When I first intended to come to Norway and learn to XC ski, I had visions of doing mostly back country touring and building up to ski mountaineering. However these have always been on the back burner since time, jobs and a fascination with the sports technique took over. Also my circle of friends and family are only currently interested in the same as me, getting out for a nice blast up and down the tracks.
So if you are living slap bang in the middle of XC land with plenty of prepared tracks, and you are interested in like me, fun & fitness, then what skis should you get and where?
"Any skis will get you there if you don't know where you're going...."
If you have friends and family who sports-ski then that is an added incentive to buy sporty skis. You should buy the best you can afford, after maybe renting or borrowing at a ski school I would also recommend to go to. But there has to be a compromise between being able to learn on the pair while they take you forward up the learning curve.
I would say most of all though spend good money on a pair and go to a good shop. If you live in like Scandinavia (exc. Denmark and Iceland where it aint a sport really), Canada or Colorado then you will quite likely find that the chain shops actually have trained staff and a tension machine to test your weight against the skis you are interested in. If you live outside the main XC ski centres then it is worth going through your local club or finding a specialist sport XC shop elsewhere.
Tension Mounts Around the Camber Talks........
The tension ("spenn" in Norsk) is the most important factor - a deeper, and stiffer camber will be more dificult to learn on, while too little will not support your weight and the kick wax or waxless patterned area will drag on the snow, which is very slow. Lenght generally relates to spenn but not always. A ski for classic should be about 20cm-25 cm longer than your height in order to have both enough spenn and give directional stability in the tracks relative to the leverage your height will give.
Specialists and club members will also advise you on how to wax your skis, but also on what type of spenn and width of ski you should get for the local tracks, snow types, temperatures and terrain. If you live in an area with a short season predominantly of soft, mild snow (snowman snow!) then you may want to get softer ski but it will need enough camber to hold the clister or waxless area off the snow. In an area with a generally cold winter, where snow tends to fall heavily and then lie a long time, then a harder spenn may suit you such that you get nice fast glide while keeping your wax, clister or pattern off the hard, abrasive base.
Predominant Weather and Type of Snow Count a Lot in Choice
The predominant weather conditions also play a part, especially in the type of glide area pattern you get first put on the ski, which the specialist shops or a helpful club member will sort out for you. Cold snow needs a glide zone which is really polished and a hard wax, or removal of the stone ground factory "average" texture with a Kizmun scraper if you want to avoid glider wax. These preparations allow the sole of the ski in the fore and aft glide zones to break the hard ice and snow flake crystals down to the thin layer of water which renders skis slippy. The kick zone wax can be a simple green wax base followed by layers of for example Swix VF 40 blue, which is an excellent -3 to -10'C new and old snow, enduring do it all wax.
If you have an area typified by swings in temperature to above freezing then you want to consider a waxless ski I would say, because clister is messy and easy to get wrong. Patterned plastic ski bottoms on the cheap, "Ski & Boot" package deals give the design a bad name. My first ever tour on XC skis was on a pair of Fischer RCS Carbon waxless at Geilo, these are an 800 USD pair of skis, and I had excellent glide, ahem a little too good for my skills, while also good enough grip to get going. These skis were often used by keen amateur sports skiers as a pair for variable conditions on longer ski runs, and are a very high end ski! So textured soles does not mean bad skis, it is just that many of the cheaper skis sold to beginners lack the right camber "spenn". Atomic also for example, have a good range of more touring oriented skis with sports characteristics (BC 45 for example) available both with plane waxable and patterned wax free soles.
Furry Soled, New Fangles Skin Skis
Nowadays of course you have the advent of the furry kick soled ski - the skinski as I think they will be known in English rather than waxless per se. Atomic lead the way, and there being no patent pending on the design, all the major manufacturers have cast themselves into this technology. Madhus and Atomic have perhaps the sportiest versions, while Salomon have both a sporty and a broader tour&training variety. These are mid priced skis, often with carbon fibre structures in them, so they are a good investment! The skin can be taken out btw with a warm air pistol, but best done by a pro perhaps.
Skin-skis are really very, very good for those people who want to max their training or go longer tours in the tracks without worrying about what clister to plank on, or about getting their car seats sticky! They do have their limitations though - firstly in cold new snow on a soft base many say they are as good as useless. Now obviously if they are driving machines to make tramlines or there is enough ski goer traffic then the base gets hard enough for traction at any temperature. Too hard though, ice with water on it late season, and they are not as good as a red or silver special clister, but hey, you can often find coming out of the tracks and going on the middle lane or hardened BC snow will give you grip. Camber is really important here with skin skis - too soft and the skin will drag , too hard and you will not get enough contact when you are beginiing to learn especially.
They are also not wax-free really. You should either glide wax them onto a texture as discussed above, or Kizmun scrape them on the glide areas. Also some people recommend liqued glide wax on the skin itself - I tried a bit at the ends and I reckon it actually made adhesion poorer, but then again maybe if I had done the whole skin with it on the mild day yesterday it would have pressed more water off, There are also antiicing products now for skins and if I am not mistaken, a treatment for powder snow which over comes the new fallen issue,
Skinny Skis for Skinny Tram Lines, Period
Narrow race skis are below 40 mm on the center measurement, with little or no inswing from the ends- ie the edges are nearly or actually parallell for the whole contact area of the ski. Also racing skis tend to be sold a lot harder in spenn than training or tour skis. Anyhows, it is unlikely that anyone will recommend them to you, but as I said Fischer RCS carbon are a full blow racing ski and I did my first twenty clicks ever on them and lived to tell the tale.
The opposite end of the scale is tour skis and 'fjell' skis aka Telemark traditional Back Country (BC) Skis which are usually over 45 mm on the middle, and this swings in from up to 20% broader on the tips. Side cut or in-swing the names for this, render the ski a higher bouyancy for softer, off piste snow on the tips, while assisting in steering the ski in loose snow down hill when you want to tuck in and use your body weight to steer. However the broader tips and side cut mean that they do tend to follow up the edges of laid tracks and steer a little jittery on any hard 'cordurouy', furthermore and tend not to track well on this middle corrugated area as soon as it firms up - they in effect fight parallel lines and want their freedom!
My Fischer Power Wax are if I remember right 52-45-50 and my new Atomic skintecs are 41-40-40. The blue Fischer planks also have a 'track and trail' camber rather than a back country and mountain camber - that is to say they are quite stiff, with the camber neing high and in the middle of the ski, a little assymetric with a greater angle at the toe end. My wife has a pair of slightly wider Aasnes Vikafjell, which are great skis only that they are really a light mountain ski with a long camber, steel edges and seem quite stiff in that camber, which makes waxing especially with clister tricky and irritating. She has decided to get into skate skis for training now, but the Vikafjells were great when we were teaching the kids to ski, with all that control with the steel edges for ploughing and the like.
The only advantage of a ski like my Power Wax, or say the Aasnes Nordmarka, is that you get good bouyancy in slightly deeper snow and softer, wetter snow, and that if you carry a pack they take your weight better. That and the off tramline steering. So despite you living in an area with nice prepp'ed tracks, if you get a lot of new snow and long lasting cold, soft conditions and you want to tour a little late season say with a pack on ski goer tracks, then a tour ski with a standard, central camber may be an option.
If however like me you realistiaclly are going to be in the tracks for a quick blast round the floodlight circuit at night or a tour up the tracks to the lakeside sledging hill with the kids come Sunday, then "sports-training" skis are a better option because of the issues with steering up the side walls of the tramlines, especially with steel edges. Training skis are lighter and will glide better in the tracks because they compress snow to water better and in wetter conditions will allow the water to press out the sides quicker, if well prepared. Lightness can go to far, as with no feel for the ski to begin with you maybe start to loose tracking in the tramlines and stumble out.
When I lived a winter in Kristiansand and trained two to three nights a week, I noticed that there were hardly anyone on skis like mine. Even portly pensioners had sporty, thin, parrallel skis with dear boots, and I struggled to keep pace with some of them! At the weekend I would notice though that lots of people had quite broad madhus mountain skis and were enjoying classic track kicking. No one bothered really with middle of the road skis because they are no good off piste in deeper snow, and they usually lack steel edges for icey hillsides, while they are a little too narrow for carrying one of those monster backpacks you see the Noggies out with when going cabin -cabin touring,
Feel the Need for Steel ??
Steel edges? Do I not need the safety margin of metal on the sides? Well in fact Fischer did a training ski with steel edges, called Steel Lights, which is not on their web site but still in stock at various outlets. Steel edges are useful in hard packed and icey conditions, especially where you have demanding down hill sections with plenty of corners. For soft snow prevailing condistions, on undulating country they are more than useless, because they can cut dogs paws and kids fingers open when those little mishaps occur. Also they add both weight and an extra spring tension to the ski. However when I lived in Kristiansand we had so often either super high traffic packed snow or thaw back and freeze conditions that these would have been a sensible investment, as I have actually wrecked the plastic edges on my blue planks from these two winters I trained there.
A Balancing Act
Thinner skis then are faster, lighter to kick with and stay better in the tramlines, while also tracking well in the cordurouy! However they do track a little too well and you need to be able to 'jump' up to get into plough position to spill speed or stop, while also learning 'step turning' earlier on.
Which brings me nicely to the other alternative and my new testament gospel of learning to skate ski first! I have blogged on this before of course, but to recap" skate skiing has always been a technique on all types of skis as a way of making progress, especially over slack slopes. However in the late 70s and early 80s it became more wide spread in the XC sport, until Robert Koch infamously beat all the scando's and Canadians on skis with no kick wax by not just skating between tram-lines, round some corners and down hills but skating the whole damn way and winning by a country mile. A schism developed with this form of 'cheating' risking being banished, as it is now from classic runs, but it quickly developed as its own style and became favoured by biathalon skiers because the rifle jars around less than in kick skiing. It grew to be fully accepted, but fully segregated as a technique.
Classic Style is Really Just Parallel Skating !
As I will blog once again, classic style is really parallel skating because you should aim to completey unload the one ski having powered of it and glide on the other. Instead of a side edge push off as in all forms of skating on blades, wheels and plastic, you are pushing down on the sole in order to get traction, and then putting all your weight over to the gliding ski, allowing the now depowered leg to trail before the cycle repeats from the other leg again.
When it comes to manoervering, it is so much better being able to learn step turning on XC skis as early as possible because plough just kills too much speed when you dont want to loose it for crowning over the next nice forrest undulation. On longer downhills with medium gradients you can tuck down out of the tramlines with a downhill stance and use the edges to steer on long corners or traverses,. However eventually turns become too sharp for this while ploughing round them may kill your speed almost completely, so step turning is the method of choice. Skate skiing is the best means to learn good one ski balance and step turning in particular.
Dont worry though, on both my super narrow Madshus Ultrasonic Skate 195cm skis and my new Atomic Skintec 4000s I can plough very nicely, either in soft of rather hard icey mid lanes because I can get a lot of pressure on the edges of the skis and the skis can be moved into plough easily, Also you can revert to standard, trudging fishbone on skate skis on the steepest hills if the 'offset' aka paddling is hard to master.
Skate skis are an option for you especially of course if you come from ice skating or from roller blading, whcih will also give you year round training possibiliies! Furthermore, if you have an area which just gets kind of skied down without good parrallel tram lines, or the tramlines get very very icey and abrasive in ther bases, then skate skiing can be a good way to avoid frustration with waxing and clisters because often the mid lane snow or path snow is soft enough to get edges into while the rail lines are like steel!
Skate skiing requires a higher level of concentration and initially, balance than just learning to plod around on classic or mountain skis with grippy zones on their soles. Generally you need to avoid deep soft snow, and ice on them too. However the advantage in balance and manoerving techniques you will gain from doing this style first IMHO is huge, plus that it is much easier to train off season on roller blades or roller skis for skating than the more demanding classic roller ski with ratchet. Skate skiing also lends itself really only to undulating courses in the woods, or longer plateau sections due to the concentraton needed and the lack of variability in my opinion. If you have a long ascent with stretches of fishboning followed by a long descent then quite likely
If you meet the following criteria >
1. Live near nicely prepared skitrails
2. Want to train aerobically and quite hard
3. maybe have ambitions to race
4. Dont see yourself doing back country touring with a pack
Then get thee a pair of nice skinny, 40mm wide skis for classic, and at least try skate skiing at a school as part of your first lessons. I would say opt for skate skis if you have typical undulating woodland tracks or flate lake runs, and are experienced on roller blades or ice skating, and maybe drop classic skis altogether!
If however you
1. Have a bit poor balance
2. . often have soft trails only driven by other skiers
3. want to carry a 10kg + backpack often
4. like the idea of BC and mountain tours on firmer snow
Then you want to cut out the middle man and get some broader mountain skis with steel edges
Which ever style you go for, wiegh yourself and use a shop which has a tensioning machine to check camber against your weight - including backpack for touring remember- for all types of skis. Check the makers height to lenght and weight to length or camber charts before you buy. Buy a mid priced set of skis which the shop assistant has taken time to go through your needs and intended uses. Learn also the basics of waxing - a shop should include a first texture, glider waxing with also a sanding of the kick area and a first layer of base binder for free on a mid priced 400-700 USD pair of skis- get it included before you close the deal. Some shops may also offer a Kizmun blade scrape in the glide zone, which for stable conditions will last the seaason with no need for any glider wax.
Shops and clubs often run courses on waxing, and there is a lot on youtube and swix.com these days to learn from. A basic box=package price from swix, SkiGo or Rode will only cost about 30-40 USD and include the three types of hard wax you need, a universal clister, a spatula, a cork., perhaps some sandpaper and perhaps a quick glider in a shoe polish type applicator bottle.
Skate skis need to really have the right texture on them for the prevailing conditions and a hard glider can be used for all conditions on top of the chosen texture to begin with.