Physics of Ski Waxing

Physics of Ski Waxing

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Skiing is one of the things to do during the winter, here in Canada. It is also cheap and easy to start, since there are ski-tracks almost everywhere and it is possible to find used skis for less then $50. Skis are pretty simple in design. Originally they were designed just as the snow shoes, though today they are much more advanced. (Wikipedia) Skis can be used just after you bought them, without doing anything to them. However, if you want your skis to perform to their best, simple maintenance needs to be performed. One of the best and easiest way to do so is to apply wax. One can be confused at first by the variety of waxes available on the market. To see that, just check ski section in local Beaver Sports store. In reality, just one or couple waxes needed to get started. I'm going to explain how to wax your skis for the diagonal stride technique and what exactly waxing does to the skis.

Ski structure

Cross country skis are bent vertically. That allows for using different kind of wax depending whether person is sliding or kicking.

When buying skis, you should choose ones that are made for your mass. If they are for bigger person, skis will be less bendable, thus area of contact will be only on the ends. If they are for smaller person, skis will be unbent most of the time. That is not very good, because it would slow the person down. Ideally we want all the area of the ski to be in contact with the snow when pressure is applied and middle section off the snow when sliding.

Friction is force dependant, meaning it changes depending on force applied.

Ff = F * μ

Glide wax is applied to the front and the end of the skies, this way when person removes force from one leg, friction becomes less and ski slides.

The ski is unbent when force is applied to it. Friction between snow and wax in the midsection increases so that it grips enough for a kick. Coefficient of static friction of the kick wax is only big enough for "the snow irregularities dig into wax irregularities just enough to give a motionless ski bite, or grip." (Brady)

At the moment when ski gains velocity, it is not at rest anymore, and since μk is less then μs, friction is not big enough to hold the ski.

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In some cases this friction converts enough energy to the heat to "melt a bit [of snow] to let ski slide on a microscopic water layer"(Brady) and thus even help to glide.

Glide wax serve opposite purpose. It allows for skis to slide with as little friction as possible. It does that by filling and masking all irregularities on the ends of the skis. For the diagonal stride, glide waxing is not as important as kick waxing. If you ski couple times a week, doing hot waxing once every two month should be plenty. Kick waxing should be applied according to the temperature and it usually wears off in couple sessions.
Applying wax

It's the best to apply wax when you are still inside. This way wax and skis are warm and it is easier to put it on.

All flaky and dirty wax should be removed first. Glide wax is uniformly applied to the glide wax zones. It can be done by melting it on the ski base and then spreading it with the scraper. All excessive wax needs to be removed.

Kick wax of the appropriate type is applied to the midsection with a simple crayoning-like motion and then evened out with the cork. This procedure takes less then 5 minutes.

Choosing right wax

Wax should be chosen depending on temperature

The thing that needs to be remembered is that wax should be chosen according to the outside conditions. It can be as complicated as considering all factors, like humidity, temperature, wind, sun, reflectivity and age of snow. It can also be as simple as taking in consideration only the temperature. Let's go over two the most important factors.

The basic rule to remember is that harder wax should be used for colder days and softer wax for warmer ones.

There is no optimal wax that will work for the whole temperature range. That means if you apply wax that is too hard for the weather, there will be little friction and you'll find that moving is hard, just like walking on the icy lake. Likewise, if you use the wax that is too soft for the temperature, ice crystals will deeply penetrate into the wax, friction will be very large and snow will quickly stick to the bottom of the skis making it hard to move.

So check temperature before you leave to ski and make sure that you take some wax with you in case temperature would change.
Shape of snow crystals

Even though temperature matters the most, age of the snow may also affect the performance of the skis.

New snow crystals are usually shaped like stars and have sharp edges. When skiing on the new snow, one should use hard wax. Otherwise snow crystals would penetrate wax too deep with their sharp edges and friction will be greater. When skiing on packed or wet snow, crystals shaped more like little balls, so softer wax can be applied.

Whatever snow conditions are, according to Sport Illustrated author Casey Sheahan, "the colder the air temperature, the harder wax you'll apply to the midsection of your skis." There are wide range of waxes available, however Blue(warmer, most used) and Green(colder) waxes are best for Fairbanks according to the Beaver Sports.


Bergan, Sindre. Cross Country Skiing. Indianapolis: Masters Press, 1996.

Brady, Michael. Ski Cross Country. New York: The Dial Press, 1974.

Sheahan, Casey. Sports Illustrated: Cross-country Skiing. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1984.

Beaver Sports complimentary brochure. 5 November 2004.
3480 College Road, Fairbanks AK 99709. 23 November 2004. .

Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Ski. 23 November 2004. .

Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Ski wax. 23 November 2004. .
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