Cross country skiing is advertised as a safe and fun activity but rarely do they mention the risks involved when you reach the slopes- going downhill on cross country skis can be dreadful, not only to beginners but to sportspeople of all classes.
Skiing content creators sell the illusion that with the mastery of a few techniques, a novice can glide down the steepest hills with ease but out of experience, we think otherwise- it takes a combination of skill, experience, and courage to reach the bottom without tripping over.
So, how can you, with cross country skis maintain control of your speed and balance when going downhill?
There are several techniques that coupled with a little confidence have been proven to work even on dangerously steep slopes. You can choose to maintain an upright position, the squatting technique, or the snowplow.
These techniques are among the few downhill/ alpine cross country skiing styles we’ll discuss in the article below.
The decision on how to go about it depends on how fast you want to go; novices will obviously want to slow down but the experienced lot prefers speed.
Unlike cross country skiing, downhill skiing is hard and calls for a higher risk appetite. If you are currently doing the former with the hopes of switching, be informed that on this side, things are not as straightforward.
As a starter, we’ll discuss the few aspects of downhill skiing that make it so hard.
Why Is Downhill Cross Country Skiing So Hard?
It is much harder to maintain your balance when downhill cross country skiing compared to conventional skiing- this makes the sport riskier.
Downhill skiing skis are made lighter and narrower, this only adds to the stability problem as they are less stable in slow glides. The skinny skis also don’t have metal edges and come in a rather unusual round shape that is also much harder to balance.
Another issue with downhill cross country skis is that they lack proper speed handling features and this makes turning at high speeds very dangerous.
Because of their lightweight build, it is relatively easy to attain speed but with the speed management features absent, this ”good thing” can easily turn into a malady.
Severe accidents due to poor speed management are so common that skiing instructors advise newcomers to take off their skis and walk down when the hills appear too steep.
Most downhill cross country ski tracks are made in densely forested areas with very narrow passage areas.
This type of terrain is usually laden with numerous blind spots and doggy areas that can be very challenging if not dangerous to ski through; this applies to both new and experienced skiers.
Groomed downhill ski tracks are also not very welcoming to beginners; they are made considerably narrower and can only accommodate one skier.
There are beginner downhill skiing tracks though, these are wider and in less strenuous terrains. Beginners should practice their gliding techniques here and only proceed to the experienced skier’s side after they’ve mastered speed control and turning.
After a few runs on the beginners’ track, they should be able to manage their speeds accordingly when on the track and also make swift turns without hitting trees.
There Are No Groomed Trails On Downhill Turns
Following ski trails when downhill skiing is both convenient and at the same time very risky.
Most trail groomers do not make trails near turning points so that oncoming alpine skiers will reduce their speed and approach the turns more carefully, if there are trails at a turn, they might have been made by another skier and not the groomers.
This is why, when cross country skiing downhill, you must lift your skis when you reach the bottom and are ready to turn because not every track in place is safe to follow.
There are times when skiers have followed a trail at a turning point only to realize when it’s too late that the previous skier who made the trail was unable to turn and that they’ve followed a false path.
Another reason they don’t have groomed trails at downhill skiing turning points is that with the sudden weather changes during the winter, you might be looking at a trail that was made to serve yesterday’s weather; it takes an experienced skier to adapt to the sudden change fast enough to avoid an accident or hitting other skiers.
Lastly, there is a chance you are not skilled enough for the groomed trails. You see, groomed trails around turns are made for highly experienced alpine skiers who can make sharp turns at very high speeds without losing direction, you are probably not in their class.
It is for this reason that your local downhill ski resort does not have groomed trails near sharp turning points.
Trail And Snow Conditions
We advise beginners to avoid potentially dangerous trails when downhill skiing as some of the well-groomed trails are sometimes made for skill levels way above beginner. Well, it is not always this way, they might have made the trails for everyone but an abrupt weather shift happened and the safe trails turned dangerous.
Trails might match your skill level under normal conditions but remember, in icy conditions, the same trails can be dangerous even for experienced-level skiing enthusiasts.
Another reason to be wary of trail conditions is that ski resorts have subjective methods of determining trails’ difficulty levels. This can be confusing given that two trails of similar depth and width can be labeled differently in different skiing locations.
You could ski up a slope labeled easy and have a really easy time on the track only to experience difficulties when skiing down on the same trail. To avoid such situations, always assess ground conditions before going all in.
Snow and trail conditions are relatively unpredictable; if you are not skilled enough to assess ground conditions, it would be safer to just ask around about what to expect out there.
It Is Dreadful
Gliding downhill at high speeds is sometimes very scary to beginners and inexperienced skiers. It takes a greater deal of control and balance to get through skilled-level trails and make the sharp turns and most cross country downhill skiers are yet to match the required skill set.
Nothing can be more terrifying to a skier, especially a novice, than to lose control of their speed and balance in a high-speed downhill run- the experience sticks with some for so long they never attempt this form of cross country skiing again.
Downhill Cross Country Skiing Techniques
There are multiple downhill techniques for this type of skiing; it all depends on how much you wan tot control speed and your confidence level of course. These two factors lead to one conclusion, the technique you choose to employ will reflect your level of skill.
If you trust your skills enough then high-speed skiing is your thing and the most recommended techniques will be squatting and upright skiing.
Other techniques include;
We employ this technique when taking sharp corners.
This racing style is recommended only for highly skilled skiers with little or no need to control speed- advanced skiers prefer fast downhill skiing so they can use the built momentum to climb the hill right ahead.
The step-turning technique does not employ any braking methods and thus the momentum built during the downhill run is dangerously high. As the skier approaches the turn, the risks involved only increase.
To stay safe, they must swiftly step out of the tracks without reducing speed- this takes courage. The purpose of step turns is to improve balance as we navigate sharp turns at high speeds.
We must stress that the step turn is not itself a braking technique either but rather a fast turning method which we must say again is very risky- most experienced downhill cross country skiers fall at these fast turns.
Skidding is a speed control technique that allows you to control how fast you’re gliding. It is the direct opposite of edge curving (an acceleration technique). Here, you flatten your parallel skis and reduce the edge curving to prevent further acceleration and gain control of your momentum.
Just like in conventional skiing where you position your skis either in a parallel or snowplow formation; whichever way you do will determine how fast you’ll glide. This makes it the safest and most reliable speed regulation trick out there.
Skidding might take some time to master but the next technique on this list is a perfect first step to learning speed control in downhill skiing. With time you’ll gain the confidence required and you can proceed to the more advanced techniques.
This is the beginners’ level downhill skiing technique- most experienced downhill cross country skiers started with the same technique. Every cross country skier; novice or advanced must have these basic skills for when things get out of hand.
If you started your cross country skiing career under mentorship then your mentor must have mentioned snowplowing, if you did it on your own then we recommend a slight revision of your styles to incorporate one of the most efficient braking techniques.
How To Practice The Snow Plowing Technique
- Get you ski boots and ski poles and locate a proper skiing site with a slope; it should be wide and not very steep, remember you are learning.
- Position your skis in a V-shape but don’t bring them too close or let either ski cross the other ski.
- Slightly bend your legs and bring your knees close to each other just a little bit so they appear to be pressing on to the inside. This lets you push the ski’s inner edge without straining your leg muscles.
- Look ahead or wherever you are skiing. This might sound corny but most novice skiers get distracted by their surroundings so much that they set off without assessing what lies ahead. Starting with your sight set ahead also helps you train your chest toward the destination.
- Start skiing and observe the increasing speed. You can open and close your legs just a little and watch how you can easily control your downhill speed by practicing these simple brake techniques.
- With you in control of your speed, turning becomes easier as all you need to do is shift your body weight onto the outer Nordic xc ski and slowly curve into the new route while slowly moving the inside ski.
- After mastering it on one side, now try the other and follow the same procedure. It will definitely feel easier doing it on one side more than on the other but you must practice it on both.
- Now, all that is needed is more and more hours of practice to get your upper body to adjust so you can position the poles correctly.
This is a beginner’s best bet for speed control as it is easy and relatively safe. The technique serves all possible track scenarios; slow gliding, very slow and sudden stops- this is a very important skill in nordic skiing as anything can happen on the trails.
Can You Use Cross Country Ski To Ski Downhill
This question has been there for decades; can you employ xc skis on a downhill skiing tour? You might think, well, skis are skis but let us enlighten you; cross country skiing and alpine skiing are two different forms of skiing. They might share a few similarities but the differences are too glaring to be ignored.
One very prominent difference is in the type of gear each employs; the alpine ski and the cross country ski are very different.
To get the question out of the way; yes, you can use cross country skis for alpine skiing but they will not serve you as well as alpine skis would.
There are specific ski designs that are targeted specifically at nordic skiers and others for cross country skiers; using them interchangeably will get you home but under more strenuous conditions.
Downhill And Cross Country Skis- Differences
If you are just starting your skiing career, the differences might sound confusing but worry not as this happens to everybody.
Just as alpine skiing and cross country skiing are different in other aspects, the gear employed in each is also different.
Downhill skiing tours are done in hilly areas with steep downhill sections. Because of this, alpine skis are built to serve downhill runs and not the conventional flat terrain gliding and uphill skiing.
An experienced downhill skier might sometimes break these rules and get home safely but what they do not mention is that it takes far more effort to climb a hill on downhill skis than it would on cross country skis.
Cross country skis are a little different, they are built to serve different terrain conditions without straining the user so much. You can employ cross country skis on flat terrain, steep hills and short downhill runs.
A quick observation will reveal a few design features only found in cross country skis like the length; they are built shorter to make them more maneuverable. Since they serve in multiple types of terrains, they are also built stronger, heavier and more firm to withstand the various conditions on the ground.
Another feature found in cross country skis and absent in alpine skis is the metal ridge that makes it easier to go uphill. The ridge acts as a snow or ice grip mechanism that digs into the ice and earns you some stability even when the steepness seems unbeatable.
Without these features, cross country skiing would be much harder to learn and practice.
Downhill And Cross Country Skiing- Which Is Harder
Both of these forms of skiing are perfect workout activities but we must highlight that cross country skiing takes a higher toll on your lungs and limbs, especially on long uphill sections.
Alpine skiing has its challenges but at least here, you have gravity on your side- in cross country skiing, you don’t get the luxury of a descent every so often.
Cross country skiers use their bodies as the push mechanism to get the skis moving, in fact, in some parts of the world xc skiing is a form of transportation. The speeds are usually not that high and the slight thrill might not excite you as much.
This should tell you something; if you are in it for the adrenaline, downhill is the way to go.
A cross country skier cannot rely so much on gravity since their access to descents is limited; this means that their only source of momentum is individual effort. This form of skiing is highly recommended for building cardiovascular resilience.
The hardness or easiness of either depends mainly on your needs and expectations. Both forms of skiing are very much enjoyable and healthy- you can choose to settle on one or practice both but we recommend that you first try out each before making the decision.
Cross country skis are the most versatile of ski designs but nordic downhill skiing is where we draw the line- if you can, we advise that you get proper downhill skis.
If you must use cross country skis on a downhill ski, there are several techniques you can employ to make the whole experience less risky and more fun.
These techniques are mainly focused on maintaining balance and controlling speed as these are the hardest parts of high-speed downhill skiing.
We have listed the most effective downhill skiing techniques above plus a few other notable aspects of skiing and ski gear.