Also known as Nordic touring, cross-country skiing is mainly done on maintained trails, groomed tracks and moderate off-trail terrain. Equipment for this type of skiing is designed for either the classic kick-and-glide technique, with skis running parallel to one another, or for the skating style, with the skis angled in a herringbone pattern (essentially the same motion used for in-line skating).
There are three main styles of Nordic skis: cross-country, telemark and alpine touring. The one common denominator in Nordic skiing is the free-heel binding (although AT bindings also have the option of temporarily securing the heel for downhill performance). Modern Nordic skis from brands like Atomic, Fischer, Alpina and Whitewoods all differ greatly in size and shape, depending on their intended use.
Classic Track Skis are stiff, narrow, lightweight and primarily designed for fast, efficient performance on the smooth, groomed snow found at Nordic skiing centers. Most are waxable, although some may have a waxless base.
Skate Skis are similar to track skis, but are usually shorter. The stiff camber and torsion-resistant design of skate skis allows them to be used in a manner similar to ice skates, hence the name.
Light Touring Skis are slightly wider than track or skate skis. This makes them ideal for both groomed terrain and light off-trail ventures. If you think you might like to ski through a city park, on a snow-blanketed golf course or down maintained trails, a light touring ski is a good option.
Backcountry Touring Skis are the widest and heaviest style of cross-country skis and are designed to tackle deeper snow and more challenging off-trail terrain. Most backcountry touring skis have a metal edge similar to alpine skis, which provides added stability on harder snow. This style of ski essentially falls in between a light touring ski and a full-blown telemark ski.
Telemarking is centered around the graceful drop-knee telemark turn, which takes time and practice to master. Like a cross-country ski, a telemark ski utilizes a free-heel binding; however, the ski itself is more robust and shaped similarly to an alpine ski. This combination makes telemark skis versatile enough to carve steep downhill runs at a resort and venture into the backcountry. Telemark skis can also be used with ski skins to navigate up steep terrain.
Alpine Touring Skis
Alpine touring skis are very similar to telemark skis and may also be used with ski skins to traverse uphill terrain. The principle difference is the bindings, which include a mechanism that allows the skier to lock down the heel before a descent, temporarily changing the skiing style from telemark to alpine. Because alpine touring skis allow for a combination of free-heeled ascents and fixed-heel descents, they are ideal for backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. Basically, AT skis let you hit the steep and deep without having to learn the telemark turn. Rossignol, Dynafit and Black Diamond Equipment are three outstanding brands worth considering if you’re in the market for AT skis.
A skis’ sidecut is the visible width difference between the ski tip, waist and tail. Most cross-country skis have a minimal sidecut because they aren't used to carve tight turns. Backcountry touring skis, telemark skis and AT skis typically have more sidecut to facilitate turning in a range of snow conditions.
Cross-country and backcountry skis have a pronounced arch (camber) that holds the center of the skis away from the surface of the snow when unloaded. Camber acts like a spring, producing forward momentum for the classic kick-and-glide movement. Most telemark and AT skis have milder camber to provide better control on steep descents.
Cross-country skis are generally more rigid for efficient gliding and power transmission. Nordic skis designed for backcountry have more moderate flex for easier turning.
Like alpine skis, some Nordic skis have metal edges that bite into icy snow to make maneuvering on steep slopes easier. Some cross-country skis forgo the metal edges in favor of weight savings.
A Note on Ski Sizing:
The correct ski length for an individual is usually based on weight and the style of ski. As manufacturers' sizing charts vary, it's always best to consult each an individual brand’s sizing chart to find the appropriate ski length for you. When in doubt, you can always ask a gear specialist or a ski technician for help.
Most cross-country skis will have one of four binding systems: classic Nordic Norm, New Nordic Norm (NNN), Salomon Nordic System (SNS) or Nordic Integrated System (NIS). You must buy the appropriate boots that are compatible with your style of bindings, or vice versa. In other words, an SNS binding will not be compatible with an NNN boot, and so forth.
New Nordic Norm (NNN) systems use a metal rod mounted into the toe of the ski boot, which then clips into a matching ski binding. NNN bindings feature two lateral ridges on the surface of the binding that fit into matching grooves in the sole of compatible boots. NNN bindings are available in two styles: NNN and NNN-BC, which have a thicker toe bale and stronger attachment point for added durability. Note: NNN-BC bindings are only compatible with NNN-BC boots.
Salomon Nordic System (SNS) are similar to the NNN system, except they have one large lateral ridge, instead of two smaller ridges. There are currently three types of SNS bindings: SNS Profil, which is the most prevalent, SNS Pilot, which is a higher-end binding used mostly by Nordic ski racers, and SNS BC-X Adventure, which are more robust bindings geared for backcountry touring. Note: SNS Profil boots are not compatible with SNS Pilot bindings. The same is true for SNS BC boots and bindings.
Nordic Integrated System (NIS) are special bindings designed to be extremely lightweight and are compatible with NNN boots. However, installing NIS bindings may require a special mounting plate.
Nordic Norm (also called 75mm or “3-Pin”) boots and bindings are a more traditional style and have been around the longest. Essentially, three holes on the extended front portion of the boot sole fit into corresponding metal pins in the binding. Many skiers still prefer this system for its durability.
In order to withstand the stress of steeper, more challenging terrain, telemark bindings are heavier and larger than cross-country bindings. Cable and plate bindings are popular for telemark skiing, which feature toe-in entry, quick-clip heel cables and release plates that reduce the risk of injuries. Telemark bindings sometimes have heel elevators that help relieve strain on calves.
Alpine Touring Bindings
Alpine touring bindings are essentially a hybrid between a telemark-style binding and an alpine binding. In fact, some skiers don’t consider alpine touring part of the Nordic skiing class at all. AT bindings feature a free-heel mode for climbing and a locked-down mode for downhill skiing. Many AT bindings have a plate that attaches to the entire sole of the boot, which pivots on a hinge and locks/unlocks at the heel. Most have a "DIN setting," which lets you adjust the force required for a full release in the event of a fall. Some AT bindings include heel elevators to relieve climbing strain, and some may be “leveraged,” meaning they use stiff boot soles for leverage rather than a plate.
As with any other ski boots, comfort is your first priority when buying Nordic ski boots. However, your new boots must also be compatible with the type of bindings you'll be using. The image below shows five of the most common types of Nordic boot soles. For more detailed information on boot and binding compatibility, check out our Ski Boot Guide.
Nordic Boot Features
As a general rule, leather boots are more flexible and warmer for touring. Composite boots offer more support and weather protection. Composite/leather combination boots offer the rigidity of a composite and the flex and warmth of leather. Telemark and backcountry boots should support your ankles while turning and descending. Look for robust, aggressively constructed boots that also provide enough flexibility for forward motion. Some telemark boots may have "power straps" for additional control. Alpine touring boots are stiffer and wider than other Nordic boots and look very similar to alpine ski boots, only with more aggressive traction on the sole for walking in snow. The robust design offers more control when skiing difficult terrain.
If you're skiing on groomed or cross-country trails, you will need poles that reach from the ground to slightly above your armpits. They should also have adjustable straps to allow for a full range of motion. For all backcountry Nordic skiing, look for telescoping poles with medium to large baskets for use in deep snow. LEKI and Black Diamond Equipment make great adjustable ski poles, and having the ability to adjust the size of the poles on the fly will come in handy in the backcountry.
Climbing skins from companies like Black Diamond Equipment and G3 Genuine Guide Gear are carpet-like strips that attach to the bottom of skis and add grip when climbing or traversing. Ski skins are designed to be easily mounted and removed in the field. In the early days of Nordic skiing, climbing skins were made of animal hides like seal skin.
Skis Skis Bindings Boots Poles Cross-Country Stiff, narrow with minimum sidecut; waxless and waxable varieties; high camber New Nordic Norm or Salomon Nordic System (NNN or SNS) Flexible leather boots are comfortable, but composite boots provide support; composite-leather combo boots combine the best of both worlds Must reach from the ground to above your armpits with adjustable straps for full movement; smaller baskets Backcountry Shorter and wider than cross-country skis; moderate sidecut, springy camber, and flex for touring; metal edges; waxless and waxable varieties Traditional three-pin, 75 mm-wide extension; durable and easily repaired in the field (BC NNN or SNS) Must support your ankles but provide enough flexibility for forward motion Telescoping poles with medium to large baskets Telemark Wide, stable, and come in a variety of sizes for ease of maneuvering in varying snow conditions; pronounced sidecut, little arch, and soft flex; metal edges Heavier and larger than other Nordic bindings; cable and plate bindings that generally do not release upon falling Must support your ankles but provide enough flexibility for forward motion; lug sole; may have power straps Telescoping poles with medium to large baskets Alpine Touring Wide with little arch and soft flex; need climbing "skins" for ascending; torsional rigidity to hold an edge without skidding; metal edges Free-heeled mode for striding and locked-down mode for descents; heel plate locks/unlocks easily Stiff, wide, composite boot with lug sole for walking; may have "power straps" for increased control Telescoping poles with medium to large baskets
If you plan on venturing into the backcountry, it’s important to be aware of the risks associated with exploring unmaintained terrain. It’s highly recommended that new backcountry skiers either take a course in avalanche safety or ski with an experienced alpine guide, and never ski alone. For more information on avalanches, check out our Avalanche Safety Guide.
Avalanche Safety Tips
- Avalanches most commonly occur on 30° to 45° slopes, and in a variety of snow conditions.
- Even in-bounds terrain can be hazardous. Learn to recognize avalanche danger signs.
- Research snow conditions and avalanche reports before you head out.
- Never venture into the backcountry or out-of-bounds terrain alone.