Generally speaking, cross-country skiing is a low-risk sport. This certainly holds true when compared to its more risky cousin, alpine skiing, where falls and severe injuries occur more frequently. Cross-country skiing is an accessible outdoor activity and can be enjoyed by people of all ages. It is a diverse sport which ranges from casual and recreational to competitive and fast-paced. Whether you take a more relaxed or a more intense approach to cross-country skiing you will still accrue major physical benefits. It is a powerful all-around workout that exercises 90% of the muscles of the body. This makes cross-country skiing an accessible aerobic activity that presents a low risk of traumatic injury.
That being said, cross-country skiing is not a risk-free sport. The versatility and aerobic nature of the sport are advantageous but also pose opportunities for injury. Because it is a demanding full-body workout, it requires strength, endurance, and stamina. These physical requirements make it possible for a beginner to bite off more than they can chew, so to speak, and get themselves into a compromising situation where they are ill-equipped physically. Cross-country skiing is often enjoyed in a cold mountain environment at high altitudes far from medical support infrastructure. In these environments, you must depend on your physical fitness, yes, but also on external, unpredictable factors like the terrain and weather.
When it comes to cross-country skiing and risk management, the main questions are: which risks can you evaluate and handle yourself? Which risks must be mediated with expert advice and assistance?
Physical Risks Cross-Country Skiing: Know Your Limits
Without a doubt, cross-country skiing is an effective full-body workout which supports your cardiovascular and muscular fitness and serves as a line of defense against heart disease and osteoporosis.
Everyone can enjoy the benefits of cross-country skiing provided that they have a strong comprehension of the risks. Cross-country skiing is typically undertaken in high alpine environments where wind, terrain, and temperature can pose real problems. Unexpected and dynamic environmental conditions such as barometric pressure and temperature fluctuation, an increase in solar radiation, and variable wind speed can impact your level of risk.
Depending on your medical history, age, and performance levels it is recommended that you undergo a medical check-up and physical examination before the start of a ski season. I strongly recommend monitoring your heart rate (beats per minute) while skiing. This allows you to gauge your exertion levels and to ensure that you are not putting too much pressure on your cardiovascular system. I recommend investing in a fitness tracker or watch so you can access real-time information during your excursion.
Protect Against Muscle, Joint, and Ligament Strain
Because cross-country skiing is such an incredible workout for your core and muscular systems it can also lead to strain if the right precautions are not taken. Cross-country skiing can lead to back pain and muscle aches. This can be due to skiing technique or weak core muscles, or a combination of the two. This is particularly true if you are a casual cross-country skier. The repetitive movement in a forward flexed position puts a lot of pressure on the deep muscles of your back.
You must always stretch and loosen your muscles before and after skiing to avoid straining your musculoskeletal system. Strengthening your core is vital to minimizing your risk of physical injury or discomfort. Planks are an excellent and simple core-strengthening exercise that requires no equipment. Results are not evident overnight, however, and I recommend beginning a planking routine a few weeks before the ski season commences. The exercise does not require a large time commitment and results can be achieved with five minutes of planking every morning and every night. This will enable you to hit the trails with optimal core strength.
Fall-related Injuries Cross-Country Skiing
The free-heel nature of cross-country skiing increases your chances of falling. The best scenario is a simple fall in which you get tangled up in your skis and poles. It can be time-consuming getting back on your feet, but you’ll typically be left with just a light scratch or bruise. The worst scenario is a fall that results in a serious injury like a broken limb, dislocated shoulder, torn knee, or strained ligaments. These injuries are rare, but the risk certainly does exist. Oftentimes an injury lies between the two scenarios mentioned above on the spectrum of severity, for instance with a sprain of the ankle or foot. This can occur when you fall in an unnatural position, twisting the knee or forcing the foot to turn.
When it comes to upper body injuries the most frequent is known as ‘skier’s thumb’ which is damage to the thumb ligament through a stretch or tear. This injury occurs when you fall onto your outstretched hand while holding a pole. Most popular brands of poles come with straps, making it difficult to consciously discard the pole upon falling. Some people suggest training yourself to fall without engaging your arms and hands. I am personally not an advocate of this method because I think it is best to rely on your reflexes in the moment. One action you can take to protect yourself is to invest in good quality gloves that are designed exclusively for cross-country skiing. Choose poles that have a comfortable weight and grip.
Environmental Risks Cross-Country Skiing: the Terrain
When you make an informed decision about where to ski always ensure you are selecting an area appropriate for your skill and fitness level. This point cannot be emphasized enough. Some parameters to be cognizant of when choosing a trail are as follows: the length of the course, the elevation profile, and the quality of the grooming and preparation of the trail. The majority of cross-country skiing injuries are incurred on downhill trails, particularly when inexperienced skiers attempt to descend steep or icy slopes. Fatigue can occur when a skier underestimates a challenging trail profile or steep uphill route.
The risk of getting lost is quite low when you stay on groomed trails, but it increases dramatically if you decide to ski off-trail. Every season there are reports of skiers getting lost backcountry skiing. Unfortunately, the cases where the skiers involved in these accidents are fatally injured from exposure to the elements are not as rare as you might think.
If you are a beginner, I strongly recommend choosing an area with groomed trails where you can find clear, marked information about the different routes. This information should include up-to-date trail ratings. Sometimes the ratings differ from location to location, so it is always best to speak to a local expert at the ski center. The workers at the ski center will be able to provide information on the current trail and weather conditions. Be honest about your level of expertise and ask for their recommendations. Use this information to plan your route. Keep in mind that uphill routes require a lot of stamina and endurance while steep downhill routes require intermediate skiing skills.
Always let the people at the ski center know when you plan on hitting the trails and when you plan on returning. In case of an emergency, the ski staff will be aware of you and your plans and can provide assistance accordingly.
Downhill Trails & Speed Control
Skiing downhill on cross-country skis requires special skills. The main reason for this is the lack of stability that the cross-country ski design provides. Unlike alpine skiing equipment, where the boot is attached to the ski from toe to heel, cross-country skis only have the tip of the boot fixed to the ski. The heel is free.
Although downhill cross-country skiing routes are generally not as steep as alpine skiing routes the risks are similar. These include falling onto the snow surface or crashing into an obstacle at speed. The risk of collision increases in narrow and shady sections of trail. These trails promote the potential risk of crashing into another skier or a solid object like a rock, tree, or motor vehicle.
Speed control is absolutely crucial. This is particularly true because most modern cross-country skis accelerate easily because of their lightweight design. Another factor that makes speed control vital is that ski courses have improved. The development of special track machines means that there is generally more ice on the trails than there were in previous decades.
If you are an absolute beginner your first priority when it comes to managing risk is to avoid steep downhill routes. Secondly, ensure that you have learned some simple but effective downhill skiing techniques such as the snowplow. I have a report on this technique which you can read here. In the event that you come across a downhill section that is out of your comfort zone then take your skis off and walk. This is always a reliable option for both steep uphill and downhill slopes.
Speed control is mandatory for beginners and advanced skiers alike. A higher performing skier might be able to handle a steep downhill slope if alone on the trail. However, if there are other skiers on the trail caution is required as you can never control another skier’s behavior. If another skier further downslope side steps or falls suddenly they can present a collision risk. The mark of a real pro is not the ability to ski downhill fast but the ability to control speed in any and all situation.
Getting Lost Cross-country Skiing
The risk of getting lost while cross-country skiing on short groomed trails is very low. Many popular trails will be regularly patrolled by ski hill personnel. The risk of getting lost increases exponentially if you ski off-trail or get separated from your group, however. The best advice for a beginner skier is to stick with a group or go skiing with a buddy. Ensure that your skiing companion understands your skill level and won’t abandon you for more challenging trails. Before starting off on the route agree on the procedures the group will follow should someone become separated. Plan frequent stops to ensure that everyone is still with the group. This is an especially valuable practice when skiing with children. Children are easily distracted therefore hyper-vigilance is necessary. Click here to learn more about my experience getting lost cross-country skiing as a child.
For those skiers who are more adventurous in nature, I always recommend ensuring you have demonstrated expertise and experience before going off-trail. If you are a curious beginner, I implore you not to take the risk of going off-trail.
Even advanced skiers must keep in mind that off-trail skiing requires an in-depth knowledge of the topographical and environmental conditions of the terrain. This includes a knowledge of potential avalanche prone areas and details about cliffs, rivers, forks in the trail, vehicle roads, and shelters. Consult experienced skiers for information on dangers that may not be visible on a topographical map. Pack an extra layer and first aid kit and bring along a charged cell phone equipped with a navigation app. Practice using a compass and orienting yourself using your maps before setting out on the trails.
Choosing where to ski is a crucial question. Another vital question to ask yourself is whether or not you should ski at all. On some days the weather conditions simply preclude skiing in any way, shape, or form. It can be a hard pill to swallow when you have been anticipating a day of skiing, but you must never take a risk with unpredictable weather conditions. You must check weather information well in advance, but you must also monitor the conditions throughout the day because mountain weather is so changeable. If you are planning on skiing a longer route be prepared to change course or modify your plans as required by the weather forecast.
Even in stable conditions, there is always a risk of frost and temperature-related injuries. If it is below zero degrees celsius the risk increases. Common cold injuries involve frostnip and frostbite but can also include life-threatening cases of hypothermia. A temperature related injury after a fall is rare but possible.
The best treatment is prevention. Adequate caloric intake and protective clothing will allow for a more consistent maintenance of body temperature. You can avoid heat loss by staying hydrated and avoiding diuretics like caffeine. You must also avoid exposure by wearing protective mittens, hats, and facial gear and by wearing clothing that ‘breathes’. Garments made from synthetic fibers or wool wick moisture and protect you from the wind. Lightweight clothing worn in layers allows you to remove or add clothing as conditions demand. Avoid bulky materials.
Never underestimate the risk of exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Use a sunscreen with at least SPF 30 and wear sunglasses with UV protection to block out both the glare from the snow and solar radiation.
Depending on where you ski there may be a risk of encountering wild animals. Even on marked trails, you are still in the wilderness, and you must be on your guard. Always bring bear spray on your excursion. If an animal crosses your path be respectful and wait for it to pass. If you are passing by a sleeping or resting animal, stay quiet and slowly back up in the direction you came from. Animals cherish their personal space and can easily become irritable and angry when intruded upon. No matter how docile a wild animal looks, do not approach it. In most cases, animals will not attack unless provoked.
With this in mind, it is important to factor in the element of unpredictability that animals can present. A moose can act aggressively, for instance, and you must be prepared to slowly back away. Never get between a mother and her children. If a moose charges raise your arms to increase your height. Speak calmly and back away but avoid making eye contact. Never run away as this is an invitation for the animal to chase you.
When it comes to bears, the risk of attack is significantly lower in the winter because bears are hibernating. Contrary to popular belief, bears rarely approach or charge human beings unless provoked. Most bears are vegetarians and will not be seeking out humans as part of their routine. If you do see a bear pick up your poles and raise your arms to create the illusion of height. Back away slowly and make noise by clapping your hands.
If a bear is standing, do not be alarmed. This is a sign that it is curious and assessing its surroundings. If the bear is on all fours and lowers its head, however, you must be ready to use your bear spray. If the bear charges aim the nozzle of the spray slightly above the bear’s head.
Most people will be able to safely enjoy cross-country skiing provided that they keep all of the risks in mind and prepare themselves appropriately. If you take the necessary precautions, you can enjoy the myriad health and fitness benefits that cross-country skiing can provide. Always be honest with yourself when evaluating risk and don’t bite off more than you can chew. Assess your skiing abilities and ski within your limits. Always be willing to ask for expert advice and assistance and invest in sturdy equipment. You can take control of your skiing routine and minimize risk by being adequately prepared, informed, and equipped. Plan your journey in advance, be flexible when weather conditions call for it and stay in the know with expert insights. Safe skiing!