What you must know when shopping for cross-country skis

As the darkness of a COVID winter looms, I plan to go cross-country skiing. It’s the perfect socially distant winter activity: Glide into lonely oblivion with no chairlift in sight and exercise without a gym. I won’t be the only one out there.

“A lot of people turn to the Nordic language, especially when they don’t live near a resort,” said Nick Sargeant, president of the industry organization Snowsports Industries America. Whether traveling or general safety is your concern, cross-country skis offer a nice independence.

“Whatever the situation – pandemic, weather, vacation, with or without kids – we can ski,” says Sargent, who grew up two miles to school and back in Vermont. This easy access is appealing. Stores across the country sell much more equipment than they have in years past. In Colorado, Boulder Nordic Sport reports bottlenecks at many manufacturers. This means that now is the time to buy.

But cross-country equipment is undoubtedly confusing. There are different types of boots and skis – and different ways of riding them – as well as a complex matrix of compatibility with boot binding. Here’s our introduction to how you can become the Nordie you always wanted to be.

Use a shop

Perhaps more than any other sport, there is great value in working with a store to set up the right skis, boots, bindings, and sticks. (And many stores can help customers over the phone rather than in person, ideal in our COVID world.)

The first question is: Do. Would you like to ski on routes in a Nordic center or outside the routes in the hinterland? They will also ask what other sports you do and what kind of experience you would like to have.

Skate ski

(Photo: Andrew Querner / Cavan)

Skating is exactly what it sounds like: Each ski glides forward diagonally, similar to ice skating Step starting with an imprint on the inside edge of the opposite ski. Anyone who likes to get started quickly and ski exclusively in groomed Nordic centers will likely be interested in this discipline. (The best way to decide whether you prefer skating or classic skiing is to rent equipment and try both.) Skate skis have a base that is smooth from tip to tail.

Nathan Schultz, the owner of Boulder Nordic Sport, suggests investing in at least midrange skate skis, which cost between $ 300 and $ 500. “It’s a lot more fun to have good quality stuff,” he says. “It’s less work.” Why? High quality base materials slide and hold wax better, and sophisticated foam or corrugated composite cores make skis lighter and more lively, moving your energy along the way rather than absorbing it. “Inexpensive skis feel more dead and wooden,” he says.

Classic skis

people-classic-nordic-ski_h.jpg(Photo: Courtesy Devil’s Thumb Ranch Resort and Spa)

Classic skiing is what you probably think of when you imagine cross-country skiers: you move your skis forward in parallel, as if you were walking on skis. This discipline can exercise just as well as skating, but is usually a little slower and requires more technique to unlock higher speeds. (Most beginners just ski. Learning the real kick-and-glide movement takes a while.) Classic skiing is also more versatile. You can quickly follow tracks in Nordic centers or drive off-piste in the forest. The skis look similar to skate models in all respects except that they are typically longer and the tips curve more. They also have a grippy tread zone under the foot.

Classic skis are available in different versions. Waxable models require you to apply a temperature-specific sticky kick wax to this section of the base, while waxless models have a fish scale pattern underfoot that creates a kick. In recent years, some ski makers have begun embedding mohair skins, such as those used for alpine touring, into the bottom of classic skis instead of grinding them in a fish scale pattern. (No matter what type of ski you choose, you should still apply glide wax to the tips and tails. More on this below.)

In classic high-performance skiing, you can step and glide the fastest with waxable skis of medium to high range (and a good wax application). However, Schultz says that waxless classic skis designed for on-track skiing work well and “remove a layer of confusion and complexity from an already technical sport”. There is also a versatile category of waxless skis that work on both trails and off-road.

Backcountry skis

Woman cross country skiing on sunny day.(Photo: VisualCommunications / iStock)

If you want to ride a wide range of off-trail terrain, you need skis that are thicker and shorter and have metal edges for stability and cornering. Otherwise, the grip zone under the feet and the kick-and-glide forward movement are the same as with classic skis. “We have many people who come to us to explore the lakes and forests of Minnesota and Wisconsin,” said Jenny Beckman, general manager of Minnesota business Gear West. “You are looking for a classic setup with very little maintenance. We direct them to waxless skis that can be used on trails and outdoors. “There are also burlier models that are 60 millimeters (or even thicker) underfoot that can tackle low-angle trails from New Hampshire to Montana. A special backcountry classic keeps your feet warm and at the same time offers more support for rough terrain. This type of boot only works with a dedicated backcountry or BC binding.

Boots and bindings

Skate shoes have a stiff sole and a high, supportive ankle cuff. They should be snug, like a cycling shoe, but not as tight as an alpine shoe. A classic boot is cut lower and its sole and ankle can bend when stepping and sliding. Allow about one thumb for fit the toe like a running shoe. The same rule applies to both: a nicer shoe, which is often made of carbon, is lighter and stiffer and offers better power transmission. Over time it will also unpack less. If you’re into both skating and classic skiing, you can get away with “combi boots” that have a structural sleeve for skating and a sole that is soft enough to bend for classic skiing – sufficient for both, but optimal for both.

To a certain extent, the boot you buy will dictate what type of binding you will need. (Or, conversely, if you particularly like a particular binding platform, it will limit your boot options.) Nordic boot binding compatibility can lead you down a path of confusing acronyms. Most boots from brands such as Alpina, Fischer, Madshus, Rossignol and Salomon are now on an NNN platform with three NNN compatible binding platforms – NIS, Prolink and Turnamic. Ultimately, it is best to ask a shop clerk or very knowledgeable friend to make sure your gear is co-package. Skate and classic binding systems have the same acronyms. The main difference is that classic bindings have a softer toe bumper than a skate binding to allow for more kick-and-glide movements. A new type of classic binding moves up to three centimeters forwards or backwards. “You can slide the binding forward for extra kick or backward for extra gliding,” says Beckman.


Skate and classic skiing use the same poles, just cut to different lengths. Skate sticks should arrive between your upper lip and nose when you let the tip rest on the ground with boots or street shoes. Classic bars should reach your shoulder while wearing boots. Zach Caldwell of Vermont’s Caldwell Sport and West Hill Shop recommends lightweight carbon fiber poles rather than a carbon fiber glass blend so you don’t swing a heavy pendulum with every pole plant. Make sure the handles and straps fit your hands and wrists properly. “That’s where the power transmission takes place,” says Caldwell.

How much money are we talking about?

Top-end gear in any cross-country discipline costs anywhere from $ 700 to $ 1,000, but you can purchase a bundle of boots, bindings, and waxless touring skis for $ 350. Even compare that amount to an entry-level bike and breathe out.

Take care of your equipment

Caldwell recommends hot waxing your ski bases at regular intervals and then using liquid rub wax every time you ski – even the tips and tails of classic skis, no matter what type of classic ski you have. This helps the skis glide and prevents the surfaces from drying out. Skipping the hot wax and using liquids work just fine, he says, but regular hot wax applications will add to the overall performance and life of your new skis.

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Main photo: Andrew Querner / Cavan

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