My Cross Country Skiing Primer (By and For Beginners)

I did a little cross country, or Nordic, skiing in college, but when I left the flatlands for the Rocky Mountain region I was stunned by the terrain: How could anyone ski up those hills? My cross country skis languished in various garages, closets, and attics until I got tired of lugging them around and sold them. Now, years later, my whole family has rediscovered the joys of kicking and gliding around the snow covered hills and mountains of Wyoming.

That first season we jumped into it, skiing three or four times a week, renting skis, poles, and boots from the local ski shop. As Wyoming weather would have it, this year was almost a bust as far as snow goes. Even so, I was on the hunt for ski equipment for the whole family. I am no expert by any means, but I thought my “from a novice to a novice” notes might actually be helpful. There is so much information and so many renditions of equipment out there, it can be overwhelming. Sometimes it takes a beginner to look at the basics with a fresh perspective.  The end of the season is a great time to find bargains, so here is my little primer on what to look for in cross country ski equipment for the beginner.


When we started Nordic skiing last year, about two minutes into our first day on the trails, I knew I was hooked. I knew I’d want my own equipment before the season was over, so I started asking a lot of questions at various retail ski shops while we were renting equipment and taking lessons. I was a little confused why my questions got answered with questions. It went something like this:

ME : “I’m looking for some skis for myself, an adult beginner to intermediate. What would you recommend?”

EXPERT: “It depends.”

ME: “Well that’s helpful. Depends on what?”

EXPERT: “Classic or skate?”

ME : “Um, the regular kind”

EXPERT: “Classic. Where do you plan on doing your skiing. Locally? The Bighorns? The Tetons?”

ME : “Yes.”

EXPERT: “What kind of trail?”

ME : “I like the groomed trails, but I also like going into the back country”

EXPERT: “Back country, or BACK country?”

ME : “Uh………”

EXPERT:  “Something like touring skis, or back country skis, or teli- skis?”

ME : “Um…..” [face twitching]

EXPERT: “Double camber or single camber?”

ME : [Blank stare] [Crickets chirping]

It wasn’t the expert’s fault.  These are valid questions to be asking if you’re looking for cross country equipment. I soon learned there was a lot to learn about this sport/recreation. The problem with trying to buy the perfect equipment which will last you for years and offer you extensive functionality in all kinds of conditions is that it doesn’t exist. The second problem is that the best chance of purchasing the equipment which even remotely offers years of enjoyment and functionality in all kinds of conditions comes after about twenty years of skiing experience.

Or so it seems to me.

On the Trail to Understanding

The short of it is that nordic skiing occurs along a continuum of terrain, snow conditions, trail conditions, and skill levels. There really is no cut and dried way to define what kind of equipment a “nordic skier” needs. So I set myself to some online research to get a grasp of the basics. It started out ok, but every question led to more questions and more details, and I was quickly mired down by technical details concerning ski core construction, flex testing, camber, and side cut.

I actually enjoyed it, but it was becoming clear that if I studied until I had a clear understanding of EVERY aspect of ski specifics I desired, let alone what my kids needed, I was going to be too old to put my knowledge to the task of actually purchasing any skis.  It’s difficult to categorize all the information available into useful information for the beginner skier. It’s not easy to prioritize the information without leaving some critical stuff out, so here’s my attempt to help the beginner begin to understand the basics.

This is probably a good time to mention that my husband simply walked into a ski shop, saw some back country skis on clearance and bought ’em. Done. He’s happy with them, but more on that later.

So Let’s Back Up

The history of skiing, like many sports, covers many years of innovation and reiterations of ski equipment design. All modes of travel using what were basically long boards attached to the feet can be called skiing, but today the most obvious distinction we need to make is that of “downhill” skiing and what is usually called “cross country” skiing here in the US. Europeans more often use the terms “alpine” and “Nordic” to distinguish the two. You’ll see and hear all four terms used.

Downhill  skis are shorter and wider than cross country skis and the foot is encased in a stiff, above the ankle boot that is rigidly attached, or “bound” to the ski along the entire length of the foot.  The binding is the piece which attaches the boot to the ski.  Downhill skis aren’t built for travelling any kind of uphill or even level terrain. The ski lift takes you up the hill. You ski down. Repeat.

Cross country skiing, as the name implies, evolved as a way to travel across snow covered terrain under one’s own power.  We most often associate the roots of cross country skiing with the Scandinavian countries where cave paintings of people on skis have been found dating back thousands of years.

For the Scandinavian skier the terrain could be level to hilly, and even steep. The cross country skier could be traveling uphill or downhill over long distances. Last year my husband and I met a woman who grew up in Finland.  She talked to us about the kind of skis she used in her childhood. It’s actually a good starting place to begin to understand the different types of modern skis because the modern versions are all specializations of the very adaptable skis she used in her childhood.

The skis she described were longer and narrower than downhill skis; they were made of wood; with an adaptable binding system which could be adjusted for various terrain and conditions (deep snow, broken tracks, downhill, flat, and uphill). The boots she described were similar to basic, leather hiking boots. In fact, she said it was the boot they wore all winter, whether skiing or not. The boot had grooves in the sole along the sides of the toe and along the back of the heel. The front of the boot could be wedged into a corresponding metal plate on the ski. The heel of the boot could be loosely bound to the ski by a flexible cable, or tightly attached to the ski by tightening the cable. See photo.

For easy terrain, they would leave the heel loosely bound so the heel was free to come off the ski providing forward propulsion. When they got to a steeper downhill trail, they could tighten the cable, binding the heel closer to the ski, providing stability and maneuverability for the downhill runs. Pretty ingenious really, and perfectly suited to varied terrain.

Old Nordic Ski Binding
Older Nordic ski binding, showing how toe of boot wedged into metal plate and was held by leather strap going over toe. Adjustable cable went around the heel and could be loosened or tightened with lever.

PART TWO, From All Purpose to Specialized  COMING SOON

2 Comments Add yours

  1. I’ve only cross country skiied once, at the base of the Tetons, but I loved it. And what a great workout! I can’t wait to try it again.

    1. wyominglife says:

      I was skiing at the base of the Tetons a few weeks ago. It was snowing and we couldn’t even see the mountains, even though we were right at the base of them. I was hoping to get some great photos of the majestic Tetons, but after I let the disappointment go, we had a great time. We skied for almost 5 miles and did not see another group of skiers. That’s my kind of cross country skiing.

      You’re right, it’s a great workout.

      Thanks for stopping by my blog!

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