Groomed XC Trails Are Becoming More Prevalent; Does That Ruin The Aesthetics Of The Sport?

The “natural” experience, just like it was meant to be…Or…

For the past 50 years or so, there’s been a generally amicable debate whether cross-country skiing on machine-groomed trails is preferable to making your own way over the fields and through the woods. The argument has a lot of angles, including “Free vs. Fee” and “Pristine, Silent, and Serene vs. Speedy, Social, Service-based, and Secure”.

…Groomed trails at Appleton Farms, Ipswich, MA, easier and less tiring.
Credit: NS Nordic Assn

Clearly, you don’t have to choose one over the other – they’re both delights (and the world’s best exercise), in somewhat different ways. The thing is, as my increasingly complaining bones and joints frequently announce, groomed trails for classic and skate techniques have more and more going for them.

One huge differentiator is that if you want to take up the sport, you’ll be smart to start with one or two lessons from a professional instructor at a cross-country ski area, learning and practicing efficient movement. Undesirable options are learning by yourself off-track (I know someone who tried to do that while consulting a printed manual – results weren’t pretty) or getting often-incoherent suggestions from a friend while floundering in unpacked snow (‘nuff said).

Whether you’re a long-time practitioner or a newcomer, groomed trails make things easier, faster. For classic style, you’re riding on a consistent, packed surface, with your skis guided forward in compressed tracks. (It takes some effort to get lost that way too; whereas I’ve been known to ski in circles in fresh snow, totally convinced I was moving in linear fashion.) Gotta love it, especially if you have balance or vision issues, as I do.

Almost as important, your pole tips are digging into packed snow and no further; while breaking your own trail, the entire basket may sink, throwing off your balance and helping you to get up close and personal to the snowpack. And as many of us have discovered, getting up in deep snow is challenging.

Skate skiers need a packed surface even more than diagonal striders. Two or three inches of fresh snow even on a groomed trail are enough to grab an edge. It’s nearly impossible to skate in ungroomed snow except for spring crust-cruising (not the same as skiing on ice – you can set your edges), which is a joy – crust lets you go almost anywhere, speedily zipping along. Euphoria!

One of the delights of cross-country is that you can evolve from a groomed trail skier to a tourer, if you wish. You’ve developed good classic technique in the tracks; you know how to make your legs do the work and your arms help out – now you can apply those skills in a quieter setting, with shorter strides but still good balance.

Cross-country areas have services – anything from plowed parking to lodges with food and drink, heated bathrooms (also heaven on a brisk day!), rental, retail, even overnight accommodations. Also, groomed trails may have signs, maps, possibly ski patrol, probably snowshoeing – and if you’re wild for something different, increasingly there’s fat biking available.

If you’re taken by the charms of overnight tours, there may be Forest Service cabins in your area (bring your own food, clothing, sleeping bag…). (Editor Note: See Steve Hines’ article on skiing to the AMC Little Lyford Pond Camp in Maine.) And finally, for true adventure, there’s snow camping (bring your own stove, too). Touring with a pack in fresh snow is truly character-building (been there, done that, I happily leave it to today’s kids).



  1. steve hines says:

    Jonathan, loved this piece! As an older, classic strider I love kicking and gliding on groomed trails. That said, I’ve had a number of fun days with friends on umgroomed forests with each of us taking turns “breaking trail”. For those days I’ve taken to using a wider metal edged ski.

    Where’s the best place to stay at/near Royal Gorge?

    • Jonathan Wiesel says:

      Hi Steve, glad you enjoyed the piece. I had fun writing it! As to staying near Royal Gorge, there’s the (somewhat pricey) Hotel at Sugar Bowl, pretty much on the trails. I usually stay in Truckee, where’s there’s a wide variety of accommodations maybe 20 minutes away.

  2. Hi Jonathan,
    I used to skate-ski about 25 years ago, I could swear I remember metal edges on the skis which allowed greater control. When I have investigated them, I’m told it’s all in the camber now. If I ever got skating skis again what do I look for and how long should they be – I’m 5’3′ and about 140. (Have had little opportunity to cross-country for many years due to few trails in Illinois this year. Snow has not lasted long enough to ski!)

    • Jonathan Wiesel says:

      Howdy Ellin. I don’t remember metal-edged skate skis (my memory is notably fallible) because they’d dramatically change the flex pattern and aren’t generally necessary with today’s good grooming. If you plan to get new skis, I’d suggest working with a specialty store to get right sizes for boots, poles, and skis. Renting a package is a great low-cost idea to see if you like the technique.

  3. I was recently working with a Fisher Ski rep and he brought some demo XC off growmed skis that were developed for the off growmed trail stuff. They were a little wider and had metal edge. So like the Alpine world you now benefit from a quiver of skis for what you wish to do. And yes poles too. One pair of skis in either sport no longer cuts it.

  4. On- and off-trail skiing are both the best. I’ve often skied the many miles of world-class groomed trails at Stokely Creek Lodge in Ontario, but enjoyed equally memorable days breaking trail farther up the road in Lake Superior Provincial Park. The Algoma region, just north of the Michigan border on the shores of Superior, is a spectacular wilderness that’s very easily accessible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *