Equipment - For Classic
For the beginner, the difference between a classic ski and a skate ski is pretty subtle. On looks alone you will find that classic skis are a little longer and usually will have a distinct pointed tip compared to skate skis. In order to function in the Classic motion, Classic skis must have something on the middle third of the base for grip when transferring your driving weight from ski to ski.
With respect to equipment, you have a choice between a waxable ski...in which you actually put some kind of "kick wax" on the base for grip each time you go skiing...or you can use a "waxless ski"...in which small plastic ridges (almost like a cheese grater along the middle third of the ski) provide the grip.
Question #1: How does either kick wax or a waxless surface work? Here is a very good explanation of the process written by Bob Woodward for OUTSIDE magazine (December 90').
"Every X-C ski you look at will have a camber--the upward bow along the base from tip to tail. As a skier weights a ski, the middle third of the ski--the part with wax or waxless pattern--presses into the snow and gives the skier grip. When the skier unweights the ski (even just a little bit) the ski's camber brings the middle third clear of the snow for glide. If you share weight between two skis the camber will lift the middle zone (aka: the kick zone) off the snow for good glide on downhills. On waxless skis, the pattern sticks out so much that you almost always see reduced glide compared to a kick waxed ski with maybe a millimeter or two of wax on it."
Question #2:Which is better for me? Waxable or waxless skis?
Thirty years ago, waxless skis did not exist and everyone had to put some kind of goo on their skis to get grip. Today, engineers have put together waxless skis that run beautifully in just about any kind of snow. The decision really boils down to how good of performance you want, how versatile you want your equipment to be, and where you ski.
Wax vs. Waxless: Performance
- Waxless: Easiest to use. The ridges will slow the ski a little bit even at the highest end, yet the tradeoff is that you will have excellent grip in everything but ice. The decrease in speed is a big negative in racing but can actually be an advantage for beginners or skiers that actually want slower skis.
- Waxable: Fast and great kick in any condition if you have the right wax on--they can be horrible if you apply the wrong wax. Used by all top racers in virtually every race. This is where you really get the best gliding sensation because you match the wax to the snow conditions for just the right amount of kick.
Wax vs. Waxless: Versatility
- Waxless: Adapt very well to changing conditions and unpacked snow. Great for both touring and at commercial areas with a wide range of conditions. The only time they don't work well is on ice or extreme hard pack conditions.
- Waxable: You can change wax to meet perfectly match any type of snow but if conditions change rapidly (temps rising many degress over the day) or if you encounter a wide variety of conditions on the same ski (powder in trees and slush in the sun) it can be very difficult or time-consuming to constantly adjust kick wax. Best when conditions stay fairly constant on or off track.
Wax vs. Waxless: Where You Ski
- Waxless: Better in...any place with a high degree of variability in "average" snow conditions. Places that get lots of wet, fresh snow and often see above freezing temperatures during winter days are particularly well suited for waxless skis.
- Waxable: Better in...places that have fairly stable and cold conditions. Beginners, as well as experts, will have less trouble waxing in these places because with colder temperatures you have fewer waxes from which to choose (less chance of "missing" the wax). Consistent snow means once the wax is applied, you have a better chance of having good kick and glide throughout the day.
What to look for in Classic skis:
Match the length and width of the ski to the conditions you'll ski in most often. Heavier and wider skis for more extreme backcountry skiing... light and narrow for groomed trails. Ideal length can easily be measured by extending one arm above your head...the tip of the ski should just come up to your wrist.
Many XC Ski specialty retailers have sophisticated flex and/or pressure testing devices that pin-point the exact characteristics of a particular ski which may or may not change the length from the old method. This can be useful even for a beginner in getting a ski that is just right for your size and ability. Your goal is to buy a ski that is going to glide well, give you plenty of grip when needed and is built for the kind of skiing you'll be doing most often.
Beware of any shop that insists that a ski is a ski and do not ask about such critical items as you weight, height, where you'll be skiing, your skill level, etc.. Make sure the places you shop at take the time and know how to match you up with the ideal gear!
Get only what you need because price ranges are huge. Performance poles can cost over $300US with everyday touring poles available for as little as $50US. The big differences are in stiffness, weight and grips/tips. Let a salesperson know where you are likely to ski and your ability. For general cruising all the way up to lower-level citizen racing, most of the cheaper poles will work fine. If you start searching for blazing speed, then the top end poles start to really make a difference.
What to look for: Classic poles should fit comfortably under your arm while standing (in shoes or ski boots) on a floor. Remember, you use poles for power in XC Skiing so if the pole bends like a twig at the slightest touch, you may want to invest in a stiffer option. If you plan to do extensive backcountry and/or telemark skiing a great option is telescoping poles you can lengthen for the climbs and shorten for the descents.
Classic Boots and Bindings
Buy these together if at all possible since nothing is more frustrating than incompatible boot-binding systems. Just like the computer world, boots and bindings must be on the same "system". The three major types are: NNN, Salomon, and 3-pin systems.
For track skiing and light touring, you will want to be on either NNN or Salomon which are very similar systems with proven track records. 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. Boots need to be comfortable and need to provide you with as much stability as possible. New Classic boot designs now feature a mid-ankle support cuff in all models. This is great news for beginners who may have loved the weight and feel of a high-end "racing" boot but previously had to sacrifice performance.
What to look for: Size the boot just like a running shoe and always try on a boot wearing the same kind of sock (or socks if you get cold feet) that you'll wear when skiing. Make sure the boot is a Classic or Combi boot and not a Skating-only Boot. Skating-only boots will provide tons of stability but they are generally too stiff for Classic skiing. Have your bindings professionally mounted.
Because plenty of folks love to use both the Classic and Skate Techniques, several companies have developed "Combi" lines for boots and skis. The boots come, naturally, halfway between a Classic and Skate boot with cuff height and stiffness. The skis also try to come mid-way with flex and camber design. These are great options for the one-purchase skier that doesn't mind a waxable Classic ski. Keep in mind, one of the compromises in Combi skis is that you must clean your the kick wax off your skis before you'll be able to skate on them.