Take the family Skiing if you want to play it safe, inexpensively, try cross-country

November 15, 1992|By Candyce H. Stapen | Candyce H. Stapen,Contributing Writer

This year you're determined to find a winter sport for the whole family -- something that will turn grousing about the cold into looking forward to snow with glee, something that can be shared by your preschooler as well as your teen-ager.

You like the thought of your clan whooshing through the woods with the sun in your faces and the wind at your backs, but you don't want to invest two weeks' pay in parkas, pants, thermal gloves, goggles and lessons and maybe not make it off the bunny slope. You also have a fear of bruises and broken bones. Can skiing still be in your future?

Yes, but forget downhill (Alpine) and try cross-country (Nordic). Safer, easier to learn and less expensive, cross-country is also a great deal of fun. Not only can you glide through the snowy woods at a good clip, but you can also slow the pace to savor the scenery with your family. Stop by a brook for a snack, #F examine an icicle with your 5-year-old, look for deer tracks and, most important, take advantage of the opportunity to talk.

"There's a definite increase in the numbers of families taking up cross-country skiing," says Chris Frado, executive director of Cross Country Ski Areas Association, based in Winchester, N.H. "As a result, there's an increase in the programs for kids. Some areas offer special tracks for kids, others offer special classes and learning areas with fairy-tale cutouts for kids to ski around and through."

As cross-country gains in popularity, the choices for families multiply. The possibilities include Alpine ski areas that also have good Nordic programs, dude ranches that in winter turn their riding paths into groomed ski trails, year-round resorts that offer cross-country trails as another amenity, small towns where trails ring the countryside and romantic inns.

But to enjoy the sport, find a quality program, choose the right place for your family, and if you've never tried cross-country before, take some lessons.

While many downhill areas are promoting their Nordic facilities, not all cross-country programs are created equal. To assess a facility, look for the following:

* Trails: "More important than the number of kilometers available," says Ms. Frado, "is the number of kilometers groomed daily. Grooming makes the snow harder or softer plus lays the tracks. Ten kilometers can keep a beginner skier happy all day."

* Signs: Getting lost in the woods can make you lose your enthusiasm. Not only should trails be marked with directional indicators, but signs also should also indicate difficulty and point out hazards such as bridges, ponds, roads and steep slopes.

* Staff: Choose a place that has a full-time cross-country staff. You want someone who understands the equipment to fit you for rentals and someone who knows the trails to tell you about the daily conditions. You don't want to head for the woods after being outfitted by the part-time busboy whose only claim to fame is that he can make change.

* Equipment: "A good rental shop should be renting a boot binding system, which offers better control than the three-pin system, which is old-fashioned," says Ms. Frado. "If you go to a place that's still renting three-pin, then they have not upgraded their equipment for five to 10 years." Also, make sure the area has child-sized equipment for rental.

* Lessons: Look for professional instructors certified by professional ski organizations. Ask if lessons are given on a regular basis. Do children learn separately from adults? Can you take a family lesson?

"Don't believe, 'If you can walk, you can ski.' That's the worst advice," cautions Ms. Frado. "That led people to buy skis to walk around in their backyard. They slipped, fell and put their skis in the garage. Just as people would never dream of going up a

mountain and coming down without any lessons, people shouldn't try to cross-country ski without a lesson."

The basic techniques of stopping, turning, maneuvering up hills and down, and getting up and falling without injury can be learned quickly.

Choose the right place

* Find a place that meets your family's needs.

Be honest about your family's requirements, whether it's day care for your toddler, a place with indoor activities for your 4-year-old who has a limited capacity for the cold or some night life for your teen.

* Look at other recreational activities.

A soak in a hot tub is great for soothing tired legs, and a game room enables preteens to meet friends. Do you want lots of apres-ski choices, from ice-skating under the stars to snowmobiling through the woods and sleigh riding in the moonlight? If so, then a popular Alpine area or a resort is likely to have the best range of programs and facilities.

* Consider locale.

Be sure to book a place where snow is almost guaranteed. Since few areas offer snow-making on their cross-country trails, it's necessary to have enough natural snow to create good coverage and avoid bare patches.

Tips for parents

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