Q&A: Cross-Country Ski Tips for Beginners

'The first time you truly hit the kick and glide, you will feel like you are flying'

Spring-skiing at Lake O’Hara in May 2018. Yes, May…Welcome to 6+ months of ski season!

Despite the fact it’s not even November, both of us were able to dust off our cross-country skis on the weekend. It was glorious. We’ve never had such good conditions so early in the season. If the parking lot on Sunday at West Bragg Creek is any indication, we’re not the only ones pumped that ski season has started (or just eager to enjoy a ski day before all the snow melts this week!)

Today we’re answering your questions about cross-country skiing. We have some tips of our own, as well as from people who love the sport and weighed in on Twitter with advice. While we have both branched out into a lot more downhill skiing and backcountry ski touring in recent years, cross-country skiing is still very near and dear to us. It’s such an enjoyable, easy, inexpensive way to go outside.

Thanks to everyone who tweeted us your questions and shared advice. If you have a question after reading this that we didn’t answer, please comment at the end of this post. And whether you’re an old pro or have a single season under your skis, feel free to jump into the comment section with your two cents. The more people kicking and gliding outside this winter, the better!

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Q: I’m new to cross-country skiing. Should I take lessons? Where is the best place for lessons?

Yes! Take at least one lesson. Or, go with someone who truly knows what they’re doing and can teach you proper technique (plus ski waxing basics). At first cross-country skiing can feel like trudging along with long sticks on your feet. It isn’t until you understand how to kick and glide that the sport truly becomes enjoyable.

Don’t just take our word on this. When we asked on Twitter for top tips for newbies, the most popular tip we got was to take lessons. “Invest in some lessons — skiing is infinitely better & easier w better technique. Also spend some time on the waxing learning curve!” said Jay Smith. “Definitely take some lessons - a good instructor will help you make sense of the movements needed to be efficient & to enjoy the experience,” wrote GJW. Bob Armstrong told us: “Learning enough technique to actually glide is essential if you want it to actually be fun.” And Twitter user Rose Ratliffe wrote us this, which we couldn’t have said better ourselves: “The first time you truly hit the kick and glide, you will feel like you are flying.

In terms of lessons, while we haven’t taken any as adults, we’re always fans of the University of Calgary Outdoor Centre’s offerings. Skier Bob (an online resource for cross-country skiing) has a full list of places that offer lessons.

Amazing conditions at West Bragg Creek, October 25 (!!) 2020

Q: What should I wear?

Great question, and one we often struggle with (as people who get cold exceedingly easily). Annalise dressed appropriately for a Saturday ski in Calgary when the temperature was -13 Celsius, but she majorly over-dressed the next day while enjoying the trails on a sunny Sunday afternoon at West Bragg Creek with the mercury around -3. Cailynn headed to West Bragg Creek early Sunday morning when it was still quite chilly and found her layers to be mostly appropriate, aside from cold toes.

We recommend following Adam Campbell’s advice below, or as Tyler Dixon tweeted us: BE BOLD, DRESS COLD. (Emphasis our own, not Tyler’s. The all caps is so you/Annalise remember this important tip.)

Another tip is to bring a small backpack and pack extra layers. Even on a short ski, Cailynn brings extra socks, gloves, a neck warmer, toque, and jacket. It might be overkill, but she likes being prepared…plus a backpack means room for snacks, water and a thermos.

Crescent Road, Calgary, October 2020

Q: What are your favourite trails in Calgary?

The great thing about cross-country skiing is it can be done anywhere there’s snow. After Friday evening’s big dump of the white stuff, before roads in the city were cleared, Annalise woke up Saturday and glided from her front door all the way to Crescent Road, down through Sunnyside, across the Peace Bridge, and around Prince’s Island Park. If you’re looking for more of a designated, track-set route, there are several cross-country ski tracks in green spaces in Calgary, including:

  • Shaganappi Point Golf Course (1200 26 Street SW) is beginner-friendly and boasts great downtown views. The trails are maintained by volunteers and fun fact, you can take the train right to the trails.

  • Confederation Golf Course (3204 Collingwood Drive NW) is maintained by Foothills Nordic Ski Club volunteers and contains beginner and intermediate trails.

  • South Glenmore Park (8415 24 St SW) and North Glenmore Park (7305 Crowchild Trail SW) are maintained by Calgary Parks. We’ve actually never been to either, but two different people recommended this area on Twitter. Holly Hoye said, “the city grooms and track-sets a loop in South Glenmore park…just North of 90th Avenue, between the tennis courts and the polo field,” and it’s a “great flat place to work on your technique,” while Kevin suggested North Glenmore Park and told us there’s a new coffee shop in nearby Lakeview that’s a great place to stop for an apres-ski hot chocolate.

  • For even more ideas on groomed and ungroomed areas in Calgary, check out this list from the City of Calgary.

Q: What are the best routes outside of Calgary?

Tough question! There are so many good options. Annalise’s favourites include the trails at West Bragg Creek for beginners and kids, Mount Shark if you’re going with a dog, and if you want something for your bucket list (are those still a thing?), the 20-km route from Goat Creek to Banff Springs is spectacular if you can time it during a full moon and do it under the stars at night.

Goat Creek Trail, by moonlight, January 2017

Cailynn also likes West Bragg, because of its proximity to Calgary and the amazing job volunteers with the Greater Bragg Creek Trails Association do when it comes to grooming and tracksetting (you can help support them here). Cailynn also adores skiing on the scenic and extensive trails in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, as well as the Ribbon Creek trail system in Kananaskis. However, the state of these areas this winter is uncertain, after Alberta Parks announced last February it would stop grooming trails in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Mount Shark and Ribbon Creek to save money. Since then, various groups have suggested solutions for keeping the trails (like Nordiq Alberta’s proposal to implement parking fees), but it’s still not known what will happen this winter. Stay tuned.

Views in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, December 2019

Q: I’ve tried cross-country skiing before and I didn’t really like it. It was cold and boring. What are your tips for getting outside on skis more often?

One of our biggest tips, for enjoying any sport, is finding good company to enjoy it with. Find a friend or two who will head outside with you, and give you motivation to meet up, even when it’s really cold. Years ago, Annalise ran a ‘Nordic Ski and Social Club’ in which a handful of Calgarians would meet for an after-work ski at Shaganappi Golf Course, followed by a nearby après-ski beer. It was great motivation to head out every Wednesday, no matter how cold or dark it was. Gilles Prefontaine, who started cross-country skiing last winter, had advice along these lines on Twitter: “find a partner/group to go with to keep you motivated (Meetup, etc), and - look for groomed runs which there are often many in your community.

Q: What equipment do I need? Where can I buy affordable second-hand equipment?

We’re already hearing that shops are starting to sell out of skis, so get some ASAP if you don’t have any. Cross-country skiing doesn’t require a lot of equipment compared to other winter sports: you’ll need boots, skis, bindings, poles and wax (though waxless skis are also an option).

We were going to recommend purchasing used equipment at the annual Calgary New & Used Ski Sale, which has been taking place for nearly six decades and has been very good to us. Unfortunately, it’s been cancelled this year, so we’d recommend checking out Kijiji or Facebook Marketplace (which is painful to say, because we all know how annoying buying/selling things on the internet with strangers can be). Also, Skier Bob has a Gear Swap page where you can comment with what you’re looking to purchase or selling.

Mount Shark, with a dog, February 2016

Q: What are your tips for skiing with kids, especially really young ones? Where are good places for families to go?

Full disclosure, neither of us have kids. We were kids once, and our parents took us and our two brothers cross-country skiing constantly, and sometimes we liked it and sometimes we didn’t. Born to Be Adventurous has some great posts about cross-country skiing with little ones, and so does Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies. It’s worth noting that Family Adventures starts that blog post by stating, “We've had many beautiful awesome ski days as a family. We've also had many disastrous days.” To be honest, this makes us feel better about the times our parents took us cross-country skiing and we spent the day crying, whining and shivering (sorry mom and dad and thanks for still instilling in us a love for the great outdoors!)

Q: Did you receive other great tips that haven’t fit into any questions yet but you’d still love to share?

Great question, we sure did. They are:

COVID-19 restrictions have led more Albertans than ever before to explore their own backyards. We’ve been hiking, biking and skiing near Calgary since childhood, and we want to help more people Go Outside. Please subscribe to get our newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday. If you like our newsletter, please share it with a friend!