Cross-country skiing (or, in some circles called Nordic skiing), is a term that covers everything from breaking trail with metal-edged XCD skis to racing down groomed tracks in a spandex-clad blur.
Though cross-country skiing may lack the fast-paced downhill action of alpine skiing, for anyone who is looking for a way to keep in good aerobic shape over the winter or to check out nature’s winter wonders in a fun way, it’s a great sport to try.
There’s a bit of a learning curve in deciding what gear to buy, so read ahead to learn more about the different styles of cross-country skiing and the different skis, boots and bindings you’ll encounter.
Table Of Contents:
Classic Cross-Country Skiing
The most common type of cross-country skiing is also the most forgiving to beginners, imagine that! Relatively flat, packed or groomed trails are the ideal terrain for classic cross-country.
Classic Cross-Country skis
Classic cross-country skis are narrow with virtually no sidecut in order to fit into groomed tracks and glide in a straight line. They feature a double-cambered profile with a springy flex, with the middle third of the ski remaining off the ground when the skis are weighted equally.
When weight is applied to one ski, the waxed or scaled kick zone (the middle third) of the ski’s base hits the snow and provides the grip needed to stride. At the same time, the opposite ski glides forward, as its unweighted camber keeps its kick zone from contacting the snow.
Sizing classic cross-country skis
Since engaging the camber of your classic skis depends on how heavy you are, their length will be based mainly on your weight, but also somewhat on your height and experience. A longer ski in your weight range will give you a longer glide, but a beginner or shorter person may find the extra length unwieldy. A shorter ski in your weight range will be easier to handle if you’re just starting out.
Different models of skis have different recommendations for length based on weight and height, so you should consult the manufacturer’s specifications for the correct length. An approximation based on your height, though not perfect, is an okay place to start: look for classic skis around 25 cm longer than you are tall.
If you are looking at classic skis in person, a great way to narrow down the length you’ll need is the paper test. Just slide a piece of paper underneath the kick zone of the ski and then weight the ski as you would if you were skiing on it. If the paper can still slide out from underneath the ski (you’ll need another person to try and move it), then the ski is too long (or too stiff). If the paper stays put, you’re all set!
Classic Cross-Country Ski boots
Classic cross-country boots have flexible upper materials to accommodate coming up onto your forefoot when striding forward, and laterally stiff soles to keep your feet stable.
While classic boots don’t have the high, stiff cuff that makes skate skiing boots effective at pushing off ski edges, some models of boots, called Combi Boots, have a removable cuff if you’d like to use one pair of boots for both styles.
Nearly all classic and skate boots feature a zip-up gaiter over the laces to prevent snow and ice from getting into them, as well as some level of insulation to stave off the cold. They also feature molded, internal heel counters to provide rear foot stability. Their soles are either plastic or carbon, depending on the purpose of the boot (styles for racing need to be stiffer and lighter and use carbon, while recreational styles use more flexible plastic).
Just like when you’re buying any footwear, it’s a good idea, if you can, to try them on. You may find that the boots you thought you wanted are uncomfortable, and nothing ruins a day of cross-country skiing like rubbing your heels raw or pinching your toes. Cross-country skiing boots should fit snugly, but not be constricting. You should definitely be able to move your toes around, and your heel should feel locked into place.
The boots that you end up buying will be the main deciding factor in what bindings you choose. The outsoles of different models and brands are compatible only with specific types of bindings, and that’s where things can start to get a little confusing…
Classic Cross-Country (and skate) Ski bindings
There are 5 types of bindings that can be used for classic cross-country and skate skiing. The differences in performance between the each style of binding are relatively minute, so don’t get too hung up on them.
The physical differences between the 4 binding types are the number of connection points between the boot and binding, the ridges on the binding that fit into the grooves in the soles of compatible boots, and the way the binding itself attaches to the ski.
New Nordic Norm (NNN) and Nordic Integrated System (NIS) Bindings
NNN bindings have two ridges along their length that fit into matching grooves in the soles of compatible boots. A metal rod at the toe of an NNN boot clips into the binding and acts as a hinge. An NIS binding is an NNN binding that can mount without screws to an NIS plate (Nordic Integrated System) that comes attached to some skis. If you have multiple skis with NIS plates, purchasing an NIS binding will allow you to switch between them and move them into the correct position easily. NNN boots are not compatible with any SNS bindings.
Salomon Nordic System Pilot Bindings (SNS Pilot)
SNS Pilot bindings have a single, wide ridge along their length that corresponds to the single groove of an SNS Pilot compatible boot. Instead of a single rod at the toe of the boot, SNS Pilot boots have two rods that clip into two different spots on the binding. The result is a more powerful stride and glide motion and higher stability, which makes them especially suited to skate skiing. SNS Pilot boots are not compatible with any NNN bindings.
Salomon Nordic System Profil Bindings (SNS Profil)
SNS Profil bindings share the single, wide ridge of SNS Pilot bindings instead of an NNN binding’s two thinner ridges, but have a single bar at the toe as opposed to the Pilot binding’s two bars. SNS Profil boots cannot be used with any NNN bindings or SNS Pilot bindings, but SNS Pilot boots can be used with some SNS Profil bindings.
ProLink bindings are compatible with a wide range of boots, as they fit not only all NNN boots, but also any Prolink boot that Salomon and Atomic make. They feature two thin ridges along their length like an NNN binding, but are different in that they mount directly to the ski instead of a binding plate. This direct contact increases sensitivity to the terrain under your skis and power transfer.
Developed by Rossignol and Fischer, Turnamic bindings, like NIS bindings, require a specialized plate (in this case an IFP—Integrated Fixation Plate) to be mounted to their skis. They are also compatible with a wide range of boots, being able to fit any NNN, Turnamic, or ProLink boot. The main draw for Turnamic bindings is their ease of mounting and adjusting, as both are able to be done without tools in the field. Turnamic bindings cannot be mounted to skis with NIS plates, and NIS bindings cannot be mounted to skis with IFP plates!
For the winter athlete who wants a good workout, skate skiing is a rabbit hole into a spandex-clad winter wonderland. The most fast-paced of all the cross-country styles, skate skiing requires the use of groomed trails or well-packed snow, and uses a side-to-side skating (hence the name) movement in practice.
As they need to fully leave the ground for proper skating technique, skate skis are shorter and lighter than classic nordic skis. They are also narrower, stiffer, and their single camber is longer and much less pronounced than a classic ski’s in order for you to effectively push off of their edges and build speed.
A skate ski’s base has no need for kick wax or scales, but they do need glide wax to skate as efficiently as possible.
Sizing skate skis
Your height, weight and experience level are the keys to selecting the correct length of your skate skis, and consulting manufacturer specifications for individual skate skis is the most accurate way to find out what length is right for you.
For an approximately correct length, go for skis that are about as long as you are tall if you’re a beginner, and if you are more experienced, a slightly longer ski (around 10 cm) will gain you more speed at the expense of some control.
Skate ski boots
Boots for skate skiing, just like skate skis themselves, are stiffer and lighter than their classic cousins. They feature high ankle cuffs and rigid soles made of hard plastic or carbon to provide the support necessary to push off into a skating motion. A Combi boot, which features a removable cuff, can be used for classic cross-country as well as skate skiing.
As with classic boots, trying before you buy is a good move. Ill-fitting, uncomfortable boots won’t do you any favors with the dynamic movement necessary for skate skiing.
Skate ski bindings
While skate skiing and classic cross-country use the same 4 types of bindings, and you can certainly use one binding for both styles, there are some bindings designed specifically for skate skiing, namely any SNS Pilot binding. These skate specific bindings focus on stiffness and maximum contact with the ski or ski’s binding plate to ensure optimum power transfer.
Backcountry Nordic Skiing
Going into the backcountry? Not a groomed or packed trail in sight? Enter backcountry cross-country skiing. While backcountry nordic skis are narrower than traditional alpine touring skis, they are much wider than classic and skate skis in order to provide the float, stability, and control necessary for off-trail exploration.
Backcountry Cross-Country Skis
Backcountry cross-country skis are shorter, wider and heavier than classic cross-country skis, and most feature full or partial metal edges and a moderate sidecut for the ability to initiate and carve turns. If you would like a backcountry cross-country ski that can go both on and off groomed trails, then a narrower, longer backcountry cross-country ski with a partial metal edge and a less pronounced sidecut will be the best choice.
Compared to the double camber of classic cross-country skis, backcountry cross-country skis have a single camber more commonly seen on alpine skis. While this makes them less effective at kicking and gliding, the more even weight distribution along the length of the ski gives you more control when turning or going downhill.
Backcountry cross-country skis come with both waxable and waxless bases, and while applying the appropriate kick wax for the current conditions you’re skiing in will allow you to climb steeper slopes, the versatility and ease of use of a waxless base is certainly something to consider.
Sizing Backcountry Cross-Country Skis
Again, the ability to weight the camber of your skis so you can effectively kick and glide is the key to knowing what length ski you need, and depending on the width of the skis and the terrain you’re planning on skiing most often, the skis’ flotation on deeper snow is something you need to consider. Consulting manufacturer specifications for what weight range is recommended is the most accurate way to go about finding the length you need.
Backcountry Cross-Country Ski Boots
Much burlier and more rugged than classic and skate boots, backcountry cross-country boots look more like high-tech hiking boots than anything else. They not only have high, supportive ankle cuffs to help you control your skis when going downhill, they also have more insulation to keep your feet warm in deeper snow and aggressively lugged outsoles for traction when bootpacking. When choosing a backcountry cross-country ski boot, size them the same way you would a pair of hiking boots (not too tight, and with room for your toes to move) to ensure your feet stay warm.
Backcountry Cross-Country Ski Bindings
There are 2 types of backcountry cross-country bindings to consider, NNN BC and 75 mm 3 pin bindings (Salomon has discontinued their XA line of backcountry cross-country bindings). They both offer the strength and durability needed to control your skis off trail.
NNN BC Bindings
NNN BC bindings are basically NNN bindings, but beefed up. They have a wider platform to fit on to backcountry cross-country skis, and the toe bar is thicker to afford more strength and control in variable terrain. NNN BC bindings can be purchased in manual or automatic configurations, with automatic bindings offering the ability to step into them and manual bindings requiring you to bend over and secure your boot to the binding yourself. Though automatic NNN BC bindings offer a lot of convenience, they can be difficult to use in deeper snow.
75 mm 3 Pin Bindings
For the traditionalist. 3 pin bindings are not only durable and offer excellent control, they are also easy to repair in the field. They work by clamping onto the duckbill of compatible boots. Their drawbacks include being somewhat fiddly to get into and out of, and being too wide for a backcountry cross-country ski that could be used on and off groomed tracks.
If you want the best lateral stability and carving power you can get on backcountry cross-country skis, look at a 3 pin cable system binding, which uses a 3 pin toe piece with spring-loaded cables attached to it. Pairing a cable system binding with a pair of telemark boots will get you down most any slope you’ll find off trail.
Waxable or Waxless Skis?
Waxless skis feature scales or mohair “skin” on the kick zone of the base of the ski that provides the traction you need to stride, and a hard, smooth surface on the rest of the base so you can glide. You should also add glide wax to the smooth parts of a waxless ski’s base (making “waxless” rather a misnomer) for more efficient gliding.
A waxable ski’s base is smooth throughout, and sticky kick wax is applied to the kick zone to provide traction. Glide wax is then applied to the rest of the base. The type of wax that you’ll apply depends on temperature and snow conditions, and thoughtful wax application is instrumental to efficient cross-country skiing.
While experienced cross-country skiers and cross-country racers typically eschew waxless skis for the ability to wax their skis based on current conditions (using the correct wax is often more effective than scales can be), waxless skis have made great advancements over the years and are nearly as good as waxable skis.
Basically, if you’d like to get out and go without much fuss, or if conditions in your area are so variable that choosing the right wax is difficult (looking at you, New England) waxless skis are a safe bet. If you prefer having the most efficient glide’n’stride (at the expense of some time and effort), or you see yourself getting really into cross-country skiing and racing, go for waxable skis.
Cross-Country Ski Poles
Cross-Country skiing poles are all relatively similar, but there are some subtle differences that are important to note depending on what style of cross-country skiing you land on, mainly concerning their height and the materials they’re made of.
Classic Cross-Country and Skate Ski Poles
Technically there isn’t too much of a difference between skate and classic poles, but generally you’ll want a much stiffer skate pole. Aluminum or lower-end fiberglass poles—what you would use for most classic cross-country skiing—are a lot softer, and so are much better suited to less energetic nordic endeavors. Once we get into a more upper body-oriented workout like classic racing or skating, we’re talking about much more arm strength being transferred into your poles. A soft pole will not transfer energy efficiently from person to snow, and can even break during high-output skating or racing. Skate poles should be a carbon/fiberglass composite! The higher the amount of carbon is in your poles, the stiffer and more efficient they’ll be.
The grips of higher-end cross-country skiing poles can be more sophisticated, often being made of cork as opposed to plastic and more ergonomically shaped for comfort and good power transfer. Some nordic skiing poles feature quick-release straps that make it easy to pick up and put down your poles. The baskets of cross-country skiing poles are quite small and asymmetrical, as they are generally only used on packed snow and groomed trails.
As far as length goes, you’ll generally want your classic cross-country ski poles to reach your armpits, and your skate skiing poles to be about as high as your chin for the best results.
Backcountry Cross-Country Poles
For backcountry cross-country skiing, look for sturdy, heavier poles that can stand up to the sort of abuse they’ll be taking off trail. Adjustable height poles are the way to go since you’ll be on variable terrain. Look for poles with large powder baskets as well, you’ll need the flotation in deeper snow.