There are few things better than gliding along fresh corduroy on a crisp morning in the splendor of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. While Alison and I enjoy backcountry skiing on un-groomed terrain, a grand tour on groomers in the Whites is sublime, and it’s no wonder that cross-country skiing may be our favorite shared outdoor activity.
Skiing on groomed trails may seem a surprising deviation from our usual ethos of rugged, off-trail backcountry trips, but not so. We have a fast and fun side, too. In warmer weather, for instance, we go on grand backroad bike tours using our carbon, aero-wheeled road racing bikes in order to cover the maximum amount of scenery in the minimum time. No encumbered, knobby-tired touring bikes with panniers for us.
In a similar vein, when we have paid for airfare and a car rental to get us from DC to New Hampshire, and then paid more for a trail pass, we want skis that are optimized for the groomed trails. For us, 70-80 percent of the time that will be skate skis.
For those unfamiliar with ski techniques, skate skiing is like speed skating over snow. The other cross-country ski technique, classic, is more like striding, or at low speeds, shuffling. Both techniques are excellent aerobic workouts. You have to love a sport in which racers collapse in a semi-conscious heap at the finish line. Since getting seriously into cross-country skiing, we have not ridden a chair lift — and we don’t miss it.
Advantages of Skate Skiing
1. It is the fastest and most efficient way to move over pristine, groomed snow. Since Alison and I wax skis and buy passes the night before, and start skiing at trail opening time (or even a few minutes before) we are usually the first skiers on most trails — many times skiing unmarked corduroy until at least lunchtime — and we can cover over 30 kilometers of superb trails before noon.
2. Because skate skis do not have the grip issues of classic skis, they perform well in a broader range of temperatures and snow conditions, assuming decent grooming. Skate skis do especially well in warm spring-like conditions that give classic skiers wax pocket fits.
3. Waxing skate skis is fast and simple: simply put on one type of glide wax from nose to tail. There is no wax pocket, and there is no need to apply more than one wax. Less time worrying about and fiddling with skis = more time skiing.
4. The more rigid skate ski boots offer better control on steep downhills.
Disadvantages of Skate Skiing
1. As groomed surfaces deteriorate, skating becomes less efficient and less fun. So too does classic skiing, but to a lesser extent. If snow falls post-grooming, skating becomes an increasingly difficult chore with every additional inch of new snow.
2. Off of wide, hard-packed groomed trails, skate skis perform poorly and can be downright useless. The only exception is “crust skiing,” which occurs in special springtime conditions. In these (rare) circumstances, skate skiers can cover phenomenal backcountry distances in a day.
3. The skate skiing technique is arguably harder to to learn. It also requires a higher intensity effort on flats and uphills, whereas classic skiers can “walk” on these surfaces if they so choose.
4. Without good technique, steep uphills are a bitch on skate skis. And even for fit skiers with great technique, steep grades will raise heart rates to very high levels. I suppose if you are looking for a killer workout, this is actually a plus.
5. Cold, new snow — which consists of hard and sharp snowflakes — reduces glide, narrowing the advantage of skate skis over classic skis. Thankfully, in these conditions classic skiing is pure joy. Alison and I happily slap on our classic sticks and stride away!
Prefacing remarks on equipment purchases
While it is my personal choice for skate skiing, Fischer does not have a lock on the cross-country ski market. There are good to great skis, boots, bindings, and poles in about every price bracket. Before buying, it is worthwhile to consult with your local ski shop, or my favorite online cross-country ski retailer, Gear West.
Alternatively, consider renting for your first season. This will give you a good idea of your personal tastes and preferences before investing in your own gear. When I was getting more serious about cross-country skiing, I was able to take advantage of special demos of high-end ski equipment, which is not usually rented.
The try-before-you-buy strategy allows you to take advantage of end-of-season sales to purchase your personal gear. If you are not wedded to particular gear or the most current model, the discounts can be steep! Most of my gear was bought on closeout or at least late/post-season discount.
Skis || Fischer Carbonlite Skate
I use a race-caliber skate ski because they are the fastest and most efficient on pristine groomed surfaces. My Fischer Carbonlite Skate Skis are 192 cm long, weigh just 980 grams, and have a narrow 41-44-44 arrow-shaped sidecut. They are optimized for my body weight (plus a day pack) and for the snow conditions and temperatures typical of a New England winter: they have a “stiff” 95kg flex rating for hard snow; and a custom stone-ground base, somewhere between a cold and plus base. My only gripe with these skis are the donut holes in the tips, which make them more delicate than I would like.
For warmer conditions, I also have much less expensive Fishcer RCS Skate Plus Skis. They have a softer flex and a Plus base for warmer snow. These are an excellent budget ski, hence their popularity among collegiate racers. Moreover, they have a more durable tip than the “hole-tip” Carbonlites.
Boots || Fischer RCS Carbonlite Skate
For years, Salomon racing boots have arguably been the gold standard for both classic and skating techniques. Recently, that changed some with the Fischer RCS Carbonlite Skate Boots, which I find to be competitive with the Salomon boots. I demo’ed the Carbonlite Skate boots in a half size smaller than I would normally use (my size was out on another demo) and was surprised to find them comfortable during 2+ hours of hard skiing, while the snugger fit gave me a better connection with the skis. So I bought them.
In the last four years, my feet have been warm and comfortable on every outing in these boots. I also appreciate the snug fit and rigidity of the boot/binding connection for better control of my skis on steep descents of narrow, tree-lined trails where failure would have consequences.
Bindings || Fischer Xcelerator Super Skate Race NIS
These bindings are an integral part of the rigid ski/boot connection that adore. Also, these are the bindings that go with the Fischer Carbonlite boots — if you get those boots you will probably get these bindings.
The Xcelerator bindings have served me well in a variety of sub-optimal weather and conditions. The NIS plate adjustments allow me to easily fine tune my skis, replace a broken part (hasn’t happened yet), and remove completely the bindings (which I did recently prior to shipping them for a fresh stone-grind). My only gripe is that the plastic safety retainer clip for the binding release is hard to unclip with cold fingers.
These NIS (Nordic Integrated System) bindings are a variant of NNN (New Nordic Norm) bindings and are fully compatible with NNN boots. NIS bindings differ from NNN in that they mount to a NIS plate attached to the ski. This allows for tool-less binding installation and in-field binding adjustments, both of which I like.
The alternate boot/binding system is Salomon SNS (Salomon Nordic System), which is decidedly not compatible with NIS/NNN boots and bindings. If you purchase SNS boots or SNS bindings, then you must also buy SNS bindings or SNS boots, respectively. You can still use non-Salomon skis, but only models without an NIS plate.
NNN and SNS bindings (skate and classic) are both offered in race and sport/touring versions. Race bindings are usually lighter, and they feature a manual lever that requires bending over in order to lock/unlock the boot and ski. The advantage is a firmer and more reliable ski attachment. With sport/touring bindings, boots pop into a spring-loaded catch mechanism, and the bindings can be unlocked while standing up. This feature improves ease-of-use but sacrifices some rigidity between the boot and ski.
Poles || Swix Team TBS Premium Carbon
This is a durable race pole at a reasonable price. I bought these on closeout for $150, one-quarter the price of the current top-of-the-line Swix racing poles and much less than most full-on race poles. The Swix Team Poles are frequently used by collegiate racers, as well as by some pros in mass start races where pole breakage is a real possibility.
Per Swix: “The Team is a 100% carbon fiber pole with an amazing compromise of weight, stiffness, price and strength. It is slightly heavier and less stiff [than Swix’s top racing poles], but makes up for in strength — breaking less easily.” Mine have seen so much use that the the cork is worn enough that it might be time to re-grip the poles.
Glide waxes || Toko (“S3”) NF, Swix LF, and Rex Blue
With skate skis it’s all about the glide wax. Most of the time we use economical and environmentally friendly non-fluorocarbon (NF) waxes. (Fluorocarbons are harmful to both human health and the environment). Typically we use Toko NF waxes (formerly known as “S3,” or “System 3”). We appreciate the simplicity of having only three wax choices. For us, the Toko NF blue and red waxes glide well enough in cold and middle temperature ranges, respectively. Rex Blue is a bit of an outlier, inexpensive but competitive with fluorocarbon waxes within its temperature range.
We only use low fluorocarbon Swix waxes (LF) when it’s warm. In these conditions, the LF waxes are better than NF waxes at breaking the “adhesion” between the ski bases and wet snow. We typically use LF10, LF8, and occasionally LF7. It is possible to still use Toko NF Yellow, but it will be noticeably slower as temperatures approach or exceed the freezing point.
At over $60 for a 180-gram block, the LF waxes are expensive compared to the NF waxes, which are $16 for a 120-gram block. But consider that high flurocarbon (HF) waxes can run $75 or more for a small 40 g block!
Typically, we wax skis the night before flying. We just take our best guess on the wax for the next day’s conditions, and we usually get it right. Waxing at home allows us to drive from the airport directly to the ski area, get out of the car, buy trail passes, suit up and be skiing in less than 15 minutes. Even on our travel day, we can get in a fully afternoon of skiing by being on-trail by noon.
After skiing, and before heading back to the condo/motel, we re-wax our skis in the waxing room of the ski area (which has its own waxing tables). We also buy tickets for the next day. This allows us to be skiing when the trails first open, avoid crowds, and have the freshly groomed trails mostly to ourselves. Obviously, if you don’t ski locally, you can choose to wax at the ski area, using their waxing tables and avoiding the cost of a home waxing table. But these common waxing areas are often crowded in the morning and thus waiting for a table and then waxing could significantly delay your skiing start.
The Day Kit || REI Stoke 19 Pack + other stuff
Alison and I usually ski 3-5 hours and often 30+ kilometers at a shot without much stopping. As such we are often on remote trails, far from facilities and need to be self-reliant. Here’s some of what we take with us. Moving clockwise from the pack:
- REI Stoke 19 Pack || 19L volume, low profile, form fitting, minimal impairment to skiing
- 24-oz bike bottle with large screw top || Even though the wide-mouth helps prevent freeze-up, I usually keep it inside the pack in order to keep the water warm.
- Hand warmer packets
- Trail Map
- DeFeet Wool Duragloves || Spare pair
- Black Diamond Storm Headlamp || If we will be skiing late into the day
- Minimalist hooded parka with synthetic insulation || For long downhills or rest/snack stops, and for emergency if somebody gets hurt
- Pearl Izumi wind blocking balaclava
- RBH Designs VBL Ultralight Mitts
- Well ventilated glasses (low fogging) with interchangeable lenses for sun and low light
- Food: energy bar, bagel with almond butter, and occasionally a piece of fruit.
To keep from freezing on long, cold descents after a long, sweaty climb, we bring the balaclava, hooded jacket and VBL mitts. We find these items necessary, as it is difficult to re-heat our cores, and near impossible for us to warm up frozen hands. Hand warmer packets inside the VB mitts are our last resort to thaw frozen digits — the technique works!
Travel || Sportube Series 2 Double Ski Hard Case
We have no reliable snow where we live so we usually fly to the New Hampshire to ski (and occasionally to California or Colorado).
Our Sportube Series 2 Double Ski Hard Case provides a reliable and economical (one baggage charge) way to transport/protect all of our skis and poles in a single case. In the Sportube we can pack four pairs of nordic skis (skate and classic for both of us) and their accompanying poles. We just wrap our skis in a large bedsheet (protects skis from bumping on skis) and put the poles in along side them.
I am just waiting for a Classic aficionado to cry foul 🙂
Altho if you read carefully you’ll find that Alison and I happily break out the classic skis with fresh cold snow. -a
Nice article. Classic and skate, I love them both. The only thing I’d add (apologies if I missed it) is that appropriate ski and pole length are different for skate and classic skis (though it seems like some back-country classic skis are being sold shorter these days so maybe the gap is closing).
Really enjoyed reading this article Alan–excellent advice and gear list. Two additional advantages of skate skis: way more fun than snowshoeing and the equipment purchase is relatively cheap, esp. compared to alpine skis or a backcountry ski setup (full disclosure I backcountry ski more the XC ski). Groomed XC resorts are always very cheap too especially compared to alpine resorts! Of course if you’re in NH this winter you might be using the classic skis a lot more due to all the snowfall there.
Indeed Vance. We skied mostly classic over President’s Day weekend. Brutal cold (temps in below zero) and fresh sharp snow made for great skiing. Nothing like 3″ of fresh powder on top of a groomed trail to give you awesome grip. We could have kicked up a telephone pole 😉
We had all the high elevations trails to ourselves. -a
Do you have a recommendation when to replace skate skis. I go about 500 KM a winter and have had a pair of Rossi for 10 years, Do they lose there spring?
I also have bad knees and have cants under the bindings to angle my ankle out. Therefore I have a left and right ski which obviously will wear unevenly.
I am not a big time racer just a couple of days/week cruiser.
The ultimate decision-maker in this case is you. Regardless of conventional wisdom re lifespan, are they still working for you? I have a pair of AT skis that I’ve used since 2008. I’ve outgrown them (in terms of their performance v my skill) and everything about them is outdated, but I haven’t replaced them because they’re fine for the type of skiing I now do, mostly with my wife.
If you want to know what you’re missing out on, bring the skis into a shop and let a tech look them over. Thousands of pairs of skis go through their hands each winter, and they have subtle sense for the characteristics of a ski. Also, you can consider demo’ing a pair for a day in order to determine the difference in a newer set.
Fischer RCS Carbonlite Skate Boots, sizing.
I am curious about your half-size-smaller Fischer boots?
You didn’t find them too tight after the first hour, when the feet swell a bit ?
I just found a pair of 43s (9.5), though I normally wear 44s (10). I made an impulsive purchase because of the price and was starting to think I will have to sell them.
You have made me think twice.
Are they warm ? Fischer claims their technology makes them warm.
Comments on insulation.
Thanks so much, from Montreal.
Felipe, the boots are very warm. I have skied down to below zero F for hours and hours in them (altho I don’t stop moving for long!). And I have very cold feet in general. As to the fit, I use very, very thin running socks in them. Hope this helps. Best wishes for a good ski season, -alan
While the extra speed of XC skate skiing is fun I prefer the varied forms of traditional XC skiing. The perfect kick & glide with your pole out behind you and parallel to your armor an instant, a good double pole and best of all the double pole kick.
I feel traditional XC skiing is far more graceful than skate skiing and traditional XC skiing’s varied strides are more useful when you do backcountry skiing.