How to Choose Cross-Country Ski Equipment

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Winter is here and cross-country skiing is getting a lot of interest lately, after a long period of decline. For those who are new to the sport, here is a basic guide to different forms of cross-country skiing and the equipment. It should help you select the right cross-country ski equipment.

Nordic (or cross-country) skiing encompasses several styles, from touring on groomed ski trails to gliding through deep backcountry snow. However, there is one common characteristic to all types – your heel is always “free” (meaning – not connected to the ski).

How to Choose Cross-Country Ski Equipment
Salomon Snowscape 7 Skis


Cross-Country Skis

There are two types of cross country skiing – “classic” and “skate skiing.”

Classic Cross Country (most popular) – In classic skiing, the skier moves the skis parallel to each other with the so called “kick and glide” motion. It is best on groomed cross country trails (where two tracks are made by grooming machines in the snow).

Skate Skiing – Skate skiing resembles inline skating. The skier moves with skating-type strides on groomed trails. The trail grooming is different from classic style. It is a width of 6 to 8 feet of flat compacted snow. The skier must pick skis up off the ground with each stride. Unfortunately, there are not that many trails groomed for skate skiing.

The Classic Cross Country skis can be sub-categorized as follows:

Touring skis, meant to be used on groomed trails, are generally longer, narrower and lighter than metal-edge skis.

Metal-edge touring skis (Backcountry Skis) are typically shorter for better maneuverability. They are also wider for more stability and flotation in deeper snow. They also have metal edges for better grip in icy conditions. Metal-edge skis are heavier, but more suitable for out-of-track terrain. They are used for backcountry skiing, where you blaze your own trail, when you ski in deep snow, or  when you go overnight touring with gear either on your back in a backpack, or on the sled that you pull behind you.

Enjoying XC Skiing in northern Michigan
Enjoying XC Skiing in northern Michigan

Ski Length

Measured in centimeters, ski lengths have gradually been getting shorter and shorter thanks to new technology and design. Weight is the most important factor! You have to be heavy enough to get grip on the snow when you transfer your weight, but light enough for the grip area of the ski to stay off the snow when you glide. For touring skis, each ski brand has a particular weight range suggested for each length/camber of ski they produce. When you are ready to get sized for skis, make sure you know your weight and height.

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 in the middle of the ski) and the tail (near the back of the ski). The resulting hourglass shape is called the “sidecut”.

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.

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 allow for better flotation and easier turning.


Camber refers to the up/down 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 (when you’re 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 the ski.

Waxable vs. Waxless

Skis need to grip the snow when you climb on hills or stride on flat terrain (“kick and glide”). They can achieve grip in one of two ways: either the bottom of the ski has a manufactured texture pattern (scales) 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 lot more work, but they can outperform waxless models, if their wax is precisely matched to snow conditions. In consistent temperatures above or below freezing, well-waxed skis perform definitely better than waxless. When temperatures are erratic or right at the freezing point, waxing is difficult and waxless skis are the better choice. In my opinion, I would not bother with waxable skis unless you are a serious racer, or quite experienced with applying the wax. For a casual skiing, it’s not worth the effort.


How to Choose Cross-Country Ski Equipment
Salomon Prolink Escape 7 Boot


Cross-Country Ski Boots

Fit is very important with cross-country ski boots. You should wear a pair of ski socks when trying on the boots. A good fit is achieved when boots are comfortable and hold your feet solidly in place. Like your bindings, make sure you choose a boot within your cross country ski category. Your boots should feel just like running shoes. They should offer a snug but comfortable fit with enough room for a pair of socks.

General touring boots offer flexibility for striding along, with 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 better support for turning. They are also warmer and more durable than general touring boots.

Once you’ve found the right boots, you can select compatible bindings, or vice-versa, as many new skis come already with attached bindings. Since there are few different kinds of binding systems, it is important to make sure that both bindings and boots are for the same system.

Cross-country boots are often measured in European sizes (30s-40s) and sometimes in “mondo point” sizing like downhill ski boots (length in centimeters). Your local store expert will be able to convert them to US size for you. You can also consult a sizing chart, if purchasing online. It’s important to try on the boots since sizing is crucial and varies from brand to brand. The fit should be snug and your heel should remain in place.


How to Choose Cross-Country Ski Equipment
Salomon SNS Pilot Sport Classic Binding

Cross-Country Ski Bindings

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

Bindings are designed for the specific kind of cross-country skiing. So you need to select one for the type of skiing you are buying your skis for. So if the skis are touring skis, you need touring bindings, etc.

XC Skiing in Ontario
XC Skiing in Ontario

Cross-Country Touring

These are ideal for skiing in the groomed tracks, or on fairly flat out-of-track trail. They’re lightweight 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, you push down on the correct “button” on top of the binding and lift your foot off.

These three kinds are most often encountered:

New Nordic Norm (NNN) bindings feature two 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, kind of, like a door hinge. 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 two metal rods to click into two different slots in the binding. (SNS Profil boots only have one 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.

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.


croos-country ski equipment
Winget Ski Poles

Cross-Country Ski Poles

Poles are essential to cross country skiing. You use them to assist with moving yourself forward, and also occasionally for stability. Traditionally, pole length has been “up to your armpits”.  Today, in-track poles can be slightly longer and off-track poles slightly shorter.

In-track touring poles are lightweight and should reach from the ground to your armpits. They could be slightly longer, if you are athletic, aggressive skier.

Out-of-track and metal-edge touring poles are more durable but slightly heavier. Sometimes, they are multi-segment, or telescoping poles that can be shortened for climbing, or lengthened for descends. The baskets should be larger for better resistance from sinking in deeper snow.

Corsair Trailhead
Corsair Trailhead


It was a little lengthy, but I am done now. I hope that it will help you with selecting your cross-country ski equipment.

OK, so  you bought the equipment and now you wonder: how do I use it? Below is a free e-book available online that provides basic information about actual skiing. It is worth reviewing even by intermediate skiers. Here is the link:


Rich S.
Rich S.
Rich S. is a lifetime photographer and traveler based in Metro Detroit area. He has been traveling the Great Lakes area for over 30 years. Follow his blog about his trips, interesting activities and destinations in the Great Lakes region.

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