Photo: Fotokvadrat

How To Choose the Right Cross-Country Skiing Gear

Cross-country skiing contains two broad categories: classic and skate skiing.

Downhill skiing isn’t the only way to venture into the winter wilderness. Cross-country (aka Nordic) skiing is a mellower, less adrenaline-fueled option that lets you escape the alpine resort crowds and get a killer aerobic workout to boot. The equipment is simple, trail passes are free or cheap, and it’s easy on the joints.

Cross-country skiing contains two broad categories: classic and skate skiing. Classic skiing typically involves using a back-and-forth kick-and-glide motion on groomed tracks, while skate skiing uses a rhythmic skating motion on wider groomed trails. There’s also backcountry cross-country skiing, a bridge between classic or skate skiing and alpine touring, which takes you off trail and often involves steeper terrain. Each style has its own outfitting needs with specific gear.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • How to select the hard-good essentials needed to start classic cross-country skiing, including skis, poles and boots 
  • To differentiate between the binding styles for classic cross-country and skate skis
  • Gear considerations for skate skiing and backcountry cross-country skiing 

Classic Cross-Country Skiing Gear

The classic style is probably what you think of when you picture cross-country skiing. 

Skis

Cross-country skis are light and long (for gliding efficiency) and narrow, with little sidecut, to glide straight and fit into groomed tracks. They’re designed with a springy double-camber flex that arches the ski when it’s unweighted, elevating the area underfoot. Once weighted, the ski flattens and the middle third hits the snow, where a scaled or waxed base provides grip while the other ski glides forward. Many models offer progressive flex patterns for better power transmission and easier kicking without diminishing the glide. Choose between the main classic cross-country ski types.

Waxable: These skis require applying sticky kick wax to the “wax pocket,” or middle third of the ski beneath your foot to gain traction when you stride forward. While this requires more maintenance (including using different waxes for the day’s temperature and snow conditions, as well as periodic base cleaning), many skiers want waxable skis so they can precisely match the day’s snow. Hint: Spend the time getting the wax right for the conditions to make your outing more efficient and enjoyable; too warm a wax and you’ll stick when gliding, too cold and you’ll slip backwards when striding.

Waxless: Waxless skis feature scales on the kick zone for traction, negating the need to apply kick wax. They’re much easier to use than waxable skis: Simply put them on and go. They’re also great if the conditions make choosing the right wax tricky, and recent advancements have made them nearly as good as waxable skis.

Skis with skins: A new breed of cross-country ski comes with built-in skins (like Madshus’ IntelliGrip system) for traction. Like climbing skins used for backcountry touring, their mohair is designed to glide one way and grip the other. Unlike backcountry skins, this alternative is thinner and shorter (affixed just in the kick zone), with some attached permanently and others (like a model from Salomon) interchangeable for stronger grip. On the downside, you forsake a bit of glide.

Ski Sizing: Cross-country ski length is based on your weight, height, and experience level. Shorter skis are easier to manage and turn, but offer less glide and stability; longer skis offer better glide, but are harder to handle. Check manufacturer recommendations for length, as brands vary. Hint #1: Go about 25 centimeters longer than you are tall. Hint #2: Slide a piece of paper beneath the kick zone and weight the ski. If the paper can slide out, the ski is too long; if it can’t, the ski is about right. 

Poles

Made from aluminum, fiberglass or other composites, classic Nordic poles are shorter, softer and more flexible than skate poles. Pole straps should fit easily into your gloves, allowing a modicum of support for additional propulsion. General sizing rule: They should be about armpit-high. 

Boots

Classic Nordic boots have flexible uppers to accommodate ankle movement when striding forward, plus stiff soles for stability. For torsional rigidity, most soles are either plastic or carbon, depending on your price and performance requirements; carbon is lighter, stiffer, and more expensive. Most also have gaiters over the tongue to thwart snow build-up. Try them on beforehand: They should feel snug, but not tight, with your toes barely touching the end and your heel held in place. Note: Make sure they’re compatible with your Nordic bindings. 

Photo: Gorilla

Bindings

Several different binding styles exist for classic Nordic and skate skiing, with different connection points between boot and binding; configurations of binding ridge and boot groove; and the way the binding mounts to the ski. It gets confusing fast. Know that your binding type must match your boot. Then ask your sales rep for help and advice. Below is a quick rundown: 

NNN bindings: Start here as most new boots are compatible with the NNN system, which features two plastic ridges that fit into grooves in the matching boot soles. A metal rod at the toe of an NNN boot clips into the binding as a hinge.  

NIS bindings: An NNN binding that can mount without screws to an attached NIS (Nordic Integrated System) plate. Easily adjusted, they also allow you to switch between other skis with NIS plates.

SNS Pilot bindings: These employ a single ridge running parallel to the ski that fits into a groove in a SNS Pilot boot. They also have two spots that clip onto two rods on the toe of a SNS Pilot boot for better stability, striding/gliding, and edging power (for skate skiing). With their stiffness and maximum ski contact, it was developed as a skate-specific binding. Note: SNS Pilot boots are not compatible with NNN bindings; NNN boots are not compatible with SNS bindings.  

SNS Profil bindings: As with SNS Pilot bindings, these have a single, wide ridge instead of two narrower ones, with a single toe bar instead of two. They can also accommodate SNS Pilot boots. 

ProLink bindings: These are the most versatile Nordic binding and are compatible with a wide range of boots, including NNN and Prolink. Mounting onto the ski instead of a binding plate, like the NNN binding they employ two narrow ridges running parallel to the ski that fit into corresponding grooves on compatible boots. 

Turnamic bindings: Developed by Rossignol and Fischer, these require a specialized IFP plate (Integrated Fixation Plate) mounted to the ski. Compatible with a wide range of boots (NNN, Turnamic and ProLink), they mount and adjust easily, without tools. Note: They can’t be mounted to NIS plates, and NIS bindings can’t be mounted to IFP plates. 

Three-pin bindings: These more traditional cross-country bindings feature a toe plate with three pins sticking up that clamp onto the duckbill of compatible boots. Designed for classic cross-country skiing (not skating), they’re durable and offer good control for kicking and gliding. Note: They’re wider than other bindings, sometimes hampering their fit into groomed tracks. For more lateral stability, add a spring-loaded cable that clamps around the back of your boot, a configuration used by many telemark skiers.  

Skate Skiing Gear

Skate skiing requires groomed trails or well-packed snow, with a side-to-side skating movement for propulsion instead of a kick-and-glide motion. The skis are shorter, narrower, and lighter than classic Nordic skis, and come with a single camber profile instead of double for power transmission while skating. Unlike cross-country skis that rely on kick wax, scales or skins for propulsion, they don’t have a wax pocket, so they only need glide wax that matches the conditions.

Ski Sizing

As with cross-country skis, your height, weight, and experience level determine the correct ski length; consult your sales rep and manufacturer recommendations if you’re unsure. Skate skis are generally shorter than cross-country skis. As a rule of thumb, beginners should size them about as long as they are tall, while more experienced skiers should go slightly longer (10 centimeters).

Boots

Skate ski boots are stiffer and lighter than classic boots, with higher ankle cuffs, power straps, and more rigid plastic or even carbon soles for increased power and stability while skating. (Note: Certain Combi boots with removable cuffs can be used for either classic or skate skiing). 

Poles

Utilizing more energy transfer from your arms, skate skiing poles are longer and stiffer than cross-country poles and most often made from some sort of carbon/fiberglass composite. They also feature more ergonomically shaped grips and tighter glove straps for power transfer. Sizing rule: They should be about chin-high. 

Bindings

With several new models on the market, skate ski bindings can get confusing; check with your sales rep to ensure your boots, bindings and even skis match (some skis have built-in plates that accommodate different bindings and allow for adjustability according to the conditions). 

Backcountry Cross-Country Skiing Gear

This relatively new category is designed for those who want to venture into the wilderness on gear that’s lighter than alpine touring (AT) equipment but beefier than a traditional cross-country set-up. Often equipped with scales or half-skins, the skis are narrower than AT skis, but wider than classic skis for better float and stability off-piste. Most also feature metal edges and moderate sidecut for turning (some also feature partial metal edges). Likewise, backcountry Nordic boots are heavier and offer more support than classic and skate boots, with higher ankle cuffs for support, more insulation and rugged outsoles, but are lighter than traditional AT offerings. For bindings, NNN BC bindings are a burlier version of the traditional NNN binding, with a wider base and thicker toe bar to accommodate backcountry terrain; or go with a 75-mm, three-pin binding with cable (with compatible boot). 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.