Cross country skiing essentials start with the feet

Posted on: October 31, 2018 | Bob Frye | Comments

Don’t be fooled by the obvious.

Cross country skiing requires three essential pieces of gear. And skis, of course, count as one.

But they’re not the most important one. That would be boots.

“You’ve got to take care of your feet first,” said Joe Triebsch, a ski instructor from REI in Pittsburgh. “That’s the most important thing.

“You can put on any skis afterward. Pretty skis, not so pretty skis, beat up skis, not beat up skis. But the boots have to fit well.”

A few cross country ski boots resemble high-top tennis shoes, like a basketball player might wear. Many look more like hiking boots than anything else. Some appear to be a high-tech cross between the two.

What’s important is getting a pair that fits and is comfortable.

“You can read all you want about skis online. But boots, you really have to try those on to get the right ones,” said Erica Smith, operator of Laurel Ridge Cross Country Ski Center in the Laurel Highlands, east of Pittsburgh.

After boots, would-be cross country skiers can move on to choosing the other two essential pieces of gear, skis and ski poles.

Skis come in all varieties, based on how, when and where they will be used. They all share some things in common, though.

For starters, in decades past, skis came in many, many sizes. And all required waxing, with the type of wax needed tied to a whole host of factors, from snow type, be it wet or dry, to temperature and more.

Now, skis come in just four sizes, with which ones the right ones for an individual related to their weight, height and, to a lesser extent, level of physical fitness.

When in doubt, opt for the larger size, Triebsch said.

Most modern skis are “waxless,” too. Skiers need not prep them for specific conditions.

It’s good to coat them with a glide was before heading out, to make them perform more efficiently while also protecting them, Triebsch added. But the days of needing a dozen or so different kinds of wax are largely gone.

As for poles, look for those about armpit height, said Tim Palmer-Benson, editor of XCountrySki-Vermont. Anything too tall or too short will cause problems, he said.

“You’ll have difficulty because you’ll unbalance yourself. You’re going to lean too far forward,” he said.

Once equipped with those essentials – boots, skis and poles – it’s time for the fun to begin.

That’s a big part of the sport’s attraction, said Cheryl Ritts, another instructor with REI Pittsburgh.

“You can just throw your skis in your car or go out your front door, depending on where you are, and you don’t have to pay anything. There are no lift fees like with downhill skiing,” Ritts said.

“Once you invest in the equipment, once you have everything you need, you just go out and glide.”

There are two places to do it, in general: groomed and ungroomed trails.

The former are trails that have been packed down via use of machines to create optimal conditions.

“They won’t have as many wet spots. They’re maintained, so the snow will lay on the trail better and stay longer,” Smith said.

Ungroomed trails are just what they sound like, paths through woods or fields where skiers may have to forge their own way.

In places, 6 to 8 inches of snow is plenty for skiing. In others – think those ungroomed trails that maybe don’t get a lot of maintenance even in summer – 12 inches might be a minimum, Triebsch said. That’s to protect skiers and skis from roots and rocks.

“Knowing the terrain where you’re going becomes really, really important,” he said.

There’s nothing like skiing through the winter woods, though, said Ritts.

Cross country skiing has a reputation for being physically demanding. And it can be, she said.

But it isn’t necessarily punishing either. It is what you make of it in terms of exercise.
And no matter what, it’s always lovely.

“You can determine how hard you want to work. You can just glide through the woods nice and slow and stop whe3never you want. Or if you really want a workout, then you can really push yourself,” Ritts said.

“Either way, it’s fun sport, and it’s very quiet and peaceful. It’s beautiful.”

Dressing for cross country skiing

It’s going to be cold out there. If it wasn’t there wouldn’t be any snow.

But be careful.

One common mistake newcomers to cross country skiing make is to overdress.

Many pile on clothes as if they were going downhill skiing, which involves “a lot of standing line and sitting on lifts,” said Erica Smith of Laurel Ridge Cross Country Ski Center.

“Then you look and, five minutes down the trail, they’re taking coats off and trying to wrap them around their waist,” she said.

“You can really get hot,” agreed REI Pittsburgh instructor Charyl Ritts. “So it’s important to dress in layers.”

Clothes that wick sweat away – made from synthetic or wool – are best, she said.

Those layers can be the same ones worm when running, hiking, mountain biking or doing anything else outdoors, said Jim Triebsch, another REI Pittsburgh instructor. They need not be skiing specific.

Just don’t wear too many of them

“I always tell people to dress like they were going to run outside,” Smith said. “You might be cold for the first 10 minutes. But quickly you’re going to warm your body up and stay pretty warm.”

Finally, carry a pack. Use it to store clothes as well as trip essentials like water, snacks, sunscreen and sunglasses, Ritts said.


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Bob Frye is the editor. Reach him at 412-838-5148 or See other stories, blogs, videos and more at

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Bob Frye is a storyteller with a passion for all things outdoors. He hunts, he fishes, he hikes, he camps, he paddles, backpacks and snowshoes depending on the season. If he’s not an expert at anything, it’s because he’s passionate to try a little bit of everything.