“Waxing isn’t alchemy,” Paul Parker advises in his classic manual Free Heel Skiing. “It can be as simple or complex an art as you choose to make it,”
We choose simple. There are two types of wax: glide wax and kick wax. Glide wax keeps your skis running smoothly over the snow. Kick wax is applied to the midsection of your skis to bite into the snow, providing the purchase necessary to propel yourself forward.
Kick wax is the tricky one. You need to pick the right wax and apply it properly. If you have too little wax or the wrong kind, you’ll be floundering instead of kicking and gliding. If you have too much grip, snow will build up on your ski bottoms.
Swix, the main manufacturer, makes a daunting variety of kick waxes, but recreational skiers usually can get by with just a few, according to Tony Goodwin, executive director of the Adirondack Ski Touring Council.
Waxes vary in hardness, depending on the temperatures they are designed to work in. On most days, Goodwin uses Swix’s Blue Extra. If it gets below fifteen degrees or so, Goodwin uses the harder Green wax instead. If it gets a little above freezing, he turns to the softer Special Red.
Most skiers will want to avoid klister, the sticky glop meant to provide grip in warm, spring conditions. It’s messy to put on or take off. Think model-airplane glue or melted bubblegum. You’ll likely get as much of the stuff on your clothes as on your skis. In klister conditions, you are better off using waxless skis. Another option is kicker skins (see below).
If you’re uncertain which of two waxes to use, start with a harder one. If it doesn’t work, you may need to apply softer wax over the hard. Starting with soft and then switching to hard wax is problematic. Goodwin likens it to trying to spread peanut butter over jelly.
But switching waxes is not your first resort.
Kick wax is applied to the wax pocket, the ski bottom beneath the foot, extending from the heel to maybe ten inches in front of the toe. At the outset, rub in one or two thin layers of wax into the pocket, smoothing each layer with cork or the heel of your hand. If you don’t get enough grip, add more wax to the pocket. If that doesn’t work, add wax on either side of the pocket. “You don’t have to stay in the wax pocket,” Goodwin says. “Wax tip to tail if you feel like it, if that gives you the kick you need.” If you’re still not getting enough grip, it’s time to try a softer wax.
Remember: thin first, followed by thicker, longer, and softer.
Wax may not suffice for climbing Mount Marcy and other steep slopes. If you do a lot of down-mountain skiing in the backcountry, you may want to invest in a pair of skins—nylon strips that stick to your ski bottoms. The nylon’s nap prevents you from slipping back while allowing some forward glide. Glue on the reverse side adheres to the ski, but it doesn’t stick to the ski when the skin is pulled off.
Most skins extend from tip to tail. Kicker skins fit over just the wax pocket. They’re often used in place of klister. They’re fine for kicking, but not great for gliding.
Glide wax is a cinch. If you’re on the trail, simply apply it to ski bottoms outside your wax pocket. Goodwin, however, seldom uses glide wax in the field. Rather, he applies it to his skis a few times a season with a hot iron after removing the old kick wax with a scraper and commercial wax remover. He uses the iron to melt the glide wax and spread it evenly over the entire ski bottom. Kick wax can be applied over the glide wax.