

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