One of the oldest winter sports in the world, cross-country skiing is a popular way for Swedes to train when temperatures drop. It’s gentler on your joints than running and exercises muscles all over the body.
During this time, you breathe in the fresh mountain air and enjoy many breathtaking snowy landscapes. With the centenary of Vasaloppet (Sweden’s most popular cross-country race) taking place in March 2022, there has never been a better time to try out this national obsession. Here’s our guide to Swedish cross-country skiing tradition and how to try it out for yourself.
The history of cross-country skiing: a Swedish national obsession
Unlike downhill skiing, where slopes and ski lifts usually help you get around, cross-country skiers use their own body movements to push themselves over snow-covered terrain. In the centuries before the invention of trains, cars and snowmobiles, this type of skiing was an essential mode of transportation throughout the Nordic countries. By donning a pair of (then wooden) skis, people could travel long distances to hunt, collect firewood, and visit family and friends. The word “ski” even comes from the Old Norse word skid, which translates to “a stick of wood”.
The technique became a sport in the 19th century, when the Norwegian army began to organize cross-country ski races to help train soldiers for war. Today, tens of thousands of Scandinavians still participate in public competitions each year. Others take things at a slower pace, using their skis as an adventurous way to reach lakeside grills or picnic areas in the winter.
The Vasaloppet race takes place in March
Sweden’s most popular cross-country race, Vasaloppet, is the largest public event of its kind in the world and celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2022. The challenging 90 km (56 mi) classic course stretches between mountainous towns from Sälen and Mora to Dalarna, central Sweden. Competition requires dedicated training throughout the winter, and it is not uncommon to see enthusiastic beginners training on roller skis in Nordic towns in the fall.
There is also a range of shorter contests during Vasaveckan (Vasa week), which is usually the first week of March. Watching these events is also a popular sport for spectators, broadcast on the biggest television and radio networks in Sweden. Tens of thousands of people also flock to Dalarna each year to cheer on their friends and loved ones, or to spot professional stars like Britta Johansson Norgren and Oskar Kardin, sliding past them in brightly colored lycra.
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How to try cross-country skiing in Sweden
If you want to try cross-country skiing yourself, perhaps the most important first step is to pay attention to the famous Swedish saying: “there is no bad weather, only bad clothes” (Det finns inget dåligt väder, bara dåliga kläder). You will need warm, breathable gear, including thermal leggings, a windbreaker, a light headband or beanie, and gloves.
Cross-country skis are easy to hire at major winter resorts, costing around 350 SEK ($ 38) per day. You can also rent skis in most towns that regularly receive snow in the winter, which can be a convenient option if you are planning day trips by car to more remote locations. Try Sporthyra, which has rental shops in Stockholm and Gothenburg. The non-profit organization Fritidsbanken lends donated skis for up to 14 days free of charge in dozens of locations across the country, but there is less guarantee that you will find the right size or fit.
Paying for an introductory lesson is advisable, especially if you’ve never been on any type of skiing before. If you’ve tried downhill skiing before and are in good shape, you’ll likely master the basics within an hour. Prices at ski schools vary from around 700 SEK ($ 77) per hour for individual lessons, dropping to around 300 SEK ($ 33) per hour for group lessons.
Where to cross-country ski in Sweden
Northern Sweden has snow guaranteed
For guaranteed snow and breathtaking high altitude landscapes, northern Sweden is your best bet. It usually offers plenty of cross-country skiing opportunities between November and April. Most resorts are postcard-perfect, with accommodation ranging from rustic log cabins in the forest to minimalist apartments and scandi-chic boutique hotels.
The Funäsfjällen flagship area has 300 km (186 mi) of groomed, well-marked trails, as well as numerous rest stations, and is a popular place to take lessons.
Åre, Sweden’s largest ski resort, is a great place if you want to try cross-country skiing, while still having access to stellar downhill runs and the country’s most vibrant après-ski nightlife. You will need to purchase a daily or weekly pass to access the slopes in both areas.
In Swedish Lapland, Kiruna – a popular base for tourists keen on dog sledding and snowmobile experiences – has a decent range of municipality-maintained cross-country ski trails. Day passes cost just 50 SEK ($ 5.50). Sunlight is scarce this far north in winter, but public roads are lit between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. You will need to prepare for temperatures below -10 ° C (14 ° F).
Central Sweden offers milder temperatures
Dalarna in central Sweden is home to the official start and finish points of Sweden’s beloved Vasaloppet race, as well as hundreds of miles of groomed and wild ski slopes. The ski season here is slightly shorter than further north, but the lower elevation and latitude tend to provide warmer temperatures.
Sälen, a family village, is the most famous seaside resort in the region. It offers 250 km (155 mi) of cross-country ski trails as well as over 180 downhill alpine trails. Other popular destinations include Mora and Rsa, at opposite ends of Lake Örsa, which freezes and sparkles for most of the winter. Please note that accommodation prices in the region skyrocket during race weeks.
The positive side of so many Swedes who spend time in Dalarna training for Vasaloppet is that you will find plenty of instructors offering private and group lessons. Cross-country ski schools include Cykel & Längd in Kläppen, just south of Sälen, Aktiv Sport in Möra and Långdcentrum in Örsa.
Southern Sweden is convenient for day trippers from Gothenburg and Stockholm
Billingen in south-central Sweden is a certified training base for Vasaloppet participants and offers a handful of well-groomed slopes suitable for complete beginners. Located 3 km (1.8 mi) from the town of Skövde, it lacks a bit of the rural charm of other popular cross-country ski destinations. But it’s a convenient all-in-one facility offering ski rentals, overnight cabins, and coaching. Located on the main train line between Gothenburg and Stockholm, this is a doable day trip if you are staying in either city.
The capital of Sweden might not seem like the most obvious place to do your first cross-country ski trails, but if you are lucky enough to be in Stockholm when the snow falls, there is a range of free trails available. and accessible, suitable for beginners. Try Hellasgården, a lakeside nature reserve in Nacka, which is easily accessible by bus from the city center. There is a ski rental station on site, as well as a public sauna to help relax your muscles afterwards. The nearby island of Lidingö, accessible by tram or bus, has a handful of popular trails, including the Långängen-Kottla road, which is lit after dark.
Since Stockholm doesn’t have snow all winter, be sure to check conditions ahead of time. On Skidspar.se, symbols indicate the amount of snow and the optimal conditions for cross-country skiing.
You can also ski in the footsteps of the champions at Stockholm’s former Olympic stadium, the Stadion, which uses artificial snow in milder weather and is lit until 9:30 p.m. on weekday evenings.