Glide Through the Glades

November 28, 2011

If you cross-country ski, friction is your enemy. Minimize its fun-slowing effects and you’ll go faster, farther, and with less effort. Ski wax is a crucial ally in this battle, so it’s worth knowing the basics of how it works. First of all, ski wax comes in two varieties: glide wax and kick wax. For most skiers, the friction-reducing properties of glide wax make it the more important of the two; it should be regularly applied to every type of cross-country ski, including skate and so-called “waxless” styles. (Kick wax is specific to the classic style of cross-country skiing and is actually designed to increase friction underfoot.)

Know the Snow
A range of glide wax options are available, most of which are fine-tuned to specific temperature ranges. Why? Snow varies dramatically depending on conditions. If it’s bitter cold, the snow surface is a matrix of hard, sharp, angular crystals. If it’s near or above the freezing point, snow contains a significant amount of liquid water. The ideal consistency of glide wax varies accordingly. Harder waxes are designed for very cold weather (low 20s and below) and fend off the sharp snow crystals that can actually embed into a softer wax. Waxes for warmer conditions fall on the softer end of the spectrum and better repel water, one of the most significant sources of friction.

Atomic Energy
Water repellency is also influenced by the chemical formulation of the glide wax. Standard waxes are composed of hydrocarbons, long chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms that repel water and provide a smooth surface for sliding. Some waxes replace the hydrogen atoms with fluorine, which combats water more effectively due to its greater negative charge. These fluorocarbon waxes are also more durable than their hydrocarbon counterparts, but cost three to four times as much—wallet overkill for most skiers.

Rub It In
When it comes to the application, two types of glide wax exist: rub-on waxes and hot waxes. Rub-on waxes are simple, convenient, and a good option for casual skiers. Simply smear some on your skis, rub it in with a cloth, and you’re done. Rub-on waxes provide decent glide in a wide range of conditions, though seldom optimally in any of them. They have other disadvantages, notably poor durability; you’ll need to apply more after only a few outings, especially if the snow is gritty with dirt or other debris.

Heat It Up
Hot waxes offer increased durability and a high performance that can be tailored to specific conditions. To hot wax a ski, the wax is first melted onto the underside of the ski, then scraped and polished to leave a smooth sheen. It’s a messy and mildly complicated process that requires specialized equipment, including a wax iron and a variety of brushes and scrapers. Unless you’re an avid skier, it’s easier and cheaper to just take them to a ski shop. If you ski infrequently, consider hot waxing your skis at the start of the season, once or twice more during the winter depending on use, and use a rub-on wax in between.

The Kicker
Some skiers have another wax element to ponder: the kick zone. Most cross-country skiers keep their skis parallel to each other, gliding forward on the tips and tails but using a high-friction area directly underfoot to push forward. This grip is traditionally provided by a kick wax, though most recreational skis today are “waxless” and instead feature a raised pattern that generates friction from its fish-scale texture—no kick wax required. Such skis are low-maintenance, though not truly “waxless”—you should still apply glide wax to the tips and tails. They work well for casual outings, but don’t provide optimal performance. To achieve the most efficient grip possible, you’ll need to invest in an appropriate ski and a range of kick waxes, then learn how to properly use and match them to conditions—only serious skiers need apply.

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.