Nordic (cross-country) skiing

Though this site is dedicated to snowboarding, we should say a few words for some related activities, such as Nordic skiing.

Nordic three panel

Nordic, or cross-country skiing, is a neglected corner of the snowsports world. It doesn’t have the “youth” or “cool” factor of snowboarding, nor does it have the upper-class “sophistication” of downhill skiing. But it does share many virtues of snowboarding, with a few unique ones thrown in. Along with the snowboarding (and downhill skiing), it offers participants a chance to receive some “Vitamin D therapy” and share time with friends and family.

But there are some unique benefits to taking up Nordic skiing, and keeping it as either an alternative or cross-training activity.

Learning a new sport can keep your mind sharp. It’s much easier to learn how to learn how to go cross-country skiing–or at least less painful–but it’s another challenge just the same. The gear and techniques are all different from what you will experience in snowboarding, and the snow conditions may be different too.

You can develop toughness. Your home mountain or hill may have become so familiar that you can ride it in your sleep. Take some skinny skis, without edges, to a trail with a descent that is all of 30 feet, and you’ll have to learn how to deal once again with fear and difficulties. Meanwhile, the smallest of inclines can become a test of physical endurance.

Opportunities for Nordic skiing may be closer to you than a downhill area for snowboarding. There are only a limited number of places where you can get lift-served snowboarding. There are a limited number of places where downhill skiing or riding is possible. That means you may need to drive an hour, two hours, or more–or even get on a plane–to find a suitable place for lift-served skiing or snowboarding. By contrast, if you live in location with snow, your playground may be as close as your front door.

The ongoing cost of Nordic skiing is low. Nordic skiing has a very different cost structure than downhill skiing or riding. To start with, there are no lifts to operate, and grooming can be performed with more modestly priced machines. Instead of paying $50 to $100 for a lift ticket, you may have to pay $5 to defer the cost of grooming.  That’s cheaper than a gym membership, especially if you purchase a season pass for Nordic skiing. (Oh, it’s also not stinky, like a gym can be.)

Nordic skiing is a powerful way to burn calories. It also provides a great cardio-vascular workout. Snowboarding can have aerobic benefits, too, but if you spend a lot of time on chair lifts–as we do here in the Midwest–your calorie burn will be on the low side. SnowSports Industry America, gives the advantage to Nordic skiing (700 calories per hour) over snowboarding (450), alpine skiing (500) and snowshoeing (550). They’re all good activities, but if you want to maximize your calorie burn, seek out Nordic skiing.

Nordic skiing is a full-body workout. Legs, arms, shoulder, core. They’re all involved in moving you forward on your Nordic skis. By contrast, you won’t be using your arms and shoulders much when you’re snowboarding.

Nordic skiing occurs in beautiful places. Downhill areas, especially outside true mountainous regions, are not always the most visually pleasing. (Not to name names of any Midwestern downhill areas, but how scenic is a small, treeless hill?) On an empty expanse, there’s something more visually appealing on slow skis, and the best cross-country areas wind through the woods.

You’ll always be moving — if you want to. On skinny skis, you can always be moving, and in the Midwest or any other place lacking mountains with 2- or 3-mile runs, downhill skiing or snowboarding involves a lot of time sitting, perhaps 4 minutes for every 45 seconds spent coming down the hill. If you spend 3 hours on cross-country skis and 3 hours on a snowboard, which activity will demand more from you? It’s not close.

Nordic skiing offers solitude. There’s are several reasons why Nordic skiing is called a “silent sport.” One is that you won’t hear music blaring from speakers, which you may find at small downhill areas, and especially terrain parks.

You can drive in your Nordic boots. So this is a more silly reason, but it’s still true. Sometimes you pull this off with snowboard boots, but they’re rather bulky. By contrast, Nordic boots have a much lower profile, and are easier to drive with.


Snowboarders who try the human-propelled version of sliding may encounter some confusion when they look for equipment. Broadly speaking, all snowboarders use the same kind of equipment:  soft boots, boards that have a sidecut, rounded tips and tails, and strap-and-ratchet bindings. Nordic skiing, though, is divided into two major camps: Diagonal or classic, and skate, and the choice will decide which technique you use. (There are, to complicate matters, yet other types of cross-countryish skis, such as variations on telemark, but  let’s leave that aside for now.)

Which one should you try? The Livestrong Foundation–yes, the organization founded by the disgraced cyclist–has a quick useful summary of the differences that is worth the quick read it will require. Based on personal experience, I’d recommend starting out with classic skis, which are longer and wider. The fact that they are meant to be used in pre-made tracks in the snow will make it easier for you to move than is the case with skate skis.

Though a Nordic ski package will probably cost less than a downhill or snowboard package, it may be worth renting equipment to get a feel for what you like. On the other hand, you may face the usual problems of rental equipment–stuff that’s beat up, boots that have soles coming apart, and so forth.

As with downhill skiing or snowboarding, the presence of absence of grooming can make a big difference in your experience. Everyone, but especially novices, benefit from groomed trails, as breaking new trails or skiing in chopped-up snow is much more difficult. Grooming machines–snow tillers, if you will–create a wide, flat surface for skate skiing, a set of narrow tracks for classic skiing, or both. Established Nordic ski areas will, like their downhill brethren, publish snow reports describing snow coverage and recent grooming history.

If you’re an experienced snowboarder or downhill skier, you will be overdressed if you take your usual outfit to  Nordic area. So if you normally wear a base layer, turtleneck shirt, and a fleece, leave the fleece at home. Depending on the outside temperature, you may even get away with leaving the ski/snowboard jacket at home and wearing a thinner jacket. Be sure to take some water with you, too. With the more vigorous workout, it will become easier for you to become dehydrated. Here’s one over-looked piece of preparation: clip your toenails before you leave home. You’ll be putting weight on your toes on a regular basis. If your toenails aren’t quite short enough, the result may be some toe pain. Also, don’t forget the sunscreen! Yes, it’s cold outside, but the sun still burns.

Finally, consider taking a lesson, especially if you want to try skate skiing. While Nordic skiing may not appear to be as hard as snowboarding, it is more complex than it looks. If nothing else, you’ll learn some tricks to make your skiing more efficient, and thus more enjoyable.

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