Cross-country skiing, also known as Nordic skiing, combines downhill skiing’s fluidity, running’s cardio workout, and snowshoeing’s immersion in a winter landscape. It is an activity that engages the entire body—arms, legs, and core—so you generate your own full-body heat. You become one with the snow, your skis, and your breath. And it’s just as fun for beginners at it is for seasoned pros. If you’re thinking about adding this sport to your winter endeavors, here’s a guide to the basics of cross-country skiing for beginners—what you need to know to clip in and get gliding on the snow.
Let’s start with layering. Dress in warm, non-cotton layers that will breathe and protect you from the wind you generate as you glide. Windproof soft-shell pants and jackets layered over wicking base layers usually do the trick. Wear a warm hat or earband, a neck gaiter, and lightweight gloves for extra protection from the wind. Wool socks will keep your feet toasty and sweat-free in your ski boots. Don’t forget to “be bold, start cold” and keep your layers minimal, because you’ll heat up quickly once you’re skiing. For more tips on layering, visit our winter layering guide and check out the W.I.S.E. layering system.
Like any other outdoor pursuit, always carry the proper safety and backup gear. Wear a daypack, and bring along the 10 Essentials, including a first aid kit, and extra warm layers. You’ll be working hard and need to keep your body fueled and hydrated, so take plenty of water and snacks as well.
If you’re new to the sport, consider renting before you buy so you can get an idea of what works for you. You’ll need to rent cross-country skis, cross-country ski boots, and poles to start. The average cost of renting skis, boots, and poles is around $15 to 20 for a day at most Nordic centers in New England. Alternatively, seasonal gear rentals run from $200 to 250. Renting provides the added benefit of an explanation on how to use the equipment and a fitting for the proper size and style of skis for your needs.
Build Foundational Skills
For your first cross-country skiing adventure, consider taking a lesson, or at least go with someone who knows how to ski already. Cross-country skiing is a technique-driven sport, so laying a proper skills foundation is important. Learning how to kick and glide on your skis, push off with your poles, snowplow stop, “herringbone” uphill, and right yourself after a fall are all skills to tackle on day one.
Be sure to start out on easy, groomed terrain. Like downhill ski areas, Nordic centers rate their trails on an easy (green), more difficult (blue), and most difficult (black) scale, so stick to the gentle, flatter green trails as you’re just starting out.
Nordic centers groom wide corduroy trails with set tracks. These ski-width tracks are pressed parallel into the snow, one for each ski. Starting out in the tracks will guide your ski stride and help you stay balanced. Just make sure to step out of the tracks on steeper or curved downhills to avoid crashing.
Monitoring snow conditions also increases your likelihood of success your first few times out. Getting comfortable on skinny skis is much easier and safer in good snow. Keep an eye out for fresh snowfall, check the grooming reports at your Nordic center, and avoid trying to learn right after a freeze-thaw cycle so your first experience is not icy. As you gain confidence, you can work toward skiing harder trails and more challenging snow conditions.
New England offers a plethora of great Nordic centers to visit. In New Hampshire’s White Mountains, Jackson Cross-Country Ski Touring Center, Great Glen Trails, and Bretton Woods Nordic Center are just some of the great options. Each of these locations provide the opportunity to ski through beautiful spruce and fir forests while looking for snowshoe hare and other animal tracks along the way.
For a fun winter getaway, drive up to AMC’s Medawisla Lodge and Cabins in Maine, where you can treat yourself to a cozy North Country lodge experience and practice skiing on 80 remote miles of pristine, groomed trails. If you’re getting the hang of it and feeling adventurous, make it a multi-day excursion and ski from lodge to lodge, visiting Gorman Chairback and Little Lyford Lodges on the circuit. For more personalized tips on ski techniques or an introduction to the plants and animal tracks you’re skiing by, consider going with an AMC guide on a custom adventure.
At AMC’s Noble View Outdoor Center in Russell, Mass., the facility’s hiking trails are for the first time open for cross country skiing and snowshoeing. (Click here for trail maps.) The 4 miles of marked, ungroomed ski trails—all rated easy or moderate difficulty—are open daylight hours.
If you can’t get to an AMC lodge or Nordic center or just want to play around close to home, look for flat snowy fields, or explore your local golf course on skis. Just make sure to check with the property owner if you’re allowed to ski there first.
If you discover you love cross-country skiing after trying it a few times on rentals, you’ll want to purchase your own skis, boots, bindings, and poles. This can be an intimidating process for some because there are so many options: different ski lengths and widths, edge materials and shapes, ski styles, bindings and boot types, pole lengths, wax or no wax, and more. Whether you buy new or used, familiarize yourself with the basics of selecting Nordic equipment.
Whether you are skiing at a Nordic center, exploring hut to hut in Maine, or touring way out in the backcountry, always have safety in the front of your mind. Carry all the gear necessary to survive an unplanned night out on the trail. If you are skiing alone, make sure a friend or family member knows where you are and when to expect you back. Set a turnaround time for yourself so you get back to your car before dark. Know how to get up from a fall. Consider carrying a beacon or satellite communication device for emergency purposes. Know how to use a compass and read a map, and carry a map for your area, especially if you’re skiing in unfamiliar terrain. And, of course, use your head. Know your physical limits, don’t venture into terrain that is too advanced for your skills, and remember that the mountains and trails will be there tomorrow.