In cross-country skiing, the barriers to entry are much lower than downhill skiing. A trail pass at your nearest cross-country ski center might cost $20 for the day or a couple hundred dollars for the whole winter. (Compare that to the $200-per-day lift tickets you’ll see at big ski resorts this season.) Plus, you don’t need huge mountains; you just need the right skis, enough snow, and a few miles of groomed trails.
But there are a few things you should know before your first foray on skinny skis. For starters, there are two styles of cross-country skiing: classic skiing, which involves a basic glide and is more akin to walking, and skate skiing, which is a bit more technical and faster and looks more like ice skating. Most beginners start with classic skiing. If you’re adept on downhill skis or want more of an aerobic challenge, skate skiing might be for you.
“If you can walk, you can classic-ski. It’s the same motion. You’re swinging your foot through like you’re kicking a soccer ball,” says Jessie Diggins, the 2018 Olympic gold medalist in cross-country skiing. “For skate skiing, if you’ve ever roller skated, or skated on ice, it comes pretty quickly. Keep an open mind and be patient.”
We asked Diggins and a few other experts in the field for advice on how to get into the sport.
Start at a Cross-Country Ski Center
You could buy old classic skis at a garage sale and tromp into the snow-covered forest, but that comes with its own challenges (like cutting trail or getting lost). Instead, start at a designated cross-country ski center, which has groomed trails, rental gear, maps, and qualified instructors. These can be found in many snowy areas where skiing is available, from city-owned parks to private trails. Check out our picks for the best nordic trails in the nation, or turn to the Cross-Country Ski Areas Association website to find a cross-country ski area in your region.
Once you’re there, you’ll be able to rent all the equipment necessary for the day, or if you’re committed to the sport, consider buying an entry-level package. “There are a lot of places where you can rent equipment—skis, boots, poles,” Diggins says. “Make sure your boots are comfortable and that you have enough room for wool socks if it’s cold out. If you get boots that are way too tight, your feet will get cold, and you won’t enjoy it as much.”
Layering in the winter is critical no matter what you’re doing outside, but it’s especially important when cross-country skiing. Dress as if you were going out for a vigorous hike or run in cold temperatures.
“Cross-country skiing is so fun, but only if you don’t freeze,” Diggins says. “Make sure you have base layers, that you’re stacking up layers. As you get going, you can take layers off or you can put more on.’”
You’ll want a hat or a headband and light gloves, as well as a hydration system—most nordic skiers wear a waist belt with a water bottle, but a light backpack or running-style vest works, too, if you’re going out for more than an hour or so. “It’s cold, so you don’t feel as thirsty. But you’re still sweating and losing moisture,” Diggins says.
Learn How to Stop Correctly
Signing up for a beginner lesson at a cross-country ski center can help you learn proper technique and prevent injuries. Most lessons are an hour long, after which you’ll be set to head out on your own.
“Cross-country skiing doesn’t come with a huge injury risk, because you’re gliding across the snow. If you take even just a one-hour lesson, you will get those fundamentals,” Diggins says. “It’s a steep learning curve. Once you get some of those skills down, you’re off and skiing.”
In a first-timer’s lesson, you’ll practice skills like how to put on your equipment, how to kick and glide, how to pole-plant, and (possibly most important) how to stop. “The biggest thing to remember is, you don’t have metal edges, like in alpine skiing, that help you dig in and stop,” says Karin Moisa-Fuller, manager of the Tamarack Cross-Country Ski Center in Mammoth Lakes, California. “On cross-country skis, you have to physically make the skis dig in and stop by tipping your skis to get them on their side.”
You can opt for a private individual lesson or a group lesson if you’re with family or friends. Most cross-country ski centers rent some type of skiable sled to bring babies or toddlers along, and kids starting around ages four or five can head out on their own skis. If you want to bring your dog, check to make sure the ski area allows pets and which trails they’re permitted on. “Most places have a couple of designated trails for dogs,” says Moisa-Fuller. “Just make sure you have voice control over your dog, you clean up after them, and you’re on the right trails.”
Choose the Right Trails for Your Ability
After you have the basics down, it’s time to go explore. “Gliding is the most amazing feeling. It’s like flying. It’s like being a bird,” says Ellen Chandler, executive director of Jackson XC, a cross-country ski area in Jackson, New Hampshire. “Once you’re 50 yards from the building, you’re on your own on the trails. It’s very liberating.”
If you want to take it easy, check the map and find a flat, green-circle-graded trail. Interested in more of a workout? Look for something graded with a blue square, which might have some small hills. “Cross-country skiing is exactly as hard as you make it,” Diggins says. “It can be the hardest workout you do. It can also be low-key, just gliding along the trails. It can be social and relaxing, and a way to find mental peace and calm. It is what you make it.”
Keep your ability level in mind when selecting terrain. “Any level slope can feel more extreme on cross-country skis,” says Elizabeth Brumm, marketing manager at Devil’s Thumb Ranch, a lodge near Winter Park, Colorado, with 75 miles of nordic ski trails. “It takes a bit of practice to go down even little slopes. Know when to say, ‘Let’s pick a shorter trail or let’s pick a flatter trail.’”
A lot of trail systems have a trail map at the base area. Pay attention before you head out, so you know where you’re going. “You don’t necessarily know if there are going to be trail markers at every intersection. So take a picture of the map before you start,” Diggins says. “Most trail systems are well marked. And cross-country skiing has some of the best people—if you get lost on the trail, you can almost always find someone who will help you.”
If you end up heading out a bunch and buying your own gear, don’t forget to wax your skis or take them to the repair shop at the cross-country center for a quick wax at the start of the season. If you start going regularly, like every weekend, wax once a month or every six weeks so your bases don’t dry out. “Skis need wax in order to go fast and perform,” Diggins says. “You’re going to have so much more fun if you invest in a brush or a scraper and either rub-on wax or wax that you melt on with an iron, then scrape off. Pretty simple wax tools that you can get from your local ski shop will help you have so much fun.”