When it comes to socially distant activities, cross-country skiing checks all the boxes: It’s outside; it involves a massive amount of space; though popular Nordic ski spots often attract a crowd, skis themselves are essentially social distancing devices; and even on a busy day, you’re not likely to spend much time in the company of others on a ski trail full of people traveling at different paces. If you’ve never cross-country skied before, this is a good time to try it. Here’s how.
Get the right equipment
Cross-country skis are flatter and thinner than alpine skis (remember, they have to carry you uphill as well as down) and come in two typical styles: wider classic-style skis and skinnier skate-skis. (Yes, skate-skis! We’ll get to it.)
It’s generally a good idea to rent equipment and try it out before you commit to buying skis. Though REI is no longer providing season-long rentals due to COVID-19, the company does offer daily skate and classic cross-country ski rental packages for kids and adults that include skis, boots and poles ($22-$26 for adults, $12-$16 for kids; additional days can be added on at a discount). In addition to downhill skis and snowboards, the Summit at Snoqualmie rents out Nordic equipment for the whole season.
Snoqualmie’s cross-country rentals are cheaper than their downhill counterparts ($75-$125), and because you can get a bundle of equipment for about the cost of purchasing just one new component (skis, poles, bindings), it’s wise to rent if you’re not sold on the sport yet (or just not interested in exploring the wide world of Nordic ski bindings). Farther afield, you can rent Nordic equipment in Leavenworth at Arlberg Sports Haus, Der Sportsmann, Plain Hardware and Osprey Ski & Sports Shop; and in the Methow Valley at two ski schools (Methow Valley Ski School and Rentals, Sun Mountain Ski School) and five shops (Methow Cycle and Sport, Cascades Outdoor Store, Goat’s Beard Mountain Supplies, Loup Loup Ski Rental Shop, Winthrop Mountain Sports).
Any rental shop worth its salt will give you a proper fitting, which is essential for Nordic equipment; if your skis and poles aren’t proportional to your body, you’ll have trouble maneuvering them comfortably. I have definitely spent a frustrating slog or two on skis that belonged to other members of my family after mistaking them for mine (brand loyalty is a hell of a drug), a practice that led my long-suffering, ski-tending father to label all of my family’s skis individually with our names. Don’t let this happen to you!
You’ll also need some basic cold-weather layers, but nothing as heavy as what you’d wear for downhill skiing: I usually just wear long underwear as a base layer, with tights, a windproof shell, a hat, gloves and warm socks; sometimes I throw in an extra top layer if it’s especially cold.
Because you’re constantly moving on your own steam when you cross-country ski, you just don’t get as cold as you do when you’re downhill skiing; the only exception is if you find yourself on a long downhill after a day of getting sweaty on the trail — in those cases, sometimes an additional layer can be crucial. I also like to have hand-warmers on me just in case, plus a water bottle, a map and some kind of sugary, carb-rich snack in case I get hungry.
Learn the proper technique — and be patient
If you’re used to bombing down hills on your alpine skis, cross-country may feel slow and plodding; it’s just a different experience, one more akin to hiking than snowboarding. You’ll use your body weight and the motion of your feet to kick forward and glide along on your skis, with poles to help propel you. To start, you’ll need to know how to get going from a stopped position and use the snowplow technique to slowly go down hills (you turn your legs into a “V” shape and bend your knees) and the herringbone technique for going up hills (the inverse of the snowplow — you use your turned-out feet to beat gravity going uphill).
If this sounds weird and complicated and physically awkward, that’s because it is. It’s also one of the best full-body low-impact workouts you’ll ever have, and it’s worth it alone for the feeling of calm you get from hours of gliding along below the trees.
So schedule a lesson. They’re available across the state’s far-flung Nordic areas, but the closest place to learn is Snoqualmie’s Summit East Nordic Center, which offers lessons starting at $84. Plan ahead, though: Lesson capacity is currently limited due to COVID-19 restrictions, and advance reservations are required.
And prepare yourself: Your first day out, you may not get very far, and that’s fine. Unlike the instant gratification of downhill skiing, cross-country is more about the experience; unless you’re racing, it’s a chance to take in the scenery and enjoy your snowy surroundings. It’s also physically taxing at any pace, so take breaks when you need them.
Also, it has to be said: You will probably fall! Don’t be afraid of this. I’ve been skiing for most of my life and I still fall about once a year. Just get back up, brush the snow off your butt, and try again. And take comfort in knowing that when you’re cross-country skiing, the distance to the ground is much less extreme than on a downhill run.
Once you get the hang of it, try skating
Classic skiing isn’t all that different from walking; it just has some added glide, and if you can get onto a pair of skis, you can have fun even as you learn and build your technique. But skate-skiing is a different beast: You’ll be moving with your feet turned out, like you would if you were ice skating, and transferring your body weight from one foot to the other as you push off from ski to ski. Skating technique is harder to master than classic, but it makes it possible to go fast even when you’re not traveling down an incline, and once you learn, it’s hard to go back to classic skis.
There’s some accepted wisdom within the Nordic ski community that you should wait to try skating until you’ve mastered classic, but I tend to disagree with this, as long as you’re ready to work hard to learn. I should disclose my own bias, though, which is that I haven’t personally classicked in years; even when the conditions aren’t good for skating, I just prefer to go fast! You might, too. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But get there safely. Take a lesson. And take some time to simply go back and forth on a flat stretch of trail as you get used to how skating technique feels in your body. And remember: Learning to skate takes time and practice. It’s an objectively unnatural way to move, so be patient with yourself. You’ll get there.
Know where to go
Once you get the hang of skiing (a lesson or two will get you comfortable with the basics), the next step is just to practice. And in the Northwest, there’s no shortage of ideal spots to build up your technique. If you’re coming from Seattle, the Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail (formerly Iron Horse) is the closest spot for cross-country skiing. It’s perfect for beginners — level, short and scenic. More seasoned skiers shouldn’t scoff at this trail. The proximity alone is a boon, and it’s a fun jaunt for an easy day. It’s also ideal for skiing with folks of varied skill levels, or for an impromptu lesson. I have taught friends to ski here, and, in normal, non-COVID years, this is where I offer to teach anyone I know who expresses even a passing interest in learning to ski (especially if they’ll do the driving).
Cabin Creek Sno Park, just off I-90, is another option, a Nordic ski area maintained by the Kongsberger Ski Club. I skied these trails a lot as a kid — my dad is a Kongsberger — and I’d recommend it for folks who have a bit more experience.
The crown jewel of the state’s Nordic offerings, though, is Methow Trails, the Methow Valley’s massive cross-country ski network spanning Mazama and Winthrop. It’s a long drive away, so it’s not an advisable destination if travel advisories are in effect, but it’s something to look forward to when COVID is under control and you’ve become a devoted cross-country skier. Good cross-country ski trails can also be found in Leavenworth.
As with any mountain-facing activity, check the weather and grooming reports for any of these places before you hit the road, and if a trail hasn’t been recently groomed, do plan to stay home — especially if you’re a beginner, there’s nothing more frustrating than muddling along on a stale, crunchy, sticky surface with pine needles clinging to your skis and rocks killing your momentum (unsurprisingly, this is also bad for your skis). Cross-country skiing is hard, but it shouldn’t be that hard.