Backing up a little, let us explain the category a little further. At its simplest, this category unites all pieces of fabric that backcountry skiers and ski mountaineers place on the bottom of their skis for upward traction. The goal of backcountry skiers is to climb up wild, snowy slopes and ski back down them. Backcountry ski gear is different than resort gear, primarily because of this need to ascend first. The downhill component of a backcountry ski day is fairly similar to that at a resort. The uphill part, though, has very different different equipment requirements. We must move the equipment against gravity, so weight is very important. An uphill stride requires more and different range of motion than downhill alpine turns. The boots we use are lighter and articulate at the ankle for uphill walking. The bindings we use are also lighter and allow for a free heel for the uphill. The skis we use are lighter and hopefully more versatile. We have outlined advice on choosing equipment in these categories elsewhere on the site. Lastly, we must make our otherwise slippery skis grip the slope. Sure, one could walk and carry the skis on one's back. The main issue with this, however, is flotation. Keeping skis on feet keeps the skier out of the depths of the snow. And that makes travel more efficient. Climbing skins are the traction.
Modern skins are made up of a glue side, a fabric backing, and a fuzzy, snow-side with a distinct "nap". The glue sticks to the skin and stays there. It sticks temporarily to the ski for usage, and then sticks, again temporarily, to itself for storage. The fabric side allows forward glide but backward traction. Originally, and an insight into the name, climbing skins were made of actual seal hide. A seal's fur is short, stiff, and directional. Cut appropriately, apparently (none of us have used actual animal skin climbing skins), seal skins allow forward progress and backward grip.
The Types of Climbing Skins Available
Skins across the entire spectrum have more in common than they have differences. As noted above, variations are subtle and all skins can work in all applications. The easiest way to divide them, initially, is by material. In terms of types, we must also elaborate on overall compatibility.
We divide skins by the material in the grippy, fibrous part of the product. Full nylon skins are durable and grippy, but with limited glide. The end product is heavier and bulkier than the alternatives, but also less expensive.
All-natural mohair, from the hair of the Angora goat, can be woven into excellent skins. Mohair skins glide really well, especially on dry powder snow, and pack down quite small and light, but are less durable and more expensive than nylon.
As you may guess, blended skins mix the attributes of their pure cousins. The blended construction provides a compromise on grip, glide, bulk, and durability. Most blended skins seem to go for a ratio of mohair to nylon that is around 70:30.
Skins are sold in one of two major configurations. They can be universally compatible, or specific to one make and model of ski. Universal skins are, just as the name implies, adaptable at the time of initial purchase to any ski on the market. You will have to do at least a little irreversible trimming, if not a full construction of the components, but these products work on all skis. On the other hand, many backcountry ski companies sell ready-to-use skins for just their skis. The skin is matched to the size and model of ski, and it arrives ready to go. The skis and skins may be manufactured by the same company, but more likely the skins are licensed from a dedicated skin manufacturer and co-branded by the ski maker.
How to Choose Skins for Backcountry Skiing
Can I get Dedicated Skins for my Skis?
The first step in choosing skins is to investigate as to whether the skis you use or are interested in using are available with dedicated skins. In our experience, most dedicated co-branded skins are worth choosing over the universal options. First of all, your decision-making and set-up is done for you. Next, most co-branded skins are very good designs made with reputable materials and methods. Because universal compatibility is not an issue, the tip and tail attachments (included to augment the glue in securing the skin to ski) can be more sophisticated and integrated. Usually ski tip and skin are shaped to work together to maximize security and ease of use. Most co-branded skins are blended mohair and nylon, which seems to strike an appropriate balance of all the performance criteria. There are certain circumstances in which we recommend choosing universal skins even if there are co-branded skins available to you. We summarize those in the rest of this article.
What Works for Most People
Most skiers, whether the most diehard or casual user, will be best served by skins right in the middle of the pack. Because performance criteria are inherently at odds, there will always be compromises. We want our skins to both grip and glide. Better glide means less grip, and vice versa. We expose our skins to pounding punishment on miles and miles of rough ground, but we want them to pack tiny for the way down. Durable skins are heavier, and lighter skins are flimsier. We need the glue to hold tenaciously to ski bases, but disengage from the the ski and from itself for easy usage.
In our experience and testing we have found that close to three fourths of the market will be best served by nylon/mohair blended skins. If your skis can be equipped with dedicated, purpose built, co-branded skins that are a nylon/mohair blend, we recommend those, most of the time. If dedicated, appropriate skins are not available, we recommend universal, blended skins.
Among universal, blended skins, there is little variation. The glue is similar between the North American universal brands and strikes a good balance between stickiness and ease of use. Tip attachments vary slightly, with metal hooks being more secure than cable tip loops. Tail attachments vary just a tiny bit, or can be omitted entirely. We must note here that tail attachments are not at all necessary. We have skinned hundreds of days without tail clips. The tail of a skin can stick otherwise untethered, held on with just glue, and be just fine. Only in extremely rare circumstances does the tail kit truly enhance skin retention. What the tail kit does do, however, is provide a handle for gloved fingers to grab for skin removal.
Your Use Patterns and Preferences. Are You an Exception?
Generally, as noted above, we recommend blended skins for almost everyone. Whether co-branded with your skis, or as universal trim-to-fit products, we can say on good authority that these will strike just the right balance for you. However, there are exceptions.
First of all, we have found that some skins have glue that is just too sticky. If the skins that come with the skis you use are in this category, you will do better with universal skins. Just a handful of skins on the market are made with glue that requires super strenuous wrestling to disengage from itself in deployment. We do not recommend those skins. Read reviews and test them out yourself to see what too-sticky skins are like.
Next, if you know that you will require above-normal durability, consider full nylon skins. Since all of the co-branded skins we have seen are mohair/nylon blends, this is an instance in which you may choose to forego the co-branded skins. The difference in durability between full nylon and blended skins becomes clear only after multiple heavy-duty seasons of use. Whether you are choosing full nylon over co-branded skins or over blended universal products, they will be heavier, bulkier, with poorer glide. They will grip slightly better, and wear far longer.
The next exception to our rule is for those that are seeking better glide and ultralight fast performance. Full mohair skins do indeed glide better than blends or full nylon. When the snow is dry and wintry, the difference is most profound, but there is a noticeable difference on all snow conditions. Full mohair skins are made of flimsier fabric that is more prone to both traumatic damage and wear from prolonged use. The lighter fabric is also more vulnerable to peeling back in use and allowing snow to sneak in between ski and skin. For high-tempo ski touring and mountaineering, despite the drawbacks, full mohair skins can be a great way to save weight and energy.
Finally, do you truly require much greater grip? New skinners slip on their skis. It is only with experience and practice that skins feel truly secure. Even then, even the best skins and skinners will slip on occasion. It happens to everyone. In most settings that learning curve is steep and within a few tours the skier will find adequate grip on any skin. For some people, in some settings, extra grip is actually required. The skins with the greatest grip, like the G3 High Traction, are heavy and glide really, really poorly. This poor glide slows down every step. The cost of extra grip is more energy expended. It is true, there are some people and circumstances that require the skins with the greatest traction. But those instances are fewer than you might imagine. Purchase carefully.