Cross-country ski craze brings business boost during pandemic

Ottawa sporting retailers work to keep up with demand for ski equipment as public looks to escape to the outdoors
Gatineau Park is a popular destination for classic skiers and skate skiers. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Cross-country skiing – the contemplative, quiet cousin to downhill skiing – is finally getting its moment in the low-hanging winter sun as a record number of Ottawa residents are turning to the sport to stay active and healthy during the pandemic.

Ottawa outdoor sporting retailers started seeing a growing demand for nordic ski gear as early as last summer. By then, consumers knew there was a global shortage of all things cycling related and didn’t want to be left out in the cold, so to speak, come ski season.

Eric Kunstadt, president of Kunstadt Sports, predicted as far back as June that cross-country skiing was on track to do well.

“We bought every Fischer and Rossignol ski that was in Canada,” said Kunstadt. “We bought every single pair. In June, July, August, we were buying them like animals.”

The skis sold “like hotcakes” during the late summer and early fall, he said. “We sold $1 million worth of skis before it even snowed.”

There was a time, at the start of the pandemic, when Kunstadt Sports' future was looking bleak. It was being hammered by a province-wide spring lockdown and having trouble ordering summer gear of any kind.

Now, with a new set of restrictions on businesses in place, the retailer has refined its process of managing online sales and taking orders over the phone, with curbside pickup. The family-owned business has four locations: The Glebe, Kanata, at Bank Street and Heron Road, and Chelsea, Que. 

“We wouldn’t have done so well if we weren’t able to pivot and be online,” said Kunstadt.  “The online portion of our business has been critical in our success.”

Gatineau Park is a popular destination for classic skiers and skate skiers. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Fresh Air Experience on Wellington St. W. is considered one of the go-to ski shops for Ottawa’s cross-country ski community. Jon Digney bought the business, which has been around for more than 50 years, back in 2012.

He's happy to see so many residents take a new interest in the sport, and is hoping they stick to it.

“We know once you try it you’re going to love it. It’s hard not to like it when you get a nice sunny day.”

Digney described this season as his best, considering the below-average snowfall.

“The biggest drive for cross-country skiing is how much snow there is,” he said. “We’ve had comparable (sales) years but they were massive snow-fall years.”

He acknowledged it’s been hard to keep up with demand, despite making additional orders since summer.

“We’re expecting a huge shipment in the next couple of days from one of the suppliers; it’s going to put us back in better shape,” said Digney, who’s been out of stock in women’s ski boots, sizes 37 to 41 European. “It’s kind of the bread and butter of women’s sizes and there’s a huge shortage across the country.”

Bushtukah general manager Dave Morton says it’s been a “huge, huge cross-country ski year” for the retailer, which has store locations in Westboro and Stittsville.

“We could obviously use a little bit of fresh snow but, still, it’s been very, very active."

The sports retail store also ordered more cross-country skis than usual after customers started making inquiries last August. It's since placed further orders to keep up with demands.  

As well, Bushtukah sold more snowshoes and trendy fat bikes, the latter of which sold out before Christmas.

“I think I had two or three emails today just inquiring about the availability of ordering one,” Morton added.

Morton lists a number of factors for the growing interest in outdoor winter sports: government advisories not to travel abroad, the Ontario lockdown, closure of gyms and fitness centres, and an eagerness by people to get outdoors and exercise.

“People need a mental break from everything to do with COVID,” said Morton. It's also the perfect physical distancing sport.

Gatineau Park is a popular destination for classic skiers and skate skiers. Photo by Caroline Phillips

While there are numerous ski trails around the city, nearby Gatineau Park in Quebec remains one of Canada’s top cross-country skiing destinations, although politicians have asked Ottawa residents to only cross the provincial border for essential reasons amid the current spike in COVID-19 cases.

The National Capital Commission, which manages the federal park, sold a record number of seasonal passes for 2020-21.

“The park has been very busy every day – especially on weekends – based on our most popular parking lots being almost or completely full,” said Maryam El-Akhrass, strategic communications specialist at the NCC. She recommends skiers come during off-peak times, head to less busy areas and check the park’s website for availability of parking in Gatineau Park.

Winter isn’t even halfway over yet and already retail stores are thinking ahead to cycling season. The bicycle boom, much like the sale of winter sports gear, has helped to boost a retail industry that’s seen its share of highs and very lows this past year.

Still, outdoor sporting stores are expecting to have a challenging time keeping up this spring with the steady demand for bicycles. There continues to be a scarcity.

“This year we’re going to be looking at demand exceeding supply,” predicted Norton, who’s encouraging cyclists to get their orders in early.