SIMPLE KICK WAXING FOR TOURING

Lots of people are big fans of waxless skis for touring. I'm not one of them.

I am told by friends from different regions that waxless skis work better than waxable skis in their local environments. Who am I to argue? But in my experience, on most ski days in New England a waxed ski will climb better and go faster than a waxless ski. Simply put, a waxed ski is more fun in more conditions.

This is not to say that kick wax is entirely hassle free. It isn't. Compared to no-wax skis, applying kick wax is a pain. Kick wax can be incredibly messy to deal with. It can try your patience on days when the temperature varies wildly or when the temperature hovers around freezing. And when it doesn't work, the frustration level can go through the roof.

But before you give up without even trying, take heart! Kick wax doesn't need to be rocket science and a straight-forward dirtbag approach can keep things to a manageable level of simplicity.

CONTENTS OF THIS FILE

KICK WAX VERSUS CLIMBING SKINS

Kick wax can be applied to any ski, which can be a big advantage to telemark skiers. While climbing skins allow you to climb steep slopes with confidence, they don't glide well which makes them a literal drag on rolling terrain and low-angle hills. In contrast, kick wax is made to both grip and glide, which makes it perfect for rolling terrain. Also, since the properly chosen kick wax will glide well, you can generally ski down without needing to adjust anything. This makes kick wax perfect for doing laps on small hills since you don't need to bother putting skins on and taking them off with every lap.

A SIMPLE WAX KIT

I use a wax kit with 4 hard kick waxes and 1 or 2 klisters. I've found that 4 waxes provide noticeably better performance than the super-simple 2 wax systems. On the other hand, 4 waxes is still less complex compared to the rainbow array of waxes that cross-country racers tote around in their wax kit.

I use Swix waxes. Lots of performance oriented skiers tell me that other brands like Toko and Rhode offer better performance. But Swix waxes are much easier to find so, I've chosen to learn a wax system that I know I can find in stores pretty much anywhere.

I've begun to experiment with some of the more expensive fluorinated waxes from Swix. People that I trust tell me that they work better over a broader range of temperatures, but I can't argue that the expense is worth it yet. Ask me again in a year or two. In any event, here is my current selection of waxes:

Hard Waxes

Klister Waxes

A SIMPLE WAX CHART

I don't like to think much when I'm skiing. To simplify my skiing life, I've prepared a simple wax chart to remind me which wax to use depending on the temperature and the snow conditions. I've printed it off in a small format, laminated it and carry it in my wax pouch along with a small, inexpensive snow thermometer. (Swix makes a thermometer for under $10 which is available at most places that carry kick wax.)

Using this method, selecting the correct wax in most conditions is as simple as sticking the thermometer in the snow, waiting a few minutes and then reading the chart.

I've made my wax chart available in MS-Excel format here: http://home.comcast.net/~pinnah/DirtbagPinner/wax-chart.xls . I print this off at a reduced size and then get it laminated to protect it from the weather so I can just carry it with my wax kit.

A couple of notes about the wax chart...

APPLYING WAX - 101

At a minimum, you will want to apply kick wax in the classic "kick-zone", which is the portion of the ski that extends 12" or so in front of and behind the toe piece of the binding. You can, and often should, apply kick wax to the whole length of the ski. We'll discuss this in more detail below but in short, well chosen kick wax glides well and full length kick wax climbs better.

For best results, apply kick wax to a clean ski. In particular, for those who need to press their lift-served skis into backcountry touring purposes, note that kick wax does not stick well to glide wax. If you apply kick wax over glide wax, expect to need to reapply wax throughout the day.

Before heading out to ski, I will strip the bases for the length of the ski for which I will likely apply kick wax. I clean my bases with Goo Gone (tm), a cheap citrus based solvent that can be found at nearly all grocery, hardware and drug stores. High performance skiers will surely cringe at this advice and will talk about residues or drying out the bases, both of which I am warned will cost speed. But it is cheap and effective. Plus, my goals touring are good grip, good speed and convenience, not speed at all costs.

Cans of kick wax are basically short, stubby crayons and, more or less, you use them about the same. Similar to peeling off the paper from a crayon, the first thing you need to do is to peel back some of the tin (or plastic) to expose the wax. Applying the wax is not much harder than drawing with a crayon and the goal is similar. You want to "color" the base of the ski in much the same way that you would color with crayons.

Kick waxes come in different hardnesses; cold waxes are harder and warm waxes are softer. You will have to adjust how you crayon on the wax to suit the specific wax and whether you are waxing outside in the cold or inside where it is warm. Experience will guide you here. Warm soft waxes can get pretty goopy and at times, you will think you are working with bubble gum in a can. You'll need to learn how to use a soft hand when working with them.

As much as possible, you want to avoid big globs of wax. These will slow down your glide noticeably and, counter to intuition, these globs will not add any extra grip.

Generally, you get better results when you draw the wax in one direction in long steady strokes. Angle the base of the can towards the direction of the strokes and try to "drag" the wax on. Otherwise, the wax will hop and chatter, which will cause those unwanted globs of wax. Also, avoid rubbing the wax back and forth if you can, as that will almost certainly create globs at the end of each stroke. Sometimes, this type of rubbing is the only way to get the wax to "catch" on the ski base, especially when the wax is cold and hard or the base is wet a slippery.

After a layer of wax has been applied, it needs to be corked in. The goal here is to polish the wax and to heat it a bit so it will stick to your ski longer. Work tip to tail with vigorous strokes.

In general, several thin layers of wax work better than 1 thick coat. I typically apply a minimum of 3 layers most ski days. Be sure to cork in each layer separately.

The next thing to do is to test your wax. I'll almost always ski 10 or 20 yards out and back to test my wax before shouldering my pack and heading out.

If you need more grip, adjust your wax by following the acronym, TLC:

TOURING VS RACING

Some of the advice I've given above may raise the eyebrows (if not hackles) of performance skiers. But I've come to believe that tourers and racers have somewhat different needs, especially when it comes to wax.

I've found that most books and web sites that cover waxing are (correctly) targeted towards nordic racers and performance skiers. This is especially true of the books and web sites published by the wax manufacturers.

In short, I believe that tourers should use slightly warmer, softer waxes than racers for the same conditions and that they should apply their kick wax over a longer length of the ski - often to the whole length.

To understand this better, consider some of the differences between racers and tourers:

LENGTH OF THE KICK ZONE

In my opinion, restricting your kick wax to a small wax pocket in the middle of the ski only makes sense if you are using a racing style ski where the goal is to get maximum glide and where the high, stiff camber will hold the stickier kick wax up and off of the snow during the glide phase. Putting it another way, if you are using a flatter cambered ski, your kick wax is already "dragging" in the snow anyhow, so waxing along a longer length of the ski is not that much of a performance penalty in terms of speed, comparatively speaking. However, waxing the full length of the ski will dramatically increase the grip of the ski.

To put things into perspective, it should be noted that the idea of a wax-pocket is something of a recent historical development. Prior to modern, high-cambered xc race skis, kick wax was generally applied to the full length of the ski. If you take today's xc race wax advice at face value, you will get the impression that kick wax drags like a boat anchor. And to be sure, in competitions where results are determined by fractions of a second, worrying about this makes sense. But many folks are surprised to find out that well chosen kick wax will glide just fine. While a ski with kick wax applied tip to tail might not run as fast as a racing ski, it will run faster than most any no-wax ski while providing better grip.

WAX RETENTION, BINDER WAX AND KLISTER

Old, refrozen snow is very abrasive and can quickly strip kick wax off of the ski. The result is less and less and kick as the day progresses meaning that you will either slip like a dog on a tile floor or need to stop and reapply wax. Here are 2 things I do to help deal with this problem.

First, if you can iron in your kick wax, it will stay on much longer. To do this, I rub on a layer of wax like a crayon, as I normally would. But instead of corking the wax, I will run a warm iron over it to melt into the base. I then repeat this several times to add several layers of kick wax.

Doing this in the comfort of home with a wax iron is the easiest, of course. In the field, running the ski over a stove will produce similar results. Just don't torch your skis or fingers.

The obvious disadvantage of this is that you need to know what the snow conditions will be ahead of time. To get around this, I error on the side of harder, colder waxes for the first few ironed in layers of wax. These harder waxes will still glide well and being ironed in, they will provide a sticky base to which my softer, warmer wax of the day will adhere to better.

Swix Special Green, Polar and Binder Wax all make great base layers. In particular, Swix Binder Wax is made especially for this purpose. In southern New England where re-frozen snow is common, my skis spend most of the season with a layer of Binder wax ironed into their bases.

It should be noted that ironing and binder wax are not cure-all solutions. In southern New England, it is not uncommon for us to get a warm spell followed by a cold snap. The result is that the trails are transformed into cold, icy tracks. Lest you think these conditions are too tough for waxing, be assured that no-wax skis are essentially worthless in these conditions as the patterns offer no bite in the solid ice or granular ice conditions.

The only solution to these icy conditions that I have found is the so-called "ice" klisters like Swix Blue. My limited experience with these colder klisters is that they are thicker than warmer klisters. So, it really helps to warm the tube before you apply it to ski so that it will come out of the tube easier. Carrying it inside of my coat or putting it on the dashboard heater of my car are two tricks I've used when away from home. Heating the klister with a propane torch or over a camp stove also makes spreading the thick, gooey klister easier.

LAYERING WAX, MIXING WAX AND WAX OVER KLISTER

The general rule is that you can only put softer (warmer) wax on top of harder (colder) wax. You can spread jelly on top of peanut butter but not the other way around, or so they say.

For this reason, if you are in doubt about which wax to use, it is generally easier to try the colder, harder wax first. If you need to adjust, you will be able to put a softer (warmer) wax on top of the harder (colder) wax easier than the other way around.

There are 2 notable exceptions to this general rule that should be mentioned. First, with only 4 waxes to work with, you may notice that you don't get great performance at those temperatures where the temperature range of one wax stops and another one starts. You can effectively mix up and create a new wax in between the other 2 by applying alternating layers.

The 2nd exception to the rule of putting softer wax over hard is useful on those occasions when you need to deal with dry powder snow one minute and heavy wet snow the next. This can happen on sunny day following a snow storm. In the shade, the snow will be dry powder while in the sun, it will be wet, heavy snowball snow. These conditions can also exist on days where there is a considerable difference in the temperature in the warm valley and up high on the mountain.

If you apply a warm enough wax to grip in the warm, wet snow in the sunshine, your skis will ice up and become unusable when you hit the powder. The dryer, colder powder will stick to the warm wax like it was glue. On the other hand, if you apply a hard enough wax to resist icing up in the shade, you will not have any grip in the warm, sunny baked snow. What to do?

The traditional conventional wisdom has said that it is "Better to slip in the sun than to stick in the shade", which argues for waxing for the cold snow and just gritting your teeth through the warm sections.

The solution is to put hard kick wax over a layer of klister. The theory here is that the layer of hard wax will provide kick in the dry, cold snow in the shade while preventing the klister from icing up. On the other hand, the soft layer of klister under the hard wax will act like a cushion, allowing the round wet snow crystals in the sun to grip despite the layer of cold hard wax. Surprisingly, I've actually gotten this to work. Here's what I've done...

First, I apply a layer of Swix Universal klister. This will provide the grip in warm sunny snow. Second, I will put the ski outside and in the shade so the klister will harden in the colder temperature. While I wait for the klister to set up, I will choose a hard wax based on the snow temperature in the shade. Finally, I apply the hard wax. For best results, I try to use as soft of a hand as possible so as not to push through the soft layer of klister. The trick is to drag the wax across the klister in such a way as to pull the wax off of the wax can. Cork the wax in with a light touch.

WAXING FOR CLIMBING

In many cases, kick wax makes a better alternative than climbing skins for climbing. This is especially true when you want to run laps on a short hill and you don't want to bother with the hassle of taking skins on and off. Also, on long climbs the drag, drag, drag of skins can be tiring. The properly chosen kick wax will climb nearly as well as skins but will glide much better. Over the course of thousands of footsteps, this better glide really adds to less fatigue.

Often, the wax of the day as suggested by the temperature and wax chart will give sufficient grip to climb well provided the wax is applied tip to tail and the angle of the climb is not too steep. Some trails demand steeper climbing and more grip is called for. In these conditions, try applying the next softer (warmer) wax than the wax chart suggest. For example, if the chart calls for Blue Extra, try Special Violet instead.

Of course, skins still give better grip going up. As a result, when climbing on wax you may need to climb at a less aggressive angle to the slope than you could with skins. This, in turn, will require more traverses and kick steps. But, it is also less tiring and, in balance, is preferable in many conditions. For example, I would rather traverse and kick step my way up the Sherburne Trail on kick wax than march straight up on skins.

STRIPPING WAX IN THE FIELD

In a NATO workshop, Dickie Hall shared with us the following useful trick for scraping kick wax off of skis on the trail.

NOTE: for ski prep purists, look the other way!! This can be a bit rough on the ski base, especially in terms of maintaining the base's structure.

In short, the idea of this trick is to use one ski like a leveraged ski scraper.

Assuming you are right handed, hold the ski to be scraped in your left hand by the tip with the tail out on the ground in front of you and the base facing up. The other ski is the scraper. Hold it base down in your right hand with the tail off to your right with your hand just ahead of the bindings.

At this point, it should be clear what happens next. Using the edge of the scraping ski which is further away from you, scrape the wax off the base of the other ski with downward strokes.

A couple of important notes:

Removing kick wax is easier than removing its stickier cousin klister. There are some tips that help. On overnight trips, you can benefit from procastination. The cold overnight temperatures will harden the otherwise goey klister, making it much easier to scrape off.

Another old tip mentioned by several authors is to sprinkle corn starch or talcum powder on the klister before scraping. The powder acts like a binder so when you scrape it, it rolls up in a ball. Maybe I'm in the minority on this, but the only problem I see with this is that I genarally don't carry a tin of corn starch with me into the backcountry. Or even talcum powder for that matter. A more useful variation on this approach was suggested by the good folks at the Jackson Touring Center in Jackson, NH. Put a layer of toilet paper on top of the klister. As is the case with the powder, the toilet paper will mix with the klister and the klister will generally roll up easily when you scrape it. And I hope I'm not in the minority on this. I generally do carry toilet paper with me into the backcountry.


Dave's Backcountry Skiing Page

Copyright 2004 by David Mann