For newcomers to cross country (XC) skiing, deciding on the best skis can be intimidating, especially if you don’t want to rely entirely on retail sales people or on-line outlets for advice.

Devil’s Thumb Ranch, Colorado

The following guidance about selecting and using XC gear is general and intended to help you be an informed consumer.

Note that as a rule of thumb, standard XC equipment packages include skis, boots, bindings and poles and are less expensive than purchasing components individually.

Which pair of cross country (XC) skis is right for you?

Average recreational XC skiers should rule out light weight very narrow gear (used by racers) and waxable XC skis and/or wide steel edged XC skis (used by backcountry mountain skiers). Instead, consider looking at a lightweight XC ski with a waxless base. In general, these bases include skins or a pattern milled into the base (e.g. a crown or fish scale pattern) which allow one ski to grip the snow, while the other is pushed off to glide. They also keep the skier from slipping backwards while traveling up a hill. Note that ski length should correlate to skier’s weight.

Ski choice also is a function of where the ski will be used. Places with groomed, packed trails are best experienced using narrower skis. Wider (e.g. 55 millimeters in the shovel) and softer skis provide some stability in places without groomed trails (e.g. many golf courses and city parks).

Many people try to compromise and get wider XC skis to accommodate both groomed trails and ungroomed areas. I recommend choosing one type or the other or purchasing separate skis for each type of skiing.

For many newbies, the biggest obstacle to XC ski control is the incomplete use of the snowplow. Unlike heavier Alpine  equipment which accommodates snow plow turns, with XC skis it’s important to feel the weight on the boot heel against the edged ski and command it to push outward to plow. Without this “feel the heel” and push movement, the skis won’t plow and speed will increase rather than decrease.

New gear makes XC fun for newbies

XC ski boots are an important component of the package. Most boots have similar characteristics such as an ankle cuff, covered easy lacing, dry, warm, comfortable, etc. In general, higher boots with more substantial plastic cuffing provide better control compared to a lowcut soft boot. Stiffness or softness is associated with the torsional rigidity of the boot. Determining whether or not a boot’s sole is stiff is as easy as twisting the sole. Stiffer boots provide more stability.

Now that you know, make the right choices and enjoy your time in the snow!






  1. please comment on different XC bindings

    • Andrew Martz says:

      I second this request.

      • The noncompatible bindings (3 pin, NNN, Salomon) have always been an issue to the XC ski community. I’ve seen 3 pin boots ruined in the toe holes, and the entire toe piece break off. It’s outdated tech, but sufficed for many years. The other two binding types (NNN and Salomon) require matching with the boots that you have. There are some boot brands that offer fitting differences (toe room, width, etc.) and fitting is what is most important to skiers. I do not know if any studies have been done to compare the difference between having one ridge (Salomon) or two ridges (NNN) on the binding. Other significant issues are the backcountry binding versions of either company are beefier and offer more stability and strength compared to nonbackcountry versions. But they are not compatible with nonbackcountry bindings because of a wider bar at the toe that does not fit into the nonbackcountry binding. Another issue is the automatic vs manual whereby the automatic allows step-in and a button or twistable lever (can be reached with ski pole) to step out. Manual bindings require that you bend over and undo the bindings to get out. Finally, I like the ability to adjust the binding forward or backward by sliding it as this impacts the grip or glide as you may like. See my article about the Move binding for details on this issue.

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