Equipment Considerations for
first time Cross-Country Skiers

The information on this web page assumes you are new to the sport, and that you are interested in classic cross-country skiing on groomed trails. Skate skiing is another form of cross-country skiing, but it is more difficult and demanding, especially for beginners.

A stand at the Herridge Cabin in Gatineau Park
for cross-country ski equipment.

What to look for

First and foremost, find a store with a large selection of cross-country ski equipment, and knowledgeable staff. At these stores, the person servicing you will likely be a cross-country enthusiast, and can be the source of a great deal of useful information. If a store only has a token amount of cross-country equipment, or if all you can find are staff who are experts at snowboarding or alpine skiing, go elsewhere.

When you start shopping, look for general purpose recreational (touring) skis. You can find reasonable quality packages which include the skis, bindings, boots, and poles for about $225 to $275 (prices as of 2006).

Waxable or Waxless Skis

One of the first decisions you will be confronted with is the choice between waxable and waxless skis. This refers to whether or not the skis use kick (or grip) wax to provide the traction necessary to push yourself forward. This is the wax applied to the bottom of the ski in the so-called kick zone, which is more or less under the foot area. The waxless skis have a moulded-in grip pattern in this area, and do not rely on kick wax for traction.

Obviously, waxless skis offer the convenience of not having to apply kick wax every time you want to go out skiing. On the other hand, skis that make use of kick wax offer better performance, and are the choice of most people who are reasonably serious about their cross country skiing.

Waxless skis do have one point in their favour. They don't require any special preparation for use on wet snow when the days become warmer in spring. It's possible to use waxable skis on wet snow. However, standard kick wax doesn't work very well under such conditions, and it is necessary to use something called klister. Unfortunately, klister is a extremely gooey product that can be very messy to apply on skis.

Skis for Your Size and Weight

When buying skis, they should be matched to your size and weight. This is especially important when considering stiffness and camber (the upward arch in the middle of the skis). When you place all your weight on one ski, the camber should flatten out. If the camber doesn't flatten out, you are probably too light for the skis. Conversely, if your partial weight on the ski flattens out the camber completely, you are too heavy for the skis in question. The staff at good cross-country ski stores have ways of measuring this, and they will be able to figure out what you need.

Another consideration is that beginners will usually do better with skis that have some torsional flexibility (side to side twist), especially when skiing on the type of groomed trails found in the Gatineau Park.

Don't forget the poles. The trend is towards poles that are a little longer than what was considered standard length in the past. When standing on your skies, the poles should come up to your armpit (maybe a touch higher). Again, the staff at good stores will be able to recommend the proper pole length for you.

Wax for you skis

Ask about getting a professional hotwax application on the base of the skis you are buying. This is the base glide wax which is applied in the areas forward and aft of the kick zone. Some stores may provide this initial application for free when purchasing a package. You may also want to consider using a liquid glide wax that can be applied by yourself. It will only last an afternoon, and has to be applied every time you go out. Note that glide wax is useful for both waxable and waxless skis.

Of course, if you are getting skis that make use of kick (grip) wax, this is an essential item for your shopping list. Different temperatures and snow conditions require different types of kick waxes. Pick up a starter kit that comes with three basic types of kick wax and some application tools for a little less than $25 (price as of 2006).

Boots and Bindings

Be sure to get boots that are made specifically for classic cross-country skiing (although similar, there are difference between boots for classic and skate skiing). They should be comfortable and fit property, and you should try them on with the socks you would normally wear when skiing. If the boots in a given price range aren't all that comfortable, consider spending a bit more to get something that really fits well. In fact, if you're tempted to spend a little extra, it may be best to do so for the boots rather than the skis or poles.

The boots you chose will dictate the binding system you need. There are two major binding systems on the market. Although they are very similar, boots are designed to work with only one or the other. Most stores will install the binding on the skis free of charge when you buying a package.

Other equipment

There are a few other items you may wish to consider, especially if you are going out for a few hours. These include a good water bottle and a small backpack or waist pack to carry various waxes, some snacks, and extra clothing. And don't forget a good pair of sunglasses.

Clothing for Cross-Country Skiing

Once you have purchased your skis, boots, bindings, and poles, you may think that you have everything needed to go cross-country skiing. Wrong. You'll also have to get the proper clothing. Without it, cross-country skiing can be a downright miserable experience.

Cross-country skiing involves physical activity and perspiration. This moisture has to go somewhere, and if you ski with your regular clothing (jeans, and cotton shirts, cotton underwear, etc) this moisture gets absorbed into what you are wearing and just sits there. This cuts down on the insulating value of your clothing, and also means you'll start to feel damp and clammy. After a while, you'll start to feel chilly, especially when you stop to rest or when temperature drops later in the afternoon. Moreover, the outer layers of your damp clothing will start to freeze and become stiff. All in all, a sure fire recipe to turn you off cross-country skiing.

The solution is to use synthetic clothing (often made of polyester) that's fast drying, breathable and that wicks moisture away from your body. Sports stores and good cross-county ski shops are full of such clothing. It may also be possible to save some money by finding some of what you'll need at discount stores and big-box outlets. And check your closet for clothing made of polyester, you may already have a few of the necessary items

If you're ready to spend a bit more, you can also consider socks and sweaters made out of high quality merino wool. In addition to having all advantages of synthetic material, merino wool is itch free, very comfortable on the skin, and doesn't have the odour build-up problems that can plague clothing made of polyester.

The Clothes You'll Need

For your upper body, you will usually need the following three layers of clothing: (a) a long-sleeved T-shirt or thin sweater, (b) a medium weight fleece lining or jacket, and (c) an outer shell that acts as a wind breaker. The outer shell should be breathable, but doesn't have to be waterproof since you'll rarely, if ever, go skiing in the rain. For your legs, you can choose from a variety of sports pants that are widely available on the market, or you can even get thermal tights covered with an outer shell. And finally, you'll need the appropriate underwear and socks. Needless to say, all this is made of moisture wicking synthetic material. Remember - no cotton.

You'll be ready to go once you get a good pair of ski gloves and a medium weight toque. On colder days, you may want to put on an extra fleece layer under your jacket, bring something to keep your neck and face warm, and wear a thicker toque.

All this clothing can be a bit expensive, but it should be regarded as almost essential equipment for enjoyable cross-country skiing. Unless you plan to live on your skis, or get involved in competitive events, you should be okay with medium quality clothing. And of course, for the same reasons that this clothing ideal for cross-country skiing, it can also be very useful for other outdoor activities (e.g. hiking, running, or cycling, especially in spring and fall).

© Michael McGoldrick, 2006.

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