Don’t be afraid. Skinning isn’t as painful as it sounds. In fact, it’s the most efficient way to propel yourself uphill. It’s a crucial skill for ski touring in the back- or sidecountry, where you don’t have the aid of a chairlift to get you to the top of a peak. Pete Swenson, Director of the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association, says that almost anyone can do it. “If you’re capable of a slow jog, you can skin up the side of the hill,” he says. But before you venture out on your first sidecountry adventure, you’ll need the right gear and some sound advice.
Skinning requires alpine touring (AT) equipment designed to give you mobility when you’re moving uphill but stability when you’re skiing down. AT boots look and feel a lot like traditional alpine boots, but they have adjustable cuffs that allow for more forward movement while you’re hiking. They’re also generally lighter and more flexible than alpine boots. Click here for more on the latest technology in AT boots.
AT bindings have pivoting devices that let you raise your heels off the skis with each step. When you reach the top of your climb, you can clamp the heelpiece back onto the ski for your descent. AT bindings can be affixed to any alpine skis though, generally, the lighter the ski, the better. Click here for a look at the latest backcountry bindings.
Finally, you’ll need the skins themselves. These long strips of heavy-duty nylon have mohair or synthetic fur on one side and a strong, reusable adhesive on the other, which you affix to your skis’ bases. The fur flattens as you move uphill, allowing your skis to glide over the snow, but it grips to keep you from sliding back after each step. In general, skins come in a variety of lengths and widths that you can trim to fit the specific dimensions of your existing alpine skis. Or, if you’re in the market to buy your own AT setup, look for skis that come with pre-cut skins. Skins cost anywhere from $160–$220 a pair. The wider your skis, the more expensive the skins.
Dressing for alpine touring adventures can be tricky; layering is key. While you’re skinning, you’ll definitely get your heart pumping, so even in cold temperatures, you’re liable to break a sweat. But as soon as you stop to rest or get ready to ski downhill, winter weather can cool you down quickly. Carry a lightweight jacket, and throw it on anytime you stop and when you’re ready for your descent. Nearly all ski shops at major resorts will rent or demo backcountry packages that include skis, skins, AT boots and bindings, and poles for around $40 a day.
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Training and Technique
The rubbery glue on the bottom of skins is strong to ensure they stay put on your skis’ bases. It’s a good idea to practice taking them on and off your skis before you actually get out on the hill. It’s surprisingly easy,” says Swenson. “People put their skins on and say ‘that’s all there is to it?’ It’s pretty amazing…now you can go wherever you want.”
First, wipe off your ski base with your glove to remove excess snow and debris. Most skins will have a metal clip or a fabric loop that attaches to the tip of your ski. After you attach your skin to the tip, you’ll want to press down the skin from tip to tail. Some skins will also have a tail clip. Keep in mind that not all skins are created equal. Dynafit skins, for example, are pressed on from tail to tip, so make sure you get clear instructions from the retailer or rental shop on how to apply them.
Swenson recommends practicing skinning on a groomed resort slope before heading out to the sidecountry. Many resorts, such as Colorado’s Breckenridge, will allow you to skin up their slopes before the lifts open each morning. You’ll also want to walk around in your boots before your first big outing to ensure they’re comfortable.
Do not lift your skis off the snow when skinning, glide them forward instead as if you were cross-country skiing not snowshoeing. Take comfortable strides, depending on the length of your legs, and don’t push yourself too hard too soon. Bring water and a snack, and rest whenever you feel tired.
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To remove your skins, simply pull them from the skis’ tips and gently separate them from the skis’ bases. To store them, fold each skin in half on top of itself, sticky side in. Now, you can roll each skin up and place it in your jacket or backpack. When the skins start losing their stickiness, or after about 50 uses, you’ll need to take them to a ski shop to be re-glued.
Many resorts offer backcountry skiing clinics where you can easily master skinning basics in a single afternoon.
When you’re skiing “outside the gate,” you are no longer in a controlled environment. Swenson recommends taking an avalanche class so that you are aware of the risks. Talk to someone who has skied the area where you are going or hire a guide. Whether skiing backcountry or sidecountry, you should always carry a shovel, a beacon, and an avalanche probe, and be sure to check for avalanche warnings in the area.