American skier Morgan Arritola competes in a cross-country relay during the 2010 Olympics. (Don Emmert/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

I love to watch Olympic skiing. But fear of injury has kept me from strapping my feet to skinny slats of fiberglass and speeding through snow. Many Americans are in the same boots. Only 12 million ski. That leaves 300 million who don’t.

With the Winter Games about to begin, perhaps this is the time to start. And cross-country skiing is a good entree. Although the sport is a distant second to downhill in participants (3 million vs. 9 million), it doesn’t require facing heights or speeds of up to 90 mph.

For D.C. residents, the first challenge is finding a nearby venue. While downhill resorts routinely make snow for their slopes, relatively few ski centers make the “huge capital investment” to cover miles of cross-country trails, says Chris Frado, president of the Cross Country Ski Areas Association. So it’s up to Mother Nature. A few area resorts offer the sport if she cooperates (see box).

The second challenge: mastering the skis. “We killed ourselves as an industry back in the ’80s by telling people if they can walk, they can cross-country ski,” Frado says. “That’s not the case.” True, you could put on skis and stumble around, but a crash course in XC (as insiders call it) definitely helps.

On a December trip to Crested Butte, Colo., my wife and I signed up for a lesson. Our instructor, ruddy 55-year-old Robbie Johnson of the Crested Butte Nordic Center, taught us via pop culture touchstones:

1) Don’t ski like Herman Munster: “Be relaxed and smooth and fluid, not stiff and robotic.”

2) Don’t flail your arms like notorious Olympian Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards: As you grip your poles, “keep your elbows out to the side with a little flex, like you’re holding the steering wheel of the car, nice and relaxed.”

3) Emulate Marilyn Monroe: You want “that little swing, getting your hips forward.”

Then you’re off, opposite arm and leg going forward as you kick and glide. Centering your weight over the skis is critical. If your butt is out too far, down you might go.

As we skied on groomed trails — a rut for each ski — we came to understand the lure of kicking, gliding and admiring the snowy beauty.

“I can cover loooong distances away from people, cars and development,” says Scotty McGee, Mountain Sports School director at Snow King Mountain in Jackson, Wyo. “I always appreciate the sparkles on the snow more on my Nordic skis.”

You also burn 400 to 800 calories an hour with minimal stress on joints. Your pole-pushing arms get a workout as do glutes and quads. The next day, your shoulders, butt and thighs will attest to your efforts.

Cross-country isn’t universally beloved. Chip Chase, owner of West Virginia’s White Grass ski area, has seen people quit a lesson.

He stresses that you have to be willing to glide — and unafraid of falling. The first thing he teaches rookies is how to stand back up: “Get on your hands and knees, then straighten up, lifting one ski forward, then the other.”

Another obstacle: hills — even little ones. I’d be going up, then I’d be sliding down. The key, say the gurus: Angle skis inward, herringbone style, and walk/jog up. Point toes out to go down a hill.

A non-skier may still feel uncoordinated, or that his or her balance sucks. Those were my wife’s concerns. She wound up being slow but fairly steady, and even when she fell, she didn’t mind: “Snow is definitely preferable to concrete.”

XC in D.C.

Yes, people did it in D.C. during the recent snow. The best time for city XC is when streets have a 4- to 6-inch base and cars are scarce. Folks typically use what they call their “rock skis” — an old pair, in case encounters with gravel or asphalt cause damage.

Where to Go

These spots, each about a three-hour drive from D.C., all offer cross-country skiing and currently have enough snow (at least 4 to 6 inches) for the sport. It’s still best to call to check conditions. Gear rental: $20 to $35 a day. Trail fees: about $10. An hour lesson: $15 to $30. For other locations, visit

Blue Knob, Claysburg, Pa.
Dennis Kresslein, Blue Knob’s Nordic Center manager, says the 6-plus miles of trails start on a “gently sloping” golf course, then head into the woods.

Savage River Lodge, Frostburg, Md.
The resort has 14 miles of trails. The next available weekend to book a cabin is March 7-9, but if you’ve got four-wheel drive or chains, you can take the steep, 2-mile dirt road into the ski area for a day’s workout.

White Grass, Davis, W.Va.
White Grass builds up its wintry base with “snow farming,” owner Chip Chase says. Fences around an 80-acre pasture allow wind-driven snow to build up. Of the approximately 30 miles of trails, about a third are good for beginners. The landscape provides “hills and dips and steeper” intermediate and expert trails.