I have heard it several times when discussing upcoming skiing vacation plans with friends: “I am done with alpine skiing, I go for cross-country skiing now.” I am not sure if you can call it a trend, but transitioning from downhill skiing to skiing on the flats does not seem to be so unusual anymore. The reasons for that vary from high ticket prices and lower injury risk (especially some of my friends who own a small business are saying “A major injury could ruin me in an instant.”) to a more hassle-free one-day skiing experience. But the skiers who made the shift from alpine to cross-country skiing felt almost always drawn to the ‘speedy’ skating style.
But last winter when I went to Switzerland to meet some of my Swiss friends I heart another comment: “I hardly do skating anymore since I got skin skis I am into classic.” Really? Skin skis – are they that good? “Why don’t you try them out,” one friend suggested. And after six years as skating purist, I decided to get back into the trails. It was definitely not a disappointing experience. Read on if you want to find out why.
What is a skin ski?
Skin skis are not new. Actually, they have been around since the dawn of skis. We are talking here about the time when skis were used for traveling on snow or across the ice in the 1800s. Sami-hunters in Scandinavia would use one short ski with natural skin attached to the base for pushing and one long ski for gliding. The skins were initially made of seal skin because the fur of a seal is stiff and contains short hairs – essential for a good grip and better traction.
But back to more modern times. You know skins from backcountry skiing. To be able to climb steep hills you stick a full-length of climbing skin to the base of your ski. As you move uphill (or “skinning” uphill), the skin flattens allowing your skis to glide, but at the same time the skin grips to keep you from sliding back after each step. The application process works with glue, but nowadays glueless clipskins are very popular too, they are easy to attach and to remove. Once you reach the top of the hill, you take the skins off and enjoy the run back down.
The skins used today are made from either full mohair, a mohair blend or a synthetic material made of nylon. Depending on the skin material you experience a difference in traction, glide, durability, and cost – generally, the higher the mohair content in the skin the more expensive it is. Why? Well, mohair is a luxury fiber after all. It is made from the hair of Angora goats. Compared with other natural and synthetic fibers mohair is a very soft yarn. It absorbs moisture very well and is water repellent at the same time, hence it provides the necessary grip and glide qualities for skiing up a hill – or for kick and glide in the flats.
Since when are skins used in cross country skiing?
Although skin skis are generally not a new technology at all, the fact that they are now increasingly used at waxless classic cross-country skis is relatively new.
The company which introduced the skin ski technology to the classic racing community was Atomic. In 2011 they came out with a system called SkinTec. They had apparently already started testing the technology at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Initially, they were experimenting with using klister, a very sticky grip wax, to glue strips of mohair onto the kick zones of a wax ski. Apparently, this process had its restrictions concerning durability and required flexibility for a smooth kick and glide flow. As a consequence, Atomic moved away from the glue-on approach and started actually to insert the skin strips into the ski. For the first time skins were used as a built-in mechanical grip aid which made kick waxing them redundant.
Before that when you were talking about waxless skis, you almost always referred to the most common waxless ski, the fish-scale (fish-scale pattern pressed into the kick-zone). There is also a third category, the zeros. They have a roughened base like sandpaper and are called zeros because that is where they work the best: near the 0 temperature line.
After years of testing with top racers, the Atomic’s SkinTec skis were officially made available to the consumers in 2011. It is safe to say that with the new skin ski technology the fish-scale and the zero got a real competitor. Today, all major nordic ski makers have jumped on the skin ski bandwagon, and every year more and more models become available – not only in the top performance racing category but also for the recreational skier.
All of them make the same universal promise: skin skis offer a firm grip and a smooth glide whatever the conditions are and no matter the temperature; they are supposed to give you the feeling of a “wax ski without the need to wax.” No more waxing means more time skiing – sounds promising, doesn’t it? Let’s find out!
Skin skis in use – my experience
A little disclaimer upfront: I am far away for being a racing pro! I am definitely on the recreational side; let’s say with intermediate technical skills. My judgment is based on a few times I used skin skis. And although it should be mentioned here that I used the Fischer Twin Skin Pro ski this is by no means a product review. There are so many models out there by now that you definitely should get advice from an expert in case you want to go down that road of purchasing skin skis. And I can’t stress that often enough: get some rental first and try it out yourself before making any decision.
As mentioned, I used the Fischer Twin Skin Pro – the basic model, not the high-performance carbon or race version. As the name suggests, it has two separate skin strips arranged in offset positions to guarantee a smooth and balance gliding. The integrated skin is of 70% mohair which I think is pretty standard for skin skis in the slightly higher price range. They say that the skin offers the best grip and ideal gliding properties, especially in hard or icy conditions. I can’t remember what exact conditions we had, but I remember my friend saying that we might not have the perfect skin ski conditions. Hmm, didn’t they say they work in any condition?
And I must say it was no disappointment at all. My initial thought was “What a smooth glide!”. I didn’t notice any annoying grabbing or zip-sounding typical for fish-scale skis. And I was fast; I could even ski alongside some of the skaters. On gentle downhills, the skis would accelerate quickly. The grip was good too, no backsliding even on steeper uphills. Although, after a while, I actually did notice some minor sticking during some of the glides; I discovered some ice in the mohair which seemed to touch the snow. My friend suggested using some extra glide wax next time. But as there was definitely no significant friction and I just kept on gliding. Overall my first impression using skin skis was very positive.
How to wax a skin ski?
I know for some of you this is obvious, but if you are still new to the cross-country skiing universe this is important to remember: A skin ski is a waxless ski which means that the kick zone does not require any kick waxing, the skins make kick waxing redundant. But you still need to wax the glide zones (tip and tail region) of the ski.
You can either hot wax your ski or use a liquid glide wax. Which way to go for depends entirely on your preferences. I think we can all agree that hot wax is longer lasting and make a ski faster than with cold liquid wax – if the waxing process is done right. If not you not going to have a lot of fun. Liquid wax is definitely more hassle-free; it’s easy to apply and quick. Unless you have some hot wax experience, I definitely recommend using liquid wax.
Whatever waxing method you choose make sure not to apply any of the wax to the skin (and not to touch it with the iron if you hot wax). Otherwise, the process works like with any other cross-country ski.
What have I done all these years neglecting the classic style? When I started skating eight years ago, the prevailing mantra was something like “If you’re after a real workout do skating.” If I am honest, that definitely had an impact on me. There was a general misleading perspective among the healthy and fit generation that classic style was for the 65+ generation or the absolute beginner – the ones who prefer to “walk on their skis.” But let’s face it, at that time everyone entering the cross country universe wanted to do skating – even if he or she was, in fact, an absolute beginner.
I have to say I had fun going back to my roots and do classic cross-country skiing. It was definitely something very different to the slow pace nordic style I grew up with. I can’t really tell how much the skin skis contributed to the fun factor, but it is definitely worth it to try them out. Maybe the industry is a bit over-promising when they claim that skin skis are the perfect choice for every condition. Are fish-scales better in cold regions with a lot of powder? Maybe, yes. Should you go for zero skis at the freezing line? That’s quite possible. I leave it to the experts to debate.
Fact is that skin skis are very versatile and convenient. They are waxless, but the performance is close to a waxable ski. I felt the grip was solid and the glide very smooth – that’s all you want, isn’t it? All level of skiers, from beginners to serious racers are now benefitting from an increasing (maybe overwhelming) range of available models. To me, it makes perfect sense that skin skis have the ability to drive more and more people back to the classic style. I will definitely join in this season and switch more often between the two disciplines. Maybe you should too, it might surprise you how fast and athletic classic country skiing can be.