Cross Country Skiing Buyer's Guide
Last updated: September 2022
Nordic skiing, more commonly referred to as cross country or XC skiing, is an increasingly popular winter sport, and in this guide we’ll be going over everything you need to know to get started. Throughout this guide we'll use the terms Nordic and Cross Country and interchangeably.
So what’s in this guide?
Here’s the rundown of this helpful guide to nordic (or cross country) skiing:
- We’ll start by defining what cross country skiing is and why people love it.
- After that we’ll explain the different styles and how you can decide which one suits you best.
- From there, we’ll go over the equipment you need to start your own nordic adventures and provide you with a list of some of our favorite best-selling gear.
What is cross country skiing?
Cross country skiing is a great way to stay in shape and have fun during the winter months while offering a vastly different experience to the crowds and steep slopes of alpine skiing, also called downhill skiing.
Instead of taking a chair lift to the top of a mountain and quickly skiing back down as you do with downhill skiing, cross country skiing is most often performed on rolling terrain and without a lift.
Cross country skiing involves skis that feature a free heel.
This means that only the front of the boot attaches to the binding, allowing the skier's heel to lift off the ski in order to efficiently slide forward through the snow.
Nordic skiing has a variety of applications, from light exercise, to racing, to backcountry exploration.
You can go cross country skiing at resorts and public lands on maintained trails and tracks or out on your own.
Why do people love cross country skiing?
There are tons of great reasons to get excited about cross country skiing. Here’s some of the most common ones:
- It’s a great workout.
Cross country skiing is great exercise. Depending on the style you choose, it can be more similar to hiking, running, or skating, all of which will certainly get your heart rate up and put a smile on your face.
- It’s a low impact activity.
While downhill skiing can put a lot of strain on your knees and other parts of your body, cross country skiing is often less jarring and causes fewer injuries.
- It’s very safe.
Many people are intimidated by the steep slopes and higher speeds of downhill skiing and feel much more confident with the gentler gradients and slower speeds associated with nordic.
- It’s refreshingly quiet.
Cross country is a great way to avoid the crowded slopes and long lift lines. Nordic ski areas are typically open, less crowded, and generally more peaceful than traditional downhill skiing resorts.
- It’s affordable.
While getting the necessary equipment is an investment, nordic ski passes are very affordable and you won’t be paying hundreds of dollars every year in expensive lift tickets.
- It’s versatile.
There are lots of different ways to go cross country skiing. Beginners and advanced skiers will all find an activity that suits them. You can slowly cruise through scenic vistas on dedicated tracks, you can skate faster laps and race around groomed trails, and you can explore off the beaten path and discover new places. There’s truly something for everyone.
What are the different styles of cross country skiing?
For starters, let’s clear up some of the questions surrounding the naming conventions of nordic skiing.
Nordic and cross country are two terms that can be used interchangeably as the parent category of the styles we’re about to explain.
There are two main styles of cross country skiing, classic and skate, and just about every subset of cross country skiing can be grouped into these two categories.
Classic Cross Country Skiing
Classic XC skiing can be done on maintained courses where skiers move through established tracks.
Typically, this style of XC skiing is done at ski resorts or on public lands specifically designed for nordic skiing.
Classic XC skiing can also be done “off-track”, where skiers are able to move more freely around their environment.
This style is more similar to the historical “cross country” skiing that helped nordic people move from place to place in winter.
Instead of fixed tracks, these skiers can more freely enjoy maintained trails, as well as navigate forests, valleys, and hills.
Skate is the other main category of nordic skiing. Classic skiing is more similar to hiking, while skate skiing is a bit more like running.
Skate skiing is perfect for those who like to go a little faster and get more of a workout. Instead of sliding forwards and backwards, skate skiing is accomplished by pushing off your edge in a V-shaped position.
Skate skiing is done on professionally groomed, hard-packed tracks. If you’ve watched the winter olympics, you’ve probably seen this style on its biggest stage.
Which type of cross country skiing is best for you?
Skate style cross country skiing is one of the best ways to stay in great shape throughout winter. It’s fast and fun, and you’re sure to get your heart racing in the best way possible. You’ll need to visit a resort or publicly maintained track to take advantage of this style. If you have racing aspirations or you just want a killer workout, skate skiing is a perfect choice.
On-Track Classic Skiing
If you’re just starting out, you’ll probably want to stick to classic on-track style skiing. It’s the easiest way to learn the basics and get comfortable with free heel skis. If you’re looking for a simple way to get some fresh air and a little exercise, you’ll probably love this style. You’ll head to a resort or public trail system and follow the maintained track around bends and meander up and down gentle gradients while practicing your technique and balance.
Classic Cross Country Ski Touring
For those who enjoy the classic style but have a bit more experience, you might love cross country touring. You can ski groomed trails if you choose, but the main benefit is the ability to blaze your own trail, explore more scenic areas, and ski more challenging terrain.
Classic Nordic Backcountry Skiing
Backcountry nordic skiing is similar to classic touring, except the skis are wider and made of burlier material in order to handle rougher terrain, steeper inclines, and more adventurous outings. If you have a strong background in cross country skiing, you’ll enjoy the ability to skin your way up into the backcountry and confidently carve your way back down.
What are the best nordic skiing brands?
What equipment do you need for XC skiing?
Here's a list of the most important gear you'll need for cross country skiing:
- Cross Country Skis
- Cross Country Ski Boots
- Cross Country Ski Bindings
- Cross Country Ski Poles
- Ski Wax
- Cross Country Ski Clothing
In this section of the guide, we'll go over the equipment and gear you need to start skiing. If you already have experience, you'll appreciate our list of best sellers in each category.
Let's dive in.
Our Favorite Cross Country Skis
Choosing the right ski is the first step. You’ll want to decide which style suits you best and pick a set of skis that are designed for that purpose. At Webcyclery and Webskis we organize our skis into skate, classic, and backcountry.
There are a few concepts to keep in mind. Understanding ski flex is important in selecting the appropriate pair of skis. You should pick a ski based on your weight, your experience level, and your skiing goals. Finding the proper size is another part of the equation, and you can check out our Cross Country Ski Size Chart.
As a rule of thumb, stiffer skis are better for hard packed surfaces, and more flex is required for softer terrain. Also, stiffer skis lend to better power transfer, so skate skiers tend to look for a stiffer ski than a backcountry skier, but everything is dependent on your own individual skill level and goals.
Our Favorite Cross Country Boots
Different styles require different materials and levels of stiffness. Skate boots are designed for maximum speed, so those boots are the stiffest, while classic boots require a little more flex. Check out our top picks in each category.
Not sure what your nordic boot size is or how they should fit for best performance? Head over to our Cross Country Ski Boot Size Chart.
Best XC Ski Touring Bindings
After you’ve got your skis and boots sorted, it’s time to put them together. Cross country ski bindings are what attach your boot to your ski. You’ll want to check what style of boots and skis you have and find the appropriate match. Browse our three main categories and find the right bindings for you.
Best Cross Country Ski Wax
Wax gives your skis the proper gliding capabilities that you need to have fun and ski efficiently.
That being said, not all waxes are created equal. Which wax you need is dependent on the outside temperature, humidity, and composition of the snow.
Certain waxes are better for frigid temperatures and low moisture, while others are better for warmer temperatures with more moisture.
Check out our Ski Wax 101 article for a more in depth look at the different kinds of waxes, but here are the two basic types in a nutshell: glide wax provides a slicker surface and more “glide”, while kick wax helps provide more traction.
Best Cross Country Ski Clothing
Once you’ve got most of the gear you need to start skiing, let's go over another important piece of the puzzle. What you wear out in the snow can be just as important to your performance and comfort as what you’re skiing on.
With downhill skiing you may dress up in thick layers for cold rides up the lift, but cross country skiing is a much more active sport. If you wear too many layers of the wrong material, you could end up sweating too much, which in turn can chill you to the bone once the sweat starts to evaporate.
Because nordic skiing is such an aerobic exercise, think of it like running. If you dress in a down jacket and hard shell pants, you’ll certainly be sweating buckets in no time.
The idea is to dress in a few slim layers that keep you warm while allowing your body to breathe. How you dress is also dependent on what kind of skiing you’ll be doing and the weather conditions. For instance, a racer’s wardrobe will need to be lighter than someone out for some casual exercise.
Here are a few tips for what to wear cross country skiing:
- The golden rule: dress in layers.
- Baselayers: For your torso, you’ll want 3 layers: a lightweight base layer made of wool or synthetic fabric to wick away moisture, a warmer middle layer to trap in heat, and a lightweight outer layer to provide wind and water resistance.
- Cross Country Ski Pants: For your legs, choose a moisture wicking undergarment to start. Layer it with a light pair of long underwear and then a pair of breathable softshell pants or spandex.
- Cross Country Ski Socks: Don’t use overly thick socks that will make your feet sweat, and make sure they come up over your ankles.
- Cross Country Ski Hats: Go for a hat or headband instead of a ski helmet.
- Cross Country Ski Gloves: Choose gloves over mittens so you can get a better grip on your poles.
- Sunglasses: Wear sunglasses instead of goggles.
- Neck gaiters are a great way to keep the chill from getting into your jacket.
Now that you’ve got an idea of how you need to dress for nordic skiing, check out the clothing we sell here at WebCyclery and WebSkis.
Deals, Accessories, and Maintenance
Enjoy the winter with cross country skiing
We hope this guide will help you with your nordic skiing questions and that you give cross country a try this winter. At WebCyclery and WebSkis we are happy to help you pick the best equipment for your goals, so don’t hesitate to drop us a line!
Resources & Helpful Links
Here's a list of all the resources and helpful links that we mention in this guide:
Rollerskis: the best summer training
Have you seen rollerskiers out on the roads or bike paths? Rollerskiing is actually the best way to train for nordic season, since you're able to work the same muscles you'll need in the winter.
If you want to learn more about rollerskiing, check out our in depth article that will tell you everything you need to know!