Classic vs Skate

Closeup image of legs of skate skier and legs of classic skier

Check out the new Guide to Getting Started to Getting Started in Classic and Skate Skiing for more info.

Summary: Are you new to cross-country skiing and can’t decide whether to learn classic, skate or both?

First thing to determine is whether you have access to trails that are groomed for both skate and classic. Not all nordic areas have skate trails.

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 in my opinion, the most important factor is “What appeals to you the most?”

One of the first questions to ask yourself when getting started in nordic skiing is do you want to skate or classic ski? Or perhaps learn both at the same time?

In diagonal stride (a classic ski technique) your arms and legs swing in opposition, which is a very natural human movement.

Diagonal Stride is not “walking on skis”. It’s closer to “running on skis with a glide”; but really it’s something quite different from either running or walking.

The reason classic skiing is considered an easier point of entry isn’t because classic skiing is technically easier, it’s because beginners can “just walk on their skis” and have a good time.

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

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 un-groomed snow in the backcountry. For skate skiing, you must have access to groomed snow.

(Crust skiing is a rare exception to this rule and only happens when the top layer of the snow melts or gets very wet, then freezes over.)

Classic skiing has subcategories such as

  • Back-country skiing,
  • Touring, and
  • Telemarking.

The category of classic skiing we cover on this website is competition-style nordic skiing. It’s fast, technical and athletic. It’s what you see at the Winter Olympics in the cross-country skiing, biathlon and nordic combined events.

People who think classic skiing is “boring” haven’t been introduced to this style of skiing and think classic skiing is as simple as “walking on skis”.

Each subcategory of classic skiing requires different gear. On groomed and track-set snow you can use skinny race skis. In the backcountry you need wide, metal-edged skis and heavy-duty boots and bindings. Touring gear is somewhere in between.

There are no “subcategories” of skate skiing because it can’t be done off-piste. 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. (Our buying advice. Check the comments in that article for dissenting opinions.)

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

But you could also make this argument: skate and race-style classic skiing are technical and require upper and lower body fitness and coordination. From that point of view, they’re more like mountain 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. Cross-country skiing is an enormously technical sport.

Classic skiing is usually easier for beginners to enjoy. Most beginners find 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 most expert cross-country skiers will tell you that that classic skiing is technically more challenging than skate skiing. It’s just 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.

It’s probably true that skate skiing demands more anaerobic power, but the trend in both classic and skate skiing is towards strength, although nordic skiing is, of course, an endurance sport.

As you gain proficiency you can modulate your output in both skate and classic. Eventually 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. Nordic skiers develop a certain look because the sport demands amazing fitness and builds amazing fitness.

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.

You can avoid kick wax by buying waxless classic skis. But both classic skis and skate skis need glide wax. If you don’t want to bother with waxing, take your skis in occasionally for servicing at your local Nordic ski shop.

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

Skate skiing is all about glide and classic skiing is about grip and glide. 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 a little fresh snow and temperatures are near zero degrees. In these conditions your grip wax will have a tendency to ice up and form clumps that make it difficult to glide.
  • Temperatures are fluctuating widely and your kick wax stops working before you complete your outing. 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 guides 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.

Related: What Alpine Skiers Need to Know About Nordic Downhills

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 and others who only skate, but the majority of serious skiers do both.

They enjoy having options when snow conditions are better for one or the other. They also like how skills cross-over between the two styles. And they like the variety.

You probably will too.


Guide to Getting Started in Cross-Country Skiing

Guide to Skate Skiing


25 thoughts on “Classic vs Skate”

  1. Just learning to skate ski at 58! I love it although I’m not very efficient (yet, I hope)..I need all of the good advice I can get. I don’t mind the uphills but the downhills get me. Any advice? I downhill ski at an intermediate level.

      • Hi Kim, would skate skiing be feasible on a large frozen pond with a thing layer of snow on top of the ice?

      • Hi Brooks – You can try it but I don’t think it will be easy. The edge of an ice skate is very sharp and can dig into the ice to provide traction to push against. A skate ski edge isn’t nearly as sharp and can’t dig in nearly as well. Skate skis work best in well groomed snow that has a little give, but not too much. That way the edge of the ski can roll into the snow and provide some purchase to push against. If you try it, let me know who it goes. I’ll be curious. Thanks.

  2. I’ve been a classic/lt. touring skier for years prior to having 2 kids enter my life. Now my time to ski solo is very limited and leaning towards quick, high intensity workouts. So with a new skate track circuit having just been built in our area (rural BC southern interior), I took the plunge and bought a proper skate set up which I can honestly say, I never imagined doing prior to my life slowing down with kids.

    Our new track is short but very challenging and after my first day out, all I can say is MAN DO I LOVE IT!!! What a hell of a work out! That being said, yesterday’s initiation to skate skiing came with very icy/crusty hardpack conditions which made my experience that much more challenging and terrifying. With lots of questions to now ask, your article here was certainly of good help. Ice crust and steep hills is not ideal for obvious reasons, but how much so when ascending steep hills?

    I found it almost impossible, but doable as it’s certainly a full body strength thing. Is there a limit though when it comes to skate skiing on icy, crusty hardpack? For instance, “Just stick to the flats and avoid any sort of incline” or “Giver’ all ya got if your feeling up to it, steep ascents included. Just be careful of your speed, especially on the down slopes…” – Id love your feedback on this? Either way, IM HOOKED!

    • Hey Carl – so happy to hear you are enjoying skate skiing! Skate skiing on icy conditions is tough for everyone. The skis don’t afford much lateral stability. When I’m struggling with balance, I always get lower and avoid extending too much through the legs and hips. I probably don’t understand your question, so I’ll just give you some other random advice instead: don’t look for hard and fast rules about cross-country ski technique. There are principles and generalizations, but technique is infinitely modifiable according to things like…you guessed it…snow conditions. So icy conditions = less stability = get lower. Another example: deep difficult snow, don’t dig your edges in so much when hill climbing. Sit back a little so the skis can float better in the snow. There’s a lot of nuance to technique which just adds to the intrigue and fun!

  3. I have just started roller skate skiing and I am surprised how bad I am. Do specific roller skate ski boots make a difference , rather than my old winter x-country boots?
    Should I start without poles?
    Where can I get lessons? I really stink at it

    • Hi Joe – congratulations on taking up roller skiing. Everyone finds it hard at first, so don’t worry about that. It might be surprising, but the truth is, it’s normal. Fortunately it’s a fun challenge!

      No poles to start is a good idea, although you might also want to hold them loosely, without your hands in the straps, as a balance aid for the first little bit.

      Yes, skate boots or “combi” boots are a very good idea and will make a big difference. You will find it much easier to learn with better equipment.

      As for lessons, I’m not sure where you live, so I don’t know what to recommend. I hate to sound like a pushy sales person, but our membership site XC Ski Nation includes a roller skiing 101 course that shows what to do first time out, as well as many other drills for getting started in skate skiing. It’s still early days, so we don’t have a complete step by step plan for getting started, but we do have some very good resources that could ave you a tremendous amount of time and frustration.

      Regardless, I’l sure you will love roller skiing and I wish you the best of luck!

  4. Thank you so very much, this was great. I wish i knew all of this before I took up the sport. I have only been XC classic skiing (XC-CS) for a few years–i was not a downhill skier–and just love the sport. Anyone who thinks it will be boring is totally wrong; as they gain profiency their skills will be tested on any of the black trails they encounter. While XC skiing in Austria met some folks from Finland who were in their 70s and 80s and still going strong in the sport for 4-6 hours per day! I would be interested in any websites with information on the best places to XC-CS in North America.

  5. Thanks for this very informative article. I’m interested in getting into cross-country skiing, but don’t know which to do (classic vs skate). I think I’ll take a lesson in both, and decide from there.

    One question: I’ve noticed at our local ski resort (I snowshoe there right now) that the cross-country trails are not very well maintained, as it caters more to down-hill skiing. At times, the parallel track for classic skiiers is almost non-existent. Can you ski classically in the other “groomed” section? And how would you ski in that area: with legs parallel or with a skate-type motion?

    Thanks for your help. I would also like a copy of your free mini book, Tips to Power Up Your Nordic Skiing.

    • Hi Renata – Congrats on getting into nordic skiing. I think you’ll love it :)

      That’s a shame that the classic tracks aren’t so great. Yes, it does make a difference to the skiing experience. You can classic ski on the plain track, just try to stay to the side to give the skate skiers enough room down the middle. You can skate ski somewhat on classic skis, but it will be better for you to keep the classic skis facing straight ahead.

      Your first classic lesson will be much easier than your first skate lesson. Skate has a steeper initial barrier, but it’s not impossible.

      I don’t have that mini-book available any longer. I made it several years ago and haven’t had time to update it. I prefer not to keep old information around on the web.

      Good luck!

      • Thanks for your quick response, Kim. I’ve been looking at a lot of videos, and can’t wait to try the nordic experience for myself! :-)

  6. Great article and right on in every aspect. Couldn’t agree more with everything you mentioned. I am a novice skier, and I have a set of skate gear and classical gear and I take them both everywhere. I don’t always know what I’ll be doing until I get to the trails. If there’s a place you can go to rent skis and try both before you buy, that’s always helpful. And when you’re ready to buy go to a real ski shop, not big box dept. store. Just get out there and have some fun, don’t be intimidated. There’s no other sport like it, both in the workout and the experience.

  7. I would like to get the free mini book…also what is the difference between a skate binding and a classic binding, can i use a prolink classic binding on a skate ski?

    • See if you can swap out the rubber at the front of the binding and you may be able to use that binding. I’d take it to a ski shop and ask them. Good luck. About the mini-book. I need to update it before making it available again and haven’t had time. Sorry.

  8. Thank you for this article! I just tried skate skiing for the first time after seeing someone do it and feeling a deep need to try it. Unfortunately my first time included a complementary lesson taught by the owner of the xc place who seemed to think that because I had some alpine skiing experience that I could handle some hills. On the very first hill I crashed hard and now have a chest contusion and some painful swelling. When I refused to do another hill after my crash he told me I needed more confidence and courage. I’m 100% sure I needed a different instructor. The advice you give in this article about not tackling hills too quickly resonates with me tremendously. The skate skis feel VERY different from downhill skis and my instincts knew that I had a lot to learn before tackling any hills. I hope to keep reading and learning more from helpful articles like this one. I will eventually try out those skis again after I’ve healed and winter returns–this time it will be at my pace and proper hill grade (almost flat haha) and will involve gradual increases. Thank you again.

    • I’m so sorry to hear about your injury. Injuries are such a waste of time, which is why I think it’s better to be cautious, at least at first. I’m glad it hasn’t dampened your enthusiasm for skate skiing. I’m sure you’ll love it!

  9. I wish I had read your article a month ago! Thank you enlightening me. I came across skate skiing nearly 20 years ago and thought it looked fun but I didn’t think any more about it until a month ago. I now have 3 kids and one of the mums mentioned her child has been at the bialthon tasters session and she was going to the adult taster session, would I like to come? In my ignorance, I assumed there is only 1 technique to cross country skiing. I wished I had read this article before now! I was so confused as to why we were given skate roller ski to start with then classic roller skis the following week.
    I am determined to learn this but my fear of falling is such a ‘disability’. It is definitely easier to learn when you’re are younger. I hope with time I will get better and be able to enjoy this sport all year round. I live in Scotland but snow isn’t guaranteed every winter hence the roller skis. It has sparked a curiosity in me so many years ago. I am so excited and can’t wait to get proficient enough to enjoy myself rather than worrying about falling. Thank you for writing this article.

  10. Great article, Kim. I am planning to take a cross country ski skating style class next month. The classes build up in modules of 2 hours each. I was thinking to take 2*2=4 hours to start with. I am a beginner in cross country ski skating style. My instructor cautioned me that 2 hours is more than enough to start with for a beginner. I’d say that my fitness level is above average – I do triathlons and run marathons. I know it’s not the same but I was hoping the fitness level would make up for lack of skill. Appreciate your thoughts.

    • Hi Robert – I think your instructor is right. In my experience, strength and cardiovascular fitness have little bearing on skill development. Body awareness, balance and coordination are far more important. Regardless of your other experiences, you brain has never had to negotiate moving your body around on snow on skate skis. There will be a learning curve. If you want to speed the process and get more from your lessons, go for a few practice sessions beforehand to help your body acclimatize to the feeling of being on skate skis.

      Pay particular attention to how you use your feet. You can’t use “walking feet” on skate skis, meaning you have to break the habit of rolling pressure from the back to the front of the foot like you’re used to in walking and running. You can’t even use “ice skating feet” or “hockey feet”. You have to learn to weight the foot evenly, directly under your body, so the ski is flat and your foot is relaxed. If you feel stress in your feet or lower legs, you need to simply practice stepping from ski to ski until your feet relax.

      Good luck! Investing time in the fundamentals will ultimately accelerate your learning!


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