Choosing Cross Country Skis

by - Friday, December 18, 2015

Buying cross country skis is exciting, but can be daunting if don't know what to look for. By following these simple steps, you can be on your way to a new and fun winter pursuit.

Please note this post is about Classic cross country skis.

Before you go to a ski store...

1. Consider what kind of skiing you plan to do (Classic/trackset, backcountry, or a mix of both):
  • Classic/Groomed terrain - If you will be sticking to groomed terrain (i.e. skiing trackset trails), classic skis will be your lightest and most affordable option. Light also means fast! However, light touring skis with metal edges that fit in the track (less than 70 mm wide) are a nice option for greater control on steep or icy sections (especially if you are an inexperienced or infrequent skier). 
  • Classic and ungroomed terrain - If you occasionally ski on ungroomed terrain or want extra stability on the steeps or icy sections, I recommend light touring skis (also known as compact touring skis) with metal edges. The metal edges will give you a lot more control and confidence, but are heavier and wider, so they are slower. 
  • Backcountry touring - Touring skis will serve you best for skiing ungroomed terrain as they are wider and provide more flotation (in addition to being more robust and easier to turn). On the downside, they are costly and heavy, and don't fit in the track, so I would only recommend them for serious backcountry skiers. It is possible to do some touring in light touring skis, but they will not be suitable for all conditions/terrain. Discuss options with knowledgeable staff at your local ski shop.
    • BEST TIP FOR GROWING KIDS: Consider "combi" classic/skate skis that your child can use as classic skis to start, and then use as skate skis when s/he is bigger (since skate skis are shorter)!!
    • Tip: Rent before you buy to see if you like the skis. Some stores such as Mountain Equipment Coop will allow you to apply your rental cost to purchase! If you are new to cross country skiing, go with someone who can give you pointers or take a lesson your first time out.
    • If you select light touring skis, be sure to choose a width that will fit in the track (less than 70 mm wide) so you aren't slowed down and so you don't widen the track. 
      Top: Classic skis,  Bottom: Light touring skis
2. Waxable or waxless: There is a lot of mystery and misunderstanding around waxable skis, so I have attempted to briefly outline the pros and cons of waxable and waxless skis below.
  • Waxless Skis:  If you are an occasional skier, aren't racing, or live in a mild climate, waxless skis are very convenient. You don't need to check the temperature and apply the right wax; you just put on your skis and go. You will probably get more of a workout than the folks on waxable skis as you'll be working a bit harder to go the same speed. They are less expensive as they are recreational skis, but over time, the scales will wear away and be less effective, so they will need replacing sooner than waxable skis (granted, this would take quite a long time if you don't ski much). My children started on waxless skis and they were very convenient on warm, Chinook days when the temperatures increased dramatically throughout the day.
    • Recommended for infrequent skier or children under 8 years old (Bunnies and Jackrabbits Levels 1 & 2).
  • Waxable Skis - Ski racers use waxable skis, for two main reasons: a) they are faster on the downhill (scales on waxless slow you down) and b) faster on the uphill (superior grip + little/no sliding back = faster climbing). All in all, they're faster. There is a learning curve however, and if you can't spare a minute to wax each ski (it really is that quick), then waxless would be a better option. The only time waxless skis outperform waxable skis is when the temperatures change dramatically or are quite warm (but you can deal with the former by applying different wax). Waxable skis can get very sticky and accumulate snow in very warm conditions, but if you keep moving, the snow doesn't stay stuck for very long. When it's above 0C, you can use Klister and kick wax. I skied in +12 last spring with Klister and it worked quite well! I own waxable junior racing skis, waxable classic skis, and waxable light touring nordic skis.
    • Recommended for frequent skiers and children aged 8 & up (Jackrabbits Level 3 & up).
  • Skintec Skis: A new kind of waxless ski has synthetic skins attached to the kickzone rather than fish scales. They are faster than traditional waxless skis but not as fast as properly waxed skis. If you don't think you have the patience to figure out waxing your skis, or hate having to scrape off wax part way through the day to apply a different color of wax, consider Skintec (Skintec is Atomic's name for this type of ski, other "skin" skis are available). They work in any temperature and don't need kick wax. You will periodically have to replace the "skin" section. I'm on my second season with my Salomon Equip RC Skin skis and love them! They're my main skis now.
Waxless ski base - observe the fish scale pattern
Waxable ski base - note that the kick wax  is not applied to the whole base!

At the store, consider...

  1. Camber - In order for you to have an effective kick and glide, your skis must have the right camber. This is basically the bendiness (flex) of the kick zone. Too soft and you will not glide; too stiff and you will not be able to kick or climb well if you're inexperienced. Ski shops can help you find skis with the camber that is right for you. They use a really high tech method of slipping a piece of paper under the kick zone while you stand on both skis with weight evenly distributed; the paper should just slide beneath your feet. ;) They will also need to know a bit about how you ski. 
    • Tip: If you usually ski with a pack, bring it with you, to ensure that the loaded pack + your weight works with the skis.
    • For young children, skis should be soft and have minimal flex, so they can get good grip.
      The skis on the bottom have greater camber (flex).
  2. Length - Traditionally, the recommended length is up to your wrist if you raise one hand above your head. This is just a rough guideline, however, as some skiers may benefit from longer or shorter skis depending on their ability. You can go faster with longer skis, but if you are a beginner, you shouldn't start with skis that are too long as they could be unwieldy. 
    • 2-5 year olds should have skis that are about chin height.
    • Older kids can have skis that are as tall as them.

  3. Weight - The lighter the skis, the faster you will go! I recently picked up a pair of racing skis that are half the weight of my light touring skis. They make a huge difference! 

  4. Stiffness - Stiffer skis are better for racing, but not for everyone as they require perfect technique to work well. Regarding the tips, backcountry skis tend to have stiffer tips to keep you going straight. Classic skis have slightly bendy tips that "flow" around corners and make for smoother entrances/exits from the track. 

  5. What about racing skis? If you are a novice, recreational skier, racing skis will not necessarily make you go faster as you will not be able to get the skis to do what you want. Lightweight, intermediate skiers may get an advantage from Junior racing skis as they are light and fast, but not as stiff as racing skis. If in doubt, inquire at your local ski shop and be honest about your abilities. I am very happy with the Junior racing skis that were recommended to me!
Sidecut is another consideration, but since most classic skis have very little shaping, this was not on my radar when I went ski shopping. 

Boots, Bindings & Poles

  1. Boots - This is a chicken and egg debate. While some people choose their bindings first, I chose my boots first. Why? It is almost impossible for me to find boots that fit! After trying on everything in the store, I finally found a super comfortable pair of light touring boots. I then looked for bindings that would work with them and fit my skis. Boots should be comfortable and snug, but not too tight. Don't get them too small at the toe! I made that mistake with my first pair of boots and lost some toenails. 
    • Tip: Try them on with the socks you will wear when skiing. I recommend wool or wool blend midweight, midcalf socks.
      From left to right: SNS Pilot, NNN, and SNS Profil boots
  2. Bindings - There are many different kinds of bindings. Be sure to get the kind that matches your boots! The main types are NNN, NIS, SNS, and 3-pin. I have automatic NNN bindings on my Classic skis (have been trouble free but are annoying to step in to just right), Salomon SNS Pilot flip-lever bindings with 2 pins on my light touring skis (frequently ice up in warmer weather), and Salomon SNS Propulse RC2 bindings on my racing skis (love!). Ask the ski shop what they recommend for your setup. I prefer lever bindings to automatic bindings (so annoying to have to step in it just right!). Tip: Do NOT get automatic bindings for children if you can help it. They are difficult for little kids to put on/take off by themselves.
    From top to bottom: SNS Pilot bindings, SNS Profil bindings, NNN Manual bindings
  3. Poles - For recreational skiing, poles should fit under your armpit (more experienced skiers will want longer poles). Look for lightweight, but strong poles with adjustable straps*. If you ski with mittens, ensure the straps will fit around your mitts. Buy the lightest you can afford; it makes for more fun - and less fatigue - when skiing! *Tip: For young children, it is more convenient to use poles without velcro wrist closures so you don't have to help with them constantly. They're less expensive too!
    Poles with velcro closures on the wrist straps (lower) are more expensive, but more comfortable and secure.
    I recommend the upper type for young children.
*Now would be a good time to pick up kick/grip wax if you chose waxable skis.

Cross country skiing is fun for all ages!

Glide Wax and Kick/Grip Wax

All skis - waxable and waxless - require glide wax. When purchasing new skis from a ski shop, they will come with base wax and glide wax already applied. If buying used, you will probably need to apply glide wax - this should be done at least once a season; more if you ski a lot. Glide wax for waxable skis requires an iron; glide wax for waxless skis (Swix F4) can be rubbed on (but I still recommend an annual hot wax on the tips).

If you have selected waxable skis, you will also need to pick up some kick/grip wax. I recommend a multi-pack with 3 different colors and a cork and scraper. (The cork is for smoothing out lumps and bumps. Scraper is for removing old wax.) This wax needs to be applied every time you ski, and reapplied throughout the day. Depending on the snow temperature, you will not always use the same color. Look at the temperature ratings on the wax, to see what you need. If in doubt, ask someone who looks like they know what they are doing. Most skiers are more than happy to tell you "It's a blue/green/red day!". As you get more familiar with how the wax works, you may even mix waxes in certain conditions. Do NOT use kick/grip wax on waxless skis!

For very warm days, you will need to apply Klister. It makes spring skiing possible (I've skied in +12C!) but is sticky, so wrap a plastic shopping bag around your skis to keep your roofbox/vehicle klister-free while transporting skis if you don't think you'll have time to clean the skis before packing them.

Fluoro or regular wax? Fluoro waxes have a wider temperature range but are not so good for the environment. They're also extremely expensive.

Spray on waxes are also available. They go on fast, but need time to set and still need to be smoothed out, so they don't actually save you time. I find it wears off quicker than wax in a tube, so it's not my first choice.

Kick wax kit

Notes Regarding Used Skis

Buy the skis first and then the boots - Get the best skis you can afford, then look for boots that match your bindings. You don't want to buy the boots first then limit yourself to only a few kinds of skis. Boots are also less expensive than skis, so if you have to buy one item new, it's better to get new boots.

Camber - Over time, the camber of skis changes, so it is important to check the camber of the skis before you take them. The online specs may say the 175 cm skis are good for 120 pounds, but they may not be anymore (unless the original owner has hardly used them). 

Wax - You may need to reapply glide wax if it hasn't been done for some time. See the Glide Wax section above.

I hope this helps you get started so you can enjoy cross country skiing as much as we do!

Where to Ski

For the best beginner trails in the Lake Louise area, please see this post. For great places to ski in Calgary, Bragg Creek, Canmore, and Kananaskis, see this post.

Bow River Loop, Lake Louise is a skier's paradise!

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  1. Great post full of good information.

  2. This is great advice. I am going to recommend this article to anyone who asks me about skis. I especially like the boot advice as I have hard to fit feet as well.

  3. Thanks Doug, I appreciate it! I lucked out with used skis then got my boots on sale at MEC! :)


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