Ski wax

How Ski Wax Works: A Quick and Simple Guide

There are myriad benefits to using ski wax. These include greater control, a smoother glide, and increased speed. Ski wax protects the ski base from physical damage and prevents the ski base from oxidizing over time. Ski wax works by filling the pores of the ski base, reducing the friction between the surface of the ski base and the snow. Temperature and snow type dictate the specific type of ski wax you should use in any given situation.

Today we are going to provide some insight into the inner workings of ski wax: how it works, what the different types are, and how various snow types can affect its performance.

How do Cross-country Skis Work?

In order to understand how ski wax works, you need to have a clear understanding of how cross-country skis work! Simply put, cross-country skis allow us to move across the surface of the snow without sinking. To fulfill this objective, your skis must have both grip and glide. Grip provides traction while glide allows your skis to move across the surface of the snow smoothly. The ability to glide reduces the amount of effort it takes to move across the snow.

The relationship between glide and grip can be described thus. When you balance all of your weight on one foot, the respective ski will sink into the snow. The pressure increases the friction, which in turn increases the traction of the ski. Alternately, when you balance half of your body weight evenly on each ski, you will reduce the pressure and friction but improve the glide of the skis.

Test Out Your Skis

I always advocate testing out skis before purchasing them. It is simply not enough to pay heed to manufacturer’s suggestions for specific weight and height parameters. Every skier of a certain height doesn’t necessarily have the same weight and vice versa. When it comes to properly distributing your weight over both skis you need to find a ski that perfectly fits your specific body measurements. Because of the wide range of variation in ski sizing and design, it pays to be patient and try as many pairs as you can before settling on your perfect fit.

When it comes to finding the perfect skis, there are two ‘tests’ that will help you find your perfect fit.
Begin by placing 100% of your body weight on one individual ski. If an appropriate fit, the ski should completely flatten out. The arched middle section of the ski should be completely flat when you use one foot to apply all of your body weight upon the individual ski. In addition to being flat there has to be a certain degree of pressure concentrated in the middle portion of the ski to get sufficient grip, and in turn, traction.

For the second ‘test’ you will evenly balance your body weight across both skis, mimicking how your body would be positioned for the glide phase of cross-country skiing. You must then ensure that the portion of the ski base from your heel to about 30 centimeters beyond your front toe is not touching the surface of the snow. Should any part of this section touch the snow, you will be in for a very slow skiing journey! You simply won’t have the sufficient glide to be able to capitalize on the speed and agility necessary to truly enjoy cross-country skiing.

The region of the ski from your heel to 30 centimeters beyond your toes is known as the wax pocket, and it is where we concentrate our kick wax to improve the grip of the ski. If this region is touching the snow while you are gliding the wax will drag along the snow, eroding rapidly. This will negatively impact your skiing performance. If your skis fit incorrectly, you simply will not be able to get the most out of your skiing adventure.

What is Snow?

Snow is an enigmatic little compound. It comes in a multitude of forms, each impacted by external conditions and environmental pressures. Winds, temperatures, solar radiation – they all impact the properties of snow. It should come as no surprise that snow is subject to constant change. Because snow is so changeable, we as skiers need to invest in different types of wax solutions to suit different types of snow. We’ll explore some of the main types of snow below.

Fresh Snow

The peaks, ridges, and edges of fresh snow create a high degree of friction against the ground in low temperatures. Fresh snow resembles the drawings of snowflakes we are all familiar with, albeit much more miniscule in size. At temperatures of approximately 0 degrees, the snow crystals begin to deteriorate and lose their shape. These partially deteriorated snow crystals have increased surface areas, increasing the braking friction between ski and snow.

Old Snow

Roughly 48 hours after a snowfall, snow is generally classified as ‘old’. The crystals are now smaller and denser, with a greater cumulative surface area. The larger contact surface area makes for more friction. Old snow is typically rounder than fresh snow crystals. This means that they are less abrasive.

Artificial (Technical) Snow

Unlike natural snow, the crystals of artificial snow freeze from the outside in. Oftentimes, not all of the water is frozen in fresh snow crystals. When it eventually freezes the crystals break apart and form sharp edges. If the artificial snow is prepared too rapidly, the unfrozen water will migrate to the surface and form a layer of ice. Because the artificial crystal is about 10 times smaller than natural snow crystals, they are highly dense. And remember: high density means large contact surface area. When this is combined with sharp crystals, the result is a high friction layer of snow.

Wet Snow

When snow crystals reach the temperature of 0 degrees and above, they begin to melt. The resultant snow is wet and forms a contact surface between the ski and the snow base. This increases the friction due to the suction effect.

What are the critical factors for the quality of the snow?

There are three key factors that influence the characteristics of snow. One is the dependency on temperature. Snow rapidly melts and deteriorates when it is exposed to temperatures above the freezing point of water. As the temperatures decrease the constituent ice crystals change significantly. Sharp, hard crystals have a distinctive characteristic. When you go out walking on an ice-cold day, pay attention to that squeaking sound your boots make when you traverse the snow. That sound is the result of tightly packed ice crystals rubbing against each other.

Another factor that impacts snow is humidity. Humidity refers to the amount of moisture in the air. As humidity increases, the snowflakes fill in and round out. A snowflake comprised of six-point crystals will become rounder as a result.

The third factor is age. Because of its dynamic properties, snow is destined to change form over time. Fresh snow is sharp and crystalline in structure. As snow ages, it loses its iconic ‘snowflake’ shape rather quickly. It becomes rounded and dense. Along with time, ski traffic also impacts the shape and characteristics of snow. Heavy skiing traffic leads to rounded snow crystals.

Snow exists on a spectrum. At one end we have sharply angled, fresh, cold, dry snow. At the other, we have snowflakes that have transformed into rounder, wetter, and denser spheres due to humidity, higher temperatures, and time. Snow is a much more complicated entity than initially meets the eye!

What is Ski Wax?

Now we turn to ski wax. It is crucial to understand what it is and how it works. Ski wax comes in many different forms. The most popular varieties you will see on the market include crayons, liquid wax with sponge applicators, sprays, and dingo dabbers.

The varied forms often serve different functions and shouldn’t necessarily be used interchangeably. There are two main types you will encounter: glide wax and kick/grip wax. Glide wax is a lubricant while grip wax is an adhesive that improves traction: they both fulfill very different objectives.

What is Kick Wax?

Kick wax is an adhesive and is made from a paraffin compound. It works by deforming to match the surface of whatever it is being adhered to.

Classic skiing involves two dynamic activities or phases. The two phases are the kick/grip phase and the glide phase. The kick phase involves applying downward pressure onto the base of the ski. This pressure allows the ski to grip the snow. The kick wax on the base of the ski will enhance our form and will increase contact adhesion, friction, and ultimately result in better grip.

To change the stickiness of our wax blend all we need to do is vary the hardness of the types of wax we include. Generally, the softer the kick wax, the more grip you will have and the more easily you can kick off to propel yourself into motion. There are two substances that provide kick: hard kick wax, a paraffin-based wax for new, fine-grained snow, and Klister, a sticky grip wax for older, coarser snow.

But what happens to kick wax during the glide phase? The glide phase involves moving across the snow’s surface using shear force. Adhesives like wax have poor shear force adhesion. If you apply shear force across the surface of the snow the adhesive will have a poor ability to adhere, and you will be able to effortlessly glide along the snow.

What is Glide Wax?

If you are a recreational skier glide wax is not as critical as grip wax. It does, however, improve your speed and performance, and offers protection to your ski base. It helps prevent your skis from wearing out prematurely and provides moisturizing qualities to the base of the skis. Liquid glide wax can be used on waxless, classic, and skating skis. It can also be used on downhill skis although it is not as durable as hot wax.

Glide wax consists of two main substances: fluorocarbon and hydrocarbon. High fluorocarbon waxes consist of a high percentage of fluorocarbon additive infused with paraffin wax. Low fluorocarbon waxes include a low percentage of fluorocarbon additive infused with paraffin wax. Hydrocarbon Waxes consist of 100% hydrocarbon paraffin and contain no fluorocarbon material. When it comes to glide wax, the higher the percentage of fluorocarbon, the lower the friction and the better the ability to repel water.

Higher fluorocarbon glide wax blends are significantly more expensive than alternative products. These products are more specifically targeted toward competitive racing. As a recreational skier, you can opt for a convenient liquid wax spray or a bottle with a sponge applicator. These products make the wax application process a breeze and are a bit easier on the wallet!