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Ski Touring Basics - Skins

Written by Dan Morgan, Monday, 16 January 2012

Our introduction to ski touring article covered the basics for the boots, bindings and skis that you’ll need when heading out of bounds. Today, we’ll take a look at the basics of skins! Climbing skins are a non-optional, essential piece of kit if you want to make it uphill whilst wearing skis. Simply put, you fix skins to the bottom of your skis, which prevents your skis from sliding backwards whilst allowing you to glide forwards. As with everything else - it can be slightly confusing, and there are many things to consider when deciding which skins to buy.

Skin Basics

Ski skins were historically made of seal hide, which natually had the neccesary properties to enable uphill travel. Today, skins are made from nylon or mohair (or a mix) and consist of short hairs all pointing the same way. Forward motion is possible if the direction of travel means the “hairs” stay “flat” but backwards motion is prohibited by the resistance when the hairs stand up and are compressed.

Skin glue is used to allow the skin to stick to the base of the ski, ensuring nothing gets between the ski and the skin (like snow) and providing a snug tight fit and skins are fitted and removed on the mountain prior to ascent and descent respectively. Skins are also typically fixed to the tips and tails for added protection.

Skins made of Nylon, Mohair or a mix?

While you may be lucky enough to procure some real seal skins and really look the part (of a time travelling skier) your choices are likely going to be limited to three options when choosing skins.

While man-made Nylon is more durable and has better grip, Mohair is natural, packs an inbuilt water repellency, glides forward better, tends to be lighter and react better to lower temperatures. Many brands are offering a blend which means you can have your cake and eat it, but it depends on the type of ski touring you are planning. For casual powder hunters on short skins, you probably won’t go wrong with Nylon but in all honesty anything will do.

Straight or Shaped Skins?

Straight or shaped has not been a common choice for skiers since the late eighties or early nineties, but it’s a decision you need to make when buying your skins.  In short, you need to decide whether you buy straight skins which are a little narrower than the narrowest part of you skis and require no trimming, or you buy skins a little narrower than the widest part of your skis, and trim them to fit the length of your ski. Straight means no trimming, though in reality this is not difficult, and better glide. Shaped means you have better coverage of skin on your skis, and therefore more grip in certain on snow situations (e.g when not on truly flat snow or on a narrow flattened ski track cut into the snow as a traverse) but with fat skis you already have an advantage over 65mm wide skinny skis anyway.

Who makes the best Skins?

A subjective question of course, but look at G3, Voile, Black Diamond (BD) for traditional brands and you won’t go far wrong if you are just starting out. All three have their own ski ranges too which are definitely worth a look.

K2 are a more mainstream downhill ski brand who produce a range of skins that are pre-cut to fit their skis, though you may end up paying a small premium for this convenience.

Keep an eye out for our upcoming on snow “Skin Up” video diary where we’ll be testing out a range of equipment including G3’s Alpinist skins.

Skin Maintenance & Care?

Owning and using ski skins means becoming almost OCD about keeping them clean. The glue that sticks your skins to your skis is (thankfully) reusable. Think of it like a very very sticky Post-It note that you can apply and remove over and over. If you allow dust, grit, sand, leaves or anything similar to stick to your glue then you’ll have problems quickly. Typically you stick your skins together by folding them in half to you can carry them in a backpack (now it should be obvious why non shaped skins are less hassle). You can also get skin savers which stick to the glue to prevent contamination.

Your skins will get wet so you must be careful where you hang them to dry after skiing (e.g not near curious children or a heap of feathers…).

Anything else?

You need to ensure that the tip and tail fixings will work for your skis. Dedicated touring skis sometimes have a hole at the tip to make this easier, and while most skins will have some form of universal fit, it’s worth checking to ensure there are no issues with non-standard equipment.

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