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Alpine touring: everything you need to know about climbing skins


September 30, 2022


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This article aims to demystify an often-neglected piece of alpine touring equipment: climbing skins. With the help of Pierre-Olivier Bédard, cofounder of the Estski group, we address the frequently asked questions that will undoubtedly pop into your head as you get ready to shop for your alpine touring ski equipment.

This article was produced in collaboration with 4000 Hikes 4000 Hikes logo_en

In this article, you will find answers to the following queries:

  1. What are climbing skins and how do they work?
  2. How to attach climbing skins
  3. How to remove and fold climbing skins
  4. How to dry your skins
  5. How to store climbing skins
  6. How to clean seal skins
  7. Do seal skins last for a long time?
  8. How to choose the size of your skins
  9. How to trim your skins

What are climbing skins and how do they work?

First, it’s important to note that climbing skins can also be referred to as seal skins, as skiers initially used real seal skin underneath their skis. climbing skins are fabric strips that can be attached underneath your touring skis to help you ski up snowy hills. They have synthetic hairs arranged to help you glide on the snow when pushing forward, and give you grip when going uphill. The other side of the skins is usually quite sticky, so they can stick to the bottom of your ski and stop the snow from coming in between your skis and the skins.

“The hairs are similar to those found on the skin of a seal. Skiing forward, they will bend smoothly so you can glide, but try to go backwards and they create resistance, so you have some traction. This makes it possible to climb uphill, as the hairs give you enough grip to propel yourself forward and upward,” says Pierre-Olivier.

Climbing skins’ hairs are made using various materials, each providing skins with a different glide and a different grip. Some skins have a smoother glide, but less traction, making uphill climbs much harder. Choose your skins based on the type of terrain you’ll be exploring, and the outings you’ll go on: flat or steep, faster pace… Generally, we recommend opting for blend skins, which provide more grip and give beginners added traction during uphill climbs. This could be useful for those still working on their technique as it will stop you from wasting too much energy. Alternatively, those looking for a smoother glide could apply wax on their skins, always applying in the direction of the hairs.

How to attach climbing skins

For your skins to work properly, you’ll need to attach them to your skis, as glue alone will not be enough to hold them in place. There are several types of attachment systems, but most skins can be attached to any skis. While there are some more specific bindings, you’ll generally find a tip loop at both ends, which allow you to securely affix them to the front and the back of your skis.

climbing skins
If you can, opt for metal loops rather than plastic ones as, in Quebec’s very cold conditions, plastic can break more easily. However, should your loops break, they are quite easy to fix, and you shouldn’t need to buy a whole new set of climbing skins. Spare parts are readily available.

How to remove and fold climbing skins

Once you’ve reached the summit, you’ll need to get ready to ski back down by removing your skins. It’s important to do this properly in order to keep your skins free of snow should you need them again to make your second uphill climb easier.

The simplest way to remove your skins is to take off your skis one at a time, so you always have one ski on the snow supporting you. Next, it should be quite easy to unstick the back, and then the front of the skin by pulling on it. Some more experienced skiers may be able to remove their skins without taking off their skis in one elegant leg move, but this requires flexibility!
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Once your skins are off, you’ll need to fold them carefully before putting them away. Pierre-Olivier mentions: “You should remember that you’ll be trying to fold them while standing at the top of a mountain, in the wind, so all you can do is your best. I just fold them one at a time by grabbing each end and putting them together, so the skin is folded in half. After that, I press both glued sides so they stick together and I fold the skins over again. That’s about it.”

Some will put their skins back into their small storage bag so that the rest of their gear doesn’t get wet, but you can leave the small mesh bag they sometimes come with at home. You can simply put them in your hiking backpack or, even better, inside your jacket to keep them warm so that the glue stays sticky for your next climb. Some ski jackets even have an inside pocket specifically for climbing skins.

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How to dry your skins

Once you’re back at home, seal skins don’t require any complex maintenance, but just like the rest of your gear, it’s important to dry them properly. To do this, leave them folded so that the hairs (or debris) don’t get stuck in the glue. After that, all that’s left to do is to hang them using something like a hanger. “You don’t need heat, so no need to hang them above the radiator, just leave them to air dry and that’ll do the trick,” says Pierre-Olivier.

How to store climbing skins

The right way to store them (long-term, between outings or during the summer) is subject to debate in the alpine touring world, but Pierre-Olivier mentions: “I like to keep things simple. I stick them together, glue on glue, ideally in a cool place with a relatively stable temperature, so not in the shed at 45°C, but you don’t need to put them in the freezer either”.

You could also use the skin saver (mesh strip) and put it in-between the skins so you can separate them more easily when you’ll need them again, especially if the skins are new and the glue is still very strong. It’s as simple as that, according to Pierre-Olivier: “It’s not something that requires a lot of maintenance.”

How to clean seal skins

In the long run, it’s unavoidable: the glue will become dirty and full of debris, which will affect the skins’ ability to stick to your skis. If you’re patient, it’s possible to remove the debris with tweezers. “However, it’s not the end of the world if there is dirt on your seal skins. As long as the glue doesn’t stay on the bottom of your skis, it’ll work,” says Pierre-Olivier. Eventually, you’ll need to think about reapplying glue to your skins, but it can be done, and it is much cheaper than buying new skins.

Do seal skins last for a long time?

Yes, a long time! “It’s not something that’s fragile, they are quite a heavy-duty piece of equipment.” Skins will last for as long as your skis will, maybe even more! They are quite easily repaired, and your repairs do not need to be perfect. Even if there is a small hole, you can easily stitch it by hand or glue it back together and that’ll do the trick. The main thing is to ensure the hole or rip doesn’t grow any bigger over time. “My skins are Franken-skin monsters! They are patched all over!”

How to choose the size of your skins

Today’s skins often come pre-cut for a specific ski model. It’s therefore a matter of picking the skins designed for your skis. Otherwise, it is quite common to have to trim them. To do so, you’ll need to choose skins that are at least as long as your skis and as wide as their widest part. Do not use the width of the waist as a measure: use the front part where your skis are at their widest.

How to trim your skins

Once you’ve picked the right skins, you may need to trim them so they fit your skis perfectly. This part requires a bit of dexterity and, if you’re not comfortable, it may be best to have it done in a store by a specialist.

If you choose to do it yourself, manufacturers do provide a tool designed to help you trim your skins more easily. You should cut alongside the ski while making sure the edge of the ski isn’t covered, so your skins should be a bit narrower than the width of your ski. It’s best to have narrower skins than ones that are too wide.

Finally, you’ll need to adjust the length of the loop based on the length of your skis. Make sure you keep a little bit of leeway so that you’re able to readjust it later on, or to facilitate future repairs.
There you go, everything you need to know about climbing skins! While they are an essential piece of equipment for alpine touring, they shouldn’t be complicated to use. Seal skins are made to last, and they will provide you with years of alpine fun!


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