Cross Country Skiing Revealed!

Posted 07-01-2015

Cross country skiing is a confusing term as it is actually used by different people for a range of different sports. Nordic Skiing is also often interchangeable with cross country skiing. For more information about the interchangeability of these two terms, read our blog, Cross Country Skiing and Nordic Skiing - What's the Difference?

In effect it means using skis to travel across the snowy countryside but this simple idea has now evolved into several different disciplines. This is a very simple explanation of the different disciplines commonly described as cross country skiing to help bring some clarity to the confusion!

Classic Cross Country Skiing or ‘Alternative’

Classic cross country skiing uses skinny skis and soft ski boots that are attached to the ski by the toe with a free heel and poles.

The skis have scales on the underside which grip the snow to prevent backwards slide and they are waxed for forwards slide!

The skier slides one foot directly forwards and then the other using the poles alternately like walking and scuffing your toes but with more slide!

You can do this fast and dynamically to make it a good cardio work out or slowly for a gentle amble about on skis so it is very adaptable for all levels – a bit like the difference between walking and running!

Classic cross country skiing is done on groomed undulating pistes with two grooves in the snow, which act as guides for the skis. It is possible to ski off piste and in different snow conditions but nordic skiing is more adapted to mixed snow – see below. If you are keen to experience a progressive cross country ski holiday culminating in nordic ski off piste adventure, have a look at our Cross Country Ski Trip with Overnight in Norwegian Hytte in Norway.


Skating is the most aerobic form of cross country skiing and uses skinny skis, slightly stiffer than classic, but still soft ski boots attached by the toe with a free heel and long, shoulder height poles. The skis are fully waxed to slide with no scales to grip the snow.

The skier skis pushing forwards and diagonally outwards on alternate skis using both poles and forward propulsion from the thigh and buttock muscles to gather momentum. The skis are closed at the back (the tracks look like an elongated herring bone in the snow) to prevent sliding backwards. It is quite technical to get the movement right and is physically very demanding. Athletes of all disciplines recognize the cardiovascular benefits of skating.

The skiers you see competing in the biathlon in the Olympics are doing skating. Endurance athletes should check out our winter cross training trip that uses skating as it's principal activity! The perfect addition to any training programme!

Skating is done on groomed undulating pistes and is not possible in powder or mixed off piste snow conditions.

Nordic Skiing or Light Touring:

Nordic skiing has been adopted in France to define cross country skiing but off piste traversing over snowfields and undulating terrain but not steep slopes. The 'Alternative' or classic cross country ski technique is used for this but the skis are adapted for off-piste snow conditions and the skis tend to be slightly wider and the boots a little stiffer!

If you would like to try nordic skiing, there is a great 3 day tour across the Champsaur valley which can be done on its own or combined with a ski or other winter activity holiday.

Ski Touring or BackCountry Skiing:

This is actually quite different to all of the above as it involves climbing up mountains on skis and then skiing downhill back down so technically is outside the realm of cross country skiing as the terrain is not cross country but more Alpine.

The skis look like downhill skis but have different bindings and tend to be lighter. The bindings have a free and a fixed heel setting.

The ski boots are similar to downhill ski boots but lighter and with a walking sole and a walking setting on the ankle, which can be fixed forward for skiing downhill and left flexible for skiing up where more movement is required.

To go uphill, skins are stuck on to the bottom of the skis to grip the snow and are then taken off for the descent.

Skiing is off piste in the mountains!

Have a look at our ski touring trip in the Queyras for a great ski touring refuge to refuge adventure! 


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