Cross-Country Skiing Equipment Basics Guide

cross-country skiing equipment guide featured image
James Shaffer
By James Shaffer
Last updated on February 22, 2021
Table of Contents


So you’ve decided you want to cross-country ski. That means you'll need some cross-country skiing equipment to get going on your journey. In this guide, we'll touch on the basics of the essential gear so you're well-set for the slopes.

Gear you'll need for your endeavour may include:

The above are the essentials but we also recommend bringing a pair of snow goggles, a backpack, and some snacks for an occasional break as it can prove itself a proper exercise - especially in the beginning as you're learning.

Types of Cross-Country Skiing

There are two types of cross country skiing – “classic” and “skate skiing.”

Classic Cross-Country Skiing

In classic cross country, the skier moves the skis parallel to each other with a “kick and glide” motion. It is best on groomed cross country trails (where two tracks are made by grooming machines in the snow for you to follow), but can also be taken to mixed conditions as you get more comfortable. This is a great starting point for most beginning cross country skiers.

Skate Skiing

Skate skiing most closely resembles inline skating. The skis are moved in a skating-type stride on groomed trails. The skis must be picked up off the ground with each stride—think what you see in the Olympics.

Skating skis allows the skier to glide faster and for a longer distance for each stride than traditional cross-country skis, which also means a more intense aerobic workout than with traditional cross-country skis.

Man going cross-country skiing

Choosing The Right Kind of Cross-Country Skis

One of the most essential pieces of cross-country skiing equipment is the skis. Within the two categories of cross country skiing, there are a few types of skis to choose from:

Out of those, you’ll have to choose “waxable” versus “waxless” skis.

Traditional In-Trac Skis

Best for groomed trails and can also be used on some un-groomed terrain. They have minimal sidecut (narrowness of middle of ski compared to tip and tail) so the skis will stay in the tracks.

Off-Track Skis

Most often used to navigate un-groomed trails and terrain in parks, open fields, and on golf courses. They are wider than in-track cross country skis and provide more flotation and stability in fresh snow.

Backcountry Skis

Made for exploring the backcountry and experiencing variable snow conditions. They are shorter, narrower, and lighter than traditional cross-country skis.

Backcountry skis are also wider and feature metal edges to help you accommodate the variety of un-groomed terrain with better control. Note because of these special features they’re not optimum to use for groomed, parallel tracks.

Skating Skis

Shorter, lighter, and narrower than traditional cross-country skis. These ski properties accommodate the constant skating and lifting motion of skate cross country skiing. They generally will be about 10cm shorter than traditional skis. Most skating skis have no sidecut, which makes them more difficult to set on edge.

Should I choose Wax or Waxless Skis?

Some cross country skis have waxable bases, on which you put “kick wax” for grip. Other skis have waxless bases—instead of wax, a pattern in the middle third of the ski base, such as small plastic ridges or scales, provides ski grip.

Waxless skis have been designed to run beautifully in just about any kind of snow. While waxing offers optimal performance, waxless skis are more convenient. As conditions change, so must your wax, so you’ll need to keep up with it. Waxless skis tend to be a little bit slower, but they climb uphill very well.

What size cross-country ski is good for you?

As technology has evolved, Cross Country Ski Resorts Editor Roger Lohr suggests using the “paper test” to see if a particular pair of skis will adequately support your weight and provide optimum maneuverability both uphill and downhill.

“On a hard floor surface, you should be able to slide a piece of paper under the skis when you stand evenly weighted on both of the ski centers,” Lohr says.”When all of your weight is applied to one ski at a time, the paper should be unable to slide.”

Choosing The Right Boots And Bindings

First, and most importantly, make sure the bindings you choose are adequate for the category of cross country skis you will be using. There are bindings specifically designed for each style. By having a professional fit your bindings and trying them with the boots at the time of fitting, you’ll ensure yourself a cohesive and functional setup.

Also read: How to adjust ski bindings

Like your bindings, make sure you choose a boot within your cross country ski category. Your boots should feel just like running shoes. They should offer a snug but comfortable fit with enough room for a pair of socks and a sock liner. A liner under a winter sock will provide extra warmth and comfort and help wick away moisture. If you have problems with your feet you can wear a custom footbed or fitted insole in your boots.

Cross-country boots are often sized in European sizes (30s-40s) and sometimes in “mondo point” sizing like downhill ski boots (length in centimeters). Your local expert will be able to convert them to US size for you, or you can check our sizing chart below for basic information.

ski and snowboard boots size table

It’s important to try on the boots since sizing is crucial and varies from brand to brand. The fit should be snug and your heel should remain in place. You should be able to wiggle your toes but as a rule contact with all parts of your foot is a good indication you have the right fit.

Choosing The Right Cross-Country Ski Poles

Poles are essential to cross country skiing. You’ll need them to aid in your forward momentum. As a rule, select a pole that fits comfortably under your armpit. Skate skiers can use a longer pole. And for Backcountry cross country, adjustable poles are great so you can adjust the length to the varying conditions.

If this is your first set of cross country gear, any reasonably light pole will be fine. Lightweight poles are great for all types of cross country skiing, and are the most popular style being produced today. They will be best appreciated with skate skiing because of all the lifting involved. The basket—the loop or plastic cup at the bottom of the pole—prevents the pole from sinking too far into the snow. So it makes sense that the deeper the snow, the larger the basket can be. On groomed snow, a smaller basket is best.

If you're a little unsure about what length you should choose, check out our ski pole length calculator.

cross-country skiing equipment guide featured image

Wrapping Up

Now you should be geared to make the right decisions in terms of cross-country skiing equipment selection. It's important to know what type of cross country skiing you'll be doing as that directly determines what type of gear will be optimal.

Stay safe on the mountain and have fun exploring the backcountry!

James Shaffer

James Shaffer

James is a veteran snowboarder and skier. His passion for snow sport dates back to his early life growing up in Colorado. He spent his early adulthood as a ski instructor around popular locations in Europe but is now back in Colorado.
Published October 15, 2020
Last updated February 22, 2021
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