|Wild Earth Adventures|
|Wild Earth Adventures|
Cross Country Skiing
Winter isn’t everyone’s favorite season, to be sure, but those of us who are cross country skiers have more than a little outdoor enjoyment to look forward to during the snow season each winter. In fact, taking up cross country skiing or snowshoeing can transform your relationship to winter.
If you’re someone who isn’t especially enamored of the season, and/or who has trouble dealing with the cold, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to cultivate an interest in an outdoor/nature-based activity like cross country skiing during the winter months.
The end result is likely to be elevated spirits, a probable increase in the amount of fun and pleasure in your weekly schedule, and often a growing appreciation of winter and the extraordinary beauty and tranquility of the natural world when it’s blanketed in snow. If you’re someone who already engages in snow-sports, cross country skiing can enrich your winter repertoire.
Too many people try to hibernate during the colder months, and it’s clear that many of us don’t do well when we stay cooped up indoors for months on end. The results include being subject to such common maladies as the “winter blues,” or S.A.D. (seasonal affective disorder), or winter depression.
Getting major doses of fresh air, sunshine, and exhilarating outdoor exercise during the winter months are extremely effective antidotes to such conditions -- as spending time in the natural world is a great prescription for higher spirits and a sense of well-being at any time of year.
Granted that winter requires a bit more of us. We need to learn to deal with the cold and know what to wear, and how to take care of ourselves, when the temperatures drop -- although warm spells are far from uncommon during the winter months, and bitter cold is rare in our region of the country.
People who say they can’t stand the cold usually haven’t learned to dress appropriately. With enough layers of the right clothing anyone, including you, can be “toasty warm” and comfortable on the coldest winter days.
There are quite a few outdoor options available to us in winter. Downhill (“alpine”) skiing gets by far the lion’s share of publicity, given that it’s a billion-dollar industry, but not everyone is attracted to this popular and not-exactly-inexpensive form of skiing. Reasons include the cost of lift tickets, long lift lines and crowds, and the risk of injury, which is much higher than for cross country skiing.
Snowshoeing and cross country skiing are winter favorites among many hikers, nature-walkers, and others who enjoy communing quietly with the natural world. This form of skiing has actually been around for thousands of years, and it’s different from downhill skiing in many ways.
It’s also largely ignored by much of the media -- as are other undramatic “semi-solitary sports” like hiking, wilderness camping, and snowshoeing, except when people take them to extremes.
Misinformation about cross country skiing circulates widely in the media and elsewhere. We often hear people say they’ve heard that cross country skiing is “incredibly strenuous”, or that it requires very high levels of skill.
What’s incorrect about such statements is that while cross country skiing, like anything else, can indeed be done at breakneck speed and Olympics-level competitiveness and intensity (which is what you’re likely to see on TV), the overwhelming majority of cross country skiers do it in a much lower-key way.
You can, for example, cross country ski in a slow, gentle, and relatively relaxed way, on reasonably flat ground, stopping frequently to soak in the snow-covered scenery, take photos, etc. Or you can ski in a much faster, more aerobic way on steeper hills and more challenging trails. Like hiking or any number of other outdoor activities, whether it’s easy or strenuous depends on how you go about it and what kind of trails (and terrain) you’re on -- and the choice is yours.
Ultimately, cross country skiing is a great way to get outside for a few hours on a winter day, see some gorgeous natural scenery, enjoy the wonderfully peaceful quiet of the winter woods, indulge in some refreshing exercise, fill your lungs with as much clean air as possible, and have a bit of fun with others or on your own.
Hills can be fun indeed on cross country skis, but unlike with downhill skiing, hills are not the be-all and end-all of cross country skiing, as the term “cross country” implies. On cross country skis you can go uphill, downhill, and along flat terrain, but for most of us, the point is not to race or careen downhill at high speeds for the thrills and the adrenaline rush (although those are possibilities for anyone who wants to indulge in them).
Rather it's to explore wooded trails, immerse ourselves in some lovely winter scenery, and perhaps attempt to experience a feeling of oneness with the natural world in winter.
Cross Country Skiing Fundamentals
What follows is a detailed discussion of cross country skiing and what’s involved -- for beginners and anyone else with limited experience who wants to learn more.
Some of this information is adapted from Charles Cook’s book The Essential Guide to Cross-country Skiing and Snowshoeing in the United States (Henry Holt & Company, 1997). Cook is the founder and director of Wild Earth Adventures.
This discussion is addressed not only to members and non-members of Wild Earth Adventures who may be accompanying us on our cross country ski trips during the winter months, but also to those of you who live in other areas of the United States and elsewhere who will ski on your own, with friends, or with organized groups.
There are actually several kinds of cross country skiing, each involving somewhat different skills, goals, and trail surfaces. Athletes who race competitively on cross country skis probably don't have a lot in common with those who shuffle through their local park, stopping often to admire the scenery or search for birdlife. And patrons of groomed trails at ski centers will have a radically different kind of day than adventurers on a backcountry ski tour.
Cross country skis are an invention, vastly improved over the years, which allow you to glide (or shuffle, if you’re a novice or want to take it extremely easy) across a snowy landscape -- either on trails or through open areas, and sometimes ascending as well as descending hills. How you use the skis once your have them on is up to you.
If you’re sports-minded, enjoy strenuous exercise, and like to challenge yourself, you may want to master technique and even consider competition at some point. If you’re excited by the idea of adventure off the beaten path, you’re probably a good candidate for learning backcountry skills and gearing up for some winter wilderness treks.
Or if you’re like many other potential skiers, maybe you just want to have fun, fill your lungs with fresh air, and spend a few pleasurable hours out in nature under the winter sun.
Even though it’s sure to come most easily to those who are fit and have stamina, don’t rule out cross country (also called "Nordic skiing") just because you’re in less-than-great shape or aren’t interested in strenuous workouts. Plenty of people, including those in senior citizens’ ski groups (yes, such groups exist), enjoy the activity without pushing hard.
Try it if the idea attracts you, but consider taking it extra easy the first few times, and stick to relatively flat terrain until you start to feel at home on the skis.
Some of us have a particular bias toward using cross country skis and snowshoes as a means of getting close to nature and communing with the winter wilds. While hills can be great fun once you get the knack of controlling your skis, and the highs of aerobic skiing on tracked trails can’t be overrated, many of us find nothing more rewarding than spending time (on and off our skis) experiencing the beauty and richness of nature. Cross country is a superb way to stay connected with the natural world in winter.
Ski Touring, Nordic Skiing, and Cross Country Skiing
These three terms are used synonymously here, which has been common practice for many years but not universally so. In some areas “ski touring” most often refers to the kind of skiing one does in a backcountry area, and “cross country skiing” means gliding on tracked trails at a ski center. But the meanings are sometimes reversed in other regions. For the time being it seems best to ignore such distinctions. In any case, cross country skiing is the term most frequently used.
How Cross Country Skis Work
Unlike downhill skis, cross country skis have to do the job of getting up uphill as well as across expanses of relatively level ground. If you’re a beginner, you may wonder how it’s possible to ski up a hill without slipping backward, or to maintain forward motion when moving across “flats.”
The answer: cross country skis are designed to grip snow under the center of each ski when your weight is on it, giving you enough traction to push forward with that ski and then glide on the other ski.
Originally an animal skin was attached to one ski for traction. Most modern cross country skis are slightly bowed (the amount each ski arcs is called the “camber”). Under the center of each ski you apply a wax that will grip the snow, or with waxless skis -- which have become popular during the past few decades -- there’s a built-in relief pattern underneath.
When your weight is equally balanced between the skis, the pattern or waxed surface in the center remains slightly off the snow, so you can glide down a hill without resistance. When your weight shifts from side to side, which happens naturally when you move your legs in walking or cross country skiing, the ski on the “weighted” side will momentarily hold the snow, making it possible to push ahead.
As you learn to ski, you should find your body moving more fluidly and efficiently. This is when cross country skiing starts to become extra pleasurable. After every push or “kick” you get bit of a free ride, and going down hills furnishes additional fun once you’ve learned better control (but if you’re not currently comfortable with hills you can usually avoid them, since almost all ski centers include some easy trails with only gentle inclines). And keeping up a continuous “push and glide” over some distance, if you choose, is when cross country produces a truly extraordinary workout.
Becoming a Cross Country Skier
Consider making this winter the season that you give Nordic skiing a serious try. Or if you’re experienced, maybe you can make it more an integral part of your winter regimen. All you need is access to snow, a suitable area, and the desire to ski.
Your options include joining a club or other group like Wild Earth Adventures that offers cross country ski trips suitable for beginners (we also welcome experienced skiers and our trips do attract them). There’s much to be learned from the person who’s guiding the outing and also from other skiers, and some of their energy and enthusiasm are bound to rub off on you.
If you don’t have access to an organized group in the area where you live, see if you can find experienced friends who could help teach you and accompany you on some cross country outings. If necessary, don’t hesitate to get started on your own.
Cross Country Ski Centers
There’s no better place to learn than at a cross country ski center, sometimes also called a cross country ski area, or a Nordic ski center, or a ski touring center. Everything you’ll need should be available there, including equipment rentals, lessons, maps, easy (and more challenging) trails, and a heated shelter to retreat to when you’re tired.
Ski centers aren’t just for beginners, of course. Even if you have your own equipment and are a proficient skier, a cross country ski center offers the convenience of groomed trails, which can be a godsend when it hasn’t snowed in days (in the grooming process, fresh snow can be kicked up from underneath and an icy surface can often be made skiable again).
Most ski centers are naturally situated in snow belts where annual snowfall tends to be substantial. In the northeastern U.S. the largest number of ski centers, not surprisingly, are found in mountainous areas of the northern New England states, upstate New York, and other regions that tend to have reasonably cold, snowy winters.
If you’re visiting a center on your own or with friends, call ahead to verify that they’re open and ask about trail conditions, which can vary greatly throughout the winter months. If conditions are only fair to poor, and you’re a beginner, don’t go. Wait till some fresh snow arrives, which makes for the easiest skiing and most suitable conditions for learning.
If you’re experienced, the choice is yours whether or not to ski when conditions are borderline (Wild Earth Adventures cross country ski trips are cancelled when that’s the case). If the center is open, some of the trails should presumably be in decent or passable shape.
Upon arriving at the ski center your first stop will usually be at the ski shop -- to rent equipment, if you don’t have your own, and to pay the trail fee (usually $10-$20). At some locations the trail fee will be collected from you at an entrance booth as you drive in. The ski shop is also usually the place to sign up for a lesson if you want one. On Wild Earth Adventures trips a short lesson is included, with additional instruction and assistance available for those who need it.
Be sure to get a trail map and study it if you’re going to be taking off on a tour of your own. Check information boards, where there may be announcements about possible trail closings or hazards, and heed any warning signs. If you’re on your own and you’re not familiar with trail maps, or there’s anything else you don’t understand, be sure to ask someone in the ski shop for an explanation.
You need to know nothing about cross country ski equipment in order to rent it. Trust the staff of the ski center or store to fit you with the right size skis, boots, and poles. If an item doesn’t seem to function properly once you’re out on the trail, return to have someone check it, and exchange the equipment if necessary.
Rental rates vary considerably. Total rental cost per day tends to run from $15-25 for all gear. After 1 pm there may be a half-day rate available, typically amounting to a couple of dollars off. Lower daily rates are often available if you rent for several consecutive days, or are staying at an inn, hotel, or ranch that’s associated with a ski center.
Although it’s not always required, whenever you rent equipment be prepared to leave a credit card, or your driver’s license, or a substantial security deposit, which protects the ski center or store against theft or failure to return the equipment.
Most cross country ski centers offer lessons taught by certified instructors. Such lessons aren’t expensive, and if you’re a beginner, taking a lesson is a good way to get off on the right foot. It will familiarize you with the basics and allow you to practice a bit under the eye of an expert. As mentioned above, Wild Earth Adventures trips include a short lesson and additional instruction for those who need it.
If you’re visiting a ski center on your own or with friends and want to sign up for a lesson, there’s usually a sign-up sheet at the ski shop. A group lesson will typically cost $15-$25 per person, and private lessons are often available at a higher fee. If you’re accompanied by an experienced friend who can give you tips and help you on your way, you might want to skip the lesson at the start. There’s nothing to keep you from taking one anytime you feel the need for it.
When it comes to learning and engaging in cross country skiing, some of us believe that one thing is more important than everything else put together: cross country skiing (and this holds for ALL outdoor activities) should be ENJOYABLE! While it makes sense to learn from experts, skiing “the wrong way” and having a terrific time of it is surely superior to learning it “by the book” without pleasure.
Avoid the pitfall suffered by some beginners of focusing too intently on form and technique, becoming overly self-conscious, and feeling frustrated when it doesn’t come together right away. If you feel stressed out after your first time on skis you may not want to try it again. Unless you’re unusually ambitious, you don’t need to master technique for now. And keep in mind that you don’t need to be a “good skier” to experience the joys of wild nature on cross country skis.
Skiing on Groomed Trails
Trails are routinely groomed at cross country ski centers, and sometimes on public lands as well. Grooming makes the skiing much easier. The process involves preparing the trail surface, which includes compressing fresh snow and often laying down tracks. Modern-day grooming at ski centers is often done by huge machines designed for that purpose. On public lands and at more primitive ski centers it’s may involve a snowmobile dragging a simple device to set tracks.
Part of the trail fee you pay at ski centers and some parks goes to the considerable cost of grooming, and there would surely be more groomed trails on public lands if the machinery wasn’t so expensive. Several states where cross country skiing is popular have found a solution by requiring skiers to purchase a state ski pass or permit -- the funds collected go for trail grooming as well as keeping parking lots plowed. There are also ski clubs throughout the country which raise funds to provide for groomed trails on local public lands.
Groomed trails make Nordic skiing almost a breeze, even if somewhat less adventurous -- especially with the tracks, which help guide your skis and make it possible to gain speed with less effort. And grooming really saves the day for cross country after it’s rained or there’s been a melt that then refreezes, creating an icy crust that’s almost impossible to ski on. Grooming breaks the crust, turns up fresh snow from underneath, compresses it, and lays down tracks -- creating a skiable trail network again.
Another kind of groomed trail worth mentioning briefly is a groomed snowmobile trail. Most of us prefer not to share trails with snowmobiles, since they’re sources of air pollution, excessive noise, and occasionally high-speed shenanigans (which are disruptive to wildlife, not to mention a skier’s peace of mind).
In some areas cross country skiing is permitted on snowmobile trails. If local ski options are limited and snowmobile use is light, you may want to consider trying such trails. While a groomed snowmobile trail has no tracks, the surface is packed, so it’s easier to ski on than an ungroomed backcountry trail.
Skiing on Ungroomed Trails
Far from all cross country skiing takes place on groomed trails, to be sure. A great number of designated cross country ski trails throughout the United States and elsewhere are ungroomed -- meaning you’re skiing on the trail “as is,” without the snow being prepared or altered in any except by other skiers or snowshoers. An ungroomed trail may also refer to any other suitable route you ski on, such as a hiking trail, nature trail, or an unplowed road.
In using such trails you’re likely to be in for much more of an adventure than at a ski center or a designated trail network in a park or forest. There are usually far fewer skiers than on groomed trails, and sometimes it’ll be no one other than yourself. It could be a day of excitement, exploration, discovery -- you and nature alone (along with any friends, companions, or a group, if you’re with one), you and the wilderness -- as you break tracks through fresh snow.
Undesignated and ungroomed trails, however, are often rougher and include more obstacles, especially if someone hasn’t cleared away fallen tree branches, and there are no bridges or boards placed across streams, etc. Conditions can be poor to impossible if it hasn’t snowed in some time. And if there’s fresh, deep snow, breaking tracks can be extremely tiring. The risk of getting lost is also greater, since trails may be poorly marked, unmarked, or otherwise hard to follow.
Beginners and those with limited experience will find it easier to learn on groomed trails, so the usual advice is to avoid ungroomed trails until you’re a reasonably accomplished skier. But if you happen to live in an area where the options are limited, don’t avoid going cross country skiing just because there aren’t any groomed trails nearby. After all, groomed trails are a modern phenomenon. The art of Nordic skiing survived successfully for thousands of years without them. If you have easy access to a park that offers suitable ungroomed trails or open areas, go for it!
A backcountry ski tour is the ultimate adventure for cross country skiers. Such an outing isn’t for everyone, being the Nordic equivalent of a wilderness hike or trek, whether it’s a day trip or an overnight excursion involving snow-camping. Absent are the conveniences of a ski center, and you’ve got the additional potential hazards of winter wilderness travel.
The word “backcountry” has different usages. In a cross country context, sometimes it just means any place where a person might ski other than at a ski center, which could include a small state park or preserve. Most of us, however, speak of the backcountry as a large area of wilderness -- commonly but not entirely limited to what we find in some national parks, forests, and state parks. The only intrusion may be a trail system, if any, and the rest is wild nature.
Needless to say, you shouldn’t take up serious backcountry touring until you’re an advanced skier and also have gained extensive wilderness experience throughout the year. It would be wise to read books on the subject, study wilderness survival methods, practice winter camping, and hone your ski skills with an instructor. And because of the particular risks, backcountry touring should only be done with others -- either fully qualified companions or an organized group.
A few rules of etiquette are suggested at cross country ski centers, and it’s a good idea to follow them anywhere you ski. Unless you’re in a remote wilderness area, you’ll usually be sharing the trails with others, and it’s easier for everyone when there’s a shared understanding of the need to ski in a way that’s considerate of others.
When other skiers are around, whether you’re using tracked or untracked trails, keep to the right except when passing. When overtaking another skier, always pass on the left, and since he or she may not hear you coming up from behind, for safety’s sake give the person a few seconds’ notice by calling out “on your left” or “track” (but not with such volume that you’ll startle, annoy, or intimidate). A friendly “hello” may suffice.
Faster skiers usually have the right-of-way. When another skier is passing you from behind, keep well to the right (but don’t feel you have to keep looking back to see if anyone is coming -- it’s their obligation to let you know if they’ll be passing close by). When the trail is narrow, get off to the side so the other skier can pass you safely. If the trail is reasonably wide, you shouldn’t have to constantly disrupt your skiing to let any faster skiers pass -- it’s their responsibility to safely get around you.
Anytime skiers coming from opposite directions meet on a hill, the downhill skier always has the right-of-way. If you’re skiing uphill, move -- off the trail if necessary -- so the skier coming downhill can descend without risking a collusion with you.
For reasons of safety, always slow down in the presence of other skiers -- especially when it’s necessary to pass within a few feet of each other -- and keep your ski poles close to your body so you don’t accidentally poke someone.
Remember that without warning, others (or you) could lose control and fall, or unexpectedly change direction. Give others a wide berth, especially when following them downhill -- so you’ll have enough time to stop or steer to the side if the skier in front of you suddenly falls.
Whenever you take a fall, do your best to get off the trail and out of the way of any other skiers as quickly as possible. If you’ve left a “sitzmark” or depression in the snow that could serve to trip up other skiers, fill it in with snow from alongside the trail.
Whenever you need to rest, or to pause to catch your breath, or check your map, or adjust your clothing, show consideration to other skiers by not blocking the route. Step off the trail until you’re ready to go again. If a hill is too steep for you, and you choose to take off your skis and walk up or down the hill, always get totally off the trail to do so (to avoid leaving footprints in the trail that mess it up for other skiers).
Finally, please don’t bring your pet. Cross country skiing and dogs don’t mix. They often mess up tracks, foul the trail, and get in the way or sometimes even jump on skiers, creating an annoying hazard. While dogs are prohibited at almost all ski centers, they’re often allowed on public lands. But do everyone a favor by leaving your pet at home when you go skiing.
Equipment: Skis, Boots, and Poles
There’s never been a wider selection of cross country ski equipment available, and everything has become increasingly specialized for different uses. Renting gear is always a good bet at the start, especially if you’re not sure of your commitment to cross country skiing and whether you want to make the investment. It’s also an excellent way to learn more about equipment, try out different models, and see what works best (if you’ll be coming on a Wild Earth Adventures cross country ski trip, equipment rentals are always available at the ski centers we visit).
Trust the ski center or store staff to outfit you properly. If you’re purchasing ski gear from a store, do your best to find a salesperson who knows the equipment well and is also a seasoned cross country skier. If you can bring along an experienced friend, all he better. Take as much time as necessary so you leave with the right skis, boots, and poles.
Purchasing equipment by mail order can be a trickier proposition. You’ll need to know something about gear, sizing, and the kind of cross country skis and boots most appropriate for you. Some companies offer an information line where you can speak with someone who’s knowledgeable about the equipment being sold, which can be extremely helpful.
And how much will you pay for cross country ski equipment? As with other outdoor gear, the price range is pretty wide. You can still sometimes find a complete package of top-quality skis, boots and poles for $250 or less, and it’s also easy to spend considerably more.
Sales on equipment are common before the ski season and toward the end of it, so these are often the best times to buy. You may be able to get half off for discontinued models, which might suit your purposes just fine. And don’t rule out buying used equipment, including a store’s or cross-country ski center’s rental gear, if they’re offering a low price for it.
Cross Country Skis
If you’ve decided to buy, your most important ally is a competent salesperson. To help determine the particular equipment you’ll need, a good salesperson should first ask what kind of cross country skiing you expect to do -- including whether you expect to mainly be using groomed or ungroomed trails (or both) -- and whether you’re a novice who’s simply looking for skis to learn on, or an experienced skier in search of equipment that meets other specifications.
Since you’re probably not going to want to own more than one pair of skis at the start, the most versatile (and closest to all-purpose) cross country skis are usually “light touring skis,” which should be suitable both for in-track skiing at a cross country ski center and on ungroomed trails at your local park or natural area.
Make it clear to the salesperson that you want to be able to ski on groomed trails but also off-trail sometimes. Don’t let someone sell you an extra skinny ski that’s going to be impossible to use in the backwoods. A light touring ski will be narrow enough for tracked trails but wide enough to give you some support in fresh snow. It should also have some “sidecut,” meaning the waist or center will be narrower than the tip and tail, which makes moving and turning on unpacked snow easier.
With experience you may develop a strong preference for one variety of cross country skiing, perhaps putting you in the market for a more specialized ski. The lightest, skinniest, and fastest skis are of course suitable for racing. Whether or not competition interests you, you may want to get skinnier skis if you love speed and have regular access to groomed trails.
If, in contrast, you’re drawn to exploring deep snow and great unspoiled expanses of wilderness, you’re going to need a much wider backcountry ski. And if you expect to combine off-trail adventures with telemarking or other downhill techniques, your best bet may be a metal-edged telemark ski.
There are also skating skis, designed specifically for skating technique, which are shorter and stiffer than regular cross country skis and have less camber. A combination-type ski is available as well, good for both skating and traditional Nordic skiing.
And finally, to complicate life even further, during the past couple of decades a crop of new shorter skis arrived to compete with traditional-length cross country skis, and they’re available for both in-track and off-trail uses. These skis have generally gotten a good reception and offer some advantages, including an ability to turn and maneuver more easily, but they provide insufficient support for off-trail skiing.
Don’t let the potentially befuddling number of choices discourage you. Utilize the expertise of salespeople to simplify the process. We live in the world where the profit motive fuels fierce competition between companies, resulting in constant innovation, endless improvements, and also more than a few gimmicks. Don’t worry about trying to find the perfect cross country skis! (which is like trying to find the perfect boots, perfect car, or perfect anything). For most of us they’re mainly a means for getting around in the snow, having some healthy fun, and enjoying winter’s natural wonders.
Waxable Versus Waxless Skis
Until a few decades ago cross country skis had to be waxed in order to get the proper grip. This changed radically with the introduction of waxless skis, which have a notched pattern underneath that holds the snow when pressure is applied. While the art of waxing still probably needs to be mastered by all serious practitioners, it’s no longer an essential skill for cross country skiers to have, and you can postpone learning it indefinitely. Virtually all skis available for rental these days are waxless.
Waxless skis work reasonably well under most snow conditions, and are unquestionably adequate for novices. The best thing about them is that your skis are always ready to go. With waxing you need a few minutes to apply the wax, which may later have to be scraped off and replaced with a different wax if the temperature and snow conditions change, as can happen anytime. It can be a particular hassle when temperatures are around freezing. The advantage of waxable skis is that you can maintain the best control and glide under the widest range of conditions.
If you don’t like the idea of learning waxing, make life easier for yourself by starting with and sticking to waxless cross country skis. You’re always welcome to think about purchasing waxable skis and taking up waxing at some later time. If and when you become an expert skier, or a serious student of the sport, or want to improve your control, or get involved in competition, that will definitely be the time to consider acquiring waxable skis and becoming initiated into the art of waxing. Learn it from a friend, or a ski shop, or from a book.
Getting Fitted with Cross Country Skis
A good salesperson or ski rental person is essential here. If you’re renting, they’ll help fit you with the right skis and you don’t need to know anything about it. If you’re buying, it’s better to have some knowledge before you make the investment.
If you’re getting traditional-style skis, the old rule of thumb for choosing the correct length ski for your height is that when you’re standing with your arm raised straight up next to the skis, the tips should reach the general area of your elevated wrist. It doesn’t have to be exact. For skating skis and other shorter skis different rules apply.
Even more important than length is the cross country ski’s camber (the amount the ski arcs off the ground) and flexibility, which will affect whether your skis are going to grip the snow adequately for you or not. Both vary considerably from one ski to another. The appropriate amount of camber and flexibility will depend on both your body weight and your ability to ski.
There’s a popular test you can do with a friend (or a salesperson) on a smooth floor to see if the flexibility and camber of a pair of cross country skis are right for you: stand on the skis with your weight evenly balanced between them, and try to slide an envelope under the center of them. If it can’t be done easily -- because both skis are touching the floor under your feet -- they don’t have enough camber or are too flexible for your weight, so you won’t get any glide with them. And if the space is too large, it’ll be hard for you to get enough traction in the snow to push forward.
Preparing Cross Country Skis for Use
Waxless skis require little maintenance, but it’s suggested that a glide wax be applied to the tips and tails when you first purchase the skis and periodically thereafter. The store or ski shop can usually do this for you (typically for a small charge), or you may ask them for instruction on how to do it on your own.
Additionally, the bottoms of waxless skis should be treated with silicone (available from your ski shop) on a regular basis, which will help give you a better glide, protect the ski bottoms, and also keep them from icing up -- a common occurrence on days when temperatures are hovering around freezing.
Cross Country Ski Boots
Most cross country ski boots bear little resemblance to bulky downhill ski boots, and with the increased specialization of Nordic skis has come a similar diversity of boot designs. The lightest ones, which are made for use with racing or in-track skis, are cut below the ankles and closer to running shoes -- thus allowing maximum freedom of movement -- than what we ordinarily think of as boots.
Boots designed for use with backcountry or other off-trail skis, in contrast, are more like hiking boots -- much heavier, stiffer, and more rigid, because of the need for lots of additional support. Skating boots are also stiffer, and telemark boots are almost like downhill ski boots. Boots that are made to be used with light touring skis fall somewhere in between the racing and backcountry extremes.
As with other footwear, nothing is more important than getting a good fit. Foot pain or blisters can spoil or at least put a real damper on any outing, and it’ll be hard to avoid constantly thinking of wanting to get those boots off. Make sure there’s toe space to spare, and not much slippage at the heel when you walk or ski in them. Since it’s usually advisable to wear reasonably heavy socks with the boots, be sure to try them on in the store with heavy socks as well as liner (thin inner) socks. And don’t buy unless they feel comfortable from the start.
Ask at the ski shop about recommended treatment for boots. If the uppers are synthetic they probably require little care aside from a wiping clean after each use, but some additional treatment may be suggested. If leather is included, you’ll need to apply oil, wax, or other preparation on a fairly regular basis to keep it from drying out.
One common blunder to avoid is allowing ski boots (or anything else, for that matter) that are wet from snow to dry out next to a hot stove, furnace, or fireplace. They can overheat and be irrevocably damaged. Dry boots at room temperature away from direct sources of heat.
Bindings are the devices that allow your ski boots to be attached to the cross country skis. You may or may not have a choice in the kind of bindings you’ll get. It’s essential that they be compatible with the kind of boot you’re going to be using. The salesperson will help you get the right ones.
After making a purchase it’s necessary to have the bindings mounted, which involves drilling holes in the skis and cementing the bindings. This is usually done by the store for free or a small service charge. Sometimes the mounting can be done while you wait, or you may have to leave the skis overnight or longer.
Poles help you maintain balance and stability on your skis, and also provide an additional means of limited propulsion, so they’re an important part of the equipment package. Most poles are made of fiberglass or other synthetic materials, or aluminum; generally speaking, the lighter and stiffer the poles, the better. Like everything else, designs vary with intended use. One of many variables is basket size and shape (the basket is attached near the tip of the pole and keeps it from sinking in the snow too deeply). Smaller baskets are fine for tracked trails, and larger ones best for off-trail travel.
If you’re buying traditional cross country skis, poles of the correct length will ordinarily come up to your armpits. Skating poles are longer. Adjustable poles are especially recommended for backcountry use, since you need different lengths at different times in steep terrain.
Cross Country Ski Clothing
Since the cross country ski boom of the 1970s and 1980s, lots of specially designed clothing for cross country skiing has been marketed to the public. Should you purchase a ski outfit if you already have other outdoor clothing? That’s up to you, but it’s unnecessary -- although racers and long-distance skiers may benefit from the lightweight (and fashionably designed) clothing available.
Unless you have a compulsion to wear the latest Nordic ski outfit, which will often be expensive and “loud,” you should do just fine layering yourself in any warm, non-cotton clothing that’s reasonably loose-fitting for maximum freedom of movement.