Climbing skins are bands of fabric with backwards pointing hairs, with a sticky base that sticks onto the bottom of your skis, and with these you can climb steep slopes. They are standard issue and essential for all mountain skiing. Us flatlanders can also use “skins” to efficiently ski the flats when wax or waxless is just not working.
Skins are especially useful when hauling a heavy sled, where the ski’s kick zone is just not gripping strong enough. I have been in several situations where skins got me through. Icy crusted conditions will peel the kick wax off a ski within in a couple hundred metres. In deep fluffy snow with little structure, the grip zone shears in the snow when hauling a heavy sled. Waxless skis sometime encounter snow conditions where the grip just is not great, and when hauling a sled, you’ll be left behind unless you can add the skins, and then you will be trucking. The backward pointing hairs tenaciously grip the snow but magically release on the short forced glide.
You loose most, or all of your glide when using skins, but the alternative is to switch to snowshoes. On long slogs in open country, sliding your legs forward with skis is more energy efficient than lifting each leg with snowshoes.
Climbing skin’s sticky base is sort of like the magic of sticky notes: the glue stays on the note and off the paper, and its re-useable. Skins work in the same way. However skin glue is very, very, very sticky, and if you were to drop them face down into the dirt, or on a woolly sweater, you would wreck them (and your sweater) in the field. I don’t even want to think of what would happen if you got skins stuck in your hair. A non flattering haircut would likely ensue. You can replace the glue coating with a bottle of skin glue, but you don’t bring the skin glue bottle on trips – it needs to be applied only once in a while in a heated place, and in the field it would be far too messy.
You store and transport skins folded with their glue surface against each other, glue to glue. The glue never touches the snow surface. This keeps them clean, and prevents them from destroying fabric they come in contact with. They come with a stuff sack. In order to peel them apart and have them stick onto ski bases, you carry the bag inside you inner layers for a while to heat it up. It’s safe – they are stuck glue to glue and inside their stuff bag. This heating makes the glue stickier and softer, and they peel apart (although it takes a strong tug to peel them apart), and stick better to the ski. If applied too cold, the skin will not stick properly to the ski.
Skins can glop up in wet snow and get caked and useless. So you rub a special wax on them, only one way with the direction of the hairs, (just like petting a cat). Black Diamond makes a product literally called “Glop Stopper” for just such a water repelling treatment. (See, “glop” is a real word!)
There are full length skins which cover the entire ski for literally climbing up steep mountains. Skiers peel them off at the top, stick them together again, bag them and store in pack or jacket, and happily ski down, to repeat again and again.
There is a neat smaller skin called a “kicker skin”, which is designed to fit inside the wax pocket, or scale pattern pocket on a waxless ski. The advantage of kicker skins is that the tip and tail of the ski are not covered, and you actually get a partial glide with a kicker skin. Kicker skins are lighter and less bulkier to carry than a full length skin. Unless you are traversing steep grades in the mountains, kicker skins should be all you need for flat land skiing.
Full length skin manufactures in North America include Black Diamond, http://www.bdel.com/ , and G3 http://www.genuineguidegear.com/ . Black Diamond is the only manufacturer which makes kicker skins in various widths, switch-able between different skis. Asnes of Norway is alone in making a unique integrated kicker skin for their skis, using a cut out section on the ski where the skins locking mechanism is fastened.
Recommendation: For waxable skis, it is recommended that you scrape off your softer grip wax before applying skins. Softer wax can get stuck in the skin glue and lessen the grip of the skin over time. The glue can be refreshed at home with skin glue should this happen, but on a trip you must be fastidious about keeping the glue surface clean.
Now, get out there in virgin snow, off trail, and make some tracks!