Gems from the Trail: a Look at Nordic Skiing with Zach Stegeman

Nordic skiing has been a part of the L.L.Bean story since the beginning, and with a century of Maine winters behind us, we have many reasons to embrace it. Some are practical (blizzard driving just isn’t an option), and some recreational: exploring the outdoors, escaping the day-to-day routine and enjoying great exercise to boot. That’s why we’ve dedicated so much energy to perfecting Nordic skiing gear and introducing our customers to the sport through our Outdoor Discovery Schools clinics.


We sometimes forget, too, that not everyone is so familiar with Nordic, or cross-country, skiing. Recently, we sat down with Zach Stegeman of the New England Nordic Ski Association, the community Olympic development program for cross-country skiing in New England, to talk about one of our favorite ways to get outside in the winter.


Here’s our Q&A session with Zach:


What is Nordic skiing, and why is it different from Alpine skiing?

Nordic skiing, or cross-country skiing, is how the whole skiing thing started, as ancient northern tribes developed ways to move across their snowy landscape. Nordic skiing is just that – gliding over snow on skis under your own power. As for the difference between Alpine skiing and Nordic skiing, I would say Alpine skiing is gravity fed, while Nordic skiing is powered entirely by you, and some trail mix.

A group of women Nordic skiing at Bretton Woods, NH, this year

A group of women Nordic skiing at Bretton Woods, NH, this year

Can anyone try it? What do you need to get started?

Yes! Anyone can do it, and everyone should try Nordic skiing. You will need some specific equipment to get started, but beyond that, all you need is a little snow and a sense of adventure.

It is important to use properly fitted gear – it will be a much more enjoyable experience. The best way to get started is to visit your local Nordic Ski Center or your favorite retailer to rent equipment and take a lesson.

Programs like L.L.Bean’s Outdoor Discovery Schools that outfit you in all the right gear and get you on the trails, learning how to ski, are a great place to start. Most Nordic Centers also offer equipment rentals and lessons. The best thing about rental equipment is that the knowledgeable staff will set you up with the right gear for your goals in all the right sizes.

A lot of folks XC ski for leisure, but NENSA supports competitive Nordic skiing as well, even at the Olympic level.


What are competitions like? What’s a good event to check out if you’re thinking of trying your hand at racing?

Here at NENSA we are proud of our Athlete Development Pipeline, and we have supported – and continue to support – competitive skiers from the junior ranks through the Olympic level.

Junior skiers compete at the BKL Festival in 2012

Junior skiers compete at the Bill Koch Festival in 2012

Nordic Skiing competitions are a lot of fun. In terms of event vibe, I’d compare Nordic ski races to running races or triathlon, but Nordic definitely has its own feel. Every race has a wide range of athletes, in age and ability level, and there is always a real sense of shared celebration as we’re out there enjoying winter and a healthy pursuit together.

Anyone considering racing should definitely give it a shot. Ultimately, you are competing against yourself and the clock – going as fast as you care to independent of the goals of your fellow competitors. The only pressure comes from you.

There are a variety of different distance courses, and I would encourage a first-time racer to first consider any of them. Of course, you have to take your fitness into account, and you should be proficient on skis before entering a race. You don’t have to be an expert to enter a race, just comfortable on your skis going up and down hills.


What are some of the most popular programs NENSA supports?

Our Youth Programs have seen tremendous success over the past several seasons. New England has a long winter, and we have a great community of families who embrace that and get outside with their kids all season long. NENSA has developed some amazing youth programming to support them. Our largest event is the annual Bill Koch Festival – a youth skiing celebration named in honor of America’s only Olympic medalist in Nordic Skiing, Bill Koch, a Vermonter with a passion for the sport and youth development. Last year’s festival had over 600 kids participate.

One young participant at the Bill Koch Festival

One young participant at the Bill Koch Festival

NENSA also has adult-focused introductory programs, including our annual Women’s XC Ski Day, a program we run with L.L.Bean. And NENSA’s competitive programs are tremendously popular and offer something for everyone.


Kids and families seem to love Nordic skiing – why do you think that is?

This can be done together, anywhere, at any pace. Some of the best family adventures are those that get us outside and give us something to talk about when we’re inside. Nordic skiing is great for that. It also does not have to be a hassle. Sure, there is some gear involved, but that’s part of the fun, and if there is snow, you can just step out your back door and go.


How do you identify the best trails for your skill level?

Great question. One of the best things about Nordic skiing is that it is what you make of it. One person’s favorite trail may be the untouched snow in their backwoods. Another person’s favorite may be the wide, groomed trail of a big resort. In New England we have the best of both worlds and everything in between.

One of my favorite aspects of New England Nordic skiing is the diversity of experiences you can have touring a variety of venues. We have an amazing array of mom-and-pop ski centers sprinkled around the region where there are not many amenities, but there is always great skiing. We also have some of the country’s best resorts like the Trapp Family Lodge, with endless terrain, amazing food and amenities.

A lone skier at the 2012 Bill Koch Festival

A lone skier at the 2012 Bill Koch Festival

In terms of the best trails, it depends on your comfort level. Nordic trails are marked like Alpine trails – blue square, green circle, black diamond, etc. Choosing a trail that’s appropriate to your familiarity and skill is important. For beginners, try visiting your local touring center and checking out a groomed trail – it’s always a treat to ski on groomed snow.

At the intermediate level, try venturing into the backcountry on ungroomed trails. It presents some unique challenges; check it out and see how much fun it can be. The Trapp Family Lodge hosts an annual race from the lodge to the cabin – it’s a great race for intermediate-level Nordic skiers.

For advanced skiers, check out the racecourses at the Nordic venues and test yourself against your own time and goals. The Rikert Nordic Center is where some of the top collegiate-level athletes race. It’s a great challenge. Most major Alpine ski centers have Nordic facilities as well. They can be great for family skiing.


Outside of New England, what resources and organizations would you recommend for first time Nordic skiers?

Wherever you are, your first stop should be your local outdoor outfitter or retailer. They’ll be connected to the Nordic community and can help you get started – with everything from directions to the best skiing to getting the right gear.


After interviewing Zach, we’re more inspired than ever to get out and hit the Nordic trails. What do you love about cross-country skiing?


All photographs courtesy of  Matt Trueheart Photography.

  1. Amy Gunn | March 14, 2013 | 6:25 pm

    Great interview!
    Thank you L L Bean for supporting Nordic skiing and healthy lifestyles.

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