How to Choose the Best Ski Skins for Your Backcountry AdventuresPublished on 06/06/2022 · 8 min readSki skins are an essential part of your backcountry ski setup! Learn what to look for in ski skins and which skins would work best for you with Ski Expert Luke Hinz.
Photo by Hans Jurgen Mager
So you’ve decided to dip your cold, skier toes into the world of backcountry skiing. You bought all your gear with this in mind: boots with walk mode, bindings that can also tour, and (relatively) light skis so you can walk uphill. But how, you ask yourself, do you get to the top without postholing through the snow?
Welcome to the world of climbing skins. In this article, we’ll break down what climbing skins are, why you need them, and the different types of skins out there, so you can make the best decision on what skins to purchase.
What Are Climbing Skins?
For anyone looking to get into backcountry skiing and ski touring, skins are a crucial component of your kit. Essentially, skins are a long strip of plush fibers on one side and a glue-like adhesive on the other side. The adhesive attaches the skin to the bottom of your skis, while the plush material on the other side creates friction with the snow below. This friction is what allows you to climb uphill on your skis, while at the same keeping your skis from sliding back down the mountain. (Interestingly, the first skins were once made from seal skins; hence the name. Don’t worry, they aren’t made from that anymore!)
Why Do I Need Climbing Skins?
So why do you need skins? Why can’t you just hike up in your boots? If you’ve ever trudged through deep, newly fallen snow, you know it can be slow going. By walking on your skis with skins, you create more surface area over the snow, making it easier to move. Skins are an infinitely more effective mode of transportation than your boots or even snowshoes. With a pair of climbing skins and the right touring equipment, every landscape blanketed in snow suddenly becomes your playground. Kiss the lift lines goodbye forever!
Now that you’ve decided that skins are in your best interest, you need to decide between the different types of skins: nylon vs. mohair, pre-cut vs. trim-to-fit, and so on. Let’s dive in.
Nylon vs. Mohair
Skins do two things: they grip, which is what helps you climb uphill, and they glide, which is how efficiently they move over snow. Some skins grip very well but don’t glide as well, and the opposite is also true. How well a skin does in each category is based on the plush material: nylon or mohair.
Full nylon skins, such as the Black Diamond Ascension (shown above), have the best grip in any conditions, as well as being the most durable and long-lasting. However, the downside of full nylon is they tend to be heavier and less packable than other skins, and they don’t glide as well as mohair. Because nylon offers more grip, it can be a good option for new backcountry enthusiasts who are just learning proper skin technique and want to feel secure no matter what the conditions are.
Mohair skins like the ones shown above are quite the opposite. They glide efficiently, weigh much less, and pack up easily into a backpack or jacket. Of course, there are downsides here as well. Mohair skins have less grip on steep skin tracks, their performance suffers in wet snow, and they are not nearly as durable or long-lasting as nylon. Lastly, they tend to be more expensive. Because of this, full mohair skins are coveted mainly by ski mountaineers going long distances or randonee racers aiming for speed.
Lastly, there is a third option: the nylon-mohair combo, such as the Pomoca Climb 2.0. These skins blend a percentage of mohair with nylon in order to create the best compromise of grip, glide, weight, and durability. For the vast majority of backcountry skiers, a nylon-mohair mix will be a great climbing skin for 95% of your adventures, giving you the best mix of grip and glide.
Fitting Skins to Your Skis
Once you’ve decided on the material you want your skin to be, it’s time to fit that particular skin to your ski. Skins now come in two options: pre-cut and trim-to-fit.
Pre-cut skins, like the Black Crows Pre-Cut Pilus Navi Freebird Skins, are much more prevalent than they used to be, and they save you the stress of having to cut your own skins (and maybe cutting them wrong!). Pre-cut skins already come in the required length and width of your ski, as well as having all the proper attachments, meaning you can simply slap them on your ski and be on your way. Because of this, pre-cut skins tend to be more pricey than other skins, but for skiers new to the backcountry, the convenience is well worth it.
However, not all brands offer pre-cut skins for their skis. If pre-cut skins aren’t an option for your particular skis, then there are trim-to-fit skins. Trim-to-fit are more hands-on and require you to trim the skin to fit your ski with the help of a razor blade that comes in the packaging. It can be nerve-wracking to cut your own skins, but with some time and patience (and maybe a YouTube video), it can be a fairly easy and satisfying process. The most important thing to take note of is the width of your skins. Ideally, once cut, your skins should cover the bases of your skis, with only the metal edges exposed. Because of this, you need to be aware of the width of the skins you are purchasing. The best practice is to purchase a skin that is as wide as the widest part of your ski, which is most often the tip. Then you can trim the skin down from there.
Beyond material and fit, there are a few other factors that separate skins. One of those factors is the glue involved. Sticky glue is what keeps the skin sticking to your ski base. Many manufacturers carefully guard the secret recipes regarding their skin glue. For example, Pomoca glue sticks gently to your skis, making them easier to get off, but they do tend to slip off easier in wet snow conditions. On the other hand, Black Diamond glue has very strong sticking power but can be a bear to take off your skis. G3 skins are somewhere in the middle, having built in a non-sticky rip strip that makes removing skins from large powder skis much easier.
Another factor are the tip and tail clips. The clips are what keep the skin taut while on your ski. Some brands, like Pomoca, make plastic clips that can break easily. Black Diamond clips are metal and much less likely to break; however, they do tend to be heavier. Luckily, the best way to deal with any broken clips is simply to use a ski strap to cinch the skin to your ski until you are done. Most companies offer relatively inexpensive replacement tip and tail clips.
It is also important to care for your skins, no matter what brand you decide to go with. When skiing, it is good practice to fold your skins in half with the adhesive facing inward, so that the skin sticks to itself. This will keep the skins from sticking to other materials, as well as keep them sticky for your next run. It is also crucial to keep your skins warm; the glue will start to lose stickiness if it gets too cold, and then you run the chance of the skin simply falling off your ski—not fun. Many skiers counter this by tucking their skins into their jackets, where their body heat keeps the skins warm.
Once you have finished your adventure, it is important to hang your skins to allow them to dry out. Water and dampness can affect a skin’s overall performance, so make sure they are dry for your next day out.
Lastly, when you finally hang up your skis for the season, it is equally important to prepare your skins for long-term storage. Most skins come with skin savers, long mesh-like plastic that you can then stick to the adhesive side of the skin. This helps to protect and preserve the glue while sitting over the summer months.
Climbing skins are your ticket to exploring the vast ski lines that exist outside the resort boundaries. The right skins on your skis can lead to a long, gratifying day in the mountains; the wrong skins can lead to inefficiency, exhaustion, and downright frustration.
Again, if you are relatively new to the backcountry, I would recommend a heavier nylon skin with more grip. It will give you the best opportunity to build your confidence on the skintrack. More experienced backcountry users will benefit from a nylon/mohair mix, which will give them the greatest ratio of grip to glide. And if you find yourself wanting to slap on some spandex and see if you can keep up with the Skimo racers, all mohair is the ticket.
If you have any other questions regarding skins or backcountry equipment in general, please feel free to reach out to me or my fellow Ski Experts on Curated. If you’re looking for more information on cross-count skis, check out Everything You Need to Know About Cross-Country Ski Skins. I hope to see you on the skintrack!