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What to Know About Cross Country Skiing in Northern Ontario This Winter

Cross country skiing is still possible during the pandemic—with precautions, of course. • Credit: Destination Ontario
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What to Know About Cross Country Skiing in Northern Ontario This Winter

Your COVID-19 safety plan

Find out what changes you'll find at clubs, provincial parks, conservation areas and more.

The forest is silent, save for the steady whooshing of your breath and the swish of your skis sliding over snow. The air is cold and tastes sweet and piny, as it does in winter in Northern Ontario, but every pull on your poles generates heat, and, once you have the technique down, you’re sure to be enchanted. You’ll stride up the hills and glide down them with ease, watching out for winter’s colourful birds and the animal tracks that traipse through the snow-topped trees. You’ll traverse frozen lakes and glide along the shores of great and small rivers, navigating the rocky contours of the Canadian Shield.

Cross country skiing might not be as glamorous as its alpine cousin, but it is one of winter’s most magical experiences. Out in the fresh air, during the coldest months of the year, it is one of the best ways to keep fit. And there are thousands of kilometres of trails to explore all over Northern Ontario that will bring you to the province’s wilder places.

Man and woman on cross country skis going through the forest
Quetico Provincial Park offers beautiful cross country ski trails. Source: Destination Ontario

You need not wait in lift lines. You can usually get an annual membership at a community ski club, where locals will gladly show you the technique and their trails, for about the price of a day's skiing at a downhill resort. Normally, those clubs are happy to welcome visitors too. Day passes are inexpensive. If you want to buy your own gear, most ski shops will offer you a package with skis, poles, boots and bindings. A basic set-up might cost a few hundred dollars and will be all you will need to get out on the trails, though racing equipment, which is often made from carbon-fibre and designed for top athletes to go as fast as possible, can be pricey.

Beginners usually start with gear for the classic technique, where you stride forwards with your skis side-by-side in a track. Modern ones don’t even require wax. More advanced skiers will want to go faster and will take up skating as well, which requires special equipment and is more physically demanding. If you’re just starting out, you can often rent equipment from ski shops. Some clubs offer rentals as well.

Two people cross country skiing across a frozen, snow-covered lake
Cross country skiing is a great way to get away from the crowds. Source: Destination Ontario

Is it safe to go cross country skiing this winter?

This is not a normal winter. Each of us ought to make sure we are doing our part to help control the COVID-19 pandemic. If you are skiing alone or with a family member on a secluded trail in the woods, there is little chance you might spread the virus. You must keep a safe distance from anyone else you encounter on the trails, however. Stay especially far back from skiers you’re following on a track and give passing skiers a wide berth, as the virus might hang in their wake—or in yours. Make sure to avoid skiing in groups. Racing is out of the question.

It is true that cross country skiing is one of the healthiest sports you can do in winter, but pushing yourself too hard for too long in cold temperatures could compromise your immune system. This is not the year for marathon loppets. Be especially vigilant if you are experiencing any symptoms of the virus. If you are, stay home. Otherwise, slow down, moderate the distances you ski, and take time to enjoy the wild beauty of the woods. It’s a good year to work on your technique. Even if it is hard at first, you’ll soon get the knack. No one minds how fast you go. All the while, you’ll be getting stronger and keeping fit. And you will be able to enjoy the rugged landscape of Northern Ontario’s woods.

A group of three people stopped on a cross country ski trail
Keeping your distance from those outside your bubble is essential to keeping everyone safe. Source: Destination Ontario

If you are thinking about travelling away from home to ski some of Northern Ontario’s world-class cross country trails, check the government’s rules and regulations first and make sure you comply with them. The skiing you want to do might itself be safe, but you also need to consider all of the other aspects of your trip that might bring you into contact with other people. Ontario is vast and its many regions have been affected by the virus to differing degrees. You would not want to be the one who accidentally brought COVID-19 to a relatively unaffected region by, say, stopping for gas or popping into a grocery store. Likewise, you would not want to come into contact with it on your trip and then bring it home to infect your friends and family.

For up-to-date information about what restrictions are in place for regions of Ontario, visit: https://covid-19.ontario.ca/zones-and-restrictions.

That said, Northern Ontario’s cross country ski clubs have gone to great lengths to ensure their facilities remain open and safe, so skiers on their trails won’t spread the virus. Clubhouses might be shut for now and lessons and racing programmes put on hold, while rentals might be temporarily unavailable, but thousands of kilometres of groomed and ungroomed trails still lie waiting for you to explore in the remote woods of Ontario’s north.

Two people cross country skiing in front of Quetico Provincial Park sign
Many of the provincial parks that normally offer cross country skiing will continue to do so this winter. Source: Destination Ontario

how cross country ski clubs and trails are responding to covid-19

Cross Country Ski Ontario has released a Return to Sport document, providing guidance to coaches, athletes and clubs on how to ensure the safety of activity participants. Depending where you decide to cross country ski, the facility may have other restrictions and procedures in place, so be sure to check their social media or website before you go. As a general rule, though, these are some of the changes you'll find at ski clubs and trails based on the Return to Sport Protocol and the more specific Return to Skiing for Facilities Guidelines:

  • Capacity limits to indoor spaces such as chalets and change rooms.
  • Mask requirements in indoor spaces and in outdoor spaces when physical distancing is not possible.
  • Increased cleaning in indoor spaces and in particular for high-touch surfaces. 
  • Provided hand sanitizer at building entrances and exits.
  • The option to purchase memberships and day passes online.
  • Programs may be more limited or cancelled altogether.
  • Chalets may be open for washroom and pass purchases only, or are closed altogether.

You may also be asked to:

  • Not linger in parking lots or congregate at trailheads.
  • Leave an extra space between cars in the parking lot.
  • Come back another time if the parking lot is full.
  • Ski at off times of day or days of the week.

Many clubs, shops, provincial parks and conservation areas are still offering cross country ski rentals this year. Some new protocols surrounding rentals may include:

  • Sanitization between use.
  • Seating spaced by six feet to allow for physical distancing when putting on equipment.
  • Equipment availability restricted to members only.
  • Limited equipment availability.
  • Requirement to reserve/make an appointment in advance.

Once again, remember to stay home if you are experiencing symptoms or if you've been told to self-isolate. As well, it's a good idea to bring hand sanitizer and a face covering (even if you don't plan to use indoor facilities), and arrive at the trails ready to ski.

Two people cross country skiing through the woods.
Some facilities may not be open this year, so be sure to arrive at the trailhead prepared. Source: Destination Ontario

Your Next Trip

Even if the measures put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19 mean you won’t be able to go cross country skiing in Northern Ontario this winter, you can spend this time planning a future escape to the peace and quiet of the province’s snowy northern forests. There you can ski for hours and hardly see a soul, save for chipmunks and chickadees and all the other creatures that make their homes in the woods. If you’re lucky, you might even see a woodpecker, an owl or a deer.

Start your trip planning with this guide to the Best Cross Country Skiing Ontario Has to Offer. Then explore below for helpful resources in each of the regions of Northern Ontario.

Algoma country

From Elliot Lake to the Stokely Creek Lodge, Algoma Country is brimming with cross country skiing opportunities and beautiful natural surrounds to boot. 

A particularly great place to check out is Hiawatha Highlands. The cross country ski trails here were first cut and groomed by members of the Soo Finnish Nordic Ski Club, which was founded by immigrants from Finland who settled in the area in the early 1900s. After they arrived in Canada, they were looking to recreate the sense of community and adventure they had known in their homeland. Today, Hiawatha Highlands is one of Ontario’s top cross country ski destinations, with over 50 km of lovingly tended trails, including a lighted loop for night skiing. The club continues to support a racing team and aims to instil a love of skiing in children—and older visitors too.

For more great ideas, see these resources:

Northeastern Ontario

In the large swath of the province referred to as Northeastern Ontario, you'll find the likes of North Bay Nordic with its 50 km of perfectly groomed skating and classic trails that wind up and down through rugged forests near the shores of Lake Nipissing, Kap Nordic in the far reaches of the province, and BioSki Cross-Country and Snowshoe Club

BioSki was started by members of Laurentian University’s biology club in 1974. Instead of wide tracks for racing, they wanted to create trails that would bring skiers closer to nature. Their trails are curvaceous and cut narrowly. You are likely to encounter snowshoe hares, red foxes, squirrels, porcupines, otters and mice amidst the birches, poplars, red pines, white spruce, alder swamps, marshes and beaver ponds through which the trails wind. The club’s chalet is open during the day on weekends, so you can warm up and get a bite to eat and something to drink.Visiting BioSki will provide you with a nice change of pace that will make you appreciate Northern Ontario’s natural beauty all the more.

For more great ideas, see these resources:

Man skating on cross country skis
Winter is a beautiful time of year in Northern Ontario. Source: Destination Ontario

Sunset Country

In Sunset Country, Thunder Bay Nordic Trails offers visitors over 100 km of groomed trails within their three ski areas. The Kamview Nordic Centre is located just 15 minutes from downtown Thunder Bay. With night skiing, a mix of easy and challenging terrain, pristine grooming, and a welcoming lodge, it is home base for the club’s 1,400 members, who also enjoy skiing in beautiful Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park, where well-groomed tracks run beside the magnificent waterfall known as the "Niagara of the North."

Sleeping Giant Provincial Park is a little farther afield: 75 km from Thunder Bay, it is located on the Sibley Peninsula which stretches into the waters of Lake Superior from its northern shore. Every winter, it is blasted with heavy lake-effect snows, which the club grooms into over 50 km of trails which loop around the peninsula in the shelter of huge evergreen trees. Those trails are home to the famous Sleeping Giant Loppet in March. Thunder Bay Nordic Trails gives skiers a warm welcome at all of their locations all winter long though.

For more great ideas, see these resources:

superior country

Explore the likes of Rendezvous Cross Country Ski Club in Nipigon and Longlac Cross Country Ski Club in Longlac. At the Marathon Cross Country Ski and Snowshoe Club along the coast of Lake Superior, you can enjoy 15 km of groomed classic and skate ski trails for all skill levels and ages. Don't have time to get out during the day? They also offer 5 km of night skiing under high-efficiency lighting, which are on every night from 5 pm to 9 pm. Seasonal passes and rentals available all year.

For more great ideas, see these resources:

strap on your skis

The trails in Northern Ontario are as good as they get. Whether you are looking to ski fast on perfect corduroy, spend a day in the bush on backcountry trails or just learn how to double pole with your kids on a well-groomed track, Northern Ontario is a wonderful cross country skiing destination.

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