Cross-country skiing has a perception problem.
Reese Brown, Nordic director for SnowSports Industries America, says the sport has been battling it for years.
“So many people think it’s boring and it’s slow and to do it you have to be either incredibly fit or a tree-hugger with a frozen beard,” Brown said. “But that’s not the case.”
More accurately, Brown says, Nordic skiing is a less-expensive and quieter option to alpine skiing and snowboarding.
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According to the industry group’s data, cross-country has a higher percentage of women participants (46.5 percent) than alpine skiing (41.5) and snowboarding (38.4). It also has higher participation rates among people 45 and older.
46.5 The percentage of cross-country skiing participants who are women, according to the SnowSports Indistries America. That’s higher than skiing and snowboarding.
“I think it’s because it’s so welcoming and fitness oriented and a great family activity,” Brown said. “If you think it’s boring, let me put you on a pair of skate skis and push you down a hill. There’s nothing boring about that.”
Ashford’s Mount Tahoma Trails Association is among South Sound ski areas working to get more people involved in cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. On Feb. 27, the organization is hosting Tour de Huts, an event that encourages people to explore its 20 miles of groomed trails.
Like the sport, Tour de Huts isn’t what it used to be. Fifteen years ago the event was more of a race to visit the two huts and yurt along the southern trail system. It’s a trip of about 16 hilly miles.
Of course, this played right into the perception of the sport being one for the ultra-fit.
This year’s event purposely is not a competition, says the association’s Michael Wenger. It’s more of an open house. Skiers and snowshoers of all ages and abilities are invited to tour the trails and drop in at a hut or the yurt to meet volunteers, eat a snack and enter to win prizes.
“Our objective is to get more people to know about our trails,” he said.
Wenger says the club also wants to help make the sports seem less intimidating.
“With the groomed trails and the huts it’s a nice way to visit the backcountry without as many risks as you might find in other places,” Wenger said.
Snowshoeing: A gateway sport
Here’s a free snowshoe lesson: Step 1, strap the snowshoes to your feet. Step 2, start walking.
“Yes, it’s easy and natural and there aren’t many barriers to the sport,” Brown said. “You can buy a pair of snowshoes and it will probably last you for life. … And throwing a pair of snowshoes in the car for the winter is a great alternative to the health club (if you’re near snow).”
Snowshoers are welcome at most Nordic ski venues as long as they stay off the groomed portions of the trails. At the White Pass Nordic Center, director Rich Brooks says snowshoeing has proved to be a big draw for families.
“It’s something they can do together,” he said.
And ever since White Pass added snowshoe trails a decade ago, Brooks has noticed many of those snowshoeing families becoming cross-country skiing families.
“They’re out there interacting with skiers and they say, ‘I want to give this a try,’ ” Brooks said. “Most are hikers but not skiers and the idea is foreign to them.”
Once they try cross-country skiing and get used to the feeling of sliding over the snow, they’re usually hooked.
“It’s a different sensation gliding through the forest,” Brooks said. “It’s a magical thing and I think that’s why they come up every weekend.”
Interest in Nordic skiing pales in comparison to its gravity-fed counterparts, but it seems to grow a little bit each year.
White Pass ski area hopes to move a yurt from its alpine terrain to the Nordic Center before next season.
At White Pass, officials hope to add a second yurt to the Nordic Center next season. Plans also call for a 9-kilometer trail expansion, although a timeline for the project isn’t set, Brooks said.
On the Mount Tahoma Trail system, where visitors can stay overnight in the huts and yurts for $15 per night, it’s challenging to score a weekend reservation.
“Our stats don’t really paint an accurate picture because we’ve had a couple of horrible winters,” Brown said. “But where there is snow we are seeing really good participation.”
Not so hard
If there’s one excuse Brown hears most for not trying Nordic skiing, it’s that the sport is “too hard.”
“I live in Vermont and it’s hilly here,” Brown said. “I talk to cyclists who are out riding centuries and ask, ‘Do you cross-country ski?’ And they usually say, ‘No way, that’s hard.’ And I’m ‘Are you kidding me? You just rode 100 miles uphill.
“That’s the issue.”
In reality, the sports is as physically demanding as the participant wants it to be. And there are no rules against stopping to rest.
Brown recently took eight writers with no skiing experience on a cross-country skiing outing in Colorado.
I talk to cyclists who are out riding centuries and ask, ‘Do you cross-country ski?’ And they usually say, ‘No way, that’s hard.’ And I’m ‘Are you kidding me? You just rode 100 miles uphill.”
Reese Brown, SnowSports Industries America’s Nordic director
“And I mean they had no experience,” he said. “One even asked about why her heel was coming up. But they loved it. It was nothing like they expected.”
Over the course of two hours, all were showing proficiency on the skinny skis. They started on classic skis (the discipline most often recommended for beginners), and all but one progressed to skate skis.
Like any outdoor activity, there are safety issues to keep in mind. Those heading into the backcountry should have appropriate gear and skills to avoid getting lost and minimize avalanche risk.
But a backcountry trip on ungroomed routes at Mount Rainier or Olympic national parks, is much different than touring the groomed trails of places such as White Pass or the Mount Tahoma Trails, Wenger said.
“It’s a great place to get into cross-country skiing or snowshoeing,” Wenger said of Mount Tahoma Trails.
“It’s a sport everybody should try,” Brown said. “Until you try it, you have no idea what it is about. You can only guess.”
Tour de Huts: A free event hosted by the Mount Tahoma Trails Association is Feb. 27, with sign-ups starting at 9 a.m. The event is geared for skiers and snowshoers of all levels. Gear rentals are available in Ashford at Whittaker Mountaineering. skimtta.com.
White Pass: The ski area has 18 kilometers of groomed trails open to cross-country skiers and snowshoers. skiwhitepass.com.
Summit at Snoqualmie: Nordic skiers and snowshoers have access to 50 kilometers of groomed trails. summitatsnoqualmie.com.