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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.