Tips for getting started with Nordic skiing

Skate skiers test out Royal Gorge Cross Country Resort.

Skate skiers test out Royal Gorge Cross Country Resort.

Fitness experts have long heralded the benefits of Nordic skiing as a highly aerobic, yet low-impact sport.

Nordic skiing incinerates calories through a full body workout, exercising both the “pushing” and “pulling” muscles of each region without overstressing one individual muscle group.

The workout is so effective entire lines of training equipment have been designed to mimic cross-country skiing’s motions, yet none provide the Vitamin D or peace of mind provided by skiing on real snow — and skiers have been catching on.

Snowsports Industries America reported wholesale sales of Nordic equipment were up by double digits last season, and local retailers agree customers have been increasingly intrigued by both skate skiing and classic cross-country skiing – myself among them.

As a downhill skier new to the Nordic world, however, I vastly underestimated the knowledge one needs to buy a cross-country ski set-up. For a sport so beautiful in its simplicity, buying cross-country skis and boots is surprisingly complex.


The first question new Nordic skiers must ask themselves is which technique they prefer: skating or the classic striding style.

“Classic and skating are very different, and both are fun,” said Laura Read, a Tahoe City resident and avid Nordic skier.

Read describes classic skiing as a kick-and-glide motion creating a smooth, forward-moving action that can be either quick or slow, while skating is a quicker action resembling ice skating.

For those looking for the best workout, Alpenglow Sports owner Brendan Madigan recommends skate skiing, noting it’s the most aerobically intense.

“You don’t need much,” he says of skate skiing. “You can literally have your workout done in 40 minutes and be wasted.”

Madigan adds skate skiing is what a lot of cyclists and runners turn to for their winter sports.

An important caveat is skate skiing typically requires groomed terrain, so skiers opting for skate skis need to plan on purchasing day or season passes to access most groomed cross-country trails.


Those looking to ski out their back door, as well as skiers drawn to the smooth and meditative “kick and glide” motion of classic skiing, will want to explore striding skis.

Striding, or classic-technique skiing, still offers an enviable workout, especially for those striving for endurance over raw strength.

Striding skis are where the subcategories can become daunting, though it boils down to deciding where you want to ski most often.

Skiers hoping to break trail in the woods will want to look into stiffer metal-edged touring skis, while those planning to glide through set tracks will be better off with lighter and narrower traditional cross-country skis.

Whether you opt for versions with waxable or waxless bases depends on if you’re willing to wax your skis to match each day’s conditions. Those who will take the time will be rewarded with faster skis, while others will be thankful for the plastic scales that will keep things simple.


For beginners looking to find equipment on the cheap, Madigan recommends the Tahoe XC Skip Swap, held every fall at Tahoe XC in Tahoe City.

However, he recommends skiers planning to spend a lot of time on their equipment enlist the help of a specialty sports retailer like Tahoe City’s Alpenglow or Paco’s Bike and Ski in Truckee.

“We take customers out to the (Tahoe City) Winter Sports Park to assess how they move, so we can make custom recommendations,” said Madigan.

Greig St. Clair of Paco’s Bike and Ski advises taking a lesson and consulting an expert before purchasing Nordic equipment.

“Unlike Alpine skis, there is no uniform sizing for Nordic skis,” said St. Clair. “Every ski has its own sizing chart, so you really need to know what you’re doing.”

Retailers can also help new skiers find comfortable and supportive boots, compatible bindings and correctly sized poles.


From the sweeping vistas of Donner Summit’s Royal Gorge, North America’s largest cross-country center, to the West Shore’s historic Sugar Pine Point State Park, home of the 1960 Winter Olympic Nordic Skiing competitions, Nordic skiers will find no shortage of beautiful trails on which to hone their skills in the North Tahoe-Truckee area.

And there’s no reason to hesitate as the region is awash with free and low-cost opportunities to learn how to cross-country ski.

Tahoe XC offers free skate ski lessons for beginners on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, and the Alpenglow Mountain Festival is going to offer technique instruction demos for both skate and classic skiing during their Nordic Demo Day on Saturday, Feb. 27.

As a Tahoe XC volunteer who sees many skiers head out for the first time, Laura Read’s advice is to take a lesson.

Her other advice?

“Go slow in the beginning and have fun,” she said. “Just look at the snow and the sunshine and the white trees. It’s beautiful!”

Amelia Richmond is a North Lake Tahoe-based freelancer writer. Email her at


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