What to Know When Buying Cross-Country Skis

As the darkness of a COVID winter looms, I plan on cross-country skiing my face off. It’s the perfect socially distant winter activity: glide off into solitary oblivion without a chairlift in sight, while getting a kick-ass, gym-free workout. I won’t be the only one out there. 

“Many people are turning to nordic, especially if they don’t live near a resort,” says Nick Sargeant, president of the industry organization Snowsports Industries America. Whether travel or general safety is your concern, cross-country skis afford beautiful independence.

“No matter what the situation is—pandemic, weather, holiday, with kids or without—we can go nordic skiing,” says Sargent, who grew up skiing two miles to school and back in Vermont. That ease of access is appealing. Shops across the country are selling much more gear than in past years; in Colorado, Boulder Nordic Sport reports seeing shortages from many manufacturers. This means now is the time to buy. 

But cross-country ski gear is undeniably confusing. There are several different types of boots and skis—and different ways to ski them—plus a complex matrix of boot-binding compatibility. Here’s our primer on how to become the nordie you’ve always wanted to be.

Use a Shop

Possibly more so than any other sport, there is massive value in working with a shop to get set up with proper skis, boots, bindings, and poles. (And many shops can help customers over the phone instead of in person, ideal in our COVID world.)

The first question will be: Do you want to ski in tracks at a nordic center or out of tracks in the backcountry? They’ll also ask what other sports you do, and what kind of experience you’re looking to have.

Skate Skis 

A young woman skate skis near Moraine Lake, Banff National Park.
(Photo: Andrew Querner/Cavan)

Skate skiing is exactly what it sounds like: each ski glides forward diagonally, similar to what happens ice skating, every stride starting with a push-off on the inside edge of the opposite ski. Anyone who likes to go fast off the bat, and who plans on skiing exclusively at groomed nordic centers, will likely gravitate toward this discipline. (Though the best way to decide whether you prefer skate or classic skiing is to rent equipment and try them both.) Skate skis have a base that’s smooth from tip to tail. 

Nathan Schultz, the owner of Boulder Nordic Sport, suggests investing in at least midrange skate skis, which cost anywhere from $300 to $500. “It’s way more fun to have high-quality stuff,” he says. “It’s less work.” Why? Higher-end base materials glide and hold wax better, and well-engineered foam or corrugated composite cores make skis lighter and livelier, moving your energy down the trail instead of absorbing it. “Inexpensive skis feel more dead and wooden,” he says.

Classic Skis

(Photo: Courtesy Devil’s Thumb Ranch Resort and Spa)

Classic skiing is what you probably think of when you picture cross-country athletes: you move your skis forward in a parallel motion, like you’re running on skis. This discipline can produce just as good of a workout as skate skiing, but it’s typically a little slower and requires more technique to unlock higher speeds. (Most beginners simply walk on skis. The true kick-and-glide motion takes awhile to learn.) Classic skiing is also more versatile. You can go fast in tracks at nordic centers or cruise around off-trail in the woods. The skis look similar to skate models in every way, except they’re usually longer and the tips curve up more. They also have a grippy kick zone under the foot. 

Classic skis come in several variations. Waxable models require you to apply a temperature-specific, sticky kick wax to this section of the base, while waxless ones have a fish-scale pattern underfoot that generates kick. In the past few years, some ski makers have started embedding mohair skins, like those used for alpine touring, into the bottom of classic skis, instead of grinding in a fish-scale pattern. (No matter which type of ski you pick, you should still apply glide wax to the tips and tails. More on that below.)

For high-performance classic skiing, mid- to upper-range waxable skis (and a good wax application) will have you kicking and gliding the fastest. However, Schultz says that waxless classic skis meant for in-track skiing work well and “remove one layer of confusion and complexity from an already technical sport.” There’s also a versatile category of waxless skis that work both in tracks and off-trail. 

Backcountry Skis

Woman cross country skiing on sunny day.
(Photo: VisualCommunications/iStock)

If you want to ski a wide range of off-trail terrain, you’ll need skis that are fatter, shorter, and have metal edges for stability and turning. Otherwise, the underfoot grip zone and the kick-and-glide forward motion are the same as they are on classic skis. “We have a lot of people come to us wanting to shuffle around the lakes and forests of Minnesota and Wisconsin,” says Jenny Beckman, general manager of the Minnesota shop Gear West. “They’re looking for a classic-style setup with very little maintenance. We direct them to waxless skis that can be used in tracks and out.” There are also burlier models that are 60 millimeters (or even fatter) underfoot and can handle low-angle trails from New Hampshire to Montana. A dedicated backcountry classic boot will keep your feet warm while offering higher levels of support for rugged terrain. This type of boot works only with a dedicated backcountry, or BC, binding

Boots and Bindings

Skate boots have a stiff sole and a high, supportive ankle cuff, and they should fit snugly, like a cycling shoe, but not as tight as an alpine boot. A classic boot is cut lower, and its sole and ankle are able to flex as you kick and glide. For fit, allow about a thumb’s width of room at the toe, like a running shoe. The same rule applies for both: A nicer boot, often made with carbon, will be lighter and stiffer, yielding better power transfer. It will also pack out less over time. If you’re interested in both skate and classic skiing, you can get away with “combi” boots, which have a structural cuff for skating and a soft enough sole to flex for classic—adequate for both, though optimal for neither. 

To a certain degree, the boot you buy will determine what kind of binding you need. (Or vice versa: if you particularly like a certain binding platform, that will limit your boot options.) Nordic boot-binding compatibility can lead you down a path of confusing acronyms. Most boots these days from brands like Alpina, Fischer, Madshus, Rossignol, and Salomon are on an NNN platform, with three NNN-compatible binding platforms—NIS, Prolink, and Turnamic. Ultimately, it’s best to ask a shop employee or a very knowledgeable friend to make sure your gear is copacetic. Skate and classic bindings systems bear the same acronyms. The main difference is that classic bindings have a softer toe bumper than a skate binding to allow more of a kick-and-glide movement. A new type of classic binding shifts up to three centimeters forward or backward. “You can shift the binding forward for extra kick or back for extra glide,” depending on the conditions, says Beckman.  


Skate and classic skiing use the same poles, just cut to different lengths. Skate poles should arrive between your upper lip and your nose when you rest the tip on the ground while wearing boots or street shoes; classic poles should reach the top of your shoulder while you’re wearing boots. Zach Caldwell of Vermont’s Caldwell Sport and West Hill Shop recommends lightweight carbon-fiber poles instead of a carbon-fiber glass blend, so you’re not swinging a heavy pendulum with every pole plant. Make sure the grips and straps fit your hands and wrists properly. “That’s where the power transfer happens,” Caldwell says.

How Much Money Are We Talking?

Top-end gear in any cross-country discipline will cost you between $700 to $1,000, but you can get a package of boots, bindings, and waxless touring skis for $350. Compare that amount to even an entry-level bike and exhale.

Taking Care of Your Gear

Caldwell advises hot waxing your ski bases at regular intervals and then using liquid rub-on wax every time you ski—even the tips and tails of classic skis, no matter what kind of classic ski you have. This helps the skis glide and keeps the bases from drying out. Skipping the hot wax and just using liquids works fine, he says, but regular hot-wax applications will help the overall performance and life span of your new skis.

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Lead Photo: Andrew Querner/Cavan

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