Cross-country skiing encompasses several styles, from touring or racing on groomed ski tracks to gliding through deep backcountry snow. The one common characteristic? The 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. If you’re interested in skate skiing or racing, read the REI Expert Advice article, How to Choose Skate Skiing Gear.
Choose from general touring skis designed for track skiing or metal-edge skis made for skiing out-of-track or on steeper terrain.
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, see the “size chart” link provided near the ordering information for each ski).
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.
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 as “profile dimensions.” 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Once you’ve found the right boots, you can select compatible 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.
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.
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.
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:
REI offers a number of preset cross-country ski packages of skis, boots, bindings and poles. These packages are designed to match various skiing abilities and offer package savings. Prices range from about $250 for a basic set for touring to about $600 for a metal-edge touring package.
Cross-country skiing can be highly aerobic, producing a lot of heat. Clothing should allow ventilation and movement. For more information, see the REI Expert Advice article on How to Choose Cross-Country Ski Clothing.
Related Expert Advice articles:
By Geoff Irons
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Last updated: Tue Nov 20 14:33:24 PST 2012
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