One of the common questions I get asked by people purchasing their first touring set up is: “What skins should I buy?”
Climbing skins are the strips of sticky carpet you attach to the bottom of your skis or splitboard to allow you to walk up snowy hills. They are able to glide with the grain of the fabric as you travel forward and provide traction against the grain when you start climbing. They are the final piece of the touring gear puzzle that graduate you from a boundary boot-packer to a legit backcountry traveller.
If you walk into a backcountry store, you'll likely see a rack with dozens of boxes of skins in different dimensions, fabrics and tip/tail attachments ranging from just over $100 to well over $200.
So which skins are best for you?
A few months back, I wrote about the pros and cons of merino versus synthetic baselayers. Interestingly, climbing skins fall into a similar set of considerations. Do you want reliable durability or lightweight performance? Are you spending time pursuing steep objectives close to home or crossing glaciers for days on end?
Mohair is a natural product made from the hair of the Angora goat, sheared then processed into a textile fabric. Goat and deer hide is how the ancient Nords got around on their skis centuries ago, and for good reason. Mohair skins are light, low volume and have the best glide. For ski tourers heading out for longer distances or bigger days, the efficiency of mohair makes it the obvious choice. On the flip side, mohair skins are the most expensive (around $200 for fat skis), they are subject to abrasion and can get caked when the snow gets warm and heavy.
Synthetic skins are usually what people start with in the backcountry. Slightly heavier and bulkier than mohair with considerably more drag, synthetics are by far the most durable. You can grind them over twigs and cheese-grater rocks without worry and, if cared for, will last for years. The increased drag means they also have more friction when you need it, like when climbing up a steep skin track or traversing on crust.
At the mid-point on the spectrum, you can get also get a synthetic/mohair blend, which gives you some of the best of both worlds. This is a great option if you're sitting on the fence about which material to buy.
One you've made your choice of mohair, synthetic or blend, it comes down to which brand. The G3 Alpinists are one of the most durable skins on the market and are renowned for remaining sticky in every temperature range. Out of the box, they can be so sticky that people have trouble pulling them apart, so keep the skin savers (thin piece of plastic mesh) with you in the field until they've had some use.
Black Diamond make the full gamut of skins from Ascension Nylon to GlideLite Mohair Pure and all generally receive positive reviews. The tail clip is not quite as burly as the G3, but spare parts are readily available if you do break something.
As the price goes up you start to get into the “luxury” brands such as Colltex, Gecko and Dynafit. All use the highest quality mohair, but the glue in many cases is made for quick and convenient transitions and can be easily gouged when squashed into full pack.
If you are cutting your own skins, the easiest tool to use is the G3 skin cutter. It only takes one careful swipe with the blade and it will leave you with the right amount of exposed edge.
Vince Shuley has worn through several sets of climbing skins. For questions, comments or suggestions to The Outsider email firstname.lastname@example.org.