Cross-country skiing is a great activity for all ages and skill levels. If you’re looking to get started in cross-country skiing, it’s important to know what the different types of skis are and how they differ from one another.
Before purchasing your first pair of cross country skis, it can be hard to figure out which style will work best for you. The two main styles are classic touring and skate skiing, but there are also many other factors that affect the type of ski that will suit your needs best.
Check out this guide on types of cross-country skis before making any big decisions. We’ll help explain each type so you can narrow down what type of skis you need or what you want to try out if you’re renting equipment.
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Nordic skiing vs Cross-country Skiing
Many people use these terms interchangeably, and while they can refer to the same thing, technically, they can also mean different things depending on who you talk to.
Nordic skiing could refer to any given style of skiing happening on ungroomed terrain, including cross-country skiing, telemark skiing, and backcountry skiing. Cross-country skiing, on the other hand, typically refers to flat or rolling terrain with groomed trails containing thin parallel tracks that help you glide more smoothly and easily along the trail.
Basically, cross-country skiing is Nordic skiing, but not all Nordic skiing is cross-country style.
Classic Touring Cross Country Skis
Classic cross country skis are designed for use on groomed trails with set parallel tracks. Classic touring skis are the most common type of cross country ski with pretty universal use. Then there are backcountry skis and skate skis that tend to be more specialized and should only be used for backcountry travel or skate skiing. Classic skis are a good option for those who want to ski on well-maintained trails.
While classic xc skiing, your feet, and skis will stay parallel to each other and pointed forward. You then push off of alternate legs, along with your ski poles, to propel yourself forward, gliding as much as possible.
Skate Cross Country Skis
Skate skiing is somewhat different from classic xc skiing and can be used in a variety of different locations but is mostly done on wide, smooth trails that have been flattened out by grooming. Think of skate skiing as a cousin to rollerblading, where you have a much wider stance and rock side to side, with your skis and feet pointed outward at an angle. This usually allows you to move forward faster than on classic touring xc skis.
Backcountry Cross Country Skis
Backcountry ski equipment is designed to be used on ungroomed snow that does not have set tracks for you to use as a guide. Backcountry skis have metal edges that are used to grip the snow. This type of skiing is typically done with a pack and poles, where you might be skinning uphill, then skiing across slopes or ridges rather than on level ground or trails.
While classic cross country skiing or skate skiing is relatively safe and accessible, backcountry skiing should not be attempted without proper training or going with an experienced guide or very experienced friend. We won’t be focusing too much on backcountry skiing in this post.
Flex and Camber Of Cross Country Skis
Two big characteristics of cross country skis are camber and flex. Camber refers to the curve or arch in the ski from tip to tail. Typically, skate skis and backcountry skis will be single camber, with a gradual arch. While classic cross country skis are typically double camber, with a higher, more pronounced arch.
Flex is the level of stiffness or flexibility that a ski’s camber has. Cross country skis are much more flexible than the downhill skis or Alpine skis that you’ve likely seen at the big ski resorts. Too much flex and your ski will be bending or bowing beneath the weight of your foot and not enough pressure will be placed on the tips and tails of the ski. Too little flex, and you won’t be able to get very good traction to propel yourself forward.
Waxable Cross Country Skis
What are waxable cross country skis? Waxable skis rely on grip wax applied to the middle of the ski to help you gain traction to propel yourself forward, while glide wax applied to the tips and tails of the skis helps you glide faster and farther with each push. Waxable skis are often used by cross-country ski racers.
Waxless Cross Country Skis
What are waxless cross country skis? Waxless cross country skis are, just as they sound, a type of ski that does not need wax applied. Waxless skis are more common among recreational skiers because they don’t require a lot of maintenance. Instead of grip wax, they rely on bumpy scales on the bottom middle part of the ski to help you get the traction needed to push forward. Even though they are ‘waxless’ you can still use glide wax on the tips and tails for a smoother experience.
Cross Country Ski Cut, Length, and Sizing
Sidecut vs Reverse Sidecut
Sidecut skis have slightly thicker tips and tails and become more narrow in the middle of the ski near the bindings. These are generally better for backcountry skis, designed for both groomed and ungroomed terrain, and facilitate better turns.
Reverse sidecut skis are thicker in the middle, near the bindings, and have more narrow tips. These are perfect for helping you get traction on groomed cross country trails and help you glide farther with each forward motion.
Ski Length and Sizing
The length and size of cross country skis that you buy or use depend largely on your weight. You’ll need skis with enough camber to provide just the right amount of ‘bounce back’ against the weight of your body to help you glide more easily while still providing enough ‘give’ to make contact with the snow and provide traction.
The size of your cross-country skis will also depend on your preferred style of skiing. For example, classic cross country skis are significantly longer and have more camber than skate skis. You’d be tripping all over yourself if you tried to go skate skiing on classic skis! If you’re buying your first pair of skis, you should definitely go to a gear store or outfitter to get properly sized up.
XC Ski Bindings
Before you can ski on your cross country skis, you’ll need to attach your boots. This is an attachment that happens in the bindings of the skis. The binding should be a touring binding designed for xc skiing. If you’re purchasing skis without bindings, your local outfitter or ski shop should be able to help you choose the best bindings for your skis and install them for you, but here are the two main types of bindings you’ll see for cross country skiing.
Classic XC Ski Bindings vs Skate Ski Bindings
One of the most popular and traditional types of ski bindings uses a New Nordic Norm/NIS system that clamps to the toe bar of the boot and two ridges fall in line with your ski boot’s sole. This method is still in use today on most classic xc skis, but now there are also the SNS Profil and SNS Pilot bindings as well.
SNS Profil uses the same toe bar clamp as the NNN/NIS, but it has one central ridge that falls in line with a groove on the sole of SNS Profil-compatible boots. With SNS Pilot systems, there are actually two bars, instead of one, which provides an even more stable skiing experience. Skate skis typically can have any kind of binding system on them.
XC Ski Boots
Much to Americans detriment, cross country ski boots almost always come in European sizes. So unless you’re just replacing an old pair of boots with a new pair of the same brand and size, it’s best to go to an outfitter to get sized and try boots on.
You’ll want your ski boots to fit pretty snug, so your skis will respond to the movement of your feet instead of your feet just flopping around inside loose boots!
Classic XC Ski Boots vs Skate Ski Boots
The most important thing is that you purchase boots that are specifically made to be attached to your ski bindings. Once you know what kind of binding you have, then you can start trying boots on and find a pair that feels good for you.
Classic ski boots are typically softer, have more insulation, and are made for comfort on long trails. Skate ski boots are typically more stiff, sturdy and provide more ankle support for more control while skate skiing.
XC Ski Poles
Cross country ski poles are an essential piece of equipment for any cross country skier. They are used to propel the skier forward, especially on the uphills, and help you keep your balance. There are a couple of different types of cross-country ski poles, so you’ll want to find a pair that you feel comfortable with.
Ski Pole Length and Sizing
The first thing you need to think about is the primary style of cross country skiing you’ll be doing, and then how long the pole is compared to your body and build.
Cross country ski poles typically come in sizes 120 cm up to 165 cm. The length of the pole depends on your style of skiing. If you’ll be classic or traditional cross country skiing, choose poles that come up to about your armpits. If you’ll be racing or skate skiing, you may want longer poles, up to your chin or lips, to give you a longer, more powerful stride while skiing.
The other important part of selecting cross country ski poles is the basket, so it doesn’t easily get stuck in the snow. Baskets vary by brand and model, but typically they are fixed on and not adjustable. These are also specific for the forward pushing motion of cross country skiing, which means that your regular hiking poles or downhill ski poles might not work the best for cross country skiing.
I hope this blog post has helped you understand more about the types of cross-country skis and styles, as well as what you need to know before starting to ski. Whether you are an experienced Nordic skier looking for a new type of challenge or somebody who is just curious about skiing in general, there’s something here for everyone!
Now it’s time to go out and try it! A great place to start is to see if your local ski resort or golf course provides any cross-country ski rentals, lessons, or events.
For more winter hiking, skiing and snowshoeing tips, check out:
- Cross Country Skiing Tips For Beginners
- Snowshoeing Tips For Beginners
- Winter Hiking Essentials To Keep In Your Pack
About the author, Mallory Moskowitz:
After studying Recreation, Park & Tourism Management, Mallory spent several years teaching environmental education, guiding hikes, and leading backcountry trips. Her life-changing trek from Georgia to New York on the Appalachian Trail is what sparked the creation of Your Adventure Coach, to share backpacking tips and resources with as many new hikers as possible.