How to Choose Cross-Country Ski Gear

 Four cross-country skiers on groomed trail

Cross-country skiing (sometimes called classic skiing) encompasses several styles, from touring or racing on groomed ski tracks to gliding through deep backcountry snow. Your heel is always “free” (not connected to the ski) and you move yourself by striding forward (as opposed to skate skiing, where you stride side-to-side in a skating motion.) Learn what gear you need to cross-country ski comfortably and efficiently.

For skate skiing, read the REI Expert Advice article, Skate Skiing Gear: How to Choose.

Types of Cross-Country Skis

Touring skis are designed for groomed trails (tracks) and are generally long, narrow and lightweight. These characteristics make the skis fast and efficient.

Race and performance classic skis are similar to touring skis in that you use them in the groomed tracks, but they’re built for faster, more aggressive skiing. Race and performance skis generally have a stiffer flex than touring skis, making them less forgiving and requiring better technique. 

Metal-edge touring skis are made for skiing out-of-track or on steeper terrain. Compared to touring skis, they are typically shorter for better maneuverability and wider for more stability and flotation in deeper snow, and they have metal edges for better grip in icy conditions. Their greater sidecut enhances turning ability on steeper slopes. All these features make them heavier than touring skis but more suitable for out-of-track terrain.

Cross-Country Ski Length

In most cases, body weight is the main factor that will determine the length of ski you should choose. When shopping for skis on REI.com, click on the “specs” tab on each product page for the recommended weight range.

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.

Cross-Country Ski Width and Sidecut

Profile diagram of cross-country ski

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.

Some manufacturers use two “waists” and a broad center, which supports the boot for tracking efficiency and helps keep it from catching on the snow during turning.

When looking for skis for use in groomed tracks, the tip should be no wider than 70mm (the maximum width of ski tracks). The sidecut should be minimal so the skis glide straight and efficiently. Race and performance skis are typically narrower than touring skis.

For metal-edge ski touring, look for skis with more width and a moderate sidecut to facilitate better flotation and easier turning.

If you want one 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).

Cross-Country Ski Camber

Camber refers to the bow of the ski. Most cross-country skis have a Nordic (or double) camber with 2 parts:

  • Diagram showing double camber of cross-country skiWhen you have equal weight on both skis—as when gliding—the ski's waist or “grip zone” remains arched up off the snow to ensure an easy glide.
  • When you place all your weight on one ski, you completely flatten it against the snow, so that the ski grips the snow and gives you traction for your kick forward. This is why your body weight is so important in determining your correct ski length.

Some metal-edge touring skis have single camber, which is characterized by a subtle, gradual arch in the middle. Single camber distributes skier weight more evenly over the entire ski base, which makes it easier to carve smooth turns.

Cross-Country 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. Unless you're a racer, there's no need to be too concerned with ski flex, however, it's something to be aware of when narrowing down your choices.

Waxable vs. Waxless Ski Bases

Skis need to grip the snow when you climb on hills or stride on flat terrain (“kick and glide”). Skis achieve grip in one of two 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. They are called waxless because rather than relying on kick wax for traction, they have a textured pattern in the middle third of each ski that digs into and grips the snow. Despite their name, waxless skis perform best when you apply glide wax to the tips and tails.

Waxable skis require a bit more work, but they can outperform waxless models if their kick wax is precisely matched to snow conditions. Waxable skis get their traction from rub-on kick wax that’s applied to the middle third of each ski. In consistent temperatures above or below freezing, well-waxed skis will glide better than waxless skis while still providing excellent grip. When temperatures are erratic or right at the freezing point, waxing is difficult and waxless skis are the better choice.

Cross-Country Ski Boots

Finding comfortable boots is key to your enjoyment on the slopes. Blisters on your heels or snow in your boots can quickly end a great day. Also, it's important to choose boots that match the type of skiing you're doing. When trying on boots in the store, wear a pair of wool or synthetic ski socks. A good fit means boots are comfortable and hold your feet solidly in place.

Cross-country ski touring bootBoots for touring: When shopping for boots for touring, look for a combination of flexibility for striding and 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 if you venture out of the tracks into ungroomed snow.

 

Cross-country ski boot for racingBoots for race and performance classic skiing: These boots are typically lighter weight than touring boots, and sometimes have lower cuffs for a greater range of motion.

 

Cross-country ski boot for metal-edge touringBoots for metal-edge touring skis: These boots 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 have a plastic “exoskeleton” for extra rigidity.

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

Cross-Country Ski Bindings

Performance differences between bindings are subtle so let your choice in boots guide what type of bindings you purchase. Boots have different types of soles on them, making them only compatible with specific bindings. For example, boots with an NNN-style sole will only fit NNN bindings. 

Bindings for Touring and Race/Performance Classic Skis

New Nordic Norm cross-country ski bindingNew Nordic Norm (NNN) bindings feature two thin raised ridges that fit into matching grooves in the soles of compatible ski boots. The boot has a short metal rod at the toe that clips into the front of the binding and acts a bit like a door hinge. A rubber bumper on the binding 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.

Nordic Integrated System cross-country ski bindingSalomon Nordic System (SNS) Profil bindings
use a single, wide binding ridge and a single
matching sole groove. SNS boots/bindings and
NNN boots/bindings are not compatible.

 

Salomon Nordic System Profil cross-country ski bindingSNS Pilot bindings have a ridge/groove similar to Profil bindings, but instead of a single metal rod at the toe, Pilot boots use two metal rods to click into two different slots in the binding. This results in superior flex and kick motion with excellent stability. (SNS Profil boots cannot fit into Pilot bindings; SNS Pilot boots, however, can fit into most Profil bindings.)

 

Bindings for Metal-Edge Touring Skis

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

75mm 3-pin bindings consist of 3 metal pins that attach to 3 holes on a tongue-like extension of a ski boot sole. This binding offers reliable support and can be repaired in the field, however, it can be more cumbersome to get in and out of than other styles.

New Nordic Norm Backcountry (NNN BC) bindings are similar to NNN touring bindings, but are wider, thicker and more durable. 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. Some people find auto bindings difficult to use in really deep, soft snow.

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

Cross-Country Ski Poles

You might think that once you’ve seen one cross-country ski pole, you’ve seen them all. But, there are differences to look for depending on the type of skiing you plan to do.

Poles for touring: Poles for touring on groomed trails are strong and lightweight and are sized so that they reach from the ground to your armpits. They have small baskets because you’ll typically be skiing on packed snow.

Poles for race and performance skiing: These poles are very similar to touring poles, but typically feature lighter, higher-quality materials. They often have grips and straps designed to improve your technique and skiing efficiency. You may want to size a race and performance pole a few centimeters longer than a touring pole.

Poles for metal-edge skis: If you’re heading into ungroomed terrain with metal-edge skis, look for poles that are more durable and slightly heavier than touring poles. Telescoping poles that can be shortened or lengthened are helpful if you’re traveling through steep terrain. The baskets on these poles are larger than those on touring poles to provide better purchase in deeper snow.

Cross-Country Ski Clothing

Cross-country skiing is a highly aerobic activity that can generate a lot of body heat, so dressing appropriately is important. Your clothing needs to protect you from the elements while allowing sweat to quickly ventilate away.

Using a system of layering that features lightweight, stretchy base layers with the option of pulling on insulating layers and waterproof shell layers if needed keeps you ready for changing weather throughout the day.

For more information on clothing see the Expert Advice article, Cross-Country Ski Clothing: Tips.

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