New To Ski

Downhill Vs. Cross-Country Skiing – Which is More Fun? (Key Differences)

by Anthony Schwabe | Updated: October 27th, 2022
skiing cross country

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Alpine, cross-country, downhill, and Nordic – Most of us have heard these terms thrown around, but can you really pin down what’s involved? If you’ve ever wondered what each of them means, then you’ve come to the right place. 

Downhill and cross-country are two very different disciplines in skiing but they share a number of similarities. Downhill skiing is fast-paced, highly skillful, and exciting. While cross-country skiing is physically challenging, adventurous, and similar to hiking.

Beaver skiing
Photo by Snow Snow licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

What Are the Differences Between Downhill and Cross-Country Skiing?

Both downhill and cross-country skiing share a number of similarities, of course, both disciplines are based on skis with the skill of the skier guiding progress. That being said, you’d be surprised by just how many differences there are between the two. 

We’ve broken down the two sports into the most important factors for comparison, but before we get into that, let’s understand exactly what each sport is. 

What Is Downhill Skiing?

ski down slope

Downhill or alpine skiing is what most of us automatically think of whenever we hear the word “skiing.” It consists of individuals skiing down a groomed or un-groomed slope, either at a ski resort or in the backcountry. 

Key Takeaway: Downhill skiing is fast, fun, and both technically and physically challenging. 

Within downhill skiing, there are a number of different disciplines, such as slalom, freestyle, and off-piste skiing. Each discipline has its individual style of skiing, but they all come under the umbrella of downhill or alpine skiing

What Is Cross-Country Skiing?

Cross-Country-Skiing
Photo by Roderick Eime licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Before skiing was a leisure pursuit, it was a practical way to cross snow-covered lands in colder climates. There are only a few people who still rely on skiing for travel anymore, but leisure cross-country skiing has taken its place, as an increasingly popular pastime. 

It’s easy to draw comparisons between Cross-country or Nordic skiing and hiking. Skiers can travel great distances over a wide variety of terrain.  Some of the most popular attractions of cross-country skiing are being in the outdoors among the quiet and beauty of nature. 

Speed

Key Takeaway: Speed is one of the biggest differences when it comes to downhill and cross-country skiing. It’s one of the most exciting elements of skiing, which is what draws many people to the sport. 

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When it comes to speed, downhill is king. The slowest part of a run is at the beginning when you take a chairlift or gondola up the hill. With anticipation building, you’re then free to fly down the slopes making the best of your skills. 

downhill-skiing

In downhill skiing, it’s not everyone’s bag to hit super high speeds, but for thrill seekers, there are many opportunities. In comparison, cross-country skiing is much more restrained and the focus is much more on enjoying your environment.

With cross-country you’re not relying solely on gravity, so you’re much less likely to reach the same speeds possible in downhill skiing. 

If spending time in the snow, soaking up the sun, and seeing amazing views sounds appealing, then cross-country is the way to go.  That’s not to say you won’t get the sun and amazing views while downhill skiing, it’s just that your focus will be more on what’s directly in front of you!  

Skill Levels

Skill is another important distinguishing factor between downhill and cross-country skiing. Thinking of speed again, the faster you go, the more skill you need to anticipate danger and stay upright. That’s why downhill requires much more skill compared to cross-country. 

Skiing-downhill-in-blue-jacket

In a resort, each ski run is assessed for difficulty, obstacles, steepness, and other factors before being graded accordingly. Each more difficult grade of run requires a new, better set of skills to safely navigate the terrain. 

You might find that some well-groomed green runs have a similar cruising experience to what you might find while cross-country skiing, but anything above a green will be more in the territory of downhill skiing. 

Cross-country skiing is relatively skill-free. All you need to know is how to safely ski, so there is almost no barrier to entry to cross-country skiing, particularly if you already have the right gear. 

Adventure Factor

Enjoying nature in winter is one of the most awesome parts of skiing, for both downhill and cross-country skiing. There’s a huge sense of adventure and excitement when it comes to skiing in general, possibly related to playing in the snow as a kid.

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While for others, such as adrenaline junkies, flying down the slopes is the best kind of adventure.

cross country skiing

Adventure doesn’t always have to be about speed. Downhill also lets skiers explore high-altitude peaks and the breathtaking views that accompany them. 

Key Takeaway: Adventure is rooted in cross-country skiing, just like it’s a part of hiking.

The goal is not necessarily to go the fastest or jump the highest, you’re simply out exploring nature while getting the best aerobic workout. 

Downhill skiers are more restricted in the terrain they can choose to ski down mostly keeping to groomed runs. However, cross-country skiers are free to make their own tracks as they go. 

Cross-country skiers might miss out a little bit in terms of amazing downhill views, but the still and quiet pine forest has its own appeal. The attractions of downhill and cross-country skiing are relative.

Fitness Requirements

The fitness requirements for downhill and cross-country skiing highlight just how different these two sports really are. Fitness plays a big part in both disciplines.

downhill skiing

In downhill skiing, gravity is doing a lot of the work for you. You’ll still be getting a good workout when spending a day on the slopes, but we often forget how easy it is nowadays. 

Amenities like lift infrastructure take a lot of the pain out of skiing, as they effortlessly speed us up the mountainside. Before lifts, you’d have to hike up there yourself!

So for downhill skiers, there is plenty of freedom, without having to really worry about fitness. 

Downhill skiing can be tougher on the body, especially the back and joints like hips, knees, and ankles. If you’ve ever had any trouble with these areas, it’s a good idea to speak to your doctor and establish your limitations. 

Cross-Country-Skiing
Photo by Roderick Eime licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

In cross-country skiing, there aren’t many lifts involved because the whole point of cross-country skiing is to be independent. On many cross-country runs you will cover the mostly flat ground with little assistance from gravity, so, you will be making your way forward solely using your leg and arm power.

It’s a truly killer full-body workout that the unfit will struggle with. That being said, once your fitness levels are better, you will discover a lot more freedom. Cross-country skiing is a lot lighter on the joints, so it’s a great choice for anyone with existing issues. 

What To Wear

Skiing-in-Green-Attire

Clothing is another area where downhill and cross-country skiing differ from one another. Pretty much everything from your jacket to your ski poles is significantly different in each sport.

You’ll want water and windproof clothing for both disciplines of skiing. These will really make a huge difference in terms of comfort in the snow and wind.  

Downhill skiers typically don’t have to worry about overheating too much. They do have to worry about getting cold and wet, though. That’s why you’ll typically see downhill skiers choosing a solid ski jacket and pants. 

These are almost essential to keep skiers warm as they’re speeding down the slopes with the cold wind rushing past them.  Downhill skiers should also always have goggles and a helmet for protection, whereas neither is necessary for cross-country skiers. 

Conversely, cross-country skiers have to prioritize keeping cool. The amount of muscle energy exerted to keep yourself moving while cross-country skiing means you can quickly overheat if your clothing isn’t losing the heat and moisture. 

Cross-country skiers typically have thinner jackets and pants, which allow ventilation, while still keeping you relatively warm.

skier in complete clothes

The Right Gear

As mentioned, there are even notable differences between the gear you need for either discipline. Yes, you’ll need skis, poles, and proper ski boots for both, but they all have differences setting them apart from one another. 

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Skis

Skis come in all shapes and sizes to match their purpose. The difference between downhill and cross-country skis really highlights this fact.

You’ll typically find that downhill skis are wider than cross-country skis. This is to assist with the tight turning maneuvers needed when downhill skiing. The width also helps a lot when it comes to stability.  

Conversely, thinner skis mean less friction for cross-country skiers. This lets you travel further without exerting as much energy. You will generally find that cross-country skis are much thinner than their downhill cousins. 

Bindings

You might be surprised to learn that even the bindings are different between downhill and cross-country skiing. 

Typical downhill bindings ensure a firm, stable connection between your boot and ski. This gives you good feedback on the terrain below and helps you perform maneuvers with confidence. 

Cross-country skis go a different route. To aid in comfort and movement, cross-country bindings only clip in at the front and allow your heel to lift up and to pivot. This provides a more natural stride. 

Ski Poles

The poles used in cross-country and downhill skiing also show just how different the sports are. Downhill skiers might find themselves barely using their ski poles for most of a run. They usually come into action during cornering and turning, but not much else. 

Because of the angle of the slope and the lower body position of a skier going downhill, these ski poles are typically shorter. 

Cross-country ski poles on the other hand are crucial. The correct pole length enables a good cross-country skier to propel themselves over the snow almost as much as their legs.  This means the poles need to be much longer than downhill skis and they need to be more rigid, as they are used with more force than downhill skis.. 

Ski Boots

There are some small differences between downhill and cross-country boots. The main one is weight. 

All of the gear used in downhill is typically heavier, which creates more stability, and ski boots are no exception. Downhill ski boots are usually less flexible, again, to allow for better maneuverability. 

In comparison, Cross-country boots are lighter and more flexible, to aid in comfort on longer runs and reduce the amount of energy required for each stride. 

Is Cross-Country Skiing Harder than Downhill?

cross country skiing

Both disciplines are hard in their own ways and because everyone is different, discovering if you are suited to one or both disciplines can only come about through trying them out.

Cross-country is very, physically taxing. Your fitness needs to be superior to get the most out of a cross-country tour. It can be exhausting if you aren’t prepared enough.

Downhill skiing is harder in terms of skill. The learning curve takes a lot longer to master. Most skiers find they are discovering new tips and techniques each time they go out, which is a testament to just how much skill is involved. Skiing is a journey, not a destination. That’s what keeps it interesting!

When asked, most people think downhill skiing is harder than cross-country. You can get fitter while off the slopes, which will help you cross-country ski. However, you can’t practice downhill skiing at home. 

Can I Use Downhill Skis for Cross-Country?

Cross Country Skiing

Using downhill skis for cross-country skiing is a hard work. It’s not impossible to do it, but they really aren’t suitable. There are many factors involved in each discipline so the equipment isn’t interchangeable.

There is, however, a type of skiing that combines both these ski styles. Alpine touring uses cross-country skiing as a means of travel to a point where gravity can take over, so there are elements of downhill and cross-country in it. This is usually done in backcountry setting.

In Summary

Both downhill and cross-country skiing are amazing ways to get out in the snow. They both fall under the sport of skiing, but there are some noticeable differences between the two.

Downhill skiing is what most people think of in terms of skiing. It features high altitudes, epic views, speed, and skiing down prepared runs. Cross-country skiing Usually takes place lower down, where the emphasis is on using your legs and arms to propel yourself forward while enjoying the local nature. 

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