Mom and two kids having fun on cross-country skis

How to choose cross-country (Nordic) skis

Cross-country skiing is your ticket to cruise through snowy landscapes, over rolling hills and across frozen lakes. If you’re ready to buy your first pair of Nordic skis, it’s important to know a few basics. Here are the main things to consider when deciding what cross-country skis are best for you:

  • Your skiing style: Do you want to glide smoothly in set tracks, or do you want a workout as you zip along at high speeds? Maybe you want to explore snowy forests? Knowing how you to plan to use your skis is the first step to choosing the right pair.
  • Choosing the right ski size: The correct length is critical to an enjoyable ski experience – learn how to find it.
  • Waxable or waxless bases: For classic skiing and off-track touring, this is a key choice. We’ll break down the advantages of each style.

Classic skiing

Person out classic cross-country skiing

This style of skiing is the stride-and-glide motion that many people think of when they picture cross-country skiing. As you shift your skis forward one ski at a time, a grippy section of the ski base directly under your feet (the “wax pocket” or “kick zone”), stays put so you don’t slide backwards. When your weight is over the wax pocket, the ski grips the snow, allowing you to push off. When you unweight off that ski, the wax pocket rides above the snow and the base glides freely.

  • Classic skis are narrow (usually less than 60mm at the widest point) so they can fit into the special classic tracks that are set at Nordic ski areas.
  • They don’t have metal edges.
  • Classic skis are sold with either waxable or waxless bases (more about that below).
  • When you look at them from the side, you’ll see the shape is a highly-arched double camber profile. This is so the kick zone can glide clear of the snow until the skier shifts their weight overtop to push it onto the snow, where it’ll stick.

Skate skiing

MEC Ambassador Bruce Kirkby skate skiing

MEC Ambassador Bruce Kirkby flying along on skate skis.

Skate skiing is a dynamic style that people do on groomed paths, often next to track-set terrain. Skate is a highly aerobic type of Nordic skiing that uses a pronounced pole plant, an angled skating motion and often aerodynamic clothing layers (even recreationally).

  • As with classic skis, skate skis are narrow and don’t have metal edges.
  • They tend to be shorter than classic skis.
  • Because you propel yourself by pushing off on the edges (instead of engaging a wax pocket, like with classic skis) all skate skis have gliding, waxable bases.
  • Skate skis have a single camber profile (similar to alpine skis) that is lower to the snow and allows the skier to push off on the edges.

Off-track touring

Person cross-country skiing across a flat, snowy untracked area

Designed for people who do most of their skiing on ungroomed trails and terrain, these cross-country skis range from models that are a little wider than classic skis up to beefy mountaineering skis that have metal edges.

  • Touring skis are good for undulating and hilly terrain where there’s the possibility of slightly extended telemark-style descents.
  • Shorter and wider than most Nordic skis, they also tend to be slightly heavier and more durable.
  • They often have full metal edges to help with traversing and descending.

Ski length

Choosing the right size cross-country ski is critical, but luckily it’s also pretty straightforward. Your weight and skill level are the two main factors to consider when it comes to the cross-country ski length. For any given ski, the stiffness of the camber increases as you go up in length. If a ski’s too stiff for you, it won’t grip or flex properly. If it’s too soft, it will drag.

All skis have a recommended weight range for each length option. Selecting the correct Nordic ski length (especially for novice and recreational skiers) is as simple as buying the recommended length for your body weight. You’ll see the user weight range listed on the specs tab of skis on mec.ca. Stop by your local MEC store to chat with ski shop staff if you have any questions.

Here’s what you can expect when buying cross-country skis according to your weight:

  • Most classic skis will end up being longer than your height by a certain amount.
  • Some modern classic skis (generally targeted at recreational skiers) are designed to be skied shorter than traditional classic skis, which makes them easier for novices to handle.
  • Skate skis will be closer to your own height in length.
  • Expert skiers (both classic and skate) have the skill and fitness to flex stiffer skis, so they’ll generally prefer slightly longer skis for the increased rigidity and glide they provide.

Note: with variations in modern ski design, old-school ski sizing strategies (like adding x cm to your height or buying a ski that’s as long as the height of your outstretched arm) no longer apply.

Sidecut and dual sidecut

If you look at a pair of skis from above, sidecut is the subtle curve of the ski from the tip to the tail. Sidecut affects the way a ski tracks (travels in a straight line) and turns. Skis with limited sidecut and a straighter profile (classic skis) track forward easily. Lots of sidecut makes turning easy but tracking won’t be as smooth.

  • Skate skis usually have minimal sidecut. The tips and tails are only slightly wider than the waist to make them stable in the glide phase.
  • Dual sidecut describes the shape of high-performance skis that have a wider shovel (the turned up part in the front), waist and tail. The advantage is more power in the push phase and the ability to easily return to centre during the glide phase.

Waxable and waxless bases

Waxable skis are often the choice for racers or for high-performance training. Traction comes from the grip wax (a.k.a. kick wax) applied to the middle third of the ski. When you release the kick portion of the ski by unweighting, the glide that happens comes from a different wax (glide wax) applied to the rest of the base.

As waxing is part art, part science, it takes patience and practice to learn to wax for all conditions.  For waxable bases, you’ll want to choose one or more grip waxes to match that day’s snow and climate conditions to grip the snow.

Waxable bases are great for: Experienced skiers with the right arsenal of grip waxes. They can reach peak performance in a wide variety of conditions on waxable bases.

Waxless skis use a textured surface in the kick zone (rather than grip wax) that grips snow when it’s weighted, but still lets the ski glide when you shift your weight off it or when you’re going downhill. This gripping surface is either a fish scale-like pattern cut into the base material or a replaceable “skin” patch made of directional fibres. These skin skis are rapidly gaining in popularity, as they reliably grip the most challenging, icy surfaces and are quieter than textured fish-scale bases.

Both waxable and “waxless” bases require a glide wax on the sliding sections of the base to glide properly along the snow.

Waxless bases are great for: Skiers at all levels that don’t want to worry about day-to-day waxing conditions. They provide excellent grip in a wide variety of conditions, including temps around 0°C that are especially challenging for grip waxes.

A close-up look at the pattern on the base of a pair of waxless skis

An example of the fish-scale pattern you’ll find on the bases of some waxless skis.

10% off cross-country ski packages

If you’re looking at a full ski set-up (skis, boots and bindings), check out how the MEC cross-country ski package works.