Come Cross-Country Ski with Me

Everybody’s doing it! And the nice thing about it is that nearly everybody can do it. I’m talking about cross-country skiing or ski touring. *

The basic technique is fairly simple, it comes fast, and the satisfactions are immense. If someone had suggested to me two years ago that I should trade a Saturday of Alpine skiing for something called ski touring, I’d have said, “Sorry, no way.” But then one late spring day, on our final run, I took the ill-fated little fall that turned into months in a cast and strict orders to stay off the slopes for a year. In desperation I bought a pair of those skinny little touring skis, found someone to show me the basics (it took about 30 minutes), and I was off and running. Remembering my early days of Alpine skiing (about the first ten years or so), I kept expecting some agony. But there wasn’t any. I could do it right off the bat. The only thing that has proved any problem at all has been deciding on where to stop for lunch—and how to stop, period. Straight striding and running is a snap, if you don’t mind working a little.

Now I have a real problem. I’m ready to start Alpine skiing again, and I can’t bear to give up a Saturday of ski touring to do it. If someone would come up with a two-Saturday week, my problem would be solved. Though I’m the first to admit that no thrill can surpass the exhilaration of tearing downhill on Alpine skis, I also have to admit that ski touring has some appealing advantages:

1. It is relatively inexpensive. The whole outfit—skis, boots, poles, bindings—cost me less than half what I paid for my Alpine boots alone. You can get a good pair of skis for $25 or $40 and a good pair of boots for $20 to $30. Bindings run from $5 to $10. You also save, of course, the cost of a lift pass and the cost of expensive clothing.

2. There are no lift lines and no crowds.

3. You don’t get cold. Even on sub-zero days we got so warm we had to peel off sweaters or jackets. You may be cold the first few minutes, but once you start working hard enough, your body stays very warm. My first winter of ski touring was my first season of skiing without some misery from the cold.

4. Injuries (aside from a few stiff muscles) are practically unheard of, though one skier I read about said he did break a fingernail. Other ski tourers claim that injury from falling meteorites is probably the most serious threat to the cross-country skier. Only the toe of the boot is clamped into the binding, which means that the foot is free to bend and twist with almost complete safety.

5. Cross-country skiing is an excellent body conditioner—definitely not for the lazy. But let me add, it is much easier than snow-shoeing. Gary Howard, cross-country ski coach at Brigham Young University, tells me that tests have shown that cross-country racers (Nordic skiers) are the best conditioned athletes in the world. After a day of ski touring, if you really move along, you will be inclined to agree.

Aside from these rather practical benefits, the thing about ski touring that appeals to me most is the beauty of the surroundings and the glorious peace of the outdoors in winter—away from crowds, noise, and commercial enterprise. The woods are even better in winter than in summer because in the winter they are not full of trailers and campers and barking dogs. The most you have to contend with is an occasional snowmobile. You have plenty of time to look around and absorb the scenery. Chances are good that you will see and hear several kinds of birds or that you will run across some deer. You feel a oneness with the landscape and a closeness to your Maker that tone up the spirit and make you glad to be alive.

Before you begin cross-country skiing, you should probably read at least one of the many books on the subject. There has been a lot written on such things as choosing equipment and developing technique. If you live in an area where you can get one day of professional or at least skilled instruction, that would be very helpful. I will just mention a few things here that may be useful to the beginner.

Choosing Equipment

Skis. You can get them in both wood and fiberglass. Wooden skis are more flexible and less expensive than fiberglass, but they will also break more easily. The light touring ski is probably best for trail skiing and just general pleasure skiing. To determine the proper length of a ski (touring skis are thinner and hence must be longer than Alpine skis in order to give you balance and stability), stand the ski, tip up, next to your upstretched arm. The tip of the ski should touch the middle of your palm.

Poles. You can get either aluminum or bamboo poles. Aluminum poles are a little lighter (and weight is certainly a factor on long-distance trips), but they may snap more easily too. Bamboo poles tend to splinter rather than break, and they can be repaired on the trail by splinting them with a stick. To determine the proper length of a pole, stand it up, handle down, at your side. The basket of the pole should come just to your armpit.

Bindings. There are several bindings, but they are all basically of two types. One, probably the most common for standard pleasure skiing, has a toepiece with three small pins that fit into holes drilled into the boot. The boot is clamped in only at the toe. The other basic binding has a cable that goes around the heel and may be used with any standard hiking boot. The important thing is that the heel is free to leave the ski. Many skiers like to have a small heel plate attached to the ski to create friction with the heel and thus give a little more control.

Boots. A light touring boot is probably best for the pleasure skier. It is short, flexible, and very comfortable.

Clothing. Cross-country skiers tend to pride themselves in avoiding fancy, faddish, or expensive clothes. And they do indeed ski in a wide assortment of clothing. Generally they try to wear loose-fitting clothes to allow plenty of room for action. They also wear layers of sweaters, shirts, and light windbreakers rather than a large, warm parka. This allows them to take off a little if they get slightly warm and a lot if they get very warm. We have found that mittens are generally too warm no matter how cold the day is. We usually start out in gloves but often find ourselves taking them off and skiing bare-handed. Kim and Pam Johnson (Kim now teaches seminary in Scottsdale, Arizona) ski in loose corduroy knickers that Pam made for them, and Kim often carries their little boy, Christopher, in a pack on his back while they ski.

Waxing the Skis

One thing you will have to know something about is treating the bottoms of your skis. I have found that in spite of what all the books say about the art of perfect waxing, there is no way to wax perfectly every day.

With some snow conditions, snow will at times stick to the skis no matter what you do. But that is all part of the challenge of cross-country skiing. If you have wooden skis, you must apply a pine tar base before you apply wax. The tar base protects the ski and needs to be reapplied only when you can see that it has worn off—maybe once or twice a season. The experts get pine tar and apply it with a blowtorch, the same process a ski shop will use. There is an easier way, however, if you are afraid, as I am, of doing something wrong or even burning the skis up. I have found that the base tar you can buy in a spray can works very well and is not the least bit frightening,

You can purchase waxing kits that contain the basic waxes, scrapers, and corks. You can read extensively about applying and removing waxes, but really, ten minutes with someone experienced can teach you more than volumes of reading material. And to some extent, you learn by experimenting and discovering (sometimes the hard way) what works best. Waxes are color coded, and the general rule is this: the colder the day, the colder the color. Basic waxes are light green for very cold snow, dark green for not quite so cold but still below 18 degrees, blue for 25 to 31 degrees, violet for 31 to 35 degrees, and red for warmer conditions on fairly new snow. In the spring when snow has thawed and frozen and thawed again, and when the day is warm, you should turn to the klister waxes, color coded again, violet and purple. Let someone show you how to apply klister waxes because they are extremely sticky and can be hard to work with if you don’t apply them right.

A wax is supposed to allow you to glide but at the same time keep you from slipping back. That is why it is so important to apply the best one for current conditions. We have been out on a tour and had temperature and snow conditions change so much so fast that suddenly we have found ourselves trying to glide with snow caked three or four inches deep the length of our ski bottoms. It’s like trying to ski on stilts. It’s good for laughs, but it certainly can slow you down. If you have serious doubts about what wax to use on a particular day, it is best to start with a colder wax and then apply a warmer one if you slip too much. You can’t apply a cold wax over a warm one very successfully, but you can apply a warm wax very easily over a cold one. Just be prepared for a few frustrations, like the nice spring day when we started out with violet wax, had to go to red because we were slipping too much, and then got caught in a sudden blizzard with rapidly dropping temperatures. We had great fun trying to scrape off the gooey warm wax in the middle of a blizzard so that we could apply a blue wax. It was either that or walk out teetering on the several inches of snow stuck to the bottoms of our skis. We have also found that waxing gives you a good excuse to take a rest. Whenever anyone starts tiring, he simply announces that his skies are sticking and that he must apply more wax. No one would think of questioning his motives.

Learning the Ski Technique

Again, a few minutes with an experienced skier will do more for you than all you can read on cross-country technique, though reading is helpful. Essentially you begin by simply shuffling along on skis, swinging your arms as you go. It helps if you practice striding without your poles to begin with. This gives you the feeling of what your legs and arms must do. Let your body relax; lean forward a little; let your knees bend a little. Try to avoid looking at the tips of your skis; just look down the track a ways. It is best to practice on a packed track until you get the feel of the stride. I cannot go into a detailed description of all the techniques you need to know, but I can mention briefly some of the basic ones and leave it to you to read up on them and to get some personal instruction.

Diagonal stride. This is the basic stride for the cross-country skier. You push with first one foot, then the other, at the same time poling with the opposite hand. When the left foot is moving forward in a glide, the right hand is swinging forward for a pole plant. You will be surprised to find that you can ski uphill using this stride.

Herringbone. If the hill is too steep for the diagonal stride, you may have to go to the herringbone or even to the sidestep. The techniques are the same as for Alpine skiers. For the herringbone, make a V of the skis, toes out. Press down on the inside edges, and keep your pole plants behind your bindings. To sidestep, simply turn sideways to the hill, lift your uphill ski, set it down above you, stand on it, and lift your downhill ski up next to it. Repeat the procedure until you reach the top of the hill.

Kick turn. Same technique as for Alpine skiing. For climbing longer hills, you may want to traverse in the diagonal stride and use kick turns to change your direction.

Downhill running. Some skiers like to assume a crouch for straight downhill running; others prefer to stand with knees flexed and body relaxed. This has presented the hardest part of ski touring for me, not because I don’t like to coast downhill, but because it is difficult to turn and to stop on cross-country skis. One day I cornered Gary Howard and asked him to tell me the best way to stop. He grinned and said, “Find a fluffy spot and sit down.” He meant it, too. That’s the only sure way I know, unless you are good at grabbing tree limbs. I try to avoid picking up so much speed that I feel out of control. My motto: sit down before you fall down.

Remember, you are not skiing hard-packed slopes. A fall is well-cushioned, and you are usually not going very fast. You can do a snowplow (same technique as in Alpine skiing—toes close, heels spread, knees bent) with limited success and even something of a stem turn when you are more experienced. The reason these maneuvers, so simple in Alpine skiing, are difficult in cross-country skiing is that your foot is not bound for its whole length to the ski. You can move your foot and the ski will not respond the same way it does when boot, binding, ski, and foot are one piece of equipment. So the very thing that makes cross-country skiing so safe (you are not bound tightly to the ski) makes it difficult if you have to go downhill. But don’t let that worry you. The downhill spots are usually infrequent and short because you are not riding a lift to the top of anything. Since anything goes in ski touring, you can also use your poles to slow you down. Simply put both poles in one hand, crouch down, and press your poles into the snow while you drag them behind you on one side. This works as well as anything, except, of course, the well-timed fall.

The more expert skiers sometimes do a skating turn or even a parallel turn to control their speed. But the nice thing about ski touring is that you do not have to master the more advanced techniques before you can ski successfully and have a lot of fun. The only real requirements for the cross-country skier are a body unafraid to work, a spirit that seeks peace, and eyes and ears that are alive to the wonder of winter.

[photos] Photos by Eliot Butler

[photo] To determine the proper length of a ski, stand the ski, tip up, next to your upstretched arm. The tip of the ski should touch the middle of your palm

[photo] To determine the proper length of a pole, stand it up, handle down, at your side. The basket of the pole should come just to your armpit

[photo] Waxing the bottom of your skis allows you to glide forward but not slip back. It is necessary to use the right wax for the weather conditions, or snow will stick to your skis. Waxes are color-coded, and in general the colder the day, the colder the color of wax you should use

[photo] Cross-country skiers wear loose-fitting clothes to allow room for movement. They also wear layers of sweaters, shirts, and light windbreakers so they can take off a little at a time as they get warm. They usually avoid expensive and stylish outfits

[photo] The diagonal stride is the basic stride for the cross-country skier. You push with first one foot, then the other, at the same time poling with the opposite hand

[photo] For the herringbone, make a V of the skis, toes out. Press down on the inside edges, and keep your pole plants behind your bindings. The herringbone is used on hills too steep to climb using the diagonal stride

[photo] The best way to stop is to find a fluffy spot and sit down

Show References

  1.   *

    I will use these terms interchangeably, although technically cross-country skiing refers to skiing with a definite destination in mind, perhaps even a two- or three-day trip. Ski touring, on the other hand, is purely recreational skiing, usually on well-beaten paths. But since most of the skiing we do is more or less a combination of destination and pleasure-skiing, I choose to blur the distinctions.