Skin tracks seem like a piece of cake when you’re traversing across the hill, but then you get to the switchback, an intimidating-looking thing forcing you to do an about-face without being firmly rooted to your skis. That’s when you’ll need to employ the dreaded skin track kick-turn, one of the biggest obstacles in the mechanics of ski touring. It’s an awkward-looking maneuver that’s even more awkward to perform—and one that takes a lot of practice and patience to master. And just when you think you have it dialed, you end up splayed on your belly, sliding down the hill while your ski touring partners smirk.
That said, the kick-turn remains a necessary evil, as it makes life in the skin track so much more efficient than any alternative. If there’s one tip that will help you move more efficiently (and elegantly) in a skin track, it’s this: distribute your weight over your heels. If you place too much weight towards the front of your foot, you’re likely to lose traction and start sliding. So stand upright, lean back, and engage the tail of the ski in every step. Once you master weight distribution, the rest will follow.
We’ll give you a few pointers here, but the best way to become familiar with the skills you need in the backcountry is to hire a professional guide. Besides giving you helpful skin track pointers, he or she will make sure you’re versed in backcountry protocols and are moving through the backcountry safely.
Note: Never travel in the backcountry without a beacon, shovel, probe, knowledge on how to use them, and a partner who knows how to use these tools, too.
The Skin Track Kick-Turn
Take an Extra Step
At the switchback, take one extra step uphill with your outside ski. To engage maximum traction before your next move, give that same ski a few hard stomps.
Pivot the Inside Ski
Weight your outside ski and step your inside ski into the opposing skin track. Your weight will naturally follow this ski since it will be down the hill relative to the outside ski.
Kick the inside edge of your new downhill ski into the slope a few times to gain maximum purchase. Plant your pole against the outside edge to anchor yourself.
Shift Your Weight
Transition your entire weight to the inside of your downhill foot. Use your poles for balance, but keep your weight over the ski in the skin track.
With your weight on the downhill ski, lift your uphill foot behind the heel of your downhill foot. The tail of your uphill ski will fall so the shovel can clear your uphill pole.
If your skis are now parallel to each other in the skin track, you’ve successfully completed your kick turn. Now take a few strides to make room for your partners behind you.
Need to brush up on your backcountry skills? SKI Magazine partnered with Dean Cummings to design the online avalanche safety course “Backcountry Protocols.” Enroll at skimag.com/backcountryprotocols.
Shot on location on Berthoud Pass just outside Winter Park, Colo. Formerly a dedicated ski area that shut down operations in 2001, the terrain is now a popular backcountry ski haven for Colorado Front Rangers.
Over the past decade, Jon Jay has completed a number of human-powered first descents in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Norway. He recently started racing SkiMo and placed third in the men’s division of the Aspen Snowmass Power of Four Triple Crown in 2018.
Originally published in the December 2018 issue of SKI Magazine.