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Have you ever seen skiers going backcountry and they seem able to scoot up steep slopes? How can they do that without sliding back? What have they attached to their skis? It is easy for skiers to go across flat snow or downhill. Try going uphill, however, and you will soon run into trouble. You will skis slide uncontrollably with little progress. An ancient technique, the climbing skin, can come to your aid.
Climbing skins are long strips of fabric, which are attached to the base of the ski and secured at the tip and tail. The surface of the skin is made from goat hair, nylon, or a combination of the two. The fibres are arranged so that when the skier pushes forward there is little resistance and both skis glide easily. However, when you come to an uphill section the fibres are also arranged to create resistance and stop the ski from sliding backward. This enables the skier to cross backcountry trails easily. Originally climbing skins were glued to the skis but with advances in technology glueless climbing skins are becoming more popular.
Nomadic groups in the Arctic were the first to use animal skins on the base of their skis. Often on the move they had to travel large distances and would take advantage of any way to make traveling easier. Consequently, the first climbing skins were made from sealskin. The densely packed hairs lined in one direction along the ski made for great gliding and at the same time, the hairs stopped the ski from sliding backward on uphill sections.
Angora Goat Hair Skins
Seal skins gradually went out of favor after the 1950s to be replaced with Angora goat hair. This offers particularly good gliding and reasonable anti-slip properties but is not that durable. The hair is quite fragile, and it wears out quickly. Additionally, over longer distances snow can build up between the fibres adding to the weight of the ski. Keeping overall weight down is a priority in any climbing activity. Mohair skins are generally the choice of racers, where durability is not a problem.
Nylon skins are both cheaper and harder wearing, but while they provide good traction, to stop slipping, they do not glide as easily. Nylon skins are also less suited to wetter snow conditions, such as at the beginning or end of the season, when snow can tend to ball up on them. Nylon skins are ideal if you are an occasional backcountry skier or new to the sport.
Mixed or Blend Skins
To gain the advantages of both world’s companies started to manufacture hybrid skins made from a combination of 70% mohair and 30% nylon. These were found to offer the best gliding and durability, while also keeping the cost down. Understandably these are the first choice for most ski tourers, both regular and occasional.
Ski equipment manufacturers are constantly trying to create new products that will give them an edge in the market. Austrian manufacturer Fischer has put all the experience into a recent technology for skins called crown-pattern Profoil climbing skins. The skin has a scaly appearance like fish scales, which attaches to the base of the ski and even up over the edges too.
How Do Skins Attach To The Skis?
Glued Climbing Skins
Traditionally climbing skins were attached to the ski with glue along with a fastener at the tip and tail of the ski. As this fastener was clipped into place it would create the correct tension along the length of the skin.
There is a huge variety of different fasteners for climbing skins. Some ski manufacturers only recommend their own climbing skins, which are ready to cut to the exact measurements of your skis. Before attaching the skin, you must make sure any loose snow has been removed from the base of the ski.
When buying skins, they may have to be cut to the correct shape for your skis. Ideally, the skins could be cut approximately 10cm from the end of the ski and the end of the skin cut into a curve. Glued skins are generally reliable however if they are not safely stored and maintained their working life can be severely impaired.
Glueless Climbing Skins
Glueless climbing skins have been around for more than 10 years. Manufactured from silicon they naturally adhere to the base of the ski, while on the outer surface the silicon is molded into a series of tiny sucker cups rather like on the bottom of a gecko’s feet. In fact, one of the major manufacturers in this market is called Gecko.
Glueless skins have several advantages over glued skins including no need to reapply glue, little sensitivity to changes in temperature and humidity and they don’t pick up dirt or grit. They are very easy to clean by wiping with a wet cloth or a quick wash in warm water.
In competition, racers adapt the climbing skins they use mainly to save time. The skin itself is shorter and it is not attached by a fastener to the tail of the ski. The racing fastener at the tip of the ski enables the skier to remove the skin without taking the ski off saving precious seconds. As the ski skin is not fastened at the tail of the ski the glue is the only thing holding the skin onto the ski. This means the glue has to be applied perfectly to create enough adhesion.
Look After Your Skins
Dry skins out using gentle heat away from fires. For glued skins keep the two sides glued together during drying. Don’t be tempted to open out the skin to its full length, as this will degrade the glue over time. For longer storage periods they are best kept in cool dry conditions away from direct heat.
Waxing your skis regularly helps to maintain a good barrier between the ski and the skin. Without this is not unusual for the residue to transfer from the skin to the ski.
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