To be truly happy in the sport, you have to find the right ski to suit your skill level and the terrain you enjoy skiing on. I always advise “newbies” to rent equipment the first few times. That gives you a chance to try different skis before you commit.
Basically there are 2 different techniques for X/C skiing, the classic diagonal stride is a forward gliding motion done with the skis parallel to each other. In X/C ski centers you will see sets of 2 parallel tracks groomed into the snow to guide the skis
when using this technique. A more advanced technique is called skating. This graceful technique is often seen in Olympic cross country. No set tracks are used and the motion is similar to ice skating. The skis are longer and narrower, and the poles used are also
Skis are not perfectly flat boards. All skis have some bowing, called camber. The center is called the kick zone, and has some mechanism, either a raised pattern called “fish-scales” or a gripping wax, to allow the ski to grip the snow. When you push off on
the weighted ski, this grip allows you to achieve forward motion. As your weight is shifted from one ski to the other, the camber lifts the center of the un-weighted ski off the snow slightly, allowing that ski to glide on the tip and tail. When you have both skis equally weighted you should have enough camber to lift both skis slightly for glide downhill. The skis must be correctly fitted to you and to the type of skiing you do to achieve both glide and control.
In general a longer ski will require more weight to press the kick zone into the snow. You will go faster and have more glide, but less grip to help you up a hill, and less control coming downhill. With too short a ski you sacrifice glide. The perfect ski for
you may be a matter of personal preference.
A Ski of the Right Size and Type
If you’ve read “Equipment Basics” you know that it is very important to get a ski of the right length for you. Years ago the salesman would ask you to hold an arm up straight over your head, and the ski that came from the floor up to your wrist was the
right size. And it didn’t matter if you weighed 120 lbs or 220. Not too scientific.
Today, a reputable salesman will compare your weight with a chart, but he should also ask you about your skill level and what kind of skiing you like to do. In general a longer ski will give you more speed, and a shorter ski more control, but there are other
factors to consider. From model to model and from manufacturer to manufacturer, different skis have different characteristics. If you ski entirely at X/C ski centers and like to rip down the hills, you might like a longer, narrower ski for speed. If you like
backcountry, off trail skiing, you’ll want a wider ski for floatation on powder and improved balance, shorter for maneuvering between obstacles like trees and with a more rigid camber to give you greater control.
Years ago ski lengths started around 180cm and increased by 5 cm to 215cm.That meant that a retailer had to stock many sizes of each model he carried – a huge investment in inventory. Sometime around 1990 the Fischer “Revolution” hit the market,
and what a revolution it was!
Today a few manufacturers still make skis in the traditional lengths, but most have switched to the “compact” design. Each model is offered in 3, occasionally 4 lengths, and weight range is the determining factor according to a chart for that model of ski. The ski has been redesigned to be a shorter ski offering the same performance as the traditional length skis, and less cumbersome. This works well for most people, but I have read that skiers weighing over 200lbs do not get a good glide
with the compact ski. Skis are also shaped, meaning that they are widest in the front, narrowest in the middle, and wider again at the back, but not as wide as the front. The shaping aids in turning the ski. The width, measured in millimeters, is often printed somewhere on the ski and will be a combination of numbers eg: 65-52-60. The ideal width for your ski depends on how you like to ski. The narrowest skis are generally those used for racing, but a wider ski provides a broader base for balance and performs better on uneven terrain.
If you like to ski on both groomed trails at X/C touring centers, and to do some light backcountry on ungroomed trails or through the woods, I recommend that you use skis no wider that 65 to 68 mm because most X/C centers in the US set their tracks to 70mm.
Scraping the edges of the track gives an unpleasant sensation , slows your speed and is no fun.
Boots and Bindings
Control in cross country skiing is mostly achieved by motions of the foot and ankle that must translate to the ski through the boot and binding. So if your boot is too soft or too big, or if the binding does not firmly hold your boot to the ski, efficiency is
wasted and you will not have good control.
Twenty some years ago, when I bought my first pair of skis, the binding was a little toe clip and the boots were low and soft as slippers. I had such problems with control I was afraid of going down even a little hill, and couldn’t turn at all. Many a day,
I wanted to just give up.
Today most skiers who ski on groomed trails or easy backcountry chose Salomo (also called SNS) or NNN bindings. These are similar in design and have proven their effectiveness. Both clamp onto a bar built into the boot about a half inch in back of the
front of the boot, and also have a supporting ridge which gives control along the length of the boot.
When choosing boots, be sure that your boots and bindings mate. The ideal X/C ski boot is first of all comfortable, comes up around your ankle for support, and has a rigid sole, again to translate the motion of your feet to the ski. You can test the sole by
holding your boot in 2 hands and try twisting the heel in one direction and the toe in the opposite direction. There should be little or no torque. Another test easily done is while wearing the boot and with the boot attached to the bindings and on the ski, have someone
firmly hold the ski (maybe by standing on it) and try to move your heel from side to side.
The binding should hold the boot firmly so that there is very little sideways motion.
Do not choose a skating boot if you ski with classic technique. The rigidity of the ankle support in the skating boot will inhibit your motion. If you want to buy equipment that will allow you to do both techniques, there are “combi” skis, boots and bindings.
You really should have your bindings mounted by a professional. You can do the job yourself but unless you have had instruction from a professional and you happen to have all the right tools handy--it can develop into a disaster in a hurry.
Waxable or Waxless
To wax or not to wax, that is the question. If you are a beginner looking to buy your first pair of skis, there is no question. Buy waxless!! Right now you need to focus on developing your balance and technique. Let your skis take care of themselves.
Generally the waxable ski is for the intermediate skier who is seeking increased performance and speed. Waxable skis have no “fish scales” on the middle 1/3 of their base, and instead use a “kick wax” to grip the snow. The type of wax you use depends on
the temperature of the snow, and in variable conditions such as one finds on the East Coast, one can need to scrape and re-wax several times in a few hours. Waxing is easiest in very cold dry conditions. As the temperature warms up, selecting the right wax can be really tricky. The right wax, used properly can give your skis much greater performance than waxless skis, but get it wrong and you can be in for a miserable experience.
When to Wax Your Waxless Skis
There are 2 times when you will want to apply “wax” to your waxless skis:
1, as routine maintenance to nourish and preserve the base, and
2, as an on-trail rescue technique to prevent “clumping” of snow under the ski.
Just as a coat of wax nourishes fine wood furniture, so too, a coat of glide wax (not kick wax), melted onto and buffed into the base of your skis at the tips and tails will nourish and preserve the base. (Please note that you must never use this wax on the fish
scales of waxless skis. You would not want to fill in the fish scales and make them ineffective.) This is called hot-waxing and most cross country centers can do this for you, or you can do it yourself.
The second technique is used when skiing on new snow in warm weather, conditions that cause the snow to pack down and stick to the bottoms of your skis, inhibiting your glide. You must first scrap all the snow off the ski base and wipe it dry.Then apply a liquid or a paste glide wax (a handy item to carry with you in your pack) and give it a few minutes to dry. You can apply this to the ski base along its entire length, including the fish scales, because it is very light and will not pack into the fish scale area. You’ll immediately notice the improved glide, but may need to repeat if you experience more clumping.