If you ever fancy attempting a new winter sport, taking up skiing can be pretty daunting, but cross country skiing (or Nordic skiing) is possible to pick up with virtually no experience. If you live in (or are visiting) Vancouver, head to the Nordic Area on Hollyburn Ridge on Cypress Mountain to give this a go! I tried classic cross country skiing without any experience as a not particularly fit, middle-aged lady who is accident prone and has terrible balance. I did finish the experience with a bruised bottom, but it was worth it for the fun and excitement of testing out a new (to me) winter sport.
Which type of Cross Country Skiing is good for beginners:
There are two main types of Cross Country Skiing: Classic or Skate.
- Classic skiing allows you to glide along on horizontal tracks, it is a sort-of walk/slide motion that allows you to go slowly and pick up the basics easily. You push off on one ski and glide with the other. Classic skis are longer than skate skis and more flexible.
- Skate skiing is faster as you set the skis in a v-shape and propel yourself forward with movements that are similar to ice skating. Skate skis are shorter and more rigid, allowing you to push off on their edges.
If you are a total beginner, we were told it is better to start with classic skis. They allow you to get the hang of things. You can learn to balance and control the skis before focusing on attempting to skate.
Cross Country Skiing at Cypress – the basics
Cypress Mountain isn’t really a mountain. It is actually the name of three mountains, Black Mountain, Mount Strachan and Hollyburn Mountain. The first two, Black Mountain and Mount Strachan are covered in downhill ski slopes. The Nordic area for cross country skiing and snowshoeing is over on Hollyburn Mountain.
Location: Cypress Mountain Hollyburn Nordic Area
This is next to Hollyburn Mountain, just 2km down the road from the Main Cypress Mountain downhill ski area, half an hour outside of downtown Vancouver.
– It is 25-30 minutes drive from North Vancouver
– There is a shuttle bus from various locations in the city
The Nordic area has it’s own ticket sales, rentals and lodges. We just showed up and bought tickets and paid for our rentals, but it might be faster to book online.
Extra tip: If the line is long, you can pay for your trail ticket in the ski rentals building.
Cross Country Skiing – What equipment do you need?
We rented skis, ski boots and ski poles. The boots clip on to the skis at the toes.
Boots: These are soft, comfortable boot (and nothing like the hard boots you wear for downhill skiing) They are quite flexible, so you can wiggle around on the skis if you need to.
Skis: The length of skis you need depends on your height, weight and how experienced you are. I just let the staff choose for me. Longer skis are more stable at high speeds, while the shorter length is generally going to be easier to ski at slower speeds. If you’re unsure, go for slightly shorter! The skis are skinnier and MUCH lighter than downhill skis.
Ski poles: The top your poles is about even with your armpits
What to wear: Similar to snowshoeing, dress with multiple layers. I get cold when we stopped, but was very hot as we zoomed up the hills! Just make sure you bring a hat and gloves to keep your hands warm, even if/when you fall in the snow. If you need more tips about what to wear, my friend Karen has a great post with how to dress for winter sports.
Cypress Mountain Hollyburn Nordic Area Facilities
The Nordic area on Cypress Mountain is really well set up. There are 19km of groomed trails, including 7km of lit trails so you can ski in the evening. There are also 11km of safe, separate snowshoe trails, so you won’t be skiing on the same trail as snowshoers.
Rentals: There are huts with rentals available for cross country skiing and snowshoeing
Saying warm: There is a cafe near the entrance to the Nordic area, Hollyburn Lodge in the lower area of trails and a warming hut up on Hollyburn ridge. I found that I was pretty warm while we were skiing, but as soon as we stopped I would get quite cold. It is great that the Nordic ski area has so many places to warm up!
Toilets: There are loos by the rental huts, in Hollyburn lodge, and two others along the trail.
Hollyburn Cross Country Map: You can find the most recent map on the Cypress Mountain website here.
The trails are all have sign posts, and there is a large map next to Hollyburn lodge and at the warming hut up on Hollyburn ridge. However it is best to take a paper map from the rental hut, so you can see where you are.
Cross Country Skiing – Getting started
Then (even with no experience) you can just get going! Classing cross country skiing is basically like slide-walking. It is really easy to go uphill! On the groomed trails, there are two ski tracks. If you put your skis into those, it makes it a little easier to zoom along.
Cross Country Skiing – going uphill
I am used to downhill skiing, with lifts whisking me to the top of the hill; So I assumed the tough part would be slogging up the slopes. However it turns up going uphill is really easy! We glided straight up onto blue runs, right to the top of Hollyburn ridge. Going uphill is really fun, even more fun than hiking or snowshoeing.
Cross Country Skiing – going downhill
Then I realized how scary is it to go downhill! The slopes are far shallower than downhill ski slopes and you tend to move more slowly BUT somehow I found it much scarier to go downhill on cross country skis! The skis are very light, and they are only fixed to your boots at the front, so they are harder to control compared to downhill skis. When the snow is slightly icy, it is hard to force them into a snow-plough (pizza) shape to slow your descent. I fell over multiple times on the steep hills and ended up with a bruised bottom.
Next time, I will practice going downhill on the green slopes, rather than heading straight to the highest point! If you find yourself in the same situation, you can always take off your skis and walk down the steeper slopes.
Lunch at Hollyburn
We stopped in Hollyburn Lodge for lunch. There is a simple menu with burgers, hot dogs and grilled cheese sarnies. They also have things like soup and chili and fries/poutine (poutine is like cheesy chips with gravy.) It’s all perfect for cold weather.
Is Cross Country skiing hard for beginners?
Yes and no. I was honestly very surprised by how accessible this sport is for newbies. My first trip was with my friend Ed (thanks Ed!) She was sure I’d be able to do it, so I just followed her lead. If you are just getting started, I think a lesson would be helpful, but even as a balance-challenged adult, it is possible to just get out there and try! Having said that, I really struggled with the steeper downhill slopes. If you are attempting to cross country ski for the first time, please do not do what I did, and ski straight to the highest point! It is better to get used to your skis on the green slopes first!
Basically it is easy to give this sport a try, but it is hard to master. My blogging friend Miranda explains it best – persistence is everything! Also, my first day was on groomed Nordic ski runs. Learning would be much more difficult on un-groomed slopes!
Cross Country skiing in Vancouver – Weather
Be prepared for changes in the weather. On the day when we visited we had blue skies as well as fog. On my previous visits (snowshoeing) it has quickly changed from clear skies to rain/sleet/snow! You shouldn’t let clouds put you off from visiting, as Hollyburn is gorgeous in the mist! On sunny days, watch out for tree bombs – this is when the snow warms up, and sluffs off the trees, falling down on to the trail (or on to skiers!) If you hear a sluffing sound above you, get out of the way quickly!
I strongly recommend giving cross country skiing a try. It is pretty easy to get started and it is so, so fun! If you live near Vancouver, then the Nordic Area on Hollyburn Ridge is the best place to start! The slopes are far less busy than either the Cypress downhill ski slopes, or the free snowshoe trail up Hollyburn Mountain. Attempting a new sport is always quite intimidating, but it is also exhilarating! I hope this gives other balance-challenged, non-sporty folks the confidence to try!
If you are new to winter sports you might find these other posts useful:
- Learning to ski down hill (all my posts are here)
- 12 mistakes to avoid for newbie (downhill) skiers – several of these work for cross country skiing too.
- Guide for snowshoeing near Vancouver
- Snowshoeing for beginners on Hollyburn.