The Best Climbing Skins for Backcountry Skiing
What are the best climbing skins for your backcountry skis? The world of backcountry and ski mountaineering, climbing skins is more than mystifying. From choosing to using, skins are finicky, strange, and little understood. They are incredibly useful, ultra simple, but quite nuanced. We have assembled a comprehensive overview and comparative review of the absolute best skins on the market. We covered hundreds of thousands of feet of real backcountry terrain in order to summarize for you what will work best.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
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Analysis and Test Results
For backcountry skiers, especially those new to the sport, choosing climbing skins is often an afterthought. Many times, it is simplest to just go with the skins that the manufacturer sells with the skis. Other times, the consumer just goes with what it cheapest or from the most familiar brand. For the most part, all skins on the market are worthy, but we feel that this casual choice can be improved considerably. Some skins are overall better than others, while some are purpose built for certain conditions and circumstances.
Before we dive into the market and our assessment of the available products, allow us to clarify some terminology and concepts. In this review we are covering backcountry skiing climbing skins. These are all strips of fabric built to temporarily stick onto the base of backcountry skis for ascending wilderness ski slopes. The fabric is woven with directional nap. Fibers protrude to the snow side of the skin, laying all in the same direction. These fibers allow for forward shuffle while gripping against backward slides. The opposite side of the skin, the side touching the ski, is a sticky-but-not-too-sticky glue. This stuff is pure magic. It remains permanently affixed to the skin, sticks to the ski mostly as you need, and pulls away easily. It does this hundreds if not thousands of times with little to no maintenance. Straight-up magic.
Types of Climbing Skins
In our testing, we first pored over the entire market to narrow our selection. The skin market is especially confusing because of the branding and licensing web. There are actually far fewer skin manufacturers than there are skin brands. Many skins sold by ski brands are actually manufactured by other companies. This means that some competing ski brands are selling the same skins under their brand.
Further mystifying the world of climbing skins is the different materials used on the fabric side and on the glue side. Every season there is some new revolutionary fabric or glue technology that promises to change the whole backcountry industry. We've seen these innovations come and go, and we are just as anxious as anyone for something that marks a true improvement, but we have found that the tried and true formula of fabric, backing, and traditional glue is still the best. For this test, even though there is yet another crop of "new and improved" skin technology coming available, we have limited our selection to the proven designs.
Within these proven designs, accounting for the various brand and manufacturing differences, it is still quite possible to distinguish performance differences. The fabric side dictates the grip and glide characteristics of the skin, while the glue side determines the reliability and ease of use. Glue formulations are largely proprietary with some apparent regional differences. Companies generally equip skins for North American use with stickier glue than those for European use, for instance. Our assessment and descriptions of the glue are largely qualitative and performance based. On the fabric side, we have a little bit more data at our disposal for preliminary assessment and to assist with your shopping. Basically, the fabric part of a skin is comprised of either synthetic nylon or natural mohair, or a blend of the two. Nylon is more durable, grippier, and better when wet. Mohair is more expensive, lighter, glides better, and packs smaller.
Criteria for Evaluation
Each make and model of climbing skin combines various technologies and attributes to serve your backcountry needs. We have divided our assessment into the following categories.
In our estimation and experience, this is the most important single attribute of climbing skins. Just like the weight of your skis is the primary thing that will affect uphill travel, and therefore the bulk of your day, the glide characteristics of your skins are the biggest determinant of their uphill efficiency. Good skinning technique slides the skis and skins rather than lifts them. Skins that slide easily climb easily. Two things seem to affect the glide characteristic of the skins.
The first, and biggest, is the type of fiber used. Mohair, made from the hair of the Angora goat, has the smoothest and least resistant glide. Nylon is slower to glide. Mixes of the two split the difference. The best gliding skins in our test were also the only full mohair product we tested, the Black Diamond Glidelite Mohair Pure. Interestingly, the differences in glide characteristics depend a little on the nature of the snow. While mohair skins always glide at least a little better, the difference is far more pronounced on dry, wintry snow than it is on wet or melt/freeze snow. On fresh and dry snow, mohair is considerably faster than nylon, while on corn type snow the difference is almost marginal.
Secondly, the length of the hairs that protrude on the fabric side affect glide. The skins that glide the poorest in our test, the G3 High Traction, have a wild and woolly, long-haired nap to them. Those that glide better are lower profile and more closely shorn. While it is virtually impossible to assess and compare, it is conceivable that the angle at which the fibers protrude from the backing fabric would affect glide characteristics.
While they were otherwise very very similar, the two Pomoca made, independently branded skins we tested glide quite differently. In repeatable, formalized glide speed tests, the La Sportiva HiGlide Skin regularly outperformed the Dynafit Speedskin.
Skins are made to grip. That is their initial purpose; to make your skis grippier than they would be otherwise. This is an important attribute, clearly. However, skins differ in this regard less dramatically than they do in glide. The biggest determinant of one's skinning security is technique. A good skinner can climb more steeply on the most slippery skins than a newer skinner could on the grippiest. Good skinning is a magic art of balance, faith, and reading terrain. All that said, skins do differ at least a little. We found noticeable differences in the grip characteristics, generally inversely proportional to the product's glide. Better gliding skins grip less, while the slower gliders grip better. We did find, however, that some products hedge their bets better, while others throw all compromise to the wind. The G3 High Traction, as the name implies, is a no-holds-barred grip machine. If you absolutely must climb straight up 35 deg ice slopes, the HT skins will do that. Not far behind, though were most of the other skins. All blended skins, including the Editors' Choice winning Black Diamond Glidelite Mohair Mix, grip well enough for solid skinners to follow even the steepest, iciest skin tracks. Full nylon products like the G3 Alpinist and Black Diamond Ascension Nylon grab slightly better than the blends, often enough better to make up for less developed technique.
Your skins have got to stay on your skis. Mainly, but not exclusively, it is the glue's job to do that. Considering the demands placed on skin glue (wet conditions, high shear forces, poor care, repeated use), all products work marvelously. None of the skins we tested suffered complete, otherwise unexplainable skin failure (cold enough or wet enough, and all skins will fail to some degree), but some stayed put better than others. The actual glue on all the Black Diamond and G3 skins seems remarkably robust. The La Sportiva HiGlide and Dynafit Speedskin, both made by Pomoca, seem to have the exact same glue also, and its stickiness is the least of all we tested.
Augmenting a glue's characteristics, in order to really keep skins on, are a couple of other factors. All skins must attach to the tip of your ski such that forward sliding doesn't peel the skin back or push snow between skin and ski. Products accomplish this in a variety of ways. Some use a simple cable loop, while others employ toggles in holes or hooks over edges. Some skins are cut to stay full width all the way to the tip, while others taper gently back to their full width. Some skins' backing material is stiffer than others. Soft skins seem to peel back more readily than stiffer ones. While the glue on the full mohair BD skins is exactly the same as on the full nylon ones, the soft, flexible fabric allows far more rolling action. As a result, the skin glue fails more often on the full mohair than the full nylon. Again, the BD mohair mix falls somewhere in between. The most secure tip attachment we used is the rubbery dongle on the Dynafit Speedskin. This arrangement, combined with a long, gentle taper of the skin width and fairly rigid construction, make for an overall more secure skin fit than the otherwise less tacky glue would suggest. The overall glue integrity of the Speedskin is better than that of the Black Diamond full mohair, even though the actual glue of the full mohair is more tacky. Among the universally compatible skins, the G3 models have a better tip attachment than than the Black Diamond.
Finally, most skins are equipped with a tail clip, ostensibly to help the skins stay glued on. We found absolutely no difference in glue integrity with or without the tail kit. Many in our testing team have experimented for a long time with and without tail clips. While the manufacturers claim they keep skins on better, and mark up the price of tail-clip equipped skins, we have found no difference. The best use of tail clips is to help remove skins with gloves on. On all skins, the tail clip can be cut off entirely. Black Diamond sells all their models of skins in a form without the tail clip. We tested the Mohair Mix skins without a tail clip.
All skins ice up. When the fabric gets wet from warmer snow, and is then subject to cold dry snow, ice forms within the fabric. This, depending on exact snow conditions, can result in anything from mere annoyance to a full-on shut-down. The worst glopping conditions result in tens of pounds of snow stuck to each ski and require extensive scraping and waxing to address. And, it could just happen again within a few steps. All the skins we tested are treated from the factory with water resistant coatings. These factory coatings work well, but wear off eventually. We found that none seemed to last noticeably longer than the others. Nylon fiber initially absorbs marginally less water than mohair. Once wet, though, all fibers ice up. We found mostly similar performance across the board, with the Black Diamond Ascension Nylon icing up the least, and the G3 Alpinist being the worst. Again, differences were marginal, and all skins require waxing so they won't ice up in warmer, fresh snow conditions.
Packability and Weight
We found a wide range of mass and sizes in our tested skins. Just like with grip and glide, packability and weight is correlated to material. Because we tested skis, and therefore skins, of different widths, we cannot directly compare the actual mass of our tested skins to one another. However, we can state with confidence that nylon skins are heavier and mohair skins are lighter. Heavier skins are also bulkier. The heaviest and bulkiest skins in our review were the Black Diamond Ascension Nylon. Some light and packable skins include the Editors' Choice BD Mohair Mix, especially without the rubber and metal of Black Diamond's tail kit, and the Pomoca skins from La Sportiva and Dynafit. The G3 High Traction was almost as heavy and bulky as the BD Nylon.
Ease of Use
Ease of use on climbing skins is mainly a function of glue stickiness. When stowing skins away, the user folds them in half, glue to glue. When deploying them onto skis the user then peels them apart. If the glue sticks to itself too much, this task is a real bear. Granted, one can use a special mesh to place between the glue, making the task of separating skins easier. However, the mesh causes problems of its own, especially in windy conditions. No one that skis very much has the patience to stick with using the mesh. Also, modern wide skins are often equipped with a glue free, centered "wimp strip" to minimize the surface area of glue on glue. The easiest to use skins had mellower glue and/or a wimp strip. Both Pomoca models, even without a wimp strip, pulled apart easily. The G3 and BD skins are all fully glued, and then equipped with a semi-permanent strip of fabric down at least part of the center of the skin to cover the glue. This is the wimp strip, and serves two purposes. Initially, it reduces the surface area of glue on glue, therefore easing deployment. Secondly, it preserves the covered glue for emergency use. While we did not need the preserved glue in our testing, we have used exactly that feature in the past. It is a nice feature and allows you to have functioning skins when the conditions have gotten rough.
Not all the skins we tested are compatible with all skis on the market. Dynafit skins are compatible only with Dynafit skis. The La Sportiva skins are compatible with La Sportiva skis, similarly dimensioned K2 skis, and can work with any similarly dimensioned skis with holes drilled in the appropriate places at tip and tail. Black Diamond and G3 skins can be cut for use on any skis, with the G3 tip connecter being more versatile than that on the BD.
Also, check out our Mens and Women's Ski Reviews.
Some skins are built for certain conditions while others are designed for more all-around use. With the different options on the market today, it can be hard to know whether to seek out specific skins, or to simply purchase the skins that the manufacturer sells with your skis. Choosing the most important attributes for your backcountry needs will guide you in your selection. You can also check out our Buying Advice article for more details on what to consider when making your selection.
— Jediah Porter
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