Nordic VS Cross-Country Skiing: Is there a Difference?

If you used to consider Nordic skiing and cross-country skiing as the same sport, you are not alone. Most of the newbies often use these two terms as if they have the same meaning. Well, guess what – in a way they do, and in a way they do not! Confusing, right? Nordic and cross-country skiing may mean totally different things depending upon where you are skiing.

Nordic Skiing vs Cross Country – What’s the Difference?

Nordic skiing could be any style of skiing that is done on ungroomed terrain, off the trails, and on mountains that are less steep, that is, primarily on snowfields. Cross-country skiing, on the contrary, is done on groomed terrain containing parallel grooves that act as your skiing guides on the snow, eg, skate skiing, and classic stride, etc.

A Look Back on History

The evolution of skiing as a recreational and competitive sport is quite interesting. What started almost 5 thousand years ago as a means of transportation has now turned into a sport that drives thousands of people towards the snow.

The Scandinavians were the first to use boards tied with their feet as a means of transportation while they travel from one snowy terrain to the other. As time passed, ski poles were introduced to make the travel faster. In the early 1500s, long single ski poles were used in Finland to make the travel safer and quicker. Every century added its own tweak to this nordic skiing, including the Middle Age era that fine-tuned it. Five centuries later, this resulted in the most refined version of nordic skiing we have today.

What was once a necessity, soon started attracting people for recreational purposes. By the 1800s, nordic skiing was no longer just a means of transportation. In the Telemark region of Norway, Sondre Norheim presented the world with the first ski bindings.

In the year 1842, the first-ever skiing race took place. Nordic skiing was no longer a travel and recreational activity anymore. It was now a competitive sport! With its inclusion in the Olympics, different definitions and guidelines started to shape up skiing.

In the 1930s, classic downhill skiing and nordic skiing were defined and differentiated on the basis of their ski bindings. What we have today is a more evolved version of nordic skiing, as nordic skiing has now been subdivided into different divisions as new and improved styles of nordic skiing started to emerge. These include Cross-country skiing (commonly abbreviated as XC skiing), Telemark (named after the Telemark region of Norway from where it originated), and Alpine touring.

Since all these types of nordic skiing belong to the same family, people and especially skiers often use these terms interchangeably. But that does not mean they are technically right! Cross-country skiing is a form of nordic skiing, rather a variation of it, whereas the nordic skiing covers a couple of other disciplines under its umbrella. If this confuses you, you are not alone. The confusing nature of these terms and how interchangeably they are used is an age-old problem. You may find may experts confusing these terms and as a result, many skiing beginners feel perplexed, to say the least. And if this is not confusing enough, let me tell you another important fact: these terminologies have a different meaning depending upon which region you are skiing in!

Before you start banging your head on the skis, let us have a much evolved (and a rather clear) definition of these two genres of skiing. Cross-country skiing is a type of nordic skiing which is considered as the most popular one, and many beginners try XC skiing before venturing out to other skiing types. The cross-country skiing takes place on well-maintained tracks that have a premade and parallel snow grooves. These grooves guide you as you ski down the hill.

Nordic Skiing

Nordic skiing touring is a style of skiing that is done off the trail and primarily on nordic terrain. Nordic terrain refers to the snowy mountains that are not very steep – more like snowfields. Nordic skiing has a free-heel binding system, and the skis are comparatively lighter and narrower. But since nordic skiing has different variations, the equipment for those variations of skiing may slightly differ from each other.

Today, nordic skiing is not limited to skiing in the nordic slopes or the eight countries covering the Alps. Different regions of the world offer this fine art of skiing and teach you the science behind skiing. It is no longer a pair of wooden boards tied to the feet. Skies now are manufactured with a proper engineering science keeping in mind the skier’s weight and the terrain they are intended to ski on.

Distinctions in Nordic Skiing

As mentioned above, the umbrella of nordic skiing covers many different sub-types of skiing. If you are new to skiing, you may get perplexed by all the divisions and subdivisions of nordic skiing.

But if you have a deeper look, all the distinctions in nordic skiing actually overlap each other. The main intension is the same – to have as much fun skiing on the snowy terrain as possible. Not to mention you may end up strengthening your muscles and burning calories when your body undergoes a cardio routine.

The 3 main styles of Nordic skiing are:

  • Cross-country skiing
  • Telemark skiing
  • Alpine touring

Cross-Country Skiing

The cross-country skiing is a form of Nordic skiing, but within XC skiing, there are some sub-categories as well, namely:

  • Classic cross-country
  • Skate skiing
  • Light touring

The cross-country skiing is a very versatile form of skiing where you can enjoy the groomed terrain as well as the ungroomed one. This ability to ski on the track and then having the flexibility of going off-the-track attracts many skiers. However, do not go overboard with these as different sub-categories may require different skiing equipment.

If you plan to go for cross country skiing, do not get overwhelmed by all the ski gear. Instead, pick a category of cross country skiing (that are mentioned below) and check out the ski gear you need. Many sub categories involve the same ski gear with some sort of modifications.

For example, scales under the ski may help in some skiing styles, while others may not require them at all. The same goes for binding systems and heel-locking mechanisms. Every skiing style is specific to a certain terrain and some are versatile to be done in other terrains. However, make sure you are properly equipped with the right skis when trying out new terrain.

If you ask a professional skier about what skiing style and equipment you should go for as a beginner, chances are he/ she would suggest you start with cross country skiing, and specifically classic cross country skiing. Thought you can start with other styles as well, the XC skiing is considered as a good starting point for beginners from where they can master their basic skiing skills and venture out to try other kinds of skiing. After all, the sky is the limit – even in skiing.

Let us take a look at the three important skiing categories and even their sub-divisions:

Classic Cross-Country Skiing

The classic cross-country skiing is one of the most popular forms of skiing, primarily because it is the easiest to learn if you are a beginner. It takes place on groomed tracks so you can enjoy sliding without having to exert a lot of energy.

A classic cross-country skier generally slides one foot forward followed by the second foot, alternately using the ski pole. The skier moves his/ her arms diagonally as compared to the foot movement – just like what you normally do when you are walking. This rhythmic movement is known as a diagonal stride.

The best part about the classic cross-country is that you can control the speed as well as your calorie burnout rate. If you speed up, the classic cross-country skiing can be an excellent form of cardio. If you prefer gliding slowly, you can enjoy a relatively less intense skiing experience. Just like you have the control to switch between walking and running, the classic cross-country skiing gives you the control of choosing any pace you want. This feature is especially great for beginners who are not too confident to speed up on snowy tracks.

The skis used in the classic skiing are light in weight, relatively narrower as well as stiffer. In order to prevent slipping, they have underside scales that help you move forward.

Skate Skiing

Since this type of cross-country skiing is quite similar to ice skating technique, it is given the name skate skiing. Here, you push your ski in a diagonal manner to push yourself forward. Had it been ice skating, you would have gone forward at a fast pace, but with skate skiing, it is a bit different as you won’t have a free-flowing momentum on ice while doing skate skiing. You need to use lateral movements while shifting your body weight in order to move forward.

Skate skiing works best on compact snow that is super hard. For this reason, you cannot do it on ungroomed terrain. Special wide tracks are created and maintained for skate skiing. Equipment-wise, skate skiing is a lot similar to the equipment used in classic skiing. However, the skis are generally shorter and do not have the scales on the underside.

Light Touring

The light touring is more like an extension of classic skiing that is more adventurous as it takes the skiers to ungroomed off-piste terrain. If you have tried classic XC and want to go one step farther, going for light touring can be a great idea.

The light touring skis have free-heel bindings, just like classic ones, but the difference occurs in shape as these skies are relatively wider. Their wide shape gives the skier some additional support for gliding on the ungroomed territory.

The best part about the classic cross country ski equipment used in light touring is that it is generally designed to be flexible enough to adapt both off-piste terrains as well as maintained tracks. Since the skis are versatile, it is therefore advised that skiers who go for light touring should stick to snowy parks and not extreme wild terrain when they are going off-piste.

Telemark Skiing

The Telemark skiing is named after what is considered the birthplace of the skiing sport. The Telemark region of Norway is famous for being the hometown of the world-renown skiing expert Sondre Norheim. Though he skied in the 1800s (more precisely around 1868), he is considered as the pioneer of modern skiing. Sondre experimented with the skiing and binding structure and was the one who introduced ski’s side cuts and heel bindings. You can see his statue in the Norwegian Ski Museum situated in Morgedal.

Telemark Skiing

In this type of skiing technique, the skier combines Nordic skiing with elements of alpine/ downhill skiing, where the skiers can explore ungroomed backcountry terrain and climb uphill along with skiing downhill.

For this reason, the Telemark skiers need a piece of stronger and more rigid skiing equipment – something similar to skiers for normal downhill skiing. The stronger and firmer skis ensure that the skiers can easily navigate uphill as well as downhill, with a boot and binding system that gives the skiers free heel movement.

Alpine Touring

Alpine touring (abbreviated as AT) gives you the flexibility of touring some of the most picturesque backcountry terrains, and for this reason, it is quite famous among mountaineers.

In a way, the alpine touring skis are functionally similar to the Telemark skis. Both these types of skis are designed to go on ungroomed backcountry terrain as well as cover steeper downhill slopes. Like Telemark skis, the alpine touring skis are harder and stronger than cross-country skis – but the feature that makes them different is the heel system.

Technically, Alpine touring skis have a free heel binding system when you go uphill and lets you lock your heels while you go downhill. This makes them quite similar to the traditional downhill skis while considering their ski designs.

It is a common misconception among beginners that AT is only for advanced level skiers. In fact, alpine touring does not indicate a difficulty level – it is for all the skiers who have a certain energy level and the willingness to try out varying terrain. If you are passionate about walking in the snow, enjoying solitude in remote snowy locations, exploring untouched powdered snow, and doing cardio – alpine touring can be your thing.


Now you know why people often interchange (and sometimes misunderstand) the terms for Nordic skiing and cross-country skiing. Although they may have some similarities as cross country skiing comes under the umbrella of Nordic skiing, yet you may notice that there are many factors that differentiate the two.

If you have not tried both of them, it is better to start with cross-country skiing as a beginner. Most of the new skiers find cross country skiing more welcoming as it uses your basic body mechanics to help you ski. Once you master your cross country skiing (primarily classic cross country), you can then move on to explore different types of cross country skiing or Nordic skiing.

However, you will notice that the skiers use these two terms (Nordic skiing and cross country skiing) quite different in the Alps (that touches eight alpine countries) as compared to in France. French may use the term “Ski Nordique” which means Nordic Skiing for skiing in areas considered as the Nordic areas – where the terrain is not steep.

No matter which part of the world you are and plan to ski in, one thing is for sure. Whether you plan to try out cross country skiing for the first time as a beginner or want to explore different variants of Nordic Skiing – with the right equipment, skills, and enthusiasm, you can have a lot of fun on the snow-covered terrain. So, what are you waiting for?