There are many design features that make a classic cross-country ski unique, but arguably the most distinct is the grip zone. This area directly underfoot accommodates kick wax or features a textured pattern such as fish scales, skins, or a surface designed to be roughened up so you can achieve grip on the snow. The reason the grip zone is a classic cross-country ski’s most defining feature is because without it (and its associated double camber) you would be unable to push-off when executing the quintessential technique used in classic skiing, the diagonal stride (aka kick and glide).
You can find variations of the grip zone on some types of hybrid skis or snowshoes, but in the realm of dedicated skis the grip zone is specific to classic cross-country skiing. You’ll never find anything remotely similar to it on an alpine ski. And even though you can fix “skins” to Randonee (aka Alpine Touring) skis, Telemark skis, and split boards in order to climb uphill, they’re all designed for skiing or riding downhill. This means eliminating anything that would increase friction, such as a sticky kick wax or a physical pattern sticking out of the base (i.e. grip zone).
In the simplest terms, the grip zone of a classic cross-country ski is just like I said above … the area on the bottom of the ski that you’ll either apply kick wax or find fish scales that will enable you to grip the snow and propel forward. This only tells half of the story, however, because the grip zone is inextricably linked to the ski’s camber. In many respects trying to define the grip zone (especially on waxable classic skis) is like trying to answer the question, “How long is a piece of string?” So in order to understand just how unique the grip zone of a classic cross-country ski is, you need to consider the overall design of the ski and how skiing technique works with that design. This means I have to pull a quick bait-and-switch of the conversation, so please bear with me for a paragraph or two or three…
The Purpose of a Cross-Country Ski’s Double Camber
Lay a classic ski on a flat surface and look at its profile. Notice the long, graceful arc that spans nearly the entire length of the ski. This arc or flex is known as “camber.” Compared to alpine skis, the camber used in cross-country skiing is very pronounced. In fact, most cross-country skis incorporate what’s known as a double camber into their design. On the other hand, alpine skis generally feature single cambers, reverse cambers (aka rockers), or just lay completely flat. Without getting into the whys and wherefores about these different types of cambers, suffice it to say that they each come with their own set of pros and cons. In the case of cross-country skiing where most of our time is spent skiing uphill, across flat areas, or over undulating terrain, the double camber is essential.
The first camber spans the length of the ski, and its purpose is to enable you to distribute all of your weight across both skis while keeping the grip zone off of the snow. For example, while balancing on both skis and skiing downhill or double poling the grip wax (waxable classic cross-country skis) or scale pattern (waxless classic cross-country skis) won’t drag and create undue friction that would slow you down. Most people who have been on cross-country skis can easily understand this.
The second camber is a bit trickier to understand if you’ve never learned proper diagonal striding technique. This is because it’s directly tied to the technique. For all intents and purposes, imagine that the second camber spans the length of the grip zone (or vice versa?!). To put the grip zone to use (i.e. get those scales to dig into the snow) you must completely flatten the ski (i.e. fully compress the second camber). This is only accomplished by transferring all of your bodyweight onto one ski and then dynamically compressing the ski (by incorporating the slightest drop of your bodyweight onto the ski). During this fraction of a second the ski will be completely flattened and the grip zone will make effective contact with the snow, providing you the platform from which to push off (to the other ski) and continue diagonal striding. Without the second camber and the required dynamic movement to fully compress it, you would constantly drag the grip zone because in diagonal striding the glide phase always occurs with your bodyweight over one ski. To clarify that last point … just balancing all of your weight onto one ski should not be enough to completely flatten it. The second camber should be stiff enough to necessitate that brief, dynamic drop in weight so that the grip zone stays off of the snow just long enough to get some glide. For a discussion about choosing the correct length of classic ski for your weight, read Cross-Country Skiing Explained (Part 2): Geometry of Classic Cross-Country Skis.
Also worth noting is that there are stiffness ratings (soft, medium, stiff, extra stiff) often used with more expensive skis based on the ski’s flex (camber). This rating system informs you about what you could expect from the ski’s overall performance, including characteristics of the grip zone. For example, an extra stiff ski will provide a lot of pop when pushing off, but its grip zone will probably be very specific (i.e. small) and require exceptional technique. No matter what type of classic ski you use, though, you can always determine its specific grip zone length by performing the paper test (also see Part 2).
Types of Grip Zones of Classic Cross-Country Skis
Again, the grip zone is the area of the base of the ski located underfoot where you would either apply grip wax or find a textured pattern to achieve grip on the snow. This area is also referred to as the kick zone or wax pocket (waxables). The general length of the grip zone, particularly in relation to the overall length of the ski, is determined by which style of classic skis you’re running. For example, race skis feature shorter grip zones while backcountry cross-country skis have longer grip zones. The grip zone of a typical recreation ski will fall somewhere between those two. Race skis are often the longest of these three styles of cross-country skis, whereas the backcountry versions will generally be a little shorter (and wider) than recreational classic skis.
For race-oriented classic skis, the grip zone will be minimal and designed for use with kick wax. The shorter length allows for longer and faster glide. Kick wax (when properly matched to the snow conditions) provides ideal grip during the push-off phase, while minimizing friction when gliding (due to wax’s ultra-low profile). If you’re going to use waxable classic skis, though, your diagonal stride technique needs to be top-notch and you have to understand how to correctly choose and apply kick wax. Both of these “requirements” can take years to master, so you may be better served by running waxless classic skis.
The truth is, for most of us waxless cross-country skis are the best choice. They’re more convenient to maintain (no kick wax needed), generally less expensive, and more readily available.
Fish scale-patterned waxless skis are the most common waxless skis, and they work well in all conditions. They may not work great in any one condition, but unless you’re racing good enough is usually good enough. On the other hand, skins (a pseudo-skin or hair type of material) and zeros (surface designed to be roughed up with sandpaper) function ideally in more narrow temperature ranges and snow conditions.
Some fish scale patterns are completely uniform across the length of the grip zone. Others boast a tapered section at the beginning and ending of the grip zone to provide a smoother transition between the grip and glide zones. Some scale patterns are cut into the bases (negative), while others protrude from the bases (positive). Some scales are an extension of the existing base material (P-Tex), whereas others incorporate a totally different material. The reason backcountry cross-country skis’ grip zones are so long and aggressive is so you have more grip when climbing steeper, untracked terrain. The downside is that this long scale pattern will more easily drag, causing you to slow down during the descents.
Some ski manufacturers incorporate one solitary patch of skin into the grip zone (i.e. Salomon Equipe and Aero 9), while others use two (i.e. Fischer Twin Skins). Which is more effective? Solomon will tell you the one, while Fischer claims the two. Another note about skins is that, if left untreated, they can become soaked with water (during warmer temps) causing excessive drag. I’ve experienced this personally and witnessed it first-hand with other skiers and guess what? … It sucks. There are various treatments for skins to make them hydrophobic. Manufacturers recommend spraying the treatment onto a clean rag and then wiping the skins with the rag rather than spraying the substance directly onto the skins (which apparently can damage the base of the hair-like follicles). Fortunately, skins can be replaced with relative ease after they’ve worn out.
Zeros are called “zeros” because they were designed to work optimally at 0 degrees Celsius (i.e. freezing or 32 degrees Fahrenheit). Zeros give you some creative control over which type of pattern you’d like in the grip zone because they’re designed for you to scuff with sandpaper.
Skins and zeros may not be as versatile as fish scales, but because they’re more specific they will function better in the conditions for which they are designed (consult the manufacturers for their specific recommendations). And because they were designed for specific conditions, they will most likely cost more and be found in the quiver of a cross-country skier who races, at least occasionally (but probably not the hobbyist’s).
I’ve only had the opportunity to test a few pairs of skins and zeros, so my experience is limited in determining the ideal conditions for which they work best. What I can say, however, is that they all generally run faster than my fish scale-patterned skis. Their grip zones are shorter and the grip materials create less drag (so long as those skins are treated!). What this also means is that you need to have really good technique to achieve grip, especially going uphill, and you have to be comfortable going downhill at a pretty fast clip. For beginners, neither of these scenarios normally apply.
I live at Lake Tahoe and the conditions in the Sierra Nevada Mountains can be diverse with regard to snow conditions. For example, it’s not uncommon at all to experience morning temperatures of 15 degrees (F), but then watch the thermometer rise to 45 degrees (F) by midday. This was the case for most of January 2018, which we Tahoe locals referred to as “June-uary.” For those unfamiliar, this large change in temperature causes a huge transformation of the snow over the course of a single day and in the long-term. So, what you found to be effective (kick wax or type of grip material) in the morning probably won’t work as well in the afternoon. This is the main reason I usually just hedge my bets and run a pair of waxless fish scale-patterned cross-country skis. Good enough is better than it sucks.
Why is There a Groove Down the Center of My Cross-Country Skis?
Since we’re already looking at the base of our skis and because it’s another notable characteristic of classic cross-country skis, I’m including this brief discussion about the center groove.
The purpose of this groove (or multiple grooves in some cases) is to help the ski track in a straight line. This benign-looking feature provides directional stability by forcing snow up into the groove and compressing it into a small ridge for the ski to travel along. It works in much the same way (although opposite in shape) as the keel of a boat. As cool as that groove is, though, it makes turning more challenging because you now have to fight against the directional stability it’s created. You can find some backcountry cross-country skis (i.e. Madshus Epochs) that don’t feature center grooves. These skis were most likely designed with a better backcountry downhill experience in mind.
Believe it or not, this center groove is old technology. Very old. The first known example of a single groove being incorporated into ski design dates back to 400AD in Finland (Liperi and Ikaalis). Over 3,000 years prior to that, there was a ski (also found in Finland – Salla) that featured five grooves in its base. Fascinating stuff! And you can read more about it in the book titled Two Planks and a Passion, written by Roland Huntford.
Although there are many different types of grip zones available with classic cross-country skis, the song remains the same – incorporate into the grip zone some type of kick wax or textured pattern or material to maximize grip (push-off) yet minimize friction (glide phase) for the snow conditions on which you will be skiing. Ski manufacturers, when making waxless skis, create a fixed length grip zone for a recommended range of bodyweight. Ultimately, however, every ski’s grip zone is unique in length because it directly correlates to the ski’s flex (camber) characteristics and the skier’s technique and bodyweight.
This marriage between human and technology is a beautiful thing, but like any marriage there can be problems. And, it’s usually best to wait for the “right one.” It doesn’t matter how much you spend on your skis or what type of grip zone they feature because if you can’t properly compress the ski, you’re never going to achieve good grip (i.e. level-up your technique). If you wind up with a ski designed for a heavier person, no matter how good your technique is, again, you won’t achieve ideal grip. If you have a ski designed for a person lighter than you and, even though your technique is stellar, you’ll constantly drag the grip zone.
There are no silver bullets when it comes to choosing the right type of classic skis. That said, if you were to only own one pair of classic cross-country skis (and don’t plan to race), buy a relatively inexpensive pair of fish scale waxless skis. Then invest the money you saved, on lessons. By the time you develop quality technique and want to upgrade your skis, those less expensive skis will make for great rock skis.
Please note that I wrote Cross-Country Skiing Explained with the beginner or intermediate cross-country skier in mind. This is the demographic for whom I most often served while working in the outdoor recreation industry at Lake Tahoe. I basically treat these articles as extensions of the conversations I’ve had with those customers. That said, expert skiers could take away something of value from this article. Just know that I don’t intend to address racing-oriented philosophy, technique, or gear selection.
More articles in the Cross-Country Skiing Explained Series:
- Part 1: Introduction to Classic Cross-Country Skis
- Part 2: Geometry of Classic Cross-Country Skis
- Part 3: The Grip Zone of Classic Cross-Country Skis
- Part 4: Classic Cross-Country Ski Bindings
- Part 5: Classic Cross-Country Ski Boots
- Part 6: Classic Cross-Country Ski Poles
For information about buying cross-country ski gear (for beginners), please read the following articles:
- Buying Cross-Country Ski Gear, for Beginners (Part 1)
- Buying Cross-Country Ski Gear, for Beginners (Part 2)