For the uninitiated, backcountry ski climbing skins can be mystifying, and you won't rest easy to hear that even the experts don't fully understand how these magical carpets do what they do so reliably. After researching the market, we purchased 8 of the best and most varied products for close examination. The plethora of options on the market, with seemingly annual "next best things" popping up, further complicate your choices. That's where we come in. We're out there trying the new things, hammering on the old, and comparing them all head to head and with skeptical, objective eyes. Over an entire season, we climbed, and our diverse test team put the products through the wringer on sub-zero powder days, bottomless slop at the end of the season, and everything in between. Climbing skins are an inherent compromise. We ask them to grip and glide. We ask them to stick and then let go. We drag them on the ground for miles and miles, and then want them to disappear into our pockets. Every single attribute of a climbing skin balances against another. Our scoring rubric weights these different attributes (glide, grip, glue integrity, portability, icing resistance, compatibility) to generate an overall score and a rough picture of what works well. The text of our review below dives into the nuances.
The Best Climbing Skins for Backcountry Skiing
|Price||$229.95 at Amazon||$209.95 at Backcountry||$179.95 at Backcountry||$132.96 at Backcountry||$199.95 at Backcountry|
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|Pros||Well balanced in all attributes, great glue||Light, fast gliding||Light and versatile||Light, well balanced performance, and an excellent tip attachment||Average to above average grip and glide, unique adhesive is low-maintenance, in the long run|
|Cons||Expensive, largest and heaviest messenger||Durability concerns, limited grip||Floppy material rolls and peels, allowing some snow between ski and skin||Exclusive to Dynafit skis||Unique adhesive causes more-than-usual field problems|
|Bottom Line||Virtually every aspect of skin design and construction is balanced by another competing demand; the Contour Hybrid Mix walks that tightrope, creating a product that is fully balanced.||On the balance sheet of climbing skins, the Pomoca’s lean in the fast and light direction, with associated compromises in grip and durability.||Universally compatible and high performing, these are the best skins on the market for whatever sticks you take into the backcountry.||Limited to being compatible with Dynafit skis, these lightweight skins strike a great balance between glide and grip.||Unique, “glueless” skins for the occasional backcountry skier or the very patient enthusiast.|
|Rating Categories||Contour Hybrid Mix||Climb Pro Mohair||Glidelite Mix STS||Dynafit Speedskin||Vacuum Base ZERO|
|Glue Integrity (20%)|
|Icing Resistance (10%)|
|Total Scores (%)|
|Specs||Contour Hybrid Mix||Climb Pro Mohair||Glidelite Mix STS||Dynafit Speedskin||Vacuum Base ZERO|
|Weight per pair (grams)||551 for Blizzard Zero G||452g for Atomic Backland||569g for Kastle, 563g for Hannibal, 570g for Vta, 600g for Black Crows||550g||530g for BD Route 95|
|Material||70% Mohair, 30% Synthetic||100% Mohair||65% Mohair, 35% Nylon||Mohair and Nylon mix||65% Mohair, 35% Nylon|
This test ski season was a good one. We had reviewers in multiple hemispheres and continents, taking ski tours out the backyard and across exotic wilderness mountain ranges. Our test protocol for backcountry ski gear can be summed up like this: collect a team of professionally trained, deeply experienced, enthusiastic practitioners, equip them with a variety of options, collect information in an objective, repeatable fashion, and summarize that information in a succinct and clear fashion. Our lead test editor is an IFMGA mountain guide traveling the world for powder and adventure and coordinating a team of expert skiers. We collected skins this year with an eye to both the proven reliables and the exciting new market entries. We tried skins that are "out there" and things that are, by now, kind of boring. The result is a deep and broad pool of award winners. The top performers, given the conflicting demands we place on climbing skins, are very much "middle of the road" products, while we have a long list of Top Pick winners that bring more exciting and specific function
Best Overall Backcountry Ski Climbing Skins
Contour Hybrid Mix
There was a tight race for the top spot in our climbing skin award list. It is endlessly debatable, especially when a product like this is asked to walk a narrow, nuanced line of competing demands. The Contour Hybrid Mix didn't do any one thing the best, but it was the best overall. It isn't the best gripper, and it doesn't have the best glide. It isn't the lightest or the most durable; however, the glue sticks well enough, and lets go when needed.
With the Contour Hybrid Mix, you'll want more glide sometimes, more grip others. You'll wish they were smaller in your pack and they were more durable after a couple of years. You'll experience glue failure from time to time, even when brand new. These are real limitations of this nebulous product. Nonetheless, we can confidently say that this product is the best on the market. It's a strange, qualified recommendation, we know. Such is the nature of the beast.
Read review: Contour Hybrid Mix
Best Bang for the Buck
Black Diamond Glidelite Mix STS
The Black Diamond Glidelite Mix matches the description of the Contour Hybrid Mix, but equal or a little less in each way. The Best Buy, as compared to the Editors' Choice, grips about the same, packs about the same and is also universally compatible. The Glidelite Mix is less expensive and more widely available than the Contour.
On the flip side, the Contour glides better, glues better, and is a little more resistant to icing than the Best Buy. These upgrades cost you only dollars. To frame things for you, when we equip OGL backcountry skis for testing, and we don't have skins we also want to test, we have historically chosen the Black Diamond Glidelite Mix for these tester skis. The value and availability and all-around function make this an easy choice.
Read review: Black Diamond Glidelite Mix
Top Pick for Maximum Glide
Fischer PROFOIL Hannibal
Not since the funny "Voile Snake Skins" of the 1990s has there been such a unique climbing skin on the market (don't worry if you don't remember "Snake Skins"… you missed nothing special). Fischer shakes things up with the Profoil, and this might be something you want to consider. First, there is no better gliding product we have ever tried. In some conditions, these vastly exceed the performance of even race tuned full mohair skimo skins. You can nearly "kick and glide" like on nordic skis when the snow has undergone melt freeze metamorphosis. This enhanced glide is a very welcome treat. Also, the plastic construction absorbs no water. They won't get heavier in warm conditions, stowing them at the end of the day is easy, and they are far less prone to icing than the fabric options.
The cons are real, though. The grip of the Fischers, especially on icy snow, is frightening. Even in powder snow the grip is compromised, compared to others. It is "good enough" in those looser snow conditions, but you have no margin for error on normal skin track angles. These skins pack to a real bulky size and the glue is prone to delaminating, but the real limiting factor is the grip. We can heartily recommend these for extended, low-angle skinning, but not for much more than that. If you do a lot of this sort of travel in your backcountry skiing, these are worth considering.
Read review: Fischer ProFoil
Top Pick for Low Maintenance
Kohla Vacuum Base ZERO
Like the Fischer Profoil, the Kohla Vacuum Base Zero "breaks the mold" of the traditional skin recipe. Instead of a liquid glue, the back of the Vacuum is a sheet of silicone. Silicone is inert, stable, and resistant to water. It is sticky to the touch but doesn't have true adhesion properties. This means that dirt and hair can be rinsed off readily, but it means that they don't stick to your skis with the same tenacity of regular skins. The fabric side of the Kohla Vacuum Base Zero is right in line with our other fabric award winners.
The silicone adhesive will last a long time with nothing more than occasional brushes. Glued skins require periodic at home maintenance to work well while the Kohla does not. These are not the first silicone skins we've tried, but they are the most widely available and the most universal in fit. The drawback is that they come off your skis, out in action, more frequently than regular glued skins. All skins delaminate in use, from time to time. In our experience, the Kohla ones seem to come off five times more frequently than regular glued skins, all else equal. This is a lot, and will likely affect you almost every ski touring day. The upshot, though, is that performance stays steady for years and regardless of your at home maintenance regime. If you only ski occasionally, are patient with failures in the field, and don't want to treat your climbing skins like a member of the family the rest of the year, the Kohla Vacuum Base Zero is the choice for you.
Read review: Kohla Vacuum Base Zero
Top Pick for Fast Gliding
Pomoca Climb Pro Mohair
Yeah, we granted two Top Pick awards for skins that glide well. First, that points to how our test team ranks the various attributes of climbing skins. Glide is paramount. Next, it happens to be where the excitement is, right now, in "the business". If the Fischer Profoil has "maximum glide" but scary grip, the Pomoca Climb Pro Mohair has "excellent glide" and "just enough" grip.
The Pomoca skins compromise durability and wet performance for maximum efficiency. They grab well enough for any excellent skin practitioner to travel anywhere he or she wants to go, and the glide enables significant energy savings. Expert backcountry skiers are choosing, more and more, full mohair skins. The Pomoca Climb Pro Mohair are the best universally compatible full mohair skins any of our test team has used.
Read review: Pomoca Climb Pro Mohair
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 go with the skins that the manufacturer sells with the skis. Other times, the consumer goes with what is 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 material built to temporarily stick onto the base of backcountry skis for ascending wilderness ski slopes, and grip methodology and ski attachment methods vary. The "traditional" climbing skin recipe is a fabric with a directional nap, laminated to a backing and in turn equipped with a liquid-based glue that sticks to the fabric permanently and to itself and ski bases temporarily. This "normal" configuration is still the best, but a few different technologies are shaking things up.
For what they do, and what we ask them to do, climbing skins are a great deal. They cost less than many one-day lift tickets, for instance. There isn't a wide range of cost on the skin market, but a few tens of dollars can separate the top from the better values. The most expensive products are discerned by only iterative and balanced improvements. Finally, comparing costs is tricky as different size skis require different size skins, which are different in price. Outside of our Best Buy award, we don't have much to say about cost and value of skins; they are all similar enough in price that performance comparisons are easier. More widely available skins are more often on deep sale, which also factors into our Best Buy award.
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. 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 effects glide. The skins that glide the poorest in our test, the G3 High Traction, have a wild and wooly, 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.
The absolute best gliding skins in our review completely upend the above summary. The Top Pick Fischer Profoil is not made with any sort of fabric, blended or otherwise. The "running surface" is patterned plastic. These glide, especially on melt-freeze snow, far better than any other in our review.
The next best gliders in our test also got a Top Pick award; glide is that important to us and should be to you. The Pomoca Climb Pro Mohair glide nearly as well as the Fischer, especially in powder snow, and work better than the Fischer in all the other ways. The third echelon of gliding performance holds the remainder of our award winners and a few others. The blended skins, like the Editors Choice Contour Hybrid Mix and Top Pick Kohla Vacuum Base Zero have virtually indistinguishable glide characteristics.
It might surprise you that none of the least gliding skins won any awards. The full nylon construction of both the G3 Alpinist High Traction and Black Diamond Ascension is super durable and grippy, but doesn't glide well enough for anything but beginner or rental use, in our opinion.
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. That said, most of the other skins were not far behind. All blended skins, including the Editors' Choice-winning Contour Hybrid Mix, grip well enough for solid skinners to follow even the steepest, iciest skin tracks. Full nylon products like the Black Diamond Ascension Nylon grab slightly better than the blends, often enough better to make up for less developed technique.
The least grippy skins are also the best gliders. The Pomoca Climb Pro Mohair grips well enough that expert skinners might only use these, even for the gnarliest of missions. The Fisher Profoil, especially when the travel includes melt-freeze snow, do not grip well enough for anything but low- to moderate-angled tours. Their other attributes may justify, for you, the grip compromises, but we can't recommend them as all-around skins, if only for the grip limitations.
Your skins have 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 Pomoca Climb Pro Mohair and Dynafit Speedskin, both made by Pomoca, seem to have the same glue also, and its stickiness is the least of all we tested. The Editors' Choice Contour Hybrid Mix falls in between the above.
The Top Pick Kohla Vacuum Base Zero is unique. It doesn't have "glue" in the traditional sense, and the adhesion is provided by a silicone layer. This is low maintenance, but fails more frequently, in the field, than regular glue.
Augmenting a glue's characteristics, to 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 and 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 mohair BD skins is 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 blends than the full nylon.
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 tackier. Among the universally compatible skins, the G3 models have a better tip attachment than the Black Diamond.
Finally, most skins are equipped with a tail clip, ostensibly to help the skins stay glued on. With one exception, we found absolutely no difference in glue integrity with or without the tail kit. The silicone adhesion of the Kohla Vacuum Base Zero requires tip and tail attachments to work at all. On regular glued skins, 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.
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 lead to 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. With fabric skins, we found mostly similar performance across the board, with the Black Diamond Ascension Nylon icing up the least, and the Pomoca Climb Pro Mohair being the worst. Again, differences were marginal, and all skins require waxing so they won't ice up in warmer, fresh snow conditions.
A notable exception is the all-plastic construction of the Top Pick Fischer Profoil. Without fibers to absorb water, icing is a lot less likely with the Profoil. It is still possible in the toughest of conditions but is far less common than with any of the fabric skins.
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 correlate to the 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 Best Buy BD Glidelite Mix and the Pomoca skins. The G3 High Traction was almost as heavy and bulky as the BD Nylon. The Editors' Choice Contour Hybrid Mix and the Top Pick Kohla Vacuum are similar in packability to the Best Buy, with the Top Pick Pomoca Climb Pro Mohair being the smallest and lightest.
Not all the skins we tested are compatible with all skis on the market. Dynafit skins are compatible only with Dynafit skis. The Fischer Profoil is best used with Fischer skis, though they sell a universal fit option that can be roughly trimmed for your skis.
The remainder of the skis we tested are ostensibly universal in compatibility. Wire tip loops are tougher to use on fat, and rounded ski tips, and not every "universal" skin comes in sizes large or small enough for outlier ski sizes. Generally, though, most of the skins we tested are universal in fit.
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 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 choice.
— Jediah Porter