Cross-country's quiet thrills are a whole lot better on the right gear.
The bumps -- your rear end's discovered -- are a bit too hard. The crowds are giving you lift rage. Or maybe you ate a few too many slices of mile-high mud pie last night. What's a skier to do when the idea of hitting the slopes sounds about as good as a stick in your eye? You could spend the day flipping between Montel and Hogan's Heroes reruns. Or you could get off the couch, throw on some Lycra, and sweat out your angst (and pie) on the Nordic trails.
Cross-country skiing, the sport you may think of as Alpine skiing's sweaty stepsister -- if you think of it at all, that is -- can be a welcome change when the slopes are crowded, cold, or otherwise sending you caterwauling into the condo. Cross-country skiing is a great aerobic workout, it's relatively inexpensive, and it's easy to learn. And what of X-C's adrenaline-lite rep? Put on the flimsy gear and fly over hill and dale at mountain-biking speeds and you'll see that cross-country has gotten a bad rap.
Cross-country is often billed as a teach- yourself sport, but it's smarter to take a lesson. In addition to shortening your tenure as a floundering novice, a lesson or two, which generally include equipment rentals, will illuminate your X-C inclinations: Are you a traditionalist who enjoys striding and gliding along grooved X-C tracks or off trail (a classic skier), or a modernist looking to make like Bonnie Blair during a hardcore workout (a skate skier)? Only when you've decided this should you drop green on the gear.
Classic stride-and-glide skiing can be divided into two subgroups: touring and speed. The touring group values the sights, fresh air, and ability to hop off the groomed trails and explore. This gear occupies the light end of the backcountry-ski spectrum: Skis are relatively short and wide (roughly 59/52/57 mm) for maneuverability on or off trail, with no-wax bases that glide when the ski slides forward yet grip when the ski is shoved back. A stellar board of the breed is the stable wood-core Karhu Nova ($145). Team it with a bang-for-the-buck aluminum pole like the Alpina ASCTR ($25), the comfortable but torsionally stiff Karhu Zoom SNS boot ($100), and the Salomon SNS Profil binding ($40) for a go-anywhere package.
If, on the other hand, the idea of wandering quiet hills with family and friends makes you itch with impatience, go for performance-oriented classic gear, which packs more punch in the speed department. Get skis featuring waxless bases, thin profiles (about 45/45/45 mm), and cap constructions, as in the Atomic Supercap Light DTR ($193) and the Rossignol Carbon Classic AR ($189). Boots that are light enough for speed but torsionally stiff enough to pilot these skis include the Rossignol Comp Classic ($119), employing Rottefella's NNN binding, and the Salomon Active/Vitane 8 Classic SK ($150), employing Salo- mon's Profil Active SC binding. These binding platforms are not universal, but both perform well and are similarly priced (about $75). Find the boot that fits, and the binding will follow.
Don't even think about skate skiing unless you want to sweat -- a lot. This is a physically demanding full-body workout. It also happens to be a blast.
Unlike with most sports, novice skaters should start their careers on high-end specialty skating skis and boots. Performance skating gear is going to drain your wallet of an extra $250 over a midlevel package, but it's money well spent.
While the Fischer RCS SkateCut ski ($525) used by World Cup racers like Bjorn Daelie is overkill for sporadic use, the next lower tier of gear delivers the best performance-to-dollar ratio. Skis to consider: the Fischer SRC SkateCut ($280), which has most of the technology used by World Cup boards; Atomic Beta Skate ($249), a fast, stable, race-quality capped ski; and the Madshus Suprasonic 3x3 Skate ($325), a cap ski racers wouldn't hesitate to use.
Boots that are suitably light yet stiff enough for these skis include the Fischer CS Skating ($225), Salomon Active 9 Skate ($260), and Alpina NNN 570 ($220). Like classic skiing, let the boot dictate whether you spring for the SNS or NNN binding (each about $75).
Poles play a large role in skating, and small, light skiers will be well served by aluminum sticks like the Rossignol Course Skating ($69). Tall or heavy skiers will appreciate the beautiful swing weight of carbon-fiber poles. With some carbon poles retailing for twice the price, the Swix Cross ($99) delivers huge value.
ALPINA, MADSHUS, ROTTEFELLA: www.alpinasports.com, 603-448-3101
ATOMIC: www.atomicski.com, 603-880-6143
FISCHER: www.fischerskis.com, 800-844-7810
KARHU: www.karhu.com, 888-288-2668
ROSSIGNOL: www.rossignol.com, 800-437-6771
SALOMON: www.salomonsports.com, 877-272-5666
SWIX: www.swixsport.com, 800-882-5450