Cross-Country Skiing Finds a New Home: the Industrial Midwest

Source Images Getty, Composite Sean Culligan/OZY

Why you should care

Families are looking for local alternatives to indoor sports.

  • Indiana, Ohio and southern Pennsylvania are experiencing an unprecedented surge in interest in cross-country skiing, in large part due to COVID-19.
  • Parents want their kids outdoors, not participating in indoor sports like basketball or volleyball.
  • Unlike downhill skiing, cross-country doesn’t require traveling for many people in the region.

When coronavirus-fueled uncertainty around team sports and travel meant Lindsey Wilson’s 9-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son couldn’t hit the ski resorts this winter, a lightbulb went off in Wilson’s head: Why not give cross-country skiing a try?

So far, it’s proved successful. “There’s less [health] risk with not riding lifts [at downhill ski resorts]; you’re out in the woods, between the trees,” says Wilson, who lives in northern Ohio. “It’s one of those things that they could even try on the sidewalk.”

With no mountains to speak of for hundreds of miles, cross-country skiing is taking off in an unlikely place: the industrial Midwest. While a mainstay winter activity in the upper Great Lakes and New England, regions that are farther south, such as Indiana, Ohio and southern Pennsylvania, have been experiencing a surge in interest, in large part due to COVID-19.

Staff at parks with ski-friendly trails across the region say they too are fielding an unusually large number of queries from people about whether their trails can be used for cross-country, also known as Nordic skiing. Catherine Curley, who teaches kids ages 5 to 18 cross-country skiing through the Hilltoppers XC ski club outside Cleveland, says three times as many people have signed up this winter compared to pre-pandemic times.

We had [even] more interest, but as we rent equipment for the season, we’ve run out of that.

Catherine Curley, cross-country skiing teacher

Parents, Curley says, are leery of letting their children be on indoor basketball and volleyball teams this winter, so getting them outside and exercising on skis has proved a perfect alternative. “We had [even] more interest, but as we rent equipment for the season, we’ve run out of that; coaches too,” she says.

Children — or, more accurately, their parents — are driving this rush toward cross-country skiing in the Midwest, as families around the world try to juggle the dual desires of safety and outdoor activity.

“Some of the biggest bumps in cross-country sales so far this season have been in kids’ gear,” says Yuri Freudenschuss, the second-generation owner of Valleywood Ski and Snowboard Shop in Kettering, Ohio. He adds that the uptick began as far back as September, with customers saying that having spent much of the summer outdoors, they want to continue to do so in the winter.


Members of the Hilltoppers XC ski club in Ohio.

Part of cross-country skiing’s attraction is that its gear — starting with the ski boots — is less expensive and far more accessible than that of its more technical and physically demanding downhill sibling. On top of that, access to cross-country trails is cheap (the lift fee for downhill skiing, for example, can be significant by comparison) or even free. There are also plentiful trail options, with paved and unpaved ones and even golf courses serving as skiing venues across the Midwest.

What’s more, unlike the lines that are sure to develop at mountainside ski lifts in traditional resorts this winter, cross-country skiing is a godsend for those seeking physically distanced activities.

And while it does need one essential, if sometimes unpredictable, element — snow that remains on the ground — heavy snowfall in northern Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York state early this winter have seen some regions record their highest daily snowfalls in more than a decade.

“There are shops that are selling cross-country ski packages right now that haven’t sold cross-country skis for years,” says Jim South, president of the Pennsylvania Cross Country Skiers Association. “They think that people are going to be wanting to get out on the trails and golf courses and in their neighborhoods.”

The interest locally has also been fueled by ski clubs in the Midwest forced to cancel trips to mountain and downhill resorts in the Rocky Mountains and Europe, and many cross-country skiers in the industrial Midwest choosing not to travel to take part in major races in Wisconsin and other traditional cross-country skiing hot spots in Canada.


The Hilltoppers XC ski club heads into the woods.

The pandemic “is kind of forcing people to go local … the travel aspect of having to be cooped up in a plane, people don’t feel that that’s terribly safe,” says South.

While the pandemic has given the sport an opportunity to reach new audiences, it has also created challenges. Ski shops from Indiana to Pennsylvania say equipment is in short supply this year, a result of a backlog caused by a manufacturing shutdown in Europe, where most skiing equipment is made, last spring. Then there’s the question of snow on the ground, which, skiers say, has become less in the Midwest in recent decades.

Still, enthusiasts, emboldened by the early winter snowfalls in the region this year, aren’t perturbed.

“I could see it becoming a family activity,” says Lindsey Wilson. “It’s more just ‘let’s go find a trail in the woods or a golf course and do it.’”

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