Nordic Skiing in Park City

Classic vs. Skating: What’s the Difference? 

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Imagine walking into the White Pine Touring center to rent gear or take a lesson. The first question you will likely be asked is, “Do you want to try classic or skate?” Or, you are looking at the groomed trails and see two narrow tracks near the edge with a wide-open space next to it. This sure doesn’t look like the alpine slope you skied yesterday! This post will explain what you’re seeing, compare classic and skating Nordic techniques, and give you some pointers to help you decide which style is right for you.

Classic Skiing: Where It All Began

The classic technique is generally considered to be the root of Nordic skiing, with ancient examples found throughout Scandinavia and parts of Asia. The basic classic motion closely mimics walking, and as an instructor, I tell my students, “If you can walk, you can classic ski.” You may not win a World Cup race on your first outing, but you should be able to work your way around the course with reasonable confidence.


Classic skiing employs the “diagonal stride” technique, which is a fancy way of saying that you ski like you walk, with your right arm swinging forward as your left leg steps back, and vice versa. The ski stays flat on the snow and pointed straight ahead the entire time, guided by the track. Initially, you will just shuffle along, but as you improve, you will be able to glide a bit on your skis with each stride. Once you get the rhythm, it’s super smooth and graceful.

Classic skiing is a lot like walking, skis stay straight as your feet move back and forth.
Classic skis stay flat on the snow and point straight, guided by the track.

Skate skiing incorporates a lateral push-off technique, like rollerblading or ice skating with hockey skates. You propel yourself forward by exerting force on one ski, pushing the inside edge into the snow while gliding on the other. Your ski tips are pointed outward, and from above, your tracks will look like a series of the letter V. Your arms swing back and forth together, so you always push off with both poles simultaneously. This is a powerful, dynamic, and fast technique.

Skate skiing is more like rollerbladiing or ice skating, your feet are pushing off the snow at an angle.
Skate skis push off the snow forming a V shape as you ski.


My students frequently ask me, “What equipment crosses over between classic and skating?” My usual sarcastic answer is, “Your underwear.”  Everything else is specific to the technique.


SkisRelatively longer, the tip comes to wrist or palm of skier’s upraised arm*

3 base zones: Front glide zone, Grip or kick zone underfoot, Rear glide zone

Relatively shorter, tip comes to elbow or mid-forearm of skier’s upraised arm*

1 base zone: Glide zone only from tip to tail

BindingsMore upright accommodates the heel lift needed for classic skiingFlatter and lower profile, helps with more direct transfer of power from the boot to ski
BootsSofter, more flexible, lower cuffStiffer, higher cuff, lots of lateral support
PolesRelatively shorter, up to the skier’s armpit or ball of the shoulder joint

FIS rule:  Max length = 83% of skier’s height

Relatively longer, up to the skier’s upper lip or nose
FIS rule:  Max length = 89% of skier’s height

The most significant gear difference is that classic skis have a grip or kick zone under your foot. This is what allows you to move forward when you put weight onto one ski. There are many ways to achieve this, including applying a special sticky wax called kick wax, a fish scale pattern molded into the ski base, or a skin that grips in one direction and slides in the opposite. Without one of these features, you would simply flail around and go nowhere on your classic skis!

Skate skis lack this grip section underfoot, and the base is one continuous glide zone from tip to tail. This is why you can’t use classic technique on a skate ski.

Trails and Grooming

Remember, the roots of the sport grew out of classic technique. Early classic trails were just two tracks through the woods, often made by the skiers themselves.

With the advent of modern grooming and equipment, typical Nordic trails in Park City will look something like this: classic lanes near one or both edges and a wide area of corduroy in between for skating. This allows both techniques to be used on the same trail, and skaters and classic skiers can be together on the same outing.

Intensity and Effort

Like walking and running, classic skiing intensity can be anywhere from a stroll, to a jog, and to an all-out sprint. If you’re just learning, and trying to stand and glide without falling, it’s sometimes nice not to be sucking for air at the same time. I frequently suggest that my beginner students start with classic skiing.

Unless you are a skilled skate skier with efficient technique, there generally is no relaxing or “taking it easy” in this technique. You’ll be medium-to-full gas the entire time you are on skis. So, if you’re a beginner or a sea-level dweller, consider this as you choose between techniques. But, if you are a fit athlete like a biker or runner, you may really enjoy the feeling of gliding fast up and down the hills. Give it a try!

Classic skiing or skate skiing are both wonderful ways to stay active and enjoy the winter outdoors.
Nordic skiing offers a wonderful way to enjoy winter’s beauty and maintain an active lifestyle.

Try for Yourself!

Nordic skiing, whether classic or skate, offers an exceptional way to enjoy winter’s beauty and maintain an active lifestyle. Classic skiing presents an authentic and graceful experience, making it an excellent choice for beginners and those seeking a more relaxed pace. In contrast, skate skiing delivers a dynamic and vigorous workout that can be immensely exhilarating for those pursuing a more intense physical challenge.

Ultimately, the choice between classic and skate skiing is up to you, based on your preferences, fitness level, and long-term goals. Like many Nordic skiers, I use both styles, depending on my mood, the technique of the next race, or where I think the good grooming will be.

You can’t go wrong with either, and you’ll be joining a fun, healthy, and lifelong sport. See you on the trails!

By Ted Palomaki, Nordic Ski Instructor, White Pine Touring & Contributing Writer,

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