XC Skiing Explained (Part 4): Classic Cross-Country Ski Bindings

Copyright © 2018 Jared Manninen

Ski bindings, whether they be for Nordic skis, Alpine skis, Telemark skis, or Randonee skis (Alpine Touring), are the unsung heroes of the world of skiing. Without bindings, skis are rendered useless for they’re the direct interface between human and technology (skis). Their purpose is to enable us to exert control over the skis.

Pretty important, right?

Well, the reality is that for many of us they just represent an additional cost to those already expensive skis we’ve just purchased.

And after the bindings have been mounted to the skis, generally the only other times we consider them is when they break or don’t work as expected.

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The design and construction of skis (and their bindings) is representative of any invention that’s required a direct human interface to operate. This interface is, and probably will always be, the Achilles’ heel of invention.

Simply put, no matter how fantastic an idea may be, if it’s not user-friendly it’s not going to be used. So it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that, although ski design and construction has definitely evolved over the millennia, bindings have truly been the crux of the sport (or mode of transportation and survival).

The following video features some of the bindings highlighted in this article, and how to click in and out of them. The video also contains brief imagery and discussion of xc ski boots in relation to the bindings.

To try to describe all of the historical mechanisms and manifestations of ski bindings would be encyclopedic in length. And, it’s a lesson best saved for another day. Suffice it to say that for thousands of years people have been attempting to develop ski bindings that don’t:

  • lacerate
  • chafe
  • crush their toes, feet, or ankles
  • cause them to break their ankles or knees in a fall
  • inhibit blood circulation which can lead to frostbite
  • wreck or destroy their boots
  • or, simply break free from the ski.

Yet the bindings still need to provide adequate control with which to run the ski. They also need to feature a relatively easy release mechanism.

Throw into the equation the fact that there are many unique skiing disciplines to practice. And, each requires a binding that meets its specific needs. So, you have a pretty complex problem to solve!

NNN BC (auto) binding. © Jared Manninen

Despite how important bindings are to skis, the laissez faire attitude I mentioned toward them is not necessarily unwarranted. They’re not nearly as sexy as the actual skis or ski boots. And, they don’t require much attention after they’ve been mounted.

There isn’t much to do with them other than keeping them free of debris. That, and periodically checking them for wear and tear. I suspect the real reason we often take bindings for granted is due to their evolution and subsequent standardization.

You want to know something funny, though? You can buy nearly any alpine ski boot from any manufacturer. Then, you can wear it with nearly any set of rental skis (bindings). And, this is whether you’re at a downhill resort or ski shop across the country thanks to standardization.

However, this is not the case with cross-country skis.

Why isn’t there a standard binding used in cross-country skiing? Well, why do some people prefer iPhones while others prefer Androids?

Call it the blessing and the curse of a free market. There’s no right or wrong answer as to what brand of cross-country ski binding to use. However, there are more effective choices in types of bindings based on intended use. You just need to be aware that there’s no true standardization across the board for cross-country ski bindings.

NNN BC Magnum (manual) binding. © Jared Manninen

Types of Bindings Used In Classic Cross-Country Skiing

Cross-country isn’t like downhill-oriented skiing disciplines. For downhilling, you want to be “locked in” as tight as possible (foot to boot and boot to binding).

Mobility is paramount in classic cross-country skiing.

The foot needs to be snug (but not too tight) in the boot to provide control over the ski. But, it needs to be comfortable enough to wiggle your toes and flex your feet. The ski boot needs to move freely in relation to the binding for you to properly execute diagonal striding.

That’s why the metal bar at the toe of the ski boot (the one thing manufacturers do agree on) is the only attachment point between boot and ski. The contemporary exception is the second bar with the SNS Pilot boots/bindings system. But this system still primarily relies on the front bar.

Although you’re clicked into the binding with that bar, this union is a hinge rather than a stationary locking mechanism.

3-Pin binding. © Jared Manninen

Assuming the cross-country ski bindings have been mounted in the standard position (pin line directly over the balance point of the ski), the ball of your foot will basically be at the apex of a classic ski’s second camber.

Classic track skis and boots or light touring gear will have firm soles but soft uppers.

The hinge allows you a “free heel.” Coupled with the softer boots, you can flex your foot like a runner. This means that during “push-off,” all of your body weight will be focused on the flexed foot. Therefore, you can compress the ski (pushing the grip zone into the snow) and move forward.

For more information about this concept, read

Cross-Country Skiing Explained (Part 3): Grip Zone of Classic Cross-Country Skis.

The mobility inherent with xc skis (and bindings) ensures you won’t be mistaken for a zombie shambling across the field. By having a free heel and wearing comfortable boots, you can move naturally. This is particularly evident when not performing actual technique such as when negotiating deep powder (i.e. walking).

As I’ve stated, there is no standardized binding/boot system that is compatible with all other bindings and boots. When navigating this realm, you need to be certain of what you own or are looking to purchase.

Many beginner and intermediate cross-country skiers aren’t aware of this discrepancy. And they become frustrated, for example, when they bring to the Nordic ski center at which I work their own skis (bindings) or boots after having forgotten one or the other at home, only to discover they can’t just rent the one missing component because our binding systems aren’t compatible.

I would estimate that this occurs about 50% of the time. No big deal if you have money to burn. But, having to rent a whole cross-country ski package when you already own a full setup (but forgot one component) can be frustrating. Usually a mistake made only once.

SNS Pilot bindings (auto and manual). Notice the hooked lever looking mechanism beneath the “head” of the binding. This is where the second bar on Pilot boots connects. © Jared Manninen

I’m not going to list every possible variation of every binding on the market. There are simply way too many options. But the following list represents the majority of what’s available and in use today.

NNN (New Nordic Norm)

  • One lightweight bar system and a relatively wide but shallow platform
  • Variations include multiple auto versions, as well as manual locking mechanisms
  • Appropriate for classic track skis and a very lightweight touring setup (i.e. not recommended for off-track/backcountry skis wider than 60mm)
  • NNN has been around for decades and is compatible with all NNN boots (i.e. an NNN boot manufactured in 2018 will work with an NNN binding that’s 20 years old)
Different versions of NNN bindings. © Jared Manninen

NNN BC (New Nordic Norm Backcountry)

  • One larger heavyweight bar system and a relatively wide but shallow platform
  • Variations include an auto version, as well as a manual (Magnum) locking mechanism
  • Fine for off-track/backcountry touring skis that don’t exceed 90mm in tip width and 70mm in waist width — some xc skiers advise against mounting NNN BC bindings to skis more than 70mm wide tips, but I have NNN BC Magnum bindings mounted on Fischer Excursion 88mm backcountry cross-country skis and they’re great
  • NNN BC has been around for years and is compatible with all NNN BC boots (i.e. an NNN BC boot manufactured today will work with an NNN BC binding made years ago)

3-Pin aka NN (Nordic Norm) and 75mm

  • Three pins that seat into the “duckbill” of the ski boot, as well as a bail that locks down over the duckbill
  • Appropriate for off-track/backcountry touring skis with tips wider than 90mm and waists wider than 60mm
  • 3-Pin used to be the standard binding found on cross-country skis, but was eventually determined to be too much binding for contemporary recreational cross-country skiers using modern, thinner track skis (replaced by NNN)
  • 3-Pin bindings have been around for decades and are compatible with standard 3-Pin boots (i.e. a cross-country skiing 3-Pin boot manufactured today will work with a 3-Pin binding made years ago)
  • Standard cross-country ski 3-Pin bindings are very basic and don’t usually incorporate cables into their design (to secure the heel of the ski boot), although you can mount lighter duty cable 3-Pin bindings to backcountry xc skis if you desire (these types often have a removable cable that you can fix to the binding before your descent)
  • One lightweight bar system and a relatively wide but shallow platform
  • New as of 2018, and is compatible with NNN
  • Variations include auto versions, as well as manual locking mechanisms
  • Appropriate for classic track skis and a very lightweight touring setup (i.e. not recommended for off-track/backcountry skis wider than 60mm)
SNS ProLink Carbon bindings. © Jared Manninen

Pilot SNS (Salomon Nordic System)

  • Two lightweight bars system with the first bar to connect the toe of the boot to the binding and the second to click into a spring loaded return mechanism at the ball of the foot
  • The Pilot platform feels more narrow to me and is slightly taller than NNN or SNS Profil
  • SNS Pilot bindings are ideal for skate skis (thanks to the second bar) rather than classic skis, but still can be used for classic skiing and are fine for track skis and a very lightweight touring setup (i.e. not recommended for off-track/backcountry skis wider than 60mm)
  • Variations include auto versions, as well as manual locking mechanisms

Propulse SNS (Salomon Nordic System)

  • An SNS binding that is designed more for classic skiing and is compatible with Pilot boots because it features a gap large enough to let the second bar of the boots sit untouched

Profil SNS (Salomon Nordic System)

  • One lightweight bar system with a relatively shallow platform
  • Some Profil bindings accommodate some Pilot boots (not the other way around), but finding matches can be like winning the lottery
  • This is older technology and will eventually be obsolete, but you can still find the bindings and boots on the market
SNS Profil binding featuring damage from wearing a non-compatible Pilot boot. © Jared Manninen

You can probably guess why so many people get confused about compatibility with cross-country ski bindings. Except for the 3-pin variety, all of these bindings accept a small metal bar (found at the toe of a ski boot) which connects the boot to the binding.

To build upon this confusion, there are countless variations of these bindings in circulation. And just for good measure, let’s also throw into the mix all of those “legacy” systems (i.e. old as f— skis and bindings that still get pulled out of the attic once a year).

On any busy day at the Nordic center, I bear witness to dozens and dozens of different binding systems. They all perform the same basic function but are not usually compatible.

All bindings designed for use with track skis basically perform in the same manner. Clearly, each manufacturer will argue this point, but unless you’re an avid racer or World Cup skier, you’re probably not going to notice a huge difference in performance.

Cross country ski bindings
Although the NNN BC auto and manual bindings accommodate the same sized bar on NNN BC boots, the locking mechanism for the manual version is far more robust and the overall platform is slightly larger. © Jared Manninen

There are no small, medium, or large versions of track ski bindings. However, they do adjust to accommodate ski boots of different sizes.

That said, 3-pin bindings are larger than NNN BC (Magnum). In turn, the manual version is larger its NNN BC (auto) brethren. In that last case, though, the actual bar is the same size but the overall manual binding is bigger. And, finally, the NNN BC bindings are larger than NNN and SNS bindings.

I find it best to marry the size of the binding to the size of the ski.

For example, I’ve mounted a 3-Pin binding on my Fischer S-Bound 112s. But, I have an NNN BC (auto) binding on my Fischer Spider 62s. The basic idea is that you don’t want a small binding on a wide ski. And, you don’t want a large binding on a thin ski.

Too small of a binding on too wide of a ski will not provide enough leverage. So, you won’t be able to make clean turns. And, this may actually result in you snapping the binding clear off of the ski (due to torsional forces). Too big of a binding will hang over the edges of the skis. This affects performance when edging or turning, as well as possibly putting too much torque on the ski.

Copyright © 2018 Jared Manninen
NNN BC Magnum (manual) in the closed position. © Jared Manninen
Copyright © 2018 Jared Manninen
NNN BC Magnum (manual) in the open position. Please note that I would have to pull the lever open slightly more to get the teeth to open wider in order to step into the binding. I kept the binding partially open for this photo to better show the actual locking teeth. © Jared Manninen

Considerations for Manual and Auto Bindings in the Backcountry

Auto bindings are fine for the groomers. But they’re not as ideal for off-trail and backcountry travel. Why? Because they aren’t as secure and can be challenging to click in while on soft, powdery snow.

For example, the spring of an NNN BC auto binding is quite firm. Unless you have a solid ground from which to apply downward pressure, you may end up having to fiddle around for a few minutes before positively clicking in.

I realize this sounds like splitting hairs. However, it can be frustrating to go through this when the wind is howling and you’re standing in whiteout conditions. And being frustrated, especially under difficult circumstances, can lead to making poor decisions.

Another worst case scenario that can occur with auto bindings in the backcountry is during the disengage phase. The opposing forces (pushing on the release button with the ski pole tip while pulling your boot away from the binding) can cause the ski to fly down the trail or off the mountain. I see this happen often at groomed trails. And, as humorous as it can be in a controlled environment, it’s not so funny if you ski goes flying off of a cliff.

Actually, one of our rental customers experienced this very problem during the 2017/18 winter. He stopped at a scenic view point and pulled off his skis (to rest and take in the sights). But, while removing one of his skis he sent it flying down the side of the mountain. Needless to say, he had a fairly long walk back to the rental shop.

Better to just reach down and unlock the binding with your hand. Then, immediately flip the ski on its side or upside down so it doesn’t slide away.

Even with most auto bindings, you can still just reach down and manually release your boot from the binding. You may have to press the button hard with your finger, but it’s possible. This is a good practice to get into whether you’re in the backcountry or on the groomers.

One last note is that it’s easier to clear out snow and ice from manual bindings. This comes in handy in the backcountry.

Close-up of the 3-Pin (NN) binding. Note the small arrow pointing to the right in the lower right corner of the photo. This means I should put this ski on my right foot. © Jared Manninen

Last Thoughts about Classic Cross-Country Ski Bindings

This article isn’t about how to mount bindings. However, I wanted to mention a couple notes about the task since I briefly introduced the topic above.

The universal approach is to place the pin line (metal bar) at the balance point. This is evident by the ski remaining level when you raise it off the snow.

However, some people will alter their bindings so that the pin line falls just behind the balance point. In this example, their weight is set back slightly. This allows the ski tips to float more when skiing downhill in deeper snow. However, placing the binding back makes it so that the tip drops when raising the ski with your boot.

On the other hand, some people mount the binding so the pin line is just forward of the balance point. This places more of your weight forward and allows you to get better grip. It also causes the ski tip to rise when you raise your boot and ski. This could be helpful for traveling in deeper snow across flat zones and uphill. The downfall of this approach is that you get less glide.

My recommendation is to just mount your bindings in the standard position so as to avoid inconsistent performance. One caveat to this is that with newer NNN bindings that attach to NIS or IFP plates, you can move the bindings fore and aft quite easily. I never do this, but it is a possibility.

Copyright © 2018 Jared Manninen
SNS Propulse Carbon bindings. It’s not very clear in this photo, but notice how wide the gap is above the white “SNS” label is. This large space easily accommodates the second bar of a Pilot boot. Look at the image of the Profil binding above and you’ll see how narrow the space is, which (in that example) does not accommodate the second bar. © Jared Manninen
Copyright © 2018 Jared Manninen
These types of skis and bindings need to be permanently retired. Do yourself a favor and invest in some new gear if this is similar to what your current setup is. © Jared Manninen

I realize that I’ve discussed bindings before boots in this article. Just know that they’ll be addressed simultaneously when purchasing new gear (or gear new to you). The reason for this is that manufacturers design their boots to work with certain types of bindings.

And each manufacturer designs their boots based on what they perceive to be an idealized foot. So, it’s more important to find a boot that fits your foot properly. Then, buy the binding related to the boot. Do that rather than first buying the bindings and hoping to find a boot that comfortably fits your foot (and is compatible with those bindings).

Here’s a fun article (I found online) about the contemporary history of cross-country ski bindings…

Pins to pivots, and the nightmares of the ’90s

Cross-Country Skiing Explained Articles and Videos

Please note that I wrote and produced the Cross-Country Skiing Explained series of articles and videos with the beginner and intermediate cross-country skier in mind. This is the demographic for whom I most often serve(d) while working in the outdoor recreation industry at Lake Tahoe. I basically treat these articles and videos as extensions of the conversations that I have (had) with those customers.

That said, expert skiers probably could take away something of value from these resources. Just know that I don’t address race-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)