Cross-country skiing is not only one of the best all-around workouts you can get, but it’s also a wonderful way to experience a winter wonderland outdoors. And with its inherent social distancing, it’s the perfect sport for winter 2020-2021.
Imagine gliding over the snow just a little faster than you can run. You’re working up a sweat, but there is no pounding. Skis skim silently over a perfectly groomed corduroy snow track that courses through the rolling forest.
Sound idyllic? Well, the world of cross-country skiing really can be. Many experts expect the sport to boom as new skiers join the ranks of nordic skiing during the pandemic.
I spoke with the most expert cross-country skier I know, my father, Lowell McCoy, to learn his opinions about the sport and what gear new skiers should buy. He bases his opinions on 15 years of level III PSIA nordic ski instruction and rental/sales experience. And if you knew him, well, you’d know he’s pretty passionate about the sport.
“Nordic skiing is an admixture of fitness, technique, and equipment. For a satisfying experience, these three should be in balance,” he said. “Nordic skiing is a somewhat technical sport. The proper equipment makes the learning curve much lower.”
Choosing Cross-Country Skis: Which Style Is Right for Me?
Before jumping into specific choices, a few words about cross-country ski styles: Nordic skiing breaks down into classic, skate, and touring designations.
Classic and touring skis are similar in that both require a forward and back striding motion to move the skier forward. Touring skis are wider and meant for use off groomed trails.
Skate skis work with a sideways push-off, similar to that used by ice skaters. They’re only meant for groomed trails.
Many websites lump backcountry skis and cross-country skis together, but they have very little in common. So I’m not including any backcountry skis (which use different boots and bindings and focus on downhill performance) in this article.
But I will include a few metal-edge touring skis — and explain when they make sense.
So let’s jump into the meat of it: the best skis for cross-country skiing, by category. At the bottom of this article, find more advice about purchasing cross-country ski gear, including fit, fitness level, and more.
This article is for beginner and intermediate skiers; experts are probably well beyond this story.
The Best Cross-Country Skis of 2020
Best Cross-Country Skis for Beginners: Rossignol Evo Series with TURNAMIC Bindings
Rossignol makes a few versions of its excellent and affordable Evo Series cross-country skis. And for beginners, we like the Evo XC and Evo XT. The Evo XC 60 Posigrip Cross-Country Skis with TURNAMIC Bindings ($265) come mounted and ready to go.
These classic skis have a shorter, wider footprint than many more advanced skis. This makes them easy to turn and maneuver for beginners. The base has a Posigrip pattern that grips snow during your kick and requires little maintenance other than some glide wax.
Check Price at REI
Great Cross-Country Skis for Beginners: Fischer Fibre Crown EF with TURNAMIC Bindings
The Fischer Fibre Crown EF is a bit of an ATV of cross-country skis. It excels for classic skiing in packed snow and ungroomed trails. The Vario Crown textured bases give good kick, grip, and glide. Fischer builds these skis for everyone from the beginner to the more advanced skier who wants to get off the groomed trails and explore social paths.
This setup with TURNAMIC bindings ($225) works with TURNAMIC, NNN, and Prolink race and touring soles.
Check Price at REI
Best Intermediate Classic Cross-Country Skis: Salomon RC 8 eSkin
If you’re interested in a little more speed on your classic skis, consider stepping up to a ski that uses skins for grip during your kick. The Salomon RC 8 eSkin ($280) has an interchangeable mohair skin base under the foot that provides excellent grip during the kick portion of your stroke. It also glides extremely well for efficient skiing.
It comes with an eSKINGRIP+ mohair insert that aims for a compromise between grip and glide. Want to go faster? Exchange them for the eSKINRACE insert for a better glide on well-groomed trails.
Check Price at REI
Best Skis for Beginning Racers: Fischer Twin Skin Superlite EF Cross-Country Skis
The Fischer Twin Skin Superlite EF ($300) also uses mohair skins for grip in these fast classic skis. But it takes things to a faster level with offset, variable-depth Twin Skins. These give you a good grip and fast, smooth glide for classic striding. You’ll have to buy bindings separately in these more advanced skis.
Check Price at REI
Cross-Country Skate Skis
For many situations, skate skiing is faster. It requires somewhat more fitness and balance than classic cross-country skiing but is still very approachable for the moderately athletic beginner. If you’ve downhill skied, you probably know the motion of skating already. So strap on these superlight skis and feel speed like you never expected on flat terrain.
Best Skate Skis for Beginners: Salomon RS 7 Skate Skis with Prolink Bindings
Designed with newer skiers in mind, the RS7 ($199) gives you a solid foundation upon which to build your skate skills. The sidecut of the RS 7 aims for stability over speed, which helps newer skaters build confidence through their stride. The base grind aims for versatility over all kinds of snow conditions.
These come with Prolink bindings, which open and close manually and are compatible with Salomon Prolink boots and other two-rail binding systems (NNN, TURNAMIC).
Check Price at REI
Beginner/Intermediate Ski: Fischer Aerolite 60 Skate Skis with TURNAMIC Bindings
Fischer just introduced the Aerolite 60 and 70 for winter 2020-2021, and it looks very promising. The Aerolite line hits a low price point ($270) while providing much of the performance of higher-level skis. It does this by implementing its air core (rather than a foam core) into the entire skate ski line — beginner skis included.
Fischer claims that the air cores provide much better power transfer than the foam counterparts. The Aerolite 60 is a great value with a partial air core. The Aerolite 70 has a full air core at a slightly higher price.
Check Price at REI
Faster Intermediate Skate Skis: Fischer CRS Skate Skis with TURNAMIC Bindings
If you’re ready to ramp up your skate speed and maybe considering racing in the future, the Fischer CRS Skate Ski ($329) is a good step up that doesn’t break the bank. The CRS uses World Cup Pro bases with a Speed Grind for easy, long-lasting waxing. The sidecut aims for speed, so you’ll give up some stability here.
But if your balance and technique are good enough to warrant a faster ski, these will pay you back in powerful, efficient strides. Additionally, you can adjust the included TURNAMIC bindings on the trail without tools to move them for the best performance for given snow conditions.
Check Price at REI
Top Ski for Intermediate Racers: Atomic Redster S7 Skate Ski
The Atomic Redster S7 ($330) is another solid choice for the intermediate skate skier aimed at race speed. At this level, you’re getting a bare ski and will need to select your own bindings, but if you’re at this level, you’ll likely want to pick your favorites anyway.
The Redster S7 has a core made from Ultra High Densolite material for a solid rebound and a smooth flex pattern. A narrow tail and a wide tip give you efficient speed. World Cup race bases hold wax well and result in a great glide.
Check Price at Backcountry
Best Cross-Country Skis With Metal Edges
The vast majority of cross-country skis don’t have metal edges. But a niche area of expedition skis provides efficiency on flats and hills with effective edges for descents.
Cross-Country Expedition Icon: Fischer E99 Crown Xtralite
The Fischer E99 ($329) is an iconic version of this style of ski. It has proven itself through the test of time. Of course, the materials and design have evolved over the years, but it’s a well-proven ski for off-trail snow.
Fischer says this ski is “designed for expeditions, available for everyone.” That explanation is apt. The Crown traction pattern gives you grip for forward progress while full metal edges give you control on steeper terrain or ice.
Check Price at Fischer
Cross-Country Expedition Ski: Asnes Amundsen
Asnes is a less-common brand to see in North America, but it builds some top-quality expedition skis. And at the heart of the brand’s offerings is the Amundsen ($379). While still light enough for covering big miles, it’s a robust ski with full metal edges.
A fish-scale pattern gives grip and allows for easy maintenance. A nylon topsheet protects the ski against damage and results in great durability. These are skin-compatible, so you can attach a short climbing skin for difficult, steep conditions.
Buyer’s Guide: How to Choose Cross-Country Skis
Speaking with Lowell McCoy, I learned a few more tips for people searching for cross-country skis. Here was his feedback.
Where you expect to use the skis is very important. Will you mostly use them at a groomed nordic center (where you probably need to purchase a ski pass) or social (dog walking) trails? Groomed trails need 65mm-wide skis or less to fit into classic tracks. Off-grooming skis should be shorter for mobility and a little wider for floatation.
For downhill-experienced beginners, a metal edge helps on downhills and increases confidence off grooming.
Consider your underfoot traction options. For experts, wax is still the gold standard. But other options are getting better and better. Skins use a soft fabric that grabs the snow for traction and work very well. A fish-scale pattern is also effective and used on many beginner skis. Fischer calls its pattern a “crown,” and Rossignol uses the term “positraction.” Both are good. Skins are faster, more expensive, and require a little maintenance.
Waxless vs. Waxable Skis
You’ll see a lot of skis called “waxless” when shopping. But in fact, there is no such thing as a “waxless” ski. While they may have traction like a fish-scale pattern, the glide zones still need occasional base wax. I recommend an easy liquid wax like Toko Express or Swix F-4. These are very easy to apply with a shoe polish foam applicator. Then just buff them with a towel.
Find the Right Fit
Fit is critical. Fit is mostly by body weight, not height. The ski doesn’t know how tall you are but knows exactly what you weigh. Skis that are too stiff or too soft are unstable, especially on downhills. Skis that are too stiff will not reliably grip and result in slipping. Too soft, and you’ll have very little glide.
Fortunately, it’s easy to know which skis to buy. Look for a marked weight range. Longer skis usually have a higher weight rating.
Spend more on quality boots. Midrange boots are a good beginner choice, offering more control.
Beware ski swap bargains. Unless you have lots of experience or the help of an expert, you risk frustration.
Shop Your Level
Don’t buy racing or expert-level equipment and hope to grow into it. High-end equipment requires high-end skiing skills.
Photo credit: REI
What Are the Best Cross-Country Skis for Beginners?
Most beginning cross-country skiers should use “light touring” gear that works with a classic skiing stride. Experienced downhill skiers who would like to transition to cross-country skiing may be able to start on skate skis if they desire, but skate skiing requires more athletic skill and balance to learn.
What Length Cross-Country Skis Should I Use?
Cross-country skis come in various lengths, but you should choose your ski length based on your weight, not height. Almost all cross-country skis come with a weight rating listed on the ski or wherever they’re sold.
What Are the Different Styles of Cross-Country Skis?
Cross-country skis come in three main types: classic, touring, and skate. Telemark skis and backcountry skis have some similarities but are much more focused on the downhill portion of skiing such as fast descents and powder turns. Those are outside the scope of this article.
Have a favorite pair of cross-country skis we missed? Let us know in the comments for future updates to this article.
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