Waxable vs waxless classic cross country skis

credit: Fischer Sports GmbH

Are you deciding between waxable vs waxless classic cross country skis? You need to know:

  • A little about glide wax and kick wax.
  • The pros and cons of waxable vs waxless skis.
  • The different kinds of waxless skis.

When you know that, you can make 2 important decisions:

  1. Should you buy waxable or waxless classic cross country skis?
  2. If you decide on waxless skis, what type of waxless skis should you buy?

Ski Waxes and Classic Skis

Classic cross country skis are classified as "waxable" or "waxless" based on whether you need to apply kick wax (a.k.a. grip wax) to the ski before you head out onto the trails.

This classification is confusing because even "waxless" skis need to be waxed.

There are 2 broad categories of cross country ski waxes. These waxes are applied to the bases of the skis.

  • Glide wax
  • Kick wax (a.k.a. grip wax)
Glide Wax

The purpose of glide wax is to protect the bases and help the skis glide better across the snow. Glide wax is applied to waxable and waxless classic skis and to skate skis.

On skate skis, glide wax is applied to the entire length of the ski. On classic skis, glide wax is only applied to the tips and tails of the skis.

Some low cost, entry-level classic cross country skis don't need any wax treatments, but most cross country skis do need glide waxing to keep the bases in good shape.

To repeat: both waxable and waxless classic cross country skis need glide wax.

Kick Wax

Kick wax, also called grip wax, is only used on waxable classic cross country skis. It's applied to the base in the midsection of the ski, in the region underfoot.

Kick wax serves to stick to the snow when the skier pushes down to flatten the ski against the snow. This provides the friction the skier needs to push herself forward in classic skiing.

The classification of waxable vs waxless cross country skis only refers to whether the skis need kick wax

(Want to know more about the mechanics of classic skiing? Watch the first video in this course: Learn Diagonal Stride)

Waxable vs Waxless Classic Cross Country Skis

Instead of kick wax, waxless skis have some sort of specialized material embedded in the base of the ski, in the region underfoot. That material is what sticks to the snow, instead of kick wax.

Waxless classic skis are classified according to the type of material that is substituting for the kick wax.

3 Types of Waxless Classic Skis
Fishscales

Fishscales

Skin Skis

Ski Skis

Zero's

Zero's

There's a pattern imprinted on the base of a fishscale ski. That print acts like a stamp that presses into the snow and helps create grip.

A skin ski has a strip of mohair material inset into the base. The mohair is angled backwards so the material slides easily when the ski is gliding forward. When you push down and back against the ski, the mohairs stick to the snow.

A zero ski (also called a "rub ski") has a special region of the base that's made from a material that feels like a hard rubber surface. You rough up that rubber material with sandpaper prior to skiing. You then apply a special spray-on coating that helps the surface stay rough while you ski.

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Pros and Cons of Waxable vs Waxless Skis

The Advantages of Waxable Skis

In general, people who are serious about cross-country skiing use waxable classic skis. That's because kick wax almost always gives superior performance over the various materials used on waxless skis.

The superior performance comes from the fact kick waxes are infinitely adjustable. There’s a wide range of waxes, even within one brand, and you can select different kick wax for different conditions.

You can fine tune both the grip and glide characteristics of your kick wax. For example, you can layer and lengthen your wax application to adjust your kick and glide.

This sounds more complicated than it is. It doesn't take long to figure out which waxes work well in your area.

It can be really useful to make these sorts of adjustments and using kick wax almost always results in skis that are faster than waxless skis.

The Disadvantage of Waxable Skis
  • The added cost for buying waxing tools and a selection of kick waxes.
  • The time it takes to apply and remove grip wax.
  • It can feel overwhelming to teach yourself about waxing, especially when you're new to cross country skiing and have so many other things to learn.
  • Difficult waxing days/conditions (see next)
Difficult Waxing Days

There are 2 kinds of conditions that make choosing and applying the right kick wax more challenging, and sometimes even impossible:

  1. Warm temperatures,
  2. and/or fresh snow.

The kick waxes used on warm days are  gooey and sticky. It's challenging to apply these waxes smoothly and they have a tendency to things other than the skis.

Klister is a special wax used in warm conditions. Klister, like kick wax, is applied to the kick zone. It's a sticky goo that oozes out of a tube. People hate klister because it makes a mess of their hands, clothing and car.

Once it's on your skis klister is often wonderful to ski on, providing excellent grip and glide.

Fresh falling snow is the really tough problem for wax technicians, especially when the temperature is near zero degrees Celsius. 

The issue is that fresh snow crystals have sharp edges that easily embed in kick wax and klister.

Once  a tiny ice patch forms in your grip wax it will seed larger crystals and you'll end up with big clumps of snow stuck to your kick wax.

The snow will continue to build up and pretty soon your skis have “snow stilts”, big blobs of snow stuck to the bottom of the skis. The skis won't glide and it will be frustrating to move forwards.

This can happen at a range of temperatures, but it’s worse at or near zero degrees Celsius.

As it gets warmer it’s less of a problem as the sharp edges on the snowflakes round off from melting. 

Cold temperature kick wax is harder, so snowflakes can't embed as easily in cold waxes. That’s why cold temperature waxes are more resistant to icing.

It’s these “unwaxable” conditions that make even diehard cross-country skiers dream of owning waxless skis.

The big disappointment is even waxless skis can occasionally ice up in these conditions.

Choosing a Waxless Ski

Skin Ski, Fishscale or Zero?

If all this waxing business sounds like a hassle, then you should opt for waxless skis. You just need to decide which ones.

To make this simple, I'm just going to say, buy skin skis. IMO they are far and away the best choice for the majority of people getting started in cross country skiing.

Even skiers with many pairs of race skis are buying skin skis for training days. The technology is so good that skin skis work across a wide range of conditions.

Skin skis are an easy, grab 'n go ski and they are a delight to ski on - much n icer than fishscales.

Skin skis have a smoother glide than fishscales. They feel less "rattle-y". Skin skis also work across an incredibly wide range of conditions and temperatures.

Zero skis are best for competitive skiers. Skin skis are not fast enough for ski races, outside of fun, loppet-style races. A skin ski won't perform as well in a race situation as a Zero ski.

(A Zero is a bit too complicated for a newer skier to understand and use. It's not a grab and go ski, like a fishscale or skin ski. That why I don't recommend zero's for beginners.)

Learn more about Classic Cross Country Ski Equipment:

Classic Cross Country Ski Gear, Explained Simply

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