Having introduced many beginning backcountry skiers and riders to the world of ascending on skis, I’m consistently reminded that there are a few foundational principles that are essential throughout the process of becoming a competent “skinner”. Our climbing skins are yet another piece of mountain equipment that was delivered without an appropriate instruction manual, but understanding some basic concepts will help build a solid technical foundation.

Keeping the many subtleties and opinions of what makes for a pleasant skin track out of the equation as well as the variables associated with appropriate equipment selection and fitting, I’ve come up with a short list of strategies  and exercises to help in ascending using mohair or synthetic climbing skins.

Firstly, our skins need two ingredients to adhere to the snow and provide us with enough traction to make upward progress:

Weight and Surface Contact

Without mastery of both of these two ingredients, skinning will result in a challenging, awkward, and frustrating abdominal workout. Appropriate skin to snow contact paired with proper weight distribution and commitment will insure that our skins provide enough friction to keep us moving uphill.

  • Keep your weight in the heels! –   This is the skinning equivalent to “keep your eye on the ball!”. Most people’s instincts will influence them to lean forward, especially when slipping, but keeping the weight back and planted on the ski or heel riser will help assist in gaining traction. **Never weight only the toes of your bindings as this puts a tremendous amount of stress on the binding.

Keep your weight towards the rear of the ski

Too much stress on the binding toes

Putting too much weight onto the toe pieces. A no-no for sure!!

  • Keep your skis flat and engage the plush of the skins.As skiers begin to lose traction or feel uneasy on more technical sections, we will often “edge” our skis. Fight the temptation to edge and roll the ankles so that the bases of the skis (the plush of the skins) are contacting the snow.
  • Use your legs, NOT your poles Our power is derived from our legs, not from our arms. Think of your poles as merely tools to aid in balance, not for upward progress. When skinning steeply, drop your poles down your hips and plant your baskets next the rear of your skis. This helps keep our weight back and to ->
  • Skiining without poles

Practice without poles to help prevent your pole dependency

  • Stand tall, open your chest, and push those hips forward –  Not only will this help us keep weight towards our heels, but will also help us eliminate the up/down bobbing head effect that you see with less efficient techniques.  This will also help us breathe more efficiently.
  • Maintain as much contact with the snow as possible Focus on keeping your skis on the snow throughout the entire motion. Lifting each ski and placing it forward uses a tremendous amount of energy and will contribute to sore hip flexors. Instead, ensure that the ski is gently slid forward maintaining snow contact throughout the entire stride. Plan your strides so that bumps or depressions in the terrain are minimized. When unavoidable, try to anticipate placing the middle of the ski (directly under foot) so that it contacts as much of snow as possible.

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  • Baby Steps – Small strides will help you keep your weight over your heels and use less energy. This is especially important on steeper skin tracks.

  • Trust your skins and commit! – Without your bodyweight, your skins will not have enough friction to keep you from sliding backwards. Gingerly testing the skin without bodyweight will never give satisfactory results. Trust the skins and commit.

Exercises to improve your uphill technique

Skin without poles: This will help your balance, stride length, and assist you in proper weighting of the heels. When performed at a slight incline, this is extremely beneficial.

Firm Mogul skinning: Ascending steep and skied out moguls will challenge you to align your bases with the slope and maintain surface contact through all the changes in angle and camber of your skis. Focus on finding a rhythm and minimizing turns.

Locked heel skinning: Having trouble keeping your weight in the heels? Constant slippage? Try skinning with your heels locked. Upward progress will be challenging, but focus on the traction that is gained by forcing weight to the rear of the ski.

Whenever I find myself using excess amounts of body tension (and consequentially much more energy) on challenging ascents , I modify either my track angle or my technique to find a more efficient strategy. Happy Skinning.