Cross-country skiing (also known as XC skiing) is a winter sport popular in many countries with large snowfields, primarily Northern Europe, Canada and Alaska. The popularity of the sport has been quickly growing in the United States and in Australia.
Cross-country skiing is part of the Nordic skiing sport family, which also includes ski jumping, and a combination sport of cross-country skiing and ski jumping called Nordic combined. Free-technique cross-country skiing is also the method of locomotion in the combination sport of Biathlon, which adds rifle marksmanship to skiing.
"Bushwalking on skis" is a hobby where skiers tackle trails of various lengths and difficulties. Some skiers stay out for extended periods using tents and equipment similar to bushwalkers/hikers, whereas others take relatively short trips from ski resorts on maintained trails. In some countries, organizations maintain a network of huts for use by cross-country skiers in wintertime. For example, the Norwegian Mountain Touring Association maintains over 400 huts stretching across hundreds of kilometres of trails which are used by hikers in the summer and by skiers in the winter.
As a sport, cross-country skiing is one of the most difficult endurance sports, as its motions use every major muscle group and it (along with running, rowing and swimming) is one of the sports that burn the most calories per hour in execution. Modern cross-country ski competition is experiencing a revolution that is resulting in greater compatibility with audiences which began with the addition of the Sprint event to the World Cup and Olympic competitions. Today more and more races are being held in audience friendly formats, such as mass start, sprint, relay and pursuit (a race that involves switching skis and styles halfway through the race). The modern events in which athletes compete in at the World Cup and Olympics are (distances presented in Female/Male format): 1 km Sprint, 2X1 km Team Sprint, 10 km/15 km Individual Start, 15 km/30 km Pursuit, 30 km/50 km Mass Start, and 4x5 km/4x10 km Relay.
Today, there are several types of cross-country competitive events, involving races of various types and lengths, as well as biathlon, involving a combination of cross-country skiing and target shooting with a rifle.
The Winter Olympics, the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships, and the FIS World Cup events (including the Holmenkollen) have long been a showcase for the world's fastest cross country skiers. There are also special distance ski races, sometimes called ski marathons, like Vasaloppet in Sweden, Birkebeineren in Norway, the Canadian Birkebeiner and the American Birkebeiner and the Tug Hill Tourathon in the US. The skiing styles in these races might be fixed, or, in case of the so-called "double pursuit" event, the two styles are used each in their own separate half of the race (with a change of equipment in "pit stops" half way through).
The Canadian Ski Marathon, despite its name, is not a race, but a tour--in fact, the world's longest, at 160 km. The skiers choose their distance challenge and try to accomplish it. The highest honour, the Coureur de Bois Gold, is given to those who ski the entire distance and camp out overnight, bring all their food and gear with them in a big backpack.
In the New England states, NENSA and TD Banknorth have established a calendar of high-quality regional races. These include the TD Banknorth Eastern Cup and the TD Banknorth Marathon Series, along with numerous citizen events. NENSA Website
By contrast, natives in North America were historically trappers and gatherers, needing free hands and the ability to walk through deep snow in forests, hence the common historical use of snowshoes. Skiing may have also been sparsely practiced by Natives for similar lengths of time as in Scandinavia, although the Norwegian emigrants Snowshoe Thompson is widely credited for introducing the sport to California in the USA, and Jackrabbit Johannsen is widely credited for introducing the sport to Canada.
In Canada, although Johannsen never claimed to be the first skier in Canada, he had a major role in stimulating an interest in the sport throughout Canada. He organised races, officiated events, and served as a guide, coach, and consultant for numerous skiing organizations, many of which he helped to found. An enthusiastic teacher, he helped coach Canada's Olympic team in 1932. At the age of 55, he shocked his Canadian Olympic pupils as he accompanied the team step by step through its rigorous training schedule--and still he had energy to spare. This was, however, still quite far from being the twilight of Jackrabbit's incredible skiing career, as he didn't ski his last official race until the age of 75, and still glided through the snowy woods on a daily basis well past the age of 100.
This form of skiing has been used by explorers as a means of transport, and all Nordic armies have ski-trained infantry for winter operations. Skis gave important mobility to the Finnish army during the Winter War and allowed the small groups of Finns to beat large armies of Russians. Similar tactics that utilise skis have been used in many times by the Finns and Karelians in the past. Pre-modern skiing troops were armed with crossbows and ski poles which had a spearhead on the other end.
Traditionally, all of the equipment was made of natural materials: wooden skis and bamboo poles with leather hand straps. Footwear was usually sturdy leather boots with thick soles. Bindings evolved from simple straps made of twisted wood-based thread, to the so-called Kandahar binding with the fastening of both the boot’s front and back, to the ‘Rat Trap’ front-only binding, which is today known as the Nordic norm, and has evolved in various modern bindings.
The skis are long and thin, to distribute the weight of the skier and allow the skier to move quickly. Typical ski dimensions are 2 metres in length, about 5 centimetres in width and one to four centimetres in thickness at different stations along the length of the ski. Depending on the ski design and purpose, they are fit to the skier based on height and weight. Cross country skis are sometimes informally known as "skinny skis" because of their thinness compared to alpine skis.
Like alpine skiing, cross-country skiers carry two poles, usually made of aluminium or fiberglass. More expensive poles are made of graphite or carbon fiber or some other strong but lightweight material. Poles have a spike at the end to provide a fixed pivot when the pole penetrates through to a hard surface, and a plastic web or disc (called the basket), to provide extra purchase in snow and to ensure the pole doesn't sink too deeply.
Equipment differs according to skiing technique. Skating or freestyle poles are usually longer than those used for the classic technique. Typically, skating poles should be as long as the distance from the floor to a standing skier's chin or as far as the eyebrows, depending on the skier's preference. In contrast, classic ski poles are only as long as the distance from the floor to the skier's armpit when standing, similar to the fit of an axillary crutch.
There are three different primary groups of binding systems used in modern cross-country skiing:
Older styled three-pin bindings (Nordic Norm), with or without cables, are still used by backcountry and Telemarking enthusiasts.
Further variants to NNN and SNS are "BC" (back-country) standards, where the toe hold in the binding is wider and the bar in the boot's toe is longer and thicker in order to give further lateral rigidity. This added strength and rigidity is especially important with the stiffer boots and heavier skis used in backcountry skiing.
The existing variety of binding systems, none of which are compatible with the other, has long since been a source of frustration for skiers ever since manufacturers diverged from the almost universal three-pin standard. Whereas downhill skiing has a common binding system allowing any boot to work with any binding short of the dynafit-system, modern cross-country skiers must match the skis' binding system to the boot type. When it is time to change the boot, the skier must either be limited to boots of the same binding system or also change the skis' binding.
The R4 NIS binding, made by Rottefella and Rossignol, is the newest variant of the NNN binding. These bindings are compatible with any NNN boot, but can only be used on skis that come with the permanently bonded plate, presently made only by Rossignol, Madshus, and Fischer. The NIS binding made its debut to the general public in 2005.
Salomon Nordic System (SNS) bindings, made by Salomon and Fischer, however, have their advantages too. Boots that are compatible with the SNS Profil system are made by Salomon, Fischer, Adidas, and Hartjes. SNS Profil bindings are used for both Skating and Classic. As opposed to the SNS Pilot's two axes, these boots have only one axis at the front of the sole. Pilots are used by many different racers on the World Cup Circuit. Profil bindings are the standard binding for SNS users, its only competition being the SNS Pilot system. Profil comes in "Equipe" models for racing, "Active" for recreational racing/combination, Auto Touring, and Back Country.
Kick waxes are classified according to their hardness: harder waxes are for colder and newer snow. Using a wax that is too hard will not give sufficient grip, while wax that is too soft will cause the formation of an ice sole that slows the skier down. It is not uncommon to apply a new layer of wax if the weather changes, or when moving in altitude.
Difficulty of choosing correct kick waxes to different conditions is nowadays greatly reduced by grip wax tapes, which have a wide temperature range, and are easily applied to the ski bottom. Although these are not used by competitors, who prefer the optimum waxing, they have proven to be quite suitable for fitness and recreational purposes. Many high-level competitive teams have "wax technicians" whose job is to apply the ideal wax combinations for the conditions.
Kick waxes generate grip by penetrating into the snowflakes when the skier puts his weight on the ski. Colder snowflakes are harder, and so is newly fallen snow. The most appropriate wax is the one that is soft enough to generate grip, but also hard enough not to accumulate snow and create a sole.
Waxes are usually colour-coded by usage temperature: the most common are red for above 0˚C, and blue for below. There are many other colours for more specific temperature ranges, for instance violet for around 0˚C, green for below -10˚C, and white for below -15˚C. The snow-temperature range given by the producer must be taken with a grain of salt, since new snow will require a harder wax.
Guessing the right hardness can be quite difficult, and the varying condition of the snow can make the right choice wrong after a few hundred metres. Furthermore, the snow in the beaten track is usually much different from the one immediately surrounding it, and works best with a softer wax. If skis are poorly tuned, sometimes the skier can solve thin snow soles caused by a soft wax by beating the ski on the track after kicking; the opposite problem may be handled by skating. One way around the problems of standard grip wax is to use a wax grip tape, which is applied to the kick zone of the ski in tape form. The tape can last for 100-200 km, has a very wide temp range (-20C to +5C), and can be left on the ski at the end of the day and stored by covering in waxed paper.
Professionals often maintain that klister is best applied with the palm of the hand, the hand can be cleaned by placing it in a glove and waiting while the klister is removed by a combination of sweat and friction between your hand and the fabric of the glove; amateurs often resort to some object of the appropriate size. Since klister is an organic chemical, a non-polar solvent (such as gasoline) or a soap is necessary to remove it. Stores often sell purpose-made solvent to clean skis. These should be used with care, as they are both flammable and toxic if inhaled or absorbed through the skin.
Klister is also colour-coded.
Waxless skis are better suited to recreational skiers who simply want to get out on the trail with minimal time spent on maintenance, as they generally produce too much drag for competitive skiers.
Waxless skis are sometimes used by Nordic racers during variable ski conditions such as temperatures over freezing. In fact, some Nordic ski racers using waxless skis have beaten racers who used waxable skis due to the variable and changing conditions.
The classic style is often used on prepared trails (pistes) that have pairs of parallel grooves cut into the snow.
Skis have camber and should leave the centre section of the ski clear of the snow when the skiers weight is evenly distributed between the pair. The centre section of a classic ski will either have "fish scales", or ski wax that will stick to the snow (called the "kick zone" or "grip zone" of the ski). When full weight is transferred to a single ski the kick zone comes into contact with the snow. Glide wax is used on the tails and tips of the skis.
Long, narrow and light skis are usually used. When skiing away from prepared trails, a much wider ski is sometimes used. In flat regions, such as parts of Finland, skis exceeding 3 or 4 m in length are sometimes used.
There are four core techniques: herringbone, diagonal stride, double pole with kick, and double pole.
On downhill slopes a tucked position (hocke, from the German word) is assumed, in a similar manner to downhill skiing.
Skate skiing involves the skier pushing one ski outward with the ski angled, so that the inner edge of the ski is driven against the snow, much like an ice skater. As in classic skiing, transferring weight completely from one ski to the next is essential to learning to skate. Those who have learned to ice skate or rollerblade may find ski skating technique easier to learn than classic skiing. The free technique in XC skiing is not to be confused with freestyle, which describes ski sport where the competitors compete over a mogul course and by performing aerial gymnastics such as spins after launching from a short ramp in the snow.
Skate skiing can be done either with skis specifically designed for skating or 'combi' skis for both skating and classic. Similarly, specialized skating boots or combi boots can be used. Skate skis tend to be shorter and stiffer than those used in classical technique, and poles longer. Neither fish scale skis nor grip wax are used.
Different limb-movement patterns are used for different terrain and speeds. Confusingly there is no internationally accepted naming convention for these techniques:
There also exist variants of these techniques, most notably jump-skating, which involves extremely high tempo and jumping rather than gliding; generally it is used as a V-1 (offset skate) variant on short hills, but a few racers jump-skate in V-2 (1-skate) sprinting.
The term Alsgaard skate is often frequently used. This refers to skating in the style pioneered by Thomas Alsgaard. However, since very few skiers have successfully duplicated Algaard's technique, the term "Alsgaard skate" means different things to different people. Most often it refers to a technique he employed winning the 30 km freestyle race at the Lillehammer Olympics, where in place of a V-2 (1-skate) he used a technique that seemed to be a sort of compromise between V-1 (offset skate) and V-2 alternate (2-skate).
Skating technique is only suitable for use on prepared trails (pistes), firm and smooth snow or snow crust and frozen snow-covered lakes or rivers.
Skating is faster and different muscular exercise than classic skiing, except in extremely cold conditions where classic skiing may approach skating in speed. Adoption of the skating technique varies from country to country. In some countries the majority of non-professional racers now skate, although top skiers continue to learn and train in both styles.
The distinction between classic technique and free technique is made in competition i.e. a race will be designated as classic or free. In the case of the former only those propulsion techniques that are considered 'classic' are allowed whereas in the latter the competitors are free to use any technique although the majority of competitors will opt to skate. Large races will often have both skate and classic divisions and award prizes in both categories.
Recent developments in the sport include "pursuit" races where the competitors complete the first part of the event using the classic technique and the second part using the free technique.