Everything You Need to Know About Cross-Country Ski Skins

Debating between fishscale, skin skis, or ski skins for your cross-country adventures? Check out this guide to understand which one is the right choice for you!

Waxable classic skis on the left, next to waxless classic “skin” skis on the right.

Waxable classic skis on the left, next to waxless classic “skin” skis on the right. Photo by Hopson Road

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If you’ve been researching cross-country or backcountry skis, chances are you’ve heard the words “fishscale” and “skins.” To the outsider who knows nothing about skiing, neither might sound particularly appealing, and the idea of scales or skins on the bottom of a pair of skis might sound downright creepy.

But the truth is, if you’re searching for a pair of no-fuss, waxless skis that cater to beginner, intermediate, and even advanced skiers, skins and scales are where it’s at.

Rather than slimy, the fishscale pattern and skins (made of nylon, mohair, or a combo of the two) are actually grippy, and removable skins are incredibly sticky on the side that adheres to the skis.

While removable climbing skins are essential pieces for alpine touring (AT) skiers and splitboarders, for the sake of this article, we’re going to help out our cross-country (XC) audience with choosing between scales and skins, both of which are permanently affixed to the base of the skis.

Climbing skins fall into a different genre of backcountry skiing/snowboarding, and there’s a lot that goes into choosing the correct pair of skins, properly trimming, and also storing them when not in use. Scale and skin skis are a bit more straightforward and are two reasonable choices for cross-country skiers. So without further adieu, let’s dive into the difference between the two.

Fishscales

Waxless Fischer Crown (a.k.a. fishscale) skis.

Waxless Fischer Crown (a.k.a. fishscale) skis. Photo by Alex K.

These traditional waxless cross-country skis have long-dominated the market for beginners searching for reliable, durable recreational skis that are easy to use and maintain. The scale pattern on the kick zone (the area on the base of the ski beneath and in front of the binding) grips the snow so you move forward instead of backward. The friction creates a dragging effect so you don’t go overly fast. Scales can even be quite noisy, making a buzzing noise on downhills and while striding on flats, which some might find annoying and others might not mind.

While waxable classic (i.e., classical technique, as opposed to skate) skis are faster and waxed in the kick zone to match the snow temperatures and conditions, they also require more maintenance with regular waxing before every ski session that necessitates both grip and glide wax, a wax bench, and other waxing tools. That makes them ideal for racers and seasoned or advanced XC skiers who know what they’re doing.

Scale skis, alternatively, require minimal waxing. They’re typically quite durable and can be used on groomed trails as well as ungroomed/off-trail as long as they’re wide enough (at least 60mm at the widest point).

It’s a good idea to get them glide waxed (just the tips and the tails, not the kick zone) at a ski shop (or do it yourself) at the beginning and end of each season to keep the bases from drying out over time. Throughout the winter, you can periodically apply a rub-in wax called Maxxiglide, which simply rubs onto the base of the skis with an included sponge to keep the skis running smoothly. This is a DIY method that’s easy to do and helps maintain the life of your skis. Again, just apply to the tips and tails, not the scale-patterned area.

Skin Skis

Salomon 'Equipe RC Skin' cross-country skis.

Salomon 'Equipe RC Skin' cross-country skis. Photo by Amer Sports

If scales are so easy, why would anyone opt for skins? Skin skis emerged as an option for cross-country skiers seeking more speed on groomed trails than scale skis allow, without having to bother with waxing. These are another waxless classic ski option with a bit more technology behind them.

The skins on the kick zone are permanent—except for when they wear out after several hundred kilometers of use. They can easily be replaced by removing the old skin, purchasing a new one designed for your skis, and sticking it on.

These skins are either made of nylon and mohair, or just mohair, for smooth gripping and gliding action beneath the feet. Compared to scales, they provide better glide without the noise, making them more attractive to intermediate skiers who would prefer more speed than scales allow.

Ideal for those who plan to stick to groomed tracks, skin skis are known for performing especially well on icy or manmade snow—better than scale skis—but the jury is out on whether they’re superior in fresh powder. However, if the new snow is wet, skins will work better than scale skis, which tend to suffer from clumping snow on the bottom.

Generally speaking, skin skis are reliable in all conditions but require a bit more maintenance than scale skis. Their tips and tails need to be periodically waxed, and the skins should be cleaned occasionally to remove debris and ensure consistent grip. Skin cleaner from a reputable ski brand can be rubbed onto the skins and gently wiped from front to back (same direction you would apply Maxxiglide to the tips and tails). Don’t use household cleaners as they can damage the adhesive that holds the skin on the skis.

While most skin skis have a single mohair strip on each base, twin skins have two, which are staggered and have different depths for even smoother gliding. These are more expensive than entry-level skin skis, and skin skis already tend to be pricier than scale skis because of their more advanced grip/glide technology.

Climbing Skins

Climbing skins.

Climbing skins. Photo by P. Pong

For waxless backcountry skis, as well as AT skis and splitboards, removable skins are a reliable way to ensure traction on the way up steep ascents (like mountains). They can also slow you down on descents that are beyond your comfort zone. Climbing skins attach to skis or boards via a sticky glue on one side and are secured by a hook or loop at the tip of the ski/board and clip at the tail.

A non-sticky strap near the clip helps the skier align the skin on the ski while putting it on. You should try to position it centrally while keeping the metal edges stay exposed. Apply tension so that the skin is taut, and carefully press it onto the ski with your hand, moving from tip to tail. Practice makes perfect with this (this video may help), and you’ll need to find a skin that appropriately fits the length and width of your skis.

It’s best to consult a Ski Expert when trying to determine which climbing skin will work best with your skis. Some are full-length (for AT skiing and riding) and others are half (aka kicker) skins for light backcountry touring or ski-mountaineering (skimo) racing. Compared to full skins, half skins provide less grip but more glide, making them more suitable for more moderate terrain and lighter, more XC-oriented skis.

Some skins are ski-specific for a sure fit, but many will need to be trimmed to size, which isn’t difficult. Essentially, you’ll want to choose a skin that’s nearly the width of your ski at its widest point. (It can be a few millimeters narrower or any amount wider.)

So if your skis are 130mm wide, a 130mm skin would work great. You should trim the excess with the included cutting tool that comes with a pair of skins, or a box cutter, knife, or scissors. The goal is to fully cover the ski base without covering the metal edges. As for how to pack and store climbing skins when not in use, check out this video.

Picking a Skin

If you’re considering skin skis, climbing skins, or a ski purchase of any kind, be sure to reach out to a Ski Expert here on Curated, and we’ll be happy to offer our advice and find you equipment that best suits your needs!

Ski Expert Alex K.
Alex K.
Ski Expert
Have a question for Alex K.? You can get connected directly with her to learn more.
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Growing up in New Hampshire's White Mountains, I started downhill skiing at age 2 on Bode Miller's home turf, Cannon Mountain, in Franconia Notch. Around age 10, my family and I moved to Lake George, N.Y. There, I followed my parents' lead and got into all types of skiing -- including alpine and cro...

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