Cross-country skiing has been booming for years in the United States, but with the first full winter of the coronavirus pandemic, it is poised to become bigger than ever. The spread of COVID-19 saw huge gains in many forms of outdoor recreation lending themselves to social distancing, including hiking, golf, and cycling, and now that winter is here, cross country skiing is one of the easiest ways to continue society’s search for fresh air, exercise and fitness with millions still stuck working from home, travel restrictions, and regional lockdowns once again increasing alongside record infection rates.
At the same time, the limitation on alpine ski resorts and restrictions on lift capacity, plus general travel malaise, have made the regular downhill ski vacation less appealing this season, and many urbanites cannot even make their usual weekend trips. That leaves cross country, with its lower priced equipment, much lower priced access and few barriers to entry – other than snow – as a perfect alternative. It is much easier and faster to learn than alpine skiing or snowboarding, and it can even be done in urban areas – I’ve cross country skied in New York’s Central Park.
There have been two other hot and fast-growing winter sports in this most unusual season, and you can learn more about both here at Forbes. Snowshoeing is the cheapest and easiest snowy pursuit to try, requiring no special skill and little gear. Alpine Touring (AT) or uphill skiing is the best alternative to lift-served downhill skiing but is more equipment intensive and better suited for already experienced alpine skiers.
In the three years preceding the pandemic, cross country saw a nearly 40% surge, and this picked up faster after the 2018 Winter Olympic Games and historic first Gold medal success of the U.S. Women’s team. But the coronavirus outbreak accelerated this curve even more and skiing’s industry trade group, Snowsports Industries America (SIA), surveyed consumers before the winter and predicted a 28% increase in all snowsports participation this season, with the biggest jump being cross-country skiing (+65%) ahead of notable growth in snowshoeing, AT skiing and fat tire biking.
“As people strive to stay healthy during the pandemic, 2020 has brought with it a boom in activities that people can do close to home and properly distanced from others. Looking to winter, and the uncertainty surrounding ski-resort operations, many in the outdoor industry expect cross-country skiing may see a similar uptick as we saw with cycling and trail running this spring and summer,” said Jeff Courter, Nordic Category Product Manger for Rossignol, one of the biggest manufacturers of cross-country ski gear. “With a relatively low barrier to entry both in terms of cost and ski-specific skills, the sport of cross-country skiing is accessible to beginners and is a great solution for getting outside while keeping a safe distance from others.”
The sport also fits the growing wellness focus and interest in all things fitness, offering a superior workout with less injury potential than many other action sports. It has a short learning curve, and first timers can enjoy it right out of the gate while better conditioned athletes can push themselves to the aerobic limits with skate skiing, the sport’s more demanding discipline. For travelers it can be enjoyed in all the same gorgeous spots and great ski towns as downhill skiing, but as it requires less snow quantity and does not need mountains, you can do it in far more destinations and closer to – or within – big cities.
While downhill skiing is an alpine discipline, cross-country falls under Nordic, and consists of three main forms, all of which employ very comfortable lightweight boots, a nice departure from downhill boots or even hiking boots. Classic is by far the most popular. This involves sliding one leg at a time with skis in two parallel groomed slot-like tracks, and the skis never lose contact with the snow. Today the vast majority of participants use wax-less skis, which have a textured fish scale pattern molded into the base so they slide easily forward but not back, so when you push off the rear ski you move forward. There are also waxable versions, but no one starting out should consider this, it’s typically reserved for racing or hardcore devotees. Classic can be picked up in minutes but continues to entertain and challenge indefinitely, and most Nordic trail centers have easy (green), intermediate (blue), and advanced (black) terrain just like downhill resorts.
Classic packages for beginners, including skis, bindings, poles and boots can be had for well under $400 at sites like crosscountryski.com – less than just a decent pair of downhill ski boots. and many online retailers including Backcountry.com, Skis.com, REI.com and more carry Nordic gear. Of course, for perfect fit and advice you are better off at a brick and mortar shop, but in these strange times that can be challenging.
Skating is the more aerobic fitness focused discipline, where skiers push themselves with a V-shaped stride like ice skating, lifting one foot off the snow at a time, usually at a faster pace, using shorter skis and done on a wider groomed path with no tracks. Skating can be done in far less places as they have to groom a track specifically for it and is more for serious workouts than enjoying the great outdoors. It also requires substantially more balance and coordination and is harder to pick up.
Off-track or backcountry cross country skiing is classic without groomed tracks, in unbroken snow. This requires more effort but allows users to go anywhere and venture further into the wilderness, and this category has grown in recent year with technological advances, mainly wider skis for more flotation with metal edges for better control on downhills. Most recently, a new generation of cross-country skis have been introduced with easy on and off “skins,” fabric strips that greatly increase traction for easier uphill climbing on big ascents. Rossignol is one of the companies leading this charge, and their system is called the R-Skin. “Our collection of cross-country ski equipment utilizes turnkey technologies that allow newcomers to slide easily on trails or go for tours in the mountains. R-Skin has been newly introduced in our touring lineup as a ready-to-ski concept that offers no-hassle kick and glide performance in all conditions. The R-Skin replaceable mohair insert offers an easy, consistent kick and maximum glide with no prep work and is good for 100-150 days on snow,” explained Courter.
I personally use one of these wider, meta edged “backcountry-style” skis, but still narrow enough to fit in groomed tracks, so I can do it all with one pair. Typically, up to 68mm wide will still fit in tracks, a common size for just this reason, while traditional classic skis can run under 50mm.
If you are new to cross-country skiing, the best way to get started is to visit a Nordic center or a resort hotel with a trail system and try out rental gear and take a lesson. There are hundreds of these nationwide, the first and most famous of which is the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont, the nation’s oldest Nordic center and the first with snowmaking. The trail system here even includes a microbrewery! (but Vermont is currently operating with strict 7-14 day quarantine for all visitors from out of state). A good resource is the Cross Country Ski Areas Association, an industry group of trail systems across the nation. Its site has both a directory of places to go and lot of useful beginner advice. The Nordic Approach is a new e-magazine covering various aspects of the cross-country lifestyle which you may find interesting and helpful.
Most major ski resorts and ski towns also have Nordic trail systems, perfect for those who want to mix things up and try cross-country without committing to an entire vacation or giving up downhill. Some of North America’s best spots combining world class cross-country and downhill skiing are Beaver Creek, Colorado; Vermont’s Stowe; Sun Valley, Idaho; Tahoe’s Kirkwood in California; and Whistler/Blackcomb, British Columbia, which has a state-of-the-art Nordic center built for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games – you can even try the rarely available discipline of biathlon here. Note that many of these destinations, along with travel in general, may be limited or inaccessible in the current pandemic.