what's here

 - - Assessing Trail conditions 
 - - Assessing Snow conditions 
 - - How to Learn 

 - - How to Learn 

 - - Sidestepping down | Sideslipping | Half-Wedge

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Risk Management 

The first priority on technique for dealing with a downhill slope is to get down it without getting hurt.  

For a larger context on the risks of skiing, see this page 

 - - Risks of Cross Country Skiing 

The first step on getting down without getting hurt is to know your capabilities -- and the limits of those capabilities -- relative to the current snow conditions, and relative to the steepness and obstacles on the downhill slope you have encountered. 

The second step is to decide if you should ski down the slope at all.  

Assessing trail conditions 

Sometimes the choice that minimizes risk must be made very early: 

  • Do not even start out into the trail or area that contains a potentially-risky downhill slope. 

Often the safest choice is not to get anywhere near a downhill slope which might be more risky than you can handle -- especially on a day when the surface of the snow is hard or icy. 

The difficulty ratings at a cross country ski center can help decide which trails are within your capabilities.  But use these with intelligence and care: 

  • Sometimes a trail whose difficulty you could handle in normal snow conditions turns out to be significantly risky for you if you try it in hard or icy conditions.  So you also need to assess the snow conditions -- see below
  • Sometimes the trail ratings at one cross country ski center are much harder or easier than those at another ski center. 
  • Warning:  Often it is easier to climb up a slope than it is to ski down it with low risk.  So after successfully climbing up, you can find yourself in a riskier situation that you had anticipated. 

So before you start on a trail, check the condition of the snow on a flat or gentle slope -- both in the sun and in the shade -- to see how hard or icy it is.  For more on that, see below

Assessing snow conditions 

The first step for assessing the condition of the snow is to see how hard or icy it is on a flat of gentle slope -- both in the sun and in the shade. 

But sometimes it is more tricky than that: 

  • Sometimes snow which is soft in the middle of the day can freeze hard and icy during the afternoon, and could then be too risky for you later in the day. 
  • Sometimes snow out in the open in the sun can be more icy than snow in the trees, especially early in the morning after a sunny day and a clear cold night. 
  • Watch out, if there was a sudden hard freeze during the night after a warm day when the surface of the snow melted a lot. 

Usually it's good to ask a local expert. 

When snow conditions might be (or become) hard or icy, sometimes you need to stay off trails that you could ski with low risk in normal snow conditions. 

Some days the snow conditions are difficult for you that there is no trail available with a low enough risk for you -- so you simply should not ski at all. 

How to Learn 

Learning about managing risk can be tricky -- because you want to be able to learn lessons about possible outcomes with your skills and equipment and for different snow and trail conditions -- but without exposing yourself to even greater risk during the learning process. 

Some useful approaches . . .  

Ask other experienced local skiers and ski center managers:  

  • Learn what principles and practices they follow. 
  • Hear their stories about what went wrong, and when unexpected bad results happened.  
  • Learn who seems to have the best judgment about each different aspect of risk, and ask their advice about today's situation. 

Test the limits of your skiing control skills in special environments where you are unlikely to be harmed. 

  1. Find a wide-open, very gentle downhill slope with a long flat (or uphill) section at its bottom, and no obstacles in its midst or any place you might go into them if you fell or slid or turned in an unexpected direction.  
  2. On a day which is hard or icy, bring a partner with you to this slope. 
  3. Start at the bottom of the slope. 
  4. Climb up only a short ways, so that you are confident you cannot pick up so much speed that you might be harmed. 
  5. Ski down with your safest technique.  Or try out some non-skiing technique. 
  6. Repeat the technique several times, to start getting a sense of how much you can trust it on this kind of slope in this kind of snow conditions. 
  7. If the slope has sections of different steepness, or different snow conditions --  see how your skiing control skills work in those variations. 

See also 

 - - Risks of Cross Country Skiing 

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Survival -- alternative non-ski techniques 

Usually there are several alternatives for handling a potentially risky downhill slope -- without skiing down it.  Here are some: 

  • Slide down on your butt. 
  • Walk down on your ski boots. 
  • Crawl down backwards. 
  • Turn around and go back an easier way. 

For more detail on these, see Non-ski Downhill techniques

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Snowplow or Wedge technique 

If you want to be able to get down the slope with your skis attached to your boots and in contact with the snow, one very useful technique is called the "snowplow" or "wedge". 

The idea is to angle the tail of each ski out to the side and dig in the inside edge into the snow surface.  

The details of this technique are beyond what we can handle in this website.

Therefore . . .  

Learning -- To really learn this technique: 

  • Find a ski center with wide-open gentle slopes -- very wide with no obstacles in the middle or at the bottom. 

Best of all would be to find a cross country ski center with all that, and a ski lift to get you quickly back up to the top of those gentle slopes many times, so you can get lots and lots of practice going down.  But there are very few such cross country ski centers.  

A problem with trying to use a ski lift at a downhill ski resort is that sometimes the slopes are very hard or icy or have sections which are much steeper -- compared to what you're accustomed to in cross country skiing. 

  • Take a lesson from a instructor at that center -- a lesson specifically focused on downhill techniques. 
  • Use some of the resources listed and linked below on this page. 
  • Practice lots and lots on slopes which are very wide with no obstacles in the middle or at the bottom, and not too steep for you -- in snow conditions which are not too hard or icy or otherwise risky for you. 

It is usually less risky if you do not put your hands through the straps on the pole handles -- less chance of getting "speared" or whacked by the pole if you take an unexpected fall or twist. 

  • Take a second lesson focused on downhill techniques.  Getting your skiing videotaped and reviewing the videotape with the instructor can also help. 
  • A very different approach that can be helpful and fun (but expensive) is to take lessons from a good alpine downhill ski instructor using full downhill skis at a lift-served downhill ski resort.  Most helpful is to include at least one lesson that includes getting your skiing videotaped and reviewing the videotape with the instructor. 

A shortcoming with this approach nowadays is that the design of alpine downhill ski equipment has become so specialized for easy turning that it does not force you to learn some basic moves needed to get cross country skis to turn reliably.

Steering -- a tricky point:  When your are in this "wedge" or "snowplow" position. 

  • Pressing more on your right ski normally tends to make your direction of travel tend more to the left. 
  • Pressing more on your left ski normally tends to make your direction of travel tend more to the right. 
  • Do not forget to include "steering" in all the Learning steps above. 
  • Sometimes sharp curve(s) or obstacles in the trail or slope require steering capabilities which might be more than you can reliably execute with the wedge or snowplow.  Remember, there are non-ski techniques available as an alternative -- and other skiing techniques below which might sometimes offer you better control than than the wedge.

There are many advanced downhill techniques (see below) for making curves and turns -- but for most people they're lots more difficult to learn than the wedge.

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Sidestepping Down 

Sidestepping down a short hill with your skis still attached to your boots may work sometimes.  

Some disadvantages: 

  • It's hard work. 
  • It feels awkward. 
  • If the snow is hard or icy, it's easy to slip. 

Therefore, this technique is usually a good choice only for short steep slopes with a non-hard snow surface. 


"Sideslipping" down is less work than sidestepping.  The idea is put your skis sideways across the slope, then manipulate the angle of the skis edging into the snow and the distribution of your body weight -- so the skis sort of partly slide sideways down the slope, but also partly grip and slow down the sliding as needed. 

This is a trickier technique -- one which lots of cross country skiers never use and never bother learning.  It does take a lot of practice to use it with good control.  It does not work at all on slopes that are too hard or icy. 

But if you get the opportunity to practice it in a low-risk environment, it's a good way to improve your "feel" of the skis, and that improved feel can give a valuable refinement of your control for many situations. 

The details of this technique are beyond what we can cover in this website.  

Actually, the best way to learn it is as part of a sequence of lessons at a lift-served downhill ski resort, from a good downhill skiing instructor, with you using full alpine downhill skis and related equipment. 


When skiing a gentle downhill in groomed set striding tracks (two parallel grooves for the two skis), another idea is to only wedge (or angle out) one ski -- and leave the other ski in its track groove pointing straight.

This provides much less slowing power or braking force than the normal full wedge -- so it's only for slowing down a bit, not for coming to a full stop -- and it's only for gentle slopes.  Therefore it is a much higher priority to learn well the full wedge or  or snowplow, since that has a wider range of uses. 

Advantages of the half-wedge:  

  • It's easier to get the single wedge ski back into its groove after you've done the bit of slowing you want. 
  • On a not-too-sharp curve, sometimes putting the outside ski in one ot the set striding track grooves makes it easier to turn that ski to follow the curve, which the other wedged ski helps slow down a little.

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Advanced + Racing techniques

Most skiers are happy just to get down a slope more or less under control -- and that's what the above techniques are about.

There are also many other special techniques for going down hills: 

  • positions that look good
  • moves that feel good
  • techniques to handle curves, even link together multiple turns
  • ways to go fast and play with the limits of control

But those are beyond what we can cover in this website -- see the Resources.

Sharon and I have had lots of fun learning many of the advanced downhill techniques -- even though we rarely find a need to use them on groomed cross country trails.  

What we found most helpful for having fun with the "learning downhill techniques" game is to go to a downhill ski resort:  rent skis designed for downhill turning, take lessons from instructors whose main job is teaching downhill techniques, ride up the ski lifts and spend lots of time on slopes and trails designed for downhill learning and fun. 

Many downhill ski resorts offer "telemark" equipment rentals and lessons.  The "telemark" position is the most attention-getting downhill turn in skiing.  Also the most difficult one to learn.  And the "telemark" is the downhill move with the least relevance to effectively controlling your steering or speed on groomed cross country trails.

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Web pages on cross country downhill techniques: 

other sources on these pages: 

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more . . . 

  • One kind of special equipment which can help reduce slipping is a pair of skis with metal edges -- especially if those metal edges have been properly and recently sharpened. 

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