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.
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 his feet).
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 real bargain.
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 the Rockies.
 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!
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