Gear talk: skis, poles, boots edition

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Now that we’re solidly into fall, it’s a good time to talk about what you need to launch your new passion – cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

If you’re brand new to the sport, we recommend that you rent for the first few times; once you know you love the sport, buy gear. It will save you lots of money in the long run. Once you invest, you’re good to go for years (just ask David, who has owned his skis for about 20 years), although you may want to upgrade eventually as ski technology advances and/or your skills outgrow your skis.

As with any sport, you can spend as much as you want. There’s everything from wider, heavier entry level recreation skis at the low end of the price point (about $200) to thin, super light carbon race skis at the top end of the price point (about $1000) and everything in between.

Broadly speaking, there’s two types of skis – those used for skiing on groomed snow (either classic or skate) and those for backcountry touring. While you can use any (classic) skis in the backcountry, if that is your main purpose for skiing, it is best to buy actual backcountry skis. They are wider and have edges, both of which have advantages on ungroomed snow. Since we do not do much backcountry skiing, this post will be aimed at skis designed for groomed snow.

There is no one type of skis that are “best”. The skis that are best for you are based on a number of personal factors, including your skill level and the type of skiing you do/want to do as well (as your budget). Your weight matters a lot. Both classic and skate skis have flex in them (called the camber). If a ski is too stiff for you, you won’t be able to get enough weight on the ski to push off the snow effectively. If a ski is too soft for your weight, you won’t be able to glide – and that is the fun part of skiing! This is why I don’t recommend buying a random set of skis off the internet and expecting them to work. I prefer to physically go to a store where they can put me on a ski and make sure that it will work for me. Here I will give you a broad overview of skis so you can get a sense of what you are looking for and can be more prepared when you go to a store.

Skins on top; scales on the bottom

First, up, classic skis. Classic skis come in waxable or waxless. Waxable means that you apply wax to the grip zone under your foot, and that wax grips the snow when you put your weight on the ski. This used to be the only option – if you wanted to ski, you had to put on wax! Waxes come in different temperatures and what you use depends on the snow temperature. When conditions are good for waxing (-5 to -15ish), waxable skis are fast and awesome. But, conditions in Ontario are highly variable with increasing freeze/thaw cycles. Consequently icy conditions are becoming more common and waxing can be a real challenge. Luckily there are now a ton of great quality waxless skis on the market, which makes skiing a bit more accessible because you don’t have to worry about grip waxing (you can largely just put them on and go). I love them. Waxless skis either have a pattern etched into the grip zone (“scales”) or a strip of mohair (“skins”) that grips the snow. They say that skin skis give good grip without sacrificing as much glide as fish scales. Skins are probably going to entirely take over the waxless market; at this point, you can really only find fish scales in very entry level skis. Some of us own both waxable and waxless skis, but if you are investing in one pair, waxless will give you more options and less frustration (in my opinion).

Skate skis are a little less complicated to buy as you don’t have a grip zone to worry about; you just need to worry about getting the right ski for your weight so that you can push off laterally and glide effectively. Skate skis are shorter than classic skis and have a bit more of an edge to them. Because you are skiing outside of a set track, you need more maneuverability.

Once you have your skis, you will need boots and bindings. Boots are important – get a pair that are comfortable, or your feet will be unhappy. Walk around the store and really make sure they will work. Like skis, boots come in a whole range of price points from about $200 for basic boots to a heck of a lot more for lighter race boots. Skate boots have a higher ankle to provide more support as you move laterally. There are what are called “combo” boots that you can use for both classic and skate (some people love them, others don’t…it’s a personal thing. But the combo boots are likely also better now than they used to be). Bindings are specific to the boot you buy – Solomon uses SNS and the others use NNN. So you need to be sure to get the right binding for your boot. There are now bindings that can be moved up and down the ski to give you more grip or glide in different conditions, but at a beginner level, this is of limited value. Get a basic binding that fits the boots you want.

Poles are the final piece of the puzzle. Skate and classic poles are different lengths (skate poles are longer). A nice feature to have is the hand straps that click out of the pole – so that you don’t need to take them on and off whenever you need to do something with your hands (important stuff – like take photos!). An expert at a store will be able to fit you with the right length pole. If they don’t have your size, it’s no big deal – they can cut down a longer pole. Like skis and boots, the price point varies widely from about $40 for really basic poles to hundreds of dollars for super light, carbon fancy poles. For beginners, stick to the cheaper end of the spectrum.

When you are ready to buy, we recommend visiting stores that specialize in skiing. Hardwood Hills and Highlands Nordic have great pro shops and knowledgeable staff. They have demo days where you can try out skis, and they sell packages if you are getting a new set up.  We highly recommend talking to them if you are able to get up there. In the city, Velotique is the best option. MEC sells XC skis, but we recommend buying them there only if you already know what you want to buy. (I find the staff not as knowledgeable as they used to be). The market squeeze that we experienced during the pandemic should be lessening and it should be easier to get gear through the season.

Everyone has different opinions about gear, and this article is just one. Again, I recommend talking to the experts.

Stay tuned for more articles on ski and snowshoe gear this fall.

You too can be an excited new owner of cross-country skis!