Studies show a 175-pound man can burn up to 800 calories per hour on cross-country skis. X-C has been named the quickest sport to redeem calories, bar-none, and snowshoeing’s not far behind.
There’s nothing easy about moving cross-country through snow. The white stuff puts up plentiful resistance, and your quads will alert you every time you try to kick your way out of a snow wallow. Hard snow and groomed tracks are easier to zoom over, but even they invite a full-body workout, as your arms and legs will be constantly pumping.
The good news about X-C skiing and snowshoeing is that each sport requires little expertise or athleticism. Expect to be competent your first day. Especially with snowshoeing, which is like striding to the corner store, basically, modified only by the lightweight composite tool on your foot and the two feet of packed powder beneath. As clerks in sports stores are fond of saying, “If you can walk, you can snowshoe.”
The season for both forms of snow locomotion is, obviously, winter. Unlike downhill skiing or snowboarding, however, huge accumulations of snowfall aren’t necessary to open X-C or snowshoe season. As proved by the inevitable photos of commuters X-C skiing to work through Central Park after New York’s first snowfall, a few inches are enough. In reliably snowy places (like, for instance, mountains), X-C and snowshoe season runs from December through March.
Where to try X-C or snowshoeing? Almost anywhere. National forests, national parks, state parks and other recreation areas are as open to snow-tromping as they are to hiking. Mount Rainier National Park near Seattle is renowned for its variety of terrain and amazing views. X-C skiers often prefer groomed tracks to unmanaged snow; they find them at virtually every downhill ski area as well as at designated X-C centers in chilly flatlands. Almost every town north of the Mason-Dixon line seems to have a bunny slope where you can try your skills. The Great Lakes states—especially Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan—are rife with X-C locales, thanks to their cold winters and Scandinavian heritage.
With either snowshoeing or X-C (sometimes called Nordic skiing), don’t buy anything before you’ve tried it. According to Brian Cazeneuve, author of Cross-Country Skiing: A Complete Guide, “While cross-country gear is reasonably priced, it’s wise to become familiar with equipment options by renting or borrowing as you learn the sport.” X-C and snowshoeing are cheap overall—great activities for a lousy economy.
Any place you wish to take up winter navigation should have shops that rent the basics. For X-C, that means skis, boots, and poles. Skis will be long and thin (X-C boards are commonly called “skinny skis” because they’re significantly narrower than alpine skis). They’re about six feet long (to spread your weight over the snow) and two to three inches wide (to keep them light and easy to propel). Choose between waxable or waxless skis. Waxable models take a wax (which is based on snow temperature) to provide enough grip to propel forward and climb hills. A waxless ski, on the other hand, uses a pattern on the base to supply traction.
X-C boots are lightweight and extend to just above the ankle. A steel rod tucked under the toe of the boot snaps into a pivot point in the binding (which is built into the ski). So your toe is attached to the ski, but not your heel. This allows your heel to kick up, making for very easy forward motion of the boot. Poles are either aluminum or graphite. They’re taller than alpine skiing poles, since X-C skiers need to push themselves forward more often, and a long pole provides more oomph with each stroke.
Once you decide which gear works for you, says Cazeneuve, “Go to a ski shop or outfitter that specializes in Nordic equipment. Salespeople in those shops are probably the most enthusiastic skiers you will find.” Consider their recommendations with one caveat: Different binding systems require specific boots, so make sure your gear is compatible. Skis with binding systems retail from $150 to $250 and can be found for $50 if they’re used. Boots, used and new, run from $40 to $150.
For snowshoeing, gear means snowshoes and probably poles: While some snowshoers enjoy going hands-free, poles help immeasurably with balance and, to a lesser degree, propulsion. Snowshoes come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Men usually take bigger snowshoes than women, because, duh, they’re bigger and heavier and need more surface area below them. The size of your snowshoe will also depend on conditions: Small, lightweight models are the choice of those who want to move fast across groomed or relatively smooth surfaces. Choose a bigger model if you’ll be tromping through deep accumulations in the backcountry. The price range for snowshoes: $40 (used) to $300 (new, state-of-the-art models).
While footwear is not up for debate with X-C—you must use an X-C boot to connect to the ski—there is variability for snowshoeing. Your foot is lashed to the snowshoe with straps, buckles, or ratchet systems. Snowshoes will adapt to most anything on your paws. On sunny days with firm snow, some snowshoers enjoy wearing running shoes. On deep snow days, on the other hand, you’ll want high, warm, weatherproof boots. Gore-Tex or other breathable, waterproof models work well. Another good option is to stay in the running shoes but to cover them in a waterproof overshoe that protects from the shin down.
Like a presidential candidate, snowwear has to please an impossible number of conflicting special interests: to block out fierce winds yet still breathe when you exert yourself, to insulate you against bitter cold yet not appear Michelin-Man lumpy, to open up with pockets and zippers yet still repel every drop of water. For snow clothes to work as they were designed, layer. Because X-C and snowshoeing are aerobic efforts, you may frequently strip down to your thinnest layer. Below the waist, try shell pants over long underwear or Lycra tights. X-C skiers on groomed tracks sometimes ski just in tights. Above the waist, start with a zip turtleneck made of a moisture-wicking material like Capilene or high-tech wool blends. Add a wool sweater or fleece pullover depending on the temperature. On top you can wear an uninsulated shell or a thick parka, but a versatile midweight jacket works best. Waterproof-breathable materials are worth every extra cent.
Mittens are not recommended because you’ll be handling poles and monkeying with your gear. Plus, they’re generally too warm for such aerobic sports. Gloves have progressed to the point where some now insulate with miniature versions of space blankets. More practical are removable liners that let you adjust to the temperature.
The feet are most important. Contrary to some old wives tales that say two pairs of socks keep you warm, it’s better to wear only one. The insulation in X-C boots is enough to keep you warm, and skiers have found that more than one sock only cuts off circulation, prevents evaporation, and muddies the foot-to-ski sensitivity. The best ski socks are synthetic, often a breathable acrylic.
Exploring the snow
Your first snowshoe steps may be a little awkward, as you’ll need to widen your gait a bit to ensure the snowshoes don’t clang against each other. But soon you’ll get it. You’ll plane above the snow instead of sinking into it as you would without the wider platform. Hinge the snowshoe forward as you stride. Allow the metal cleats beneath the balls of your feet to bite into steeper surfaces, giving you traction you may not have thought possible with snow.
Claire Walter, author of Snowshoeing Colorado, says, “Snowshoes are the sport- utility vehicles of the winter backcountry. They can take you virtually anywhere there's snow. These big webbed feet that attach to your smaller ones provide hassle-free access to the white world.”
As you progress as a snowshoer, you’ll go faster and seek out more spectacular locales for this fine aerobic workout. No lessons required. You get a cardio workout, with killer views, and can take the dog with you.
X-C skiing is no doubt more difficult: Most humans are not accustomed to moving around with six-foot planks attached to their feet. And dogs aren’t allowed on most groomed tracks, as they leave divots. Lessons are available, usually $20 for a two-hour session. Unlike with alpine skiing, X-C lessons are not considered mandatory to start. The instructor will basically tell you the following: For basic movement, stride forward in a balanced position, kicking one ski forward then the next. Reach out with your poles as you move your skis forward.
To ascend small hills, use the “herringbone” technique, creating a “V” shape, with your ski tips spread wide and the tails of the skis close together. You’ll climb because in this position, it’s impossible to slide backward because the skis are angled against the snow.
To slow yourself on descents, do a “snowplow,” which is the opposite of the herringbone. In the snowplow, the ski tips come toward each other while the tails spread out. You make sort of a triangle shape on the snow. To get moving again, relax the snowplow by letting the skis become parallel again. As ski instructors often tell children, the technique of snowplow/parallel can be described as “pizza slice/French fries, pizza slice/French fries.”
Which reminds us: Snow motion is a fine way to work up a healthy appetite.