Imagine yourself gliding over the snow. The bright sun makes the wilderness around you glisten. The only sounds you hear are the gentle sliding of your skis on the snow and your own breathing. As you come over a small ridge, you stop for a moment to take in the view of snow-laden pines surrounding a frozen lake and the gorgeous mountains beyond.

You take a sip of water from your canteen and head down the ridge, enjoying the exhilaration of going downhill. As the ridge levels off, you ski toward the lake, where you have a snack and then head back to the ski lodge. That evening, you and your friends sit around the fireplace and talk about the great day you had cross-country skiing.

A day like this doesn't have to be a dream. In fact, a 1982 Nielsen report published by Ski Industries America indicates that approximately 5.5 million Americans take part in cross-country skiing. This wonderful sport gets you outside and enjoying the winter months, it burns calories faster than any other popular fitness activity, and it has terrific fitness benefits. No matter what your age, sex or athletic ability, you can enjoy this great winter sport.

Cross-country skiing is very different from Alpine (downhill) skiing. Alpine skiers are transported to the top of a ski run and then for a few exciting moments, they ski downhill. Alpine equipment costs hundreds of dollars and the fitness benefits are limited because most of the skier's time is spent waiting in line for ski-lift tickets and transportation to the top of the hill.

Cross-country skiing can be done anywhere there is snow -- city or country, on hills or on flat land. The simple, lightweight cross-country equipment (skis, boots, bindings and poles) costs about $100, and you'll spend most of your time skiing or admiring the view.

Alpine skiers wear large, cumbersome boots that limit the mobility of the feet and ankles and are firmly attached to the skis with bindings. Cross-country ski boots look a little like tennis shoes. The bindings attach only to the toes of the boots to the skis, and with each stride your heel is raised, almost as if you were taking a walking step. As you ski, you swing your arms, using your poles for balance and to propel you forward.

You can cross-country ski alone, or with family and friends. I have seen 3-year-old children and 80-year-old men on trails at the same time. If you can walk, you can learn to Nordic ski.

Stretching is particularly important, especially before you begin skiing. You may be tempted just to set off over the snow, but you'll avoid sore muscles if you do the three simple movements illustrated here before you begin your day. While you're skiing, you should spend some time doing a double-poling action -- propelling yourself along by pushing on both poles simultaneously. This will build your upper body muscular endurance and allow you to ski faster.

I cross-country ski every chance I get, including overnight trips in the gorgeous wilderness of Yellowstone National Park. Running used to be my major aerobic activity, until I turned 40 and the aches and pains of old injuries made running less enjoyable. Cross-country skiing is practically an injury-free sport, because you glide across the snow and there's little impact on the legs. It also will help you develop excellent cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance.

Most of us are aware that improved cardiovascular fitness will reduce the risk of heart disease. Aerobic exercise, because it makes the heart, lungs and muscles work harder and become more efficient, improves cardiovascular fitness. And cross-country skiing is one of the best and most enjoyable types of aerobic exercise.

Unlike other aerobic sports, such as running and cycling, cross-country skiing will strengthen and tone your upper body. Because you use both your upper and lower body while skiing, you can maintain the exercise intensity that will ensure an aerobic benefit.

Cross-country skiing burns more calories than other aerobic exercises, indicating it's a sport requiring a lot of work on your part. However, the work is shared between your arms and legs, especially when you're traveling uphill. Although metabolically you'll be burning calories, your energy output will not seem to be as great as that when you're running.

The best way to spend your first day cross-country skiing is with a friend who is skilled in the sport. You don't need to pay for instruction -- most experienced skiers can teach you all the basic techniques you need to enjoy your first few hours of cross-country skiing. Lessons can be helpful after you have skied a few times and want to learn how to travel more efficiently on steep up and down hills.

For your first time out, you should rent equipment that matches your fitness level and skiing experience. If you're in good aerobic shape and if you can Alpine ski, you'll be able to handle faster cross-country skis. If you're new to skiing and don't have a regular program of aerobic exercise, you may want to rent skis and take some lessons if you can't find a friend to teach you. Don't buy equipment until you're committed to staying with the sport. Renting lets you test different kinds of equipment and discover what's best for you.

It's best to learn skiing on groomed tracks at a cross-country ski touring center. A good groomed track is one that has been packed with a snow machine. After it's packed, a tracking sled with runners a little wider than skis is pulled over the packed snow. As you ski, your skis follow the tracks. If you try to cut tracks with your skis through virgin snow your first time out, you could become frustrated and exhausted.

Ski touring centers usually have rental offices with equipment that's suited to the type of snow in the area. Rentals are inexpensive (about $5) and the staff can help outfit you with the poles, boots, skis and bindings that are right for the snow and for you.

Spend your first day on fairly level ground. It's fun to try a few gentle hills that have an incline of about 20 feet and end in a long flat "run out" section of track so you can slow down easily. Don't take on anything steeper until you've learned more advanced techniques.

Before you head down the trail, find a good practice spot and have your friend or teacher show you:

*How to hold your pole; *How to stand with your knees and ankles flexed, head up and torso erect; *and How to turn the skis to change direction in a standing position -- this is commonly called the step turn.

You're probably going to fall, so your friend should show you how to use your skis and poles to stand up again. Unlike Alpine skiing, it's practically impossible to hurt yourself if you fall while cross-country skiing.

Once you have learned these pointers, you can begin moving forward, taking short steps. Your friend can then show you how to move the opposite arm with the opposite leg and how to use your pole for balance. As the day progresses, your strides will become longer and you'll find you're gliding on the snow. This is a wonderful feeling, and it's this gliding motion that makes cross-country skiing such a graceful sport.

If you decide to try a gentle slope, you must learn to position your body and your poles so you can propel yourself forward and balance. If you lean too far forward, you'll fall. So keep your knees flexed, your head up and your body erect. To climb uphill, you'll need to learn the side step and herringbone techniques, two simple ski maneuvers that are very useful.

You'll be ready to try intermediate and advanced cross-country ski tracks after several weeks of learning beginner skills. If you're already a good Alpine skier, you may be able to pick up advanced skills more quickly. Many downhill skiers enjoy telemarking, an exciting style of turning on cross-country skis that's gaining popularity and developing into a sport in its own right.

Many downhill ski centers have cross-country touring adjacent to the downhill facilities, so you can also contact these centers in your area. State and city tourist and travel bureaus can also tell you what is available in the community they represent. Your own community may use local parks and golf courses for cross-country track skiing during the winter months, so contact your local recreation center to see what is available.

The quality of tracks varies greatly. The best tracks are those that are first packed with a snow machine and then a tracking sled is pulled over the packed snow. The cost of using prepared tracks with private ownership ranges between $3 and $8 per day. Tracks on golf courses and community parks usually charge less than $3.


For information on the location of cross-country ski touring centers throughout the United States, write or call: United States Ski Association, c/o U.S. Olympic Committee, 1750 E. Boulder St., Colorado Spring, Colo. 80909; (303) 578-4600. Cross-Country Ski Areas of America, P.O. Box 557, Brattleboro, Vt. 05301; (802) 257-4341.