Five Minute Equipment Reference: The Essentials

You say want to go cross country skiing but you have no idea what equipment you really need? Here is a five minute drill to get you started.

First step, remember that there will be a choice of "skating" and "classic" gear to choose from. Don't have a clue what that means? Most beginners should start out with the classic motion. That's where the skis remain parallel and you use "a gliding walk" motion. The range of classic gear is considerable from "mountaineering" to racing skis. On smooth surfaces you will also see XC skiers using a more advanced skate motion very much like in-line skating. The range of equipment is simpler with skating gear...but you have to be able to handle the more advanced motion.

For your first week on skis, strongly recommends beginner skiers to go to a groomed ski area, rent modern equipment, and take a professional lesson. Once you have learned how to ski properly, future equipment choices will be much easier!


What You Need

If you are going to be skiing on machine-groomed trails you need anything from "light touring" to what is called "racing" equipment but should really be considered more performance oriented. For skiing on groomed trails the equipment should feel very light compared to downhill skis and will be considerably more narrow. Boots will feel like comfortable running or hiking shoes and the poles will be very lightweight and thin. For machine-groomed areas you do not want heavy backcountry'll be like driving a tractor on a freeway.

If you are going to be skiing off-track...meaning anything from puttering around a local park to going out into serious mountains and'll want gear rated "light touring to touring" (golf courses, parks, etc.) or "touring to backcountry" (mountaineering, ski backpacking). If a shop does not know the difference (or does not care)...turn and walk out the door. has banner ads that represent many great retail outfits that will get you exactly what you need at a fair price.


Classic or diagonal striding skis were traditionally sized with length as long as the distance from floor to wrist with an arm extended straight overhead. Contemporary classic skis are designed with lengths ranging from a little shorter than traditional length to skis significantly shorter.

A ski does not know a skier's height but does feel the skier's weight. Flex pattern and stiffness is far more important than length. The ski must be matched to the skier's weight, strength and skill level. The skier's height is a secondary consideration. A classical ski that is too stiff will not grip because the wax or grip pattern will not firmly bear on the snow. A ski that is too soft will be slower because its grip wax or pattern will drag.

Manufacturers have tables matching ski lengths to skier's weight. These tables are just a starting point. Find knowledgeable ski shop people to help you pick out the right ski in the right length. Renting before buying is a good idea.

Bonus Tip: You can tell when a shop or retail outlet knows what they are doing when they ask a bunch of questions trying to fit you and your body to a particular pair of skis. The more performance-oriented the skis...the more information they should want. Your weight and height... where you will be most likely to ski...your background on skis...all are very important to matching the right gear to the right person.


What You Need: Beginners can easily get by with any reasonably light pole. Try to avoid overly large baskets (the loop or plastic cup at the bottom of the pole that you plant in the snow) if you are skiing on groomed trails. The type and weight of pole is less important for beginners than the height. Make sure you can easily adjust the pole strap to have it fit as snug as possible around your hand/wrist (with a glove on). The poles give you much more power when they move automatically with your hand/arm rather than you having to have deathgrip on them 100% of the time.

Sizing: Classic poles should fit comfortably under your armpits when you stand on the ground. Skate poles should be right around the cleft of your chin.

Bonus Tip: An old school (meaning mid-80's to early 90's) method for sizing skate poles was up around the nose. We've found as skating and grooming evolved that it was better to have skate poles only up to the cleft of the chin...especially for skiing in hillier areas. An easy way to tell if your poles are too long is if you feel a light strain in arm pit area/rotator cuff after skating lots of hills.


What You Need: Boots are easy. Any modern boot that comfortably fits your foot and works with with your binding system is fine. Classic boots for classic skiing...skate boots for skating. The biggest differences between the two types of boots is the stiffness (much stiffer with skating) and the support around the ankle (much greater with skating). When renting equipment, ask for the appropriate gear for the technique you'll be doing and always ask for the newest boot/binding system available.

Unlike skis and poles, boots will wear out with time and some of the latest improvements can make a huge difference in beginner control. Without question when buying, always buy new boots. This is one area you never want to skimp!

Note: Some brands offer "combi" boots that can be used for both classic and skating. These offer a compromise on stiffness and ankle support. They are a good buy for someone that skis only occasionally but with both styles.

Sizing: Should feel just like a running shoe. Be sure to try them on with the type of sock you are most likely to ski in!

In addition, several companies now have models designed just for women's feet. These can be a great buy.

How To Rent or Buy Skis, Poles and Boots:

Rent equipment the first couple times you go skiing. Repeat that five times.

Renting XC gear will allow you time to pick up the basics of the sport (assuming you also take a professional lesson!) and get a feel for what type of XC skiing has the most appeal for you...all before you make a permanent investment.

Renting: Most commercial areas offer high-quality rentals (and lessons!) right on site and that's the best first time option. You can also try specialty XC Ski shops. Try to avoid any operation that treat cross country as a minor portion of their business...they sometimes have substandard gear and they often won't help you very much in terms of getting started. If in doubt, call ahead and ask if a shop or area has rental gear less than three years old. The newer the gear, the more likely you will be on the best stuff to make your ski time fun.

Buying: When you decide to buy something, stick with stores and mail order firms that specialize in cross country skiing. You want to buy from people that go skiing every week of every winter out on the exact same equipment you will be using. If all a salesperson can talk about is how great a snowboarder they are, not walk...for the door.

Bonus Tip: Often commercial ski areas will have "Demo Days" with visiting product distributors or even a regular small supply of what is called "Demo Equipment" for rent. If you are interested in picking out the best performance equipment for your needs, you should absolutely take advantage of these opportunities to try top-of-the-line gear before you buy. Much like bikes or kayaks, top XC skis, boots, and poles can make a big difference in performance skiing (racing, long distance groomed skiing, etc.).


What You Need: This stuff you will need to buy pretty much from your first outing is very tough to rent. Keep in mind the following:

  • XC Skiing is an aerobic sport. What works for sledding with the kids, snowboarding or alpine skiing will not work very well for XC. Huge gloves, bulky clothes and big goggles will quickly get in your way and overheat your body.

    Two Simple Rules: a.) Think about dressing for a jog/power walk in cold weather. b.) Always dress in layers.

    You want to be comfortably warm but you also want to be highly mobile. If it is snowing (or even raining) you want to have an outer layer that will keep you dry but not one that is so thick that your core becomes a sauna. Remember that you will be burning lots of calories and generating internal heat even on an easy ski.

  • Buy from XC Ski specialists...these folks will have the kinds of gear you need, reasonable prices and the know-how to help you choose.

Anything and everything beyond this list depends entirely upon your particular situation, where you are going skiing, how long you'll be out, etc.. For beginners, the best advice is to keep things as simple as possible and go skiing a few times so that you have a personal evaluation of what specific types of equipment as well as what additional items will make your skiing experiences more enjoyable.