At the risk of sounding like an old miser, when did Nordic skiing become cool? And what rock was I under? To be clear, skinny skis, frozen snot, and kick wax have been long-tenured parts of my life since childhood, but have always come hand-in-hand with the non ironic label, Nor-dorks. And despite being an unabashed fan of “revenge of the nerds” narratives, this one seems almost too good to be true.
But maybe not.
Cross-country skiing (used more or less interchangeably with “nordic skiing”) is different than alpine skiing in a trio of important ways. First, there are no chairlifts involved–it’s 100% human powered. Second, the boot isn’t locked into the ski. The toe is connected but not the heel, allowing the skier to propel themselves forward with each step. Last, the directional skis are much skinnier, lighter, and straighter, lending themselves to faster movement across flat(ish) terrain.
Nordic skiing comes from a Scandinavian heritage, yet is popular worldwide today—usually in cold, snowy places that may or may not have nearby ski resorts. For example, my beloved home state of Minnesota.
I first clicked into cross-country skis while following my parents around the Chugach range outside Anchorage, Alaska. Doing my best baby deer impression, I struggled to keep up. Back then, nordic skiing was strictly for us nerdy kids. Today, shops around the country are backordered and trailheads are teaming with youngins’ learning how to skate ski.
And I’m not talking about your parents NordicTrack circa 2000 or skin-tight race suits, either. Nordic participation—and business—is booming, despite the reputation as the ugly stepchild of alpine skiing.
The coolness hierarchy of skiing has been unassailable for decades. It starts with backcountry and freeskiing, in the middle lies resorts, terrain parks, and moguls, and further down is ski jumping and water skiing. And at the very bottom is cross-country. Nordic skiing has never been in the movies, doesn’t have a pop culture hero, and you’ve probably never heard of the Birkebeiner, the World Series of flat skiing. Yet, sales of nordic equipment at REI are three times higher than last year. Which begs the question, what’s driving the surge in demand?
Exploration, exercise, and play.
Nordic skiing is easy to try, generally accessible, and fun for individuals and families alike. In urban and suburban areas, after a fresh storm, you can often ski in city parks, on bike paths, or around snow-covered golf courses (ask first, there are some golf grinches out there). Nordic centers with well groomed trails are often closer to cities than alpine resorts, too. And some cities, like Montreal, even have trails built into the urban landscape. In my home state of Minnesota, you can get a yearlong nordic ski pass for all of the trails in state parks and forests for just $25.
If your interest has piqued, read on a rundown on my favorite cross-country ski gear, suitable for both beginners and experienced skiers.
9 Cross-Country Gear Essentials:
Julbo Fury Sunglasses
Embrace the fast and dorky look. These speed shades vent well, stick to your face, and will keep wind and snow out of your eyes. Plus the lenses offer a wide field of vision and are comfortable, too.
Price: $130 SHOP NOW
Skida Equality Nordic Headband
As the pros say, be bold, start cold. A light headband will keep your ears warm, while preventing overheating as you warm up and start to sweat. Forty percent of sales of this specific style go to Legion of Los Angeles (L39ION), an organization dedicated to increasing diversity and encouraging inclusion in outdoor pursuits.
Price: $18 SHOP NOW
Patagonia Peak Mission Gloves
Perfect for any high-output fall or winter activity, these gloves breath well and have a wind-resistant mitt that helps keep you warm on cold days and while moving fast.
Price: $79 SHOP NOW
Houdini Heavenly Hoody
Stretchy, breathable, and just warm enough, a lightweight, insulated layer like this has become my go-to because of the weather-resistant outer shell and convenient pockets that I fill with snacks.
Price: $280 SHOP NOW
Fischer Adventure 62 Crown
If you’re looking for an adventure through rolling hills, a slightly-wider classic ski is the best choice. Stable and maneuverable, it’s great on trail and off, too.
Price: $289 SHOP NOW
BioLite HeadLamp 750
With short days and long nights, I do a lot of my skiing after work, in the dark. The new 750 is my favorite way to light up the entire trial in front of me and is easy to USB recharge, too.
Price: $100 SHOP NOW
Leki HRC Max F Pink
I’d be lying if I said the color of these poles didn’t sway my decision to buy them. Lightweight carbon, easy swap baskets, and comfortable grips only make it a sweater deal.
Price: $450 SHOP NOW
Ruffwear Omnijore Joring System
When you’re ready to level up and bring Fido along, this system is the key piece. It’s an easy and fun way to ski with your dog, allowing you both to get some exercise—and have a lot of fun while doing so.
Price: $170 SHOP NOW
GU Energy Labs Stroopwafel
Nutrients and carbs for immediate and long lasting energy–and hands down the most delicious trail snack inspired by the traditional Dutch treat. Pro tip is to warm it up in a pocket before you eat it.
Price: $23 for 16 pack SHOP NOW
With the right gear—or some rentals if you’re just getting started–the next step is to just get out there. One of the more appealing parts of cross-country skiing is that it has a quick learning curve and is fun at any skill level. Beginners may go just a mile or two while more experienced skiers may spend a half day out on the trails. The one important thing to remember is to be courteous to others at the trailhead and out on your nordic adventures. And of course, leave no trace (save for perfectly balanced tracks).