Buying Guide for Ski Wax
By Steve Kopitz
The best possible wax to use will change as the season does. Picking a specific ski wax for day to day conditions is an easy process if properly equipped. Selection of wax is based on the temperature of the snow you are going to ski on. Usually this is a few degrees colder than the air temperature during the day and a few degrees warmer than the air at night. Waxes work for broad temperature ranges and will often overlap. When two waxes ranges overlap it is always better to err on the side of the colder temperature range, as colder waxes work better when it is to warm than warm waxes work when it is two cold. If you are preparing for a trip it is always best to use the wax for the lowest temperature expected. Before you purchase ski wax is it important to think about a few factors to build ideal wax kit. The best waxes for anyone maintaining their own skis will vary depending on location, skier ability, preferred terrain, base material, and desire for a ski that glide smooth and consistent over the snow.
Where are you going to ski is often the most important factor in determining what waxes will be most beneficial. It may not need to be said, but simply the typical weather will change greatly region to region. While snow tends to be high in moisture and rather grippy in places like the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Teton Range in Wyoming stays much cooler and also generally less humid. Simply, the same wax will not give the same results in both conditions.
When choosing ski wax for the general conditions you will be skiing in, it is not only important to select temperatures ranges that are practical for the location for regular use, but also preparatory waxes that make sense in said conditions. Picking waxes for regular maintenance is relatively easy. Most skiers will need two different temperature waxes for regular season skiing (one for colder temperatures and one for warmer) which will change region to region, weather dependant. It is also a good idea to keep one warm weather wax handy (usually a smaller size bar) for late season, spring, and summer skiing, when the snow pack will have a high moisture content.
Where it can get more complicated is in selecting preparatory waxes. The more times a ski base is waxed the faster it will glide and the longer each successive coat will last. Given this, layering coats of wax on a brand new ski can actually condition the base to perform better over the life of the ski. Now this becomes far more important for advanced skiers that will notice the difference in glide, and crucial for racers, where two tenths of a second can mean first or fifth. Regions where the weather tends to be cold and dry produce much more sharp snow crystal structures, and skis in these areas will benefit greatly from cold weather prep waxes, such as CH4 or LF4 from Swix. These cold waxes will actually harden the base material making it more durable, providing a much smoother glide in cold and dry conditions. On the flip side, where weather tends to stay more in the twenties and higher moisture content, warmer preparatory waxes are more important. These warmer waxes will make the base more resistant to water suction, providing a ski that will stick to the snow less in warmer, more moist snow.
Skier ability does not have any effect on what temperature range of ski wax that a skier needs to consider, but greatly impacts the type of wax used. Waxes will come in multiple make ups, with varying degrees of effectiveness.
The most simple type of wax, which is also the least effective, is rub-on wax. Rub-ons will come in many different forms, from pastes, to aerosols, to shoe polish style applicators, but are, in the end, the same thing. They are incredibly easy to use and fantastic for beginner skiers that want a quick and easy fix to glide problems. Rub-on paste waxes are simply smeared onto the base of the ski and buffed off with a cloth, or more commonly a paper towel. While easy to use, rubs-on tend to last for only a day or two.
The next step in wax consists of a few different styles which are all similar. This tier of hydrocarbon (CH) waxes, broad temperature range waxes, and most of the environmentally friendly bio-waxes, is where most people start, and are great for intermediate skiers. These types of waxes are also the first that will work best if ironed into the base of the ski (no you should not use the old iron in your basement, we will discuss this in the iron buying guide). By ironing the wax into the ski you are not only going to have a wax that last much longer, but it also conditions and maintains the base of the ski. The hydrocarbons that are the main component in most of these waxes provide decent water repellency, and tend to be very reasonably priced, especially in larger sized bars.
Low fluorocarbon ski wax is the next step and the best value for the dollar for intermediate to advanced skiers. These waxes are iron on waxes and are the first that use the highly water repellant compound of fluorocarbon, which all waxes from this level up will contain. The waxes here will come in all the same temperature ranges as the hydrocarbons, but is far more water repellant, making it a substantially faster gliding wax. Low fluorocarbon waxes are about double the price of hydrocarbon waxes, but if used properly a little can go a long way. Low fluorocarbon waxes are extremely valuable as training wax for racers, and Swix has recently introduced an aerosol version of low fluorocarbon wax that works wonders as an emergency fix for unexpected temperature changes.
When expert skiers and racers are looking for the ultimate in iron on performance the choice is High fluorocarbon wax. As the name implies, high fluorocarbon waxes has a significant amount more fluorocarbon content than low fluorocarbon, and if some fluorocarbon is fast, more is faster yet. High fluorocarbon waxes come in all the same temperature options as low fluorocarbon and hydrocarbon waxes, but also will have both graphite and non graphite options. These waxes tend to be rather pricey for everyday use ($70-$90 per 40 gram bar) they are the best combination of longevity and performance available.
When hundredths of a second matter, that is when pure fluorocarbon waxes are needed. Most commonly found in powdered form, pure fluorocarbon wax is a specialty use item. Since pure fluorocarbon wax comes as a powder it can be ironed into the ski or corked into the ski, but does not last very long, usually six to seven runs. For this reason, it is usually saved for race day use only, but nothing can offer a faster smoother feel on the snow.
While the terrain each individual prefers to ride does not hold huge impact on choosing wax there are a few instances where is becomes important. For all mountain skiers, finding themselves everywhere on the mountain the temperature to base wax selection the snow temperature in the sunlight. This assures a reasonably consistent feel regardless of where the skier is. Skiers who like to make their home in glades and trees will often benefit from selecting a ski wax for slightly lower temperatures than the snow temperature in sunlight. The shade from the trees helps preserve the snow and often is cooler than the snow on-piste.
There are two basic types of base material, extruded and sintered, and they both behave differently. Extruded base material is much less porous than sintered, and as a result is more durable. Extruded material is commonly found in beginner, junior, and park oriented skis. The negative to the durability is that extruded bases cannot absorb ski wax as well, so no matter the wax used and extruded base will never glide as well as a sintered base with the same treatment. The reason extruded bases are use in these types of skis is to help keep the cost down and make a ski that will still glide when improperly maintained.
Sintered bases come in two basic styles and require much more attention than extruded bases to perform well. Sintered material is far more porous than extruded, making is much more susceptible to damage when improperly maintained, but glides much faster and hold wax longer when taken care of. While there are different grades of sintered material, the most important component in sintered material is whether or not it has graphite in it. Graphite infused material is very easy to differentiate, as is will be solid black, with no color or graphic on it (almost all race skis are graphite bases). It is common that manufacturers will use some non graphite material to include a logo or graphic, but if the majority of the base is solid black graphite waxes can be used. Graphite based waxes will also be solid black in color and is only effective when used on graphite bases. The reason most high end skis will use graphite is because graphite base with graphite wax is the fastest combination possible.
Desire for Glide:
This is a basic guide for most situations that will arise when looking to wax skis. As you become more involved in maintaining equipment the glide of a freshly waxed pair of skis becomes increasingly noticeable. Often, this leads even intermediate skiers to look for the best and fastest glide available. When this ends up happening it will become important to continue to build on the collection and quality of wax. Just remember, ski wax does not go bad if stored in low humidity, and there is no such thing as too much wax!