Editor’s note: Before venturing into the backcountry, or leaving the boundary gates of any ski area, make sure you are well-versed in avalanche safety and search and rescue techniques. Check your local avalanche report and make sure you have the necessary safety gear—a beacon, shovel, and probe—and you know how to use it. If you don’t know, don’t go.
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 backcountry, 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 backcountry adventure, you’ll need the right gear and some sound advice.
Ski Touring and Backcountry Skiing Gear
Huge strides have been made (pun intended) in backcountry gear over the past decade. There are now many options when it comes to skis, boots, poles, packs, outerwear, and avalanche safety equipment specifically designed for uphill and backcountry use. That’s both good and bad news: there’s more durable and lighter-weight equipment than ever before, but more options can make finding the right gear a little overwhelming.
For this reason, beginners just getting into alpine touring can do themselves a favor by researching and learning about alpine touring basics, then taking that knowledge into a ski shop and speaking with someone who can help pinpoint the right setup. In the meantime, here are some basics about alpine touring equipment that will help get the ball rolling.
Alpine Touring Boots
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.
Check out SKI’s Gear of the Year AT Boot on Amazon: Atomic Backland Carbon AT Boot
There are a variety of AT bindings on the market these days, ranging from alpine-touring specific to resort/backcountry hybrid bindings. Technology varies depending on the type of touring binding, but here’s the gist: AT bindings have pivoting devices that let you raise your heels off the skis with each step, while keeping the toe of your boot firmly locked in place. When you reach the top of your climb, you can clamp the heel piece back onto the ski for your descent and ski downhill as you would on a pair of traditional downhill bindings. 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.
It’s available on Amazon: Marker Kingpin 13 Alpine Touring Binding
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. Trusted skin brands include Black Diamond, G3, Dynafit, and Pomoca.
Alpine Touring Outerwear and Layers
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.
Backcountry Skiing Backpack
Because you’ll always want to carry layers, water, and some snacks when ski touring, you’ll need a pack to haul all your stuff. If you’re just doing a quick lap in-bounds at your local resort, a smaller pack—20 to 28L—should do. If you’re headed into the backcountry, you’ll be carrying avalanche safety equipment (shovel, probe, first aid kit, etc.), so you may need a larger backcountry-specific backpack that’s equipped with avalanche safety technology as well as features like a ski-carry stystem.
Round-up: 2019 Backcountry Gear of the Year
Training and Technique
Applying Skins to Skis
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. Instead, glide them forward 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.
Many resorts offer backcountry skiing clinics where you can easily master skinning basics in a single afternoon.
Read more: All About Angles
Removing Skins from Skis
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.
Available on Amazon: Black Diamond Gold Label Adhesive Glue
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. Visit the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education for more information and snow safety.