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Nordic vs. Cross Country Skiing

December 28, 2011

Leah Wilson, Waterville Valley Resort’s Nordic Director, explains the interchangeability of the terms “Nordic” and “cross country” skiing and a primer on the history of skiing on skinny skis!

By Leah Wilson, Nordic Center

The use of the term “Nordic Skiing” came up a couple days ago and it reminded me of the many times I have been asked what exactly Nordic skiing is. The simplest definition is that its free-heel skiing on a variety of terrains, but what exactly does that mean? What are the differences between classic skiing, skate skiing, touring, telemark skiing and what about just good old “cross country skiing?”

Here’s my take on it and a very short history of Nordic Skiing.

Nordic Skiing and Cross Country Skiing can be used interchangeably, though I prefer Nordic because it identifies the origin of the sport. Nordic skiing encompasses several types of skiing using a ski and binding system which allows for the skier to lift their heel in order to stride and weight their body to propel themselves forward up hills and on flats. This is in contrast to alpine skiing where the stiff boot and high DIN setting of the binding system are used for edging and control during the fast and powerful turns on steep downhill terrain.

Types of Nordic Skiing

Classic Stride

This is the “classic” cross country stride which is what one might picture when thinking of cross country skiing. This stride is performed by alternating in-line arms & legs. As the picture below shows, the classic ski, and stride, are most efficient when in groomed tracks. The classic stride skier has the option to speed along or to stroll, making it a versatile option in the Nordic skiing group.

Skate Skiing

This stride that is similar to ice skating as the skier diagonally pushes the ski to propel forward. Skate skiing must be done on wide groomed trails in order for the full stride to be completed. I equate skate skiing to running, you only move when you’re making a solid effort!

Touring or Backcountry

Touring uses a classic stride on a slightly wider ski, with a bit more side cut and can have metal edges (backcountry) to increase out-of-track control. Touring skis can be used in track or on ungroomed trails. Backcountry touring skis are typically too wide to use in tracks, but allow for additional control and float on ungroomed terrain and can carry a heavier load, think all day skis or overnight trips.


Telemark skiing takes an alpine-type ski and marries it with a binding and boot system that allows for the free-heel. The beauty of telemark skiing is the skier’s ability to make the approach–climb a hill with skis on and make the stunning and effort-filled tele turn. It’s a technique that is well worth the pain!

History of Nordic Skiing

The evolution of Nordic skiing goes something like this:

Somewhere around 5000 years ago, Scandinavians were using boards to travel across the snow. The pole shows up later as an additional tool to use for faster and farther coverage as well as for braking. The single long pole that you might have seen in drawings (such as the ones in the Birkebeiner print on the wall of our Center), was used beginning in the 1500’s by the Finnish.

I read a phrase once that stuck in my head, something along the line of that in the late Middle Ages, there were great advancements in cross-country skiing. One of these was the basket on the end of their poles, to keep the pole from sinking into the deep snow.

For hundreds of years, skis used as a form of travel were nine to eleven feet long. In the late 1800’s, cross country skiing began its transformation to the recreational activity we know it as today. This is when Sondre Norhem, of Telemark, Norway produced the first binding which, as we know, is how the skier controls his ski. Olympic skiing finalized the split between Nordic and alpine skiing when, in the 1930’s, alpine skiers were required to have a fixed heel binding.

Continued improvements included using two poles as opposed to the single long pole that had proved necessary in Scandinavia. Mid Twentieth century, the Army’s 10th Mountain Division trained, tested, and developed the gear that served the recreational skier until the late 1960’s when the concept of a cross-country ski area was introduced by the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, VT. Nordic skiing equipment and techniques have continued to improve, with lighter skis, better boot and binding systems, technical outwear and increased access to groomed and ungroomed trails alike.

But best of all, regardless of its rich history, the greatest part of any form of Nordic skiing is that it gets you out, breathing the fresh air the season has to offer! There is nothing like the exploration, the exercise and the experience of being out and moving, Nordic-style.

About Jan Stearns

I've been living in and loving New Hampshire's White Mountains for most of my life. I moved to Waterville Valley in 1981 and quickly realized why it was dubbed a Yankee Shangri-la. Once you’ve experienced Waterville Valley, you’ll want to call it yours. The great team of Realtors at Waterville Valley Realty can help you find a Waterville Valley home that fits your lifestyle and budget.

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