PRIMER ON XC submitted by XC Zone, a group that provides instructional ski videos and also has won awards for documenting the emerging sport of "extreme cross-country skiing". Stay tuned, you may see a new sport morph out of traditional ski racing. To start with, here's an introduction to XC skiing from these fine folks.
In Scandinavia, nordic skiing is practically a national identity. Here in Canada, a relatively
smaller number of citizens actually practice it as their religion. Yet, more than 3.5 million
Canadians each year, strap on their cross-country skis and venture out into snow-hushed
woods for play, health, fitness and adventure. According to Government Statistics, that is
twice as many as play hockey! Nordic skiing remains one of the top family outdoor activities
practiced by most Canadians.
For most Canadians cross-country skiing simply invokes feelings of a pure and wholesome
winter activity most often partaken on special family occasions such as over the Christmas
Holidays. Sporting an acquired taste for the clean fresh oxygenated air, scented of pine,
and snowflakes. Beyond recreation, nordic skiing conveys grace, fitness, and pure
exhilaration. This form of skiing is not necessarily about walking on skis, but aspires to
experience gliding on a cushion of snow through the woods with a seldom achieved sense
Cross-country skiing is wonderfully diverse. By definition it encompasses all conditions and
terrain: climbs and descents, on tracks and through powder. And where a map is only
required in order to avoid civilization. For some, it can also be taken to its extremes,
brandishing an unrivaled level of power-endurance conditioning amongst its athletes. Over
eight thousand skiers participate in the Keskinada World Loppet, Canadian Birkebeiner and
the Canadian Ski Marathon events each year - the largest winter sporting events in the
What does it take to get involved in the way of commitment or co$t? The answer is: next
to nothing, whereas benefits are unparalleled - fresh air and fun in the snow.
Before venturing into the great outdoors, here is some advise. Pick a nice day when you
have plenty of time, no pressing engagements, and set yourself free. Choose a trail which
is well within your abilities - it is not a lot of fun to walk up and down hills - besides it will get
you some dirty looks. Consult trail guides and maps. Gage your limits in distance and
difficulty. Most occasional skiers should expect to take twice as long to complete the return
leg of their journey. Carry food, water and an extra layer of clothing. Like every good boy
scout - "be prepared."
Technique has a lot to do with the quality of the experience. Anyone determined on
improving their abilities ought to acquire professional instruction, good quality equipment,
and well prepared track-set trails. It is unlikely that someone can learn to ski exclusively
from a book or video.
The most familiar nordic technique is that of diagonal stride, alternatively referred to as
classic or traditional technique. It is characterized for most people, by a walking action
which evolves into a effortless stride and glide. (I apologize to aficionados for an overly
Ski skating or "freestyle" technique is the choice of most racers today. First (really)
introduced in 1984, it revolutionized cross-country skiing. It combines a double polling action
of arms with a speed skating like leg motion but relies on decisive weight shift to propel the
skier forward onto a balanced and flat ski. Skating is significantly swifter than diagonal
stride but requires additional power-endurance to sustain the movement. And then there
are half a dozen skating techniques to befuddle the beginner. Taking lessons are not just
a good idea; they are a great idea. Notwithstanding, you will need practice to improve.
It is common for ski lessons to be arranges through ski specialty shops or at resorts.
Several established master's ski camps also exist at ski centres. Look for a capable
instructor in the same way you would review a resume. The instructor should either have
some performance indicators like World Cup gold medalist; or relevant education like
exercise physiologist; or a professional certification from a third party such as the Canadian
Association of Nordic Ski Instructors (CANSI) or National Coaching Certification Program
(NCCP). Alternatively, anyone on the trail skiing significantly better-faster then yourself my
be willing to help. For a longer term solution or if you are looking for motivation and
encouragement join a club. Cross-Country Canada maintains a list of provincial clubs.
A magazine, book, video or multimedia can provide hours of off-snow stimulation, whether
you are keen on brushing up on technique or delving into the latest information in physical
conditioning or just staying motivated when it is raining outside. I must point out however,
these are all poor substitutes for skiing on snow or receiving proper instruction. Many of
the books and videos are focused on travel destinations. There are some books which
cover the basics including waxing and videos of event coverage or elementary techniques.
However, the choices thin rapidly for intermediate or advanced skiers. Once cross-country
skiing dominated the landscape. Today, the media selection it is somewhat eclipsed by
alpine and boarding. There are new products on the horizon that deal with modern cross-
The reality is that cross-country skiing has experienced a quiet revolution in that it has come
a long way from granola, wool knickers. Today's equipment rivals the stability of some
Alpine gear with significantly better glide and prices.
In the 70's and in most peoples garages, skis were made of wood, boots were low cut
leather, the poles were made of bamboo and bindings resembled metal rat-traps.
Boots are a good place to start outfitting. Choose a ski boot with as much care as you
would a winter walking boot. I recommend a high cut style which comes above the ankles.
Ensure that they are comfortable and supportive. Avoid buying boots that are tight. Your
toes should not touch the end or else you will run the risk of frost bite. An important
footnote: the boot must fit one of the three standard binding systems.
Salomon's Nordic System (SNS) or Pilot and the New Nordic Norm (NNN) binding systems
have replaced the antiquated three-pin bindings. (Note: There are back country versions
of these systems). These modern binding systems offer positive connection to the ski and
great control and stability. Because they are mechanically hinged, you wont get the crease
across the top of the boot as was the case years ago. Wood has been replaced by
lightweight synthetics which is performs better in the snow. Expect to pay between $80 and
$200 for a new entry level ski. Top xc racing skis run about $600 a pair. If you want to save
a bit of money you can buy consignment stock. Ask about the history of the ski from the
Modern fiberglass skis are faster and lighter than their wooden predecessors and come in
a variety of shapes and sizes designed to take you over any terrain or conditions.
The first decision point in ski selection is to examine your outing preferences. Will you be
skiing mostly off trail? Wider xc skis are used to provide the stability and buoyancy needed
for deep unpacked snow. You can go from moderate light back country touring models, to
full blown mountaineering skis with medal edges.
If you are planning on using groomed trails then it becomes a question of your predominate
style. Whether that be classic, skating or a combination of the two. If all these choices make
your head spin, by a combination light touring ski within your budget.
Next, determine size. Most men ski on 195-205cm skis whereas women use 185-195cm.
A shorter ski is generally easier to control but at the expense of speed. The best factor
used to determine proper ski size is weight. A ski store will be able to measure the degree
to which you compress the camber of the ski and ascertain which pair is best for you.
The bases are made out of polyethylene (generally referred to as P-Tex). Sintered P-Tex
bases (compressed by heat and pressure) hold was better and are tougher than extruded
(pressure molded) bases - it can be a matter of co$t for the consumer.
Entry level classic touring skis come in wax-less or waxable varieties. Wax-less skis have
fish angled scales on the running area underneath so that they provide momentary grip
when the skier pushes on the snow. Waxable skis perform the same function but are much
faster in the end. Although, waxingless racing skis have been used at the World Cup in
difficult conditions. Special paraffin based grip wax is applied underneath the ski kick zone
(generally the middle third of the ski) and momentarily bonds with the snow crystals when
the skier pushes.
PREPARATION AND WAX
Waxing for skating is different than for classic technique. No grip wax is required for
skating. A special glide wax is applied on the entire ski base by first melting it on with a
warm iron and scraping off the excess. Ski tuning and the hot wax is much of an arcane art
as it is science. It is best to watch the shop do this initially, for those attempting this for the
first time. The tips and tales of classic skis can be hot glide waxed like skating skis for
Choice of wax is best kept simple. Every wax is labeled for the appropriate temperature and
humidity. Each is colour roughly coded for from cold green to warmer red. Use as
recommended on the package. Use only glide wax on skating skis and conversely grip wax
only underneath the middle third of your classic skis.
Poles are the last major piece of equipment and one which offers the greatest range of
prices from $10 to $700. Normally, poles are made out of either carbon fibre, fibre glass or
aluminum. What you are playing for is less weight and stiffness. My advice is, unless you
are really serious, do not spent too much on poles. Choose poles of shoulder height for
classic, or chin to nose height for skating. The baskets for back country skiing are wider
than those used on groomed trails.
WHERE TO SHOP
Visit a cross-country ski speciality shop rather than a large department store or general
alpine sports store. You will not only get better quality and pricing, but most importantly,
service. A professional can choose a pair right for you, and can take time to explain the
technology and its care. If you ever have problems or questions you know where to turn.
In addition a specialty shop can provide the complete package: ski, boots, poles, clothing,
accessories, wax and in most cases lessons, videos, books or multimedia material, a map
of where to go and local trail conditions. These stores are managed and staffed by skiers.
WHAT TO WEAR
What to wear? In two words: functional and comfortable. Or in other words; address
survival before investing in style. So woolen knickers and long colourful socks are best left
in the retro closet. Jeans are definitely out! Cross-country skiing follows the same principles
as other outdoor exercise. Additionally, xc skiers experience great extremes in temperature
or wind chill in climbing and descending. Start with long underwear made from synthetic
fabrics like polypropylene that wick moisture away from the skin. Buy some wind proof
briefs and save in a lot of grief.
The key is to dress in layers for warmth and to regulate temperature more easily. A middle
layer of medium thickness is recommended for the upper body. Choose wool or synthetic
fabrics again. Avoid cotton. The outer layer should offer resistance to wind and snow and
allow body moisture to escape. Lycra or Gortex are good choices here. A vest is a good
extra layer if required.
But wait there is more... Your choice of warm mitts or gloves offer better feel and control
of the poles. Choose your gloves (or mitts) large and loose for better heat retention. A good
addition is to include thin glove inserts. Wear a hat because most of your heat escapes out
of the top of your head. A thin balaclava underneath the toque will protect your face and
ears from the wind. Sunglasses (with UVA and UVB protection) are important to not only
thwart snow blindness but keep the eyes fro watering in the cold wind - and to look cool.
WHERE TO GO TO SKI
Now that you are outfitted the destination awaits. You can start from your back door, if you
are lucky, or visit one of Canada's many cross-country skiing centres or resorts. You'll find quite a few cross-country ski trail networks on trailpeak, and just about every town in Canada (and even Vancouer which has no snow at city level) have a trail network for XC skiing within 30 minutes of town! Talk about paradise.