How to Choose Cross-Country Skis
Alpine skiing gets most of the glory, but Nordic is where it all began. Gliding across a frozen landscape with nothing but birdsong and dappled sunlight for company is a magical experience, and whether you’re in it for the solitude or the exercise, there’s a discipline, and a ski, that’s right for you.
Skinny skis can be broken down into three types. The most well-known type is the classic ski, which utilizes the stride-and-glide technique most people start out with. Classic skis are at home in specially groomed tracks, on packed trails, or in wide open, rolling spaces like meadows or golf courses. If you’re lucky enough to have easy access to groomed trails, want a killer full-body workout, or simply have a need for speed, skate skiing is for you. For off-trail skiing in more rugged terrain—exploring woods after a fresh snowfall, hitting a single-track mountain bike trail in the middle of winter, and or even skiing up and down rolling hills—you will want a Nordic touring ski.
Classic Cross-Country Skiing
Classic is the most recognizable of the cross-country skiing disciplines, and is likely where you’re starting out if you’ve never skied before.
Classic skis depend on sticky wax or a built-in grip pattern called “fish scales” on the base to give you traction, and a camber profile that allows this section to lift off the snow slightly so as not to interfere with your glide. In addition, classic skis tend to be longer to help extend your forward glide.
When you’re shopping for a classic ski, consider the following factors and features:
Intended use: Classic skis intended for racing or high performance are going to be lighter, generally skinnier, and more expensive than ‘sport’ or recreational skis. Race skis generally have a taller, stiffer camber profile that requires better technique to engage the grip area, and usually have waxable bases with a hard, fast base material.
Camber/Flex: Camber describes how the ski is shaped or bends up and away from the snow from tip to tail. Classic skis generally have a unique ‘double camber’ construction; if you were to lay them on flat ground you’d notice a high, pronounced arch at the center of the ski and a lot of ‘spring’ in the ski. This prevents the underfoot grip area on the ski from making contact with the snow when you’re gliding downhill with your weight distributed over both skis. When you’re striding in the flats, you weight one ski at a time, which is enough to engage the grip area. It is important to size your ski correctly (according to your weight) in order to allow camber to work properly.
Base: If you already have or intend to buy NNN/NIS bindings and boots, look for a ski with an NIS plate mounted to it. If you want to keep your options open, look for one with a plain flat top. On the underside, bases are either waxable (you apply kick wax to get the grip needed for uphill and glide wax to—you guessed it—increase glide) or waxless (the grip area is built in, either with fish scales or small ‘skin’ sections). Generally, fish scale bases are found on more beginner-level skis, since mastering the art of wax selection and application takes a while. However, manufacturers are coming out with increasingly sophisticated no-wax bases that offer the same convenience without sacrificing speed and performance.
Choosing a cross-country binding system can be incredibly confusing. In essence, though there are four types of classic bindings: the SNS Pilot system, SNS Profil/Propulse, NNN/NIS, and the new Prolink. Historically, classic cross-country bindings were simple: a small toe clamp would grab a bar under the toe of your boot and a rubber toe bumper provided a small amount of elasticity. The options now differ in the number of attachment points to the boot, and how the binding attaches to the ski.
SNS Pilot: SNS Pilot bindings differ from other cross-country bindings in that they have two points of contact with the boot. They are therefore only compatible with SNS Pilot boots that have the two bars embedded in the sole. This “two axle” design offers increased control and precision for skiers of all ability levels.
SNS Profil/Propulse: SNS Profil and the more flexible, high-performance race Propulse bindings have the same single-bar attachment point as NNN bindings, but the binding plate has a single wider ridge running down the middle that interfaces with a corresponding groove on the sole of compatible boots.
A sub-category of the above two is the SNS Universal, which features a design that is compatible with all SNS boots, from new Pilot models to older Profil models (which differ in design from the new Profil boots). This flexible design does not sacrifice performance but enables skiers to use new bindings with their well-worn, favorite boots.
NNN/NIS: NNN (New Nordic Norm) bindings clamp onto a bar at the front of the boot, and feature two ridges running the length of the binding that correspond to the sole of NNN-compatible boots. NIS bindings have essentially the same design, but are also compatible with skis that have an NIS mounting plate, which generally comes already installed into the ski. This allows for easy, screw-free mounting and adjustment. Keep in mind that NNN bindings aren’t compatible with any of the SNS systems, which are proprietary to Salomon and Atomic.
Prolink: The newest tech out there, the Prolink system seeks to bridge the gap between SNS and NNN systems. The Prolink bindings are compatible with both Prolink boots (from Salmon and Atomic) and NNN boots (everyone else), giving you more choices. Unlike NNN bindings, Prolink bindings mount directly to skis, allowing to boot to be closer to the ski. This works well for people who think this gives them better feel for the skis.
Because classic skiing requires a good amount of flex, classic ski boots are generally softer than their skating counterparts. They forego the high plastic or carbon cuff to make it easier to roll up onto your forefoot, instead opting for torsional stiffness in the sole to help keep you stable and moving forward, not rocking side to side. Atomic and Salomon boots work with SNS bindings, while everything else is compatible with the NNN/NIS system, unless otherwise specified.
Construction: There are no big surprises here. Recreational or ‘sport’ boots are roomier and warmer, while race boots are stiffer, narrower, cut a little lower, and often feature carbon instead of plastic soles. Almost all have a quick-lace system, zip-up lace cover, and hook-and-loop or ratcheting ankle strap. Some have an adjustable heel strap. ‘Combi’ models have a removable cuff so you can also use them for skate skiing, where extra support is appreciated.
Compatibility: SNS Pilot boots, which feature two bars, or ‘axles,’ and a full-length depression in the sole that interfaces with a ridge on SNS bindings, work with Pilot, Propulse, most Profil bindings, and the SNS Universal binding. Single-axle SNS Profil boots work only with Profil bindings and the Universal binding. NNN/NIS and Prolink boots work with NNN/NIS bindings and the new Prolink bindings.
Four styles of boots (L to R): SNS Pilot, with the characteristic 2 bars; SNS Profil, with one bar; Prolink, with an NNN-compatible sole; and a touring version of NNN boots, with a wider sole and bar.
Skate skiing is faster than classic skiing, and popular with cross-country skiers looking for a fast-paced workout on groomed trails.
To support the need for quick, agile movement, skate skis are generally shorter and have a lower tip and less camber than classic skis; they also have little to no sidecut. Skate skis gain speed from edging and pushing (similar to ice skating), so the flex profile is stiff and snappy for efficiency and power.
Intended use: Skate skis intended for racing are lighter and have narrower tips than ‘sport’ or recreational skis. They also feature a harder, faster base material that allows them to glide faster than their recreational counterparts.
Camber/Flex: Skate skis have a camber profile that’s longer and flatter than that of classic skis, which allows you to push off the edges more efficiently. They also have a stiff flex designed to feel snappy and quick. Racers, heavier skiers, or those expecting to be on on hard-packed, icy tracks will want to look for a somewhat stiffer ski.
Top & Base: If you already have or intend to buy NNN/NIS bindings and boots, look for a ski with an NIS plate mounted to it. If you want to keep your options open, look for one with a plain flat top to which you can mount any binding. On the underside you’ll find bases built for speed; since you’re using the ‘skate’ edging motion to propel yourself, glide is your only concern. Therefore, you don’t need grip areas or kick wax.
Options for skate bindings are essentially the same as for classic bindings. There are four types of skate bindings: the SNS Pilot system, SNS Profil, NNN/NIS, and Prolink. These options differ in the number of attachment points to the boot, and how the binding attaches to the ski.
SNS Pilot: SNS Pilot bindings differ from other cross-country bindings in that they have two points of contact with the boot. They are therefore only compatible with SNS Pilot boots that have the two bars embedded in the sole. This “two axle” design is ideal for skate skiers of any ability, offering a blend of stability, torsional rigidity, and power transmission.
SNS Profil: SNS Profil skate bindings have the same single-bar attachment point as NNN bindings, but the binding plate has a single wider ridge running down the middle that interfaces with a corresponding groove on the sole of compatible boots. These bindings work with any SNS boot and can be mounted on any flat ski.
NNN/NIS: NNN (New Nordic Norm) bindings clamp onto a bar at the front of the boot, and feature two ridges running the length of the binding that correspond to the sole of NNN-compatible boots. NIS bindings have essentially the same design, but are also compatible with skis that have an NIS mounting plate. This allows them to be installed easily and adjusted on the fly.
Prolink: The new Prolink system from Salomon/Atomic seeks to bridge the gap between SNS and NNN systems. The Prolink bindings are compatible with both Prolink boots (from Salmon and Atomic) and NNN boots (everyone else), giving you more choices. Unlike NNN bindings, Prolink bindings mount directly to skis, allowing to boot to be closer to the ski. This works well for people who think this gives them better feel for the skis.
Of all the Nordic disciplines, skating is the fastest and, correspondingly, requires the stiffest boots. Skate boots use a plastic or carbon cuff for additional ankle support and a stiff sole to create a powerful platform for push-off when you’re skating. ‘Combi’ models have a removable cuff so you can use them for skate and classic skiing. Atomic and Salomon boots work with SNS bindings, while everything else is compatible with the NNN/NIS system, unless otherwise specified.
Fit/Closure: Recreational or ‘sport’ boots are roomier and warmer, while performance/race boots are stiffer, narrower, and often feature carbon cuffs and soles that make them very stiff and super lightweight. Almost all boots have a quick-lace system, a zippered lace cover, and a hook-and-loop or ratcheting ankle strap. Some race boots have instep ratchets for increased snugness and better control.
Compatibility: SNS Pilot boots, which feature two bars, or ‘axles’ and a full-length groove in the sole that interfaces with a ridge on SNS bindings, work with Profil and Pilot bindings. Single-axle SNS Profil boots work only with Profil bindings, and NNN/NIS boots only with NNN/NIS bindings.
Reach for a Nordic touring/backcountry ski when you want to explore the hills and woods and not be bound to groomed trails.
Nordic Touring Skis
Narrower and lighter than alpine or telemark skis but bigger and burlier than classic skis, Nordic touring skis are ideal for rough trails, ungroomed exploration, deep snow. Some skis have metal edges for steeper and deeper terrain; if you want to be able to ski groomed tracks, too, look for one without metal edges.
Intended Use: Made for exploring ungroomed areas, rough trails, and deep snow, Nordic touring skis are wider, heavier, and tougher than skate and classic skis. They excel in rough terrain where downhills are common but uphills more frequent, and like to make their own way instead of following preset tracks.
Camber/Flex: Most Nordic touring skis have a traditional camber that flattens when it’s weighted and bows up when it’s unweighted; it is therefore important to choose a ski appropriate to your height, weight, and ability. Skis designed for deep snow may have a rockered tip to prevent ‘diving’.
Construction: Skis with metal edges skis tend to be shorter and more rugged, while edge-less skis are longer, lighter, and work well on trails and groomed tracks, too.
Length/Width: Wider skis offer stability and float in deep snow, while a narrower ski provides better maneuverability and glide. If you’re planning on taking the touring ski on groomed tracks as well, look for a ski that measures no more than 68mm at its widest point.
Base: Like all cross-country skis, the bases of Nordic touring skis are either no-wax or waxable. Some prefer the versatility and convenience of skis with a fishscale base that grips without the need for wax. Others prefer the speed and performance of waxable skis; however, they do require that you choose a wax that precisely matches snow conditions and temperatures. If these are going to be changing dramatically over the course of the day, you’ll need to be sure to bring along a variety of waxes or plan carefully.
Nordic Touring Bindings
There are three primary Nordic touring/backcountry binding options: a traditional three-pin binding (also referred to as 75mm), SNS XA, or NNN BC. All of these options make it easy to control your skis, and are more rugged than standard Nordic skiing bindings. The three-pin binding is easy to use and repair but can be too wide for groomed Nordic tracks, while the NNN BC, Prolink, and SNS XA bindings offer step-in convenience.
System: NNN BC bindings use a small clamp that secures a bar at the toe of your boot. SNS XA bindings are similar, but have smaller toe bar and a modified binding plate with a large ridge that runs from toe to heel to help guide the boot. Three-pin bindings, much like most telemark bindings, attach by means of metal pins that align with holes in the front of the boot and a small clamp that presses the ‘duckbill’ of the boot down into the pins.
Boot Compatibility: Your boot and binding types must use the same system. NNN BC bindings work with NNN BC boots. SNS XA bindings require SNS XA boots and are not compatible with NNN. Three-pin bindings work with traditional three-pin duckbill boots or telemark boots.
Ski Compatibility: You can mount three-pin, SNS, and NNN BC bindings on any flat Nordic ski. Just like classic and skate skis, NNN touring bindings may also be mounted to skis equipped with an NIS mounting plate. You will just need to make sure that you are using a touring/backcountry XC ski that is wide enough to accommodate the wider backcountry binding.
Nordic touring boots are bigger, burlier, and often feature a 3-pin (aka 75mm) attachment system similar to classic telemark bindings.
Nordic Touring Boots
Nordic touring boots are heavier and more supportive than classic or skate boots, to help you handle more variable terrain in the backcountry and execute turns when necessary. Some are made of leather, some of synthetic fabrics, and some will feature an external hinged cuff for extra support. They usually feature insulation and waterproof construction to keep your foot warm in deeper snow and during longer outings. Outsoles are usually heavier, with a deep, rugged tread. Lace covers and/or built-in ankle gaiters add extra waterproof protection when you’re in deep snow.
Size your Nordic touring boot much like the way you size a comfortable running shoe, and keep in mind that the sizing between brands can vary.
Nordic ski poles are probably the least interesting piece of gear on this list, but good luck making any headway without them. They help propel you forward and improve your balance, so skiing without poles is only really done as a training exercise by experienced skiers trying to improve their technique.
Intended Use: There isn’t much difference between classic and skate poles, which really differ only in height. Nordic touring poles are generally stronger and often height-adjustable, so they offer more versatility in changing conditions.
Construction: Entry-level poles are generally made from composite or aluminum, which are strong and affordable, while race poles are often made from carbon fiber, which is lighter but more prone to breaking.
Grips/Straps: There are many grip and strap options available. Entry-level poles often have simple one-piece plastic grips and adjustable nylon straps, while more advanced poles have grips made from rubber and cork. Skate and classic poles often have cradle-style straps that cinch around your palm for increased control, and can be removed quickly from the grip to save the hassle of frequent undoing and redoing.
Baskets: There is no difference between classic and skate baskets. They’re small, because they are designed to work on groomed tracks and hard-packed snow, and don’t offer nearly the flotation of larger Nordic touring baskets, which need to support you in soft snow. All baskets come with a metal tip, which helps the pole grip icy snow so you don’t slip when you’re pushing off.