Will I collapse and then freeze to death in the woods?
November 18, 2013 12:18 PM   Subscribe

I've been thinking of trying cross-country skiing this winter. How easy is it to learn, and is it possible to start without a great baseline level of fitness?

I have done some downhill skiing, but never cross-country. I don't know why I want to, but it seems appealing to me. I like being in the woods and going up and down hills, and, although I've never done it, I like the fact that technique, balance, and economy of motion will make you glide farther.

However, I am currently in bad shape, aerobically. I can run a 10 minute mile and feel like I want to die afterwards, which is as far as I've pushed myself recently. And everybody seems to say that cross-country skiing is the hardest thing in the world, so I'm a little apprehensive.

Do you think it's worth trying? I feel like I'd want to try skate as well as classic skiing (I spent a lot of time rollerblading in my youth, so the skate motion is pretty familiar). Is there anything I should be doing to prepare?

General advice about skis, boots, clothes, technique is also appreciated.
posted by vogon_poet to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The first time I went cross-country skiing, I wasn't that fit but I found it really great and fun! I also got warm really quickly.

The next day I couldn't raise my arms above my head to take off my sleep shirt -- my triceps were SO. SORE. Jesus! For days!

So my advice is to make sure your triceps are up to the task, because you will be using them more than you think.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 12:30 PM on November 18, 2013

I have a couple of times been cross-country skiing and it is pretty easy to pick up, at least if you're on flat ground. I'm not in shape and I did the little beginner route fine, but I was TIRED afterwards and the next day, and really sore! It was much easier to get the basics down than any other winter sport I've tried, but it was very tiring and I'm glad I didn't face any hills.

I would jump at the chance to do it again casually, as long as it wasn't a very long "hike." I thought it was great fun.

Skating's easy, most rinks have a free skate time with skate rental, and most offer a course of like six beginning lessons for adults. As long as you don't mind falling from time to time, you'll be fine.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:33 PM on November 18, 2013

If you can walk you can cross country ski. If you want to actually be good at it that's a little more work but if you just want to have fun in the woods and the snow it's trivially easy. You just slide along.

If you Google "cross country skiing [your area]" you should be able to find a local ski shop or amateur group that would be a way to get a brief lesson, some basic advice about equipment etc. Renting skis isn't a bad idea since you're just trying it out, and the place where you rent them should be able to give you at least basic advice. (I assume you know this already but for the record x-country skis are different than downhill skis.)

As for clothing again unless you're trying to actually ski as a way of rapidly getting across a lot of ground as opposed to just having fun basic winter coat and snow pants, hat and gloves should be fine. I like my finger mittens as it makes it easier to mess with my skis if I need to. How many layers depends on how cold you usually are outside. I am usually fine in just a fleece jacket but if it's really windy you might want a thicker coat.

As with any outdoor sport it's always safer to do it with at least one other person.
posted by Wretch729 at 12:34 PM on November 18, 2013

You should definitely rent equipment before you attempt to purchase it....the same would apply to downhill Alpine skiing as well. As for clothing, the mantra of wearing layers and avoiding cotton applies here too. Waterproof exteriors and garments that give you a good range of motion are important. Likely whatever you were wearing for downhill skiing would apply although you might need less layers since you will exert yourself more in Cross-Country and have a greater chance of "running hot".
posted by mmascolino at 12:39 PM on November 18, 2013

I've done both track and skate skiing x-country, and it's really great fun. It can be both contemplative and exciting. If you are fit enough to do it (which I leave to you and your physician to determine), go for it.

It is pretty challenging physically, though.

The gear is different for track and skate skiing, though you can get compromise gear that's good for both. Go to a x-country ski center and take some lessons, and rent your equipment.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:41 PM on November 18, 2013

I agree that it's trivially easy and you don't need to be in particularly good shape to do it. It's not like running where you have to be able to run in order to do it--pretty much anyone can cross-country ski, it's just a matter of how sore they'll be the next day. Also you will get much, much hotter than you think you will, no matter how cold it is, so dress for that.
posted by HotToddy at 12:54 PM on November 18, 2013

If you can run a 10-minute mile you will be 100% truefax FINE going cross-country skiing.

The "hardest exercise" thing comes from the fact that competitive cross-country skiiers have the highest VO2 Max of any sport, which is likely because it involves your legs plus your arms (on your poles) rather than just legs like running, skating, etc.

I'd say my subjective level of effort when cross-country skiing is much closer to cycling than running, FWIW.

As far as safety goes, I've gone cross-country skiing by myself, but I always tell someone where I'm going and when I expect to be back, just in case. And I've been skiing since I was very, very tiny, so I am very comfortable on skis. If you haven't been before, I'd try to get someone else to go with you. They don't have to be on skis, though. You could find a big unplowed parking lot or field and go back and forth across it, or bring someone on snowshoes (they will almost certainly be slower than you but you could go ahead and then turn around and go back to them).

I'd also suggest a lesson in-person if you can. The skiing motion isn't intuitive for everyone (although if you rollerbladed you're partway there), and you'll want to learn how to herringbone your way up hills before you go out there.

Snow-covered golf courses are fun if you can get away with it.

I typically wear jeans, a long-sleeved T or Henley, a fleece or heavy wool sweater, and a fleece headband. I am a terrible example and you should wear a lot more clothing than I do. But make sure you have layers you can take off and carry with you -- wear layers designed for winter (aka not cotton) but assume you'll heat up enough that anything more than a sweater and jeans would be too much.
posted by pie ninja at 12:55 PM on November 18, 2013

I used to ski quite heavily, and have recently gotten back into it - I'm terribly out of shape but am a long-distance biker.

You will be fine!

It is absolutely hard. You'll probably be sore the first few times, much like our pot smoking hippie overlord says, especially in the triceps. Don't worry too much about it, though.

Wear lots of layers, preferably some that you can remove. Skiing can get brutally hot. You'll figure out very quickly what you prefer. I usually do long johns and a long-sleeve undershirt of those fancy materials, then a tshirt and a long-sleeve shirt, followed by a thin-ish jacket because I don't have a good ski jacket and I like having a good range of motion. Sweat pants and/or track pants, if it's cold my snowpants. But please note that I live far north where they frequently shut down the ski club on account of it being -40 (aka too cold), you might need less. Smartwool socks are God's gift to humanity.

Rent skis, try both track & skating. I prefer skating, but not everyone does. Generally that's pretty cheap, and without doing it it's hard for us to give you advice. Alternatively, a lot of clubs do a ski swap in the fall/late spring, where you can get good used gear. I picked up boots/poles/skis for < $200 last year.

If you're at a club you probably don't need to worry about safety-type things. That being said, all the clubs I have skied at have a long-long trail, which gets fewer people/more animals and if you take that it might be worth telling someone. If you live in an area with animals, try to make noise if you don't notice many people around. Sing!

And enjoy yourself!
posted by Lemurrhea at 1:03 PM on November 18, 2013

One thing I would add is don't wear cotton as your base layer - cross country skiing is hard work and you will sweat - and then be cold. Polypro, wool or silk rather than cotton next to your skin is a better plan. Hat & gloves. I normally wear a base layer, fleece and a shell. Of course it's as aerobic as you make it and loads of fun. Around here - SE Michigan - there are a number of metro parks and golf course with both trails and equipment rentals - an easy way to try it out and means that you're not out in the middle of nowhere even if you don't have a buddy to go with you. Have fun!
posted by leslies at 1:04 PM on November 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nthing all the others that you will be fine fitness-wise, but I did want to add that if you have only downhill skied, then you should be prepared for a bit of a learning curve. Muscle memory from downhill will not help you, so try not to approach it from that sport (citing personal experience). Nordic skiing is different. You don't use your edges in the same way. That said, it's a ton of fun, and I am hooked. Snowy winter in the Northeast, come on!
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 1:13 PM on November 18, 2013

As a beginner the greatest challenge will be going down hills. Until you acquire the proper technique, don't be afraid to take off your skis and walk down if neccesary. Better than falling and twisting something or hitting a tree.
posted by canoehead at 1:15 PM on November 18, 2013

You will be fine. Have fun!

For your first outing if you can find a park with groomed trails, I'd recommend that. If the snow is light powder, this is not so important. But if it is heavier, wet snow, the lead person has to break a trail and it can get to be a real slog. The following skiers get to just glide along, la la la, their skis slipping along in the nicely packed little grooves, wondering why lead skier is going so slow. If there are no XC ski trails, then snowmobile trails work pretty well.

Also waxless skis work well in most conditions, but sometimes really wet snow clumps up on the bottoms. Again not so much an issue if you're on a trail someone already made.
posted by evilmomlady at 1:30 PM on November 18, 2013

You won't die in the woods because you will start out doing short distances on easy courses. How tired you get is a function of how fast you go, how many hills there are, and the distance you ski. I sometimes see really old guys on wooden skis slowly kicking around on local trails. They aren't able to run or ski fast any more, but they can still go out for a basic ski.

So, start out with short distances on flattish courses. The best would be to find a place near you that (1) rents skis and (2) has lessons. Go and ski for an hour or two with an instructor. You'll get lots of great tips and you'll learn one of the basic trails in your area. If you can't find lessons, find a park or ski center with rentals and groomed trails and do the following: (1) rent some classic skis, (2) follow the signs to ski on an easy trail that is 5K or less, and (3) imitate what people you see are doing. Start with classic skiing. Master that basic motion and shifting your weight. Then, later this year or next year start on skate skiing. I would strongly suggest lessons for skate skiing.

If you are in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, or Michigan check out skinnyski.com for information on trails and rentals.
posted by Area Man at 1:37 PM on November 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

I moved to Fairbanks 5 years ago and started cross-country skiing, because it's what there is to do outside in the winter, after never having been on any skis ever.

I suck. My 8 year old is faster than I am. I can keep up with the 5 year old. This year. We'll see about next year. But it's still super-fun.

The point is really, just get out there and trudge around on skis. Think of it as hiking. You don't have to have good form (although if you can glide a little it's more fun). I ski in jeans and a cotton shirt, plus some wind pants and a coat. And mittens and a neck gaiter. And a fleece jacket---layers are good.

You can go as slow as you like. It's not a race.

People have notions about wax vs no-wax skis. I like no-wax skis because it means if I want to go skiing, I just grab my skis and go---no need to worry about what kind of wax, no need to spend the 20 minutes applying the wax. Sure, my no-wax skis are slow, but I'm not really good enough for it to matter.
posted by leahwrenn at 1:43 PM on November 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I took up cross-country skiing seriously two years ago after a couple of decades of regular wintertime snowshoeing, and some alpine and backcountry skiing. I ended up enjoying it so much that I skied about 70+ times in all sorts of weather in the past two years. I live in Vancouver, with the local xc hill about 20 mins away from me so I ski there on weeknights, and in the Olympic area two hours away on weekends. The temperatures vary between +5C to the -Teens C.

First of all, are you looking to ski on tracks, or on open snow? Different gear is needed depending on your answer. If you live in a flat area then skiing in a field is a great way to learn the stride. I suggest starting with Classic style skiing - and once you get your ski legs, turn to Skate Skiing. But first, learn classic - the learning curve is much flatter and the workout just as good.

Classic skiing is the skiing inside the tracks that you see on the side of the groomed tracks. The etiquette is to ski on the right when there are tracks on either side of the groomed area. This is a style of skiing that is easy to learn, and will offer challenges when the track is hilly.

Skate skiing takes place in the middle of the groomed area - the motion is very much similar to skating on ice.

I think that Classic skiers have the better end of the deal for conditions, we can pretty much ski on anything and everything - esp if the skis are 'backcountry' rated - whereas Skate skiers do much better when the groomed surface is just set, and where the area is more flat (although skate skiers can certainly ski the Black diamonds, and they do!! )

When picking your skis, choose classic skis with a fish scale motif under the foot area. The top and bottom of the skis, meanwhile, will be smooth. These are called waxless skis. In addition to not needing wax every single day (which is hard to figure out as temperatures vary in the winter) they enable a person to ski uphill straight up (moderate hills). Waxless skis need little maintenance, I reapply a gliding agent every 10 - 12 ski days (it's like a roll-on, for my skis).

When trying on shoes, remember that you will be wearing one or two pair of socks in the boot, so purchase/rent comfortable boots. You don't want the foot to be loose inside, nor do you want the boot to bind.

About clothing - if you run outdoors at this time of year... well that's your xc gear as well. I usually wear light silk longjohns underneath light tights, and light silk longsleeve T underneath a zip-neck midweight layer underneath a light jacket. I wear a Buff neck muffler, and light gloves.

I usually take a small backpack with me - in it I have a water bottle (essential !!), some Clif shots (quick carb energy, high in sugar) maybe an orange or two, some clif bars. I also keep a thermos of hot soup in the car.

About learning how to ski. My first Classic ski lesson, two years ago, was a lesson in how to get into the skis, stay inside the bindings, push myself off, and good technique. Climbing up a hill, even with waxless skis, was challenging but we had it down by lesson's end. I got warm, very fast and very much. Hence the "light" nature of my clothing when I ski.

Progress was fast for me - I can ski pretty much anything now from green to black. This year I bought some Skate skis, will take lessons and then enjoy that sport as well. It will be more challenging and I look forward to all the fun.

I suggest that you take a lesson or two, rent before buying the ski gear, dress in layers, and enjoy the learnings. If you wish to learn how to xc ski by watching YouTube videos ahead of time, there's plenty there by entering 'xc skiing lessons' for some tools and techniques.

Have fun !!
posted by seawallrunner at 3:38 PM on November 18, 2013

The first time I tried it, it was on fairly wet snow with temperatures hovering around freezing. The snow stuck to my skis and it was annoying. Check with your equipment-monger and know the conditions before you set out.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 5:49 PM on November 18, 2013

The first winter I cross country skied, I did the 32km Birkie near Edmonton and I'm not particularly fit. Then again, Edmonton has some great relatively flat trails, which are quite forgiving for a beginner starting out. The first time you try it, it feels quite awkward, but the more I've skied the more natural it feels. I would recommend starting on some beginner trails, hiring some waxless skis (especially if the conditions are near 0 C, where is it is very difficult to choose the right wax - even for experienced skiers) and get some lessons. Then if you like it, invest in some equipment. I still have my first set of skis which are Fischers and a set of Swix waxes. Any speciality ski shop will have sales staff who are themselves skiiers and can offer good advice on equipment.

(according to my ski instructor, classic skiing amounts to learning slightly forward, crushing an "egg" with one foot while kicking a "ball" with the other... okay, this might make more sense once you try it.)
posted by piyushnz at 9:29 PM on November 18, 2013

You'll be fine. I learned to cross-country ski when I wasn't in particularly awesome shape and had a perfectly good time (helped me get in better shape, too). I had ancient equipment I bought at a ski swap and it was still perfectly fine. I was familiar with the motion from ice skating, so yeah, I do think your rollerblading experience will help. Try not to overdo it and you won't be too sore (though you'll probably be at least a little sore). You'll probably get warmer than you think you will, so layers are definitely good. Personally, I'd choose fleece, silk, and wool over cotton because cotton gets wet and stays wet if you sweat or fall down in wet snow.

Have fun!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:30 AM on November 19, 2013

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