“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.
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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.
Types of Cross-Country Skis
- 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
- Backcountry Cross-Country Skis
- aka off-track or off-trail skis
- shorter, wider classic cross-country skis that feature bases with a longer and more aggressive grip zone (often a fish scale pattern, but some accommodate grip wax or an easily attachable/removable skin-tech 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 terrain ranging from meadows and rolling hills to more mountainous locations
- 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 (aka “skate lane”)
- can be used off-track for “crust skating” during spring conditions, but this is often accomplished by experienced skate skiers
There’s 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 xc skis on groomers, but you probably won’t be able to use them in the standard classic tracks. Off-track and backcountry cross-country skis are often too wide to fit in the (approximately 70mm wide) groomed classic tracks.
If you want to maximize your experience, however, it’s best to use the right ski for the right situation.
So, again, narrow down your focus and acquire cross-country ski gear that will accommodate your primary intended skiing experience.
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.
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 body weight (plus a few extra pounds for your clothing and gear).
- 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.
For example, 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? Or, is the length of cross-country ski even appropriate for you weight?
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 in general (regardless of whether or not they’re running new or used gear). 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 even 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’re new to the sport. In fact, I would discourage you from doing that just like I wouldn’t 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 all of its benefits.
Take comfort that, in general, cross-country ski gear is very affordable compared to other winter sports.
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 and expert staff. They also have a major online presence. So, if you can’t make a 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.
Essentially 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 try on, if at all 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. 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 (see story below).
So, 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). Yes, you could mount new bindings to those old skis. However, you’re now beginning the descent into a deep and dark rabbit hole.
How much are you willing to spend on new bindings and the cost to mount them? And, can you even find someone locally who can mount them (if you ordered them online, for example)?
Trust me on this.
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 cross-country ski shop near Lake Tahoe and bought a pair of combination boots (used for both 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.
Another important note about this story is that the used skis that he purchased were old and massive in size. They were super long and excessively wide for use on groomed trails. Most likely the skis were designed to be used with a 3-pin binding system rather than a more contemporary light-duty NNN or SNS binding.
The newly mounted bindings were dwarfed by the skis. And it was obvious to me that the bindings would most likely break if placed under extreme pressure, such as during a harsh fall.
Please note that standard NNN and SNS bindings don’t come in different sizes. For cross-country skiing on groomed terrain (classic and skate), these lighter-duty bindings are all that you need, though.
Realistically, the gentleman should’ve mounted an NNN BC (backcountry) binding, which features a longer and stronger bar, on those big skis. The BC version could withstand the amount of force he’d place on the skis (while making more aggressive turns, for example).
But NNN BC is not compatible with any other boot/binding system (such as NNN). And it’s too big of a binding to put on a traditional classic or skate ski. So, the idea of having one set of boots to accommodate both styles of skiing is out the window (if he had gone with that more appropriately-sized NNN BC binding on the big skis).
Instead, he should’ve just bought a set of new classic track skis (designed for groomed terrain) with a light-duty binding such as NNN and a set of combi-boots. Then, down the road, he could’ve bought a set of skate skis with the NNN compatible binding.
This was his intention, of course. But because he bought that set of huge (and used) cross-county skis, he was stuck in a bind.
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.
Buy Sooner Rather Than Later
I just need to point out one last thing before I finish this first part of Buying Cross-Country Ski Gear.
Don’t wait for cross-country ski gear to go on sale or for an end-of-season sale to purchase.
The cross-country ski manufacturing industry is the same as the rest of the outdoor recreation industry. Store (retailers/resellers) orders are submitted months in advance, and manufacturers only make enough gear to fill those orders plus some additional surplus to cover re-orders.
But once the gear is gone for the season, it’s gone. Period.
Don’t be surprised if the package deals or gear you were eyeballing in October is gone by Christmas (sometimes by Thanksgiving!).
Keep in mind that if retailers had their way, they’d gladly sell out of nearly all their winter product by January 1st. The further they get into winter (past New Year’s Day) the less likely they’re going to unload that winter inventory. And, trust me, retailers don’t want to store leftover winter gear all spring, summer, and fall. And then have to sell that “old” product the following year.
I’m not saying to make a hasty purchase. Just know that if you wait too long (i.e. until December) you may not have much of a selection from which to choose.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with last year’s gear (assuming it’s still in a retailer’s inventory!). But the likelihood of finding great gear from last season is low. Mostly, the remaining product is a hodgepodge of unwanted stuff or oddball sizes.
Cross-Country Downhill maybe slightly dated (published c. 1987), but it provides some wonderful philosophy about cross-country skiing off the beaten path.
There’s also a lot of technical information regarding learning the Telemark turn on lighter cross-country touring gear. Highly recommended for those of you looking to cross-country ski in the backcountry.
Keep in mind, however, that this book is written with a more advanced mountain adventurer in mind. Follow the Amazon link and you should be able to find a used copy.
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)
- Buying Cross-Country Ski Gear, for Beginners (Part 1)
- Buying Cross-Country Ski Gear, for Beginners (Part 2)
Classic Cross-Country Ski Components
- Introduction to Classic Cross-Country Skis (Part 1)
- Geometry of Classic Cross-Country Skis (Part 2)
- The Grip Zone of Classic Cross-Country Skis (Part 3)
- Types of Bindings for Classic Cross-Country Skiing (Part 4)
- Ski Boots for Classic Cross-Country Skiing (Part 5)
- Classic Cross-Country Ski Poles (Part 6)
- FAQs about Classic Cross-Country Skiing