A very common question and cause for much confusion among those not familiar with backcountry skiing is about skins. What are they? Why do you need them, and more importantly, why are they important to you?
What Are Skins?
Ever seen someone walking uphill on skis and wonder what was going on? They have skins on their skis. Made from a fiber material, which like animal fur, has a grain, these handy attachments to the bottom of your skis mean that when you go to take a step, the fiber opens up and creates resistance. This means that you can place the skin on your ski and walk uphill- pretty revolutionary right?
Contrary to many peoples’ knowledge, skins have been around since the dawn of skis. Skis were originally made as a means of transportation. The increased surface area of the ski allowed the user to stay on top of the snow and travel great distances. They did this with the use of an animal hide (skin) on the base of their skis. The original skins were made of seal skin since the tight grain of the fur made gliding easier and allowed for better traction because the hair was stiff and short.
What Skins Are Right for Me?
Fast-forward a few hundred years and skins are making a triumphant return. These days they are made of both synthetic and natural fibers with as many variations as you could imagine. Some skins are short, however the majority cover the full base of the ski. This allows for maximum traction and uphill hold. A great example of modern day skins, with all the bells and whistles, are the G3 Alpinist skins – they have tip loops that fit just about any ski, superior glide and pack down nice and small into your pack.
With bigger, fatter skis, the need for sticky glue has pretty much been eliminated. A great example of women’s specific skins- with just the right amount of glue are the G3 Women’s Alpinist skins. They have a “rip strip” in the middle (a section of the skin with no glue which allows easier installation) and a temperature-tolerant glue. Forget the fact that these skins are women’s specific, not having to struggle and get your friends to help you rip apart your skins between laps is worth its weight in gold.
My all time favorite skins are the Black Diamond Ascension skins. They strike a balance between everything I look for. Extremely grippy on the way up (I happily sacrifice a little glide because of that), the right blend of stickiness from the glue (I can actually pull them apart without employing an army), a rip strip and an adjustable tail clip make these a great choice. My Black Diamond Ascension skins have lasted nearly six years, been on nearly 10 pairs of skis and logged nearly hundreds of thousands of vertical feet. Plainly put; they are no-frills bombproof.
Why Are Skins Important?
We all look for the untracked line, the pristine powder run and the hoops and hollers that come with those turns. Finding those turns takes alignment of the stars, Mother Nature and luck. However, if you have skins (and skis with touring bindings, a beacon, probe and shovel), you can walk into the backcountry yourself and get as many untracked turns as your legs will tolerate. In today’s hectic, plugged-in, powered up world; nothing quite compares to walking thru the woods in complete silence with a few trusted friends. Then when you get to the top, rip your skins off, and ski down that untracked line and have the best turns of your life, you will know why getting there under your own power is so important.
Skins are but one piece of the puzzle to start earning your own turns. Hands-down the most important piece is education – avalanche education. Before the skins, the gear, the thrill of buying new stuff, you need to take a course on how to travel safely in the backcountry. White Pine Touring has one of the best programs in the country and teaches courses nearly every weekend. You owe it to your family and yourself to learn how to come back home alive day after day, season after season.
By Weston Deutschlander White Pine Touring Guide & JANS Athlete Team Member