Beginner Cross-Country Ski Tips for Nervous Novices

Want to start cross-country skiing but feel like you don't know enough? Ski Expert Alex K. breaks down everything you'll need to know before your first time out!

Young child cross country skis along a groomed track. He is wearing a red jacket.

Learning to XC in Franconia, New Hampshire. Photo by Alex K.

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So you got a sweet pair of cross-country skis for the holidays, and you’re psyched—well, kind of. The thought of getting out there, blazing your own tracks in fresh snow, and breathing in all that fresh air seems wonderful, but what’s the reality? Maybe you’re not sure you’re ready, physically or mentally. Maybe you have no idea where to start or how to use those skinny skis.

First, breathe! Cross-country skiing started at least five millennia ago in Scandinavia (perhaps even earlier in China) as a means of transportation across snow. It wasn’t about getting there fast, but rather surviving the trek. Today, we can recreate on groomed cross-country trails with well-marked signage and smoothy prepared tracks that make for a much more enjoyable experience.

If you’re brand new to skiing and want to endure the least amount of pain and embarrassment, you’re in the right place. Cross-country (XC) or nordic skiing is about as mellow of a winter sport as they come, even if it’s faster (and arguably more fun) than snowshoeing.

Like any new sport or hobby, there’s going to be a learning curve, but cross-country skiing is also very easy to pick up at a basic, shuffling level. Also, when you fall or simply lose your balance and topple to one side, it’s usually at a snail pace and isn’t going to hurt. As long as you laugh it off and get back up, you’ll be fine and get the hang of it in no time.

The Gear

The boots and skis of a cross country skier. You can see their poles in the top part of the frame as they glide across the trail.

For starters, it’s important to familiarize yourself with your ski equipment (if you haven’t purchased yet and are contemplating, make sure you chat with one of our Ski Experts!). Do you have waxable or waxless classic skis? Are they wider with metal edges and fish-scale bases for off-trail touring? Are they skate skis with smooth bases for fast-moving, aerobic workouts on groomed trails? Not sure? Most newcomers opt for waxless skis for recreational touring.

What You Need

Skis, bindings, boots, poles.

Approximate Cost

For a waxless ski setup designed for groomed trails at XC ski centers, groomed parks, or golf courses, touring skis and bindings cost somewhere around $300, boots $100-200, and poles $25-50—so around $500 total.

For a backcountry touring setup (wider, heavier, with metal edges), expect closer to $550-600.

Considerations

Like downhill and snowboarding, you should think about where you plan to ski and how fast you want to go. If you’d like to go at a leisurely pace, touring is for you. More seasoned or physically fit intermediate to advanced skiers will opt for classic and/or skate skiing (lessons recommended to learn the techniques for each).

Skis are generally chosen based on weight and height, and if you’re worried about staying upright, it’s a good idea to look for touring boots with ankle cuffs for extra stability.

For beginner skiers wanting to learn how to scoot around on mostly flat or gently rolling terrain, taking a lesson at a nordic center is key (reserve by calling ahead). There, you can also rent gear (advance online reservations encouraged, sometimes discounted) if you’re not committed to buying or just want to try something new.

Getting After It

Three people cross country ski along a groomed track. One of them looks to be wearing a name tag and is likely an instructor. He is facing the other two and doing hand gestures.

A skate-ski lesson at Lapland Lake Cross Country Ski Center in Northville, New York. Photo courtesy of Lapland Lake Ski Center

For anyone who just wants to get out there and wing it, here are a few very basic tips to keep in mind:

1. Know Your Equipment

Do your skis have metal edges and a width greater than 65mm at the tips/widest points? If so, chances are you have a backcountry touring setup, which is designed for ungroomed, off-trail skiing. While more stable than traditional skinny skis, this setup is going to be heavier and cumbersome for groomed skiing. There’s also a good chance your backcountry skis won’t fit in groomed classic tracks. You can ski out of the tracks in the middle of the trail (where the skate skiers roam), but it’s going to be slower and less efficient. Also, watch for fast-approaching skate skiers from ahead and behind!

2. Start with Waxless Classic Skis

This is what most ski shops will set you up on if you’re renting for the first time. The bottom of the skis will have a fish-scale pattern in the kick zone, below the foot and binding plate, or mohair skins for grip in this area. You need grip to help you move forward as you start by walking on the skis (and progress to an elongated running/gliding motion). The grip also helps on the hills.

Skate skis, which are for more advanced skiers as they require more technique and cardiovascular fitness, do not have a kick zone as the entire base is glide waxed. The motion is a lot like ice skating or rollerblading, but the timing with each step and pole plant can be a bit tricky for beginners; lessons are strongly encouraged. Classic skiing is slower; skating is faster.

3. Dress like You’re Going for a Jog—Even if You Don’t Run!

While layers are encouraged, you’re going to want to underdress. Even at a slow pace, you’re going to work up a sweat while learning how to cross-country ski. Start with a baselayer (sweat-wicking, next-to-skin layer, like long underwear) and cover with a midlayer (thicker shirt, usually with a front zipper for ventilating as needed). Top it off with a lightweight jacket—like a lightly insulated windbreaker, not a heavy downhill-skiing or down-insulated jacket.

On the bottom, nordic-specific training pants or tights are ideal, but anything lightweight, water and wind repelling, and stretchy will work. You need clothes that allow you to move freely. Do not wear heavy snowpants which are too thick and hot.

You don’t need a helmet or goggles; stick with a lightweight hat or headband and sunglasses if it’s sunny, windy, or really cold to protect your eyes.

4. Master the Snowplow, the Herringbone, and Getting Up

Four cross country skiers glide along a trail in a forest. There is a river to the side of them. The trees in the forest are very snowy.

Skiers cross-country ski to Lone Star Gyser in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Jacob Frank

Before losing sight of the lodge at the nordic center (and risking a ski-patrol rescue because you have no idea what you’re doing or how to get back), learn how to slow down and stop (snowplow), get up a steeper hill (herringbone), and stand back up after falling on the ground. If you’re terrified or totally confused by any one of these things, take a lesson. Otherwise, practice in your own backyard until you feel confident enough to go on the trails.

5. Groomed Tracks Are Your Friend

Step into those classic tracks that are designed to keep your skis pointing straight ahead, and start moving. Push one foot forward, and allow the other to float freely behind (ultimately, you should be standing on one leg at a time). The tail of the back ski will come up off the ground, and then you’ll switch, sending that ski forward and the other back.

Your arms and poles should move opposite of your legs for balance: if your right leg is forward, your left arm comes up and the pole tip plants at a diagonal angle in line with or behind the opposite ankle. Planting the pole too far forward can make you stop. The idea is to propel yourself forward by fully transferring your weight to one leg at a time.

Beginners will start with a shuffle, keeping their weight centered, but should aim toward lengthening their glide and balancing on each leg as they gain confidence.

6. Enjoy the Beauty of It

Cross-country skiing is an inherently healthy, solitary, and nature-centered sport. It is not a gravity sport that comes with lift lines and fear of others crashing into you. Your strength, fitness, and technical ability dictate your speed; just stay within your comfort zone and on appropriate green or blue trails for beginner/intermediate skiers.

Pack a trail map in your pocket, give yourself ample time to go explore, and soak up the quiet wilderness as you meander along. If you fall, it’s OK. We all do.

At the end of the day, we want you to have fun out there. Add to your enjoyment and ensure you have the right equipment and apparel to meet your needs and ability by connecting with a Ski Expert. We’d love to share some tips and recommendations with you!

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Written By
Growing up in New Hampshire's White Mountains, I started downhill skiing at age 2 on Bode Miller's home turf, Cannon Mountain, in Franconia Notch. Around age 10, my family and I moved to Lake George, N.Y. There, I followed my parents' lead and got into all types of skiing -- including alpine and cro...

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