Cross-Country Skiing 101: Equipment

Posted at 2:47 AM, Oct 12, 2021


Cross-country skiers race on skis just two inches wide. Much thinner than their alpine counterparts where downhill, Super-G, giant slalom and slalom skis are much wider. The minimum length of cross-country skis is dependent on the height of the athlete themselves. Skis cannot be shorter than the minimum height of the athlete minus about four inches, but they can be as long as an athlete prefers. 

Elite cross-country skiers typically travel with upwards of 50 pairs of skis at their disposal on race day. Each pair, with its own specs, is carefully considered with some being tested just before a race to see which feels fastest on that day's snow. 

Classical vs. Freestyle Skis

Classical skis have a more pronounced camber than freestyle skis. The camber is the upward curve of the ski that is best viewed when the ski is sitting on a flat surface and not under an athlete’s foot. This curve creates what is called the wax pocket, under the foot of the athlete. In classical racing, the wax pocket is where the ski grips the snow.  The camber helps relieve pressure on the wax pocket allowing the ski to optimally glide across the snow.  

In contrast, freestyle skis are flatter, with less camber, and are more rigid. The stiffness allows the athlete to get the maximum performance out of their skis while exerting the full pressure of their body weight on the inside edge of their skis as they use the freestyle technique, also known as skating style.


Clicking into a set of cross-country skis is very different than the alpine skis commonly seen in events like the downhill. Cross-country bindings attach to a boot at the toe only, leaving the heel free to flex up and down, allowing the skier to propel themselves across the snow. In contrast, alpine bindings and boots are rigid and keep an athlete’s ankle from flexing when clicked into the skis. 

Cross-country skiers also race while using two ski poles. The poles are dug into the snow with every ounce of upper body strength an athlete can find on flat sections of the course and on the most grueling uphill climbs. Poles must be equal in length and can be no longer than the height of the athlete when the tip of the pole is placed on the ski in front of the binding.   

Ski poles have sharp tips that stick in and grip the snow for traction. Just like with anything sharp that’s being swung about, accidents can and do happen. It is not uncommon for a bloody scratch to show up on a skier’s face at the end of a race. 

Kick wax vs. glide wax

Wax technicians are an integral part of any cross-country team. Before races, wax techs assess the current snow conditions – some even take the temperature of the snow from various points on the course. The type of snow and weather predicted during the race will determine how a wax tech prepares a pair of skis for their racer. 

Although there are many different wax formulas, at their most basic level, waxes fall into one of two categories. A kick wax is used in the camber of a classical ski, and will offer its racer grip on the snow. The tip and tail of a classical ski is covered in a different kind of wax known as glide wax. Glide wax acts as its name suggests, creating the slickest surface possible for a skier. Freestyle skis are covered from tip to tail with glide wax, since the necessary grip in a freestyle race comes from an athlete using the inside edges of their skis in the snow. The technique is also commonly called skating style, because the motion is similar to an ice skater pushing off the inside edge of their skates on ice.