Cross Country Skis 101, Everything You Need to Know About the Different Disciplines

(Note: Cross country, XC, and Nordic skiing all refer to the same thing – narrower human powered skis which focus on moving across the landscape, rather than down mountains)

Whether it’s for the simplicity of the equipment, the benefit of the movement, or because you only have an hour and a half to squeeze in an outdoor activity, nordic skiing is rapidly gaining popularity at Tahoe Mountain Sports. We are blessed to have impeccably groomed trails at our local nordic centers, and endless backcountry adventures await in our forests and mountains. So if you’ve been thinking about buying your first pair of nordic skis, here is some helpful advice to get you started!

Skate vs Stride vs Touring

There are three basic disciplines in nordic skiing: skating, striding, and touring. The most important decision you have to make is which discipline you are interested in. In this article, I have separated out the different ski decisions based upon discipline. Not sure? I’ve included a quick description of each discipline at the top of each section!


As the name implies, this discipline is characterized by a skating motion, where the skis are used in a diagonal manner to propel the skier forwards. The bottoms of these skis are smooth the entire length to maximize glide, and motion is generated by pushing off from side to side. This is often the most highly aerobic form of nordic skiing, and is almost exclusively practiced on groomed trails at nordic centers.

A great basic skate ski like the Fischer Aerolite 60 will provide glide and stability for the beginner or casual skier. For those who are looking to push themselves, or are maybe looking forward to The Great Ski Race, should consider a performance skate ski such as the Salomon RS10. By using materials such as carbon fiber and higher quality base material, the ski will be lighter and stiffer, providing better glide.

© Fischer Sports GmbH


Stride skis (or classic skis) are characterized by having some form of grip underfoot. Typically, skiers use the set of parallel tracks found on many ski trails, and the skis are moved in a forward fashion. Higher performance classic skiers will exert themselves as much as skate skiers, though casual skiing can also be easily achieved.

If you are looking for a basic cross country ski with the best durability and low maintenance, look no further than the Atomic Savor. This ski features a fishscale pattern in the base, which many people are familiar with, which allows skiers to propel themselves forward. The Savor provides great stability, and the lower speed limit on the ski is perfect for beginners or casual skiers.

For those looking for a speedier ride, a ski like the Atomic Pro C2 will help you zip around the local nordic center or maybe the Tahoe Rim Tour. This is a skin ski, in which a small strip of climbing skin material is placed in a recessed pocket on the bottom of the ski. The benefits over fishscale skis include better glide and increased grip, especially in variable temperatures and icy conditions (welcome to the Sierra!). They are not as durable as fishscales, though replacing the skins is easy.


Touring is similar to striding, though often the pace is more casual, and the skis will function in a wider range of environments. Just like stride skis, there is some form of grip underfoot, be it fishscales or skins.

Cross Country 101 2022
© Fischer Sports GmbH

Narrower touring skis such as the ever-popular Fischer Spider will fit into the tracks at nordic centers. This ski features a metal edge, which increases stability and control on downhills and in variable conditions.

Perhaps you want a ski that feels at home cruising the nordic center trails or a woods road? The Madshus Fjelltech ski features metal edges for control, while having a wider shovel for increased float in fresh snow. This is also a skin ski, as mentioned above, which provides superior performance in the variable conditions you might find while exploring the woods.

If the nordic center isn’t your thing, and you enjoy breaking trail and making turns on the downhill, perhaps the Fischer S-Bound 98 is your calling. This ski is significantly wider for enhanced float in deeper snow, and features a deeper sidecut to enabling turning on downhills. The full metal edges provide superb control in all conditions and steeper terrain, while the optional Easy Skins allow you to climb to new heights you didn’t think were possible on nordic skis.

Cross Country 101 2022


Arguably the most important part of a ski setup, boots are what connect your foot to the ski, and above all must be comfortable! There are a few different styles of boots, and which style you end up with depends on the style of skiing you are interested in.

Skate boots feature a stiffer outsole paired with an ankle cuff. This gives greater support, allowing you to push off the edge of the ski more effectively. Classic boots are softer in general, and have less support due to the skis mostly being in the tracks. This softer boot allows you to gain better grip underfoot. Combi boots blend these two boots. A cuff provides lateral stability for skating, while a softer sole still allows the skier to engage the grip of a classic ski.

The other style of boot is a backcountry or touring boot. These boots often feature a gaiter and a fully waterproof design to fend off the elements. Some include an ankle cuff to provide lateral support for making turns. Backcountry boots also feature the NNN-BC binding interface, which is built slightly wider to offer more power transfer to the ski in downhill situations.

Cross Country 101 2022
© Fischer Sports GmbH


Poles are essential for cross country skiing, as they help to propel you along the trails. Skate poles will generally be sized longer than classic poles, and reach to between your chin and nose. Classic poles will generally reach into your armpits. For touring and backcountry cross country skis, we recommend adjustable poles, as you can lengthen or shorten them based upon the terrain you are skiing, and the current snow conditions.

There are different levels of poles. Basic cross country poles will have an aluminum construction and a simple grip. Higher end poles will incorporate carbon into the shaft – this gives better performance at a lighter weight. Also, these poles will feature an easily removable grip, which is one of our favorite features. Instead of fumbling with your poles, with one easy click you can detach your hands from your poles and grab a snack, a drink of water, or click a picture of the beautiful scenery!

Hopefully this guide has helped you narrow down your options for a new pair of cross country skis. The next step is stopping by Tahoe Mountain Sports in Truckee to talk with one of our friendly associates. We will make sure you get sized up for the correct length of ski, length of pole, and boots to complete your package! We also carry a full line of accessories including wax, snacks, gloves, and the right attire so you can move freely on the trails!

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, Tahoe Mountain Sports will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Affiliate commissions help fund the content for this blog.

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