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A Beginner’s Guide to Nordic Skiing in Vail

When is a golf course not a golf course? When it’s the Vail golf course blanketed in snow. Once snowfall hits, the Vail Golf Club magically transforms into the Vail Nordic Center, where Nordic skiing is one of the biggest stars of the show.

Pretty cool, right? Even cooler is trying Nordic skiing for yourself. The Vail Nordic Center not only serves up miles of groomed tracks and trails, but it also offers Nordic ski equipment rental, clothing, lessons and everything else you need to enjoy this wildly popular winter season activity.

Here comes a sneak peek at what Nordic ski season in Vail is all about, complete with tips, hints and fun facts that’ll have any outdoor enthusiast eager to get out and get gliding across the snow.

What is Nordic Skiing?

Two women in winter outfits cross-country skiing with show-covered mountains in the background

You know those people schussing on skis down the mountain? Nordic skiing is not that. That would be alpine skiing. Nordic skiing typically takes place on flatter terrain at a slower pace, but the big difference is in the footwear.

Nordic skiing is any type of skiing where the toe of the boot is attached to the ski, but the heel is not. Both the heel and toe of the boot are attached in alpine skiing, which makes it more stable for zooming down mountains – but awkward for moving on flat surfaces or inclines.

Nordic skiing has become a fun recreational activity, but it was once simply a way to get around. Long stretches of winter are the norm for the Nordic areas of Norway, Finland and Sweden, and folks needed a mode of transport that was more efficient than trying to tromp through heavy snow. So, they started using long wooden boards beneath their feet.

The rest is history. Nordic skiing was born.

Cross-country skiing is the most popular form of Nordic skiing – but it’s not the only one. You have three types of Nordic skiing from which to choose.

  • Cross-country skiing: Incredibly easy to learn, cross-country skiing uses lightweight, skinny skis and poles to glide through groomed tracks in the snow.
  • Telemark skiing: Thicker and heavier skis are needed for this off-trail version of Nordic skiing.
  • Alpine touring: This version uses thicker, heavier skis that let you either bind just your toe or both your heel and toe. Bind both heel and toe for heading down steep hills. Unbind the heel for trekking over flatter or uphill ground.

No matter what type of Nordic skiing you try, be prepared to be amazed at the amount of calories burned by this winter activity. The faster you go, the bigger the burn. Someone who weighs 150 pounds can burn:

  • 400 to 500 calories per hour at speeds of 2.5 mph
  • 550 to 600 calories per hour at speeds of 4 to 5 mph
  • 600 to 650 calories per hour at speeds of 5 to 8 mph

Not only is Nordic skiing one of the best calorie-burning activities on the planet, but it also gives you a full-body workout. In fact, cross-country skiers are hailed as the world’s fittest athletes when it comes to endurance. So much so, they’ve been called the “the elite endurance animals of winter sports.”

If that’s not enough to convince you to give it a try, just wait until you see what you get to wear.

What to Wear

Nordic skier making tracks in snowy woods.

One of the greatest thrills of trying any new activity is buying an outfit to go along with it. When it comes to cross-country skiing, your best bet is to dress in three fashionable layers.

  • Base layer: Worn closest to your skin, the base layer’s job is to move moisture and sweat away from your body. Opt for comfy, lightweight items made of a synthetic or wool fabric. Polyester and merino wool are good picks.
  • Middle layer: The job of this layer is to keep you warm and cozy without making you stifled and weighed down. Lightweight puffy jackets are a good choice, as is fleece.
  • Outer layer: This layer exists to keep out the elements. Choose a jacket and snow pants that are windproof, water resistant and breathable.

Look for clothing features that make it easy to adjust your temperature, like extra zippers and vents. You can expect to get quite a workout burning off those 500+ calories.

Fashionable accessories are also on the list of must-haves. These include:

  • Hat or headband: For toasty warm ears
  • Gaiter or balaclava: For neck and head protection
  • Socks: A base layer of liner socks topped with thin wool or synthetic socks
  • Gloves: Using a glove layering system of glove liners and waterproof outer gloves lets you put on or take off the outer layer as needed.
  • Daypack or ski pack: To bring along anything that doesn’t fit in your pockets

Don’t forget the sun protection! The snow acts as one big mirror, reflecting the rays on both sunny and cloudy days. Consider clothing with built-in sun protection. Also bring along:

  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Protective lip balm

Gear Checklist

Closeup view of two nordic skiers' legs and skis.

While buying new clothes for a first-time activity may be the most exciting purchase, getting the gear comes in a close second. Who doesn’t love new toys?

Even better, you can take advantage of the equipment rental at the Vail Nordic Center. This way you don’t have to wonder how you’re going to haul all your new toys back home. The folks at the center will hook you up with the exact equipment you need based on the type of Nordic skiing you plan to tackle.

You can expect to be outfitted with:

  • Skis with bindings
  • Ski poles
  • Ski boots

Where to Ski: Groomed Track vs. Off Trail

Now the big, exciting question: Just where, oh where, should you ski? Choices include groomed tracks, off-trail areas or the backcountry where the wild things roam.

Groomed Tracks

Nordic ski tracks in the snow.

For first-time Nordic skiers, groomed tracks are typically the way to go. These Nordic trails consist of preset tracks made in the snow. Just put your skis in the tracks and voila, you can glide forward with grace and ease (especially after a lesson or two).

The center has a Nordic trail system featuring more than 10 miles of groomed track for your gliding pleasure. Keep it pleasurable for all by keeping a few tips in mind:

  • If you need to stop, step aside off the ski trail so you don’t block anyone coming up behind you
  • Look behind you before you step aside so you don’t step right into someone else’s path
  • Stay on the tracks
  • Don’t wreck the tracks
  • Have lots of fun on the tracks

Off-Track Trails

Three nordic skiers making tracks in the snowy wilderness.

Once you’re feeling more confident, you can try your hand (or foot) at Nordic skiing on the open snow. While you won’t have the tracks to help you out, you will have the option of going left, right, back and forth, however your heart desires.

The terrain is tougher to ski without tracks, but the scenery may be worth it. The Nordic Center has a 6-mile trail system designed for off-track skiing and snow shoeing.

The Wild and Woodsy Backcountry

Backcountry skiing involves heading far off the beaten tracks, and even off the beaten trails. Skiing in this area is best reserved for people who are highly skilled, highly prepared and whiz kids with a compass.

Basic Techniques

You got your new clothes, all the right gear, and the perfect place to embark on your adventure. Now what?

Start by holding the ski poles in a way that keeps them connected to you if you fall. You know, just in case. Place the strap around your wrist, and then hold both the pole and the strap in your grip.

Your next move depends on the style of cross-country skiing you’re going to try. If you recall, Nordic skiing comes in three varieties:

  • Cross-country skiing
  • Telemark skiing
  • Alpine touring

You decided cross-country skiing is the one you want as a first time pick (good choice!). Now you have to decide what style of cross-country skiing you want to try, with classic or skate skiing as your options.

  • Classic skiing: This is the most familiar style of cross-country skiing. It’s also the best pick for beginners. Here you use a striding motion similar to the way you walk or run. Simply stride your legs forward and back – and you’re gliding along the snow.
  • Skate skiing: This technique is akin to a speed skater whizzing across the ice. Instead of shuffling forward and back, you push your skis out to the side. The edges of the skis propel you forward – and you’re whooshing along the snow.

Note that skate skiing should be done in skate skiing areas without disrupting the classic skiing tracks. Otherwise, you’ll ruin the tracks, breaking one of the major etiquette rules.

Starting with the classic style of cross-country skiing is the best option for first-time Nordic skiers. Another wise choice is opting for lessons so you can hit the snow running (figuratively, of course).

The Vail Nordic Center serves up daily individual and group lessons as well as specialty clinics on technique and tuning for adults and children. This makes it both fun and easy to transform Nordic skiing into a family affair, and your family into Nordic skiing mavens.

Whether you are brand new to skiing in general or want a break from your past week of alpine skiing, hopping on a pair of Nordic skis is an optimal choice for big-time enjoyment. It’s easy to learn, exciting to master, and even comes with a brand new outfit.