Cross-Country Skiing: A Beginners Guide with Destinations
Great for beginners, cross-country skiing allows you to experience the serene beauty of the mountains at a slower pace than downhill, while still getting a great workout.
Six reasons to Try Cross-Country Skiing
It's a wonderful way to experience nature. Just like downhill skiing, cross-country skiing can take you to some spectacular locations: Mountain valleys, peaceful wooded areas, picturesque alpine villages and rivers and lakes. It's an excellent way to an explore an area and enjoy the beauty of winter.
It's easy to learn (relatively). This is a matter of opinion, of course, but I'd say it's easier to pick up the basics of cross-country skiing compared to downhill skiing, especially if you stick to mostly flat terrain. Hills can be tricky since cross-country skis do not have much of an edge as on a downhill ski, so make sure you work up to more complex terrain. Taking a lesson or two will do wonders for your form and can give you the confidence you need to try more adventurous trails.
The two main types of cross-country skiing are skate skiing and classic skiing and each has its own type of ski. With classic nordic skiing, your skis glide in parallel (often on a specially plowed snow track, pictured above), and with skate skiing you propel yourself forward with a sideways skating motion, similar to ice skating. Here's a video (see below) to help you choose which style might be right for you.
It's great exercise. Cross-country skiing can burn up to 1,000 calories per hour compared to downhill skiing which is just 300 calories per hour. Just how much you burn depends on how hard you work, with skate skiing providing the most potential for a high intensity workout. Remember to bring water so you can stay hydrated! I like to wear a small backpack with a bottle or plan my ski route to bring me close to my car so I can take a swig when I need it.
It's more affordable. Generally speaking, cross-country gear is more affordable than downhill gear. A quick analysis of Decathlon's stock revealed that an adult cross-country kit (skis, poles, boots) retails for around CHF 300-400 (under CHF 200 for kids), while a downhill kit is closer to CHF 400-500 (over CHF 200 for kids). The savings also come with the ski passes: a typical day pass for cross-country skiing will run you CHF 10-20 compared to downhill which is around CHF 60.
It's less crowded. Tired of getting stuffed into a packed gondola? Then cross-country is for you. Just get out of your car, pop on your skis and hit the trail. Even when we've skied on busy holiday weeks we've found many moments when it's just been our family on the trail.
It can be lots of family fun. Just as it was easier for me to pick up cross-country, it was easier for my kids to pick it up too - and I find it way less frustrating to teach them cross-country than downhill.
Top Destinations Within 4 Hours From Basel (by car)
Switzerland has over 5,000 km of cross country ski trails, which you can learn more about at https://www.langlauf.ch/de. Here are a few suggestions:
Distance from Basel: about 2 hours
Kandersteg is my favourite cross-country spot because of its easy terrain, low-key atmosphere and close proximity to Basel. Kandersteg offers a good variety of trails right in the village as well as at higher elevations via the Sunnbüel gondola. The village trail system is a perfect spot for the novice skier. The upper elevation terrain is more challenging, but there are parts that are also suitable for beginners (though you may want to take your skis off at parts and walk).
If you want to stay overnight, the small village has several hotels and some apartment rentals. Our favorite is the Belle Epoque Hotel Victoria, which has an excellent breakfast, nice indoor pool and tasty restaurant.
Where to rent equipment: https://www.grossensport.ch/de/
Where to book lessons: https://www.myedelweiss.ch/
Trail map and conditions: https://kandersteg.ch/en/langlauf/
Distance from Basel: about 2 hours by car
I can't vouch for it myself, but I've heard Andermatt has some nice ski trails too (about 28 km in total) and is just two hours from Basel. The terrain is reasonably flat so it could be a good day trip alternative or a place to stop on the way to another destination to break up your ski trip in two different areas.
Info on trails, rentals and lessons: https://www.andermatt.ch/en/discover/Holidays-for-nature-lovers/cross-country-skiing
Distance from Basel: about 2 .5 hours
The Gstaad region offers some lovely cross-country terrain suited for any level skier, with several ski areas located within an easy drive from each other. The Lauenen area, in particular, is great for beginners and has some beautiful trails in the forest for those who want to try out some hillier, but not too technical, terrain.
While Gstaad can be an expensive place to stay, there are a number of smaller villages in the region and a variety apartment rentals to choose from. If you don't mind a bit of a drive, you can stay near Lake Geneva (about an hour away) and take in some waterfront time too.
Where to rent equipment: https://www.gstaad.ch/fileadmin/user_upload/Dokumente/PDF/Vermietungsliste_Winter_2020-2021_01.pdf
Where to book lessons: https://www.gstaad.ch/en/winter/winter-sports-schools.html
Trail map and conditions: https://www.gstaad.ch/en/winter/cross-country-skiing.html
Distance from Basel: about 3.5 hours
Ready to go further afield? The Goms Valley is amazing, offering over 100 km of trails spread out among several villages. It is definitely worth a couple days overnight so you can explore the terrain. The trails right below Blitzingen village are an excellent place to start. There is a small public parking lot there as well as a place to rent skis and grab a quick lunch or hot chocolate. The ski trails here are mostly flat, heading to the northwest from the rental shop.
There are a number of hotels and apartments so it depends a little on what part of the valley you want to stay. The Valais tourism website has a good list of hotels.
Where to rent equipment: https://www.goms.ch/en/cross-country-skiing#c22444
Where to book lessons: https://www.goms.ch/en/cross-country-skiing#c22439
Trail map and conditions: https://www.goms.ch/en/cross-country-skiing
Do you have another favorite cross-country ski destination? Please share it in the comments! And happy skiing!