Waxing skis is seen by many to be magic and one must pay homage to the wax Gods to be assured success. I have had many a day were my waxes just did not work, so I am not an expert by any means. I also know of coaches for National level skiers who will admit to dismal failures on occasion. This humbles us, but for the most part, waxing for grip on classic skis can be done without too much difficulty.
A Word About Snow:
But first a word about snow. It is all about the snow. And skiers recognize that snow comes in an infinite variety. So the challenge is to find the wax that matches the snow.
New cold snow has fine sharp crystals, so one uses a cold hard wax to keep the crystals from digging in too deep. You want some stick while pushing on the ski, but then you want the wax to release the snow while gliding. If the wax is too soft (warm), the snow does not release, sticking to the bottom of the ski (called icing) and the ski is slow and slippery. A too hard (cold) wax results in poor grip.
Old snow has transformed into round lumpy balls. A softer (warmer) wax is needed to get some grip. You will often see waxes having two temperature ranges, one for new snow and one for old snow. This is to help you adjust the wax for the sharpness/roundness of the snow crystal.
Really old snow (i.e. granular ice, crust, corn snow) is so rounded that hard waxes may not give much grip at all. Klisters (soft gooey wax in a tube) are often used for these conditions.
Wet snow near freezing. Near the freezing point the snow temperature is less important than its water content. Hard waxes will work ok for dry snow, but pretty much fail when there is a lot of water in the snow. Klisters are used for these wet conditions. Some call this regime a waxing disaster, as it is the most frustrating conditions to wax for. This is when waxless skis should be considered, or skate skiing.
Wet snow above freezing. Hard waxes have pretty much failed. Klisters are needed. While messy, the right klister can make for spectacular spring skiing.
The classic ski, unlike the skate ski, has a grip zone (wax pocket) for applying the grip wax. This extends from the back end of the ski binding, to about 8-12" in front of the binding. The front edge of the pocket is determined by the skier's weight and camber (stiffness) of the ski. This might have been marked on the skis by the store when you bought them. If not, 8-12" will likely do just fine.
I am told that backwood skiers put the grip wax on the entire length of the ski. But they want really good grip and will accept less glide.
There is a huge variety of waxes that can be bought and buying all of them is a bit like a cocaine addiction. So you should probably stick to one or two brands and learn them. Swix (paraffin based wax) is the brand known by most people and is the one the Gatineau Park refers to for their wax recommendations. Swix also has a fluorocarbon series (VR series), which I really like, but they are rather expensive.
Vauhti is used by a number of racing teams. The XC-Ottawa website gives regular trail reviews of the park along with their wax selection. A good source of information if you want more advanced waxing strategies.
Toko Carbon is not that well known, but is my favourite brand. It sticks well to the skis, has a broad temperature range, relatively cheap, and almost always works. Though it is not as fast as the Swix flouro. I am almost always using Toko.
Preparing the Skis:
Come fall it is time to remove the summer storage wax and take a close look at the bases to see what work is needed. But they still have the klister from last spring…. Ok the skis need to be cleaned. You can use a wax remover to do this, or if you are cheap like me; you can use Coleman fuel, but it is best to do this outdoors. Strip all of the wax off, let the skis dry and take a look at the P-Tex bases. They should be shiny and smooth with no 'hairy' stuff sticking up.
If dull, grayish and fuzzy, then some work is needed to make them fast. Ski shops can do this for you if you are willing to invest some money ($50??), or you can do this yourself to some extent. A metal scraper can be drawn down the ski to remove the fuzzies and help restore a shiny base. You risk gouging the bases doing this, so use some caution. Alternatively, repeated hot waxing with a soft glide wax (i.e. red) and scraping with a sharp plastic scraper can sometimes do the trick.
The grip zone (wax pocket) will often benefit from a light sanding (~120-150 grit), which improves the adhesion of the grip wax. If your grip wax does not stay on very long, a quick sanding should help.
The tips and tails of the skis should be treated with a glide wax. Melt on some blue glide wax (not the grip wax) and iron it into the bases. The iron should be warm enough to melt the wax, but not too hot, as too much heat can destroy the skis. Let the wax cool, scrape as much off with a plastic scraper as you can, and then brush with a nylon brush to polish the skis. A ski shop will probably charge you about $20 to put on the glide wax.
Waxing the Skis, some recipes:
-15° C and colder, abrasive snow. We occasionally get cold dry abrasive snow in Ottawa. You know this when it strips the wax off your skis in as little as 5 km. The solution is to use a thin layer of blue klister under the hard wax (see klisters below), or a base binder. Room temperature base binder is like contact cement (a bit of a mess), so apply it hot or cold. I keep mine in the freezer and crayon it onto the skis, then spread it out to a thin layer using an old iron. Let the skis cool down outside and apply several thin layers of grip wax. The base binder should keep the wax on your skis for the day.
-5° C and colder, new snow: Life is easy: violet, blue or green waxes will do. Apply a thin layer of wax, cork in until you have a thin smooth layer. Repeat 2-3 times as skiing will eventually abrade the wax away. Take some warmer/colder waxes with you to reapply later in the day.
0 to -5° C: This starts to get tricky. The snow near the bottom of hills (P7, P10 etc) is warmer than at the top. If you wax for really good grip at the bottom of the hills, you might find your skis icing up at the tops of the hills. Now is a good time to ask people who have finished their skiing, what wax worked.
Try to use the coldest wax that will get you up the hill, then evaluate at the top. You will likely want to use a single thin layer of wax at first, as choosing bad can create a real mess if there is too much wax on the skis. Bring a scraper, warmer and colder waxes.
+/- 0° C: This can be anything from klisters to hard waxes. You will be pretty much bringing the wax kit with you in your fanny pack. Use a single thin layer of the coldest wax that will work. Bring a scraper and warmer/colder waxes. Adjust waxes as needed. Smile! or go skate skiing.
Klister strikes fear in the hearts of many of my ski friends. Its messy, it gets everywhere; it causes bad dreams, it breaks marriages. But I like klister skiing. My favourite klisters are from Rode. The Swix Aqua (KR70 2-12° C) is also good.
Klister is used for three kinds of conditions: spring skiing when the snow is melting (especially corn snow), for icy conditions, and for fresh newly fallen wet snow.
Icy conditions below -5° C: Apply a small amount of blue klister (I like Rode or Rex) to the wax pocket. Iron in to get a thin smooth layer. Put skis outside to freeze. Once cold, apply thin layers of hard wax and cork. You want to put a thin layer of hard wax on top of the klister, but not mix them. Start with one or two layers of a hard wax rated warmer than the temperature, then coat with a few layers of a harder wax rated for the temperature. The idea is to get the grip from the klister, but stop icing with the hard wax. Hard wax on a klister is a good strategy for all icy conditions below freezing.
Icy conditions just below 0° C: As above but now use violet klisters (again Rode).
Above freezing: Apply thin layer of klister to ski and spread in with an applicator. Use a single thin layer as you might pick bad for the first couple of times. Racers will often coat the klister with a silver klister to harden it and help prevent dirt from clogging up the wax. Bring warmer/colder klisters even a few hard waxes. Smile! It is spring.
I alluded to layering of hard waxes over klisters or silver klister over red klisters in the last few paragraphs. This is a common technique used by racers to tune the grip/glide characteristics of the waxes. The concept is fairly simple: first put down a warm wax to tune the grip, then cover with a cold wax to adjust glide and stop the skis from icing. The Start synthetic waxes that came out in the 90's were designed for this strategy and it is still used with Rode and Vauhti waxes, but not so much with Swix.
I don't usually layer my hard/soft waxes when it is below -2° C as single layers of Toko seem to work just fine.
Layering becomes essential when you pick a too warm wax that is icing. This almost always happens around the freezing point (the waxing disaster regime). My first aid is to cover with a colder wax in the hopes that this will stop the icing. This sometimes works and avoids the need to scrape off the old wax.
So instead of being bewildered by waxes, know that for most conditions there is a solution. Keeping a note book of what works and what does not, will eventually give you the insight to really 'know' what will work. And this might be to the amazement of your friends when you announce Toko violet on Rode Nera klister, and it works.
Kevin Gibb is a recreational skier living in the Ottawa Area. He has been skiing since childhood and is regularly found wandering the trails in the Gatineau Park. He spent two years racing with the University of Ottawa Nordic Ski Team where a low VO2 max consigned him to the back of the pack. He then coached the team for 2 years; before becoming Treasurer of the National Capital District of Cross Country Ontario, where he is often seen cutting cheques to pay the bills.
© Kevin Gibb, 2009.