Every time a Hike it Baby 30 Challenge rolls around, many people see the ‘What Counts?’ poster and ask, “What is skinning?”

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I recently had the chance to chat with Mel Bourassa, a Branch Ambassador for the Front Range Foothills branch in Colorado. She and her husband, Dave, enjoy the hobby of backcountry skiing, so they go skinning frequently, but she mentioned that they are by no means “experts” in the field. She gave me the answers to some commonly asked questions related to skinning.

What is Skinning?

Skinning is the act of skiing up a hill or on a level surface. If you want to skin, you have to have special bindings on your skis. The bindings are different than normal alpine ski bindings in that the heal releases and the toe portion pivots so that you move your foot up and down like you are hiking but the skis are still on your feet. Skins are two pieces of material – one for each ski – that make it possible for your skis to move up the hill without you sliding back down. One side of the skin is a mohair or a nylon blend, and the other is sticky. The sticky side sticks to your skis and the mohair part goes on the snow and glides along as you do. The skins also clip to your skis so they don’t fall off. Skinning is also called touring. When you go out into the backcountry for a skin – you are also going touring.

Where do you put the skins when you’re ready to ski down?

In your backpack. Some backcountry specific jackets have large pockets to put skins in.

Why would someone want to go skinning?

Mainly to access backcountry skiing. Exercise is a secondary benefit but I don’t know anyone who just goes skinning for exercise. The equipment is expensive and the equipment and knowledge required are all centered around backcountry skiing. If you wanted to do something similar just for the exercise, you could snowshoe or cross country ski.

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What kind of experience do you need to go skinning?

NO ONE SHOULD GO SKIING OR INTO THE BACKCOUNTRY WITHOUT BASIC KNOWLEDGE GAINED FROM BACKCOUNTRY-SPECIFIC EDUCATION. 

There are many levels of classes. Every state with snow and mountains should have some kind of backcountry travel group/program which you should be able to find through your state government. Here in Colorado we have the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), which is a non-profit partially funded by the state, and it is a good place to start when looking for legit education in backcountry travel.

Do you need any kind of special equipment to skin?

Yes. You need Alpine Touring (AT) Bindings. There are two kinds of AT bindings. There are bindings that when in the locked or ski position look very similar to regular alpine bindings and then the entire binding unit lifts off the ski while it is in tour mode. You can wear your regular alpine ski boots in bindings like these. Then there are more technical backcountry bindings that are super light and made of very little. You must have specific ski boots that fit into the metal parts of these bindings, and these setups can get pretty pricey. These boots are typically not as stiff as regular ski boots, they usually have fewer buckles, and they have different settings that make them much more comfortable to use for skinning.

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If you are traveling in the true backcountry where there are avalanches, you will also need a backcountry shovel, a beacon, and a probe. Backcountry travel is no joke and it is irresponsible to travel in the backcountry without these items as well as the education and training to know how to use the equipment properly

How expensive is it? Can you rent the equipment and just try it out without committing to buying everything?

Some places may rent equipment, and while the initial investment in backcountry skiing is expensive, once you have the gear and education, it will only cost you energy.

Can you do this activity with kids? Is it family-friendly?

You can do this with kids, however it does make an already demanding physical activity more challenging just due to the weight of the child. You can skin with a baby in a pack or pull a sled like a Chariot or Kindershuttle, but you have to keep in mind that you have to ski back down whatever you skin up. You want to make sure you are comfortable with both the up and the down when you have your kid with you. You can always just skin a flat area like a meadow or road, then you never ski and only skin. I will say however, if you were just going to skin a road or a meadow trail, you might as well snowshoe or cross country ski.

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Do you have to go straight up mountains, or can you do it on more flat ground?

You rarely go straight up a mountain simply because it is too hard and too steep. Generally, you move up a mountain in a zig-zag pattern (like a hiking trail up a mountain) so that the incline you are skinning seems more moderate. You can also skin flat ground such as roads that are not plowed or maintained and/or hiking trails that are wider and covered in snow.

What should you wear while skinning?

Winter layers. I get really hot when I skin since it is a more strenuous activity, so I take layers to wear both at the transition (when you stop and take your skins off your skis), and the ski down.

Disclaimer: I am not a certified backcountry guide nor am I an expert on backcountry skiing or snow. Backcountry skiing is inherently dangerous and you should choose to proceed at your own risk.

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