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About cross country skiing


A quick history

xc skiing in Norway - photo M WrayCross country skiing, or nordic skiing, originated in Scandinavia thousands of years ago as a necessity for life in snow-covered countryside.

In the 1880s the Norwegian Sondre Nordheim developed birch rope heel straps which gave greater control over skis.  For the first time this allowed the skier to execute controlled turns whilst moving. Subsequently ski clubs were set up and the notion of skiing for sport emerged.

Today, it appeals to everyone from those looking for a leisurely way to get about on snow and enjoy the magic of winter, to racers and those wishing to physically challenge themselves.


How is cross country skiing different to alpine skiing?

  • Your boots are only attached to the binding at the toe, so your heel is free.
  • Your skis are considerably lighter and thinner than downhill skis.
  • Your poles are longer than those used for Alpine skiing.
  • You ski downhill on gentler slopes and you ski uphill as well as across flat terrain.

Cross country skiing on prepared trails - classic and skating technique

Track-making machines prepare the snow surface you ski on. Some resorts have hundreds of miles of prepared trails, allowing you to explore the beautiful landscape. There are two different techniques in track skiing – classic and skating. 

Classic skiing Skating style

Classic skis run in parallel ‘grooves’ made by track machines. This is the traditional skiing technique and is generally the one beginners learn first. It's like walking with a glide then pressing the ski down into the snow and pushing with your arms to help you move along.  It's a slower technique than skating and requires less energy.

Skating is similar to ice skating or inline skating. You ski on a wide flat area prepared by a track machine. Not all resorts have skating tracks - if you want to skate check what's available. Skating is faster than classic and requires more energy.

Cross country skiing equipment is nothing like Alpine equipment!

Track skis

Cross country skis for track skiing are light and thin.  Those for classic skiing are either waxable and have an area for grip wax, non-wax with a fishscale pattern or a synthetic textile strip[s] in the centre of the ski.

When you press either type of ski down they 'grip' the snow, giving you a platform to push off from and propel yourself forwards. 

Skating skis are shorter and stiffer than classic skis and you apply a glide wax down the whole ski to allow you to ski in a gliding, skating motion.

Boots for either cross country skiing style are light and warm - they feel more like trainers with stiff sole.  You can buy 'combi' all purpose boots, or specific classic or skating boots, the latter are higher and give more ankle support.

If you want to buy kit in the UK check out equipment suppliers on our links page.  Bear in mind the cost of flying with your own skis, if you're fairly to new to the sport you'll probably find it's easier and more cost effective to hire skis in your resort.  If you want to fly with skis check the airline's baggage costs and rules carefully.


Biathlete Mike DixonThe Olympic sport of biathlon combines skating and shooting which also makes it a form of track skiing. 

It's governed by the British Biathlon Union and they have a useful article on becoming a biathlete.  You might also like to read 10 things to know about biathlon and Club member Nick Jubert's article 'A novice biathlete' [opens in a Word document].

It's a difficult to sport to pursue in England but Wessex Biathlon and Nordic Ski Club may be able to help you. 

In Scotland former Olympian Mike Dixon organises courses at Glenmore Lodge.

You can also try it in some European biathlon centres such as Antholz in Italy.

0ff-track cross country skiing & nordic ski touring

Skiing off track in NorwayIn many areas in Norway you can often ski off track - exploring and finding your own route through the countryside.  You'll need to modify your skiing technique and learn to read the snow conditions.  Checking the weather forecast and taking the sort of kit you would have hill walking are also essential.

You can also tour from hut to hut on nordic skis in Scandinavia, carrying food and survival equipment.  Usually the routes are simply marked with birch twigs but you need navigation skills too. Huts in Norway are run by the Norwegian Trekking Association [DNT]

For this type of cross country skiing you will need stamina and good technique.  Skis are usually metal-edged and bindings, poles have larger baskets and boots are more like walking boots.

Skiing off track and ski touring allow you access to unique, otherwise inaccessible, terrain.

Telemarking - cross country or alpine skiing?

The telemark turn is a graceful technique developed by Sondre Norheim for descending steep slopes on nordic equipment.  It gave birth to the modern alpine techniques in the 1930’s.

Telemark skiingThe skier completes the turn with each ski equally weighted but with the heel of the trailing ski lifted. The technique is especially suited to soft powder. The boots are only fixed to the ski at the toe and flex like cross country boots, allowing the heel to rise and the technique to be performed.  Telemark skis and boots are similar in weight to Alpine kit.

If you like the adrenaline rush of steep slopes then telemarking may be for you. Any nordic skis are suitable for telemarking but it is easier to learn on specialist equipment.

According to the International Ski Federation [FIS], telemarking is an alpine discipline but in Snowsport England's view it's a cross country discipline.  Does it matter? Yes, if you want to compete in the sport and need to know who sets the rules.