By Greg Witt
Staying in shape throughout the winter can be challenging. As soon as the Wasatch hiking trails are snowbound and the sun starts setting in the late afternoon, it’s harder to get out and maintain the active lifestyle you enjoyed during the summer. Pretty soon, the extra pounds you put on during the holidays become a permanent fixture. The cold days and the low-quality, inversion-trapped air makes getting outside less appealing. No wonder some people go into hibernation until late May rolls around.
If this stay-at-home, hunker-down winter scenario sounds frighteningly familiar, you may find the antidote in cross country skiing. Even if you’ve never skied before, or if you think that cross country skiing is just for Norwegian Olympians, you can be out enjoying winter trails on a pair of free-heel “skinny skis” with minimal up-front costs and a short learning curve.
The Cross Country Boom
The popularity of cross country skiing (also known as Nordic skiing or XC skiing) has surged in recent years. Some of the growth of cross country skiing is a counter-response to the excessive trendiness and escalating costs of downhill skiing. But XC skiers are also quick to point out that their style of skiing provides better, more aerobic, full-body conditioning with far less chance of injury than downhill skiing. Cross country skiing is typically a more social experience than downhill skiing, as a group of friends or a couple can ski together for hours, stopping to talk and enjoy the scenery without getting separated or bogged down in long lift lines. Major advances in XC ski technology, including waxless skis, high-performance lightweight fiberglass skis and introduction of the “skating” technique (known in competitive events as “freestyle”) have contributed to the steady growth of Nordic skiing nationwide. Nordic centers, and dedicated cross country ski resorts, have flourished across North America as groomed trails, ski schools and competitive events have connected with avid and appreciative winter sports enthusiasts. Here in Utah the legacy of the 2002 Olympics has been evident as the venue for the Games’ Nordic events, Soldier Hollow in Heber Valley, now welcomes the public with a 31-kilometer trail system offering a great variety of beautifully groomed trails for all skill levels.
In cross country skiing, you provide much of the power—you are the ski lift—so it requires that you expend some energy. It’s a great workout and is recognized by many trainers and exercise physiologists as the world’s best aerobic fitness activity. Cross country skiing demands the simultaneous use of the large muscles in the arms and legs. Even at a moderate pace you can burn 500 calories per hour, and in a race with some inevitable uphill climbs you’ll be burning in excess of 1000 calories an hour. But getting started doesn’t need to be punishing—in fact, it can be very relaxing as you glide along gently graded trails, developing your timing, stride and balance as you go. Start at your own pace on a relatively flat, well-groomed trail. A lesson from a qualified instructor, available at all of the major Nordic centers in the area, will speed your development of basic skills, boost your confidence and add to your enjoyment. On your first few outings, rent your equipment so that you can get a feel for what works best for you, and don’t be afraid to ask for help!
The low cost, quick learning curve, low injury rate and the natural motions of cross country skiing enable people of all ages and fitness levels to participate. After a few sessions, you’ll feel right at home gliding along with the rhythmic, low-impact conditioning that XC skiing delivers, and you won’t want the ski season to end.
Cross Country Ski Areas Near the Wasatch Front
Soldier Hollow – This world-class Olympic venue has it all—impeccably-groomed trails, snowmaking equipment, rentals, ski school and a cozy lodge to enjoy after your outing. soldierhollow.com
Solitude – It’s great fun to start from the Silver Lake Nordic Center at Brighton, ski through the woods into Solitude Village, then take the shuttle back to do it again. skisolitude.com
Sundance – There’s a superb variety of quiet, wooded trails—26 kilometers in all—with a pristine backcountry feel. sundanceresort.com
White Pine Touring – Mountain views and 20 kilometers of XC skiing in the heart of Park City. whitepinetouring.com
Snowbasin – Twenty-six kilometers of groomed trails wind through glade and meadow in the shadows of Mt. Ogden. snowbasin.com
Mill Creek Canyon – It’s $3 to enter the canyon, but the road is groomed for skiers in the winter.
Mountain Dell – The ski track is designed and groomed by volunteers, and the five loops are a great value for a $5 day fee.
Wasatch Mountain State Park – During winter the 27-hole golf course is groomed for skiing with a $3 trail fee. Rentals available.
Greg Witt is a popular author, speaker and adventure guide. His books 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Salt Lake City and Best Easy Day Hikes: Salt Lake City are the best-selling hiking guides to the Wasatch Front. In the summer he guides clients in the Swiss Alps with his company, Alpenwild.