Waxable and waxless refer to the grip or kick zone below the foot and extending fore and aft for about 1/3 to ½ of the ski’s middle surface. It’s the kick zone that provides the grip on the snow to push you forward into the glide part of the stride. The kick zone needs to release to come off the snow and slide with less friction than when it is engaged with the snow for the kick. Waxless skis have a smooth base over the entire ski where you apply the kick wax to the middle area, and waxless have a positive or negative pattern of ridges or cuts to grab snow. All skis have glide wax applied to the tips and tails.
Waxable skis have superior performance over most snow conditions below freezing. When you get the wax right, they grip and glide better than waxless. When hauling sled, the correct grip wax provides a better pull, whereas waxless skis can shear in deep fluffy snow and you slip backwards. Grip waxing is an art and a science, and it takes years to perfect the knowledge and technique, and each ski’s flex and camber relative to your weight makes waxing each pair of skis somewhat different. However the basics are easily learned, and its well worth the extra effort for the added performance.
However the tables are turned when the temperature is hovering around freezing and rising above freezing. Then kick waxing becomes very difficult with wet snow, and being a single degree out with your wax rating in the balmy temps with the chosen wax can mean the difference between a reasonable kick and glide, and stopping dead with huge globs of wet packy snow caked onto the grip wax, nixing any possibility of glide – or you simply slip and slide with no grip at all in the watery wet snow.
(There are special goopy waxes called klisters, which are designed to cope with wet snow and when it refreezes into ice, but we won’t be getting into those in this section. They are more difficult to use when out winter camping, and we’ll leave that to the Discussion Forums and perhaps a future featured Article).
Another place where waxless skis excel is in mountainous terrain where temperatures change rapidly and constantly with elevation gains and losses. Many mountain skiers opt for waxless skis as the better practical choice to cope with this constant change.
When you get a meltdown and re-freeze into icy crust, the ice can scrape off kick wax rapidly, whereas waxless skis can keep on trucking if the snow crystals are fine enough. However for hauling sled on a crust you may have to add skins.
I own both waxable and waxless, and I live and ski in the relatively flat landscape of the central Canadian Shield in northwestern Ontario, where there is no elevation change effect. For most of our snow and temperature conditions here, I opt for waxable most of the time as the all-round best trekking choice. You will develop a wide vocabulary for snow conditions as you get to know the variations of your region, and your waxing system will evolve to match the conditions. However if there is any hint of temperatures above freezing, or icy crust, I will use my waxless. Regardless of the skis brought on a trip, I now always bring kicker skins in my pack, which will always work and get you out of trouble if your kick is slipping (see Skins section).
Kick waxes are rapidly evolving with the cross country ski racing industry. Ski shops will be well stocked with extremely expensive fluorocarbon based kick waxes for racing. There is no need to pay that kind of money for back country pursuits. The simple basic kick and glide waxes (usually under $10 per block) are more than fine to get you moving through the backcountry, and for that matter the cross country ski club’s trails if you are not racing. You will need a full range of kick waxes to cover the wide range of temperatures. The two-wax system (warm – cold) will not work on back country trips. Buy the full range of kick waxes in the red, violet, blue, green and white spectrum, with the special in-between temperature ratings too.
There are many books and on-line resources for waxing techniques, so we won’t get into that on this website, although we are sure it will be a hot topic on our Discussion Forums. Hot waxing for the glide zone of your skis, base prep, cleaning and tuning can all be done at the start of the season by the experts at your local ski shop, so no worries if you are an overwhelmed beginner. If you have wooden skis, you will need to prep the base with pine tar to seal it and provide a wax binder, but again your ski shop can do that for you if you don’t know how yet. Once you get into skiing seriously, you will want to do all your base work yourself at home, and you will want to obtain a waxing iron, basic scraping tools, and buy a ski vice or make a basic ski bench.
For lots more detailed information on waxing and ski care, the ski wax companies have excellent resources. Swix is a prominent ski wax company that makes fine products. http://www.swixsport.com . Their main website has lots information, and they have a link to their Swix School on-line video tutorial http://www.swixschool.com, which can teach you about the waxing basics for kick waxes, glide waxes, and base preparation and cleaning. The site is geared to groomed track skiing with racing type skis, and I will respectfully disagree with their rear kick zone delineation to the back to the heel of the boot for all skiers. For my skis and body weight, I wax beyond that point. Your experience will tell you where the optimal wax pocket is for each pair of skis. Your local cross country ski shop is also a major resource to use and is the place to go to get started.
Another ski wax brand very popular where I live is Vauhti. http://www.vauhti.fi/en
They make superb basic economical waxes, including the grip tars which are a product other companies don’t offer.
Skiwax.ca is an on-line wax store which is a great resource for waxes and information, http://www.skiwax.ca/