Cross Country Ski Guide

Cross country, XC, Nordic—whatever you call it—cross country skiing gives you one of the best aerobic workouts on the planet. It works every key muscle group and gets you outside when everyone else is bored to death in the gym. But finding the right gear is far from easy. You have to contend with distinct styles of XC skis like Classic, Skate, and Backcountry, not to mention decipher the different binding systems and boots. This guide tries to simply things, so you can get out there on the style of ski that best suits you.

Classic/Combi Skate Touring/Backcountry
Classic/Combi Skis
Skate Skis
Touring/BC Skis

Defining Features:

Classic
  • Traditional stride-and-glide; think: "Nordic Track."
  • Have scales or grip-wax on the middle third of base for traction on the snow during kick phase; glide-wax on the tip and tail for glide.
  • Double camber that raises middle, which lifts wax/scales out of the snow to help glide.
  • For groomed trails.

Defining Features:

Skate
  • Movement is much like ice skating—push forward with inner edge of ski.
  • Generally more intense aerobic workout than Classic.
  • Shorter / narrower / stiffer skis.
  • Single camber – which you use to propel forward.
  • No fish scales or grip wax.
  • For groomed trails.

Defining Features:

Touring/Backcountry
  • For going off set trails and into deep untracked snow.
  • Shorter, wider, and more durable than Classic skis.
  • Wide width = more floatation in deep snow.
  • Full-length metal edges.
  • Slight camber for kick motion.
  • Either wax/waxless.
  • More sidecut for turning ability on descents.
Combi
  • "Stride & Glide" or skate-style.
  • Waxable skis only - remove grip-wax for skate skiing.
  • For groomed trails.

Sizing

Length

The old method of sizing—stand with one armed raised and measure from your wrist to ground—is far from foolproof. Nowadays, each manufacturer has very specific sizing for every model of ski, so be sure to view the sizing chart for any ski. The main factors determining length are skiier weight and ability:

Sizing

Length

As a very general rule, take: Your Height (inches) X 2.6 +15 = length of ski (cm). Or if you're not into formulas, figure your height out in cm and add 5-10cm. As with Classic skis, the optimal length of ski for you depends on your weight and skill level, so please consult the applicable sizing chart.

Sizing

Length
Backcountry/touring (both On/Off and Off Trail) skis are shorter and wider than Classic cross country skis. Their sizing is more akin to telemark skis (which is a close cousin). Therefore, please consult the individual sizing chart for each ski.

Skiier Ability:

  • Beginner/Intermediate: Look for a medium-flex ski with a moderate camber and a bit more width. Less Camber + Less Flex+ More Width = More Stability.
  • Intermediate/Advanced: Look for a stiff ski with more camber and narrower width. Camber + Stiff + Narrow = Speed.

Camber, Flex & Skier Weight:
The camber and flex in skate skis power your movement. Not enough camber, and you lose power when you're pushing; too much camber makes it difficult to stay in control and push on the tips and tails. When you're starting out, look for a medium flex ski with a moderate camber.

Width
Touring/BC skis with widths narrower than about 68/60/65mm (tip/waist/tail) are made for both on and off trail use—they're wide enough for some floatation, but narrow enough to fit into the a set track. These skis are great for packed roads, snowmobile tracks, and Classic skiers looking for more stability.

Skis wider than 68/60/65mm are ideal for off-trail use, usually in deep untracked snow. Their wide design provides floatation and a healthy sidecut makes turning easier on the decent.

Skier Weight/Ski Flex:
If the Classic ski is too stiff for your weight, then you won't get traction because the wax/grip pattern won't track on the snow. If you're too heavy for the ski, then you'll struggle since the grip pattern has too much contact with the snow.

  • Lighter Skiers: Look for a medium flex ski with a moderate camber.
  • Heavier Skiers: Look for a medium-stiff ski with more camber.

Bindings:

There are primarily three boot/binding systems: NNN (which includes NIS), SNS Profil, and SNS Pilot. NNN/NIS and SNS Profil are generally used for Classic or Combi, while SNS Pilot is geared towards professional racers (Skate & Classic).

IMPORTANT: These systems are NOT interchangeable, so make sure your boot is compatible with your binding. While there is much debate over superiority, to the average user, the differences between NNN and SNS Profil are miniscule. Tip: Buy your boots / bindings at the same time.

  • Classic Only: Get SNS Profil or NNN/NIS designed for classic skiing.
  • Combi: Get SNS Profil, SNS Pilot Classic (for racing performance), or NNN/NIS designed for combi.

Bindings:

NNN/NIS and SNS Pilot bindings are designed for skating. IMPORTANT: These systems are NOT interchangeable, so make sure your boot is the same system as your binding. Tip: Buy your boots / bindings at the same time.

Bindings:

Backcountry/Touring bindings employ the same systems as Classic, but in more sturdy and robust designs. Again, be sure your boots and bindings are from the same systems. Backcountry/Touring binding systems:
  • NNN-BC: For NNN boots
  • SNS X-Adventure: For Salomon boots (SNS)

Boots

  • Size your boots like you would tennis shoes. See applicable sizing chart.
  • Make sure your boots are compatible with your binding system.NNN boot with NNN bindings or SNS w/SNS bindings
  • Classic Boots: It's all about comfort and stability. For more support, look for a boot with a mid-ankle cuff.
  • Combi Boots: Stiffer and higher cut than classic boots. Stiffer for more power, higher cuff for more support.

Boots:

  • Size your boots like you would tennis shoes. See applicable sizing chart.
  • Make sure your boots are compatible with your binding system. NNN with NNN bindings or SNS w/SNS bindings
  • Skate boots are generally higher, stiffer, and reinforced around the heel and ankle.
  • Designed to transfer power to your skis.

Boots:

  • Size your boots like hiking boots, but it's recommended to have a slightly snugger fit if you'll be doing more downhill.
  • Taller, stouter than Classic or Skate boots (think: burly hiking or mountaineering boots).
  • More ankle support – necessary for turning when off-trail.
  • Stiff lateral support.
  • Stiff sole.
  • NNN Boots only compatible with NNN-BC bindings / SNS Boots only compatible with SNS X-Adventure bindings

Poles:

  • Classic: If you will primarily be on flat land, use the old standby—poles should fit under your armpits. If you'll be climbing more, get slightly long poles—top of shoulder/bottom of chin to floor.
  • Combi: Get poles slightly longer—bottom of chin to floor.

Poles:

  • Should be around the height of your mouth (roughly 90% of your height).
  • Feature specialized wrist straps to help push.
  • Get a pole specialized for Skate skiing.

Poles:

We highly recommend telescoping ski poles with medium to large baskets:

  • Adjust longer when you're ascending.
  • Adjust shorter for descending.
  • Larger baskets work better in loose snow.
Price: You don't need to go out and buy the best poles out there. Just be sure you get a pair of XC ski poles and not ones designed for alpine skiing.
  • Classic: Consider a mid-stiff pole, made out of aluminum. Something mid-range will work great.
  • Combi: Look for slightly stiffer poles (aluminum with carbon composite).
Price: The more carbon a pole has, the more expensive it's going to be. Carbon adds ridigity and strength. When you're starting out a good mid-range pole will do the trick. Just be sure it's a skate ski pole. Price: Lightness and the length-adjusting systems determine price with telescoping poles. So it all comes down to personal preference.

Considerations:

For Classic: Should I get skis that take grip-wax? Or ones that are waxless (i.e. have scales on the bottom)?

Advantages of Waxed Skis:
  • Specialized: You match the wax to the snow conditions.
  • Performance: Better kick, glide (provided you have the right wax)
  • Better in areas with fairly stable weather/snow conditions.
Advantage of Waxless Skis:
  • Easy to use: Excellent grip, slower glide, more control.
  • Versatile: Handle various snow conditions well, but don't work that great on ice.
  • Better in areas of high snowfalls or where snow goes through freeze/thaw cycles.
  • Clean: No messy wax to apply.

Considerations:

Skate Skiing is quite a challenge and learning usually entails flailing around on groomed trails (preferably after dark, when no one's looking). We suggest taking a lesson from a local ski club. A little coaching will go a long way to teaching you the right technique.

Considerations:

Since much of your time will be spent in the backcountry, it is imperative that you take the necessary avalanche precautions. Not only do you need an avalanche beacon, backpack, shovel, and probe, but also the knowledge and awareness to stay safe. There are many organizations across North America that offer avalanche courses throughout the winter. We cannot stress enough the importance of avalanche safety. See www.avalanche.org for more information.

Shop All Cross Country Ski Gear

Check out our entire selection. Why stop there? We have what it takes to outfit you for the backcountry: shop ski clothing, goggles, avalanche safety, and more.