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What You’ll Need to Start Cross-Country Skiing

Feet with cross-country skis walk across a snowy landscape

Think snow and cold weather means you can’t play outside? Think again.

Cross-country skiing is a fun way to spend time outside enjoying nature while sneaking in a serious workout. It’s an activity that almost anyone can try, and it’s just as fun for beginners as it is for seasoned pros.

Though there are different types of cross-country skiing, most people start out with classic skiing. You may already be familiar with the diagonal stride—think of the way your left arm naturally swings forward when you step with your right foot. The movement with classic skiing is similar, with a little more kick and glide.

Here’s what you’ll need to get fully equipped. The best part? Once you’ve got the gear, cross-country skiing is a relatively inexpensive activity. If you keep your gear in good shape, you can use it for a long, long time.


Skis

There are a few different styles of classic skis to choose from, each with slightly different specs. Touring skis are the most common. These skis are long and narrow, and they perform best on groomed trails. These are the skis we’ll focus on, since they’re the most beginner-friendly.

Cross-country skis should be taller than you are, but the exact length of the skis depends on your weight. The specifications of the ski—and they’re all a little different—will indicate what ski length is best suited for your weight range.

Width is another variable. For touring skis, the main factor to consider is that the front tip of the ski should be no wider than 70 millimeters, as that’s the typical width of the tracks set out in groomed cross-country ski areas.

A third factor is known as “flex,” which indicates how flexible or how stiff the skis are. Beginners generally benefit from a softer flex, meaning one that is more flexible. These are a little more forgiving on your turns.

Finally, on your ski search you’ll encounter both waxed and waxless skis; we’ll discuss those a little later on.

Skis
$225

Boots and bindings

The number-one factor in choosing cross-country ski boots is comfort. Above all, your feet should feel good when they’re laced (or zipped) into your ski boots. Oh, and good news: Cross-country ski boots are infinitely more comfortable than downhill ski boots. They actually feel more like running shoes, since they’re cut low around the ankle.

Look for touring boots (to match your touring skis). You’re searching for the perfect balance between flexibility and rigidity. The boots need to be flexible enough so that you can move your feet around a little while you’re kicking and sliding, but stiff enough to respond to turns and stops. The right pair of boots will feel not too tight, not too loose; channel your inner Goldilocks and find a pair that’s just right.

Boots and bindings go hand in hand. That’s because there are two different styles of boots and bindings: New Nordic Norm (NNN) and Salomon Nordic System (SNS). NNN boots only work with NNN bindings, and vice versa.

NNN bindings have two rails along them, and the bottoms of the boots have two corresponding grooves. SNS bindings have a single rail, and the bottoms of the boots have only one groove. It’s easy to tell the difference between the two; just count the number of rails or grooves.

So, which is better? There’s no right answer here; both systems are great. The key is that your boot type MUST match your binding type. Find boots that fit your feet, then seek out bindings that are of the same style.

Boots and bindings
$200

Poles

Poles are a piece of classic cross-country gear that you can save on. More expensive poles are a little lighter and more stiff, but beginners and recreational skiers won’t benefit significantly from these details. So go ahead and pick a low- to medium-priced pair, and splurge on your other gear.

To choose the best length, pick a pair of poles that come somewhere between your armpits and the tops of your shoulders. And that’s all there is to it. Poles are easy!

Poles
$50

Clothes

Although cross-country skiing is an outdoor winter activity, you actually pack in quite a bit of heat when you’re on the go. Forget bulky snow pants and jackets or excessive layers. All most cross-country skiers need is a good base layer and a quality soft-shell jacket.

Your base layer—pants and long-sleeve shirt—should be made out of moisture-wicking, quick-drying material. You can’t go wrong with merino wool, though there are some great synthetic options as well that are a little less expensive. Look for pieces that fit well; think tight rather than baggy, without being constrictive or uncomfortable.

Your outer soft shell should be lightweight and breathable. You’ll be heating up quite a bit, so you really don’t need insulation. Your outer shell’s real purpose is to protect you from the elements, keeping snow and moisture out.

Base layer (top and bottom) and soft-shell jacket
$250

Wax

Remember when we touched on waxable and waxless skis? Here’s the deal: Waxable skis are smooth and speedy, but they require a little extra maintenance on your end. Think of it like driving a manual-transmission car versus an automatic-transmission car. Waxable skis are particularly well suited to those who live in places with consistently cold winters.

Waxless skis, on the other hand, have a specially made base that requires little to no maintenance. If you’re after a simple and easy skiing experience, waxless is the way to go.

Wax, if you opt for waxable skis
$60

Ski pass (and a lesson)

Last but not least, you need somewhere to ski. Ideally, you live near cross-country ski trails that are groomed regularly. Many state parks and national forests offer such trails, as do some municipalities and private ski areas.

To find the best local trails, stop by a specialty ski shop or join a local or regional cross-country ski association.

Regardless of where you choose to ski, you’ll need to pick up a pass. After all, somebody needs to pay to keep those tracks pristine!

A season pass is usually the most economical deal if you plan on hitting the trails regularly. Though the price of a pass can vary significantly from region to region, they’re generally reasonably priced, and much cheaper than a downhill ski pass.

Most places that sell ski passes also offer introductory lessons. Lessons aren’t an absolute must, but they’re a great way to introduce proper technique, speed up the learning process, and avoid some painful bruises.

Ski pass and lesson
$200

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