Groomed Vs Bushwhack? Both Have Positives.

Classic diagonal style goes down easy on groomed trails, also essential for breaking trail. Credit: WebCyclery.com

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 o’er 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”.

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 were not pretty, and the manual got soaked) 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/diagonal stride, you’re riding on a consistent, packed surface, with your skis guided forward in compressed, parallel 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 but often not noted, 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 (though your instructor can show you best techniques there too).

Skate skiing has its own techniques and gear. Credit: HuffPost Canada

Skate skiers (for downhill skiers, skating can be easier to absorb than classic style) need a packed surface even more than diagonal striders. Two or three inches of fresh snow even on a machine-packed trail are enough to catch an edge and tip you over. It’s nearly impossible to skate in ungroomed snow except for glorious spring crust-cruising (not the same as skiing on ice – you can set your edges), which gives you a solid, consistent surface – 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 an off-track tourer (fields, forests, hill country, parks, golf courses…). 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. 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…). And finally, for true adventure, there’s snow camping (bring your own stove too). Touring with a pack in fresh snow can be truly character-building (been there, done that, I happily leave it to today’s kids – but there was a time before groomed trails…).

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