Cross Country Skiing vs Downhill Skiing – Which Is Better?

Cross Country Skiing vs Downhill Skiing – Which Is Better?

There are several disciplines of skiing, all with their own characteristics that suit different preferences.

In this post, we will compare cross country skiing and downhill skiing, so you can decide which is better for you.

What Is Downhill Skiing?

Downhill skiing is the most popular discipline of skiing. Downhill skiers use ski lifts to get to the top of the mountain in order to ski back down on groomed slopes or in deep powder snow.

Downhill skiers strive to master carve turns, which involves following the sidecut of the skis as you ski down the mountain. This technique has been made easier with the development of the parabolic shape of modern skis, which has derived from snowboard technology.

Beginner downhill skiers start off with the snowplow technique. This method involves creating a wedge shape with the tips of the skis close together and the tails wide apart.

Snowplowing allows beginners to make slow-speed turns with relative ease and safety. Once they have got the hang of snowplow turns, they progress onto parallel turns.

Parallel turns are more tricky to master, as the skier needs to coordinate both skis to turn together. Parallel turns allow the skier to ski much faster and are far more graceful than snowplow turns, making them more satisfying.

The slopes downhill skiers ski on are graded according to their difficulty with a color-coded system. The system is reasonably standard throughout the world, with some subtle differences.

Generally, the slopes are graded as follows:

Green – Very easy, suitable for totally new skiers.

Blue – Easy, ideal for everyone that has mastered the basic skills.

Red – Difficult, only suitable for intermediate skiers, who can cope with moguls, ice, and varying conditions.

Black – Very challenging, only suitable for expert skiers.

What Is Cross Country Skiing?

Cross country skiing is very different from downhill skiing. Cross country skiers don’t use ski lifts, as they use a gliding or skating motion to propel themselves along.

Rather than big downhill slopes, cross country skiers ski on purpose-built tracks or use the skis to explore the area. Cross country ski tracks are often flat, with occasional undulating and uphill sections.

The tracks are also graded in terms of their difficulty, using the same color-coded system. However, cross country ski tracks’ difficulty levels are determined by their length and profile.

Green cross country tracks are short and flat, perfect for building your skills on. While black ones are long with challenging ascents and tricky descents, suitable for experienced and very fit skiers.

You will notice that the tracks have two grooves carved out along them. The grooves are where you put your skis, keeping you on track.

It is good etiquette to step out of the grooves when you stop. Also, do your best to not damage the grooves as you ski, as the damage will remain until the machine comes back round to cut fresh grooves.

Cross country ski equipment allows you to lift your heel, as your boots are attached to the bindings at a hinge point at the toe. This free heel allows you to slide the ski forward much more easily.

There are two different styles of cross country skiing, “classic” and “skate.” Classic cross country skiing involves a forward and backward motion, similar to how you walk or run; therefore, it feels pretty natural to most people.

The skate cross country skiing technique is very similar to what a speed skater would use on ice. They push their skis in a sidewards motion using the ski’s inside edges to propel themselves forwards.

Skate cross country skiing is much faster and technical than the classic style. Therefore, many people start with the classic style and progress to skate skiing as their skills and fitness improve.

To get traction on the snow, the skis have a textured section under the bindings. Along with applying grippy wax on the base, you can get enough purchase on the snow to propel yourself forward.

Do You Use The Same Equipment For Both?

The equipment used for cross country and downhill skiing is very different. Here are the differences:

Cross Country Skis, Boots, And Poles

Cross country skis are very thin and come in three different types, touring skis, performance skis, and metal-edged touring skis. The differences in these types of skis make them suitable for different uses and your personal preference.

Skiers who use cross country touring skis, ski on groomed tracks use the classic technique. The skis are long and narrow, so they glide along the tracks and grooves effortlessly.

Performance cross country skis are also used by skiers who like to ski on tracks. They differ from touring skis and are less forgiving due to their extra stiffness, but they are much faster.

Cross country ski racers wear performance skis, but they are OK to use when not being competitive.

Metal edge touring cross country skis are designed for exploring. They make skiing on tricky terrain easier, as they are wider and shorter than the other two types.

The extra width of metal edge touring skis helps the skier to stay on top of deep snow. Therefore, they can use them to ski off the groomed tracks.

To attach the skis to your feet, you need specific cross-country ski boots. These are made from leather or synthetic material. As we mentioned earlier, the boots attach to the bindings at the toe.

There are boots with different flex ratings and characteristics to make them suitable for each type of ski. Also, there are several boot/binding interfaces that need to be compatible to work together.

Cross country ski poles are very long, so you can get the maximum from them when you push on them. Poles vary in length, materials, and other characteristics such as wrist straps and baskets. You can even get adjustable ones that allow you to alter their length.

Downhill Skis, Boots, And Poles

Downhill skis are much wider than cross country skis. They also have a very different shape and many variables to consider before buying.

The different shapes and characteristics of various downhill skis make them suitable for different snow conditions. For example, you can buy skis that perform well in most conditions, known as all-mountain skis.

Ski manufacturers make their skis with different shapes and flex patterns to suit the different snow conditions. So, you can buy skis that work best in powder or on hardpack snow and ice.

Most skiers use all-mountain skis as they hit the sweet spot for their needs. However, more serious skiers have several pairs, so they can pick and choose which ones to use on any given day.

Downhill ski boots also come in various styles and have different features. They are made from hard plastic and clip securely into the bindings at the toe and heel.

Just like skis, you can buy boots to suit your preferred type of skiing. However, the main difference between ski boots is the flex pattern.

More advanced skiers use stiffer ski boots as they want ultimate control. While less experienced skiers go for more flexible boots, as they are more forgiving and comfortable.

There is not much to downhill ski poles, as they are pretty standard items. However, once you get more skilled, you can buy lightweight poles and customize them with larger baskets for deeper snow.

You may see some downhill skiers with poles with bends in them. These are only really necessary for racing. The curves allow you to hold the poles tighter to your body when in an aerodynamic “tuck,” so you cut through the air more efficiently.

Do You Wear The Same Clothes?

Unless they are racing, a downhill skier will wear a ski jacket and pants on top of several layers. Their ski clothing is warm, breathable, and waterproof to ensure they are as comfortable as possible, whatever the weather.

A cross country skier does not wear thick clothing due to the amount of physical effort involved. The ideal outfit for a cross country skier consists of thin, breathable, and waterproof fabrics.

When cross country skiing, it is best to start off feeling cold. After a few minutes of cross country skiing, your body temperature rises quickly. It is essential to have warm clothing close to hand when you finish so you don’t get cold.

What Accessories Are Available For Both Sports?

Cross country skiing is a minimalist sport, especially when you compare it to downhill skiing. This is because you don’t need much, and you want to be as lightweight as possible.

Other than technical clothing, you only really need to protect your eyes when cross country skiing. Therefore, you really only need a good pair of sunglasses.

However, there is a wide range of accessories for the downhill skier. These include fancy goggles, heated socks, training devices, and avalanche safety equipment.

What Protection Do You Need?

Downhill skiing involves much higher speeds than cross country skiing. Therefore, it is wise to protect yourself with a helmet.

There are lots of different ski helmets on the market. The most critical aspects of ski helmets are how they fit, their coverage, and how comfortable they are.

Ski helmets can be pricey, but they are worth the investment, as head injuries for skiers are very serious. If you don’t want to buy one, you can rent one from a good ski hire shop.

Most ski hire shops will give you the helmet for free when you hire the rest of the equipment.

Cross country skiing doesn’t really require protective equipment, as it is unlikely that you will get into a severe crash. Cross country skiers need to be cool and have a maximum range of motion, which can be compromised by protective equipment.

Which Is Best For An Adrenaline Rush?

Cross country skiing is a rewarding sport, especially when you improve your technique. But, it doesn’t compare to downhill skiing when it comes to the thrill of the ride.

Downhill skiing allows you to go fast and experience the flow of powerful carve turns. In comparison, cross country skiing is a slower sport with less excitement involved.

You have more potential to find an adrenaline rush on downhill skis. For example, blasting groomed slopes is tremendous fun, but so is hitting backcountry powder.

Downhill skis are more versatile, too; for example, you can ski in the snow park, hitting jumps and features, which you cannot do on cross country skis.

Which Is Best For Fitness?

Downhill skiing is a great workout, as it challenges your legs, core, and upper body. You have to engage all of your muscles to cope with the varying terrain and high speeds.

One of the great things about downhill skiing is that you can do it all day, thanks to the ski lifts. The lifts give you a little rest in between runs, so you can recover.

As cross country skiing involves your constant input and effort, it is not something you can do all day. However, it does mean you get an excellent cardio and full-body workout.

A cross country skier has to push with their arms and legs constantly to keep moving. The only time they get to rest is on the small downhill sections around the track.

If you want to ski for the sole purpose of fitness, cross country skiing is the one for you. However, don’t dismiss downhill skiing as the easy way, just as it involves gravity more.

Which Is Cheaper?

Skiing is seen as a rich person’s sport by many people. There are unavoidable costs, such as travel, equipment, lift passes, etc., that all add up.

Cross country skiing does not require lift passes, and the equipment, although not cheap, is less expensive than downhill equipment. Therefore, cross country skiing is a much more affordable option than downhill skiing.

There are things you can do to reduce the costs, and so you don’t spend all your money at once. For example, renting your equipment in the early days is much better than buying it.

Also, building up your inventory of ski equipment over the years is more realistic than buying it all at once. It will also mean you buy stuff based on your skill level and experience.

What Cross Country Skiing And Downhill Skiing Have In Common?

As you can see, there are some apparent differences between cross country and downhill skiing. But, there are some benefits you can experience if you do either sport.

Whether you are on downhill or cross country skis, your skills improve the more time you spend on them. You will learn to adapt your technique to cope with the changes in terrain and light conditions.

Both sports are excellent for building your confidence. This comes from developing your skills and fitness, but enjoying the mountains makes you happier and improves your mental health.

These skiing disciplines increase your blood flow due to the physical effort you need to put in. This, combined with adrenaline, invigorates you and increases your desire to spend more time on skis.

Both downhill and cross country skiing is done in some of the world’s most picturesque locations. A clear, blue sky day gives you the opportunity to see the snowy landscapes in all their glory, which is a fantastic experience you never get tired of.

Another benefit of a ski trip is spending time with family and friends. Sharing these experiences together makes them even better while reinforcing friendships and relationships.

Skiing isn’t just a sport; it is an entire lifestyle with its own culture. It has its own scene language and characters, which are great to be a part of.

Final Thoughts

If you are new to skiing and wondering which discipline to take up, you need to be aware that cross country and downhill skiing are very different.

The main factor that will determine which one you take up is your definition of fun. Do you yearn for adrenaline-fuelled thrills, or do you prefer a slower pace?

People who love downhill skiing prefer a different kind of fun to cross country skiers. They like the sensation of speed and the challenge of developing their technique over many years.

If you are already a downhill skier, it would be challenging to convince you that cross country skiing is more fun. Its slower pace is more leisurely, but it can provide an intense workout if you want it.

The exercise aspect is often what draws people to cross country skiing. They love that they can get a full-body workout and burn off some calories in a mountain environment.

If you are still struggling to decide which discipline to take up, why not try both? A couple of days doing both sports will give you a good feel of what you want to do in the mountains in the winter.

Trying both types of skiing is accessible in a ski resort, as you can rent the equipment cheaply.

You may decide that you would like to do both, especially if you have the time and money. By being able to choose between the equipment, you can take advantage of the different weather conditions.

On a good snow day, break out the downhill skis and blast the slopes. Alternatively, go cross country skiing for fitness on a cloudy day.

Images from Pixabay

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cross country skiing vs downhill skiing - which is better

Peter Salisbury

Peter Salisbury

Pete is the Owner of Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, he grew up kayaking, fishing, sailing, and partaking in outdoor adventures around the Great Lakes. When he’s not out on the water, you can find him skiing in the mountains, reading his favorite books, and spending time with his family.

Welcome! I’m so glad you are here :-) I’m Pete. I am the owner of I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, I grew up kayaking, fishing, sailing, and partaking in outdoor adventures around the Great Lakes. When I am not out on the water, you can find me skiing in the mountains, reading my favorite books, and spending time with my family.