Winter Sports: Frequently Asked Questions

Q. What are the advantages of waxable and waxless skis?

A. Waxless skis are the most convenient and probably the best choice if temperatures in your area hover around freezing. The middle third, or kick zone, of the waxless ski base is covered by special patterns that grip the snow. Waxable skis have a smooth base that requires a kick wax to grip the snow crystals and provide traction. Waxable skis can also be carefully conditioned for any type of snow and weather, maximizing their performance.

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Q. Do longer skis go faster than shorter ones?

A. On soft snow, a longer ski spreads the load out so there is less friction between the ski and the snow's surface, producing an easier and faster glide. On groomed trails, speed depends more on proper base preparation and waxing.

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Q. How do I hot wax my skis?

A. Hot waxes, often referred to as glide waxes, are applied with an electric waxing iron. Many skiers simply buy a cheap, non-steam clothing iron as a dedicated waxing iron.

Place skis bottom-side up on a workbench or counter. A ski vise helps make the waxing job easier by keeping the skis in place. Press the stick of wax against the vertically-held iron about a half-inch away from the ski's bottom surface and drip hot wax over the entire length of the ski. Then iron the wax droplets along the ski with light strokes until the ski base appears wet. Keep the iron moving. If the wax starts to smoke, your iron is too hot. After the wax has cooled at room temperature for 20 minutes, shave off the excess wax with a plastic or steel scraper. Remember to shave out the grooves.

You might want to postpone the scraping until after you reach your ski destination. The thick wax coat helps protect your skis when carried base-to-base on the way to the trails.

Some skiers with waxable skis take a slightly different approach to hot waxing their skis. They do not apply hot glide wax to the center third of the ski, called the kick zone. Instead, they melt a cold temperature grip wax, such as Swix Special Green, over the kick zone. They then scrape the entire ski and apply the appropriate kick wax over the center third at their skiing destination.

Some skiers who have waxless skis apply a light liquid or paste-base preparation to the patterned section of their skis to prevent wet snow from sticking to the ski.

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Q. Do I need to carry a spare ski tip in case one of my skis breaks?

A. If you are backcountry skiing, you should always take a spare tip unless you are prepared to walk or snowshoe home. If you are touring on wood skis, definitely take a spare tip. Wood skis break more easily than foam and fiberglass skis. L.L.Bean gear expert and avid skier Frank F. Gatchell recalls having an unfortunate encounter with a New England stone fence. "My fiberglass skis just climbed the wall and slid back without breaking. I was amazed." More often than not, skiers are not as lucky and a tip is damaged.

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Q. Who has the right-of-way on cross-country ski trails?

A. If you ski where there are snowmobiles, the snow machines have priority. You can hear them coming long before they see you, especially in forested areas. If you are skiing on groomed trails and hear someone yell "track," step out of the track and let faster skiers pass you.

"Track," in the world of cross-country skiing, means, "please get out of my way and let me pass." If a skier is traversing or climbing a hill, he or she must get out of the way of any downhill-bound skier who is going faster and has less control.

"One interesting dilemma," notes David L. Wing, an L.L. Bean retail store associate and a 20-year professional ski instructor, "is when you have two people skiing downhill and the person in back is going faster than the person in front.

"If the person going slower is less experienced, the faster person should not expect the slower skier to get out of the way if he yells 'track'," says Wing. "The slower person may not know what 'track' means, or worse, may fall down if he tries to quickly get out of the way."

"In this situation, the burden is on the faster person to adjust to the situation," Wing explains. "The faster skier may request clearance, but it is not obligatory for the person in front to grant it. The person in back should ski 'in control' until he can safely pass."

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Q. What is the difference between touring skis, skate skis, backcountry skis and cruiser skis?

A. Touring skis feature the classic technique of gliding from one leg to the next in a straight line. The arm opposite the pushing, or kicking, leg pushes off the ski pole for added propulsion. Touring skis come in different lengths. Narrow touring skis are designed for groomed trails and packed surfaces. "Short" skis can also be used on groomed trails but can negotiate terrain that has not been groomed or packed. Some touring skis are short and wide, giving added stability, agility and flotation. Touring poles propel the skier forward as much as possible without being cumbersome. The ideal length of poles is shoulder height.

Skate-skis are similar to racing skis. They are slightly shorter than touring skis and have reinforced edges to help dig into the snow when the skier pushes off his or her back leg. The boots are stiff to support the skier's ankle during the push phase of the skating stride. Ski poles used in skating are taller and stiffer than touring poles and should reach the tip of the skier's nose. The greater pole height gives the skater maximum propulsion and balance during the poling thrust.

Backcountry skis are designed to stand up to the rough conditions encountered by winter campers and mountain trekkers. They are wider than touring skis, for better flotation in deep snow, and have metal edges. The boots and bindings are extremely sturdy to support skiers and their gear in wilderness terrain. Backcountry ski poles should reach the midshoulder. They are shorter because in steep and uneven terrain, skiers use their poles for balance as much as propulsion.

Cruiser skis perform well on rolling to steep hills and are good for all skill and ability levels.

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Q. How should I store my skis during the off-season?

A. A layer of hot wax or a liquid or paste-base preparation applied to skis will add an extra layer of protection during the off-season. After you've waxed your skis, consider where to store them.

"Don't put them in a hot attic, either in your house or over the garage," says L.L. Bean sporting expert and avid skier Frank F. Gatchell. "The heat makes the skis brittle. And don't put them in a damp, moldy basement either because the metal bindings can become corroded. Many people keep their skis in the bedroom closet or under their bed."

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Q. How can I learn to ski down hills with confidence?

A. "Ski on the terrain that you're most comfortable with," advises Bill Koch, Olympic cross-country silver medalist. "As you develop confidence, try a small, gradual downhill where you know you can stay in control. As you get more comfortable and build confidence, try steeper slopes.

"If you're on a trail and the downhill is too much for you, either sidestep down it or take off your skis and walk down. There's nothing wrong with walking down a hill. You avoid possible injury and your skiing experience continues to be enjoyable."

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Q. Are there any tricks for getting up icy hills?

A. The uphill climb is where many ski races are won or lost, and hills are no easier for recreational skiers. You can try to herringbone up a hill, driving the edges of your skis into the face of the slope for the best possible grip as you perform a duckwalk uphill. You can also try sidestepping up the hill, "rolling" your ankles into the hill. This gives a better grip and sets up each step. But if it's truly ice and you're having trouble, just take your skis off and walk along the edge of the trail. That way, you won't poke holes in the ski tracks that might catch another skier's ski tip, causing them to take a spill.

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Q. How should I maintain my wooden snowshoes?

A. If properly cared for, wooden snowshoes will last for generations. Before you head out each year, inspect your snowshoes. If you notice that the finish has worn through to bare wood or the rawhide webbing is sagging in places, treat them with several coats of polyurethane. Sand any bare wood and make sure the snowshoes are thoroughly dry before you apply the polyurethane. When not in use, hang snowshoes on the wall in your garage or barn, otherwise mice may chew at the webbing. Keep them out of direct sunlight and avoid hot and dry attics or damp basements.

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Q. How do I back up when I'm wearing snowshoes?

A. Most people who are just starting to snowshoe find backing up difficult. The "tails" of the snowshoes tend to be heavier than the front of the shoe, so they catch and drag in the snow when you try to back up. To counteract this "tail drag," push down on the tip of your snowshoe with your ski pole and step back.

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Q. How do I travel downhill on snowshoes?

A. Proper binding adjustment is important. If your binding isn't securely fastened or strong enough, your boot toe will slide under the cross piece or toe of the snowshoe, possibly causing a face-first spill. The best approach is to hold back your full weight and put pressure on the tail or heel of the snowshoe first as you step down the hill.

If the snow is firm and the pitch of the hill is steep enough for sliding, place one shoe slightly ahead of the other and slide down, as if you were on telemark skis. This works best if your snowshoe has an upturned toe.

Resist any temptation to jump off a small hill or drop-off while in snowshoes. The snowshoes will land on their tails, where they are most prone to breakage. Jumping in snowshoes also puts undue stress on the frames.

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Q. How do I get up after I've fallen on snowshoes?

A. If you're wearing a pack, take it off. Untangle your shoes, place your poles in an X-shape, and push yourself up while leaning into the cross of the "X." If you're on a slope, position your shoes so they're parallel to each other and pointing across the slope. Hold your two ski poles as if they were one, with one hand holding the top and the other holding the poles near the basket. With your shoulder and poles towards the uphill slant of the slope, push yourself up into a standing position.

If that doesn't work, loosen your bindings and use your snowshoes as leverage platforms to perform a push up. Position your two hands on one snowshoe's tip and tail and use the other snowshoe as a platform for your feet. Then, slowly hoist yourself up.

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Q. How do I travel uphill if the slope is steep?

A. You can incorporate some cross-country skiing techniques into your snowshoeing. On steep hills, the herringbone technique is useful. To do this maneuver, point your toes and snowshoes outward as you climb the hill. On short, moderate slopes you can make climbing easier by leaning forward into the hill, so the toes of your boots stick through the snowshoes for better "purchase" on the snow.

If the hill extends more than a few feet, you should traverse, traveling diagonally up the face of the hill. You increase the distance you cover in your "switchbacking," but cut down on the steepness of your uphill climb.

When you traverse, edge your snowshoes into the slope to reduce the risk of slipping sideways down the hill. If you do fall and start sliding quickly down a steep slope, lie on your back and keep your snowshoes up in the air until you slow down. This reduces the chance of catching a tip or tail and twisting an ankle or knee.

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Q. On a challenging backcountry trip, what should I bring in the event my snowshoe breaks?

A. Many backcountry snowshoers wrap duct tape around their ski pole to use for emergency repairs. Some enthusiasts carry spare tubing that can be used as a splint by inserting it inside aluminum frames and binding it together with the tape. Cold weather lessens the adhesive power of some duct tape, so make sure yours works in frigid temperatures.

An emergency "splint" can be fashioned for wooden or metal snowshoes by using two lengths of saplings and securing them next to the broken section with duct tape and/or cord.

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