Are you craving fresh air and sunshine, but are tired of long lift lines and I-70 traffic? For anyone seeking an alternative to downhill skiing or wishing to try a new activity this winter, cross-country skiing offers a fantastic, full-body workout for people of almost any age and fitness level. Although cross-country—a subset of Nordic skiing, which encompasses any form of skiing with a free heel—is much easier to learn than its alpine cousin, an idyllic glide through the glades can become frustrating if you’re unprepared or have the wrong gear. Here, Malin Bengtsson, lead instructor at the Frisco Nordic Center, offers some practical tips and tricks to make every cross-country excursion fun, even if it’s your first time.

Spring for the Good Gear

Nordic skiing is an old-school sport, but that doesn’t mean you should use vintage gear. Do yourself a favor, Bengtsson says, and leave the heavy skis and old, stiff boots behind. Rent or borrow a modern set of lightweight, waxless skis, and comfy boots that will keep your feet toasty warm.

Start with Classic

The foundation of classic cross-country skiing is the diagonal stride, a forward-propelling motion in which you push off the weighted ski to glide smoothly forward. Unlike skate skiing, where you hold the skis in a “V” shape, classic skis remain parallel. Bengtsson advises beginners to first try the classic technique at a Nordic Center, where most groomed trails have parallel tracks in which you insert your skis, reducing slippage and making it easier to master the technique.

A skier demonstrates the diagonal stride, the kick-and-glide foundation of Nordic skiing. Credit: Todd Powell

Dress Like an Onion

Cross-country skiing generates quite a bit of heat, so it’s best to dress in layers of warm athletic clothing made of wool or other moisture-wicking fabrics, topped with a wind-resistant layer. That way, says Bengtsson, you can add or subtract layers so that you’re always the perfect temperature. Don’t show up in your alpine gear, she says. You’re almost certain to sweat too much with it on—and risk hypothermia if you strip too much off.

Go with the Flow

The biggest beginner’s mistake, says Bengtsson, is not staying relaxed. Apprehensive skiers tend to lock up, which makes Nordic skiing harder and less enjoyable. Flexing your ankles, bending your knees, and relaxing allows you to lean forward and use all of your muscle groups properly, especially your core, she says. It also helps you transfer your weight from side to side, making you a more efficient skier.

Be Aware of Your Surroundings

Bengtsson says that the most important safety consideration is making sure that you’re aware of your surroundings. “I always tell beginner skiers to make sure you look up,” she says. It’s important climbing up hills, coming downhill, and even on the flats. “Usually there’s only one track and people are skiing in both directions, so you want to see the person you’re about to ski into before that happens,” she says. In extreme conditions, hypothermia and frostbite are also potential concerns, so Bengtsson encourages people to always ski with a friend, and keep an eye on any exposed skin.

Don’t Forget to Bring Food, Water, and Sunscreen

If she’s heading out for more than 45 minutes, Bengtsson always carries water and snacks. Don’t allow yourself to become dehydrated, and be vigilant about protecting your eyes and skin from the elements.

Invest In a Lesson

Especially if you’re new to cross-country skiing, consider investing in a lesson with a qualified Nordic instructor who can teach you the fundamentals, including how to efficiently “herringbone”— a technique used to climb up—and descend hills. This provides a safe and solid foundation that will enable you to have fewer falls (and a better time) when you hit the trails on your own. Plus, it’s typically much cheaper than alpine lessons; at the Frisco Nordic Center, a one-hour private lesson, including an all-day trail pass is $65. Gear rental is separate, with classic skis costing $20 and skate skis $30.

Stop While You’re Still Having Fun

Cross-country skiing is a straightforward and family-friendly sport, but it’s important to avoid pushing yourself too far, too fast. Bengtsson advocates increasing the duration and difficulty of your workout gradually to keep building up your fitness and comfort level. The key, she says, is to always make sure you stay warm and that you’re having fun.

(More: 6 Places to Snowshoe or Cross-Country Ski Near Denver)

Terri Cook
Terri Cook
Terri Cook is an award-winning freelance writer based in Boulder. More of her work can be found at