Cross-country skiers

Cross-country skiing encompasses several styles, from touring or racing on groomed ski tracks to gliding through deep backcountry snow. The one common characteristic? Your heel is always “free” (not connected to the ski).

This article covers cross-country touring, either in track or out, and metal-edge ski gear. For skate skiing or racing, read the REI Expert Advice article, Skate Skiing Gear: How to Choose.

Cross-Country Skis

Choose from general touring skis designed for track skiing or metal-edge skis made for skiing out-of-track or on steeper terrain.

  • Touring skis are generally longer, narrower and lighter than metal-edge skis. These characteristics make the skis faster and more efficient on groomed trails (tracks).
  • Metal-edge touring skis are typically shorter for better maneuverability, wider for more stability and flotation in deeper snow and have metal edges for better grip in icy conditions. Their greater sidecut enhances turning ability on steeper slopes. All these features make them heavier but more suitable for out-of-track terrain.

Cross-country touring skis

Ski Length

Measured in centimeters, ski lengths have gradually been getting shorter thanks to new technology and design. For some skis you may still be able to select the right length by simply raising your arm and measuring to your wrist. But, in most cases, body weight is now the main determining factor (on REI.com, click on the “specs” tab on each product page for the recommended weight range).

Unsure of the correct length for you? Keep in mind that shorter skis are slower but easier to handle for recreational skiers or those skiing in rugged terrain. Between size ranges? Go shorter if you’re less experienced or go longer if you’re very athletic or if you intend to progress quickly.

Width and Sidecut

Provided in millimeters, ski width is measured at 3 locations—the tip (the widest point near the front of the ski), the waist (the narrowest point near the middle of the ski) and the tail (near the back of the ski). The resulting hourglass shape is called the sidecut.

Note: These 3 measurements (e.g., 60/52/57) are listed on REI product pages under the "specs" tab. Some manufacturers use 2 “waists” and a broad center, which supports the boot for tracking efficiency and helps keep it from catching on the snow during turning.

Ski width determines whether a ski can be used for both in-track and out-of-track skiing. Ski tracks are groomed with a width of 60 to 70mm. Therefore, when looking for skis for use in tracks, it is important that the tip be no wider than 70mm. In addition, the sidecut should be minimal so the skis glide straight and efficiently.

For metal-edge ski touring—where you're likely to encounter deeper snow, hills, trees and other obstacles—look for skis with more width and a moderate sidecut to facilitate better flotation and easier turning.

If you want 1 pair of skis for both in and out of track touring, look for a touring ski about 65 to 70mm wide without metal edges. You also may consider a metal-edge touring ski that’s relatively narrow (again, up to 70mm width), but be aware that many cross-country touring centers do not allow metal-edge skis in their tracks.

Camber

Camber refers to the bow of the ski. Cross-country skis have a Nordic (or double) camber with 2 parts: 1) When you have equal weight on both skis—as when gliding—the waist or “grip zone” of the ski (the middle third that has either a textured pattern or wax for traction) remains arched up off the snow to ensure an easy glide. 2) When you place all your weight on one ski, you completely flatten that ski against the snow, so that the kick zone grips the snow and gives you traction for your kick forward. This is why your body weight is so important in determining your correct length of ski.

Flex

A ski’s flex influences speed and turning. A soft-flexing ski grips better and turns more easily on soft snow and at slow speeds. A stiff flex works best on firm snow and at high speeds.

Waxable vs. Waxless Bases

Skis need to grip the snow when you climb on hills or stride on flat terrain (“kick and glide”). Skis achieve grip in 1 of 2 ways: either the bottom of the ski has a manufactured texture pattern or wax is applied.

Waxless skis are the most popular choice because they are convenient and provide grip in a variety of snow conditions. Their textured pattern digs into and grips the snow, though it reduces glide somewhat. Despite their name, waxless skis perform better with some glide wax applied to the tips and tails.

Waxable skis require a bit more work, but they can outperform waxless models if their wax is precisely matched to snow conditions. The wax must be soft enough for snow crystals to dig in and grip, but not so soft that snow sticks to skis. In consistent temperatures above or below freezing, well-waxed skis perform superbly. When temperatures are erratic or right at the freezing point, waxing is difficult and waxless skis are the better choice.

Cross-country ski boots

Cross-Country Ski Boots

Fit is always the key to successful ski boot buying. Wear a pair of wool or synthetic ski socks when trying on boots. A good fit is achieved when boots are comfortable and hold your feet solidly in place.

  • General touring boots offer flexibility for striding along with torsional rigidity for turning and stopping. Some boots have extra features such as lace covers and rings for attaching gaiters. These can be especially helpful for keeping snow out of the boots when you're skiing off-track.
  • Boots for metal-edge touring skis are stiffer to provide greater support for turning. These boots still have flexibility, but are higher-cut, warmer and more durable than general touring boots. Some will have a plastic “exo-skeleton” for extra rigidity.

Once you’ve found the right boots, you can select compatible bindings.

Cross-Country Ski Bindings

Bindings have evolved over the years, and it is important to ensure your boots and bindings work well together. All bindings today offer a natural forward flex and provide the torsional rigidity you need to turn.

Cross-country ski bindings

Cross-Country Touring

These are ideal for skiing in the groomed tracks of a maintained ski area or on fairly flat out-of-track skiing. They're lightweight so you don't waste energy and provide a comfortable connection point between your boots and skis. These bindings are “step-in” style; you simply need to place the toe of your boot in the correct position then press downward. To release, push down on the correct spot on top of the binding and lift your foot off.

All of these bindings provide better overall ski control than the old 50mm 3-pin boots and bindings.

  • New Nordic Norm (NNN) bindings feature 2 thin raised ridges which fit into matching grooves in the soles of compatible ski boots. The boot has a short metal rod at the toe, which clips into the front of the binding and acts a bit like a door hinge. A rubber bumper on the binding provides a soft interface between boot and binding. This allows forward flex and helps to lift the tail of the ski during the kick-and-glide motion. Some skis offer the Nordic Integrated System (NIS) which is simply a different way of attaching the NNN binding to a ski.
  • Salomon Nordic System (SNS) Profil bindings use a boot/binding connection similar to the NNN but with a single, wide binding ridge and a single matching sole groove. Because of this difference in design, SNS boots/bindings and NNN boots/bindings are not compatible.
  • The SNS Pilot bindings have a ridge/groove similar to Profil bindings, but instead of a single metal rod at the toe, Pilot uses 2 metal rods to click into 2 different slots in the binding. This results in superior flex and kick motion. (SNS Profil boots only have 1 rod and therefore cannot fit into Pilot bindings; SNS Pilot boots, however, can fit into most Profil bindings.)

Metal-edge Touring

These system bindings are more rugged and durable than their general touring counterparts. They are also wider and therefore generally not appropriate for in-track skiing.

  • Traditional 75mm 3-pin bindings consist of a tongue-like extension on the front of the ski boot sole (with 3 holes in its underside) and 3 metal pins rising up from the binding. The sole extension fits over the pins, and a curved bale is secured over the extension to hold it in place. This style of binding is popular in backcountry skiing as it offers reliable support and can be repaired in the field. Skis using these bindings, however, can be cumbersome when used in groomed tracks (or even too wide for the tracks). They're fine for use on trails, though, and are still popular among beginners and recreational skiers.
  • New Nordic Norm Backcountry (NNN BC) bindings are similar to the NNN touring bindings described above. The difference is that NNN BC bindings are wider, thicker and more durable. Boots that fit in this binding have a wider and thicker metal rod under the toe. This binding is available in either manual or auto models. With manual bindings you must bend over to lock your boots to the bindings or to release them; this system is favored by some who feel the auto binding may be too difficult to use in really deep, soft snow.

Shop REI's selection of cross-country touring gear.

Cross-Country Ski Poles

Traditionally, pole length has been “up to your armpits.” Today, in-track poles can be slightly longer and off-track poles slightly shorter. Other distinctions:

  • In-track touring poles are strong and lightweight and should reach from the ground to your armpits. Since in-track striding is done on packed snow, your pole baskets can be relatively small.
  • Out-of-track and metal-edge touring poles are more durable but slightly heavier. Consider multiple-piece, telescoping poles that can be shortened for climbing, lengthened for descending and lengthened even more for kick-and-glide on flat terrain (you can also shorten one pole and lengthen the other for traversing slopes). The baskets should be larger to provide better purchase in deeper snow.

Cross-Country Ski Packages

REI seasonally offers a number of preset cross-country ski packages of skis, boots, bindings and poles at a 10% discount. These packages are designed to match various skiing abilities. Prices range from around $300 for a basic touring set to about $600 for a skate skiing package.

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