Published the 19 February 2016
This new article in the “ski touring” series will focus on an essential, exciting element: climbing skins.
Let’s start with a bit of history. Yes, originally, in the 1930s, climbing (seal)skins were made from real seal hides. I can assure you that hasn’t been the case for several decades. From now on, we should by rights be using the term anti-slip ski grips.
Ski touring climbing skins are made from fibres that stop skis from sliding backwards down the slope during a climb. When the ski moves in the direction of the fibres, you slide. When it moves against the direction of the fibres, it holds you in place.
This might seem simple but there are a number of intricacies you should know about to avoid encountering any problems.
Modern climbing skin fabric
As we’ve already said, modern-day climbing skins are no longer actually made of seal hides. Climbing skins are predominantly made out of two kinds of fabric: mohair and synthetic.
- Mohair: These skins are made using Angora goat hair. They have the advantage of great gliding but they wear out much more quickly. 100% Mohair climbing skins are only used at competition level.
- Synthetic (nylon): These skins are more durable and affordable. They provide good grip but they don’t provide exceptional glide.
- Mixed climbing skins: Made of a combination of mohair (~70%) and nylon (~30%), they offer the best compromise between gliding, durability and price. The majority of ski tourers choose this kind of climbing skins.
This season, Fischer has launched a new technology: crown-pattern “Profoil” climbing skins. The invention was strongly inspired by their experience in cross-country skiing, which is based on a similar principle. They involve sticking what looks like scaly material to the ski base, even over the edges. I haven’t had the chance to test this product out but it offers optimal glide with around a 20% glide increase.
The ski touring market is fast-growing, hopefully we’ll be able to discover even more new innovations in the years to come.
How do skins attach to the skis?
Traditionally, climbing skins stick to the ski base with glue and fasten at the tip and tail.
The fastenings let you get the skin in the correct position and stretch it properly during the application process. Climbing skins stick along the entire length of the ski, after you’ve made sure there is no snow left on the ski base.
A properly cut skin should cover the ski base but not the edges. They are generally cut 10-15cm from the tail and the ends should be curved. Please note that certain brands sell skins specifically cut for their own make of skis for ease of application.
For competitions, racers use much shorter skins that don’t fasten to the ski tails. This provides better gliding and makes them lighter. Using a tensioner on the ski tip also makes it possible to remove the climbing skins without having to take your skis off, saving precious time. The disadvantage is that the glue needs to be in perfect condition so that you don’t experience any problems during your climb.
For a few years now, a new generation of silicon skins known as “glueless” climbing skins have appeared. These products offer a number of benefits: no need to reapply glue, little to no sensitivity to changes in temperature or humidity and they don’t pick up grit or dust… A simple wash in warm water is all it takes to clean them. This technology has now developed well and I recommend it if you are kitting yourself out. (examples of glueless manufacturers: Gecko, Kohla, Colltex)
Whatever type of climbing skin you use, you need to be very careful when applying them and maintaining them to avoid having to deal with a variety of problems:
- Unsticking: poorly maintained glue, poorly applied glue or even a layer of snow caught between the ski and the climbing skin during the application process is going to make them come unstuck during your climb. You can sometimes solve this by taking them off and warming them up against your body before reapplying them.
You can also apply spray glue or use a secondary strap or double-sided sticky tape but if that’s not enough, you will just have to give up!
- Build-up: Sometimes, snow can get stuck under the skins and form lumps. To avoid this, you can use a piece of ski wax or a dedicated product to rub the skins first.
- Rips and tears: These can sometimes happen if you glide over a rock or sharp object. Try to avoid them as much as possible!
- Glue deposits on the ski bases: This can be a bit annoying on your descent but most of all shows that your glue is coming to the end of its lifespan and needs to be reapplied.
Maintenance and recommended use
It is important to properly maintain your skins to make life easier on your next trip out. Here are a few usage and maintenance tips:
- Don’t stick your skins together. Skins usually come coated in a layer of plastic you can stick to them before folding/rolling them up. Glueless skins can simply be rolled up together.
- When drying them, whether you’re at home or in a mountain refuge for the evening, avoid overly intense heat sources: fireplaces, radiators, direct sunlight, etc.
- For even more glide and to reduce the risks of lumps forming, climbing skins can be rubbed with a block of wax.
- When the temperature is very cold, I recommend that you keep your skins close to your body so that they don’t freeze. Then clean the base of your skis properly before applying the skins, there shouldn’t be any snow or ice crystals on them.
- Never leave your climbing skins stuck to your skis. You will ruin the ski bases and the skin glue.
- In between seasons, store climbing skins in a plastic bag to avoid air getting to the glue.
- To completely reapply the glue, first of all you have to take off the old glue. Warm up a new roll of glue. Let it dry for at least 24 hours before use. For best results, I recommend that you use the services of a professional.