Travel topics > Activities > Sports > Winter sports > Cross country skiing
Cross country skiing is an efficient way of travelling long distances across snow. The skis are narrower than downhill and slalom skis, and the poles are longer to increase propulsion. Cross country is possible in groomed trails or in untouched snow, the latter often referred to as ski touring or back country skiing. For the recreational skier there is no clear distinction between these styles of skiing.
Skis to go outside of the tracks tend to be a bit wider than the skis you use in tracks, to help you to float better in the snow outside of the tracks. Boots for back country skiing are usually made of leather and boots for groomed trails are usually made of synthetic flexible fabric. Unlike alpine skiing, boots are attached only at the toe and not at the heel.
Cross country skiing is a good exercise for the whole body and as intense cardio training is an alternative to jogging. Cross country can also be variation at a ski resort or as a means to get to the true wilderness in wintertime.
Cross country skiing is the original form of skiing and was developed as a common mode of transport in Northern Europe. For many people in the Nordic Countries, "skiing" still means cross country skiing and is widely practiced for exercise or recreation. The word "ski" originates from Old Norwegian and is still used in the wide original meaning – a piece of wood. Unlike in English it is not a verb in Norwegian, only a noun and "ski" does not refer to any particular kind of skis or skiing style. Instead, in Norwegian and Swedish expressions like "ski hiking", "ski standing" (skiing on downhill slopes) or "ski racing" are used.
There are two different techniques for competitive skiing cross country: "classic" and "freestyle", where the former means mostly gliding forward with the skis in the tracks, while the latter resembles skating. In deep fresh snow classic is the only feasible way, likewise if there is no space besides the tracks on a prepared route. Routes with groomed tracks often offer space for both. If the temperature has varied around the freezing point (0°C, 32°F) there may be hard snow on or near the surface, allowing the skating technique in fields. Frozen lakes and rivers with thin snow cover also invite to this. Competitive skiers use special equipment for freestyle or "skate skiing". Recreational and back country skiing use both techniques depending on the terrain and snow quality. Freestyle or skating is easier with light skis and creates superior speed on hard, even surfaces.
In deep loose snow speeds are low, comparable to slow walking, but in open terrain usually faster than with snowshoes and another world compared to walking in that snow without equipment, if the skis are adequate. In more compact snow, or snow with a frozen layer close to the surface, skiing is usually somewhat faster than when walking on bare ground. With tracks or ideal conditions speeds are comparable to running, sometimes considerably faster; winner times on 50 km classic in the Finlandia race are 2–2.5 hours.
Classical skiing is based on the principle of traction or friction to allow the backward kick. In groomed tracks, traction is usually achieved with grip wax (a sticky substance applied to the mid part of the ski), while in the back country traction is also achieved with a waxless ski sole or with a removable "skin". The mid part of the ski should touch the track firmly when kicking, but rise when gliding, which means the skis have to be chosen to fit your weight. Some skis are more forgiving, which is an advantage when having a backpack that might be more or less heavy. There are also differences in how carefully the ski has to be prepared (waxed) for the specific kind of snow facing you on a route.
To achieve high speeds in tracks, pushing with the poles is the only way – you cannot move your feet quickly enough – and in good tracks and with strong arms there may be no need for using traction, so depending on circuit professionals and good recreational skiers may optimize their skis for gliding. Good traction is however crucial for your experience with the classic technique at slower speeds: in less than perfect tracks, uphill and as a beginner.
There is a trade-off for length and width of the skis: long and wide skis are good in thick loose snow in open terrain, but long skis are cumbersome in woods, bushes and steep hills and extremely wide skis may not fit in prepared tracks (also some bindings may be problematic).
When getting the equipment, be prepared to choose between several options depending on what you are going to do and what you are prepared to pay (at least in specialist shops, others may offer only one kind). The skis, bindings, boots and poles may be optimized for either classic or skate skiing, for tracks or for ski touring without tracks, for mostly flat terrain or offering a possibility also to downhill skiing with the telemark technique. Skis, bindings and boots should match and are often sold as a package; consider whether you want to be able to replace some without replacing all of them.
Skiing downhill, in tracks and in untouched snow are very different experiences. Do not expect the thrills of one when performing another. And while some techniques are easy to adopt to another environment, there is much to be learnt for somebody lacking experience in the current one.
Ski types by purpose
There are rough categories of skis for different purposes. The division here may not be universal and there may be compromises, but you should probably decide which types make sense for you. The skis for different purposes and techniques differ in length, width, stiffness and possibly other aspects. If there is a chance you will ski in tracks, in loose snow (other than downhill) or in mountains, try to find a ski that is adequate in all your uses. In wilderness backpacking, the important thing is not to get the best possible performance, but not to have a situation where the ski makes you miserable – avoid the extremes.
Also bindings and poles differ by intended use and skiing boots are usually made to fit one specific model of binding (there are often two big brands with different bindings for any type of ski, and possibly many obsolete designs). Bindings differ, in addition to usability for a specific type of skiing, by how easily frozen snow can stuck the fastening mechanism, to what extent they can be repaired in the field etc. There may be variations in this respect between bindings that fit the same boot. In deep, powder snow gaiters are essential to keep boots free of snow. Gaiters are also useful to keep feet and legs warm in the backcountry and in the mountains.
A traditional all-round ski is about as long as the user with a raised arm. This length allows turning on the spot (after some training). Much longer skis are clumsy in dense wood and going downhill. Somewhat shorter skis are easier to handle for the beginner, in dense wood and in steep terrain. The corresponding poles reach from the ground to the armpit.
The width of old wooden skis was about 5–10 cm (2–4"). Machine made tracks allow up to 65 mm (2.6 in), which is worth taking into account. Wider skis can be made shorter and still carry the user in loose snow (and allow more curvature for going downhill).
The stiffness is usually chosen so that the ski touches the ground under the foot when the user's weight is put on it, but not when the weight is evenly on both skis. This allows effective skiing in tracks as the rougher middle part touches the track only when kicking, but using a gliding-one-way-only structure a less stiff ski can do its job.
Normal alpine downhill skis are useless in flat terrain, as you cannot lift the heels. Alpine touring bindings allow freeing the heel and thus walking in flat terrain and uphill.
Telemark skis can be used at least for walking in the snow; there are also compromises that allow more or less efficient skiing in flat terrain. Telemark skis are usually wider than fell (mountain) skis to allow better handling in powder snow.
Poles for downhill skiing are too short to give significant help in flat terrain.
Skis for skiing in exposed terrain with steep hillsides, such as above the tree line, are a compromise between telemark downhill skis and normal backwood skis (as were the original telemark skis). Telemark skis are often used as fell (mountain) skis. Fell skis are heavyer and more rigid than crosscountry track skis to allow sideways control. The bindings allow good control over the skis and sharp metal edges get a grip also in hard snow. The skis are often quite wide (but some are less than 65 mm) to give to good float in powder snow. Skis are curved to ease turning. The skis are of about traditional length or shorter to allow easy handling. "Skins" (originally stripes of seal skin or similar) are used to give good grip in the snow going uphill and removed when not needed, to get better glide. They are typically attached to the skis via a loop on the ski tip, a hook on the tail, and adhesive on the base of the skin.
Where deep loose snow is to be expected the skis need to be long and wide. There are extreme skis, but skis of traditional length and of width fitting in machine made tracks are enough (and more practical) in most circumstances. Even track skis are mostly usable in compact or thin snow, if there is a hard layer near the surface, or if skiing in a track made by the rest of the company.
The bindings are often made such that most boots will fit, although boots intended for this use should normally be use. Other boots will have less good a fit and wear down quickly. These bindings are wide and do not necessarily fit well in machine made tracks.
Poles should have moderate to big "baskets", to keep the end of the pole near the surface also in loose snow. Old poles found at flea markets are usually adequate, while track skiing poles are quite miserable (the baskets of the former resemble wheels with spokes, those of the latter are compact pieces of plastic).
Track skiing skis
When skiing in ready made tracks ("classic" skiing), in dense snow or in snow with a hard surface, narrower skis can be used. Skis for skiing in tracks are often 45 mm wide or even less. The bindings are narrow and give good control, but are not meant for big side-way forces (as in downhill skiing) and impossible to repair en route. Track skis don't have metal edges and are difficult to handle on hard snow surfaces such as crust. Track skis are generally too narrow and soft for backcountry skiing.
Skis for the skating technique ("freestyle") are stiffer than traditional skis and quite short, and like classical track skis without metal edge. Poles are long. The skating technique can also be used with traditional skis. Skiing with narrow skating skis is feasible on solid snow, but not in powder snow or on very hard surfaces like crust.
Learn to ski before you try longer trips on your own. There are courses at many ski resorts, but if you are able to train at home you can benefit from more advanced advice or more easily head for the real adventure at your destination.
Skis, poles, boots and other equipment can either be bought at home or bought or rented at or near the destination. In the latter case, find out what is available, when and where.
Learn about your destination: what kind of routes are available, what services at the hub and en route, what to expect about the weather etcetera.
Most skis need waxing depending on temperature and structure of the snow. For competitive skiing this is a tedious procedure, on higher levels handled by separate professional experts, while there are short-cuts for the less ambitious. Depending on the ski right waxing is essential in any weather or only in some circumstances. Regular maintenance waxing (or other procedures, such as tarring for traditional wooden skis) is needed for any skis. Glide wax is used on all skis. On skis with a grip zone in the middle, glide wax is applied at the front and back only. Expert skiers use different glide wax depending on temperature and snow quality, while the recreational skier is happy with the same glide wax all year. Glide wax is applied with a hot iron and can last all season. Even an ordinary candle can be used as glide wax.
In "classic" skiing the middle part of the ski should give a good grip while kicking and the rest of the ski should provide gliding. Different type of wax is applied on the grip zone depending on quality and temperature of snow. As a rule of thumb, hard wax is used for fresh snow and soft klister is used for transformed (coarse grained) snow. The hardest waxes are generally used in the coldest weather. Klister is a very sticky and notoriously difficult to handle substance usually kept in a tube container just like tooth paste. Traditionally different wax is applied on this section, but the surface can also be rougher here. A fish-scale structure in this section (and some high tech solutions) gives traction when kicking, still allowing gliding. This allows skis not matched to your weight – an important feature when carrying backpacks of varying weight.
- Ski resorts. There are cross country routes around many of them.
- National parks and similar at the right latitudes or altitudes.
- The back yard or near-by park at many destinations in the north, such as in the Nordic countries. Oslo for instance offers an extensive network of groomed tracks within reach of the metro. In Norway there is often a network of groomed trail adjacent to alpine slopes for instance at Kvitfjell and Hafjell in Gudbrandsdalen, at Beitostølen in Valdres, at Hovden and at Geilo in Hallingdal/Hardangervidda.
- Amateur races, such as Vasaloppet in Sweden and the Finlandia race in Finland.
Backpacking by ski
This activity is also called backcountry ski, ski touring or ski hiking. It is related to but usually not involving alpine style ski touring or mountaineering, the latter ones done in steep terrain and requiring much stiffer skis and boots.
Think of the skiing route as of a similar hiking route. In good conditions you will be able to cover somewhat greater distances than walking – but only very seldom you will get the speeds of cross country skiing without a heavy backpack in groomed tracks.
There might be prepared tracks most of the way, but be prepared to cope without them, as they may not be groomed quick enough after heavy snow fall, you might have to diverge from the route or you might loose them in snowy weather. In many types of terrain, heavy snowfall will massively reduce your orienteering ability – it is surprisingly difficult to keep a course while seeing only moving snow and no landmarks, and already moderate wind or quite moderate snowfall may be enough in open terrain. If above the tree line or in dangerous terrain like one with cliffs, you must be prepared to find a safe place and wait as long as needed.
In national parks or similar areas are often cottages for lodging. They may be unlocked and unmanned wooden huts without flowing water and electricity, available only with a key after reservation, or full-fledged hotels. Be sure to find out the local conventions and the locations as well as opening dates, equipment and services of cottages you might want to use.
If you stay overnight outdoors, note the possibility of snowfall during the night. If you leave equipment outdoors, other than in your backpack, it may be very difficult to find in the morning. With tents, the usual pegs to secure it to the ground will be unusable as the ground is frozen and deep under the snow. Instead you can use nearby trees or stones, your skis and poles, bags, snow saw, shovel, or bury big branches in the snow as snow anchors.
In some locations you can hire a guide or buy a full service package including somebody making tracks with a snowmobile, transporting the main luggage, preparing the food and arranging visits and programme on the way. Of course, this increases convenience, security and costs but reduces your chances to enjoy the tranquility of snow covered back country. In others or if you are on a budget, you will be more or less on your own, which means you may need experienced company and some training yourself.
In winter you will need warmer spare clothes, more food (quite a lot of energy is used to staying warm), a warmer sleeping bag (matching the lowest temperature to expect, usually at night), and a bivi bag or wind bad or tent or similar even if you plan using cottages: A snow storm might force you to camp in between huts, can last for many hours and can cause rescue teams not to start or find you as vision range may drop to one meter. For areas where firewood is available you might even take a tent with stove. On the other hand you should not carry too much, as a heavy backpack will decrease balance on ski considerably more than for walking – for skiing, pack the heavy stuff low – and massively influence whether, how and where you fall when you stumble. Do not underestimate this risk because the consequences resulting from any injury are severe when temperatures are low, distance to even a cottage are long and help cannot arrive by road. So if you're on slippery ground (ice, hard snow etc.) or you assume your ski could hit objects (stones etc.) stopping you abruptly, you may opt to not normally ski downhill but instead walk or use skins increasing grip (mostly like snow shoes). Also inform yourself about options in emergency situations, e.g. the mobile network coverage (even non-existing on famous and popular treks like northern Kungsleden) or availability and base of snow scooters that can still start in weather being bad enough to force helicopters to stay on ground.
You can use a toboggan, ahkio, pulk or similar to pull some of your equipment instead of carrying, which means you can have more stuff if you really need to (such as when being single and self-supported for a week or when crossing Greenland). With a pulk, you will loose quite some agility compared to a backpack, for example in forested areas. For going downhill, the pulk should have semi-stiff shafts, hindering it from overrunning the person pulling it, and a possibility to attach a rope enabling the person behind to help braking.
Check what parts of the ski can break, whether they can be fixed or replaced with an improvised substitute in field and what spare parts and tools to carry. Discuss with somebody experienced. Walking in deep snow is no fun after the first kilometre, and even with improvised or carried snowshoes it will usually be much harder and slower than skiing (in terrain suitable for skis).
If you have snowshoes as backup, you may want to bring sufficiently big ones or enlargements for small ones, for areas with powder snow. Snowshoes can be much more convenient than ski when you are crossing areas with a constant change between deep snow and nearly no snow cover at all, e.g. terrain with boulders or when wind was blowing the snow, or steep hills with dense forest. Their more universal functional range is usually the main reason for people preferring snow shoes over ski for tours including such terrain.
If there is snow for skiing, the weather is or may turn cold enough to pose a risk. See cold weather for general advice.
- Always tell somebody where you are going (including alternative routes), when to expect you back – and when to call for help if you did not turn up.
- Do not leave your party or your equipment when snowfall may hinder you from finding them.
- For challenging or dangerous circumstances, find routines for communication, assuring everybody is aware of the situation and decisions made.
- Clothing and gear
- You do not want to go for a longer trip in heavy clothing, get wet by sweat, get tired, slow down and get cold. Instead you want to be able to use quite light clothing most of the time (covering also head and hands, though), but also to protect yourself against wind and have a sweater ready for the breaks.
- Sunny weather and reflecting snow means very strong light. Sunglasses might be necessary on longer trips to avoid snow blindness. Also sunburn is possible, which might be hard to notice in time in otherwise cold weather.
- When going wilderness backpacking or on any longer trips without an experienced guide you need to be able to navigate. Do have a suitable map, a compass and the needed skills – GPS (satellite navigation) alone is not a sufficient as bad weather and terrain can make fixes impossible and batteries' power rapidly decreases in colder temperatures.
- Be prepared for changes in weather. Will you get to your base before dark if you lose the advantage of prepared tracks because of snowfall?
- Ski boots, particularly syntetic boots for groomed trails, are often not warm enough when you stop for a long break or walk around in snow. For long ski trips in the back country "foot bags" to pull over shoes or boots are an effective way to keep feet warm and safe. Foot bags are like long gaiters that cover the knee as well as the entire foot with shoes on.
- If you intend to cross rivers or lakes, or use them as part of your route, be sure to know how to avoid thin ice, how to get up if you are unlucky anyway and how to keep yourself warm afterwards.
- Many lakes are water reservoirs: cracks and weak ice may develop when the reservoir is tapped during winter. This is particularly the case when ski areas are nearby (snow cannons) and in areas with mountain lakes used for hydro power like in Norway.
- In mountainous areas there might be cracks or steep hill sides obscured by snow. Always know where you are when near potentially dangerous places.
- There may be risk of avalanches or snow storms on some popular cross country routes. Do know how to cope. Avalanches start on slopes steeper than 30° or 50 % grade (roughly the same slope as traditional pitched roofs in Norway and northern Europe). Skiing on steeper slopes than 30° requires an accurate assessment of snow stability – if in doubt keep a safe distance. Skiing in a narrow valley below a 40° hillside is not better: even a small avalanche can bury you in such places.
- Glaciers are treacherous and in winter hidden under snow.
If the skis become wet underneath – which happens easily if there is water under the snow, such as often in ditches or on sea ice – go on skiing energetically, without stopping. As long as what you have under the skis is slush, it will wear away in the snow while skiing, but if it freezes, it becomes hard to get rid of. If unlucky, you have to take off the skis and try to clean them (without damaging the ski; your nail or a sharp piece of wood may be usable). Even a small patch of ice will prevent the ski from gliding well.
Consequently, avoid putting the skis in the snow directly when coming from indoors, let them cool a moment first. Also when having a pause, cleaning away any snow is a good practice, as it can melt and freeze to ice in certain conditions.
When crossing roads or skiing along roads, there is often gravel. Scratches on the ski will hurt performance, so take your skis off or find another route, unless you intend to often use them in such environment. If so, you could use them on short stretches, but should try to walk with the ski instead of gliding.