Photo: Kovaricekpavel

How To Get Started Cross-Country Skiing

Classic or skate skiing, here’s what you need to know

Cross-country, or Nordic, skiing is one of the best ways to get outside in winter: You can do it just about anywhere there’s snow, it’s great for fitness, and it connects you with the outdoors at a time when it’s easy to spend too much time indoors. It has benefits for everyone. For some, it’s just another way to explore the winter landscape, like snowshoeing but a little faster. For others, it's a workout, a great alternative to running when roads or trails are too snowy or icy. Whatever your motivation, here’s how to get started. 

In this article you’ll learn:

  • The difference between classic and skate skiing
  • What type of gear you need
  • Basic technique tips for getting started 

Types of Cross-Country Skiing

The first thing to know is that cross-country skiing is nothing like alpine skiing, so don’t assume experience at the resort will help you transition. Nordic skis are narrower, typically edgeless, and are used much differently. The biggest difference is that your boots are attached to the binding only at your toes, which allows you to lift your heel to move. The sport is divided into two main categories:

Classic Skiing

Classic skiing is the most beginner-friendly. It takes practice to go fast, but you can learn how to walk with classic skis right away. They’re also versatile; you can use them at a nordic center with groomed tracks, or in the backcountry where you can make first tracks. To go faster, you’ll learn to “kick and glide.” You ski in tracks and your skis stay mostly in-line with your direction of travel as you “kick” one in front of you and “glide” forward until it’s time to kick the other ski. Classic skis are often a little bit longer than skate skis (below), and come in both waxable and waxless versions.

Skate Skiing

Think of skate skiing like ice skating: Instead of keeping your skis parallel, you’ll splay the tips out to either side and push off the inside of each ski. These skis are typically shorter and narrower than classic skis, and are waxed with a speed wax. Skate skiing is always done on a track groomed for skating, and involves more of the core and upper body. It provides a great workout—it’s the top choice if you want to use cross-country skiing mainly for fitness—and with practice you can move quite fast. 

Skis

With either type of cross-country ski, check the manufacturer's sizing chart. It’s based on weight, as you need to be able to compress the ski (especially classic models).    

Classic Skis

Classic skis are longer and wider than skate skis (though still much narrower than alpine skis). There are two main styles of classic skis. Waxless skis feature a fish-scale pattern primarily under your foot. When you step down, the fish scales come in contact with the snow and allow you to push off. The scales are designed to slide forward but not back, enabling you to glide. Some manufacturers have started using mohair instead of fish-scale patterns underfoot, to achieve the same effect. (With either type, calling these skis “waxless” is actually a misnomer because you should wax the tips and tails.) Waxable skis have no scales or mohair, relying strictly on wax for grip. If you’re just getting going, waxless skis will be easier.

Skate Skis 

These are narrower and shorter than classics. They’re smooth on the bottom, as gliding is critical. The main thing to consider is weight and materials. A lighter ski will make skating easier, and a high-quality foam or composite core will feel livelier and more energetic.

Backcountry Skis

These are classic skis designed for the backcountry, where there are no groomed tracks. If you want to just shuffle along in the woods, these are for you. Technically, you can use any classic ski for this purpose, but if you know you’re going to be skiing primarily in the backcountry, a shorter, fatter ski with edges will serve you better. 

Photo: Stephen Matera/TandemStock

Boots

Like skis, cross-country boots are slightly different for each discipline. Classic boots are a little more flexible in the sole and ankle, with a lower cuff, and should fit like a running shoe. Skate boots are cut higher, with a stiffer sole and ankle, and they should fit more snugly, like a cycling shoe. Lightweight construction helps with either category. Lastly, it’s critical that your boots are compatible with your bindings.

Bindings

This piece of the puzzle can be confusing. Don’t get distracted by the acronyms. Just know that there are different types of bindings and your boots need to match. Most boots these days are compatible with NNN bindings (there are different versions of the NNN system, which all NNN boots will work with).

Poles

There’s not much difference between classic and skate skiing poles, except for the size. Classic poles should reach the top of your shoulder; skate poles should be a little longer, between your upper lip and nose. Either way, the lighter the better. And pay attention to the grip and strap, as this is where you get power.

Where Can You Try It?

It’s best to start cross-country skiing on groomed trails. You’ll find these at nordic centers, town parks, and golf courses. Most of these places will accommodate both styles of nordic skiers. Look for broad, wide, groomed trails for skate skiers and two parallel grooves for classic skiers. Not sure if classic or skate is for you? Many nordic centers rent gear.

If you’re looking to push your boundaries a little bit, you can take classic skis just about anywhere (skate skiers will need to stick to groomed trails). Take your skis to your local park, around your neighborhood, or right into the backcountry (caution: be aware of avalanche risk if you venture into the backcountry).

Technique

One one hand, cross-country skiing is simple. But if you want to get fast, it’s as challenging as any sport. Use these tips to get started. 

  • Start with your balance. Each step you take on your skis, you’ll be weighting just one, so with your skis on try standing on one foot to find your balance point. 
  • Go slow at first. Skis are awkward to start. Get used to them by shuffling along somewhere flat. 
  • Kick and glide. Once you have the shuffle down, try holding your weight on your front ski for just a moment, gliding with your other foot back. Then kick your back foot forward, shift your weight there and glide with that one out front. (On skate skis, you’ll use the inside edges to push off, gliding on the opposite ski.)
  • Use those poles. Pushing off with your poles is essential. You can plant both at once or one at a time (called a diagonal stride; push off with the pole opposite the ski you're kicking with). 
  • Step to turn. You can’t carve turns like with alpine skis. Instead, you’ll need to pick up and angle one ski at a time as you stride. Make small movements until you’ve made the full turn. 
  • Herringbone up hills. On gentle slopes, the wax and fish scales under your classic skis should give you enough grip, but on steeper hills you’ll want to hop out of the tracks, splay your toes outward, and put weight on the inside edges of your skis. Be careful not to trip on the tails of your skis. 
  • Pizza down hills. On gentle terrain, the friction of your skis should keep you in control headed down. But if it’s too steep, try the pizza technique to slow your descent. Just point your ski tips inward, making a shape like a slice of pizza. On mellow descents, pointing just one ski inward might be enough.

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.