The ABCs of Cross-Country Skiing


A Tale of Two Skinnies

I’ve always been intrigued by cross-country skiing. Why—for the love—would anyone bother with cross-country skiing in Utah, where we have some of the best downhill skiing on the planet? It bewildered me. So I tried it. And you know what I kept thinking while I was doing it? Why haven’t I done this before!?! It was fun and easy and a whole new way to enjoy the snow.

By easy, I don’t mean I picked it up right away—I fell roughly 83 times during the first hour and found myself nervous to ski slight downhill grades (flashback to learning how to downhill ski). I mean that it doesn’t have a big learning curve, and it’s a sport you can pick up quickly.

Nordic Skiing or Cross-Country Skiing?

You may hear the terms cross-country skiing and Nordic skiing used interchangeably because most people will use the term Nordic when referring to cross-country, or XC, skiing. Traditionally, Nordic skiing includes telemark, alpine touring, and cross-country skiing because they all use a free-heel binding system. When skiers talk about telemark or alpine touring, they’ll just call it telemark skiing or touring or backcountry skiing.

Classic v. Skate

There are two styles of cross-country skiing. Classic XC skiing is more popular than skate skiing and takes place on a groomed track, usually at a Nordic Center. The classic style is basically just walking and gliding on skis, while skate skiing uses a continual diagonal stride and is not necessarily done on a track. It requires much more exertion than classic XC gliding. Skate skiing is what Olympic competitors are doing when you see them race in biathlons.

Rob Lang, Director of the White Pine Nordic Center in Park City advises beginners to start with Classic technique also called traditional or kick and glide. “The motion is linear, forward like walking or marching with natural arm swing (opposite hand and foot forward at the same time).” He also recommends taking lessons because they can be very beneficial for those who are truly new to XC skiing. “Students will be exposed to how the equipment works, proper body position, weight transfer, poling, stopping, and turning.”

The Case for XC Skiing

Have you seen those 90-year-olds getting after it on the XC ski trails? Cross-country skiing is not nearly as deleterious on your body as downhill skiing (i.e., it’s an activity that you can do well into old age).

It’s also a great way to enjoy the winter when the snow on the hill isn’t so mucho because it doesn’t require nearly as much to make for good gliding conditions. In addition to being fun and challenging, it makes for a good escape from the crowded slopes. Plus, the gear and Nordic Center passes are pocketbook friendly.


To get a cross-country skiing full set-up, all you need are the skis, bindings, boots, and poles. You can expect to spend around $700 for everything. Compare that to spending just $700 alone for a pair of good downhill ski boots. Or you can rent everything you need from a Nordic Center outfitter for about $20 a day, if you don’t want to buy all the gear.

What to Wear Head-to-Toe

It’s smart not to overdress because you’ll warm up quickly. Be bold; start cold!

  • Head: No helmet necessary; you can pick your favorite beanie or warm headband to keep your noggin warm.
  • Neck: Start with a balaclava or Buff that you can stow when you get to warm.
  • Body: Wear breathable, moisture-wicking base layers underneath your outer layers. Have you met Merino Wool?
  • Hands: You can wear thin liner gloves and a warmer set over them so you can adjust the layers along with our body temperature.
  • Feet: Pick your favorite ski socks and wear them. No special socks are required for this sport, but it’s nice to have a good pair.
  • Bonus Tip: Wear a hip pack (see: fanny pack) so you can stash your balaclava and anything else you don’t want to wear if you get too hot.

By no means will I give up my buxom downhill beauties for two skinny skis, but I will add a cross-country set-up to my quiver so I can experience the peace of deep winter while I slide around the groomed trails and practice not falling every eight feet.

Where to Go

Fortunately, Northern Utah is replete with groomed XC ski trails. Use this list to find nearby free and paid options.

Park City’s Historic Rail Trail | 28 miles | Free
White Pine Nordic Center | 11 miles | $18
Soldier Hollow | 14 miles | $10
Wasatch Mountain State Park | 6 miles | $12
Solitude Nordic Center | 12 miles | $20 Full Day $16 Half-day
Alta Ski Resort | 3 miles | $10
Sundance Resort | 9 miles | $18 Full Day $14 Half-day
Millcreek Canyon | 4.5 Miles | Free

*Prices listed for adults


About Author

Melissa McGibbon is the Senior Editor of Outdoor Sports Guide Magazine. She is an award-winning journalist and is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and the Adventure Travel Trade Association. Her work also appears in Outside Magazine, Lonely Planet, SKI Magazine, Backpacker Magazine, Elevation Outdoors, Scuba Diving Magazine, and Matador Network. She is usually in pursuit of adventure, travel, or some daring combination of the two. IG @missmliss //

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