Is Cross-Country Skiing Hard? 12 Tips For Your First Time

by Alaina Johnson | Updated: September 12th, 2023 |  Skiing Articles

Cross-country skiing can be an incredibly rewarding sport to partake in. Not only is it a great workout but it can also be a fun recreational winter activity to do with friends and family.

Though it's different from downhill skiing, cross-country skiing is often easier to pick up than its counterpart. There is often less speed involved, therefore there is less chance of an accident occurring. If it's your first time, there are some helpful beginner tips to keep in mind.

Cross Country Skiing

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Is It Difficult to Learn Cross-Country Skiing?

Cross-country skiing is generally considered an easy sport to learn. It can be picked up by children and adults of all ages relatively quickly. It's also inherently less dangerous than alpine & backcountry skiing, though there's still always a risk of falling.

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If you're brand new to skiing in general, it may take some practice to gain your footing and balance. Those who are starting out with a background in other forms of skiing will often have an edge, as the movements can be similar.

Before you know it, you'll find yourself getting a solid cardio workout in. Since you're having to propel your body forward instead of relying on gravity to do most of the work, you may find that you get a better workout than your downhill skiing friends.

Don't let the prospect of learning how to cross-country ski overwhelm you or dissuade you from trying. It's one of the best winter sports to pick up and it can lead you down a variety of trails, where adventure awaits you around every corner.

Whether you choose to go the self-taught route or you get help from a friend or a professional trainer, you can easily pick up cross-country skiing within a few sessions. There are a few basic tips that can help a beginner start out on the right foot.

How Fast Can You Learn How to Cross-Country Ski?

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For some people, the movements will come naturally and they'll be graduating to blue and black trails in what seems like no time at all. For others, it may take multiple seasons' worth of practice to get there.

Depending on whether or not you have a background in alpine skiing, you may pick up the sport quicker. After all, you have a solid foundation from which to pull knowledge.

For those who have never skied a day in their lives, it's expected to take longer. If you dedicate enough time and effort to the skill, you should see consistent improvement over time.

Helpful Tips for Cross-Country Skiing Beginners

As you become proficient at the sport, you'll want to build solid foundational habits that can enable you to enjoy skiing for many years to come. Here are our tips and things for you to consider.

1. Get To Know Your Equipment


If you've never been skiing before, you're likely going to be unfamiliar with the equipment needed to go cross-country skiing for the first time. Even if you are opting to rent your gear, you'll want to do some research to understand what each piece does beforehand.

More often than not, skis, poles, boots, and even helmets can be rented at the ski resort or at the location you're going to cross-country ski. If you're buying, go to a local shop and talk about the equipment from a trusted professional.

2. Choose the Form of Cross-Country Skiing You Want to Try

It may come as a surprise that there are in fact various forms of skiing within the cross-country scope of the sport. There is the classic form of cross-country skiing, where the skis move straight.

Most people will start out with this form of skiing, though there is also skate skiing. This is when the skis move laterally — similar to ice skating. This is the more recent addition to XC skiing and can be a more appealing alternative to some.

In the summer, roller skiing is a great alternative sport to maintain fitness.

cross country ski - Aaron Doucett

3. Decide Whether You Want to Take Lessons

When you're new to any sport, taking a lesson or two can be helpful for getting the basics down. There's no need to be embarrassed if you're an adult learning how to cross-country ski for the first time. There are often lessons tailored to the adult group.

Even taking an hour's worth of lessons with a trained professional can help you develop your newfound skills much quicker. It's possible to learn on your own but having someone to guide you and give you pointers never hurts.

4. Learn the Etiquette of the Trails

Knowing which trails are designated for beginners and which are for more experienced skiers is important. It can be overwhelming for beginners to get stuck on a trail that is too difficult for them. Everyone should be versed in trail etiquette before embarking on their skiing journey.

cross country skiing

In the same way, it may frustrate intermediate or advanced skiers to have a beginner who's just finding their feet on the same path as them. Before you go, understand that the green trails are designated for the novices, and always read up on the posted rules before embarking down a trail.

5. Wear the Proper Layers

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If you have experience with any winter sport, you know the importance of wearing warm layers. Skiers often have base layers that help to lock in body heat, as well as thicker outer layers to help keep off the wind chill.

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Thick socks and a snug beanie can also be beneficial for keeping your body warm. If you get too cold, you'll often find yourself not enjoying cross-country skiing and instead, wanting to get back to the lodge quickly to sit in front of the fire.

6. Wax Your Skis Before Using Them

When you rent equipment, the skis should come already waxed. If you decided to buy new or previously owned gear, you may need to wax them yourself. You can also take them into the shop and have someone do it for you but it's a good skill to learn how to do it yourself.

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Waxing can help you glide across the snow easier and will often result in a more enjoyable experience. This is a relatively simple step and if you've never applied wax before, we've got some great articles on the topic.

7. Stretch Before You Ski (and After!)


This often forgotten step is important in order to keep your body finely tuned. You'll want to avoid injuries and stretching can be helpful on this front — as it prepares your muscles to be worked, as well as cools them down after you've finished skiing for the day.

Focusing on your quads, hamstrings, calves, and glutes is a good start. Find a stretching routine that works for you and your schedule and you'll likely be able to decrease muscle soreness. Warming up before every ski session is one of the best habits newbies can form.

8. Protect Yourself From the Sun

While you may equate going to the beach with sunscreen, it can also come in handy on the mountaintop. The sun's rays can be harmful, regardless of the temperature of the weather outside.

Even if the weather looks overcast, the sun can reflect off the snow's surface and can cause sunburns. You'll want to layer up with SPF and sunglasses with UV protection built into them. You'll be able to hit the slopes with the confidence that you've protected your skin and your delicate retinas.

9. Stay Hydrated

With any physical activity, hydration is of key importance to staying fit and healthy. Grabbing a water bottle before your cross-country ski session can help keep your body hydrated with the fluids it needs — you can even add in some extra electrolytes.

Naturally, you'll sweat as you move your body and in cross-country skiing, you're keeping your heart rate up. Replenish your supply with fluid every so often, even if you don't feel thirsty. By the time you're feeling thirsty, you're actually becoming dehydrated.

Photo by Roderick Eime licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

10. Don't Overextend Yourself

While you may feel like you're ready to move onto blue trails, as the green ones feel too easy — take it slow. There's no need to rush the process and you don't want to jump into something that quickly becomes too difficult for you.

Once you have one trail rating down, move on to the next one but keep all of your experiences in mind. It can be easy to tackle a difficult trail and then find yourself growing frustrated when you begin to struggle with it. It's all a part of the process.

11. Prepare Your Body With Conditioning

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Even a few weeks in the gym working on some basic conditioning is better than nothing at all. In the month before you head out on your ski trip, make it a point to hit the gym regularly.

What you don't want to experience is extreme muscle soreness and fatigue after your first few hours on the trail. This will negatively impact your ability to pick up the necessary skills and you may find yourself holed up in the lodge icing your aching muscles.

12. Avoid Going Downhill

This is a tip directed especially at those who don't have experience with downhill skiing. Cross-country skis are inherently lighter than their downhill counterparts and trying to use them even going down a small decline can be tricky.

You may find yourself losing stability and suffering a fall and possibly an injury. Those who have previous experience with downhill skiing may find it a bit easier but keep in mind, that it's still different due to the way the gear has been manufactured.

Cross Country Skiing

Frequently Asked Questions

How Hard is It to Transition From Downhill to Cross-country Skiing?

The skill set for both downhill and cross-country skiing is somewhat comparable, though XC skiing is naturally slower. They're both physically demanding, with cross-country being a bit more intensive due to the constant movement and lack of gravity to help propel a skier forward.

You'll want to invest in designated cross-country skis, as your downhill gear is made for a specific purpose and will feel a bit heavy after even a short XC session. Many people transition from one to the other and vice versa and you shouldn't have too much difficulty doing so.

Do You Need to Take Lessons to Go Cross-country Skiing? Or is It Self-explanatory?

As with anything, lessons can help you set up a solid foundation from which to grow. If you have a close friend or relative that wants to show you the ropes, this can be just as helpful.

While it's possible to teach yourself how to cross-country ski, you may find that it takes longer to get good at it. You won't have someone watching your movements and correcting you when you do something improperly.

Photo by Special Olympics 2017 licensed under CC0 1.0

Article Recap

Overall, cross-country skiing can be a great way to stay active during the cold and sometimes dreary winter months. If you're looking to pick up a new hobby, there are few that are as fun and as good of a workout as XC skiing.

Don't allow yourself to become discouraged if you hear that cross-country skiing is difficult to learn because, with the proper teacher, you can pick it up in no time. Don't miss the opportunity to traverse snowy trails and explore the great outdoors this winter.