Travel: Norway

Pat Parsons taught mountain leadership to Marines for years, but now he's extolling the virtues of cross-country ski tours to a motley crew of untrained journalists. It's good exercise, great for your physical skills, and "it's basically fun," he declares. "You can forget about your bloody e-mails, you can forget about your sodding mortgage, about the lift queues in the alpine ski centre, you are at one with nature."

Planning a ski trip this season? Think about doing it on the flat, forsaking the clunking boots and high fashion queues of the downhill scene for powering yourself through Norwegian woods. From February, as the Scandinavian days turn longer, Nordic Challenge – mostly run by cheerily formidable British ex-military men – offers a selection of all-in cross-country outings.

They range from hotel-based family holidays, with everything from lavish Norwegian table fare to dog-sledding and tobogganing, to serious hut-to-hut mountain ski touring, where you might have to dig your way down to the next night's front door. A few days' cross-country is also apt to inspire strange ambitions – like taking on a ski marathon in Norway or the Swiss Alps – for which Nordic Challenge will happily train you.

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What is Nordic skiing? It starts with traditional cross-country, where with the toe of your boot clicked into a plate, and the heel free, you propel yourself forward, mixing step with slide, down a two-ski track that on the main routes is cut by a special machine. The skis are long and narrow, and anything but a gentle downhill slope becomes a hilariously precarious ride.

Chest-high ski poles help, but so does the wax you apply every morning to the underside of the skis. At the centre, under your foot, a sticky wax catches the snow when you transfer weight, giving you just enough grip to slide the other ski forward.

Anyone proficient in any kind of sport, even brisk walking, is likely to master the basics of cross-country fairly quickly. Within a couple of days an Edinburgh couple on our trip were comfortably handling 20km tours along the 450km of routes in the area; on our second day, with some skiing experience, a journalistic colleague and I covered a 9km route in about 90 minutes. Cross-country is great exercise but it doesn't have to be strenuous; you can set your own pace.

Skating skiing, the other Nordic style, favoured by racers, is a different challenge altogether; to move you literally skate from side to side. It looked effortless when the ski instructor waved goodbye and zipped away down the run. The skis are lighter, and slightly shorter, than the traditional kind, but in an early evening crash-course after a couple of tots of Norwegian eau-de-vie, we floundered around like big-footed ducklings. Mastery, I'm informed, can also come in a couple of days. That remains to be seen.

Seven years ago Nick Gaskell and Tony Turnbull, two former British officers with 50 years of mountain experience between them – much of it on NATO training missions in Norway – set up Nordic Challenge. The company caters to no more than 200 people a year and offers boutique Nordic skiing holidays. It has seven instructors, including Polly Murray, a member of the British Biathlon squad who was also the youngest woman to summit Everest.

The introductory "skills holiday" involves a week of teaching and skiing around the company's main partner hotel, the comfortable, family-run Wadahl Hogfellshotell, at Gala, about 90km north of Lillehammer. With a swimming pool and exercise rooms, it is an ideal all-round family setting.

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The next level up is the Peer Gynt Experience, recommended for those with a season's experience on cross-country skis. It's a touring holiday, but in comfort, skiing hotel to hotel through the region, with luggage transported by road.

Nordic Challenge's approach to what they do is serious but not humourless. We were marshalled into teams for gently competitive games, and subject to military-style briefings. The instructors are thoroughly safety-conscious; you won't have to worry about anyone being left behind. You may not be likely to break a leg in a high-speed fall in heavy skis on cross country, but there are different risks if you lose your bearings on a forest trail. The holidays are mostly restricted to about 12 places in a week.

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Dog sledding is one of the extras on offer at Wadahl, along with chaotically comic tobogganing, downhill skiing right from the hotel, and sampling the varieties of delicious cold fish or herbal spirits. There was also a taste of biathlon, mixing skiing and target shooting.

In dog-sledding rule number one – while standing behind a sled pulled by five or six sturdy huskies down a track at considerable speed through heavy snow, attempting to steer by shifting weight on the skis at the back – is don't let go. "If the sled should capsize, tip over, do not let go," says the Norwegian instructor. "If you do they will go away, if you hang on they will stop quicker." The message sinks in, so when my feet slid off the skis and sank into thigh-deep snow, I held on until the dogs dragged me out.

After a taster of Nordic Challenge, I'd hope to return, to try the more challenging mountain ski touring. Telemark skiing, the graceful, old-fashioned, almost balletic method of skiing on slopes using toe-bindings, shifting from one knee to the other, is part of the package, and Parsons's passion.

After basic training in winter safety and survival techniques, from digging snowholes to using avalanche transceivers, you go from hut to hut on touring skis. This year Nordic Challenge offers a mountain touring skills course, as well as the tour itself, based at Haugastol near the Hardanger Jokulen glacier.

Nordic Challenge's clients have ranged in age from 73 to 10; it takes company groups but would also provide an ideal mixed holiday for a family with teenagers not simply intent on holiday nightclubs.

Our stay includes a meeting with Monique van Dijk Seppola, of Noorske Sport – 70 operators in established cross-country skiing areas forming a united front with marketing and commercial clout. They complain that Norwegian downhill skiing gets the lion's share of promotion and attention from government agencies, reflecting higher earnings from lifts and equipment hire. "We try to convince them it's important to work with cross-country skiing. It's the best winter product we can offer in Norway. If you are alone in the mountains doing cross-country skiing, you can hear the quietness," she said.

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The Facts Nordic Challenge's 2010 holiday programmes run from 14 February-28 March. The Peer Gynt Experience runs 27 February-6 March; the Mountain Ski Touring Holiday, 21-28 March, while other packages include the Nordic Skills and Nordic Medley holidays. Prices from 950-1,066. Costs do not include flights. Visit Visit for more great holidays

• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, January 31, 2010