Guide to Getting Started in Classic and Skate Cross Country Skiing

Get Started in Skate and Classic Skiing

Skate skier (L), Classic Skier (R) credit: Fischer Sports GmbH


When it comes to skiing on machine groomed trails at Nordic Ski areas, there are two major styles of cross-country skiing: Classic Skiing and Skate Skiing.

The equipment and mechanics differ between the styles, but the skiing techniques share fundamental movements. Many Nordic skiers both skate and classic ski.

This guide is intended for new cross-country skiers and includes information about:

  • The basic mechanics of classic and skate skiing.
  • Points of comparison to help new skiers chose between skate and classic skiing.
  • Nordic ski trails and trail etiquette.
  • Basic information about waxing cross-country skis.
  • How cross-country ski techniques work in general terms. Specific techniques are introduced in the Skate Skiing, Classic Skiing and Nordic Downhill Skiing Guides.
  • Tips to help new cross-country skiers navigate the process of buying gear and wax and getting started in cross-country skiing.

Beginners may also find it helpful to look through the Glossary of Cross Country Skiing Terminology.

How Classic Skiing Works

Classic skiing is the older and more traditional style of cross-country skiing. It’s what most people imagine when they think of Nordic skiing. 

Classic skis are long and narrow and are flexed in a bow-like shape. If you hold a pair of skis bases together, the tips and tails touch, but there's a gap between the skis in the area underfoot. The bow-like shape is called a camber.

There’s a special grip zone on the base of a classic ski that extends from the heel forward, several inches ahead of the toes. The grip zone is essential to the proper fit and functioning of the ski. The grip zone is also known as a kick zone or wax pocket. 

Classic skis run in parallel tracks that are set in the snow approximately shoulder width apart. When the skier stands evenly and lightly on the skis, the skis glide freely because the grip zone is held above the snow by the skis’ bow-like construction (camber).

To move forward, the skier moves her weight over one ski and pushes down and back. Pushing down compresses the ski and the grip zone momentarily sticks to the snow, giving the skier some friction to push against.

Classic skis are broadly grouped into two categories based on the type of grip zone: waxable skis and waxless skis.

On waxable classic skis, the skier applies a special kind of wax called grip or kick wax to the grip zone. Because the properties of snow change with age and temperature, you need a range of kick waxes to suit different conditions. Three types is probably the a minimum, but many skiers built up a larger collection of grip waxes. Beginner skiers often find it difficult to chose the right wax and apply it.

Waxless skis have a specialized grip zone that does not require kick wax. There are a number of kinds of waxless skis to chose from. Skin skis are fast becoming the most popular type of waxless ski, but fishscales and zeros also have their place.

Most of the time classic skis work well, but the grip zone may ice up in certain conditions, creating a frustrating situation where the ski catches on the snow, rather than gliding. This is most typical in conditions of fresh snow, at or near zero degrees Celcius.

Read the Guide to Classic Skiing for an overview of the classic skiing techniques.

How Skate Skiing Works

 Skate skis, like classic skis, have a bow-like construction (camber), but there is no grip zone. In skate skiing, the skis glide continually on the snow.

Instead of the skis being parallel, skate skis are worked in a V-shape, with the tips further apart than the tails. Skate skis are shorter than classic skis, which makes them easier to manage with the feet in a V-stance. 

To move forward, the skier rolls one ski at a time onto the inside edge and pushes sideways. The action is reminiscent of ice skating, but the mechanics are different because skis are different from ice skates and snow is different from ice.

Compared to classic boots, skate boots are very stiff and have cuffs that help stabilize the foot and ankle. Skate skiing poles are longer than classic poles. In both skate and classic skiing, the ski poles make a major contribution to the forward movement.

Many people are surprised at the challenge of skate skiing and find it exhausting as beginners. In classic skiing a beginner can get away with walking or shuffling the skis to move forward, but skate skiing requires full body coordination and excellent balance, even at the beginner level. 

Skate skiing requires machine groomed trails or a thick crust on the surface of the snow. It's almost impossible to skate ski in deep or ungroomed snow. Skate skiing is also difficult to enjoy in extreme temperatures (cold or warm) because the snow gets slow and gliding is difficult.

The speed of travel is generally faster in skate skiing than classic. Skate skis are easier to handle on the downhills because they are shorter than classic skis.

Read the Skate Skiing Guide for an overview of the skate skiing techniques.

Classic, Skate or Both?

Many professionals recommend starting with classic skiing, because it’s easier to get around as a beginner. The exception is if you are starting with roller skis, rather than on-snow skiing. In that case it's advisable to start with skate skiing.

The learning curve is steeper in skate skiing, but it’s possible to begin with skate skiing. Assuming you have access to trails groomed for both styles of skiing, do whichever appeals most to you.

Getting started with skate skiing usually appeals to younger professionals and athletes from other endurance sports who are looking for a challenging winter training experience.

If you have the time, money and interest, doing both skate and classic skiing is the most fun. Skills transfer between the two styles which means doing both will make you a better skier overall. Owning both skate and classic equipment gives you the greatest flexibility to chose the best style for various weather and grooming conditions.

Read more on this topic: Classic vs Skate

Nordic Ski Trails and Etiquette

This is a wide trail, with classic tracks along both sides and room for skating down the middle. Credit: Fischer Sports GmbH

At Nordic ski areas the trails are machine groomed for skate and classic skiing. Classic skiing is done in the tracks and skate skiing is done where the snow is groomed with a corduroy-like surface.

On some trails there may be enough width for classic tracks on both sides and a two way skate lane down the middle, but many trails are not wide enough for this configuration. In that case the trail might be designated one-way, with a classic track on one side. Sometimes trails are restricted to skate-only or classic-only. There are a number of possibilities, so it's best to check trail maps and rules before you head out. Skating over classic tracks ruins the experience for classic skiers, so please be considerate.

If you need to stop along a trail, step aside so you don't block the trail. Don't stop at the bottom of a hill where other skiers might have trouble avoiding you.

Do a shoulder check whenever stepping out of the classic track or moving laterally across the trail so you don't interfere with a skier approaching from behind.

Because skiers on the downhills have less control, they are generally considered to have the right of way over skiers climbing.

If you are tucking on the downhills, make sure your pole tips point down, not upward behind your armpits. You don't want to poke another skier in the eye.

Dogs are allowed on some trails. Check local rules. Beginner skiers are already fearful, so please keep your dogs away from them and beware of snagging other skiers if your dog is on a leash.

It used to be that faster skiers approaching from behind could call out, "Track!" and slower skiers would step out of the tracks and allow the faster skier to pass. This convention is falling out of favour. Most expert skiers are happy to step out to pass - they are the better skiers, after all. 

In general, be considerate, use common sense and try to think ahead to potential problems.

Wax Basics

Ski waxing is a big deal in cross-country skiing - much more so than in Alpine skiing. Competitive skiers and teams spend a great deal of time and money on ski waxing because it has a significant impact on the speed of the skis.

There are two types of Nordic ski wax:

Grip wax is used only on classic skis and is only applied to the grip zone on the base of the ski. Waxless classic skis, like skin skis or fish scales, do not need grip wax, but they do need occasional glide wax treatments.

Both skate and classic skis need glide wax applied to their bases. Glide wax is applied to the entire length of a skate ski and to the tip and tail regions of a classic ski, outside the grip zone.

Glide wax is especially important for race skis, less so for recreational skis. Applying glide wax requires specialized equipment, including a wax iron and special form to hold the skis in place. You can do it at home if you have the space to set up a waxing area. Some Nordic ski areas have public wax rooms. You can also take your skis to a Nordic ski shop and get them to do it for you.

Read more about ski waxing: Nordic Ski Waxing Articles

Is "Race" Technique for You?

Most of the skiers you meet on the trails will be self-taught or have taken a handful of lessons. They’ll shuffle their classic skis in a walking style. On skate skis, they’ll use the same technique on all terrain.

Hopefully you will also encounter skiers who obviously have more technical skill. They move very quickly and make it look effortless. They'll transition between different techniques for different terrain.

The expressions “recreational” and “race” are sometimes used as shorthand to distinguish between these types of skiers. I prefer the word performance because race technique sounds unattainable to many people.

Even though you are just getting started, I encourage you to set your sights on competitive-style cross-country skiing. It’s not easy, but it’s incredibly rewarding and fun. I promise you won’t regret it.

More people could ski with race technique, if only they had a better understanding of the skills. The information on this website and our partner site, XC Ski Nation, will take you a long way towards this goal.

How Ski Techniques Work

In classic skiing there are 3 primary techniques; skate skiing has 5. There are a number of downhill, cornering and auxiliary techniques to learn as well. Each technique coordinates the timing and movement of the skis and poles differently. 

Learning the range of techniques is important because ski trails offer a variety of terrain and the surface of the snow has variable friction depending on temperature and moisture. Sometimes you need a to use a lot of force to move forward, other times you move effortlessly at high speed.

A cross-country skier pushes herself along the trail using two poles and two skis. Some techniques are arranged so that you are continually applying force with the poles and/or skis. Those are good for when you need more power, such as when climbing hills. Other techniques have more glide time and are good for high speed situations.

Not only can you switch between techniques to suit different terrain, there is a large scope for adjusting techniques to suit different situations.

The better you are at adapting your technique, the better skier you’ll be. Developing your skill to this level is part of what makes cross-country ski technique endlessly interesting and fun to work on.

Top Tips to Save Time & Money and Avoid Frustration

Here is a distillation of top tips for getting started quickly and painlessly in this sport. If you’re the kind of person who just wants to know what to do, follow this advice.

If you prefer to make up your own mind after weighing all the pros and cons, read more in-depth information about gear and wax.

  • Skate or classic? Choose which most appeals to you and don’t worry that skate skiing is “too hard”.
  • Classic skiing? Buy skin skis. You won’t regret it.
  • Unless you have a couple of extra hundred dollars and want to be a wax geek, pay the pros at the local Nordic ski shop to glide wax your skis. Once a month is fine. Once a season is OK too.
  • Buy the best gear you can afford. You get what you pay for.
  • Buy gear for the skier you want to become, not the skier you are. Want to ski like a racer? (You can!) Buy race gear.
  • Shop at a real-life Nordic ski shop, preferably one where racers shop too.
  • Buy ski poles with a harness strap, not a loop strap.
  • Buy manual bindings, not automatic bindings.
  • It’s OK to buy combi boots. Combi skis are not OK. Skate and Classic poles are different lengths and not interchangeable.
  • Poles matter more than you think.
  • Practice putting on ALL your gear at home.
  • Take some lessons to help get you going.
  • Join a competitive ski club if there’s one in your area and they have suitable programming. Even if you don’t want to race, it will help you to ski with better skiers.
  • Consider registering for a loppet (fun race). It will keep you motivated and help you connect with other skiers.

If you are interested in ski technique and want to accelerate the process of becoming an expert, join our partner site, XC Ski Nation.

XC Ski Nation is subscriber-supported. The subscription fee is nominal and the quality of the videos and clarity of the lessons are unmatched.

5 thoughts on “Guide to Getting Started in Classic and Skate Cross Country Skiing”

  1. Great article, thank you!

    One comment on poles. The length matters, but stiffness matters even more! Cheap poles tend to be soft, and your energy goes into bending the pole with each push. You will waste your strength and won’t get any movement in return. You can have cheap boots and bindings, you can even have cheap skis (provided they fit your length & weight well), but you cannot have cheap poles.

  2. Some great tips here! I was gifted a pair of very high-end skate skis (Rossignol XIUM). Even though it’s my 3rd winter, I’m still struggling. Is it possible to the is simply too much for me to handle? I know in classic (which I’ve been doing for years), it’s easier to start of on a slightly wider, more stable ski. Is the same true for skate?

    • Hi Tammy – The issue is not the quality of the skis. They may not fit you properly – that’s the first thing to check. If the fit is good, then it’s about your technique…

  3. I’ve just spent an expensive week in Switzerland learning to cross country ski, unsuccessfully.

    We had a qualified instructor and my wife managed to make the breakthrough, although fell a lot.

    I just did not seem to have the core balance.

    Is there anything I can do away from snow to learn to overcome the challenge?


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