How to Select Cross Country Skis. Photo credit: Zach Walbridge.

Which cross country skis should I buy? This question has only become more difficult as more types of skis have been developed for every kind of skiing imaginable. Currently, Skirack carries 6 different categories of cross country skis. They are outlined below to help you get an idea for what you’re looking for.


Backcountry Cross Country Skis.
Backcountry Cross Country Skis.

Backcountry skis are for the hiker, mountaineer, adventurer! If you like breaking new trail, heading away from groomed ski areas, and seeking out mountainous terrain, these are for you. These skis are wider and shorter than most Nordic skis, with lengths that vary from 165-200cm and widths that vary from 65-110mm. At first glance, they can resemble alpine skis. However, they feature the double camber characteristic of cross country skis, that gives the skier the classic kick and glide sensation. Most feature a fish scale pattern on the kick zone, and some also have the option of adding a mohair (skin) grip to the kick zone. Backcountry skis are well suited for areas like the Catamount Trail, the Camel’s Hump Loop, or the ungroomed areas of Bolton and Trapps. 

Backcountry skis are typically equipped with three pin or BC NNN bindings. These bindings are larger than the ones you find on touring or race skis, and they are compatible with boots that have a larger, wider sole and more support through the ankle, similar to a hiking boot, which provides the force needed for turning a wider ski. Although some of these bindings offer a wire that extends around the back of the foot, the heel is not clamped to the ski, and the bindings do not release in the event of a crash. A backcountry setup with skis, boots, poles, and bindings typically costs anywhere from $500 to $1000. 

Keep in mind that backcountry skis are not the same as alpine touring skis. These are alpine skis designed for downhill resort skiing, pair with boots and bindings are also in the downhill category, but offer “walk” or “tour” modes. To go uphill, skiers place a mohair skin along the full length of the ski, and hike up the mountain with their skis on. To descend, skiers remove the skin, and adjust the setting on their bindings and boots so that the heel is clamped down. For more information on alpine touring equipment, consult a member of the Skirack Alpine department. 


Classic Performance Cross Country Skis.
Classic Performance Cross Country Skis

Classic Performance skis are also known as racing skis. If you were to enter a race, such as the American Birkebeiner, the Craftsbury Marathon, or the Canadian Ski marathon, this would be the best choice of ski. However, you don’t have to be a racer to enjoy performance classic skiing. This ski not only offers the best grip on the uphills and the best glide on the downhills; it also offers the opportunity for the best full body workout. Because these are used primarily on groomed trails, the skier can focus less on how they will navigate the terrain, and more on their training intensity. Therefore, many runners and cyclists are drawn to this category as a means of cross training (think distance workouts, tempo runs, and interval training).

Classic performance skis are long and skinny, about 44mm wide and anywhere from 185-208cm long. They are very lightweight and are individually flexed to determine the perfect fit for the skier. Classic skis are best for skiers spending all or nearly all of their time in groomed ski tracks, in areas like Sleepy Hollow, the Trapp Family Lodge, or the Craftsbury Outdoor Center. 

Of all the skis, classic performance skis require the most effort to maintain. Their bases are made of a P-tex material that must be waxed regularly to maintain their ideal glide, and the kick zones must be waxed with kick wax. There are a variety of kick waxes that work in different snow conditions, so it is advisable to keep a collection to match your waxes to the conditions. A wax that is too sticky can cause snow to stick and ice up on the skis, whereas a wax that isn’t sticky enough will skier struggling to get up any incline. For more information on waxing; see our post on Ski Waxes. 

Classic performance skis are often paired with race classic boots, which are small, light, and offer little support at the ankle. You can also use combi boots, which are designed for both skate and classic skiing, and offer more support. Classic race poles are sized longer than most touring poles, to the top of the shoulder. They are made from a carbon composite, which is both lighter and stiffer than the aluminum touring/backcountry poles, which allows the skier to access more power through the upper body and core. A classic performance setup with skis, bindings, poles, and boots can range from $500 to $2000, depending on the construction of the equipment. 


Classic Skin Cross Country Skis.
Classic Skin Cross Country Skis.

Classic skin skis have grown dramatically in popularity over the last few years. They offer a similar experience to a classic performance ski, but much easier to use in that they do not require kick wax. The kick zones of skin skis are covered with a mohair skin material that grips the snow in place of kick wax. The skis themselves still resemble the performance classic skis- long and skinny, with a light core and fast bases. In fact, many classic wax skis come in a skin version, such as the Salomon RC and the Rossignol X-ium. Skin skis still require glide wax on the tips and tails.

There are some disadvantages to classic skin skis. Because the skin takes up more space under the ski than a layer of wax, the skin skis tend to be slower on the downhills. Therefore, in a race environment, the waxable skis will perform better. Skin skis’ kick zones cannot be modified (longer or shorter) to fit the skier’s weight, so selecting the right flex for a skin ski is critical. Many skin skis come with an adjustable binding, that will allow the skier to choose whether they want more kick or glide.

Skin skis are a great option for classic racers who want a no-kickwax easy to use pair for training days, or for the new skier that wants the speed and the workout quality of a classic ski without the fuss of the kickwax. They are compatible with the same boots and poles as performance classic skis, and a full setup of skis, bindings, boots, and poles costs anywhere from $500 to $2000. 


Touring cross country skis from Rossignol.
Touring cross country skis.

Touring is for the outdoor enthusiast and a great option for people who enjoy taking walks in the woods or the parks, and want a similar experience on skis. Many people new to cross country skiing select touring skis for their versatility and affordability. Touring skis are shorter and wider than performance Nordic skis, (about 50-65mm wide,) which makes them easier to balance and maneuver. However, they are still narrow enough to fit into a track at a touring center. Touring skis are a great choice for going out on golf courses, bike paths, or in the woods on flatter terrain such as the Burlington Intervale. 

Touring skis typically feature fish scale patterns on the kick zone (or middle third) of the ski. When the skier puts all their weight into one ski, the ski flattens so the fish scales grip the snow and the skier can propel themselves up the hill. When the skier has balanced their weight between the two skis, the fish scales do not touch the snow, and the skier can glide down hill without dragging. The skis are sized based on the weight of the skier. 

Some touring skis feature a full or partial metal edge. A metal edge gives the skier more control on an icy surface, and can be a helpful feature for those planning to ski on hilly terrain. Touring skis require no wax. However, a paste wax, such as maxiglide, can decrease friction between the snow and reduce icing on the fish scales. A touring setup with skis, boots, bindings and poles typically costs $300 to $500. 


Skate cross country skis from Atomic.
Skate cross country skis.

Skate skis are the only kind that are not parallel when they are being used. Rather, they are placed in a V-shape and the motion is more similar to ice skating or roller blading. Because their motion requires a wide area and a good glide, skate skis are only suitable for groomed trails. Skate skis have a narrow side cut (44m wide), and they are constructed with fast, waxable bases and a light core material. Their length ranges from 173-192cm long. They are the only ski that is flexed stiffer than the weight of the skier. In other words, is should be impossible to completely flatten the ski to the ground, even with the skiers full body weight. Compared to classic skis, they can be described as having more “pop” and “spring”. 

Skate skis are frequently used in nordic ski racing. In fact, many ski races, such as the American Birkie, have skate or classic options, while others, like the Craftsbury Marathon, have two days of racing: one for classic and one for skate. However, many non-competitive skiers also enjoy skate skiing. Skate skiing challenges balance and leg strength, because skiers must commit to gliding on one foot. It also offers cardiovascular training benefits to athletes looking to cross train for other sports, similar to classic skiing. 

Skate poles are made of a lightweight, stiff, carbon composite, and are typically sized to the upper lip of the skier. Skate boots are characterized by a stiff ankle cuff that allows the skier more control of the direction of the ski. A skate ski setup with skis, boots, bindings, and poles ranges in price from $500 and $2500, depending on the construction of the equipment. 


Fitting Cross Country Skis. Photo credit: Zach Walbridge.
Fitting Cross Country Skis. Photo credit: Zach Walbridge.

Hopefully this helps you narrow down your search for cross country skis. Regardless of which category you choose, we recommend consulting with one of our staff members about your decision, to confirm that the bindings, skis, and boots are compatible, and to make sure the ski is the correct flex.

Feel free to reach out to our store at 802-658-3313 with any questions!

Click here to learn more about our Cross Country Ski Fitting Services.

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