If you’ve ever gone ski touring or cross-country skiing, you might be familiar with what ski skins are and how they work. But if you’ve only ever done alpine skiing, this device might be a total mystery to you. Ski skins (climbing skins) are an ancient technology that we still use today. While they can be tricky to use at first, the advantages of using them for ski touring and cross-country skiing cannot be overstated.
What Is A Ski Skin?
Ski skins, often called climbing skins, are a ski attachment that allows you to climb up hills while wearing your skis. They consist of a strip of fabric cut to match the length and width of a ski.
How Do Ski Skins Work?
One side of the ski skin features a special glue that sticks to the base of the ski, while the side that faces out features short, stiff angled hairs (hairs / fibers can be natural, synthetic, or a blend). These hairs grip the snow when pressure is put on the ski and keep the ski from sliding backward. When you take off the pressure and push forward, the ski slides easily over the snow.
Who Uses Ski Skins?
If you’re at a ski resort and using lifts to get up the mountain and then skiing down, you won’t need ski skins. But if you’re ski touring or cross-country skiing, ski skins will make your life much easier.
Adventurers that want to extend their ski seasons often ski tour using skins, those that live in areas without ski lifts, those that don’t want to pay for ski passes, or those that simply enjoy the uphill travel also use skins.
Can Snowboarders Use Climbing Skins?
Absolutely. Snowboarders have unique setups called “splitboards” where on the way up, their snowboard is split into two planks (with climbing skins), and before transitioning down, they turn that board into a classic looking snowboard. Splitboards are pretty new, and have only really been around since the 1990’s but this sport has been rapidly growing since then.
The History of Ski Skins
When we look at the development of skiing, the common theme that runs through virtually every advance is efficiency. Skiing was first used by people as an efficient form of transportation that let them move quickly and use less energy than walking through snow. The limited resources of a cold environment mean that anything that lets you conserve calories and get to your destination faster is hugely helpful.
Ancient ski technology has been found all over the world in arctic and circumpolar regions. The oldest known skis were found in a Russian peat bog and are about 8,300 years old (it is believed that humans were skiing well before even this around 8,000 BC). However, ski skins were first seen about 4,000 years after the oldest known development of skis.
The oldest ski skins come from China’s Altai mountains, where skiers have been nailing horse hair to the underside of their skis for over 4,000 years. In Finland, badger fur was used for the same purpose. The first modern ski skins developed for recreational use in the 1930s used sealskin. Basically, any animal skin with short, stiff hairs could be used for ski skins.
Today, two types of material are commonly used for ski skins: mohair and nylon.
Types Of Climbing Skins
There are several types of climbing skins that can be purchased that have specific advantages and disadvantages, as well as skins that are meant or all around use. Here we break down these skin types by materials, types, and a quick video explaining some more details around deciding what type of skin to purchase.
Ski Skin Materials
The vast majority of ski skins use fiber technology to let you climb over and glide atop snow.
Mohair skins are made using the hair of Angora goats. The primary use for mohair skins is competition due to how expensive they are and how delicate they are compared to other types of ski skins.
Advantages of mohair skins include:
- Great downhill gliding
Disadvantages of mohair skins include:
- Wear out quickly
Synthetic skins use nylon spun and cut to imitate goat hair. These skins are the most budget-friendly ski skins, and advances in nylon technology mean that they are very durable.
Advantages of nylon skins include:
- Better grip
- Cheaper than mohair
- More durable than mohair
Disadvantages of nylon skins include:
- Poorer glide
Mixed ski skins are a popular type of skin that combines mohair and nylon fibers for the best of both worlds. They are usually made with about 70% mohair and 30% nylon, although this can vary.
Mixed ski skins have the best compromise between gliding, durability, and price. The majority of ski tourers use mixed ski skins.
Advantages of mixed skins include:
- Good grip
- More durable than mohair
- Better glide than nylon
Mixed skins don’t really have any major disadvantages; there’s a reason they are the most popular type of ski skin. They are very versatile and can adapt to almost any ski situation.
The newest innovation in ski skins are ProFoil skins. These skins, made by Fischer, add a textured base to the bottom of your skis. There are several advantages to these skins.
- Durable- these skins last much longer than fiber skins
- Textured surface adds mechanical traction, so you won’t need to change skins to match snow conditions
- Material will not get clogged with wet snow
However, ProFoil skins come with their own disadvantages.
- Good downhill glide, but not as good as mohair or mixed skins
- Very tricky to store– if glue touches glue, they will be ruined
- More challenging to use; beginners will likely prefer a mixed fiber skin over them just for ease of use
Climbing Skin Attributes
Most brands also sell different skins with different attributes: more glide, more stick, ultra lightweight, etc.
This can help individuals choose the right skin for them based on the ski touring they plan on doing.
What Type Of Climbing Skin Is Right For You?
This short video does a great job of explaining how to choose the right type for you and will help you visualize the differences.
How To Use Climbing Skins/Ski Skins
Ski skins are typically attached to the skis via a loop or hook on the ski tip, a hook on the tail, and glue on the base of the skin. Your ski skin will cover most of the ski base, leaving a gap at the edges.
Ski skins are usually cut about 3 to 5 inches from the tail, and the ends are trimmed to be curved for ease of movement through snow. The fastenings on either end of the ski skin let you properly position and stretch the skin during the application process.
Ski Skin Glue
Ski skins use glue to stick to the bottom of your skis. This is not a permanent glue and will need to be reapplied periodically to keep your ski skins working well.
This glue does like to stick to itself, and sticking the skins together glue to glue won’t damage the skin. They won’t be as easy to pull apart, but if you don’t have a skin saver (the piece of plastic that came with the ski skins), it’s totally fine to let glue touch glue with most ski skins.
If you are applying your skins and they are stuck to themselves, here’s what to do.
- Gently but firmly pull them apart to get them as unstuck as you can.
- Loop the toe strap over the tip of your ski and use it for leverage as you pull on the skins.
- Go slowly– you don’t want to rip the skin or break the clip
When you put your skins away, if you’re at home, you should lay the skins on the plastic strip they came with to protect the glue side, then roll them or fold them.
If you’re out on the mountain or in the backcountry, the skin saver can be more of a hassle than it’s worth, so just fold them into fourths and stick them in your pack or within your jacket to prevent freezing. You can unstick them later.
You also want to try and avoid getting any debris (rocks, twigs, leaves, etc) on your skins to keep them
Another innovation in ski skin design is glueless ski skins. These skins offer several benefits– there’s no need to reapply glue or worry about the skins sticking, you don’t have to worry about changes in weather conditions affecting the glue, and the skins get less dirty and are easier to clean. Only a few manufacturers make these skins, so they are harder to find.
How To Apply Ski Skins
Here are the steps you need to follow to apply your skins.
- If you’re putting the skins on outdoors, especially while standing on a slope, make sure your skis are secure. If you aren’t driving far, it may be a good idea to just put the skins on at home or indoors. (Unless your starting on a downhill without skins)
- Make sure the bases of your skis are clean and dry, with no dirt, ice, pine needles, snow, or anything else on them. Use a pole, or scraper of some sort to clear out ice, snow, and debris.
- Clip the skin to the top of your ski.
- Pull down gently and guide the skin down the center of the base of your ski.
- Make sure there are no wrinkles and that the skin is centered. The skin should not go beyond the edge of the ski, skiers still want the edges exposed for control.
- If wrinkles appear, pull the skin back up and start again.
- When the whole skin is applied, put the tail clip on to ensure a snug fit.
If you are a visual learner, this video will be very helpful. It will show you how to manage your skins well, keep them clean, and make sure that they stick to your skis.
Once you’re done, take off the ski skins by unclipping the toe and peeling them off of your skis. Fold them into fourths or roll them up and put them in a stuff sack to keep them clean.
Troubleshooting Tips for Ski Skins
Once you’ve gotten your ski skins on, there are some problems you need to look out for. Here are the most common ski skin concerns and their solutions.
- Unsticking: If your ski skins’ glue is poorly applied or maintained, or if snow gets caught between the ski and the skin, the ski skins are going to come unstuck. You can solve this by taking them off and warming them up against your body before reapplying– this will help the glue’s adhesion. You may also want to carry spray glue with you or double-sided sticky tape. And if all else fails, you can use good old duct tape as a secondary strap.
- Loose Skins: If part of the skin keeps coming loose, isolate the part that won’t stick and try to identify what the problem is. You may have to stop, remove the skin, and reapply. Most partially loose skins are caused by snow or debris getting trapped between the ski and the skin. You will need to clean this off before the ski skin will stick properly.
- Cracks: Cracks in the lining of the skin are rare, but can happen when you dry your skins near overly intense heat sources. Don’t dry your skins on the radiator or directly in front of fireplaces to avoid this.
- Lumps: Sometimes snow can get stuck under the skin and form lumps. Avoid this by rubbing the skins down with ski wax before applying.
- Rips and Tears: If you ski over rocks or sharp objects, you can rip your ski skin. All you can do to avoid this is to navigate well.
- Glue Deposits: When your glue is coming to the end of its lifespan, you may see glue deposits accumulate on your ski bases. This means you need to reapply your glue!
- Sticky Skins: If you have the time and space, stick your ski skins to the skin saver when putting them away– but if you don’t, it’s fine for the glue to touch glue. Just be firm but gentle when unsticking your ski skins, so that you don’t rip or stretch anything.
- Wet Skins: It is common for skins to be pretty wet when you return home. Leave them out to dry before putting them away.
Cleaning Your Ski Skins
Cleaning your ski skins is important because if they’re dirty and have debris stuck to them, they won’t function properly. Here is how to properly clean your ski skins.
- Brush any debris off of the skins. If something has gotten really stuck, like small rocks or pine needles, you may need tweezers to remove the debris. This should be done while the skins are still cold. We recommend doing this outside. Once the skins warm up, it can be much harder to remove debris.
- Dry the skins at room temperature. Do not put them near a heat source.
- Use a dry cotton or microfiber cloth to get rid of all the dirt. (this is for minor and quick cleaning)
- Use a nylon brush to apply medium pressure to remove any dirt or wax residue accumulated on the ski skin. (An old soft-bristled toothbrush works well for this.)
- Don’t use cleaning agents unless the manufacturer recommends it. Most cleaning agents are too harsh on the ski skins’ adhesive. Cleaning agents are used for larger cleaning sessions (see below)
- Gently brush the ski skin, following the direction of the glide and the grain of the ski as before. This will get the hairs back into place and help keep them protected.
- Once you have cleaned the ski skin, apply glide wax to the skins. Do this by simply rubbing a small amount of good quality bar of wax in the direction of the hair.
- Store the ski skins in a clean dry place.
Even durable nylon and mixed fiber ski skins do need to be replaced eventually– the thin fabric stretches over time. But with good care, you can extend the life of your ski skins past one season.
Here is a video showing how to clean the fabric side of your skins using Fischer products. This same technique can be used for all types of products. You’ll notice the first product is to clean the skins, and the second is to increase the glide while reducing the ability for snow to build up on the skins:
Reactivating Skin Glue
After a long period of time, dirt and debris can cause your skins to lose tackiness, or adhesiveness. When this occurs, it is a good time to purchase some glue cleaner, wash the glue portions of your skins, and get that tackiness back. If you have never done this before, we recommend going to a local ski shop to have them show you how it is done. Here is a succinct video:
The climbing skin brand you have may recommend specific cleaning instructions or products to use.
Ski skins are an important part of cross-country skiing and ski touring, and we hope this guide has taught you everything you need to know about them.
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about