If flying down a hill crowded with lots of zigzagging skiers doesn't sound like fun, but you'd still like to try some sort of Nordic skiing, go the cross-country-ski route. Aside from getting you out of the house on a colder-than-cold afternoon, it is an excellent workout that, like swimming and rowing, uses every major muscle group. Remember that dusty NordicTrack in your basement? Cross-country skiing mimics those motions, with the added bonus of getting you some fresh air, all the while helping you keep off those winter pounds.
The skinny: Back in prehistoric times, people in Fennoscandian countries cross-country skied as a means of travel. Even in the 19th century, it was still practiced as a way to get from place to place during frigid months. North Americans are relatively new to cross-country skiing, as they were historically trappers and gatherers who walked through the snow with snowshoes instead of gliding on skis. It's slowly gaining popularity in the United States, though, and is a great activity for all of us trapped in the flat Midwest.
The getup: Depending on your budget, you don't have to go all out, but there are a few items you should definitely wear. Insulating layers are key: Your first layer should be synthetic (read: NOT cotton); the mid-layer should be a warm sweater, fleece or turtleneck; and the outer layer should be a waterproof jacket, usually your regular winter coat will do. Be sure to wear some sort of snow pants; if you already have downhill ski pants, you can wear those, but if you really want to get into the cross-country swing of things, buy a pair of cross-country pants, which have a closer fit and work better with the movements you'll be doing. Oh, and don't forget the warm hat; sport sunglasses are optional.
The payoff: We've already mentioned that cross-country skiing involves every major muscle group, which is to say, it's a major calorie burner. According to Self.com's calorie calculator, a 130-pound woman, cross-country skiing for one hour at a moderate pace, will burn 495 calories.
Wear and tear: We're not gonna lie; it's a little confusing getting the walking-gliding motions down. Plowing through lots of snow and traveling up hills present challenges, so beginners should stick to flat land. But once you get the hang of it, cross-country skiing is quite safe and generally results in few injuries, thanks to its smooth movements, as opposed to the jarring, high-impact motions of many cardio workouts. You do risk injury if you fall, which is why trying it out with others may help.
The commitment: If you're intimidated by cross-country skiing, you can always take a few lessons just to get the basics down. Chicago's Discovery Center offers super-affordable group lessons for those who have never skied before. It costs $65 for roundtrip transportation (with complimentary coffee and donuts beforehand) and ski fees. Rental equipment costs only $10 for skis, poles and boots, significantly less than renting it on your own.
The cost: At Viking Ski Shop on the West Side, you can rent cross-country skis, poles and boots for $30 per 24 hours or $50 per weekend. You'll find more affordable prices at Beverly Ski and Bike: $15 per day, $25 per weekend or $50 per week. Purchasing your own equipment will cost hundreds of dollars, so it's best to go with rentals until you're ready to commit.
Difficulty level: Cross-country skiing is really awkward and uncomfortable at first—what do I do with these things strapped to my feet? Why the hell do I have poles in my hands?!—but it's quite easy once you get the motions down. Also, unlike downhill skiing, you can lift the heels of your feet; your feet are not strapped down completely, which makes it feel more like walking.
Skiing up hills requires more energy, so beginners should start out on flat land. If you don't want to leave the city, head over to the seven-mile stretch of Lincoln Park, where the hills are fairly mild and would be less challenging than skiing the "Beverly Hills."
The verdict: I grew up with a ski bum dad, so one trip home and I've already found my old cross-country skis, downhill skis and snowboard. While I find snowboarding to be the most exciting of all three winter sports, cross-country skiing is the most accessible and inexpensive. Now that I've outgrown my kiddie cross-country skis, I've got to rent them. But the full-body workout I get with cross-country totally beats anything downhill. And when I'm ready to get out of the gym and back into the cold without totally freezing my buns off, it's a great way to do that. The only difficult part about this sport, however, is Chicago's fluctuating weather. You've got to seize the frozen moment!
For more info on where to cross-country ski in Chicago, check out this handy web guide: chicagowildernessmag.org.