Downhill skiing is an awesome sport but, let’s face it, it comes with some hassles. Usually there are lines to get on the lifts. Slopes, lodges and parking lots get overcrowded, detracting from the solitude we seek in the mountains.
Maybe, then, this is the winter you ought to give cross country skiing a try. Skiing at a Nordic center is much cheaper than downhill skiing, and equipment is also much cheaper to buy or rent. The learning curve is faster and trails are seldom crowded. Cross country skiing also can give you a full-body workout that downhill skiing can’t deliver.
If you really like it, you can graduate quickly from the Nordic center to backcountry skiing, which is free. You will be much better off if you start at a Nordic center, though.
“We do think that the backcountry is the ultimate experience in Nordic, if you have the skills, the practice, a few lessons under your belt, and then you’ve upgraded to backcountry equipment,” said Therese Dayton, who has operated the Breckenridge Nordic Center for decades with her husband, Gene. “We want you to take a lesson, have an experience with rest facilities, parking, food service and retail so you can have the best experience, the softest adventure.
“People try to come through the back door of the sport, directly into the backcountry with equipment that may not have been properly fitted, or it’s cold, or they get a little lost, or the trail is a little longer than they expected. We’re going to welcome you in, we’re going to show you a trail map, everything is mapped and marked and has a trail name so you don’t accidentally get on an intermediate or advanced trail that you didn’t want to go on.”
Here, then, is a primer on cross country skiing for the uninitiated.
Cost of passes and equipment: Most cross country areas charge $18-$25 for a day of skiing. Purchasing a full set of equipment, including skis, boots, bindings and poles will cost around $500, about the same as you’d pay for a pair of downhill boots.
“The trend that I’ve been seeing with cross country skiing is that it’s becoming more family-oriented,” said Mike Sheridan, who works in the ski department at REI’s downtown Denver flagship store. “It used to be fairly individual, people just going out on their own. Now, when you are looking at the fact that you can get each person in the family set up for $500 for skis, bindings, boots and poles, it’s much more feasible to get out and enjoy the outdoors in the winter versus alpine ski set-ups where you’re looking at $500 for boots, $500 for skis, $200 for bindings, another $50 for poles.”
Technique: The traditional diagonal stride “kick-and-glide” technique, often called “classical,” has been around for more than 100 years.
“In about an hour, we can have you skiing and feeling great about it,” Dayton said. “As your balance improves, you fall down less and you use the tracks more efficiently.”
Skate skiing emerged as another cross country technique in the 1980s after American Bill Koch used it to win a silver medal at the 1976 Olympics, and it is popular in recreational racing.
Equipment: Cross country gear is much lighter than downhill equipment. Skis designed for use at Nordic centers are narrow, while skis intended for the backcountry are slightly wider and have metal edges. Because cross country gear is designed for free-heel movement, it’s easier for a beginner to maneuver. For that reason, cross country can be a great first step for kids even if the ultimate goal is getting them into downhill skiing because they can get comfortable walking around on free-heeled skinny skis.
“It also teaches them the basics of getting into a snowplow to stop,” Sheridan said, “which is crucial when you get into an alpine set-up.”
Trail grooming: Nordic centers groom trails for both techniques. A “track set” trail has parallel grooves to help classical skiers stay on course.
“Set track means that one ski goes in one track, the other one goes in the other track,” Dayton said. “It makes it easier because you’re gliding within a guided track. You don’t have to stay in that track, but we will show you how you can slow down by taking one foot out of the track with the other foot still in the track. Eventually you can step in and out of tracks, go around corners in tracks.”
Lessons: Cross country is easier to pick up than downhill skiing, and lessons are cheaper. Breckenridge, for example, charges $60 for a group lesson that includes a trail pass.
“I tell people that for less than $100, you can come to the Nordic center, take the lesson, rent the equipment,” Dayton said. “For us, it’s $83 — $60 for the lesson and $23 for the rental, including a trail pass. You can take an hour and a half lesson, then ski all day.”
You could ask a friend to teach you in the backcountry, but you would be risking a bad experience.
“At a Nordic center, they can shuffle around, they can use the rest facilities, get a cup of coffee or a hot chocolate, sit by the fire and warm up,” Dayton said. “If the equipment doesn’t feel right, you don’t go for four and a half hours and get a blister like you do in the backcountry. In the backcountry, you’re sort of making your own tracks, but there may be dog tracks, there may be people who went with a snowmobile or snowshoes. All of a sudden, you get to a corner or a little bit of a downhill, it’s a harrowing experience.”
Health benefits: You can go as slow or as fast as you want, but once you get the hang of it you can count on burning 600-700 calories per hour. Because you’re using your arms, legs and core muscles, it’s a whole-body exercise with low impact on joints that will strengthen your cardiovascular system while improving balance.
“It’s a gliding sport, and it’s aerobic. The health benefits are unparalleled,” Dayton said. “It encompasses all aspects of fitness: strength, flexibility, agility, balance, your core. Those are things everybody is trying to do in a gym with weights and fitness machines. You can regulate at a pace that keeps you within your aerobic zone. That’s why it’s such good cross training.”
How to find a Nordic center: Check out the website of the Colorado Cross Country Ski Association (coloradocrosscountry.com) for a list of cross county areas, pass deals, races and fun events.