Friday, November 20, 2020

Key things to consider when choosing Cross-Country Skis

As a new homeowner a few decades ago, I needed a ladder and foolishly bought a heavy-duty fiberglass 28-footer that could reach the highest point.   That was a bad move; other than once I’ve never needed to reach that high; the ladder is unwieldy and even fully retracted it’s too long for most jobs. Later and a little wiser, I acquired a lightweight 16-foot extension ladder which I now use for almost everything.

Many of my friends make the same mistake when they shop for cross-country skis, buying for the most extreme conditions they’ll ever encounter.   In the store they convince themselves they need wide, back-country skis with metal edges, in case of deep powder or an icy traverse.   They ski-trudge that heavy-duty gear on ordinary trails and easy roads like the one to Great Camp Santanoni.  They even take them to groomed Nordic centers.  Instead, their primary pair should have been a light-touring setup that’s good for almost everything except the rare extremes.

Snow science

Two principles should be their guide: a pound on the feet feels like five carried on the back and narrow skis glide better than wide.   The 1953 Everest expedition was the first to state the “1 for 5” rule and numerous studies have confirmed it’s true.  Whether the actual multiplier is exactly 5, less weight on the feet is proven to require less effort.   And while wider skis do float better on soft snow because of the snowshoe effect, narrower skis have less forward resistance because they need to plow less snow out of the way so and hence glide more easily.

To continue my homeowner analogy, in my first kitchen I got by with one all-purpose knife but soon added others.  The same should be with cross-country skis.  A single pair can be fine, but having several options greatly improves the experience.  Not right away of course, skis aren’t cheap, but seize opportunities to add to your ski quiver whenever they occur.  The key is starting with the right boots; a pair that can be used with a variety of skis.   My solution is a “combi” boot.

Best-bet boots

The combi nordic boot has a high, semi-rigid ankle cuff that aids control with little additional weight and works with waxless, waxable classic and skating skis.  Maybe you will never skate-ski, but the combi will at least allow you to borrow a pair to try.   The real thing though is that the combi’s high cuff provides support in all sorts of conditions and aids turning, making the boot suitable for most Nordic adventures.  My everyday boot is the Solomon Pro Combi but there are many similar boots on the market.   Pick one that’s comfortable.

Waxless first

The first ski I recommend my friends buy is a waxless light-touring ski.   Waxless skis are sometimes called fish scale because early waxless skis had a scale-like pattern for grip.  Nowadays there are many waxless base patterns; most are better than the original fish scales.   I like Fischer’s Ridge Crown ski because it’s inexpensive and versatile with rock-solid grip and good glide.   Crown is Fischer’s proprietary waxless pattern molded into middle of the ski’s plastic base.   Fischer and other ski makers also offer skin skis, with machine-made fibers on the base mimicking seal fur- it lays flat going forward for glide and resists when pushed backward for grip.   In my experience though, skin skis require better technique than molded grip surfaces which means they aren’t as suitable for beginners nor as effective in all conditions.   If you can spend more on a waxless ski, go up a step to the Fischer Ultralite Crown which is lighter and has higher performance flex.   Keep with narrow skis though, it’s all about glide.

Pole tips

For poles, my advice is similar- go light.  In the old days huge baskets were the rule; the idea was they wouldn’t sink into deep snow.   But experience shows that much of the effort with poling comes from pulling the baskets back out of the snow and a big basket takes more work to pull up and out than a smaller one.   I recommend baskets about the size of two quarters side by side such as Swix or Excel make.   They provide plenty of resistance for pushing and require little effort to extract from the snow.   I also recommend fiberglass or composite poles rather than aluminum.   Aluminum poles bend easily and once bent, they are never the same.

Additional insights

My other key advice- don’t wait for snow to buy.   By then and particularly around Christmas, many items, perhaps your size, will be out of stock.  Remember the bicycle shortage of the summer of 2020?   The same trend is going to affect cross-country skis this year.   If you’re thinking of getting Nordic gear this winter, act now.

Earlier I mentioned you’ll want several sets.   How many pairs do I suggest you eventually own?  My answer is- at least one more pair, maybe two.   This sounds awfully expensive but the trick to buying cross-country skis is timing.  The best time to buy your second or third set is in late February and early March when prices drop and rental skis hit the market too.   Used rental skis can be a great bargain.

And for that second set of skis, my advice is a wax classical pair.  Nothing beats the smooth, quiet glide of a waxable ski on fresh powder.  Learning to match waxes to conditions can be intimidating at first but if you try waxable classic skiing on fresh, cold snow, it’s easy to wax right- just rub on, buff, and the results are sublime.

And your third pair?   That when you could consider a shorter, slightly wider, metal-edge set for those rare times you’ll actually need them.

Remember, glide is good and good glide is great.

Editor’s note: The author (pictured here) has been a skier since 1960 and his annual goal is to ski at least 150 days and 250 hours.   In the winter of 2019-20 he managed 189 days and 427 ski hours. So far this season, he has logged almost 11 hours of ski time over 13 days (as of Nov. 15). All photos courtesy of Andy Coney.

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Aims "Andy" Coney is a lifelong Blue Mountain Lake seasonal resident. He is a Nordic skier, guideboater, paddler, orienteer, three-time 46er, and a member of the Protect the Adirondacks board. In 2019, after a twenty-five-year break, with a superb partner he completed his eighth Adirondack 90-miler, finishing 22nd overall. Andy's favorite season though is winter, and he tries to ski every day.

21 Responses

  1. Tony Goodwin says:

    How many pairs of skis does a skiers really need? “Just one more”

  2. Todd Miller says:

    Thanks for the great insights Andy. I’ve also been a proponent of light-weight ski gear. I prefer the almost weightless feel of skis gliding effortlessly through snow. However, I do see a place for wider skis when bushwacking and breaking trail thru deep snow. My favorite skis for decades has been Fischer SL recreational/light touring skis. They are light, strong, and have ample sidecut to make turning a pleasure. I also like the Salomon combi boots. Where I differ in preference is that I like medium-sized baskets on poles. The tiny sized ones just go in too deep- often right down to ground surface in deep snow-this greatly reduces the length and support of the poles and then they need to be lifted high up out of the deep snow on every stride.


  3. Boreas says:

    Don’t ski often any more, but when I do, I use one of my old pairs of Bushwhackers and backcountry boots. I don’t ski on groomed trails.

  4. Al Pouch says:

    Nice article, Andy, helpful and timely!

  5. David V Seymour says:

    Excellent advice laid out in a short article. Spring IS the best time to buy gear and many areas around the country have ski swaps in the Fall where used gear is even cheaper.

  6. Gail says:

    Great article Andy. I think I recognize both of those skiers.

  7. Forrest says:

    My first skis were skinny fishscales, Fisher RCR Crown. Still have them. Everybody told me I should get a wider touring ski, but the shop let me try different skis and buy the ones I liked most.

    So I only skied on groomed trails for a couple years. That suited me, going fast is a lot of fun. Then I bought a pair of fat, metal edged fishscales, they can go anywhere but they’re slow and exhausting. I don’t use them often but it’s a nice change of scenery when I do. Third pair, fantastic deal on high end Solomon skin skis. Agree about them being more critical of technique, but my god they fly! My favorites so far and by a comfortable margin. Next pair will be the light touring ones you recommend, there are a lot of easy roads out here. The RCRs are hard to control coming down hills in real world snow conditions. Looking forward to trying the Goldilocks pair!

    First ski of the season today!

  8. David Thomas-Train says:

    I disagree about fiberglass poles. Maybe they’re now made stronger than they used to be, but I’ve found they tend to splinter and break. I’ve used aluminum only for 40 years, with no breaks, and before that, of course, bamboo!

  9. Myron says:

    Enjoyed reading your article

  10. Jayson says:

    Hello there. Although I am relatively new to skiing, I have done it on a few occasions and absolutely love it. However, I do not know what size one is supposed to get when shopping for them. I have seen conflicting sources saying that it should be based on one’s weight and another saying it should be based on one’s height. Could you tell me the correct way of going about it, please?

    • Boreas says:

      Weight and height are just starting points. Every brand and style of ski performs differently. Snow conditions matter. Skill level matters. How you want the ski to perform matters. Width, stiffness, and camber all matter. Wearing a heavy backpack matters, Many of the best skiers have skis of different lengths to match certain conditions.

      I realize this isn’t the answer you are looking for, but there are allotta variables. IMO, shoes are at least as important as the skis. If your shoes are too wimpy or sloppy, you can’t control the ski. Same with bindings. If possible, try out different ski lengths to see what works best for you. If you want speed and efficiency, choose longer. If you want control or ski in trees, try a shorter length. If you live near a good ski shop (not just a ski retailer), they will be an invaluable resource and worth the extra you may pay there!

  11. John Lee says:

    You didn’t mention anything about the Skiis! ???length etc.

  12. David Pratt says:

    Great article! Can you recommend width of skis for a novice for something like the Tupper Lake Golf Course or the Santanoni Great Camp Road?

  13. jd says:

    I am 69 y/o. I still like to xc ski. I have skied for 35 years. started out with the recommended 210 cm long touring skis/light boots. Could not turn with them. we wanted to go to Avalanche Lake. Had to turn back with those skis. Next bought a pair of partial metal edge and wider Trak Outland XT with NNN BC boots. What a change in my skiing ability. Slower but I could actually turn some and stop without running into something. We mostly ski off trail or on snowmobile trails in the ADKs where we live. Loved those skis. Gave them to my brother-in-law to get him in to xc. Next bought a pair of full metal edge Alpina Cross Terrain. 4 inches wide. Heavy slow but what control. Used them in Yellowstone NP with no trails. Hardly ever fall which in harder to get back up at 69. Shorter than the salesman recommended but I like them a lot. I like the control and stability. I don’t mind being the last skier to come in as long as I have control of my skis.

  14. Andy says:

    When buying Cross Country Skis, how do you know what the ideal length is for both skis and poles.

  15. Edward Ficenec says:

    I’ve just gotten started to cross country ski and am looking forward to it. I live in Wyoming

  16. Walter Shwayder says:

    Looking for outback skis with metal edge suggestion also compatible boots. Have been racing and skiing for many decades timed for new equipment please let me know your opinion email to
    Thank you WalterShwayder

  17. metamorphosis says:

    Which skis do you have in your “quiver” and what have your experience been with them? Would one particular ski that be more versatile for XC usage on ADK terrain?

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