A Beginners' Guide to Nordic Skiing

Colin Blackburn

What is Nordic skiing?

Nordic skiing, otherwise known as cross-country skiing, encompasses a range of skiing techniques that developed for travelling across snow rather than simply descending hills. It is a set of disciplines distinct from Alpine skiing, aka downhill skiing. Two oddities are that the Nordic downhill technique of Telemark is part of Alpine skiing despite originating from Nordic skiing and the very downhill ski jump is a Nordic skiing discipline, but that's sports' governing bodies for you!

Nordic skiing includes track skiing, backcountry skiing, ski touring, ski mountaineering and biathlon. This guide is solely to track skiing, that's skiing on tracks specially prepared for cross-country skiing. Backcountry skiing and ski touring both involve skiing off-track and can both be learned after basic track skiing. Ski mountaineering is like ski touring with bigger ups and downs and needs Telemark training for the descents. Biathlon does use tracks but it also involves shooting. Again, it's something you can learn later if it takes your fancy.

Track skiing takes two forms: classic or skate, each requiring different types of skis. It takes place on groomed tracks, these usually take the form of a pisted central section with loipe down either or both sides. The loipe are two deep grooves designed to allow skis to run in them. Classic skiing generally uses the loipe, skate skiing generally uses the central piste.

In classic skiing the skis are kept parallel for much of the time and a striding motion combines with pushing off on poles moves the skier forward. This is possible because of a central grippy section to each ski which allows the skier to kick against this and then glide forward. The loipe keep the skis parallel as well as providing a smooth gliding surface for speed. The piste might be used to get extra grip on climbs, for overtaking in races, for fast descending or simply because the loipe aren't there.

In skate skiing the skis are kept in a V-shape for much of the time. A skating motion, similar to ice or roller skating, moves the skier forward. Here the skier pushes against the edge of one ski and then glides on the other, then vice versa, poles are used to provide additional push. The loipe might be used for some descents or when just using the poles for propulsion.

How do I get started?

In the UK there are very limited opportunities for learning XC track skiing. Effectively, the only place to learn on snow is the Huntly Nordic & Outdoor Centre in Aberdeenshire. Some of the other outdoor centres such as Glenmore lodge do teach touring and mountaineering but for track skiing you need to go to Huntly. They offer one-day and weekend courses during the winter season. They have a small circuit at the centre and they even have an artificial surface for when the snow is poor. They also have access to the only pisted forest in the UK, Clashindarroch Forest or simply the Clash! I first learned at Huntly and can recommend them if you can get up there to make a weekend of it. The Centre also do a full hire service so that you can go out on your own and consolidate your skills.

An alternative to learning in Scotland is going further afield. Several companies offer one week holidays for absolute beginners. Exodus and XCuk are two companies that I know of. I can recommend Exodus and I have heard good things about XCuk. Both offer full package holidays with tuition and kit hire and with both you'll see some beautiful trails. You could also travel independently to a XC ski area and find local tuition. Personal tuition can be expensive and group tuition may present language challenges, though you will find some very good teachers out there. Personally I'd recommend somewhere like Italy or Austria as they tend to have lots of trail-side cafes. Norway is also an excellent place to ski though some of the locations are more remote than those in central Europe. I'd also recommend a package with a British guide, at least for the first time as it alleviates any language problems.

Finally, one other way of learning some of the skills at any time of year and in the UK is rollerskiing. Rollerskis do almost everything snow skis do and so they can be an excellent way to learn some skills before transferring to snow. The best opportunity for learning rollerskiing in the North East is at one of both of the two annual events at Hetton Lyons. These two weekend events usually take the form of one day's tuition, including absolute beginners, and one day racing. There are similar events around the country including Lancaster. The dates for this year's events should be in the links below when they are available.

Classic or skate?

It's probably good to have both techniques in your arsenal. Many people learn classic and never move on to skate, which is faster and perhaps more race-oriented. A small number learn skate, probably through rollerskiing, and only try classic once they get to snow. It's good to mix the disciplines as they use muscles in different ways and give more opportunities. I learned classic first and then moved on to skate. Now when I spend a week away I try to do half-and-half.

What should I wear?

Unlike downhill skiing the clothes for XC skiing are pretty much what you'd wear for winter running. I usually use Ron Hill Bikesters and a windproof jacket with a thermal layer below. Cycling gloves, a Buff and a light hat make up the rest. You really don't need more than that with more or fewer layers depending on the temperature. Glasses are useful for protection from other people's pole tips and for the glare from the snow. Remember to wear sunblock.

Pretty much the same goes for rollerskiing except that you might want to also wear a cycle helmet and elbow and knee pads (available from any good skateboard shop!)

What skis should I buy?

Don't buy anything special until you are sure your want to take things further. Skis, rollerskis, poles and boots can get expensive, though bottom of the range stuff is okay for the more casual skier. You also need to be sure that everything is the right size, and just to complicate things there are two boot-ski binding systems (at least that's fewer than shoe-pedal bindings!) And if you do classic and skate you pretty much need two of everything. You can get bargains on Ebay but at the same time there is a load of old tat for sale at unrealistic prices, caveat emptor! The whole thing, like cycling, can become a bit of a gear game so use rental stuff until you know what you need. It's also becoming increasingly expensive to carry your own skis on airlines and the cost of hire is often cheaper than the cost of the extra bags.

What about racing?

There aren't many races in the UK. Huntly has the odd race in the winter season and there is a series of rollerski races around the country throughout the year. These races will be in the 10km to 15km range. If you want more variety or longer races then you are going to have to go abroad. Most of the snowsport countries have races ranging from club level to national marathons, from a few tens of competitors to several thousand. The big marathons, citizen races, are very popular and like their running cousins tend to be oversubscribed. Like running, there are plenty of smaller races that don't fill up and that you may even be able to enter on the day. Unlike running, a marathon isn't a fixed distance and they vary from 28km to 90km and beyond. Many events are over a weekend often giving the chance to both do both skate and classic races. Some of the big marathons are part of world and European series where you can acquire Master's status by taking part in enough of them. Some of the big events also offer women-only races.

Some UK ski clubs, including rollerski.co.uk below, organise training weeks culminating in a race or two, these are well worth seeking out if you are a first time racer. For those with the freedom to travel a lot of the ski marathons have accompanying MTB and trail runs at other points in the year if you want to do the same course on foot and bike.

Links and Further Information
Learning and training