by Roger Lohr
Cross country (XC) skiing is a terrific way to enjoy the great outdoors in winter. The pleasures of XC skiing can take your mind off the stresses of the daily grind, whether you seek the solitude of solo skiing or are spending some quality time with family and friends. It’s also a great aerobic activity, enabling you to burn up hundreds of calories per hour without straining joints such as ankles and knees. You’ll get a low-impact workout while enjoying the outdoors, and the scenery sure beats the view at your local health club.
Where do you plan to ski? The terrain and location helps determine your equipment choices. XC skiing allows you to choose from a variety of locations. parks, golf courses, hiking trails, or XC ski areas are all good choices.
You can rent equipment at your local ski shop or at the ski area. This is often recommended for first-time skiers and some ski shops will apply the price of rentals toward purchasing new equipment.
Buying used equipment at a ski swap may be a mistake. Be aware that at garage sales and some swaps, you may wind up with gear that is outdated or inappropriate for you. Buy a package deal that offers a discount when you buy skis, boots, bindings, and poles together.
In-track XC skis are used with a traditional kick-and-glide motion on maintained track systems set by special grooming machines. They have minimal sidecut so the skis will stay in the tracks. Sidecut refers to the narrowness of the middle part of the skis in relation to the wider tip and tail.
Off-track XC skis are often used to navigate ungroomed trails and terrain in parks, open fields, and on golf courses. They are wider than in-track XC skis and provide more flotation and stability in fresh snow. Backcountry skis are for the more adventurous skier, who might experience variable snow conditions. They can be as wide as alpine skis, for better flotation, and feature metal edges for more control. A salesman may try to sell you steel edge skis for more control, but be aware that these skis will not glide very well on the flat terrain compared to in-track skis.
Some XC skis have waxable bases, on which you put “kick wax” for grip. Other skis have waxless bases. A pattern in the middle third of the ski base, such as small plastic ridges or scales, provides the grip. Waxless skis have been designed to run beautifully in just about any kind of snow. Your decision will center on whether you want optimal performance by waxing or optimal convenience with waxless skis. Snow conditions will be a factor, because changing conditions require skiers on waxable skis to use different waxes. Skating skis are used with a skating-type stride on groomed trails that are wide with packed lanes. They are shorter, narrower, and lighter than traditional XC skis. The technique is similar to inline skating, except poles are also used. Skating skis allow the skier to glide faster and for a longer distance for each stride. They can provide the ultimate fitness workout and going uphill can be a challenge.
Have the ski bindings professionally installed on the skis. Be aware that the bindings must be matched to the type of boots that you select as they come in different integrated systems.
Your boots should feel just like running shoes so try on the boots wearing the socks that you plan to wear when skiing. Consider footbeds or fitted insoles if you have problems with your feet. Because of these various sizing methods, it’s important to try on boots before buying them. The fit should be snug and your heel should remain in place. You should be able to wiggle your toes.
XC ski poles are used to help forward thrust. Skiers plant their poles behind on an angle. If this is your first set of XC gear, any reasonably light pole will be fine. Select poles that fit comfortably under your armpits when you stand on the ground. A little longer is okay, too.
Now get going – XC skiing is relatively easy to learn, but first-timers should take a lesson from a qualified instructor to greatly enhance the experience. Call ahead to the local XC ski area to find out about lessons and any special packages that are available. As your confidence on the skinny skis grows, you’ll have a lifetime of nature outdoors, fitness and fun.
Roger Lohr is the founder and editor of XCSkiResorts.com and prolific national writer on cross country skiing.