In its purest form, cross-country skiing represents the true freedom of the mountains. Nowadays many Alpine hamlets feel obliged to offer a Langlauf Loipe of some kind, but this is often a track prepared by snowmobile along a sunless valley floor with views of purpose-built amenities rather than open snowscapes.

However, even if you take this option, there's still quite a bit to be said for cross-country skiing. The skis are featherlight, the boots as soft as trainers and the clothing as unrestricting as a tracksuit. And the cardiovascular benefit is high.

By comparison with downhill skiing, cross-country is easy. Attaching skis by a single clip at the toe of the boot means that you can expect to fall flat on your face as soon as you lean forward into a downhill slope, but getting up is relatively effortless and the learning curve is fast.

There are two techniques: the classic glide, with the skis in single parallel tracks, and the skating method, now used in Olympic competition because it is much quicker.

Cross-country skiing is also green and cheap, but why do people stick to the beaten track rather than venture into mountains untouched by tourism? The main European skiing countries have adventure alternatives to downhill skiing which, typically, allow you to stay in family-run hotels in villages rather than soulless resorts. This brings a high pay-off in terms of price and local life.

The two main specialists in the cross-country market are Inntravel and Headwater, each offering Nordic holidays in Norway, France, Switzerland and Italy. The logical choice is Norway, a huge, under-populated snow zone where cross-country skiing is a national passion. When offices close in Oslo, citizens pour on to floodlit tracks for an evening burn-up. At weekends, they enter all-comers races that attract as many as 10,000 starters.

This fervour works in favour of guided holidays in assorted backwaters, some within striking distance of Oslo, some far to the north of the Arctic Circle. Headwater has all-inclusive cross country trips to Venabu, a village with a 13th-century church 50 miles to the north of Lillehammer. Their resident British guide hosts daily expeditions on terrain that includes sheltered forest trails and open mountains. Inntravel ventures further afield, to the Hardanger Plateau above the fjords in western Norway and even to the Lofoten Islands, a remote fishing outpost with spectacular mountains, off the coast near Narvik.

In France, the smart get-away-from-it-all options are the Jura, the Massif Central and the Pyrenees, but escape is also possible in the Alps. The pick of the Headwater pack are Pailherols in the wilds of the western Auverge, to the south of Clermont Ferrand, and Sixt-Fer-a-Cheval, a traditional village in Haute-Savoie near Geneva. Inntravel offers La Cure in the Jura above Lake Geneva, Ceillac in the Queyras National Park in Haute Savoie, and La Llagonne and Valcebollere on the forested Cerdagne plateau in the Pyrenees.

Headwater Holidays (01606 48699; fax 48761): Venabu Fjellhotel, Ringebu, from pounds 626; Auberge des Montagnes, Pailherols, from pounds 297, self drive, or pounds 449, rail or air/rail, (prices include travel as specified, transfers as required, 7 nights' full board, equipment & tuition/guiding).

Inntravel (01653 628811; fax 628741): Ustaoset Hotel, Ustaoset, from pounds 525 (air/rail travel, 7 nights half board, plus lunch pack); Hotel Cascade, Ceillac, from pounds 479 (travel by Eurostar, 7 nights half board).

Snow and Rock (01932 569569; fax 569568): cross-country recreational package, boots, skis, bindings & poles, pounds 149.50, from the shops or by mail order.