Where, when and how would I recommend anyone get started with XC skiing?
Firstly it depends on where you are likely to ski and if there are prepared tracks or you will just be making your own tracks in the back country or the mountain tops?
I suppose you can break down the sport into the following : backcountry, randonee-ski mountaineering, and sports in two styles classic “tram line” and skating free style on prepared routes.
Each variant has its own specialist equipment, and you can expect the best gear to be more expensive than alpine ski gear. In Norway though, many very experienced skiers actually do a bit of all that on one type of ski, the “fjellski” which is a circa 6cm wide ski with steel edges and usually a toe binding only. Which ever you choose i recommend going to an XC ski-school who will have sturdy equipment and the best advice on using it.
Skiing in tracks or for skating style on the middle flat lane, is something of course we are very spoiled for in Scandinavia -Denmark excepted- with each county having maybe a hundred miles of courses and thousands of miles of prep’d trails in the mountains.
However, even if you live in snow free climes you can train on roller skis for the same two styles.
That is why the British xc ski team are so competitive now, feeding roller skiing youth into the scandinavian and alpine event circuit and lifestyle.
Like swimming, it is a great form of exercise for the whole body, has varied styles and techniques and is as challenging physically as you want it to be. From all the techniques to master, and the need to develop balance, timing and coordination, xc sport offers an interesting way to get fit or super fit. So there are challenges motivate you and drive your goals over and above the usual PE methods for any aerobic sport.
Where and When to Get Started?
As mentioned I would recommend going to a school or hiring an instructor and really having at least five hours instruction over the course of a week or so. I would really also recommend going to a mountain resort where you are more or less gauranteed good, soft snow conditions.
Days in january can be short and very cold, and also in the alps and Norwegian mountains there can be a lot of stormy weather. The season does begin over 600m as early as October week though, and if the resort has extensive lower level valley trails then dont be put off. Ideal conditions are most often in February and March, with easter offering warmer conditions and slushy snow which can be just as good to learn on.
Avoid Icey Places
On the subject of snow conditions, “före” , you want to avoid icey conditions. I had my first (and only) professional lesson at Geilo on the valley floor in icey conditions and although it went okay, it was nasty falling on my backside, plough was ineffective for my weight, and the stride- kicking technique was a bit slippy.
If you are going on a package ski holiday to the Alps then you could choose a resort with xc see how conditions are, sticking to alpine skiing if it is icey lower down. Many resorts have early-late season trassees for training which you take the chairlift up to, while others have quite extensive upper courses in raised valley areas.
Classic style is really what you will begin with, although we will come back to skating and one foot gliding later. So classic, parallel kicking skis and accompanying boots and poles are what we are up for.
If you are really wanting to give xc a go and try to stick to it, then any of the town resorts with extensive trails will have a package price for boots and skis at least, well under 250€, which is a bout the same as a fortnight’s hire. They are a lot longer than modern downhill skis so remember to buy a skibag for them if you will be taking them home!
For varied use in trails and. back country most of the main manufacturers and so the better shops offer some light , half broad waxless tour skis with steel edges but with a pre-bend which is less extreme than mountain-telemark skis and thus better for prepared tracks ie easier to kick and glide by having a shorter span / arch.
Hiring is often a good plan for proving the sport in the duration of a few lession. Priced usually by the half day, you probably can begin with a two hour lesson and two hours of pratice if you are in good form generally. Some schools offer inclusive hire with courses.
Waxless the Best Option to Start On
Waxless, fish scale skis are pretty de rigeurre for new beginners. Now though there are new skis with inbuilt “seal skin” grips which are really the way forward but for the moment are in expensive race training skis from Atomic and Salomon. I had my first day at Geilo on very expensive Fischer fish-scale carbon fiber racing skis actually, and they were actually fine apart from being a bit skittish in plough which any non steel edge ski will be on ice.
Waxed skis are though practical if you will be skiing in stable conditions of -4 to -12 C. They glide much better than scaled skis and excluding icey track conditions ,one good waxing will last upto a week for beginners. However in general for new beginners and for using touring skis in and out of the prep’d tracks in variable conditions then waxfree are really much better for new beginners.
Fitting for skis, poles and boots
A shop or ski rentals place worth their salt will ask your height and weight and fit you up a good length and bend-spring. Ask them to do the paper test if you are hiring for a week or buying or if they have a tension machine. Skis which are too soft will hold you back in gliding, while too hard will mean you fight to push off with your kick.
For skiing in conditions of down to no more than -8c then you should just use medium or thin wool socks, as otherwise your feet will sweat in the insulated boots and then get cold.
Boots then should fit very snuggly so your heels do not rise when they are laced up comfortably, but generous enough that they do not compress your toes and bridge at all.
Poles should be just up to your arm pits for new beginners. In very good conditions ,sportier folk can try longer, almost shoulder high skis. Poles are an assistance to propulsion and not to correct balance or to push yourself out of snow drifts if you come “off the rails”. They are light and you will bend or break them if you put all your body weight on one. More on poles later.
Generally speaking you should dress the same as for a cold winter jogging tour. Thermal sports underwear (marino wool is best for -2c and lower) , and an outer shell which is quite generous for arm and crotch movements or strethcy! Pack a midlayer for colder days and it is wise to have an outer warm layer such as alpine ski wear or Buffalo style for times when you are perhaps standing around in -10c getting taught or transits or chair lifts for access to the runs.
Xc clothes are very similar to winter running or cycling clothes but are of course a bit better developed for the sport. They tend to be a good deal more expensive than typical pertex shell stuff for the other sports as you might expect! So to start with use what you have.
As a new beginner do not try to ski with any rucksack at all , it will really interfere with your balance. You can take one with you with warm clothes etc, and leave it beside the school or up the trail behind a tree. Some resorts have a secure left luggage area.
Getting Started- first stages and managing expectations
The expectations have to be pretty modest. My first day out was going to be the start of a short week’s xc and snowboarding at Geilo. I took a two hour lesson, and had decided to go round the lake route of about 16km after. The instructor advised me against that and i paid later! It was icey all the way, sore to fall, difficult to pole, and back slippy in the kicks. I could hardly move next day!
Geilo valley was actually and ideal place to start, fairly flat with some undulations and a big ski school area with a light gradient for all types of skiers to learn plough-turns on….. , but in no way should you plan a tour of more than a couple of km out and back after a morning of instruction. The focus is all on technique and to .some extent messing about having fun in small doses.
Visit an XC School or Instructor
An instructor will probably start by getting you into the plough position as a matter of safety first- being able to stop yourself on a downhill. Quite likely you will do this without poles and be taught to herring bone up hill, and hopefully you will be exposed to progressively steeper sections.
Also you should ask them to teach you the in track half plough braking technique, where one foot stays in the tracks and the other ploughs a stop. Very useful in harder conditions, it has probably been a literal lifesaver for me a couple of times when normal ploughing would hvave been skittish. You keep a safe direction while breaking and can continue in the “tram lines” once your speed is corrected.
“Tram-line” and “freestyle”- Learn a bit of both….
Tram lines are one thing but you must be able to ski out of these with confidence, and exit them and enter them again, in order to get round slower skiers or fallen branches etc.
This is where we come back to learning some of skate ski style and getting all your weight onto the “gliding” ski. You should ask to be taught a bit of this so that you improve your balance and can at least come smoothly out and in of the tram lines when overtaking. Also it will help you in corners where there are no tracks laid or if they are very churned up. It is best to do some of this once again on the nursery area or a broad, slight descending track.
Look No Hands!
Back to another point: poles ! They are just an assistance to propulsion and not a compensation for balance. In outset you should learn the basics of kicking, ploughing, herring bone and skating WITHOUT poles and continue to practice such throughout your career. Then you learn balance in your legs and body and not bad habits ,and later it helps you get a feel for the days conditions under ski.
To a large extent one can describe classic technique as parallel skating with a bull-pawing-in the dust kick and stride. In both the sport’s styles ALL your weight is transferred to the leading, gliding ski.
When tour skiing with a light rucksack or belt pack, you can also use complete weight transfer for faster and more efficient progress, and it will help your balance and ability when carrying a pack or skiing back country in virgin snow or other skiers trails when you leave some weight on the trailing ski to ensure you dont collapse into the leading side.
Vary your technique training according to terrain and snow conditions-
Given hard, icey conditions, limit your adventures to gentle, virtually terrain the first couple of days. In “silky” conditions of -2 to -12C of slightly packed newish snow, then you can be more adventurous, but remember to ask about routes and especially hills. One way routes with hills are safest but ask first about routes and also stop at the top of hills to consider if you need to plough all the way down. Sometimes a route will have tramlines regardless the gradient because the machine driver hasnt bothered to lift the former!
In new snow, or slushy “easter” snow ,then conditions are ideal for steeper hills. Both herring bone up and plough down will five better grip for the new beginner and falling is pretty soft as long as there is not ice beneath the snow.
Kick style is the most used technique in general , and something you can practice on flat, gentle downhills and light to quite steep up hills when the snow is tactile. In racing it is actually used almost exclusively uphill, but for beginners, intermediate and BC tour skiers it is a key technique on the flat and undulating sections. Downhill practice actually helps immensly in kick because it exagerates the glide and concentrates the mind on balancing on one ski and good transfer of weight in the next kick.
Soon though you need to learn more efficient progress than kick on the flat, and plough down hill.
Poling without Kick
This is a very basic set of sub techniques which apply to both main style arts in the sport.
In classic there are three uses- parallel ski poling in the tracks, coming in and out the tracks, and powering into a downhill or over to and from a fishbone uphill.
An instructor will be able to show you the best way of loading up the poles and then thrusting off with your body and arms. For firm conditions you are utilising your body weight and you stomach muscles to pull down on the poles, then your buttocks as you swing down and finally more arm muscle for the final push. This is why classic sport poles have become longer over the years relative to height. In soft new snow in the back country then the arms are used with just light pressure onto a back-country cross-circle style bail.
Tuck and Wide Stance DownHill
The classic tuck in xc skiing is a low, alpine downhill style. Legs are bent and body is even on the thighs. Weight is over the whole sole of the foot, and hands are stretched forward with poles feathered in.
To get into the tuck, first feather your skis and point your hands, then take the weight off your balls of feet to the whole sole and drop your body as your knees bend, get comfy and then drop further into the tuck. The tuck is usually done in the spor, but i often take a wider stance out of the track on the flat mid section on fast down hills so i can go into plough and in general i find it more comfortable on longer or steeper downhills.
The tuck has a disadvantage in that you are fully compressed and reliant on even speed to aid balance. You cannot react to some sudden uneven undulations. Also while in the tramlines and it takes time to come up to a higher, wider stance in order to corner or come into plough.
A higher torso with bend legs and a slightly dropped back end then leaves you free to balance in all directions and absorb undulations with your partially bent knees. Also you gain better visibility ahead than being low and tucked, and are free to plan your next manoevre be that plough, step turning, swing turning, telemark turning og actually into the tram lines and down into a tuck for a long descent.
The tuck does allow for reduced air resistance and into a head wind that can mean a lot for the chill effect. Your core front torso is effectively out of the speed wind too. Also it allows you to relax main muscle groups a great deal more than any other position.
Planning a Week
Your first day should be no more than four hours even if you are reasonably fit, and that includes two hours of instruction. It is best to plan no more than four hours per day and allow for one rest day in the first four days.
Tours should be based around short circular routes which return you to the start point such that you can build up distance without ending far away in case you tire, cool too much or get injured.
Later in the week a tour of maybe 3 hours out, 2 back could be planned. This should include time for small breaks every half hour and a lunch break shbould really be inisde a heated cafe, or a known, well sheltered “lean to” hut. The lunch break should be little actual eating, more drinking warm drinks and replacing fluids. Take local advice on routes, weather and terrain and allow for no more than 6km and hour progress.
I would say for the sportier a series of three lessons from an instructor booked privately over the course of a week would allow you to master some basics ands have any errors corrected. A school will probably have daily teaching and organised tours.