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How to Get Started Cross Country Skiing

Cross country skiing is one of the best ways to get outside and enjoy some fresh air during the cold winter months. It can serve as a relaxing alternative to an afternoon stroll, a lung busting form of cardio, or a way to get away from it all and explore the backcountry. Sometimes, it's all three. Whatever you’re looking for, we'll help you understand your options and find the perfect cross country setup for you.

Getting Started

While you do need plenty of snow for cross country skiing, you don’t need mountains. Unlike alpine skiing, you're aiming for flat or gently rolling terrain. Any snow-covered open space can work, but the best place to get started is on a freshly groomed trail in a designated Nordic recreation area. These recreation areas typically have smooth, well maintained trails designed to accomodate both Classic and Skating disciplines. They can often be a good place to find information on lessons, gear, and rentals, too.

If you’re unable to find a designated Nordic recreation area, look for a flat, snow-covered space that allows cross country skiing. City parks and existing trail networks can be a good place to start.

Types of Cross Country Skiing

Cross country skiing can be divided into 3 different categories: Classic Skiing, Skate Skiing, and Nordic Touring. While there are certain areas of crossover in technique and gear, each style comes with its own unique considerations.

Classic Skiing

Classic Skiing is where most people start off. Classic skiing is performed with a ‘kick and glide’ motion, using a grippy section on the base of the ski to gain traction on the snow and propel forward. Because the motion involved somewhat resembles walking, Classic Skiing is fairly intuitive and, generally speaking, the easiest form for beginners to get the hang of. Skiers typically use routes that have been constructed and maintained specifically for cross-country skiing, using well-defined grooves in the snow, or tracks, to ski.

Classic skis utilize a grip zone underfoot - either sticky wax or a built in fish-scale pattern - to provide traction, along with a pronounced camber profile that allows this section to lift off the snow slightly and not interfere with your glide. Classic skis tend to be sized long to help maximize forward glide.

Skate Skiing

Skate Skiing uses a different, more dynamic skating method of forward propulsion, similar to that used by ice skaters. By pushing the ski out to the side, skate skiers use the edges of the ski rather than the base to propel forward. Skate skiing is generally faster than classic, and requires a flat, well groomed trail on which to ski.

Skate Skis tend to be lighter, skinnier, and shorter than Classic Skis, with a stiffer flex and more moderate camber profile. They also lack the grip zone found on Classic Skis, and instead have completely smooth bases.

Nordic Touring

Nordic Touring Skis are made for skiing in ungroomed, rolling terrain. While they use the same kick and glide motion required for Classic Skiing, the skis themselves are somewhat beefier and better suited for handling tough snow conditions. They are typically shorter and wider, offering better stability and float in ungroomed snow. Many models include metal edges for increased grip in firm, icy conditions, and better turning ability when skiing downhill.

Choosing the Correct Ski Length

Cross country skis are sized according to the weight of the user. Finding the right ski for your weight will ensure that the ski delivers the optimal combination of grip and glide for your intended use.

The size chart below offers general guidance on which length may be suitable for you. However, when buying skis it is important to also consult the manufacturers size charts, as individual models often come with their own recommended sizing.

Skier Weight (lb)Ski Length (cm)
100 - 110170 - 180180 - 190160 - 166
110 - 120172 - 182182 - 192160 - 166
120 - 130175 - 185185 - 195170
130 - 140177 - 190187 - 200170 - 176
140 - 150180 - 195190 - 205170 -176
150 - 160185 - 195195 - 210180
160 - 180190 - 195200 - 210180 - 186
180+190 - 195205 - 210190 - 196

What is Camber?

All types of cross country ski have a feature called camber. This is the slight upward curve in the middle of the ski that lifts the base above the surface of the snow when it is unweighted. The camber of a ski flattens out when weighted, and serves to distribute the skier's weight along the entire length of the ski, providing better stability and control. It also acts as a rudimentary spring, providing extra energy, or “pop”, when the ski is subsequently unweighted.

Skate skis are typically designed with single camber, whereas most classic cross-country skis have a higher, more pronounced double camber profile.

Single Camber

Skis with single camber have a smooth, gradual arch in the middle. On skate skis, this camber profile makes it easier to push off the edges efficiently. In addition to skate skis, single camber is found on some cross-country touring skis and metal-edge touring skis for easier turning, similar to that found on alpine skis.

Double camber

Skis with double camber have a noticeably higher arch in the middle. This camber profile is designed to keep the grippy zone in the middle of classic skis raised off the snow when not fully weighted. This helps the ski to glide smoothly over the snow without the wax or scales causing drag and interfering with forward motion. When your weight is fully shifted to one ski to begin a kick forward, the ski flattens against the snow, causing the grip zone to contact the snow for full traction.

Cross Country Skiing Boots

Boots are arguably the most important part of your kit. Uncomfortable boots can easily cut your day short, so it’s worth spending the time and energy to get the right fit. Look for boots that fit similar to a running shoe or hiking boot - nice and snug, without feeling claustrophobic or painful. A well fitting boot will allow you enough room to wiggle your toes while keeping your heels securely in place as you ski.

The differing demands of Classic, Skate, and Nordic Touring require different levels of support and flex in your boot. While there are some boots built for both Classic and Skate skiing - known as combi boots - this is not always the case. It's important to choose boots that are broadly suitable for the type of skiing you're doing.

Classic - These boots prioritise comfort and stability, with enough flexibility to allow your feet and ankles to flex naturally during the forward kick and glide motion.

Skate - These boots are typically stiffer and higher cut than those designed for Classic skiing. They provide more structure around the ankle, which helps support the dynamic movement required for skating.

Combi - Combi boots offer a blend of features for both Classic and Skate skiing. They offer better support than pure Classic boots, without hindering the kick and glide technique. These boots are a great option for those looking to save money on multiple setups.

Nordic Touring - These boots are noticeably burlier and stiffer than either Classic or Skate boots. They typically offer better insulation and more support around the ankle.

Cross Country Skiing Bindings

Once you've settled on boots, it's time to think about bindings. The majority of cross country boots and bindings fall into two main families: NNN (New Nordic Norm) and SNS (Salomon Nordic System). The two systems are not compatible with each other - you cannot use an NNN boot with an SNS binding, or vice versa.

To further complicate matters, there are sub-divisions within those two systems that present compatibility issues with each other. Several newer systems provide full compatibility with mutiple boot norms, giving the user greater freedom of choice. These include Rossignol's Turnamic and Salomon's ProLink systems.

The most important takeaway is that whatever you choose, your boots and bindings need to be compatible. If you're unsure where to start, focus on finding the right boot for your foot and then get a binding to match. Check out the table below for a full breakdown of which boot norms are compatible with which bindings, along with the style of cross country skiing they are most suited to.
Boot TypeCompatible BindingsStyle
NNNNNN, NNN NIS, Turnamic, ProLinkClassic / Skating
SNS ProfilSNS ProfilClassic
SNS PilotSNS PilotSkating
TurnamicNNN, NNN NIS, Turnamic, ProLinkClassic / Skating / Touring
ProLinkNNN, NNN NIS, Turnamic, ProLinkClassic / Skating / Touring
75mm 3-Pin75mm 3-PinTouring

Cross Country Skiing Poles

Last but not least are poles. Good poling technique plays an integral role in every type of cross country skiing, providing the power needed to propel forward over a variety of terrain. 

Poles are made from either Aluminum or Composite Carbon. Aluminum poles are slightly heavier, cheaper, and more durable. Composite poles are lighter, more responsive, and are generally preferred by skate skiers and more advanced users.

Poles for Classic and Skate skiing typically have small semicircle baskets, which work well on packed, groomed surfaces. For Nordic Touring, look for poles with larger baskets designed for use in deeper snow. 

Sizing your poles is relatively straightforward. For Classic skiing, a pole that comes up to your armpit when standing up straight will be suitable. Skate skiing requires poles approximately 10cm higher than your armpit, and Nordic Touring approximately 5cm shorter. Check out the table below for guidance on which length may be suitable for you.

Skier Height

Pole Length

6'5" +711806717065165
6'3" - 6'5"691756516563160
6'1" - 6'3"671706316061155
5'11" - 6'1"651656115559150
5'9" - 5'11"631605915057145
5'7" - 5'9"611555714556140
5'5" - 5'7"591505614054135
5'3" - 5'5"571455413552130
5'1" - 5'3"561405213049125
4'11" - 5'1"541354912548120
4'9" - 4'11"49 - 52125 - 13046 - 48115 - 12044 - 46110 - 115
4'7" - 4'9"481204411042105
4'5" - 4'7"461154210540100
4'3" - 4'5"44110401003895
4'1" - 4'3"4210538953690
3'11" - 4'1"4010036903485
< 3'11"389534853280

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