For first timers heading out into the backcountry, the first challenges usually revolve around equipment. Bindings that switch from ski to walk mode, snowboards that somehow split into half (and then reattach for the descent) and most of all, those sticky lengths of carpet that allow uphill travel on snow – the skins.
Just like any sliding skill, the technique and pacing required for effective skinning doesn’t happen overnight. The most advanced ski tourers and splitboarders have accumulated hundreds (sometimes thousands) of hours of experience on the skin track, letting them approach various skinning situations with ease.
Today we take a look at the equipment that makes skinning on skis easier.
Skin to win
Climbing skins should be cut to fit your ski or splitboard specifically with two millimetres of clearance on each edge. Any less clearance than that and you likely won’t be able to edge on a firm sidehill, any more clearance than that and you’re going to lose friction and start sliding backwards on the skin track. This is why borrowing your friends’ skins for a random day in the backcountry can end in tears.
The choice of skin type can also affect the outcome. The three classes are Nylon (synthetic), Mohair (natural fibre from goats wool) or a blend of the two. There’s plenty of debate in the backcountry community as to which skin has more grip with variable factors such as temperature and snow surface. But the general consensus is that Mohair skins are lighter, more packable and glide better. Synthetic skins are cheaper, more durable and tend to grip better on the steeps.
Boots for walkin’
If using a regular alpine boot on the skin track, step efficiency is going to be limited by the forward lean of your boot. It’s not as noticeable when climbing a steep skintrack, but trying to glide on the flats (like logging roads or glaciers) – even with your alpine boot fully unbuckled – is still quite inhibiting. Why take lots of little steps when you can cruise with large, efficient glides?
A walk mode on your boots will make all the difference in the world. Not only does it allow you take bigger strides, it’s safer for climbing steep bootpacks by being able to balance on the entire sole of the boot, rather than just pushing off the toes. Walk mode is also much more comfortable for standing around waiting for the Peak Chair to crack, walking into and out of the lodge or dancing on the bar during apres hour. Don’t forget to properly undo your boot buckles and release the power strap to get the most out of your walk mode range.
While frame AT bindings are still a common sight in the backcountry, more and more people are making the switch to tech bindings. Both styles have their pros and cons, but regardless what bindings people use, they always seem to use the highest setting of the heel raiser way too much. When on a steep skin track or ridge climb, flipping up the heel raiser lets you take steps with less effort, but leaving that heel raiser up once the terrain starts to flatten out is detrimental. Just like switching gears on a mountain bike, it’s important to have the optimal heel height for the terrain you are currently on. That means you should probably change the heel raiser height more often than you do. It ‘s a fiddly process at first, but with practice you’ll be switching it quickly, giving you optimal traction and glide when skinning on your skis or splitboard.
Whatever gear you use, practicing with it will make you quicker and more efficient on backcountry days. If you’re looking for the skinning 101, the technique is introduced in our AST 1 course, as well as our Intro to Backcountry Skiing and Snowboarding.