Advice on buying

So you want to get into cross-country skiing but you live on the wrong side of the snow line? Here’s some recommendations on:

Where to buy
How to buy
For 2021: Buying in COVID conditions and Upgrading boots

Clothing and softgoods

This part’s pretty easy, because some clothing for running, bicycling, hiking, or just outdoors casualwear- are multifunctional and usable for XC. Examples: windshells, fleece sweaters, long tights, eyeshields, warmup pants.

For the things you want that are more specific (eg. buffs, technical wear, XC gloves and mitts), the larger chains like REI and LL Bean will have most of it, and there’s always online ordering from specialty shops.

But let’s get the inevitable first-timer question out of the way:

Where can I buy cross-country skis?

Good news/bad news. The bad news is that there aren’t a huge number of shops that sell cross-country skis in our area. Paragon hasn’t had them for a while, and Campmor stopped stocking them in 2018-19. Alpine or downhill ski shops don’t service cross-country very much, if at all. Snowboard shops- fuhgeddaboudit. If you want to see skis in person, you may have to do some traveling.

The good news: The Internet has helped large stores become efficient in managing stock, and certain specialty shops to expand virtually beyond their locale. Below are a set of general recommendations for buying equipment, particularly the hardgoods:

  • If you can visit a locale that you like to ski at, go to a shop in the area and check out the skis. They’ll have selected their stock to suit the tastes, conditions and terrain of the area. This applies to the big stores and small shops alike. If the region is popular for the kind of skiing you like, the local population and competition among shops filter out the least suitable stuff.
  • If direct visits aren’t possible, several specialty shops serve the market of skiers outside their geography. The knowledge and expertise that accumulates in these shops is useful when you’re at the point of decision.
  • Finally, if you’ve made a decision and know it’s available at a big store like REI, the local one can order it and have it transferred and ready for pickup within a couple of days. Some smaller shops will do a special order from their supplier or vendor as well.

Below are some shops I’ve used or know of. Disclaimer: I’m sure I’ve overlooked some, including the small shop areas in ski touring center lodges.

Specialty shops in Hudson Valley (and beyond)

If you like skiing at Fahnestock or Minnewaska state parks, check out this one:

Below are some well-known specialty shops for touring and performance skis. A couple sell backcountry skis as well. They do online orders too, of course:

General outdoors stores with XC skis

The selection is best online at these two. Have them sent to a local store and avoid shipping costs:

Alpine ski shops that have some cross-country skis

I’m including these in case you live really close to one of them, but generally speaking they’re not worth a drive for their XC ski selection:

The ‘where’ is only one part of the question. Another part may be:

What skis should I buy?

The answer is: it depends. Cross-country skiing runs the gamut from the multi-day treks in the mountain wilderness to short races in city parks. Shops don’t always carry the type of skis or boots you’re looking for. Ordering online is tough if you don’t know what defines your need or purpose. You may need help deciding, or prioritizing costs and benefits.

COVID special conditions

The Coronavirus pandemic of 2020-2021 motivated a lot of outdoor recreational equipment purchases. Ski packages and XC equipment shortages were seen as early as August of 2020. Rentals became problematic due to health and safety concerns. So for the duration I’ve inserted this section.

NOTE: the advice in this section assumes you want to ski ‘classic’ style, or use the diagonal-stride technique. Skate skiing uses skis and boots of a different type than those described, and the poles are sized to a different length.

Boot fit drives it

  1. Find boots that fit. Figure out everything else based on that. XC ski boots should hold the foot closely up to the base of the toe area when worn with the appropriate weight of sock, and yet allow the foot and ankle to flex in a normal walking/running motion without noticeable pinching or rubbing. Under no circumstances should they be snug at the toes, and toe tips should never touch the front end. They should feel more like an athletic shoe than a hiking boot.
  2. Try to get boots for one of these systems: NNN (New Nordic Norm), Salomon Prolink, or Fischer-Rossignol IFP/Turnamic. Why? Boots made for those three are compatible with each other’s bindings. Not so for bootsoles based on NNN-BC, Salomon Pilot, Salomon X-Adventure, and others.

Most XC-skiing is on maintained trails

  1. Once you’ve managed to find a pair of boots, get skis that work with them. Beginner, intermediate, and athletic performance skis are made for use on groomed or maintained trail systems and flat to somewhat hilly terrain. This includes golf courses and most suburban or urban parks. NNN, Prolink, and Turnamic boots are designed for these types of skis.
  2. Get waxless skis. These will have a pattern of steps or scales on the sliding surface below the foot area to provide traction. Some skis may may have a patch of material that’s fuzzy or hairy instead.
  3. To get skis and poles, you can hunt different shops to find the pieces, as long as the skis have bindings to fit your boots. If you’ve been talked into buying boots that use a different binding system than the ones recommended above, better hope the shop has the skis and bindings to go with them.
  4. Get skis and bindings mounted by the shop, or skis that come premounted with compatible bindings. I’d advise against buying bindings separately and mounting DIY absent experience and craft skills. It’s about ‘measure twice and be precise’, lest the heel of the boot land a half-centimeter off the centerline of the ski.
  5. Poles are the least problematic item- they should fit snugly to the armpit when standing on the floor. For adults, this is usually from 130-150cm. Poles are usually fixed in length. If you can only find adjustable poles that’s OK as long as they adapt to the correct length for you.

Got the boots, can’t find skis

Skis used to be sized by height, but today are sized more by weight. If you can’t find the right size skis, then having boots of one the three preferred systems above means they are likely to fit rental skis if any touring centers are making rentals available.

Hunting older skis on Craigslist, Nextdoor, Freecycle or Facebook? That’s a tough one. Other than NNN, skis bought prior to about 2016 could have bindings that are incompatible with the recommended systems. Retrofitting new bindings on old skis may not be worth the trouble. See my post ‘Pins to pivots, and the nightmare of the ’90s‘ for a very long-winded description of the bad old days.

Let’s hope that you get your setup and COVID special advice becomes unnecessary. Below we resume recommendations for a more normal time.

Recommendation #1: as a beginner, set ‘go skiing’ as your first priority, not ‘buy skis’.

You and a person in a shop need to have an understanding about your needs and aspirations. After one or two ski outings you’ll have valuable experiential information for that discussion.

My first time on cross-country skis, I used rental equipment that was pretty… awful. Cheap leather shoes that had all the support of bowling shoes, and skis with a waxless pattern of half-moon depressions, each about the size of a silver dollar coin. Despite the equipment, the experience told me I wanted to do more.

Recommendation #2: rent different skis at multiple times and places.

Take lessons for the style of skiing you want to do. If you’re like me, you’ll gain more valuable information by doing than reading or talking. Try before you buy at least twice. And take a lesson along the way.

If you can articulate to someone the kinds of places you like/want to ski at, a realistic level of performance you aspire to, and the capability you have now, any reasonably good ski shop could tell you if they have something usable in their lineup.

I’ll have what they’re having

If you wind up being fortunate enough to fall in with a group of more experienced skiers doing the kind of skiing you like, you’ll probably buy skis your friends recommend, and that’s fine.

The same thing works with places you ski at. If you like skiing in a specific place because of the trail, terrain, and what you see other skiers doing, you can take equipment and clothing cues from them, or what you find in a ski shop serving that population.

In the absence of a commitment to something very specific like racing or adventuring, starting with general-purpose waxless touring skis matched to your weight, and boots that fit well is your best bet. If you want to go beyond the limits of that setup, buy more specialized equipment later.

Recommendation #3: Focus on the boots.

It can be harder to find a great-fitting pair of ski boots than to get the right skis, so when you decide what kind of skiing is really for you, fit the boots first. Once you have the boots, pick the skis and bindings to go with them.

What do you do with old skis and boots? Keep them as loaners or ‘rock skis’- they’ll be useful and usable for some time. Or put them up at a yard sale or ski swap, for someone else to start cross-country skiing on their own.

Moving up

If your skill exceeds the performance of your first set of skis, or you become interested in another type of skiing, you may start asking yourself the question: ‘do I need new equipment?’

What are some signs you’re approaching the point of decision? When there’s a specific issue you know is related to your equipment and not you.

Examples: If you see everyone stride up a gentle hill while you have to herringbone, that’s a sign. If your boots are a bit uncomfortable or squeak all the time, that’s a sign. If some people are doing a form of skiing that looks more fun but their skis are different, that’s a sign.

Accumulate signs over time, and you’re at a decision point where a wise and judicious purchase can make a positive difference.

Upgrading/replacing components

During the Covid pandemic season of 2020-21 the post I did on binding wars of the 1990s became the single most popular one on my blog. It turned out people were searching for information on 75mm three-pin bindings, which I surmise was due to an impulse to upgrade old or worn-out equipment. The post gives a general perspective, but here’s some specific advice about upgrading old boots:

75mm three-pin boots

Bad news time: while it’s possible to find new 75mm boots for backcountry and telemark skiing, there will be a lot of contingent drawbacks:

  • Modern 75mm three-pin boots are not made for skiing at a touring center, a park, or even places with horse or biking trails or easy hiking paths. They’re intended for backcountry or Telemark skiing.
  • Soles of the new boots may be thicker than your old bindings can accommodate, requiring replacement of the binding as well.
  • Not much demand for 75mm. I saw one sold-out model listed at Akers Ski shop in Maine, but most shops don’t even sell them.

Newer style boots, bought in the bad old days of the nineties and early aughts

Replacing boots is probably the best single update/upgrade. But it can be difficult even for someone who knows the equipment to keep track of all the different binding types over the decades. My advice is to take some good photos of the skis, boots, and bindings and use them when seeking advice or consult on buying boots.

Unfortunately, you may need to be prepared to replace both boots and bindings. That said, the most consistently backward-compatible binding system is NNN (New Nordic Norm). Most new light-touring boots will fit the older NNN bindings.

Why would I replace my skis?

It takes a lot to completely destroy a modern synthetic ski, so most people with old skis in the closet probably don’t feel they need to replace them. But there has been progress since the 70s and 80s in waxless patterns, and construction is now sized more by weight than height. You’ll find newer skis will be a bit shorter and therefore easier to maneuver.

By all means, keep some beater skis around for thin snow when you might hit bottom, but if an upgrade of boots drives getting new bindings, a complete ski package might be similar to buying boots and bindings separately, plus paying to have them mounted on the old skis.

The gear-monster rears its head

The more specific and dedicated your purpose in skiing cross-country, or the wider-ranging it becomes, the more money and decision-making will be expended.

If you want to do classic style skiing as well as skate, that will require two different sets of skis, poles, and boots. If you also do some kind of backcountry or adventure skiing, that’s a third and completely different set of equipment.

It’s perfectly conceivable that a cross-country skier who likes to do all forms of the sport in all conditions could wind up with a half-dozen different ski and boot setups. But most people focus on one or two styles of skiing, and need only one or two sets of skis, boots and poles.