No, we don't have big mountains or a few thousand miles of groomed trails. But when winter comes in Iowa, you can find a few places to get out and enjoy the peaceful, exhilarating activity of skiing. Here's a few places we've found in central Iowa to get you started:
While most people dread the first snowfall of the year, some of us eagerly await it. These people know that when the snow flies they can get out their skis and enjoy the peace and quiet of winter. If you think you might be one of these people who enjoy getting out of doors in all seasons, skiing is for you. Here are a few tips to get you started.
Classic vs. Skating
There are two broad types of cross country (XC) skis: classic and skating. Classic (aka. striding, or diagonal) is the traditional style of putting one foot in front of the other. It is the easiest to learn and the hardest to master, but works well in a lot of conditions. Skating is more like ice skating or roller skating where you push to the sides to move forward. It is faster, but requires a groomed track and doesn’t work off trail. Because of our limited snow and trail selection here in Iowa, most skiing around here is classic skiing.
How classic skis work
Cross country skis can be intimidating, but aren’t really that hard to use if you understand how they work.
The tip (front) and tail (back) of a classic ski are glide zones. These parts contact the snow at all times and are what the ski slides on. The center section is the kick zone or grip zone. This part grabs the snow by using either a grip wax or textured grip zone.
If you look at a classic cross country ski from the side you’ll see that it is curved. The grip zone bows upwards, away from the ground. As you put your weight on the ski the grip zone contacts the snow and you can “kick” with that foot to push yourself forward. When both skis are evenly weighted the grip zone will be above the snow and only the glide zones will be on the snow, allowing you to glide or coast.
It is important to get the right length of ski for your weight. If you don’t you’ll have slow skis (too short) or no kick (too long). Ski manufacturers will specify which length is appropriate for your weight.
As you start out you’ll probably just “shuffle” along. That’s okay. That’s how you start out and is fine for casual skiing or off-trail skiing. As you improve you’ll get better at shifting your weight completely onto one ski for better kick and glide.
Waxes also seem confusing at first glance. There are glide waxes, grip waxes, and so-called “waxless” skis, but if you think about how the ski works it all becomes clear.
All skis use glide wax on the glide zones, even waxless skis. Like the name implies, this wax helps the ski glide across the snow. Without it your skis will be draggy and slow. There are different waxes for different temperatures, but unless you are racing, a relatively cold temperature wax (blue wax is common) will work just fine. For casual skiing, having your skis waxed once per season is usually good enough.
Grip wax is soft and “grabs” the snow so you can kick and move forward. Grip wax is spread onto the grip zone of your ski just like coloring with a crayon and then smoothed out with a cork. There are different waxes for different temperatures here too, but here it is critical that you get the right temperature wax. Colder waxes are harder and work fine on cold, sharp snow crystals, but can’t grab on to warmer, wetter snow. Warmer waxes are softer and get better grip on wet snow (snowball snow), but can be slow and “draggy” on cold dry snow. For some special wet or icy conditions you might use klister. Needless to say, if your skis use grip wax you’ll get to know snow temperature and texture very well. If in doubt use a slightly warmer grip wax. It’s frustrating trying to use skis that don’t have any grip.
If you don’t want to bother with figuring out which grip wax to use, waxless skis may be for you. Remember, the glide surfaces of a waxless ski still need to be waxed! These use a textured grip zone, sometimes called fish scales or crown to grab the snow. This texture works well in most temperatures and conditions, but is generally slower and draggier than a waxable ski. Just don’t try to put grip wax or klister in your waxless grip zone. It won’t work well and will be nearly impossible to clean out.
For classic skiing, poles are pretty simple. Your poles will come up to about shoulder height and your hands should go up through the strap and then grab the pole. You should be able to push down on the strap without holding on to the pole.
Most of the time you’ll alternate arms just as though you were walking or jogging. Occasionally, you’ll use both poles at the same time to push off. Your poles do provide some propulsion, but most of your power should come from your legs. Think of it this way: your legs are bigger than your arms, use them.
How to dress
Chances are, the first time you go skiing you’ll dress too warm, then you’ll start to sweat and get wet and cold. The next time you’ll remember being cold and dress even warmer and make the problem worse. Don’t do that.
Dress so that when you start you’re too cold. As you get moving you’ll warm up and stay that way without sweating too much. Wearing wool or synthetics can help keep you dry. Cotton (blue jeans and a sweatshirt) just traps moisture next to your skin and makes you wet and cold.
Ski boots are already pretty warm. Don’t try to wear multiple layers of socks. You’ll just end up with blisters, or worse, boots that are too tight and cut off circulation thus making your feet cold. Again, wool or synthetics are best. Cotton socks will get soggy and cold.
Boots & Bindings
Cross country ski boots and bindings differ from downhill ski boots and bindings in two ways. First, they pivot up and down at the toe and are loose at the heel. Second, there is no automatic release system. In a crash the skis will stay attached. Usually this won’t be a problem because you aren’t moving as fast as you would be going down a mountain, but it does pay to be cautious on hills.
There are far too many different XC ski bindings to cover here, but the most common ones are: New Nordic Norm (NNN), Solomon Nordic System (SNS), Backcountry (NNN BC), and three pin (75mm). None of these bindings are compatible with each other. NNN and SNS are the most common modern general-use bindings. NNN BC is stiffer and more secure for off-trail skiing. Three pin bindings were very common for over 30 years and you might have some in your closet. If you don’t know what you have and need new boots or bindings it’s probably best to bring them in and ask an expert.
As with any activity there are nuances to skis, waxes, and technique that take years to learn, but it doesn’t take much to get started enjoying the snow.
National Snow Depth Map