WHERE THE SKIS ARE

Hudson Bay Outfitters has stores in Kensington, 949-2515; Gaithersburg, 948-2474; and Fairfax, 591-2950. Call 840-0664 for recording trail conditions from here to West Virginia. Appalachian Outfitters has stores in Oakton, 281-4324; Ellicott City, 301/465-7227, Silver Spring, 587-5100, Cockeysville, Md., 301/666-2720. Call any store for trail conditions in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.

If the blizzard earlier this week has you thinking of cross-country skiing and you don't own your own equipment, you should reserve rentals as soon as possible. "When there's snow there are rentals, or more accurately no rentals." Pat Lane, of Appalachian Outfitters, told me on Monday as she explained that cross-country rentals were almost booked solied for this weekend. Hank Cohen of Hudson Bay Outfitters, the only other firm in the area that rents touring skis, echoed the same conclusion. "Until the past few weeks this winter looked like worst in years for cross-country ski rentals," he said. "Now you have to reserve at least a week in advance."

If you are new to ski touring -- the Ski Touring Council in Troy, Vermont, is discouraging calling the sport "cross-country" because of confusion with nordic cross-country ski racing -- then rentals or borrowed equipment is the best way to start. Even if the sun melts the snow in wide-open Washington, it should last for weeks in western Maryland and into late March in West Virginia, according to Cohen. "Wooded trails and western exposures should hold snow the longest," he said.

Rock Creek Park, the Mall, the C&O Canal towpath and many golf courses and some streets provided excellent ski touring this week. Further out, Manassas and Gettysburg Battlefield Parks and Catoctin and Washington Monument Maryland State Parks should remain excellent barring a super thaw.

So, with good ski-touring conditions probably available nearby for several weeks and available for the rest of the winter within driving distance, here are a few how-to tips for beginners, privided by Almy Coggeshall and the Ski Touring Council.

Look for a park, a golf course or a patch of very open woods that's essentially level, but with some very slight hills, for your first attempts. Put on your skis and start off on your first "walk" going wherever seems comfortable. After you've gone a little ways turn around in a small circle and follow your track back. You'll find it's more fun to follow a track than to make one; that's why ski touring is most enjoyable on a touring trail (some are listed below) or following someone ahead who is "breaking trail."

By the third time over a trail the track should be getting smooth enough to start thinking about getting into a little gliding. One of the pleasures of ski touring, and particularly of cross-country ski racing, is developing a long gliding stride so that you skim over the snow like a skater on ice. To start working on your glide, shove one foot in front with a quick determined effort and coast on it. Before the coast dies out bring the other foot up and shoot it out front to glide on it.

In walking, your steps make an even rhythm, but in ski touring the movements are more like quick pulses with a glide after each one. You'll do a little better if you lift your rear foot from the snow slightly so the ski skims forward without sliding on the snow.

One final tip: Ski touring is strong exercise. Be careful of overdoing it. As little as a few hundred yards is a good first-time-out for many, and since you'll probably sweat a lot, dress in layers that can be easily shed rather than one very warm, all-or-nothing, down parka.

That's all there is too it, according to Coggeshall. It sounds a little easier than it is, but most who do both believe that getting started in ski touring is easier than starting alpine skiing. Like alpine skiing, you can learn enough quickly enough to have a good time, but unlike alpine skiing, you needn't spend a bundle on equipment, lift tickets, food and fashion just to stand in a long line of equipment and clothes gazers on a sunny weekend day. I love alpine skiing and would still rather do it for excitement and thrills than ski tour; but touring takes you places you'd never consider accessible during winter, and the quiet, the solitude -- even the birds -- may capture your imagination.