I agree with madmads about first learning classic as the traditional method. However, although classic looks simple and anyone can shuffle to get around, it does take a while to learn to do it well. Lessons would be a very good thing so you can get an idea of what to shoot for with respect to proper technique. Both classic and skating have stepwise techniques that can be used, and lesions will help you understand these. Here is an example of what to shoot for in classic.. http://gmvsxc.blogspot.com/2009/11/classic-technique-video.html If you look closely, you will see weight transfer, kick, balance, and glide.
Whether you buy used or new equipment, getting the correct stiffness will be important. If the skis are not stiff enough the wax pocket doesn't float above the snow when gliding and your glide suffers. Too stiff and you have to work harder to get the wax to bite into the snow, especially on the uphills. The same would be true for waxless skis. Here is a link to a good discussion of proper ski fit and flex. http://www.masterskier.com/article.asp?aid=125 Don't just go by length because even in the same ski model and length, stiffness will vary. Stiffness is also important for skating, but for different reasons than classic.
The decision whether to buy or rent should be made on your budget and intent. However, X-country equipment tends to have a longer life than DH, especially the skis, and you can count on having the same skis for a long time. I still use a pair of Epoke 900s that are now 30 years old from time to time. So if your intent is to do this for a while, buying skis and equipment makes good sense. Brands that I like include Fischer, Madshus, Rossi, and Atomic. I only use Solomon boots because they fit my feet.
Binding systems for Nordic varies with the boot manufacturer. If you buy used, make sure that the bindings on the ski works with the boots that you want. Solomon boots work with Solomon bindings, but not with the New Nordic Norm (NNN). Here is a link that discusses binding/boot stuff... http://www.mec.ca/AST/ContentPrimary/Learn/Snowsports/SkisBootsAndSkins/NordicSkiBootsBindingsAndPoles.jsp My suggestion is to find a boot that fits well first, and then go with the binding system that works for that boot. Poor fitting boots in Nordic is as much of a PITA as poor fitting boots in DH. Various manufacturers have a bias toward wider or narrower boot widths. If buying new, not at all a problem usually, as most binding systems work on any skis. If buying used, will have to pay attention to whether the binding works for your boot.
One potential reason to start with classic is from a fitness point of view. Classic skiing can be done slowly and in a way that doesn't push aerobic capacity, althougth you can get an excellent workout w/ classic. Skating, on the other hand, is much more aerobically demanding, and it is harder to stay in an aerobic zone, especially when climbing. The arm movements are bigger and the speed tends to be faster in skating.
As far as transferability of skills, most DH skiers skate from time to time, but do it wrong by keeping too centred and not getting over the glide ski enough, so you might have learned poor technique for transferring to skating. This is a fixable problem if aware. Turns for classic and skating include step turning, which generally is not done in DH. You will probably do some snowplowing and hockey stops in both classic and skating, which will also be transferable from DH.
Nordic skiing is something that I find very satisfying. I live 5 minutes from a Nordic centre and ski 30 to 40 times per year (when I’m not DH skiing). Night skiing is especially satisfying at the end of a long day at work. I believe that Nordic skiing provides great cross training that enhance DH skills.
Edited by canadianskier - 9/17/11 at 7:16am