For beginners who want to enjoy the California backcountry, the best system consists of 3 pin bindings, a good pair of stiff boots with ankle support, and waxless backcountry skis. Stiff boots are the most important. They make turning much easier and you learn control faster. With control, you'll ski with more confidence and enjoy nature much more.
Cross-country skis have either waxable or waxless bases. California's warm snow conditions favor waxless skis. There are advantages and disadvantages which can be more or less important, depending on the style of ski, but usually you can get any particular type of ski with either type of base.
We recommend novices rent the boots, pools, and skis. It's always a good idea to check out a sport before making the start-up investment. You can rent nordic skis at REI and Sports Chalet in the Los Angeles area. Call the local store to be sure they have the sizes you need.
- Waxless: Waxless cross country skis have a "scaled" bottom so that they will slide forward and resist backward motion. These skis are a good choice for first-timers as they will allow you to concentrate on striding, skating, poling, downhilling, and other aspects of technique. They are not as good going up steep hills, or in unpacked, powder snow. They are great in preventing snow from packing into a wet blob under your skis.
- Waxable: These skis require waxing, and proper waxing at that, to be useful. You don't need waxable skis in California. The snow is too warm and the temperature hovers right around freezing. If you try to wax you'll end up changing wax all day, never getting it right for very long, and holding up the rest of the group.
If you are going where the temperature will stay below freezing, a two or three wax kit is sufficient (wet snow/dry snow). Other wax systems exist where every 10 degree change in temperature requires a different wax. With proper wax, waxable skis are faster than waxless on flat snow, and can be used to climb steep hills much more easily. With improper wax, several pounds of snow will stick to your skis with every step. See below for detailed waxing information.
These skis are designed for use on backcountry trails, where you may be breaking trail, may be carrying a pack, and may find untouched powder bowls just begging for a few turns. They are heavier and wider than track skis, but lighter and narrower than downhill or telemark skis. They may be double-cambered and have metal edges and good sidecut for telemark turns and control on the downhill. Don Holtz and Todd Yuen prefer lighter backcountry skis without metal edges. The metal edges are only needed on icy slopes, not in fresh or slushy snow.
These are the best skis for beginners who wish to go out and have a wilderness experience. While both waxless and waxable versions exist, beginners should get the waxless versions. Fischer Cross Country has a waxless backcountry E99 ski that has been popular.
These skis are designed for use at "Nordic Centers" and the like where tracks are prepared in the snow for you. They are light, flexible, very skinny, do not have metal edges, and are usually waxless although waxable versions are available as well. You can go very fast with them provided you don't have to break trail or go steeply uphill or downhill. It might be possible to do telemark turns with these, but it's difficult because of the lack of sidecut. These skis are used in classic diagonal racing and for light touring. Racing track skis tend to be waxable.
These skis are designed for use in steeper back country areas, for people who want to use telemark technique, and for people who don't mind the extra effort to climb with these skis in return for a better downhill run. They are a bit longer and narrower than downhill skis, but basically look a whole lot like downhill skis with cross-country bindings. They are better for telemarking downhill than backcountry skis, but it is harder to ski uphill with them because they are heavier and have less camber. Bindings can be three-pin, cable, or cable with a release.
The telemark technique is very useful in the backcountry because it gives good fore and aft stability in crud snow conditions.
Todd Yuen recommends the TUA "Toute Neige." Another good beginner to intermediate telemark ski is the Katami. It's a good starter telemark ski because it's easier to turn. The disadvantage is that it is slow and soft.
Owen Malloy of the Ski Mountaineers says "I now ski the Atomic Beta-Carv TM 26, and that ski is amazing. I ski in the low Scarpa boots now and I really like them. They work fine for backpacking. I even use them sometimes for touring on lighter skis." The Scarpa's are an example of the plastic boots that are now widely available for Telemarking. The newer ones are more flexible, stay warmer and dryer and are comparably priced to the older leather boots.
Many people will use Alpine skis for telemarking because they can get them cheap on sale or for pro price. But the alpine skis don't telemark that well. A recent article in Couloir compared a bunch of skis and they concluded the Alpine skis really didn't have the right flex. A lot of people use the Alpine skis (partly to be macho) and unless they are really expert their skiing suffers because to get them to bend they have to stand on one foot. Some of the Alpine folks think telemarking isn't real skiing so they tend to just stick pins on anything they find in the garage."
Randonee skis are quite useful for the steep backcountry slopes found in the European Alps and some parts of North America. They are normally used with a randonee binding, which requires an alpine style (downhill) boot. The binding allows the heel to be free for uphill climbing but locked down for downhill skiing. They are essentially lighter alpine skis. They are still heavy and can be tiring in more wide open terrain. They are a backcountry ski for a downhill skier who normally skis black diamond or high intermediate slopes in downhill ski areas.
These skis are designed for use with the skating technique, which looks sort of like Rollerblading on snow. These skis use only glide wax, not grip wax, and are never waxless. Skilled racers go faster than diagonal skiers using this technique on prepared tracks . Skating skis are shorter and stiffer than track skis. They are single-cambered. Skating skis are never used with three-pin bindings because the binding width would interfere with the technique.