All About Classic Skis – Cross Country Ski Technique

All About Classic Skis

There are 3 parts to this article:

  1. Quick Facts About Classic Skis
  2. How to Find Your Wax Pocket
  3. Waxable vs Waxless Classic Skis

1. Quick Facts About Classic Skis

  • Classic skis come in two varieties: waxable and waxless.
  • Waxable skis need 2 kinds of wax: kick or grip wax and glide wax.
  • Waxless skis don’t need kick wax, but they do need glide wax.
  • On well groomed trails, wide heavy skis are more difficult to handle than lighter, skinny skis. The opposite is true in ungroomed snow.
  • Avoid skis that have more than one groove in the base. It might not affect the speed of the ski, but it makes it more difficult to apply glide wax.
  • Metal edges are unnecessary for skiing on groomed trails and add unwanted weight.
  • Long skis are not necessarily faster than short skis.
  • Stiff skis are not necessarily faster than soft skis.
  • The speed of a ski depends on many factors and changes with snow conditions. Racers have multiple pairs of skis so they can choose the fastest pair for the conditions on race day.
  • Regular skiers can own 1 nice pair of skis that performs well in a broad range of conditions.
  • Classic skis are fit to the skier’s weight and height. Of the two factors, weight is most important.
  • Classic skis are flexed. The flex is called the camber. If you hold the skis together with their bases touching, you can see the gap between the skis. If you squeeze the gap, you can feel the skis’ stiffness.
  • If the camber is too stiff for the skier’s weight, he won’t be able to push his wax pocket against the snow and will constantly slip. He’ll be frustrated and unhappy.
  • If the camber is too soft for the skier, he’ll “bottom out”. His kick zone will rub against the snow too much, which will slow down his glide. He’ll be frustrated and unhappy.
  • “Combi” skis are supposed to work for both skate and classic skiing. In reality, they won’t be good for either. We do not recommend buying combi skis.
  • You should buy cross-country skis from a professional who knows how to properly fit skis. These people work at your local Nordic Ski Shop. Here’s an excellent explanation of how classic skis are fit:

2. How to Find Your Kick Zone/Wax Pocket

What is a Wax Pocket?

The wax pocket is the section of a classic ski base where you apply kick, or grip wax. It’s also called a kick zone.

Roughly speaking, it extends from under your heel forward about 50 cm towards the tip of your ski. It’s boundaries depend on your weight and skiing style. You’ll want to know the exact edges of your wax pocket so you know where to apply kick wax.

How to Find the Edges of Your Kick Zone or Wax Pocket

The person who sizes your classic skis can give you a good estimate of where you should apply kick wax but he won’t be able to tell you the exact edges of your wax pocket. That’s something you have to figure out yourself, on snow.

Here’s what you do:

  1. Apply kick wax beyond where you think your wax pocket starts and ends. Apply the wax behind your heel and well in front of the toe of your boot (maybe 20 cm). If the store tentatively marked your wax pocket for you, apply kick wax about 5 cm beyond those marks.
  2. Go for a long ski (~ 1.5 h). The kick wax will rub off your glide zones faster than it wears off your true wax pocket. Where you see kick wax left on your ski is your wax pocket.
  3. Use an indelible marker and clearly mark your sidewalls where the your wax pocket starts and ends.
  4. If your body weight changes significantly, you may have to re-measure and re-mark your wax pocket.
  5. Klister and warm temperature waxes are thicker than cold temperature waxes. This means you need to wax about 3-5 cm shorter on each side of your wax pocket. (If you’re serious, you can always repeat the test with klister and have klister marks on your sidewalls as well.)

3. Waxable vs Waxless Skis: The Toughest Decision You’ll Ever Make

That headline is a joke.

We hate to see people get anxious about waxable versus waxless skis, so we wanted to begin with a reminder that, in the big picture, this isn’t something to worry too much about.

The reason people get so confused over this choice is because it’s actually a 2-part question:

1. Should you buy waxable or waxless skis?

2. If “yes” to waxless, which kind should you get?

It’s the second question that causes all the problems.

If you decide yes, you want waxless skis, you’ll discover there are many choices. By the time you’ve researched the pros and cons of each, you might circle back to the first question and wonder if you made a good decision.

Let’s try to prevent that from happening.

First Question: Should You Buy Waxable or Waxless Skis?

First, let’s clear up a major point of confusion: all but the cheapest “waxless” skis still must be glide waxed (at least a few times per year). You can have performance without waxing, but you have to pay the shop to glide wax for you.

In general, people who are serious about cross-country skiing ski on waxable skis. That’s because kick wax almost always gives superior performance over the various grip materials used on waxless skis.

The superior performance comes from the fact kick waxes are almost infinitely adjustable. There’s a wide range of waxes, even within one brand, and you can select different kick wax for different conditions.

You can fine tune both the grip and glide characteristics of your kick wax. For example, you can layer and lengthen your wax application to adjust your kick and glide.

This sounds more complicated than it is. It doesn’t take long to figure out which waxes work well in your area. It can be really useful to make these sorts of adjustments and using kick wax almost always results in skis that are faster than waxless skis.

Problems with Waxable Skis

It’s not all rainbows and unicorns with waxable skis. There are some drawbacks to kick wax:

  1. Added cost for buying waxing tools and a selection of kick waxes
  2. The time it takes to apply and remove grip wax
  3. It can feel overwhelming to teach yourself about waxing, especially when you’re new to cross country skiing and have so many other things to learn
  4. Changing conditions (it starts snowing part way through your ski, the temperature changes dramatically, etc)
  5. Tough-to-wax conditions

The first 3 of these problems can be overcome in “baby steps”. Yes, you have to climb the learning curve, but there won’t be any big failures. Many people have learned to be proficient with wax and so can you.

The fourth problem is a nuisance. Sometimes you have to stop along the trail, scrape your wax and reapply a new wax. No one likes that.

But it’s the fifth and final problem: “tough-to-wax” conditions, that really drives demand for waxless skis.

Tough Waxing Conditions

Broadly speaking there are two kinds of conditions people hate for waxing: warm temperatures, and/or fresh snow.

The first, warm temperatures, is not really a problem if you don’t mind klister. Klister, like kick wax, is applied to the kick zone. It’s a sticky goo that oozes out of a tube. People hate klister because it makes a mess of their hands, clothing and car.

The good thing is that it’s pretty easy to get great grip and glide with klister. If you can just get someone else to apply it for you…

The really tough problem for wax technicians is fresh snow, at near zero degrees Celcius. These conditions have terrorized skiers for years.

Whichever wax company solves the problem of “fresh snow at zero” will be laughing all the way to the finishline for years to come.

The trouble is that fresh snow crystals have sharp edges that easily embed in kick wax and klister. Once even a tiny ice patch forms in your grip wax it will seed larger crystals and you’ll end up with big clumps of snow stuck to your kick wax. The snow will continue to build up and pretty soon your skis have “snow stilts” and no longer glide at all.

This can happen at a range of temperatures, but it’s worst at or near zero degrees Celcius. As it gets warmer it’s less of a problem as the sharp edges on the snowflakes round off from melting. Cold temperature kick wax is harder so snowflakes can’t embed as easily. That’s why cold temperature waxes are more resistant to icing.

It’s these “unwaxable” conditions that make even diehard cross-country skiers dream of owning waxless skis. The big disappointment is even waxless skis can occasionally ice up in these conditions.

Second Question: Which Kind of Waxless Skis Do You Want?

There are 3 Kinds of Waxless Skis

"Fishscales" provide mechanical grip in classic skiing.

“Fishscales” provide mechanical grip in classic skiing.

1. Fishscales

We don’t recommend fishscales. They’re noisy, and they vibrate against the snow on the downhills. They feel “chattery” and we find them unpleasant to ski on.

Plus, they don’t work in all conditions. For example, they’re not reliable on icy trails.


2. “Zeros”

Zeros are specialized classic skis, specifically designed for the tough wax conditions described above. (Fresh snow at zero degrees Celsius.)

The ski base has a kick zone made of a rubber-like material that you have to roughen with sandpaper. Sanding the kick zone creates little “hairs” in the rubber that grip the snow.

You can adjust your grip by sanding rougher or smoother. There’s also a silicone spray you apply to the hairs so they last longer and resist icing.

"Zeros" A specialized classic ski for fresh snow and near zero degrees. The red, rubbery area is shaded to create hairs that provide grip.

“Zeros” A specialized classic ski for fresh snow and near zero degrees. The red, rubbery area gets sanded to create hairs that provide grip.

You can actually take a regular pair of classic skis and give them the same treatment. (Heavy sanding of the P-Tex base in the kick zone. But don’t sand your glide zones!)

In this case, they’re called “Hairies”.

In terms of speed and performance, Zeros are the best and are the only waxless skis used in competition by serious athletes.

But remember, Zeros are not an all purpose, grab and go ski like other types of waxless skis. They’re designed to work in a narrow range of conditions.

If you wanted, you could apply kick wax or klister to “Zeros”, which would broaden their usable temperature range. This isn’t a great choice as the skis are softer and not as versatile in terms as what you can do when waxing them. Plus, it would be difficult to clean grip wax off their kick zones.

3. “Skin” Skis

These are pretty new arrivals on the cross-country ski scene and many people are falling in love with them.

They have a mohair strip inset into the kick zone. It’s the same material backcountry skiers use as “skins” for climbing mountains. The mohair has a nap, so it glides in one direction and provides grip in the other.

Skin Skis are waxes skis with a mohair inset in the kick zone.

Skin Skis are waxless classic skis with a mohair inset in the kick zone.

Skin skis work in a wide range of conditions. We tested them for a couple of months and they worked great in every snow and temperature condition we tried.

The grip is excellent, the glide is excellent, and they go remarkably fast for a waxless ski. You still have to glide wax them periodically, of course, but they are genuinely a “grab and go” classic ski that’s a pleasure to ski on.

They sound awesome because they are, but before you rush out and buy a pair, remember:

  1. You still have to apply glide wax to the tips and tails.
  2. On “fresh snow at zero degrees” they might still ice up (It can happen to fishscales and Zeros as well.)
  3. They’re a little difficult to move across the snow in a sideways direction. This matters when you are snowplowing or  step turning around a corner. The mohair glides and grips really well in a front to back direction, but doesn’t handle lateral movement very well.
  4. They’re not as fast as waxable skis or Zeros. (But they are surprisingly fast.)

The final thing to mention is that some skin skis come with 2 sets of interchangeable mohair inserts. This allows you to “adjust” your grip but switching between the 2 sets.

In our opinion, this is unnecessary. We found the difference in grip small and the system that allows you to interchange the inserts makes the skis a little heavier. (The insets are held in place with magnets. They’re small, but they still add weight.)

If we were buying skin skis, we’d choose the lightest pair we could find.

Here’s a great overview of Skin Ski technology:

How to Choose

(You might also want to read our Buying Advice article)

Once you’ve decided you want a pair of waxless skis, you have to choose which kind. When it comes to choosing, don’t forget your original reason for wanting waxless skis.

Which of the following 3 options most closely matches why you want waxless skis?

1. Waxing is Your Problem

You don’t have the time to wax, you don’t want to spend money on wax, you don’t want to learn about waxing, etc. You want a convenient, grab and go classic ski and you want a ski that will handle tough to wax conditions better than a waxable ski.

Decision: Buy Skin skis

2. Tough to Wax Conditions are Your Problem and You Like the Idea of a Grab and Go Pair of Skis

Decision: Buy Skin Skis

3. Tough to Wax Conditions are Your Problem and You Want Performance

Decision: Buy Zeros, but you’ll need a regular pair of waxable classic skis as well.

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