Buying Cross-Country Ski Gear, for Beginners (Part 1)

Copyright © 2015 Jared Manninen

“I’m new to cross-country skiing. What type of skis should I buy?” Or, “Since I’m new to cross-country skiing, should I just buy a used set of skis?” People have asked me these questions countless times over the years. As a cross-country ski instructor and xc rental shop employee, it’s my duty to know the answers to such questions.

They seem like basic enough questions, right? Well, like nearly every other sport, in the world of cross-country skiing there are countless options from which to choose.

So in this article, while providing a general overview of cross-country skiing options, I offer a streamlined approach to deciding for yourself what gear would best serve you.

Please note, however, that I make it a point not to offer specific brand or gear recommendations. Cross-country skiing is so personal. It’s directly based on your unique physical attributes and skill level. So trying to shoehorn you into one brand or style of gear because I like it would be doing you a disservice.

That’s not to say you couldn’t just go out and buy an inexpensive xc ski package at REI and have fun. Just know that dialing in the cross-country gear most appropriate for you will be a process of discovery.

So before rushing out to buy that sale-priced cross-country ski setup, read this article and its companion piece Buying Cross-Country Ski Gear, for Beginners (Part 2).

Spending the next 20 minutes reading both of these articles could potentially save you a lot of money and frustration. How? By simply helping you to clarify your intentions for your cross-country skiing experience.

Once you have a clear picture of what you want to accomplish with cross-country skiing, choosing appropriate gear becomes much easier.

Where do You Plan to Cross-Country Ski?

There’s a tool for every job and a job for every tool. So, understand that there’s no one set of cross-country skis that will accommodate all environments.

Cross-country skis and the gear that goes with the sport is similar to any other outdoor gear. Everything is designed to function optimally so long as it’s used within a recommended framework of conditions.

I understand that you probably don’t want to buy an entire quiver of skis to meet every possible situation. So, if you’re new to cross-country skiing and looking to buy a setup, my best recommendation is …

Consider the type of skiing you will most often do and buy gear to meet that need.

This is the first major decision you’ll have to make when determining what type of skis to buy.

Will you be primarily cross-country skiing at groomed resorts or off the beaten path?

Of the three general categories of cross-country skis (listed below):

  • Classic (1) and skate skis (3) are most appropriate for groomed trails of a cross-country ski resort or maintained cross-country ski area
  • Backcountry cross-country skis (2) work best on ungroomed terrain.
Copyright © 2017 Jared Manninen
Exploring nature is what I love to do most while honing my skills in the art of cross-country skiing. © Jared Manninen

Types of Cross-Country Skis

  1. Classic Cross-Country Skis
    • aka traditional or striding skis
    • long, skinny skis with bases that feature a small to moderate-sized grip zone to accommodate grip wax or have a “fish scale” pattern
    • for use with classic cross-country skiing techniques such as the diagonal stride, double pole, double pole kick, herringbone, and sidestep
    • ideal for groomed tracks
  2. Backcountry Cross-Country Skis
    • aka off-track skis
    • shorter, wider classic cross-country skis that feature bases with a longer and more aggressive fish scale patterned grip zone, as well as metal edges
    • for use with classic cross-country skiing techniques such as the diagonal stride, double pole, double pole kick, herringbone, sidestep, and Telemark turns
    • ideal for use in diverse land ranging from meadows and rolling hills to more mountainous terrain
  3. Skate Skis
    • long, skinny skis with smooth bases
    • for use with skate skiing techniques such as V1, V2, V2 alternate, diagonal skating, marathon skating, and double poling
    • ideal for skiing on the wide flat zone of groomed trails
    • can be used off-track for “crust skating” during spring conditions

There is obviously overlap with all of these styles of cross-country skiing. For example, you could use traditional classic skis, and even skate skis under the right conditions, in untracked terrain.

Or, you could use backcountry skis on groomers, but you would probably won’t be able to use them in the standard classic tracks since this type of ski is generally too wide for them.

If you want to maximize your experience, however, it’s best to use the right ski for the right situation. So again, you should narrow down your focus and acquire cross-country ski gear that will accommodate your intended skiing experience.

Copyright © 2016 Jared Manninen
Fischer Superlite 192cm classic cross-country skis in a groomed track on January 8, 2016. © Jared Manninen

Should You Buy New or Used Equipment?

This is usually the follow-up question once I’ve discussed with a person the pros and cons of the different types of skis and equipment available.

The decision to buy new or used equipment is the second big decision you’ll face when buying cross-country skis.

If you can get some free gear from your long-lost uncle or grandparents, give it a whirl. However, you’re probably not going to be nearly as happy as having equipment that properly fits your body size and skill level.

That said, I usually just recommend buying a new setup, particularly if you’re a novice skier and first time buyer of cross-country ski gear.

In other blogs about cross-country ski gear, I dive deeper into the four main components of a cross-country ski setup. 1) skis, 2) bindings, 3) boots, and 4) poles. For now, however, just know that:

  • The type of skis you choose should support the style of skiing you’ll be doing, and their size and length needs to be appropriate for your weight
  • The type of bindings you choose should correspond to the size of ski you’ll be using and support the type of skiing you’ll be performing
  • Your boots need to fit comfortably and be compatible with your bindings
  • The centimeter length of your classic ski poles should be about 83% of your height and your skate ski poles should measure from the ground to a point somewhere between your chin and nose

The reason I don’t advocate buying used gear as a beginner is because it’s difficult to evaluate the equipment without having much knowledge or experience to draw upon.

Who knows how much punishment those skis have taken? Who knows how many sets of bindings have been mounted and re-mounted on the skis during their lifespan?

In the 2016/2017 season, a customer brought in a pair of used classic cross-country skis for me to evaluate. He inherited them from a friend and said he couldn’t seem to get them to work.

I assumed that either his skis weren’t appropriate for his weight or that his technique was lacking (or both).

I find that these are the two most common reasons for people not having much success with cross-country skiing. Fortunately, both of those factors can be remedied through the use of correct gear and taking some cross-country ski lessons.

The customer handed me his skis. I immediately discovered something amiss after touching the ski bases. The skis were an older “waxless” set that featured a basic-looking scale pattern (for the time). However, one of the skis didn’t have any pattern on it! A completely smooth base, like you’d find on a skate ski. The thing had to have been a factory defect, but neither he nor the previous owner realized the anomaly.

Well, maybe his friend actually did know and was pulling his leg. Either way, the guy didn’t pay any money for them but they were essentially unusable.

You don’t need to buy top-of-the-line skis if you are new to the sport. In fact, I would discourage you from doing that just like I would not recommend buying a high-performance sports car for your teenager who just earned their driver’s license.

The risk for catastrophe (to you or the expensive skis) is too high. And high-end cross-country ski gear is relatively costly and requires you to be an exceptional skier in order to reap its benefits.

Take comfort that, in general, cross-country ski gear is very affordable compared to other winter sports.

Breaking trail up Angora Ridge in Fischer S-Bound 112s. Freel Peak in the background.

Where Should You Buy Cross-Country Ski Gear?

Whenever possible, buy local. However, finding a shop near you that sells a variety of cross-country ski equipment can be hard to find.

Alpenglow Sports in Tahoe City has a good selection, passionate staff, and is a very community-oriented store. And in Minnesota (where I grew up) you’ll find Gear West. I stop there whenever I go back to visit my parents because they have a huge selection, expert staff, and a major online presence.

If you can’t make a special trip to visit them, you could always order through their website. Of course, there are also other options such as REI, Backcountry.com, etc.

Many stores, whether they be a physical or online shop, will offer package deals that include all four components of a cross-country ski setup. This is a good way to go if you don’t have anything.

The drawback to this is that you can’t actually try on the boots.

You can purchase skis, bindings, and poles without having to test them out in any way. They’re based on your height and weight. However, boots are something that you should actually wear, if possible, before buying. So even though I recommend doing this, I understand that it’s easier said than done.

Another note about buying used gear is …

If you buy everything separate, like on Craigslist or at a ski swap, you may wind up with incompatible gear. The great deal you got on those skis may be irrelevant if you can’t find boots to go with the bindings (already mounted on those skis).

Trust me on this.

There have been a number of different binding variations over the years and not everything is compatible. And at first glance they all basically look the same. In fact, even the so-called pros mess it up from time to time.

Man with ski poles on a snowy slope in the mountains
Cross-country skiing north of Carson Pass along the Pacific Crest Trail on December 9, 2019. © Jared Manninen

Another story from the 2016/2017 season … a customer came in to have his classic cross-country skis waxed. He recently purchased the skis “used.”

Right after buying those skis he went to a popular cross-country ski shop near Lake Tahoe and bought a pair of combination boots (used for classic and skate skiing) and some new bindings for his skis. The shop also mounted these for him.

His intention was to eventually buy a set of skate skis, too. He would then have one pair of boots that he could use for both sets of skis. Brilliant! I fully support this idea. However, the bindings he was sold weren’t compatible with the boots he bought. Talk about a raw deal!

He specifically bought the boots and the bindings at the same time in order to get a compatible system. Yet, the shop still screwed it up and he wasn’t knowledgeable enough to realize the mistake.

Also, his new bindings were way too small for the skis on which they were mounted. He was a large man and his skis were massive in that they were not only really long, but excessively wide for use on groomed trails. The skis were an older style. They were most likely designed to be used with a three-pin binding system rather than a more contemporary and streamlined NNN or SNS bindings.

Standard NNN and SNS bindings don’t come in different sizes.

Although, you can purchase an NNN BC (backcountry) version which features a longer and stronger bar (but isn’t compatible with NNN). That BC version would withstand the amount of force he would place on the skis while making more aggressive turns.

He would’ve then had to buy a BC compatible boot, however, which would’ve made it impossible to use one boot for the two sets of skis.

Or, he should’ve purchased newer and skinnier classic skis in the first place which would’ve married better with the traditional bindings.

Long story, short… unless you know what’s what, just find a package deal that includes all cross-country ski components and supports your intended use.


Cross-Country Skiing Explained Mini-Series

Please note that I wrote Cross-Country Skiing Explained with the beginner or intermediate cross-country skier in mind. This is the demographic for whom I most often served while working in the outdoor recreation industry at Lake Tahoe. I basically treat these articles as extensions of the conversations I’ve had with those customers.

That said, expert skiers probably could take away something of value from this article. Just know that I don’t intend to address racing-oriented philosophy, technique, or gear selection.

Considerations for buying cross-country ski gear (new and beginner xc skiers)

Classic Cross-Country Ski Components

Waxing Your “Waxless” Cross-Country Skis (for beginner and intermediate xc skiers)