Everything You Need to Know About Cross-Country Ski Skins

Published on 03/27/2023 · 18 min readDebating 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!
Alex K., Ski Expert
By Ski Expert Alex K.

Photo by Michael Gaida, courtesy of Pixabay

Before buying your first cross-country (XC) skin skis, consider your purpose. Do you want to save time or avoid waxing with classic skis? Are you trying to stay updated with the latest equipment or add a new pair of skis to your collection? It is important to note that XC skin skis are not all the same, with specific models designed for touring on groomed or ungroomed terrain, fitness-oriented for groomers only, or for experienced racers. They tend to be mid- to high-priced and better suited for intermediate and advanced skiers who can correctly press the synthetic skin material into the snow with each step and glide.

As someone who has raced competitively, skied recreationally, instructed, and helped hundreds of skiers find their ideal nordic setup on Curated, I have found the sport to be universally appealing for its different experiences and paces, whether on groomed or ungroomed terrain.

What Are Skin Skis?

When it comes to waxless-ski technology (meaning you don’t need to apply kick wax to the ski base every time you classic ski), cross-country skin skis are the newest. They are highly recommended for anyone seeking convenience, a step up from traditional fishscale skis, or an alternative to waxing. "Classic skiing" refers to diagonal striding on nordic skis in groomed tracks, while "fishscales" are the scale pattern on the bottom of waxless skis that allow for kicking and gliding.

A closeup of the underside of the author’s Atomic Pro C2 Skintec Skis. Photo by Alex K.

How Does This Technology Work?

To classic ski, you need kick wax (aka grip wax) on waxable skis, fishscales, or skins in the kick zone beneath your feet to create friction/traction and propel you forward. But, simultaneously, the skis also need to glide, which is where the skin technology (made of mohair, nylon, or a combination of both) comes into play.

How Are Skin Skis Different From Scale Skis?

The fuzzy, synthetic skins on the kick zone are permanently affixed to the skis with sticky glue—except when they wear out after several hundred kilometers of use (usually a few years, depending on how much you ski). After that, they can easily be replaced by removing the old skin, purchasing a new one designed for your skis, and sticking it on. They provide better glide than scale skis and don’t make an abrasive noise, which is ideal for intermediate or advanced skiers who prefer more speed than scales allow.

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

What Conditions Are Best for Skin Skis?

Typically designed for groomed tracks, skin skis perform especially well on icy or artificial 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.

Skins aren’t as fast as waxable skis, but high-end racing skins come very close. Skins can be a game-changer on tricky waxing days when temperatures are just above freezing (32+ degrees Fahrenheit). Given the trend with recent winters, if you live in a place that experiences mild winters, you should have a pair of these skis!

What About Twin Skin Skis?

While most skin skis have a single mohair (or mohair/nylon) strip on each base, twin skin skis have two separate skin strips at offset positions and different depths for 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.

What to Consider When Buying Skin Skis

Before you pick the prettiest pair, think about your lifestyle, ability level, and what you’re hoping to get out of a new pair of skin skis. Here are some considerations to think through:

What Are My Skiing Goals?

Waxable classic and skate skis are necessary for serious racers, including those at the high school, collegiate, and pro levels. But skin skis could be your new favorites if you're a recreational skier or even citizen-racing type.

Marathoning While participating in a Canadian ski marathon this past winter, I noticed that at least half the racers were on skin skis—no joke. These skis have come a long way in the last several years, with better glide and speed without the drag. They also eliminate the guesswork and anxiety that can come with race-day waxing. No more testing the wax and re-waxing in a mad scramble before the start. Just get out there, trust they’ll get you where you need to go, and have fun!

Fitness For the fitness-minded skier, skins are also great. Folks like us usually strive for a set amount of time to exercise; distance is secondary. So it’s no big deal if the skins are slightly slower than waxable skis and you cover a little less ground—you can still reach your time goal. Fresh air is fresh air, no matter where you are on the trail.

When deciding between brands and models of skin skis, consider their width and weight.

  • Wider, heavier skis (around 50mm or wider, and about 3-4 lbs for the pair) are more geared for touring—walking or shuffling on skis.
  • Skinnier, lighter skis (less than 50mm, around 1-2 lbs for the pair) are much preferable for racing or building/maintaining fitness during the winter.

Above all else, ask yourself, do I want to wax my skis before every outing? If your answer is no, save yourself a ton of time and invest in a pair of skin skis. Remember, these skis require more maintenance than scale skis, as their tips and tails should be glide waxed several times throughout each season to keep them from drying out and becoming “sticky” and slow. The skins should also be cleaned regularly, especially if they pick up dirt, leaves, or pine needles during a ski.

Where Do I Want to Use Them?

Groomed trails are an XC skin ski’s best friend. Ungroomed—not so much. Unlike climbing skins, which a skier can temporarily stick on broader, metal-edged, backcountry skis for “skinning” to the top of a mountain, then remove them before skiing down, cross-country skin skis are narrow, lightweight, and designed to grip and glide in machine-groomed tracks.

This doesn’t mean XC skin skis can’t work off-trail for those who want to break trail or explore uncharted powder. Wider, more robust models can certainly handle that. But they’re not made for skinning up steep hiking trails and carving tele turns through trees. Get a pair of metal-edge backcountry skis for that!

What’s the Climate Like Where I Ski?

The people most hesitant to purchase skin skis are usually seasoned skiers from cold-weather climates, where blue kick wax is the go-to. They can count on conditions staying well below freezing, usually between 5 and 20 degrees Fahrenheit. These people are comfortable with waxing and generally subscribe to the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” although they might be curious about skin skis.

To those people, who typically live in the West or Alaska, skin skis might be a nice, no-fuss option but not a necessity. For everyone else, who can’t always count on a white, powder-filled winter—like East Coasters and some Midwesterners—skin skis are for you.

If you ever heard of “zeros,” specialized skis that were cutting-edge about 15 years ago and designed for use at zero degrees Celsius (32 Fahrenheit), new XC skin skis are even better. While zeros have roughed-up, rubber-like base material that only performs at a specific temperature, skin skis are ideal for snow temperatures around 32 degrees F and above. They’ll grip in colder temperatures, too, but may provide a bit less glide than waxable skis would in the same conditions.

At or above freezing, skin skis usually grip better and glide equally to a waxable ski. However, at warmer, 32+ F temperatures, kick wax doesn’t work, and waxable skis require klister—a sticky, goopy substance that most skiers try to avoid. Waxable skis with klister on the bases should be wrapped with cellophane and handled carefully to prevent sticking to everything. Alternatively, skin skis are mess-free!

How Do You Maintain Skins?

While they are reliable in all conditions, skin skis require more maintenance than scale skis. So if you’re not keen on investing time and effort into maintaining your skin skis, they may not be the right fit for you. Their tips and tails must be glide waxed periodically, and the skins should be cleaned regularly to remove debris and ensure consistent grip. Skin cleaner from a reputable ski company can be sprayed or rubbed onto the skins and gently wiped from front to back (same direction you would apply Maxiglide, a rub-on glide wax, to the tips and tails). Don’t use household cleaners, as they can damage the adhesive that holds the skin on the skis.

Expert Tip: If you ski following a windstorm and find debris in the trail (like leaves, sticks, pinecones, etc.), skins can get hung up on that stuff. The same goes for spring skiing on dirty snow. The debris won’t necessarily stick to the skins like a klister would, but it can stop you short. (Kick wax would do the same thing.) Skin skis will pick up dirt (unlike scales).

So be mindful of crud in the trails and try to ski around it when possible! If leaves in the tracks are a big problem, apply a skin-specific product (such as Swix Skin Boost or Rex Skin Care) to make them more slippery when gliding. Skin-cleaning sprays and rub-on applicators will also keep the skin from icing and improve its lifespan.

How Much Do I Want to Spend?

  • Lower Price Point: Skin skis vary in price from about $175-$300 for junior skis to $250-$900 for adult skis. The less-expensive adult skis are usually wider and made for groomed or ungroomed touring. These perform well in various snow conditions, from powder to ice and even melting snow, but they aren’t the speediest skis. It should be noted that skin-touring skis grip better on icy and glazed snow than scales—which makes them great for beginners!
  • Mid-Range Price Point: Mid-range skin skis are ideal for sporty skiers who don’t want to break the bank and aren’t necessarily into racing. These will get them where they need to go, with very little maintenance, and provide great grip and glide along the way. They’re sleeker and faster than touring skis and better suited for intermediate to advanced skiers who have classic skied before.
  • Higher Price Point: High-end skins are best for masters or citizen racers who want maximum speed without herky-jerky dragging underfoot. These skis generally grip better than waxable classic skis in most conditions, including glazed tracks, and their glide is impressive. Most skiers who own these skis never go back to waxable—they’re that good!

Spring-like, glazed, and even wet conditions are where skin skis beat the competition. Photo by Alex K.

Different Types of Cross-Country Skin Skis

Cross-country skin skis generally fall into one of three categories: 1. Touring 2. Recreation/Fitness 3. Racing

Touring

For those looking for fresh air and an outdoor experience at a leisurely (e.g., walking) pace, touring skin skis are built for stability and ease of use. They’re wider, more durable, and have less “squirrely” feeling than skinnier skis, giving beginners a solid foundation for building confidence and finding balance on groomed or ungroomed trails.

Benefits:

  • Designed for shuffling at lower speeds; great for beginners
  • Provide ample grip in most snow conditions, better than fishscales
  • Quieter than fishscales when gliding across firm snow
  • Usually shorter, wider, and easier to balance and maneuver on
  • Durable/made for groomed and ungroomed use
  • Usually less expensive
  • Require the least amount of maintenance/waxing

Be Aware:

  • Slower and offers less glide than lightweight skin skis
  • May feel more “herky-jerky”, with a gripping sensation on slight downhills
  • Heavier than higher-end skin skis
  • Not made for racing

Recreation/Fitness

While touring is undoubtedly recreation, many recreational or fitness skiers want more speed than touring skis can provide. These skiers typically want to work up a sweat and torch calories out on the trail; lighter, faster skin skis can help them do that. These skis aren’t the ultralight caliber of racing skis, but they’re great for intermediate and advanced skiers who want to build/maintain fitness or progress in the sport.

While touring skis are shorter and stiffer, these mid-range recreation skis are usually similar in length (measured in centimeters) to waxable classic skis. Ski lengths differ depending on brand and model, so ask a Curated XC Skiing Specialist which would be best for you (based on your height, weight, and ski level).

Benefits:

  • Lighter, narrower than touring skis
  • Reliable grip and glide in most snow conditions
  • More stable feeling than race skis, especially on downhills
  • Best skin skis for skiers of all levels (*including beginners with some experience)
  • Mid-priced for affordability

Be Aware:

  • Not as light or fast as racing skis
  • Require more maintenance than touring skis (periodic glide waxing and skin cleaning)
  • Not as beginner-friendly as touring skis / require decent technique

Racing

Racing skin skis appeal to a small demographic, but as mentioned before, any citizen racer who switches from waxable to these may never change back. They’ve come a long way in the last few years with synthetic mohair technology and ultralight constructions that rival the speed of waxable classic skis—especially in distance races (did somebody say Worldloppet?)

Take it from someone who has raced 50 kilometers on waxable skis and been passed by several skin skiers; stopping to apply kick wax during a race isn’t ideal, and neither is not re-waxing and slipping on steep hills. So save yourself the frustration and get a pair of these!

The length of a racing skin ski is usually similar to that of comparable waxable race skis. Ask an Expert about a specific brand/model, and they’ll tell you your ideal length!

Benefits:

  • Ultralight and race-oriented
  • May come two interchangeable skins: training skin and race skin
  • Better grip than waxable race skis
  • Best glide of any skin ski
  • Typically equipped with racing skins, which can be easily changed/swapped out for a different skin

Be Aware:

  • Most expensive
  • Require more maintenance/regular cleaning and glide waxing
  • More “squirrely” feeling on downhills / better suited to advanced skiers

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

Features to Look For

Below is a list of common features and specifications related to skin skis. These include ease of changing skins (and whether they’re sold with more than one type of skin), whether bindings are included, the ski and skin construction, width/sidecut, weight, and flex, which can all factor into your enjoyment of the skis.

Ease of Use

Some skin skis come with more than one pair of skins, such as universal skin, a grip skin with better grip properties, or a racing skin that’s faster. In most cases, these can be easily changed and most users stick with one skin most of the time. If you plan on changing skins frequently, especially for racing, be sure the skis come with skins that easily swap out. If you don’t want to do it yourself, check with your local ski shop to see if they can do it.

Bindings

Are bindings included? Pay attention to the product title and package description; not all skis come with bindings! If not, ensure that the bindings you purchase are compatible with the skis. Ask an Expert for help if you’re not sure!

Construction

Most cross-country skis are made of a combination of fiberglass, foam, and other lightweight materials for a high strength-to-weight ratio. A high-end race ski might have a carbon “core” construction, making it incredibly light, nimble, and more expensive. In terms of the skins, higher-end versions have a higher mohair content (the best are 100% mohair), while mid-range skins tend to be a mohair/nylon blend.

Width/Sidecut

The width or sidecut dimensions of a ski are denoted by three numbers, which are the measurements of the width of the tip, waist, and tail of a ski (in millimeters).

  • Skis don’t get much narrower than 42 mm at the skinniest point, and many narrower, high-end models are around 43 or 44 (e.g., 43-44-44). Mid-range recreational skis are usually a few mm wider (46, 47, 48), and a backcountry touring ski would be 50mm or wider.
  • The difference in the three numbers is the silhouette of the ski; looking down at it from top to bottom, this is the amount of curve you will see. So for a 43-44-44 racing ski, there’s not much of a sidecut (this is considered a parallel sidecut); this ski is built for speed and not for carving turns. However, a 60-50-55 ski, like the Madshus Fjlelltech M50 Skin Ski, is better for ungroomed backcountry skiing (and has 3/4-length steel edges for additional control on downhills).

Weight

This can be tough to pin down as some brands advertise weight by a single ski and others measure it by the pair, but generally speaking, a very lightweight pair of skin skis will weigh less than 2 lbs. A mid-range pair will be closer to 3 lbs; anything above that is strictly for touring (the Madshus Fjelltech M50 are 3.9 lbs).

Flex

You may see a ski’s flex, or stiffness, noted in its product name, such as soft, medium, hard, or extra hard/stiff. A Curated XC Expert can help you make sense of these titles, but generally, a softer ski is better for a lighter, less experienced skier, while a harder or stiffer ski is better for more advanced, sometimes bigger skiers. The soft flex allows for easier grip and turning at slower speeds, while a stiffer ski is better on firm snow at high speeds. You want a ski that can support your weight while providing optimal energy transfer, control, and glide.

How to Choose the Right Skin Ski for You

Choosing the right pair of skin skis can be overwhelming, especially given the vast range of available models (which are still growing along with their popularity)! Below are examples of three skiers representing different skier personas that I’ve helped through Curated. I’ve highlighted what they should look for based on their skiing experience and goals!

Amy: Half-Marathon Skier Wanting an Upgrade

Amy has been cross-country skiing recreationally since she was a child. She is training for a half-marathon ski race and wants to upgrade her waxless fishscale skis. She raced on her current skis before but wants more speed on the downhills. She doesn’t want waxable skis and is interested in classic skin skis at a reasonable price.

Features Amy should look for:

  • Mid-priced skin skis, with bindings included ($250-$350)
  • Lightweight, relatively narrow skis (around 44 mm wide)
  • Easy skin exchange

Ski Examples: Atomic Pro C2 Skintec with Prolink Shift Bindings, Salomon RC7 eSKIN with Prolink Shift Bindings, and Fischer Twin Skin & Fischer Step-In Bindings

Mark: Classic Skier Looking to Take on New Terrain

Mark has classic skied a couple of times and wants to get better and faster at it. He has rented fishscale skis, which he found slow but liked their stability. He’s looking for a pair of skin skis to use on groomed trails and possibly take off-trail on ungroomed snow. As a bigger guy, he’s looking for a durable pair of skis to support him.

Features Mark should look for:

  • Touring-oriented skin skis
  • 50-60 mm width

Ski Examples: Rossignol Evo XC 55 R-Skin with Control Step-In Bindings, Madshus Nordic Pro Skin, and Madshus MOVE NIS 3.0 bindings

Eddie: Experienced Skier Expanding Quiver not Limited by Budget

Eddie is an advanced skier who has several pairs of waxable classic skis. He is considering adding a pair of skin skis to his quiver and is willing to spend top dollar for a quality pair of race skin skis. Conditions where he skis are usually hard-packed, well-groomed, and below freezing (20 degrees Fahrenheit or colder).

Features Eddie should look for:

  • High-end racing skin ski ($700-$900)
  • Ultralight, carbon core, race-grind base, and 100% mohair skins
  • Interchangeable race skins
  • Narrow width (42-44 mm) and low weight (less than 1 lb per ski)
  • Parallel sidecut
  • Hard/stiff flex

Ski Examples: Atomic Redster C9, Salomon S/Lab or S/Race, and Fischer Twin Skin Speedmax 3D

Main Takeaways

Skin skis are the way to go for most classic skiers, thanks to their ease of use, excellent grip, and sufficient speed. They work well on hardpack and ice, making them ideal for areas with frequent mid-winter thaws and are reliable and nimble in frigid temperatures. Skin skis are made of lightweight materials with occasional glide waxing required, and the skins can last up to four to five years with easy replacement for under $50. Say goodbye to waxing and hello to your new trusty skin skis.

Skin skis are best suited for groomed trails, but some touring or backcountry versions can also handle ungroomed. Look for partial metal edges and a curved sidecut for a true backcountry ski, like the Madshus Fjelltech M50.

Need help choosing the right waxless cross-country skis or skin skis? Contact an XC Ski Expert here on Curated by filling out a quick survey. We'll ask a few questions and provide personalized recommendations for skin skis for free! Our Experts will also assist you in finding skin-ski options based on your information, goals, and budget. Once you've found the perfect gear, you can purchase from our site with fast and free shipping (for orders over $49).

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