How to Shop a Ski Swap

Whether you’re new to Nordic skiing or an experienced pro, you want to shop any ski swap prepared. Take our advice. Read our pro tips and general gear guide to get your Nordic ski adventures started on the right track.

Table of Contents

  1. Know Your Stats
  2. Do You Skate or Classic Ski?
  3. Difference Between Ski Types
  4. Nordic Bindings - What Should I Buy?
  5. Nordic Boots - What Should I Buy?
  6. Buying Nordic Ski Poles
  7. Nordic Specs You Should Care About

Know Your Stats

Nordic skis are sized by height and weight (mostly weight). Ski boots may be difficult to buy without the right feet trying them on, so if you’re shopping for another person, these details are important to ascertain beforehand. Unlike regular stores, ski swaps are buyers keepers. Come prepared knowing your:

  • shoe size (in US and European)
  • height
  • weight
  • type of activity you want to pursue
  • your budget

Expect to find great deals on quality new gear and used, I-don’t-care-if-I-break-these ski packages. It’s possible to find a used starting-level package (skis, boots and poles) for $100 at a ski swap. But it helps if you know what you’re looking for.

Do You Skate or Classic Ski?

Classic skiing is when both skis kick-and-glide parallel to each other in groomed tracks or on moderate terrain. The motion is akin to walking and/or running.

Skate skiing uses a v-shaped, herring-bone technique with the ski tips angling away from each other, sort of like ice-skating. Skate skiing is done on groomed trails or, if you’re very lucky, a freshly frozen field.

Difference Between Ski Types

Classic skis are longer and may or may not have metal edges. They perform best in groomed tracks. The base of the ski may be waxless (fish scales or skins) or waxable (skier adds hard wax or klister). The old way of measuring classic skis was to raise an arm and measure to the wrist. Today, classic skis are measured by the skier’s weight and height, using a flex number to determine the right stiffness (see below for more about flex). Used skis become less stiff over time, losing some flex, so take this into account when shopping a ski swap.

  • Pro Ski Swap Tip – Where do you want to explore? If you’re looking for a workout in the tracks at the Nordic center, opt for a newer, more expensive pair of classic skis. If you want to walk your dog in the woods, go old school. Be aware: all skis need good base waxing for proper striding. Finding boots and bindings that are compatible is extremely important (more on compatibility below).

Waxable, skins or fishscales

Base of three different classic skis.

Skate skis are narrow, lightweight and designed for speed. They are stiffer and shorter than classic skis and length is important: Too long and you won’t be able to lift the tips and your tails might click between strides. Too short and there may not be enough camber (arch under foot) to propel you forward. Skate skis are measured by the skier’s weight primarily, using a flex number to determine the right stiffness (see below for more about flex). Used skis become less stiff over time, losing some flex, so take this into account when shopping a ski swap.

  • Pro Ski Swap Tip – Hold a pair of skate skis base to base. If you can squeeze the bases together until they touch (truly touch or very close), the ski has lost its flex. Look for a different pair. Or know you’ll get very little spring out of this ski, meaning you’ll be doing - literally - all the work.

Touring skis are wide, metal-edged skis with fishscales. Flex is softer than classic and skate skis (but not flimsy). You must weigh enough to compress the fish scales to the snow with each stride to gain traction. Narrower touring skis may fit into groomed tracks while wider touring skis are primarily used for off-track exploration.

  • Pro Ski Swap Tip – If you plan to tour through meadows with few ups and downs, opt for a narrower touring ski. These offer better forward tracking and are often paired with a SNS-BC or NNN-BC (BC=backcountry) bar binding for easier boot flex. Additionally, a narrow metal-edged fishscale ski may still ski in groomed tracks, but it’s a tight fit. If you plan to mainly ski ups and downs in the backcountry, look for a wider touring ski with three-pin bindings, which offer better downhill control but stiffer boot flex on the flats.

Telemark skis are the widest and heaviest style of cross-country skis. These days they look a lot like downhill skis and offer access to nearly every ounce of winter terrain. Around-the-heel bindings and plastic boots add stability in steeper, deeper backcountry skiing. While 3-pin bindings and duckbill boots offer easier boot flex but less downhill stability. Telemark is the original Nordic style, so we still claim it as our own.

  • Pro Ski Swap Tip – If you’re reading this and just got so incredibly stoked about crushing pow, you may be a downhill skier. Just remember, there’s no better winter cardio training than Nordic skiing! Go back three paragraphs.

Backcountry or AT skis and splitboards are downhill skis and snowboards with specilialized bindings that allow for uphill travel as well. Because Tahoe XC supports all things human-powered, you may find some AT gear or splitboards at our ski swap. But we focus first and foremost on Nordic skiing, so we won’t spend too much here. We suggest calling the avid backcountry skiers at Alpenglow Sports if steep, alpine terrain is your passion.

Nordic Bindings - What Should I Buy?

At a ski swap, you’re most likely going to find skis with bindings already mounted, making the matching game a little more fun.

  • Pro Ski Swap Tip - If you already own boots or skis, make sure your cross-country boots and bindings are compatible. If you have part of your set up already, bring that ski, binding or boot (mark with tape that it’s already yours) and test it against any gear you want to buy. Ask ski swap staff or a volunteer if the system you have and the system you’re interested in are compatible.

New Nordic Norm (NNN)

New Nordic Norm (NNN) bindings have been used by the majority of Nordic companies like Fischer, Rossignol, Madshus, Alpina and others for years. With the recent addition of Prolink soles, some Salomon boots, which previously were only been compatible with SNS bindings, are now compatible with NNN bindings. This opens up a whole new world for Nordic ski quivers.

NNN bindings have two raised ridges running the length of the binding and accept one metal bar at the toe piece. Only compatible with NNN boots.

NNN-BC bindings (BC stands for backcountry) have two raised ridges down their length; accept a wider, thicker toe bar for more stability; and are best paired with a classic touring ski package. Only compatible with NNN-BC boots.

Nordic Integrated System (NIS) and IFP bindings are a newer technology that allow skiers to adjust their bindings to a forward or backward mount right at the trailhead. They are super lightweight and require a special mounting plate on skis. They are compatible with NNN boots.

Salomon Nordic System (SNS)

For years Salomon has stood strong behind its namesake SNS system. Salomon Nordic boots often have a universally comfortable fit, which pigeon-holes Salomon boot-buyers into the SNS binding system. In 2017, Salomon introduced their well-loved boot design with the Prolink binding system, which is now compatible with the NNN system that most other cross-country ski companies have been using for years.

SNS Profil bindings have one center ridge and accept one bar at the toe. This is the most prevalent of Salomon’s bindings. Only compatible with SNS Profil boots.

SNS Pilot bindings have one ridge down the middle and accept two bars, one at the toe and the other under the midsole. This system is preferred by more competitive Nordic skiers for the tail control of the ski. Only compatible with SNS Pilot boots.

SNS BC-X Adventure bindings (BC stands for backcountry) are wider, more robust and best paired with a classic touring ski package. Only compatible with SNS BC-X Adventure boots.

SNS Pilot Bindings

SNS Salmon Nordic System Pilot Bindings

Nordic Norm, 75mm or 3-Pin

Nordic Norm, 75mm or 3-Pin bindings have three pins on a metal plate that correspond to three holes under the toe of a duck-billed or three-pin boot. A metal bar clamps overtop the duck-bill boot to secure the mid-sole to the skis. Only compatible with 3-pin boots.

  • Pro Ski Swap Tip - Follow your feet. Choose a comfortable boot and then choose the bindings. Comfort is more important than binding type and until you’re a competative Nordic skier, you may not notice the differences in binding performance.

3-pin or 75mm Bindings

3-pin or 75mm bindings mounted on ski

Nordic Boots - Which Should I Buy?

Comfortable Nordic boots are essential to enjoying your Nordic ski experience. Unlike downhill skiing, there should be little to no pain. Here’s how to fit your boots:

  • Always try on both the left and right boot before you buy them.
  • Wear the same socks you would ski in (thick or thin makes a difference).
  • Secure all lacing snugly, connect all straps and clips before assessing if your heal lifts (you want no more than 1/8” of movement in the heal).
  • Toes should be close to the end but not touching (no more than 1/2 inch).
  • Flex your toes, do lunges, mimic the motions of skiing.
  • You want your boots to feel snug yet comfortable, like a good pair of hiking boots.
  • Remember, the happier your feet, the longer you’re likely to enjoy the ski!

Classic boots are typically lower cut, stopping at your ankle bone. This allows greater mobility but offers less ankle support when skiing outside of tracks. Classic boots have a softer sole that allows proper flex at the metatarsal. If you intend to only ski in groomed Nordic tracks, classic only boots are a good option.

  • Pro Ski Swap Tip - What color are they? The age of Nordic equipment can also be assessed by their color. Neon pinks, purples and greens are a sure sign of the ’80s. Primary yellows, reds, and blues? Could be the 90s. These yellow Salomon classic boots may be lingering on from the late 90s, but they still work. Do a quick internet search to see what colors have been trending in the last 2-5 years.

SNS classic boots

Yellow SNS Salomon classic ski boots

Skate boots have stiff ankle cuffs that wraps over the ankle. This cuff provides lateral support and is a critical component to skate boots. Skate boots have a stiff sole plate that assist in power transfer during each stride. If you plan to skate ski only, purchase a comfortable, supportive, skate-specific boot to greatly enhance your experience (and your skill level).

SNS Skate boot, pilot system

SNS Salomon skate ski boots

Combi boots, or combination boots, are an excellent choice for beginner to advanced skiers who aren’t sure which type of Nordic skiing they’ll like best. Or for those who do not want to invest in 2 sets of Nordic boots. Combi boots are classic and skate ski boots in one. They feature an over-the-ankle cuff that is stiff enough to provide lateral ankle support but not too stiff that it restricts forward flex, as well as a stiff yet flexible sole. Combi boots do both types of skiing well, but they do not excel at either.

Note the color… Baby blue hasn’t hit the scene in about 20 years, but these sure are comfortable.

SNS combi boots

SNS Salomon combi boots with pilot system

Buying Nordic Ski Poles

Poles are the easiest part of the Nordic puzzle. Buying the right length can make a huge difference in your enjoyment and performance. Nordic ski poles run the gamut from aluminum, which are heavier and more durable (when you fall on these, they bend but likely won’t break) that retail for as low as $40 a pair, to glass fiber or carbon fiber poles, which are lighter and high performance (but fall on these and snap!) that retail for up to $300 and beyond. Composite poles (a mix of aluminum and carbon) perform extremely well and are a touch harder to break.

The difference between skate and classic poles is not in the quality of the shaft but rather the length, basket size, and grip type. Ski swaps are great places to find decent Nordic ski poles.

Classic ski poles should measure tightly under your armpit.

Skate ski poles should measure to just above your upper lip.

Touring/Snowshoeing poles should support your elbow at a 90-degree angle when holding the grip. The powder basket is often larger than skate and classic poles but not as large as downhill ski pole baskets.

  • Pro Ski Swap Tip – Good grips and wrist straps are Nordic pole game changers. Single-loop straps are good for easily taking poles on and off, or for slower moving activities like meadow tromping or snowshoeing. Velcro, zip, and snap-on straps that wrap around your hand like a glove typically offer better performance and are optimal for skiers seeking speed and a workout.

Nordic Specs You Should Care About

Sidecut is the width difference between the tip, waist and tail of a ski. Nordic skis have minimal sidecut because they are not designed to carve downhill turns. If you are shopping for telemark and backcountry touring skis, the more visible the sidecut, the easier downhill turning will be. The straighter the ski, the better tracking (forward drive) it will have.

Camber is the underfoot arch that lifts the center of the ski off the snow. When weight is applied, the camber compresses and acts like a spring to provide forward momentum. Over time, skis wear out and the camber softens.

Flex is the length and stiffness of the camber. Classic and skate skis differ greatly in their length and stiffness of flex depending on the skier’s weight, height and ability. Most companies offer guidance charts and/or print the flex number for that individual pair of skis on the ski itself. Some shops have machines that will test the flex of any ski, which is especially useful for assesing used skis.

Visit our Nordic & Backcountry Ski Swap page for dates and more details.

  • Pro Ski Swap Tip - Before going to your local ski swap, research your flex number using an online flex chart, if you are shopping for new or barely used gear. Note that flex numbers come in ranges and may differ between ski companies. Additionally, it is safe to assume that used skis have softened over time and with use, which means their true flex is likely softer than what the ski says.