Proper waxing is the heart of enjoyable cross-country skiing. I shied from the sport for years because it seemed too much work. Downhill is easy; gravity is the workhorse that assures you of getting back where you started from.
Cross-country is different. Sometimes it's downhill. Sometimes it's uphill. And, if you ski the C&O Canal towpath, then it's always very, very neither.
Friends who have been cross-country skiing years longer than I are always talking about not getting enough "kick" or not enough "glide." I listen, but as a near novice I have always been hopelessly confused and at the mercy of the waxes they recommend. Sometimes they send me out with too hard a wax, and then I've got plenty of "glide" but so little "kick" that when I encounter the lightest upgrade I ski like a cat trying to run on linoleum.Sometimes they send me out with too sticky a wax, and I don't glide at all. I just walk around with three inches of snow stuck to the bottoms of my skis. I have learned that the only sure way to learn is by experience.
The waxes -- you'll probably use at least two every time -- are the workhorse. You'll use one directly under your foot for sticking ability for the "kick" that propels you forward, or uphill, and another on the rest of the ski for sliding ability that makes the whole endeavor enjoyable. The goal in waxing is to get enough kick to propel you and enough glide to make it fun.
When I realized that sticking and sliding are opposites, I began to understand my friends who are always talking about wax. To understand waxing you must understand snow. Temperature and moisture content determine what form snow takes. If it's powdery, like new snow, and you can't get a snowball to stay together, it's dry snow. If you can ball it together easily, it's wet snow.
Each "kicker" was and each "glider" wax is blended to suit variations in temperature and moisture content. When snow is new, dry and very powdery, the flakes have pretty little points that reach out and stick into the wax. No problem here with gripping or getting enough kick. Therefore, you'll want a hard glide wax and a somewhat softer kicker, so the kick won't be excessive -- i.e., the points won't stick in too far -- and so you'll get enough glide. If the snow is old, with the points broken off by the wind, or wet with the points melted off by the sun or refrozen and it's like skiing on ball bearings, then you'll want a combination of "kicker" and "glider" that has more stick to it.
Hard waxes for dry snow; sticky waxes for wet or refrozen snow; and the glide wax is always harder than the stickier kicker wax under the foot.
With waxing so simple. why all the discussion? Well, there are a dozen or more kickers and gliders. Each has appropriate conditions, and depending on which waxes you use, how thick you apply each, or how much of the ski you cover with each, you can get a variety of combinations. That's where experience becomes the teacher.
The simplest type of waxing is the twowax system. There's one for dry snow and another for wet. If the snow is very dry (temperature in mid-20s or below), thinly crayon the dry-snow wax in the kicker area of the ski and polish the wax smooth with a cork, which you should buy with your waxes. If the snow is verging on wet (upper 20s to 32) or old dry snow, just apply more of the same wax to the same area. Several thin layers will last longer than one thick layer. Do not polish. If the snow is a little wet, use the wet-snow wax in the kicker area and polish. If it's very wet, apply the wax thick and rough and don't polish.
Most people in our area use a color-coded system of waxes and, from hardest to softest, do fine with: green, blue, purple, red and yellow. Each wax canister is marked with appropriate conditions, and the trick of applying a thicker, rougher layer to get more kick can be used just as it is in the two-wax system. Very icy or very warm and wet conditions may require use of a "klister" wax directly under the foot as a kicker. Klisters are extremely sticky kicker waxes in a tube. They are always spreat thin with a special spreader, and should never be applied over the living room carpet.
Proper waxing is really self-taught, but here are a few final hints:
1 You can always put a softer wax over a harder one, but not the other way around. So start with one wax harder than you think you'll need. If you're wrong you can put the softer wax on top of it.
2 If you don't have the correct waxes you can fudge a little. A thin layer of a softer wax works almost the same as a thicker layer of the next-harder wax.
3 If you need more kick, put the kicker wax on thicker and rougher or cover a larger area than that directly under the foot. If you need more glide, polish the wax smoother or reduce the area of the kicker. Remember, you're looking for both maximum kick and maximum glide, which unfortunately are mutually exclusive. If you glide like lightning but have no kick at all, your wax is too hard. If you can kick up the side of a tree, but glide nowhere, your wax is too soft.
If all this seems too confusing, take heart. "Waxless" skis are available and improving each year. Plastic "fishscale," "diamond" or "stepped" patterns on the kicker area perform well. Patterned areas should never be waxed, but the unpatterned glide areas toward the tip and tail can be glide-waxed for better performance.