If you’re wary of the possible crowds you’ll face at the ski slopes but still want to get some nice outdoor adventure in this winter, cross-country, also called Nordic, skiing may be the answer. It’s a great workout and an excuse to be outside — which all of us can use after all this extra time indoors during the pandemic. Because it’s so cardio-centric, XC skiing will make you sweat even on the coldest days, so, like winter running, the right clothing (with the right moisture-management capability) is imperative. And, of course, you’ll also need a good set of skis, boots, bindings, and poles. To help you find the appropriate gear for you, whether it’s your first time skiing or you’re just looking to upgrade the kit you already have, we asked eight XC-skiing experts for recommendations.
There are two types of XC skiing — skate and classic — and which type you do is often determined by the skiing options available in your area (xcski.org and XCSkiResorts.com are good places to check). Classic skiing, which looks more like graceful glide-walking, is best on open fields, golf courses, or in parks. Skating, which, well, looks like ice-skating but with very long skis, requires a groomed trail. If you’re a beginner and have both options nearby, most of our experts say classic is a better starting point for newbies. You still get a great workout, but it is not quite as demanding or technical as skate skiing.
Dressing for the sport is a careful balance between staying warm and not getting too hot as you exert yourself. Unlike alpine-skiing gloves and snow pants, XC ski gear is trim and ready to move with you. All of our experts said layering is key and suggest that you shed layers as you get going. (You can throw those layers into a good lightweight backpack that can also hold your water.) They say you want to start off feeling like you are dressed for weather ten degrees warmer than it actually is in order to keep you from overheating once you get moving.
Here, their recommendations for the best XC gear to keep you warm, moving, and having fun.
Many of our experts recommended this set from Fischer for those interested in classic XC skiing. The skis have two separate offset skin strips that allow you to grip the snow as you kick but also slide smoothly as you glide. Plus, they don’t need obsessive waxing like more traditional skis. They “work perfectly,” says Roger Lohr, founder and editor of XCSkiResorts.com. And according to Reese Brown, president and executive director of the Cross Country Ski Areas Association, “they tend not to ice.”
Corinne Prevot, founder of ski and outdoor-apparel brand Skida, recommends choosing skate skis if you are someone who already exercises a lot and is used to endurance sports. “I really like the Madshus line, and the Endurace is the company’s best-selling ski,” she says. They’re great skis for getting a good adventure, a hard workout, and a lot of speed. Their low weight will help limit fatigue, and embedded Madshus eMpower RFID chips give you access to tons of information about your skiing.
If you’re not quite sure which type of XC skiing you’ll do (classic or skate), or if you want to do both, get a combination boot. “Rossignol is a great company,” says Sam von Trapp, director and executive vice-president of the Trapp Family Lodge. “These boots are very responsive,” he says, providing a quick transfer of power from your foot to your skis and an excellent balance of control and comfort. The Trapp Family Lodge uses the similar X5 boots for rentals, as do many other rental locations we spoke with, including Sun Valley Resort in Idaho, which was recently named the top ski resort of 2021 by Ski magazine.
“If people are looking to be a little more aggressive or stay out longer, go for the Alpina Alaska,” von Trapp says. “It’s warmer and higher performance. This is the boot I use when I’m getting more aggressive lines.”
“Modern wool layers are not scratchy. They are not your grandma’s wool,” says von Trapp, who recommends these leggings and tops from Icebreaker. Plus, “wool is amazing,” says Eli Simon, owner of Atlantic Climbing School. “It doesn’t stink after a lot of use.”
“I like to wear the Nano Puff with a shell over it,” von Trapp says. “I can ditch it when I get warm, and it’s packable.” Stacey Timmons, director of retail at Sun Valley, also likes this jacket. “It’s windproof, dries quickly when wet, and is light enough to stick in a pack if you get too hot,” she says.
XC skiing gets your internal furnace working, so you want to be able to vent heat without being chilled by a cold breeze from the front. That’s why many outerwear pieces for XC have hearty wind protection in the front and lighter, breathable materials in the back. “I like loose-fitting pants that allow for good mobility,” Prevot says. “Craft makes really high-quality XC-ski gear. These have a wind panel on the front that keeps my legs a little warmer.”
As a brand, Swix was mentioned multiple times by our experts. “It’s massive for cross-country,” von Trapp says. Brown likes this jacket in particular. Although it doesn’t have a lot of insulation, which keeps it lightweight and packable, he says, it still provides warmth by cutting the wind. “It’s got a wind block in the front. As you build up your body heat, it vents out the back,” he says.
Poles help propel you and keep you balanced, and while the design of the poles does not change between classic- and skate-style XC skiing, length does. “For classic, you want poles to reach your armpit,” says Lauren Stagnitti, who runs outdoor recreation at Trapp Family Lodge. “Skate, however, should reach somewhere between the nose and chin, depending on what you find most comfortable.” According to Brown, “XC-ski pole straps need to be tight on your hands.” That can be annoying, especially when you need to do anything other than ski. But this pole solves that problem with a quick-release strap: “You can push a thing on top and detach the strap from your pole but not your hand, reach into your pocket, blow your nose, then snap back into the pole. It’s really quite a nice feature,” he says.
Two of our experts mentioned Toko gloves, and these are the warmest XC gloves Toko makes. “Gloves should be Nordic specific,” says Timmons. After that, it’s a matter of finding your personal preference. “What are people used to? Comfortable with? Do they run cold? Do they want a bit more weight in the fill, or do they run hot and they want something that is thin, like a driving glove?” Whatever your answers to those questions, she says, “Toko is a great recommendation.”
“I am embarrassed to be seen not wearing Darn Tough,” von Trapp says. “They’re Vermont made and unbelievably warm, with a variety of superthin to unbelievably thick options for hunting and sitting in the woods. Plus, there’s a lifetime warranty.” For Simon, it’s the wool aspect that’s most important. “It doesn’t stink after a lot of use. A pair of thin ski socks I find to be nicer than the really thick ones,” he says.
“Skida is huge around here. Folks love that it’s a Vermont company, and the hats and headbands are warm without being heavy. They’re great for Nordic skiing,” says Tim Harper, a high-school cross-country coach in Norwich. Prevot says, “Our Nordic hat was created for XC skiing. It’s lightweight, breathable, and the material does a good job of cutting the wind while not being too insulating.”
Not only is the sun shining down in your eyes while you’re skiing, but it’s also reflecting off the snow, making sunglasses even more important. Brown recommends these photochromic ones by Rudy Project. “I am not a fan of the monster-big sunglasses that are the rage now. These vent well, they tend to not fog, and they’re supercomfortable,” he says.
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