The beginner's guide to the greatest pastimes: Cross-country skiing
From getting started to perfecting your form — with tips from an Olympic gold medalist
Cross-country skiing, or Nordic skiing, has all the components of a perfect pandemic pastime — it can be done alone or in a bubble to adhere to public health guidelines, you can ski as long as there's even a skiff of snow and injuries are rare. "It's safer than walking now that everything's so slippery," says Chandra Crawford, who won the gold medal for Canada in the 1.1km cross-country sprint at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino.
Crawford was born in Canmore, Alberta and was taught to ski by her "mountain hippie parents" at just nine months old, before she could even walk. Now, she's sharing her love of skiing with her own kids, all under age five. "It's an amazing family sport," said the now-retired Olympian, who lives in Calgary. "The cost is way less than downhill skiing, it's way better exercise, way less time and driving ... [and] way less cold."
The sport is also a great way to beat the winter blues and has been shown to improve long-term psychological wellness. "Surviving winter is definitely about making friends with your warm clothing," Crawford says. "Getting started is the hardest part."
The cross-country skiing we practice today finds its origins in Scandinavia, over 5,000 years ago, though earlier evidence of humans on skis in other parts of the world also exists. But it wasn't until the 19th Century that cross-country skiing became a pastime.
The sport's popularity can probably best be attributed to Norway's Fridtjof Nansen, who crossed the then-unexplored southern end of Greenland on a pair of heavy wooden skis in 1888 and published a book about his exploits. The book went that era's version of viral and cross-country skiing became all the rage across Europe.
In 1924, Nordic skiing was included in the Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France. At first, only men were allowed to compete, but women carved out their place in the sport at the 1962 Olympics in Oslo, paving the way for Canadian medalists like Crawford, Beckie Scott and Sara Renner.
Cross-country skiing in Canada was first recorded in Quebec in 1879, but the man credited with spreading the sport across the country was Norway's Herman "Jackrabbit" Johannsen who didn't arrive until 1928. Johannsen went on to sculpt trails and jumps across Ontario and Quebec, and continued skiing all the way to the age of 107 (he died at 111).
What you need to know to get started
There are two popular methods of cross-country skiing. Classic is the traditional method, which involves gliding along parallel tracks with the same rhythmic motion as running or walking. Then there's skate skiing, which was invented in the 1980s and involves pushing off your skis on an angle in a similar motion to hockey skating. Depending on who you ask, touring or backcountry skiing is a third style, but it's almost identical to classic skiing except it can be done off tracks and in deep snow. According to Crawford, classic is best for starting out as it's the easiest to learn. "If you can walk, you can ski," she says.
You don't necessarily need lessons, especially for classic cross-country skiing, but a coach can help with the technicalities of the sport. Some clubs offer lessons, and Crawford herself offers classes via Zoom. Otherwise, ask a friend to teach you and imitate how other skiers are moving when you're on the track. YouTube also has plenty of training videos, too.
With your boots on, tip your foot downwards and kick into your binding one at a time (this may take a few tries). Then without the poles, start shuffling in the same bipedal motion you use to walk. "The best teacher in the world is completely free: you just get rid of your poles," Crawford says. "Even into my last years World Cup ski racing in my early 30s, my Swedish technique coach made me do half an hour without my poles every single day on uphills and downhills and get the balance and then you get those poles back and it's like, goodness."
As you're shuffling (with or without poles), drive your arms forward and backward and try to glide. Set your focus to the sticky spot in the middle of the ski and push off. Then, as you're moving forward, lengthen your slide. "That is one of the most fun feelings. You're flowing through terrain," Crawford says. "On the day I won the Olympics, I had the keyword 'power glide.' That was all I thought about."
Skate skiing tends to be faster and better for icy conditions, but it's a little more complicated to learn. "Skate skiing has its own, totally different rhythm, totally different techniques," Crawford says. "They're not complicated but it's almost like if you had a stick shift with five gears and for different terrains you do slightly different techniques."
Ultimately, the rhythm for skate skiing is similar to hockey skating and involves using your skis as springs to launch you forward. Crawford says your hips, hands and knees all have to be in tune to get you moving in a solid flow. "You think about your breathing and the rhythm and the flow and it can be totally engrossing...and invariably you'll have some epiphany about your life or your shopping list. It can be just a great mental space as well."
Starting out, you're going to want to look for trails with flat terrain, but as you improve, hills can be fun, too.
To move uphill, shorten your strides as if you're saying to yourself "cha cha cha," Crawford explains, and bounce off the grippy part under your feet. If that doesn't work, you're going to have to do what's called a herringbone, which involves moving your skis into a 'v' shape and trotting upwards.
Try your best to stay on the tracks. To slow down, you can angle your feet inwards in an upside-down 'v' snowplow motion — but Crawford says embracing a good downhill is one of the best parts of the sport. "Sometimes cross country skiing doesn't seem that exciting, but when you're careening down some icy downhill — it's almost no support and no ankle support, no protective gear at all. You can't tell me that's not exciting," she said.
What you need to have to get started
Classic skis tend to be softer so you can grip the snow beneath you, whereas skate skis are stiffer to spring you forward.
For classic ski size, a general rule of thumb is your height plus 20 to 30 centimetres — the shorter end of the spectrum is better for starting out and for lighter weight.
Some newer classic skis have a rough material in the middle called "skins" and don't need to be waxed as often. Skins are controversial in the sport, with some preferring the speed of traditional waxed skis, but Crawford is a fan of the newer technology. "The ex-racers I know are on the skin skis and my parents are hardcore and ski many times a week and they're just loving [them]," she said. "Just click in and go."
For classic ski pole size, the rule of thumb is your height minus 30 centimetres "give or take two and a half [centimetres] for your personal comfort," Crawford says.
Skate ski poles should be 20 centimetres under your height, or even less.
Classic ski boots are all about comfort and have to be able to flex so you can bend the foot and kick the toe. Skate ski boots should be stiff like a hockey skate.
While not obligatory, it's nice to have a breathable jacket and moisture-wicking clothes so you don't overheat.
How much should it cost?
Crawford recommends giving the sport a try before you buy and either borrowing a friend's equipment or renting. Some stores even allow you to rent gear for the season before deciding if you want to keep it.
When ready to buy your own equipment, Crawford says not to worry too much about getting the most expensive stuff — if your skis aren't the lightest or the fastest, you'll get a better workout than someone with top of the line equipment.
What you need to do to get started
There are thousands of groomed cross-country ski trails across Canada and they tend to charge nominal entry fees compared to ski lift tickets, if they charge at all. Find trails by visiting park websites, reaching out to clubs, or asking a local skiing network on social media. There are also various apps that highlight user-submitted trails.
Take it slow
Don't be afraid to take it easy and enjoy the experience alone or with loved ones. "Take it down several notches and just keep a steadier pace," Crawford says. "It's a perfectly enjoyable family activity to shuffle around, drink a thermos of tea, and maybe even have a little fire if you can, if you're near a lake."
Don't put too much pressure on kids
If teaching children, keep the focus on having fun — they may not want to do it again if you're pressuring them to go farther or faster too soon. "It's not hard to teach kids to ski over time, but if you've pushed them and had those negative experiences then the door kind of closes," Crawford says. "I'm overly cognizant of that, so for a year I mostly just drank hot chocolate on a blanket in the ski stadium with my daughter because I was just so interested in her having positive associations and good vibes."
Keep it cool
Skiing is a great full-body workout and you'll quickly find yourself sweating, even in cold weather. So don't overdress. "You want to be bold, start cold," Crawford says.
The former Olympian recommends bringing a backpack to store dry clothes or keeping an extra layer in your car to change into when you're done.
Keep trying and have fun
It's easy to get started cross-country skiing, especially classic — but the sport can take years to perfect. So, always be sure to keep it light and have fun. "All I care about is attitude," Crawford says. "Laugh and smile and learn and grow. You're in that particularly special ascent of getting to learn something …. So just struggle well and struggle with a smile."
Joel Balsam is a Montreal-based freelance journalist with stories in National Geographic, TIME, The Guardian, Lonely Planet and more.