5 Reasons Why Every Alpine Skier Should Try Cross-Country Skiing

My first two ski teachers, still at it in their 70s: The old coach is going classic and the old instructor is skatingMy first two ski teachers, still at it in their 70s: The old coach is going classic and the old instructor is skating

As an alpine ski instructor, I'm always trying to get my students to try some form of nordic skiing, usually classic cross-country. Resistance is epic. To some degree I understand that. I started alpine skiing when I was two and a half and a few years later, my mother and sister threw cross-country into the mix. Because the first cross-country skiers I knew were a woman and girl, the idea grew in my six or seven year-old mind that XC was for girls.

Finally, when I was eight, they got me on cross-country skis near the end of the season and I was hooked. By the next season I was racing XC and hardly skied alpine for the next four years. For a variety of reasons, I transitioned back into alpine and alpine racing, but I've never lost my love of cross-country skiing and still spend about half my days on XC skis. Here are some reasons why I think every downhill skier, whether alpine or telemark, should spend some days on cross-country skis every season.

  1. The joy and beauty of the outdoors. Face it, resort skiing is a form of industrial tourism. In my opinion, fun though it is, there's no way to get a real nature experience at a ski area. It's more theme park than wilderness. To me the beauty of cross-country is not the skinny skis, but the skinny trails, or the lack of trails altogether. I also do a fair bit of alpine touring in the backcountry, which is a wilderness experience, but there's still something special about exploring the woods on cross-country skis that you can't get elsewhere.
  2. Great exercise. Cross-country skiing in all its forms is great exercise. You can tool around the woods on wide classic skis and get a workout like you would get hiking. You can kick and glide in a set track and get a workout like you might from running or biking. Or you can try skate skiing and get the most butt-kicking, intense, all-body aerobic workout I know of. The only thing I've tried in my life that comes close is some types of winter mountaineering. In any case, you can choose the level of intensity you want or need and get a predominantly low-impact workout (the impact coming, of course, from hitting the snow).
  3. It will improve your alpine skiing. I see a lot of alpine skiers, even pretty good ones (i.e. skiing double black diamonds) who have terrible balance. Cross-country skis are skinnier, the boots are lighter, and you have total ankle flexibility. All of that adds up to much more challenging balance, especially fore/aft balance. If you learn to ski well on cross-country skis, that will carry over into a huge effect on your alpine skiing. If you learn to downhill on cross-country skis, that will give you so much more in your alpine toolbox it will be crazy. Finally, skate skiing requires great side to side balance too. When you're doing a V2 skate, meaning that you are running long glides while poling with each leg push, you need great balance to stay on that one foot on that skinny ski. Inadequate balance is one of the main things that slows down skaters in a V2, because they don't have the ability to stay balanced and run a flat ski. Learn that and your alpine skiing will improve dramatically.
  4. Go places you can't go hiking. This is one of the beauties of backcountry skiing in general, whether alpine touring, telemark or on a backcountry cross-country setup. Often times the underbrush that makes hiking off trail an misery and trial in the summer is covered in a blanket of friendly white stuff and we can tromp along. No pricker bushes, no poison ivy or poison oak and no mosquitos. Bliss.
  5. Way cheaper than resort skiing. Not only is cross-country gear dramatically cheaper than alpine or telemark gear, there are tons of places you can ski for free or for a very reasonable trail fee. Royal Gorge, the largest cross-country ski are in North America, charges $29 for a day pass on a weekend in the high season. Trapp Family Lodge, the place I learned to XC and still my favorite place to ski, is $275 for a season pass for the entire family! That won't get you a single day of resort skiing at Stowe, just up the road from Trapp's. Where I live, we have about 25 miles of groomed trails that are free and hundreds of miles of free, ungroomed trails.

I'm sure there are more reasons. For the most part, it's a lot more environmentally responsible than resort skiing too, for example. If you're a cross-country skier, add your top reasons for cross-country skiing in the comments below.