Cross-Country Ski Gear: How to Choose
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.
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
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:
- When 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.
Boots 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.
Boots 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.
Boots 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.