Classic vs Skate

Closeup image of legs of skate skier and legs of classic skierSummary: Are you new to cross-country skiing? Can’t decide whether to classic, skate or learn both styles?

The first thing to determine is whether you have access to trails that are groomed for skate and classic skiing. Not all Nordic areas have both.

Once you’ve got that figured out, the next most important question is, “Which looks like the most fun to you?”

There are pros and cons to getting started with each technique, but by far the most important factor to consider is “What do you most want to do?”  It’s really that simple.

One decision to make when starting cross-country skiing is whether to classic ski, skate ski, or learn both at the same time.

The most common advice is to learn classic first. The alternating motion of the legs and arms in diagonal stride is the same as in walking or running. Classic skiing is not “walking on skis” or even “running on skis with a glide”; it’s a completely different gait. But there are elements of walking and running gaits within diagonal stride and beginners really can “just walk on their skis” and have a good time.

Classic skiing is easier to enjoy when you lack skill and efficiency, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best point of entry for everyone.

Here are some questions to think about:

Where Will You Ski?

You can classic ski on groomed and track-set snow at nordic areas or on ungroomed snow in the backcountry. For skate skiing, you must have access to groomed snow.

Classic skiing has subcategories, including back-country skiing, touring, and telemarking. You can call the type of classic skiing we’re talking about on this website “track skiing”, “performance skiing” or “race-style” skiing.” It’s fast, technical and athletic. People who think classic skiing is “boring” haven’t seen the pros. They think classic skiing is simply “walking on skis”.

Each subcategory of classic skiing requires different gear. On groomed and track-set snow you can use narrow race skis. In the deep snow and rugged terrain of the backcountry you need wider, metal-edged skis and heavy-duty boots and bindings.

There are no “subcategories” of skate skiing. Skate skiing always requires wider trails and the snow has to be packed smooth, with a corduroy surface like you see on groomed alpine slopes. The only time you can skate ski in the backcountry is when a thick ice crust forms over the snow pack, usually in the spring.

Because there aren’t “subcategories” of skate skiing there aren’t subcategories of skate gear. Even if you don’t want to race, you still want to buy the best “race” skate skis you can afford. They will be easier to handle than cheaper models, so long as you get the proper fit.

Not all Nordic ski areas groom for both skate and classic skiing. If they only do one, it will most likely be classic.

Want a Bike Analogy?

If you like, you can think of backcountry skiing or touring as “mountain biking” and skiing on groomed trails as “road biking”. In this analogy, both performance classic and skate skiing are road biking because they’re performed on a smooth, “man-made” surface.

On the other hand, skate and performance classic skiing are highly technical and require upper and lower body fitness and coordination. That makes them more like mountain biking than road biking.

But, no matter how you think about it, cross-country skiing is more fun than spending the winter in your basement on a bike trainer.

Which is Easier? Which is a Better Workout?

When you’re just getting started you’ll be an inefficient skier. I know it’s hard to believe, but technical efficiency makes an enormous difference to how fast you go and how hard you work.

When you’re an inefficient beginner, classic skiing is easier to enjoy; skate skiing is completely exhausting. So classic skiing is an easier point of entry into Nordic skiing, but not because it’s less technical than skate skiing.

Classic skiing is at least as technically difficult as skate asking. In fact, I would argue it requires more finesse. It’s simply that classic skiing with poor technique is less exhausting than skate skiing with poor technique.

There’s a common perception that skate skiing is a “better workout”. We often meet people who chose skate skiing for this exact reason. Typically they have demanding jobs and limited time, and they see skate skiing as an efficient way to get a killer workout.

If you think of strength and endurance as two ends of a fitness continuum, then skate skiing is probably closer to the strength end, and classic skiing is probably closer to the endurance end.

But you need both strength and endurance to be a good nordic skier. As you gain proficiency you can modulate your output in both. You’ll develop your skill to the point that you can cover long distances on skate skis with a low output or get an intense workout on classic skis.

Last thing to mention here is that skate skiing is faster than classic skiing. If you love speed – chose skate skiing.

Does Fitness Matter?

Yes. Absolutely.

I’m sure you’ve already guessed this, but just to be clear: Classic skiing is easier for people who are less fit. Fit, athletic-types will have an easier time learning how to skate ski than their overweight, out of shape friends.

You can’t reach a high level of technical proficiency in classic or skate skiing skiing without great strength, balance, agility, etc.

Look at an outstanding skier and ask yourself, “Is she fit because she skis well, or does she ski well because she’s fit?” The answer is yes. People who take up Nordic skiing develop a certain athletic look over time because the sport both builds amazing fitness and demands amazing fitness. It’s a positive feedback loop that makes nordic skiing so easy to get hooked on.

What About Wax?

I totally sympathize if you’re intimidated by ski waxing or you just don’t want the bother. But the issue of ski waxing shouldn’t play a role in your choice between skate and classic skiing.

If you want to classic ski, buy waxless skis. Both waxless classic skis and skate skis need occasional glide wax treatment. If you don’t want to bother, take them in for servicing at your local Nordic ski shop.

How Do Snow Conditions and Temperature Affect Skate and Classic Skiing?

Skate skiing is more about glide and classic skiing is more about grip (although glide is still a really important factor in classic skiing). The grip and glide characteristics of snow change with changing temperatures and humidity.

Skate skiing is almost always more fun than classic in these conditions:

  • When there’s fresh snow and temperatures are near zero degrees. In these conditions your kick wax may ice up and form clumps that make it impossible to glide. When the snow sticks to your kick zone and build up we call it “snow stilts.” It’s not fun.
  • Temperatures are fluctuating widely and your kick wax stops working before you finish your ski. You have to stop and reapply wax.

Classic skiing is almost always more fun than skate skiing in these conditions:

  • When it’s very cold and your skis don’t glide well.
  • When there’s deep, fresh snow on the trails.

Can I Buy Cheaper Classic Skis?

I read this on a bike forum. The writer suggested buying classic skis at a garage sale or “finding some at the dump”, but investing in quality skate skis.

This is insane advice.

Whether you chose skate or classic skiing, the most important thing to do is get your skis fit by a professional. It’s essential to your enjoyment of the sport that you ski on quality gear that fits your weight and height. Selecting the right pair of skis is not a matter of finding skis that are the “correct” length. It’s more complex than that.

Can I Buy “Combi” Gear?

You can buy combi boots. It’s an OK way to get started, but don’t buy “combi” skis. There’s no such thing as “combi” poles because skate and classic ski poles are different lengths.

Read through our Gear menu to learn more.

I Skied Alpine. Will I be Awesome?

The time you spent time on skis will make it easier for you to learn how to cross-country ski. The fact that you know how to snowplow will really help you, but the fact that you feel confident going downhill on skis might hurt you.

Be very careful. I know that hill looks small, but your cross-country skis do not handle as easily as your downhill skis. Proceed with caution. I’ve seen over-confident downhill skiers get injured for this reason.

The Bottom Line

Skate or classic skiing?

Choose whichever you find most appealing. Watch some videos and ask yourself which looks more fun. Don’t dismiss classic skiing as “boring”. You have that idea because you’ve seen so many people shuffling slowly along the trails. Performance classic skiing is fast, technical and dynamic.

There are excellent skiers who only classic ski, and others who only skate, although the majority of serious nordic skiers do both.

They like having the choice when snow conditions are better for one style or the other. They like the way their skills cross-over between the two styles. They like the variety. You probably will too.

More Help

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Good luck! You’ll love nordic skiing.

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