Ski Touring: Wax or Waxless skis?

What’s better for Nordic touring? Wax or Waxless skis? The usual answer: It all depends!

Before I started skiing, I only knew of one type of skis. Ones you strap on your feet, get on a chair lift and then go downhill.

Never having skied before, I did not realize there were such a wide range of skiing and ski types to go with them:  classic cross country, Telemark, alpine touring, alpine,  and my personal favorite: Nordic backcountry.

Not only are there different types of skis but different types of boots, bindings, side cut patterns, climbing skins and a whole bunch of lingo that is frankly confusing for a person who just knew off only one kind of skis (more or less!)

My view of skiing was formed a bit too much by this Disney cartoon.

When I started actually skiing after I moved to Colorado, I learned all about the fun types of skis and skiing styles.

No surprise, I shied away from lift-service skiing. And though I have done a decent amount of Telemark skiing , I do not think I’ll ever be very elegant at it. I can get up the mountains and tend to get down more based on sheer bull-headed stubbornness more than any grace of style. 🙂   ( Which is fancy way of saying I fall down and can get up again quickly! ) I do not get in enough lift service skiing to really practice my turns and I do not want to exclusively skin up and then ski down a big mountain on free time. This type of skiing IS fun, but not something I want to do all the time.

Old skis never die, they just get turned into a bench at 11k or so feet.

The skiing I love the absolute most is Nordic backcountry.   The emphasis is on distance and exploring vs altitude gain. This type of skiing  typically takes in rolling terrain that is suited for skis that can climb moderately steep terrain and go down equally moderately steep downhills.  The same type of terrain covered by snowshoes is usually excellent for Nordic touring skis.   As the fantastic  Dave’s Nordic Backcountry Skiing Page states: “Nordic backcountry touring falls in that odd middle ground between cross-country skiing and Telemark skiing.”

For similar reasons why I love hiking and backpacking is why I love this type of skiing.  Once the learning curve is achieved, I find skiing to be a more graceful and elegant way to explore the backcountry vs snowshoeing.

Before the start of the ~15 mile Sourdough Trail Traverse

Nordic backcountry is not a popular an activity as in years past. Snowshoeing is the winter mode of transportation choice of those who enjoy hiking as their major past time.  And most backcountry skiing is now about getting up the mountain and then skiing down. Skis have become wider with a larger side cut (shape to the skis essentially) to make for better control going down but sacrificing ability to cover distance on flat or moderate terrain.  (And it  is why I have two sets of skis! 🙂 )

But among those increasingly rare people who do enjoy Nordic backcountry skiing, there is one major choice to make for their skiing: Do you go with waxless or waxable skis?

Before going too far down the rabbit hole, a quick, and I do mean quick, primer about the basic types of skis and their use should be given.

( If you already know all this crap, skip ahead to waxable vs waxless skis )

First some technical jargon

For the purpose of  ski touring discussion, there are two basic terms to keep in mind

Side cut:  In very simple terms, the shape of the ski.  Classic cross-country skis are long and narrow with no shape.  Nordic backcountry skis typically have a slight hourglass shape that allows for basic turns on moderate terrain. Skis meant for steep descents in deep powder typically have a pronounced hourglass figure.

Camber: Classic Cross-Country skis and  Backcountry Nordic skis have a double camber. What does that mean? It means the skis have a noticeable arch in them. Good for covering ground; less so for downhill descents.  Downhill oriented skis have a smaller arch and are designed more for control in descents and powder rather than covering distance.  This explanation is simple, but should suffice for our purposes.

Want even more detailed info? Read this nice and detailed summary from the folks over at Winter Trekking.

Types of Skis

In general, there a few basic types of skis.


From L>R my tele skis and waxable touring skis. someone’ AT skis and her waxless touring skis.


In the real world, most of us have a limited amount of money, storage space and time to use our toys. If you want to get into backcountry skiing, esp touring, go to a local outfitter that has the expertise for this type of skiing.  If you are blessed with large disposable income and/or an understanding significant other, you may even want to pick up two types of Nordic backcountry skis. 🙂  (One for gentle terrain and one for steeper terrain/heavy winter pack)

The problem!!!!  From the Catamount Trail Assoc. 

Once you decide on the type of Nordic backcountry skis you want, you need to figure out the boots and bindings.

The boot used for Nordic skiing aren’t the heavy plastic boots and burly bindings of skis meant for downhill descents, but rather lighter boots and bindings that are optimized for distance and speed.

A very thorough overview is again found at Winter Trekking.

The overall synopsis of the above is that NNN-BC binding (or similar) and corresponding boots are generally lighter vs a 75mm three-pin system.  This system is  not as robust esp when carrying heavier gear.  The  75mm three-pin binding is more robust and allows for  more control and weight carrying stability (esp when you have an optional cable binding attached. Gliding is less if you use the cable, however).

Depending if you want distance and speed vs weight carrying ability and control, one system may be better than another for you.

OK..on to waxable vs waxless skis!

The beauty of Nordic touring is that you can  climb up and then ski down moderate terrain without needing climbing skins.

What are climbing skins? Simply a strip of mohair fabric with glue on one side that brakes in one direction and kinda-sorta glides in another. You can climb up the steep mountain and then take them off for the descent.  Good for the Telemark/AT set-up described above; not so good for rolling terrain over the course of  a day.

Showing some skin(s)!

The solution for climbing while Nordic backcountry is one of two choices: A fish scale pattern (waxless) or waxable skis.

These two choices can apparently spark some spirited debate. 🙂

Waxless Skis

Waxless skis are the easiest to deal with when using Nordic backcountry skis.

Using a fish scale pattern on the bottom, the scales allow both climbing and gliding. No need to put on skins or apply wax.

Fish scale pattern Voile skis. Photo courtesy of Voile. 

Just put on the skis and go!

The disadvantage of the skis? They are slower going downhill than the waxable skis discussed below. The fish scales do create a noticeable drag vs waxable skis, too.  And where a good pair of waxable skis can last a long time if taken care of, the fish scale pattern on the bottom of the skis do wear out after a while. The waxless skis become waxable by default. 🙂 I also find that a properly waxed ski can often climb better than a waxless ski.

The waxless skis are best for:

  • People new to Nordic skiing. The slower speed does equal a margin of safety for the beginner
  • Experienced people who just don’t want to futz with waxes thank you-very-much.
  • Spring skiing with its variable conditions. It is a pain to apply and reapply different types of waxes in cold snow and then wet snow.
  • Places with wetter snow. Again, easier than futzing with waxes

Waxable skis

Kick wax (also known as climbing wax) is wax that functions much like climbing skins: They allow a person to climb up but still glide on the flats and downhills. Unlike skins, though, wax allows a smooth and fast glide.

My wax kit for early to mid-late winter. Also shown are the scraper and the cork.
You add wax by “crayoning it on”. Simply apply the wax in a smooth motion in the same direction you are skiing: towards the back. (Don’t know if back and forth application really makes a difference or not. Old habits, when first taught, die-hard 🙂 Guess the theory is apply wax in this way as it works like a skin.).  
If I am on flat terrain and need more glide, I’ll only crayon on the wax in middle of the ski. This is known as the “kick” pocket. 
However, I am usually skiing in rolling terrain and doing at least a little climbing.  I prefer to crayon on the wax from “tip to tail” so I can climb easier and quicker.  
Once you apply a coat of wax, you cork it in. All this means is you polish the wax so it is ideally is not clumpy.  Non-clumpy wax both climbs and glides better. 
If you have too much wax (or have old wax from another trip still on the ski), you may need to scrape it off and reapply. 
The person who came on this trip  applied just a tad too much red wax. She turned around after two miles!
Depending on the terrain and how long you are out for, you may apply another coat of wax or two.
If you notice the above wax kit photo, I have different colored waxes. Why the different colors?
Because different colors mean different hardness. A green wax is very hard where the red wax is very soft. You’ll want to use different types of waxes depending on the conditions. A hard wax for cold snow and a softer wax for warm snow.
 All sounds confusing, but it really is not that bad. The ski wax has the temperature range on the label for old and new snow.
An easy way to tell if you should use harder or softer wax is to make a snowball. If you barely, or can’t even, make a snowball, use the very hard green wax. If the snow ball is  more slush than snow, use some red wax. Can make a snow ball, but it is dry? Use blue. Can make a wet snowball ? Use violet. 
You can buy a whole range of waxes, but those four wax types (maybe three, the kit came with violet and I find I do not use it much) takes care of my needs for skiing.
Another rule of thumb: If you are skiing and clumping up underneath, your wax is too soft. Apply a harder wax.   Conversely, if you are slipping , can’t climb and just won’t grab the snow,  the wax is too hard. Apply a softer wax.
So why not just use waxless skis? Easier, right?
Sounds daunting to use waxable skis, but in areas with consistent, cold and dry snow (like Colorado) waxing is wonderful.
I find that with wax that the glide is better, the downhills are quicker and the skis can climb better too. Where skins are needed for waxless touring skis, I can make do with wax a bit longer.   
I think of waxable skis as a stick shift and waxless skis as automatic transmission. 
In variable spring ski conditions, waxable skis are a pain. Red wax is very sticky and hard to use effectively. A substance called klister is even worse esp when applied in the field.  A few make do with kicker skins (see below) or switch to waxless skis if they have a pair. 
But sometimes you need skins
For consistent and steeper climbs and/or with heavier overnight gear, climbing skins are sometimes needed. You can use full length skins that go from tip to tail, or kicker skins that cover the kick pocket only.  
The full length skins are good for something like a hut trip where you are mainly climbing all day with a heavier load.
The kicker skins allow more glide, but less climbing ability.  Kickers work best for rolling terrain that has some steeper climbs thrown in the mix or you just can’t get a grip with a heavy load on flatter, icier areas. As mentioned, they are an easier way to use waxable skis in Spring ski conditions (but with a glide penalty).
More info here (yes, I think it is a great website!)
Boxed wine does make for a heavy load. May need to use skins.
So what to get?
Not one ski is better than the other. All depends on your needs. Ideally,I’d have a set of waxless skis for spring skiing and my “heavy touring gear” to use for both deep in the backcountry and hut trips. Throw in  some lighter, skinnier skis for moderate day touring and Telemark gear for both big mountain skiing and the very occasional lift served area.    
But, that is a lot of money , gear and space in our smallish apartment I really can’t justify. 🙂 So I make do with two sets of skis.  Spring ski touring can be difficult with waxable skis. By spring time, though,  it is time to backpack again so it all good!!!
More winter articles here
Get out there and ski!

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2 years ago

Very useful. Thanks. Another Coloradoan here 🙂