XC Skiing Explained (Part 1): Introduction to Classic Cross-Country Skis

Copyright © 2017 Jared Manninen

Skis began, as you might expect, as a mode of transportation over snowy terrain. Whether people were traveling from one place to another or chasing down wild game, skis were (and still are) designed to provide the means to travel most expediently across snow.

Although downhill skiing has been around since the 1800s and has arguably become a more popular form of skiing, cross-country skis are the original skis … like thousands of years old original.

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And even though contemporary classic cross-country skis are superior to their millennia-old predecessors, and skiing as a means of survival has taken a back seat to skiing for enjoyment and sport, the drive for efficient and effective travel over snow remains.

People often equate cross-country skiing with the image of a sole skier effortlessly gliding across an open meadow or an undulating landscape.

Although there are countless other scenarios and environments in which to use cross-country skis, they nearly always involve skiing or gliding across variable terrain (hence the term “cross-country” skiing). I realize this notion is probably not revelatory. However, I want to clarify that it would be a stretch to equate cross-country skiing with standing in a lift line, riding a chair up a mountain, and then bombing down a steep descent.

Although cross-country skiing and alpine skiing stem from the same origin and share some basic characteristics, they are not the same.

Breaking trail in Washoe Meadows State Park on January 25, 2017. © Jared Manninen

Friction is the naturally occurring force that prevents two surfaces or layers in contact with each other from moving. Therefore, the ultimate goal behind the design of any type of ski is to reduce friction when gliding.

There obviously needs to be mechanisms for stopping, turning, and (in the case of cross-country skiing) moving forward, but friction is the primary factor in which all skis (and skiers) must overcome.

In addition, the force of gravity conspires to work against a cross-country skier in his or her quest to glide over diverse terrain. Consider the effort required to overcome friction while using gravity to ski downhill compared to the effort it would take a cross-country skier to glide across flat or uphill terrain.

Believe it or not, you can glide uphill with proper technique and great conditioning (which is one reason why I love this sport so much). The point is that the design of a classic cross-country ski not only allows for downhill travel but, more importantly, across the flats and up hills.

This is in contrast to alpine skis which are solely for the purpose of descending a hill, particularly steep ones.

Copyright © 2017 Jared Manninen
Pixie skiing on Salomon Aero 9 Skin classic skis on January 16, 2017. © Jared Manninen

To understand how to maximize the capabilities of a classic cross-country ski, you need to understand how a classic ski is designed to function.

The reason for this isn’t just so you can become a fellow Nordic nerd. Rather, it’s because the core principles of classic skiing (push-off, weight transfer, glide) are directly related to the design of the classic ski.

I can’t definitively say if technique evolved based on the design of the ski or skis evolved as a result of the application of technique. However, I suspect that the evolution was symbiotic in that technique and design equally fueled each other’s progression over time.

Whether or not the chicken came before the egg is irrelevant. Cross-country skiing technique and cross-country skis form an inseparable bond. If you don’t understand how a ski is designed to function you won’t understand how to effectively apply technique.

Classic skiing at Tahoe Donner Cross Country ski area on February 17, 2017. © Jared Manninen

If you never learn proper technique, you’ll never be able to maximize your experience of cross-country skiing. Basically, by understanding this stuff you won’t get winded so quickly. And, you’ll be able to travel further safely and with greater ease.

Anatomy of a Classic Cross-Country Ski (in a nutshell):

Classic cross-country skis feature three prominent aspects of design (geometry, grip zone, and bindings). These three aspects correlate to the core principles of classic cross-country skiing technique.

In addition to reducing friction when gliding, these design elements support push-off and weight transfer. Both of those skills enable you to move forward. The design of classic skis and the application of proper technique allow you to achieve efficient travel across variable terrain.

  1. Geometry
    1. Width – classic skis are “skinny” and range in width between 40-50mm
    2. Length – the length of a classic ski is based on your weight and will generally fall between 160-210cm long
    3. Weight – classic skis are lightweight and generally weigh between 1.5-3.5lbs
    4. These geometrical aspects reduce friction when gliding and help you combat the force of gravity
  2. Grip zone
    1. Grip zone (aka kick zone) – the area underfoot (on the base of the ski) that features either a wax pocket, scale pattern, skin technology, or other textured surface area (i.e. “Zeros”) that allows you to push off
    2. Double (aka Nordic) camber – this is the upward bend of the ski which prevents the grip zone from dragging when gliding and provides spring during push-off
  3. Bindings
    1. Free heel – classic ski bindings allow your foot to flex naturally (as if you were walking or running) which contributes to the efficiency of all three phases of classic skiing
    2. Most prevalent types of bindings include Nordic Norm (three-pin style), New Nordic Norm (aka NNN and features a single bar), and Salomon Nordic System (SNS) variations which are similar to, but not compatible with, NNN (Profil, Propulse, Pilot), and Salomon Prolink (compatible with NNN)

I’ll discuss in more detail the design components of classic skis, as well as the correlations between classic skis and technique, in future articles. For now, just know that classic skis are designed to work in concert with classic technique, and vice versa.

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.

Classic Cross-Country Ski Components

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

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