The first time on skins in the backcountry can be a humbling experience, especially if the track is steep and slick.
Many a reference to people’s mothers has been uttered as the first-time ski tourer finds his- or herself desperately clinging to the least bit of friction, poles locked in a death grip, as he or she attempts to avoid a face-plant into the frozen surface. And while swearing does play an important role in dealing with panic and frustration, there are a few other tricks I have found to make skinning easier and entirely more enjoyable, without having to curse a single person’s mom.
If you are starting out in the backcountry at the urging of friends who have been ski touring for years, keep in mind what works for them might not work for you.
Most of my friends, as their technique and experience have grown, have switched out their strictly nylon skins for a nylon/mohair mix. They’ve come to appreciate the glide mohair offers over a long day in the mountains and are willing to sacrifice a little grip.
While that’s fine for people who have logged a lot of days on skins, it can be a nightmare for those who have not, especially when skinning in steep areas like the Wasatch or the Tetons.
Until you have harnessed your technique, start out with a pure nylon skin. A nylon skin offers the best grip on steep and icy terrain and will help to prevent face-plants. That alone is well worth the money you would have saved buying the mega-discounted, last-in-stock, nylon/mohair mix skin on Backountry.com.
Also, make sure your skins fit your skis. While a few extra millimeters of exposed base don’t seem like a big deal while you sit inside your house watching Aspen Extreme, they can serve up a bad helping of wake-me-up as you hit the deck on refrozen crust at 6 a.m.
Follow an instructional guide, and only cut off enough skin material to expose your edges and a millimeter or so of base (you’ll want the edge for when things get dicey). And avoid the temptation to reuse skins from a skinnier ski. A little difference in waist widths is no big deal, but beyond 2 or 3 millimeters difference, you’re walking a fine line between barely making it and hating life.
The most common mistake on a steep skin track is to move your body over your toes, which puts you in an unbalanced position over the tips of your skis. I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to slide backwards and turn their friends into bowling pins—that fear is what motivates us to shift our bodies forward in the first place—but there is a better way.
When you hit a steep track or sudden transition, push your leading ski forward with your hips, while simultaneously keeping your upper body straight and upright. Avoiding the urge to lean forward will put your weight over your heels and apply maximum friction from the skin material to the snow surface. Pushing your hips forward also gives you a longer, stronger stride for more efficient and faster skinning on moderate and low angle terrain.
When the track makes a quick transition from steep to flatter terrain, step big and do your best to get your ski on the flatter of the two pitches. This will let you pull yourself over the transition and prevents your skis from teeter-tottering on the rollover.
Through all of this, look ahead and upward. Looking down at your skis makes the rest of your body follow suit and leads to you doing what you shouldn’t: leaning forward on your toes.
Kick turns will be your nemesis you when you first start touring. They will be the closest you’ve come to doing the splits since the time you slipped in middle school gym class—although maybe not quite as dramatic as that, and not something you would bring up to a therapist.
But while a kick turn does take time to feel comfortable, steep switchbacking up a slope will no longer feel like an exercise in futility once you’ve dialed in the form.
Most people starting out tend to begin a kick turn too early and too low. Making that mistake usually ends in awkward footing, falling, and f-words. Don’t fall prey to this common blunder. Bring your skis higher than you would think necessary, going above and beyond the pre-existing tracks if possible. This enables you to step down and onto the skin track, which is much easier than trying to shimmy up the skin track.
With the leading ski now firmly supported on the track, you can shift your weight onto it, release your other ski by bending your knee and pulling your boot back and away from the slope (this lets the tail drop and the tip rise so you can freely move your ski), and then move the ski in line with its twin, ready once again to power on to the next turn.
Aside from wicked icy sidehills, where you have no choice but to rely solely on your edges for grip, the bulk of the adhesion in skinning comes from the skin material. This may sound overly obvious, but actually doing this can be counterintuitive.
When you’ve got your skis underfoot, your natural urge is to edge. That’s what you learned at the resort. And so you instinctively roll your ankles into the hill to engaging the edges and keep yourself from dropping off the side of the slope.
With the skins on, though, your ankles need to roll away from and down the slope.
It’s an awkward motion at first, but once you allow your ankles to shift downslope, more of the actual skin material comes in contact with the snow, and you will achieve grip. If your ankles are being stubborn, actively push your shins against the downhill side of your boots to pressure your skis in that direction. Do this enough and it becomes second nature.
Having someone break trail for you on a skin track is almost always better than doing it yourself. There are times, though, when using the existing trail is not to your benefit, such as when it’s refrozen or ridiculously steep.
If you are finding the existing track to be a nightmare, set your own right next to and above it (above is better than below because of the security the existing track provides in case you lose your footing). A half inch of breakable crust will provide better traction than a firm, glossy skin track. And a few inches of soft snow will provide better passage than using the old, scraped-off track that crosses a stump on a steep side hill.
With skin tracks, don’t always assume the people who first put them in knew what they were doing. The backcountry is open season, and whoever gets there first decides where the skin track goes. In consideration of that, you might find that breaking your own trail, while initially more strenuous, makes more sense in the long run. It’s certainly more advantageous than blindly following the labyrinth some shmo traced in and out of a creek bed all morning.
Finally, when you’ve exhausted all options, create new ones. The saying, “climbing is chaos,” aptly describes how I also view skinning. Do what it takes to get the job done, especially when conditions and terrain are less than ideal. Mantle off a rock with your arm to help negotiate your skis around a tight spot. Use your whippet/ice axe as a grappling hook on tree branches. Try a duck walk or side-step motion if a regular stride is no longer working. You will know when taking off your skis and packing them over your shoulder is the only option left. Until you reach that point, then, use what is at your disposal and make it a personal challenge to keep skinning on through.