Venturing into the backcountry on your own power to seek fresh lines is one of the most invigorating and pure skiing experiences. Ski touring on any terrain requires a few essential pieces of gear: touring bindings with a releasable heel, lightweight touring boots with a substantial walk mode, and a pair of climbing skins. Skins are perhaps the most alien piece of gear to anyone familiar with Alpine or Nordic skiing equipment who is making the jump to touring. Skins are a long piece of fabric with sticky glue on one side and a fine, hair-like fibers that grip in one direction and glide in the other. The skins attach to the tips and tails of a pair of skis and allow a skier to climb uphill. They are then removed for the descent. Skins are a simple, yet incredibly industrious piece of gear. Finding the right skins can be difficult, since there are various construction options and sizing skins can be complicated. This guide will explain the pros and cons of different types of skins and provide insight on sizing.
Different models of skins are manufactured using different materials, each with its own unique properties. While each model may have distinct benefits and downsides, these characteristics are subtle and most skis will still work well in any conditions.
Nylon skins have the best grip when ascending and are extremely resilient. Nylon is the most durable skin construction method and requires the least amount of care. The primary downside to nylon is that it does not glide as well as other constructions. Nylon skins are perfect if you are hard on your gear or want something that will give you security on steep slopes. Select a pair of nylon skins if you are primarily a resort skier looking for a reliable pair of skins for short tours or side country excursions, if you are new to ski touring and want maximum grip, or if you primarily ski very steep terrain.
Mohair skins are the polar opposite of nylon skins in terms of glide-versus-grip and durability. Manufactured from the (humanely removed) hair of the Angora goat, mohair provides exceptional glide for efficiency and speed on long tours into the backcountry or for ski mountaineering. Mohair skins are also lighter and more packable than other types of skins. These are high performance skins for ski mountaineering and touring to remote locations. The downside to mohair skins is that they wear out faster than nylon skins and require more care. If you need skins for technical ski mountaineering ascents or long tours, mohair skins are a perfect option.
The Black Diamond Glidelite Mohair Pure STS skins are a premium mohair climbing skin for performance touring.
The middle-ground construction, which combines the superb traction and durability of nylon with the glide and lighter weight of mohair. The result is a skin that glides better than a nylon skin, yet grips and withstands daily abuse better than mohair. This is a great all-around skin for backcountry tours that have long sections of flat, as well as steep climbing. If you are going to use your skins for a wide variety of conditions in areas with highly variable terrain, a mohair/nylon mix is an optimal choice.
Sizing and cutting:
Standard skins- Once you have determined which construction material is right for your skins, the next step is determine what size skins you need. With most standard skin models, it’s easy: simply choose the skin according to the width of the widest point of your skis and follow the instructions included with your skins on trimming the edges and length to fit your skis. Typically, you want a skin that is close to 5-6 millimeters thinner than the widest part of your ski. This will allow the skin to cover the base of your ski without covering the edges.
For a ski like the Volkl Nanuq, with dimensions of 131-96-114, a 125 mm skin will fit the tip perfectly. Often, you will have to trim a skin down to fit the ski properly and expose the right amount of edge to give you control. It’s fine to size down below 5 or 6 inches as long as the base is completely covered at the waist of the ski under your foot. Leaving base material uncovered will affect the traction that the skin provides.
With standard, uncut skins, the tail clip hardware is pre-assembled, while the tip hardware is not. Once you’ve followed the included instructions and trimmed your skins for length, you can install the tip hardware yourself.
Precut skins- Many skins, including G3 skins and Black Diamond’s “Custom STS” skins come in set lengths. The Black Diamond Ascension Nylon Custom STS skins, for example, come in 155-162, 161-168, 167-174, 179-186 and 189-192 lengths. With precut skins, the length range refers to the minimum and maximum length skis that will work with that skin, since these are not intended to be modified for length after purchase. When selecting a precut skin, choose the width according to the widest part of your ski and the length range that your ski falls within.
Tail-less skins- Some skins, like the Black Diamond STD models or the G3 Alpinist Tail-less skins don’t feature any hardware on the tail in order to reduce weight. Tail-less skins are for the minimalist skier, and come in a variety of widths. You trim this style of skin the same way that you would a standard skin, but there is no additional hardware installation after trimming. These skins are not intended as a do-it-yourself skin, since installing a tail piece is a complicated procedure.
Splitboard Skins- Skinning isn’t just for skiers! Splitboard skins, like those from G3 and Spark R&D are made specifically to fit the asymmetrical shape of the two halves of a splitboard. These skins are precut for length and must be trimmed to fit the width and sidecut of your splitboard just like any other precut climbing skins.