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Your Modern Guide to a Winter Classic: Cross-Country Skiing

How Nordic skiing went from old person's pastime to cool kid hobby, according to lifelong XC ski enthusiast and adventure photographer Andy Cochrane

Your Modern Guide to a Winter Classic: Cross-Country Skiing

Author

Andy Cochrane

Photographer

Andy Cochrane

Andy is a freelance writer, photographer, and producer who lives nomadically in his truck, Tacomama, with his pup, Bea.

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.

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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.

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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

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

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

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

Heavenly-Houdi-XC-Ski-Midlayer

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

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

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

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-2

Ruffwear-Omnijore-Joring-System-1

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

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).

Published 01-05-2021

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