By most accounts, skis and skins have been used together for several thousand years. In fact, for the longest time skiing was called skilaufen (ski walking) in German-speaking countries. The term skifahren (ski riding) was not born until the 1920s and ‘30s. Technological advances during the First World War and the postwar revitalization programs in Austria and Germany led to the first gondolas which, along with ski lifts, changed the face of skiing forever.
But before lift-assisted skiing, the masses earned their turns by attaching skins to their skis for tractions. As the name implies, mammal skins were most often used. Some skiers even used fir twigs strapped under their skis, certainly a cheaper option than animal skins.
The plush, as the climbing skin surface is called, has to fulfill two contradictory purposes. Ideally it should provide next to no gliding resistance when you’re striding forward, and then it needs to provide as much traction as possible when you step down on your ski.
Seal skin was popular material because it fulfilled this dual function. The hair grows at a very narrow angle out of the actual skin of a seal which makes both the gliding and catching actions possible. Mohair, the material used after seal skins fell out of favor, has similar qualities.
Contemporary climbing skins consist of three parts: the plush, the backing, and the attachment system.
The plush is the surface you’re gliding on. Mohair (or goat hair) continues to be popular in Europe, perhaps because of tradition, while synthetic materials have come into wide use elsewhere. Synthetic skins provide superior longevity to natural fiber skins. A recent study conducted by the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research concluded that mohair skins show better gliding properties in colder snow (less than 3° C/37° F), and nylon skins have better gliding properties in warmer snow (greater than 3° C/37° F).
If the plush of the skin is too short, you will not get as much initial traction, but you will enjoy better glide. If the plush is longer, over time the skin will not lay as flat against the backing anymore. This will hinder both the gliding and climbing performance. In spring conditions you might also experience more glopping up of snow under the skin (glide wax can help skinning performance in gloppy conditions).
Over time the plush will get somewhat contaminated, scratched, and worn down. Of course this depends on the type of snow and terrain you use and abuse your skins on, but after about half a million feet of climbing--the estimated life cycle for skins—the plush will simply not be the same. It may still look quite good, but the gliding and climbing performance will not be optimal.
You can prolong the life of the plush and improve performance on a day-to-day basis by actually combing the skins (tip to tail)and by regularly applying skin wax. You can apply wax as needed on a tour, to deal with gloppage (snow stuck to skins), or you can apply wax every time you go out to improve glide.
The backing is what the plush adheres to on one side and the adhesive adheres to on the other. Most backing is made of nylon. The quality of the weave and the actual thickness of the nylon determines to a great extent the overall weight, suppleness, and durability of the skins.
There seems to be a general difference between European manufacturers and their North American counterpart. Generally, the backing on European skins seems a little thinners, and so the skins are lighter and take up less space in your pack. This also means they can be more easily cut by a rock or a sharp piece of wood, and they can also be more difficult to deal with in windy conditions when it comes time to stow them away.
The Attachment System
For a long time skins were simply attaché by strapping a leather strap around the ski. This caused a lot of problems in traverses where lateral stability is important. The Swiss Army solved the problem in classic army-style by drilling a few holes through the skis and bolting the skin to the base of the ski. More elaborate attachment systems came later, with tip and tail attachments and nearly integrated strap systems that went around the middle of the forebody and between the heel piece and the tail attachment.
Montana Sport of Switzerland invented the adhesive skin in 1968 and changed the industry forever. Today, skins come with a variety of attachment systems at the tail.
Skin glue is like no other glue. It is designed to stick to a cold, smooth surface but not leave any residue. It should not permanently bond to itself. And, most of all, it should not lose adhesive power over time and after multiple uses. That’s a tall order.
In the matter of skins sticking to themselves, a recent addition has been the “cheat sheet.” It is actually for helping get your skins apart when they’re new, but can also prolong the life of the adhesive. If you use the cheat sheet, make sure to store skins in a cool, dark place. In warm conditions, when the adhesive softens, the cheat sheet can become imbedded in the adhesive, and you’ll never get it off your skins without leaving parts of it behind.
Some Skin Recommendations
- Choose skins with a reliable adhesive. If the adhesive is not excellent, it will fail tin cold and wet conditions and will mostly likely end your tour prematurely. In remote situations this can eve become a safety issue.
- Make sure that the attachment system of the skins matches the and tail profile of your skis. Any qualified retailer should be able to help you out.
- Make sure that the skins are fat enough to provide optimal coverage, base edge to base edge, in the central 80 percent of your skis. If you’re nervous about getting it right, buy skins from a good shop and they’ll cut them for you. You only get one chance to do it right!
Click here to read our review of Backcountry Skiing: Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering.