A beginner’s guide to cross-country skiing

Splendid winter scenery is part of the benefits of cross-country skiing. Mountain peaks are the backdrop here at Great Glen Trails.
Splendid winter scenery is part of the benefits of cross-country skiing. Mountain peaks are the backdrop here at Great Glen Trails.Wiseguy Creative/Great Glen Trails

It’s good exercise. It gets you outdoors in winter. It’s not as expensive or crowded as its downhill cousins. And you can happily and guilt-freely participate in apres ski festivities. All good reasons to give cross-country skiing a try. Not sure where to begin? Here are 10 tips from the experts.

1. Take a lesson. Decline all offers from good-intentioned family and friends to teach you how to ski. Everyone in the industry agrees that an introductory lesson from a professional ski instructor is the way to go. You’ll learn the correct technique and you’ll learn faster. Group lessons are very effective and fun, as you can learn from your classmates as well as the instructor.


2. Go easy on yourself. Pick a nice winter day, say temps in the 20s, clear skies and no wind, and plan on a mid- to late-morning lesson. Begin at a groomed ski center with easy manicured trails. "Build your confidence by starting on easier terrain — flat and gently rolling trails with gradual, long radius turns,” says Sue Wemyss, ski school director at Great Glen Trails in Pinkham Notch, N.H. “As you gain skill and confidence, there will be a whole world of more challenging terrain to explore!” But downhills are tough to completely avoid, and can be intimidating for beginner skiers. Amie Smith, executive director of the New England Nordic Ski Association, offers some tips. “It seems to be human nature when confronted with a hill on skis to bend forward at the waist with straight legs. That’s totally backward and a very unstable position,” she says. “Instead, bend, bend, bend those knees, stay loose, and resist the temptation to bend over at the waist. Keep your body mostly upright and drop your butt straight down to lower your center of gravity.” The goal to mastering the hills, Smith says, is for a good, stable, athletic position, with hips over knees, over ankles, and staying as relaxed as possible.

3. Start with classic. There is skate skiing, when you continually push off the skis in a side-to-side V pattern. And there is classic skiing, where your skis travel in a parallel fashion, utilizing a rhythmic kick and glide. Experts say beginners should first learn the classic technique. “Classic technique is much closer to the way we’ve been moving since we first began to walk, with its straight ahead, opposite arm and leg coordination,” says Wemyss. “Get the skills in classic skiing, then expand, if you’re interested, to skate skiing.”


Take the kids? Children love to be outdoors and learning to cross-country ski.
Take the kids? Children love to be outdoors and learning to cross-country ski. Jackson Ski Touring Foundation

4. Dress the part. Wear layers of lightweight, non-cotton clothing. “Dress as if you were going for a power walk or short hike,” says Ellen Chandler, executive director of the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation. With the temperatures between 15 and 30 degrees, Chandler recommends two layers of pants and three layers of tops: long underwear or tights, under a pair of water- and wind-resistant pants, and a base layer top, a midlayer top (like a quarter-zip turtleneck), and a lightweight soft-shell jacket. Add lightweight gloves and hat, and maybe a neck warmer, and you’ll be good to go.

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5. Rent your gear. “Don't try to learn on a cobbled-together set of hand-me-downs and other random gear,” says Chandler. “Make use of the rental package that is often included in learn-to-ski packages.” Today’s cross-country skis and boots are designed to work together to be more stable and responsive. “Rent equipment at the cross-country center where you take your lesson,” advises Wemyss. “And look for a center that continually updates its rental fleet.”


6. Take the kids. Children love cross-country skiing. “It’s liberating for them to be in control of their entire ski experience. No waiting, no lines, they can do what they want,” says Chandler. And let them go! she says. “Kids often like to go up and down the same hill over and over. Let them do this. Newsflash: kids like terrain, they do not care about scenery.”

7. Watch others. Watching good skiers can give you a mental image of what you should be doing. “Many of us are visual learners, so take advantage of being at a ski center where experts are enjoying their craft,” says Wemyss. You may not understand exactly how they’re doing it, but you’ll at least have a good visual to mimic.

Jackson XC Nordic center overlooks the Presidential Mountain Range in Jackson, N.H.
Jackson XC Nordic center overlooks the Presidential Mountain Range in Jackson, N.H.Jackson Ski Touring Foundation

8. Go at your own pace. Everyone learns differently. If you take a group lesson, do not expect to learn at the same pace as others or through the same thought process. And, be patient. “As a newcomer to cross-country, you’ll be learning some new movement patterns, and doing it on a somewhat slippery surface,” says Wemyss. “It takes some time to get those new movement patterns down, so give yourself time. If you’re prone to self-evaluation when learning, keep it objective and positive, rather than subjective and critical.”


9. Take follow-up lessons. Most skiers learn enough in one lesson to go on an easy tour, but follow-up lessons will make a big difference. “After some independent skiing, take another follow-up lesson. This will allow you to learn new skills as you progress, and to answer questions you may have had while out skiing on your own,” says Smith.

10. Have fun. “Being outside on a winter day, gliding over the snow, moving under one’s own power through the beauty of the natural environment is what hooks so many of us longtime skiers,” says Wemyss.

Why not make this the winter you finally learn to cross-country ski?


Jackson XC

This Nordic center overlooking the Presidential Mountain Range in Jackson, N.H., is considered one of the best in New England. It has 100 kilometers of trails, and a top-notch ski school, offering group and private lessons. Check out the popular Super Saver Package with an all-day trail pass, equipment rental, and one-hour group lesson ($45 adult, $39 junior). They also offer a 4 and Go Package that includes two group lessons, followed by two private lessons, rentals, and ski tickets for all four days; after the fourth lesson the skier is issued a season pass at no additional charge ($199). www.jacksonxc.org

Great Glen Trails

Set at the base of the Mount Washington Auto Road in northern New Hampshire, this outdoor recreation center has 45 kilometers of groomed and backcountry trails. Their learn-to-ski package includes a 75-minute group lesson, rentals, and trail pass (ages 13 and up, $49; ages 5-12, $29). www.greatglentrails.com


Trapp Family Lodge

This renowned lodge in Stowe, Vt., the first cross-country center in the country, sits on 2,500 acres overlooking the Green Mountains, with 37 miles of groomed trails and more than 60 miles of backcountry. Beginner lessons include a day pass, rentals, and an hour group lesson (ages 12 and up, $65; ages 6-12, $45). www.trappfamily.com

Craftsbury Outdoor Center

You can ski more than 100 kilometers of trails crisscrossing meadows and forests and connecting small towns from this outdoor recreation center in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Private lessons (one person $45, two people $60, three to eight people $75 plus $10 for each additional person) and rentals ($15) are available for all ages. www.craftsbury.com

Weston Ski Track

A local favorite, this Nordic center located at the Leo J. Martin Golf Course is just 15 minutes or so from downtown Boston. There are 15 kilometers of groomed trails meandering through woods and along the Charles River, and another 2.5 kilometers with snowmaking and lights for night skiing. Beginner lessons are 75 minutes long, with rentals (adults, $38; ages 13-16, $32; ages 11-12, $21). Trail passes ($8-$13) are extra. Kids beginner lessons are also offered for ages 6-10, including a 75-minute lesson and rentals ($21). www.paddleboston.com/skitrack/skitrack