Cross Country Skiing at the Frisco Nordic Center, Frisco, Colorado by Todd Powell

Prospective cross country skiers often make a decision opting for either classic skiing or skate skiing. These two forms of cross country skiing are very different regarding where they can happen, what type of gear is used, the techniques employed, how fast the skiing is, and how much energy is necessary on an outing.

For a first time or inexperienced cross country skier, classic skiing may be the best choice because it is easier to learn and less physically demanding. As the classic skier advances (and gets left in the dust by good skate skiers) it may be less difficult to master skate skiing. In general, the skate skier should be more physically fit while classic skiers can ski at a casual pace if they so choose.

Cross Country Ski Terrain

Whether classic or skating, cross country skiing on groomed trails (already packed and perhaps tracked, too) is easier than skiing on ungroomed terrain such as the golf course, existing ungroomed trails, or across the snow-covered landscape. The snow on a groomed trail is machine-maintained by a ski area operator or ski club groomer to be consistent and packed so the skier can use their gear and techniques to slide efficiently. While it may look like cross country skiers are simply walking on skis, the diagonal stride technique combined with the ski characteristics are intended to grip and glide when weight is applied on a single ski. But skiing on a golf course that is covered with snow and does not have maintained trails can be at times deep, wet, frozen or breakable ice, or other conditions that are difficult to ski.

Skate skiing requires packed terrain on a trail or hard packed area like a snow covered iced-over lake in the springtime. Additionally, skaters should have some flexibility and be somewhat physically fit. A skate skier moves from side-to-side in a V-shaped technique. Going up hills on the trail will require a skate skier to have good timing and some strength to maintain sliding momentum on the skis.

A cross country ski area trail will often have a tracked section along the right side of the trail for classic skiers and a wider flat lane that may be about 10-12 feet in width for skaters to deploy their V-technique. The tracks seem like parallel rails compressed in the snow and they make classic ski gliding easier by keeping the skis going in a straight line. Sometimes the snow is the right condition to allow “crust cruising” or skating across the terrain without a specified trail.

Galena skiers

Cross Country Ski Gear

Classic skiing uses longer skis, often with a waxless base which provides the ski grip. The long skis distribute the skier’s weight allowing glide when the skis are equally weighted and grip when all the skier’s weight is applied to one ski. When a skier switches their weight from one ski to the other, the first ski needs to hold (not slide) while you spring off of it on to the other ski. In the olden days that grip was provided by a wax that was applied to the base in correlation to the air and snow temperature but today ski bases have patterns (for example, mini teeth or skin-type material) that allows the ski to hold on the snow to provide that grip. Ski racers still use an array of wax or other compounds to get optimal grip and glide.

Skate skis are shorter and they rely on skier weight shifting and momentum, rather than employing a base grip. Skaters use longer ski poles (length reaching from the ground to between the skier’s bottom and bridge of the nose) providing more of a push forward in the V-technique movement and allows the skier to shift their weight from ski to ski while gliding in an angular direction (like a speed ice skater). The skate skier’s boot upper is higher up the leg with a plastic cuff and this provides more support to push off the ski for the weight shift. The skater’s weight must be shifted mostly to the sliding ski which is moving in an angle away from the center of the trail. The complete weight shift is one of the biggest challenges for the beginning skater as many of them tend to keep their weight in the center of the position rather than committing out over the sliding ski. The centered weight position minimizes the glide for the skate skier.

The classic ski boot enhances forward skiing with the skis parallel and are generally less stiff than skate ski boots. The ski boot stiffness is in the sole and can be felt by twisting the boot, thus the skating boot sole is much stiffer than the classic ski boot sole. 

The classic skier’s ski pole length should be as high as the arm pit or shoulder. When used correctly, the classic skier’s poles can enhance forward momentum by comfortably swinging their arms to have some push off behind. This enhanced forward momentum associated with the ski poles is an even more important element of skate skiing.

Bindings on XC skis are built to provide support and a strong connection between boot and the ski. For example, the binding for skating is manufactured to withstand the pressure of the side to side application.

Other Factors

Equipment-wise, owners of a smaller car should know that the space in their vehicle will accommodate the skate skiing gear better than the longer classic skis. Additionally, the skater’s gear is generally more expensive compared to classic ski equipment. All ski equipment is available in a range of cost and like anything else, you get what you pay for. 

It is important to be aware of the different types of equipment within any of the XC ski categories. For example, classic skis can be narrow, stiff and fast producing much more glide but perhaps less control, while a backcountry ski would preferably be softer and wider to float in the deeper snow. Classic skis may be versatile to be applicable on tracked trails and also for ungroomed snow conditions. For most skiers, skate skis are too short and narrow so it is difficult on anything but packed snow. With such issues in mind, skiers have to be careful when buying new or used equipment to be certain that their acquisition will fit their intended needs.

Another smart suggestion is to rent equipment and get a lesson at the outset. An instructor will provide technique tips for either classic or skate skiing and the initial outing may make the choice obvious for a first timer or beginner. Experienced skiers may seek out a “try before you buy” demo available at some ski areas to actually test different pairs of skis and boots.

Regardless of whether classic or skate skiing is the preference, cross country skiing is the greatest winter on-snow activity combining fitness and wellness with the natural outdoor winter environment while moving under your own power.


  1. Terrific sweeping summary!

  2. Suzanne Welch says:

    Great article, having taught kids through the Bill Koch ski league as well as many adults, I strongly encourage new comers to the sport to start with classic, then learn skating. Skills will develop better doing this. Also, combi boots are a good investment if the newbi believes they will eventually do both. They also have the advantage of providing more stability on those skinny skis. XC is great!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *