Cross-country ski tips for newbies

Cross-country skiing is an affordable winter sport that’s relatively easy to learn for all ages and athletic abilities. It’s an great activity that the whole family can enjoy together, from young children all the way up to grandparents. It’s also a great way to reconnect with nature, get active, and spend a few hours bonding with the family away from digital distractions.

Gearing up for cross-country skiing

I recommend renting skis for the occasional day if you aren’t ready to commit to the sport yet. Renting is also a great way to decide what kind of skis you’d like to eventually purchase. Visit a Nordic centre with an on-site rental shop and you’ll find knowledgeable staff to help you with sizing and correct fit for both skis and boots. They’ll also help you decide which wax to use for the temperature, should you be renting waxable skis. I personally think that waxless skis are easier for beginners because you can just step into them and go. As you get better at skiing, however, you may want to upgrade to waxable skis for improved performance and speed.

Once you’ve rented a few times, if you’ve decided you enjoy the sport, you might want to consider purchasing your own skis. I suggest visiting a ski shop or reputable sports store where you can get help choosing the correct size and fit. Most people start on a traditional set of classic skis for use at Nordic centres. For children, you’ll probably want to start off with second-hand skis and boots because you’ll be upgrading skis every couple of years and buying new boots annually. 

If you want to buy second-hand skis, I suggest renting for this winter and then visiting ski swaps next fall. Many ski clubs host ski sales in the fall where you can buy used skis for a good price. Alternatively, you may be able to find skis in an online buy/sell group.


Related read: 5 ways to make cross-country skiing more fun for kids


Dressing for success on the trails

Cross-country skiers choose lightweight layers to keep them warm when skiing without having to wear a pair of bulky snow pants or a heavy ski jacket that restricts movement. For adults, I suggest visiting a sports store that specializes in Nordic skiing, where they can give you advice on the best clothing options for the sport. If you have friends who enjoy cross-country skiing, ask them for suggestions as well because everybody has their favourite layering solutions.

I always start with a pair of base layer tights with a pair of thin softshell stretchy pants overtop. I wear a heavyweight base layer shirt with a light vest and then a softshell jacket on top of that.

Children will want to wear warmer clothing when learning (as will adults having to slowly trudge along beside them). My son still skis in a light pair of ski pants with long underwear and fleece pants underneath. On warmer days, we replace the ski pants with rain pants. He also wears a base layer shirt, a fleece hoodie, and then a softshell jacket on top. 

“Layers” is the key word you want to remember. Dress in several layers so that you can take pieces of clothing off if you get hot or add items if you get cold. We always have packable light puffy jackets in our day packs as well for rest stops 

Most cross-country skiers will choose lightweight mittens or gloves and a very light toque, but beginners will want puffier mittens or gloves (more similar to what you’d wear downhill skiing) and at the very least you should have them in your backpack. We always use stretchy tubular buffs as well to wrap around our faces, protect our necks, and keep our mouths and noses warm on cold days. On warm days they can be worn as a light head wrap to keep the ears warm.

Loading your daypack

In addition to extra layers of clothing, you’ll want to make sure you pack lots of food and snacks, as well as water in an insulated bottle (we like the Hydro Flask bottles). You may also want to bring a Thermos of hot chocolate or apple cider, and some hand/toe warmers in case somebody gets cold. 

To keep your phone warm, put it in an inside pocket with a hand warmer. Mine stays toasty all day and rarely freezes.

I also suggest bringing some basic emergency items if you’re going up to be out for a few hours. This would include a first aid kit, Band-Aids for blisters, headlamps in case you’re caught out after sundown, down jackets, and a packable blanket. Imagine if somebody broke a leg and you had to wait for a rescue. What would you want to have in your backpack to keep the injured person (and yourself) warm and comfortable while you waited for help? 

Learning how to ski

I highly recommend lessons for everybody learning to ski. Most Nordic centres offer drop-in lessons. You should be able to arrange a private lesson for the whole family for a couple of hours to get you started with some of the basics to handle flat, easy terrain.

Many organizations and outdoor centres offer weekend courses or multi-week lessons for children, adults, or even the whole family. Finally, ski clubs are a great way for children to learn, and as a bonus, you’ll meet other families through the club. Once you’ve met some other ski families you can head out to the trails together on the weekend. Some clubs also meet regularly every weekend, which allows the adults to get out for a ski as well while the children are in their lesson.

If you don’t want to invest in lessons, find friends who already ski and ask them to take you out for a few hours to teach you some basic skills.

Where to ski

Beginners will want to start off on flat easy trails. There are a few options here:

  1. Visit a Nordic centre and ask for suggestions on which trails are beginner-friendly. As with downhill skiing, a trail marked as green will be a trail for novice skiers.
  2. Ski close to home on golf courses or in city parks. We have several parks and golf courses here in my city that are groomed and trackset for cross-country skiing. Most of the parks are relatively flat and perfect for beginners.
  3. Head out to a provincial park nearby that has groomed trails. Pick up a map and stick to the green trails. I suggest picking a short loop under five kilometres to get started. You can always do a second loop if the first one goes well.
  4. Talk to friends who ski and get recommendations from them, ask staff at the rental shop where you picked up your skis, or ask for suggestions from the store where you purchased gear.
  5. Look for online ski groups or local websites that specialize in cross-country skiing.

Related read: Master movement skills on ice and snow


Safety notes and recommendations

Darkness comes early in winter so make sure you don’t get started too late in the day. Always carry headlamps with you in case of emergency, and follow my guidelines above for what to have in your daypack. 

Start with a short loop and gradually add kilometres as you build experience. Choose trails that are relatively flat and build from there as you gain experience with hills. Remember: there’s no shame in walking up or down a hill if you find yourself on a trail that’s too difficult for you.

Finally, ski as a group and don’t head out solo unless you have significant experience. There’s always safety in numbers, and if there’s an accident you can always send an adult back for help. (For this reason, I recommend having at least two adults in your party when skiing with children.)

Have fun and enjoy this great way to connect with your family this winter as you get fresh air, exercise, and a boost of energy playing outside.

Photos courtesy of Tanya Koob.

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