An alternative — a far better heavy touring ski — can sometimes be found in military surplus stores: U.S. Army issue, mostly hickory to judge from the weight, and darn near indestructible.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Wayne P. Merry started and ran for five
years the biggest Nordic ski school on the West Coast
(Yosemite Mountaineering). He's made cross-country skiing
trips as much as 300 miles long and is one of the directors
of the National Hiking and Ski Touring Association.
More on Cross-Country Skiing Equipment
Wayne P. Merry:
It was great to see Paul Stanton's article in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 31
on getting into cross-country skiing, or Nordic skiing cheaply.
Like the cost of everything else, the price of equipment
for this sport has been going up like the dickens. It may
not be long before Nordic gear costs what downhill used to.
A cycle repeated?
I started the same way Paul did: by cutting the metal edges
off an old pair of wooden downhill jobs (that looked as if
they'd been hand-carved by a Viking), modifying a set of
old bear-trap bindings that weighed about 2 pounds each,
sizzling in some pine tar with a plumber's blowtorch, and
setting off to see the Alaskan woods.
Well, it's a great way to begin. Try it. Once you discover
what's out there, you'll be hooked. Quite often, though,
that converted used outdoor sports equipment won't even last through
your gyrations as a learner. For instance, those
hand-me-down poles, if very old, usually have rotten
leather in the baskets. Which means that — sooner or
later — when you put a bit of weight on one of the
supports to regain your balance, the basket will remain in
the snow and you'll find yourself trying to pole your way
home with a lance!
In five years of teaching cross-country, I've seen a lot of
folks start out with improvised gear . . . and at least
they started, which is the main thing. Eventually,
though, such beginners want equipment which will perform.
Even if everything holds together, you'll find after a
while that you want to go lighter and farther and faster
and learn that pretty stretched-out stride you see in the
books (and can't do with your old outfit).
Here, then, are some ways to get started in this sport at
low cost, and still provide yourself with workable gear:
First, a few words about skis. Those old heavy touring or
downhill boards which Paul describes will get you around,
although you'll be wearing about twice as much weight as
you need. The main problem you'll have is finding a pair
which hasn't deteriorated. Too often, Goodwill bargains
crack or break right in the middle of a long trip. (A
friend of mine had a pair snap for no apparent reason
halfway across the Sierra. Fortunately, he was both
ingenious and strong.)
An alternative — a far better heavy touring
ski — can sometimes be found in military surplus
stores: U.S. Army issue, mostly hickory to judge from the
weight, and darn near indestructible. These sturdy articles
are usually painted white . . . but if the aesthetics mean
anything to you, the paint can be removed and replaced with
clear varnish for a pretty natural finish. You can also cut
down the edges to make a lighter ski, very like the modern
general touring type.
Another source of good, inexpensive skis is an
establishment which rents cross-country gear. Every couple
of years — or more often — such a firm replaces
skis which are no longer very presentable (although they
still may be quite serviceable). The castoffs are often
sold, commonly with bindings still mounted, at a fraction
of their retail cost. If you can find a pair which is just
beat up and has no structural damage, you've usually got
something good . . . because if a ski can stand a year or
two of rental to beginners, it has to be tough!
Here are a couple of hints to help you when you're checking
out a collection of possible purchases: If you're after
sturdiness and aren't particular about weight, look for a
general touring ski which — if it's Scandinavian in
origin — may be marked "Tur Model" or "Tur Ski". Less
hefty types are light touring and racing skis ("Tur
Langrenn" and "Langrenn" respectively in Norwegian).
A good general touring ski, incidentally, is not
fragile . . . especially when compared to a pair of antique
heavyweights that may have been sitting in a damp garage
for 20 years. Four of us toured 300 miles on Bonna
2400's — above the Arctic Circle and carrying 70-pound
packs — and the skis performed perfectly.
I wouldn't worry too much about the flotation of lighter
equipment, either. If you use skis of standard
length — long enough, when stood on end, to reach the
wrist or palm of a hand held at arm's length over your
head — you'll find that extra-wide antiques won't hold
you up any better than general or even light touring skis.
A friend of mine, a park ranger, used to go on mufti-day
ski patrols with little skinny racing skis . . .
and his companions, on the widest and longest boards they
could get, found that he performed just as well as they did
in deep snow (while carrying a lot less weight strapped to
Flotation — then, to repeat — is actually more a
function of length than width. If you're planning to do a
lot of trailless deep snow skiing and really want the
equivalent of a gigantic snowshoe to slide around on with
no great speed, just get the longest darn skis you can
find. You'll plod, but float a bit better.
Remember, too — if you have a lot of off-trail deep
snow travel ahead of you — that most cross-country ski
bindings are mounted to hold the boards (during a step)
with their tips pointed down at about a 20 degree angle. This
is done to provide the right balance for the traditional
Nordic stride, especially in a packed track. When you're
sinking into the snow at every step,
though — especially in deep powder or over-depth
hoar — you'll find that the whole length of each ski
(which is so mounted) will break through the surface and
sink in at every stride. This makes for tough going, since
the heavier tip of the board doesn't climb out well and has
to be raised with the toe of the boot. What you want is the
tail alone to break through so that you "only" have to
"climb out" of a hole as you make each step.
Accordingly, if deep snow trudging is what you foresee,
adjust your bindings so that the skis hang level during
your strides. (Attach the fastenings temporarily with tape
to determine the points of balance.) Remember, though, that
this adjustment won't perform well on a packed track when
you attempt the traditional Nordic stride.
Another pressing question for the beginner is the matter of
footwear. One consideration here is that if you buy special
cross-country boots, you won't usually have much trouble
fitting bindings (since Nordic equipment is getting very
standardized now). On the other hand, it takes quite a
while to get bindings adjusted to hiking boots . . . and
some such combinations just won't work at all.
Unfortunately, the salesperson who tells you that special
footgear is important may just be right.
However, if (like most of us) you haven't got large
quantities of bread to spare, you might make do with
substitutes for a while. Be aware, though, that the little
lip on the outside of most cable bindings — which is
designed to fit over the edge of a ski boot sole — may
tear the dickens out of the corresponding part of a hiking
boot . . . and there goes 50 bucks or more! If you can
remove that metal rim one way or another and replace it
with a strap that passes over your toe just far enough back
so the leather loop won't slip off, so much the better.
And if you can find a set of the old Army surplus universal
bindings, you're better off yet. With them, you'll be able
to strap on your skis and go cross-country while wearing
almost any footwear. (The military binding is a piece of
belting screwed to the ski at the front and supplied with a
heel cup at the back, plus a couple of straps around toe
and ankle. It's a bigger version of the Balata fastenings
sold in good ski stores for little kiddies' X-C use.)
In any case, avoid stiff hiking footwear such as mountain
boots. They're so darned heavy that they'll wear you out
way ahead of time, and the inflexibility of their soles
prevents the bending at the base of the toes which is so
important to a free stride. The same factor means that much
less circulation is pumped through each foot than is common
with the very flexible Nordic boots . . . and that means
colder feet. The only case of honest-to-God frostbite I've
seen happen to a cross-country skier in the Sierra was
directly attributable to such footwear. His companions, who
wore much lighter Nordic boots, had no trouble.
Obviously, what it boils down to is that if you improvise
with old equipment, or gear that was designed for another
purpose, you're going to have a certain amount of trouble.
The sooner you can latch onto some used touring skis,
boots, and bindings, the more you'll enjoy the sport and
the more dependable the gear will be. Keep a sharp eye on
surplus stores, spring sales at Nordic rental
shops — and even ski swaps — and you might find a
Skiing is my profession, and I was distressed by some of
the misinformation in Paul Stanton's "Cross-Country Skiing
. . . The Low-Cost Way" (MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 31). Let me be brief:
 "Skinny skis" — which Stanton says are best suited
only for very light touring — have taken me and
hundreds of others over and through the most rugged
mountains of the U.S. and Canada. They're strong, and they
do fine even in 80 or 90 percent of the fresh new snow in
 Special X-C boots are much warmer than heavy
footwear, because they can't become soaked and freeze like
iron maidens on a skier's feet. I wear light touring shoes
on two-week high country camping trips, and companions with
mountain boots always suffer more from cold than I do.
 The great joy of X-C skiing comes not just from the
beauty of the country you get into . . . but also from the
ease of action, the strong, fast stride, the feeling that
your motion is somehow magically aided by the wings of
Mercury. To slog along on 10-pound skis (I own a pair . . .
I know) is a cost in terms of enjoyment and satisfaction
far greater than the $30.00 or $40.00 saved.
A better way to save dollars on cross-country equipment is
to wait for the spring sales, when good gear can be
obtained complete for $50.00 to $60.00. Would you buy an
elephant when you needed a horse, even if the elephant were
cheap Carthaginian war surplus?
I'd like to add a little advice to the suggestions Paul
Stanton made in his excellent article.
First, when you're looking for secondhand equipment, you
should lay both skis on a flat surface to check for camber
. . . which gives the resilience needed for proper glide on
flat ground and the flexibility for downhill travel.
Ideally, the test should show an inch to an inch and a half
of space under the middle of the ski.
Also, if the skis have bindings already attached, be sure
the fastenings aren't glued on with epoxy (which make them
almost impossible to remove). Good touring to you!