Climbing Skin Throw-Down!

I’ve been promising a knock-down drag-out skin test for some time and finally, at long last, apologies for being a slacker…here it is! I snagged a few of the most popular skin models, and a couple lesser known offerings, and put them to the test on Colorado’s Front Range. I cut all of them to fit my Dynafit Manaslus, 95 underfoot in the 178cm version.

Don’t make too much of the weights, as a couple skins (like the Gecko) I cut a little straighter, giving less coverage in the shovel. The Black Diamond mohair/nylon I trimmed more “wall-to-wall,” so keep it in mind. The weights give you an idea of general comparisons: the Dynafit being the lightest and the BD and BCA skins on the slightly heavier side. Weight corresponds to some degree to durability and climbing grip.

Lately I’ve liked cutting my skins straighter, as it saves a few grams and if you’re focused on technique, you should get plenty of grip by standing over the center of your skis. The shovels provide less traction than the stuff underfoot, so it makes sense to me to just buy skins a few millimeters narrower than your mid-ski (buy a 90mm for a 95-waisted Manaslu, for example), save yourself any drama with cutting, and get on with it.

If you are cutting, K2’s making a cool tool these days, and the G3 one continues to be the easiest (to my mind). I’ve also experimented (with good results) with a hardware-store utility knife, the type on which you extend the blade as it dulls, breaking off end pieces at scored sections. Trim until the blade gets gunked with glue and dull, then pop off the end, and voila—brand new trim tool. Sharp and easy.

Any questions, fire me an email or leave a comment. Thanks to BD, G3, BCA, Clipskins, and Gecko for generously hooking me up with skins to test. All my Dynafit stuff I bought at a friendly discount, so appreciated, too!
Down to business:

BD Mohair/Nylon Mix (629g; $170) Black Diamond began producing mohair and nylon/mohair skins a few years back, building upon their Ascension line. BD acquired Ascension skins in the late ‘90s—these were the “original” purple ones and the first set of skins I ever purchased. My original pair still live in Bozeman (with my mooching brother!) and they’re in near-perfect shape. No need to sing the praises of the Ascensions—they’re fantastic.

Several years after the acquisition, BD changed the plush color to yellow (circa 2005?) and tweaked the recipe a bit. The all-nylon Ascension is widely regarded as the grippiest skin out there, and one of (if not the) most durable available. Black Diamond glue, known as “Gold Label,” is also generally acknowledged as the best of all skin adhesives. (Colltex, in Switzerland, offers a couple different varieties of glue, including a high-altitude formulation, but I couldn’t lay hands on them. Guides in Europe, though, vouch for Colltex’s quality and performance, so who knows?)

BD introduced the all-mohair and 65/35 nylon/mohair skins to provide a “faster” alternative to their tried-and-true Ascensions. The only gripes with the all-nylon Ascensions are weight and glide. They aren’t the fastest/best-glidingskins out of the box, but they do break in after thousands of feet of climbing. That original pair I mentioned are pretty darn slippy these days and after a decade of skiing they still grip well on the uphill, too.

I skied the BD mix Ascensions maybe 15-20 times, including days on which I’d alternate them with a Dynafit Speedskin, just to compare in identical snow conditions and with as little time between sessions as possible (for a more accurate appraisal of contrasting characteristics, rather than relying on my memory). Out of the box, honestly, I expected they’d be faster. They improved over the first couple days, but have since plateau’d in terms of glide performance.

They’re heavier than a G3 or Dyna and bulkier, too. What you sacrifice in heft and girth, though, you make up for in durability—though I must say my G3 Alpinists have suffered through three seasons pretty well, as have my Speedskins. If I were betting, though, I’d lay cash the BD skins last quite a bit longer than just about anything else.

In my opinion, the best tail attachment there is: capable of tensioning a wet or frozen skin, easy to adjust, durable

Durability, uphill grip, glue performance, and detailing (tip/tail attachments) are all five-star. Glide, I’d call it a three-star skin, BUT I expect this will change over time, if my previous experience with Ascension skins is a predictor of future performance.
I’d be curious to ski the 100-percent mohair version, but didn’t want to wear out my welcome with the BD guys by requesting another set to test.

Note: BD will change the Gold Label glue for 2013, saying it’s a bit less adhesive when stuck to itself. Lou Dawson’s take on it HERE.

Overall: This is a great skin for hard-wearing, day-in day-out use. If you’re a miser and pride yourself on using gear until the bitter end, this is your hide. The glue won’t let you down, even in super-dry, ultra-cold environments (Colorado under Arctic flow), and I expect you could milk thousands of days of skiing on these if a) you’re a bit careful and b) you’re willing to reglue them a few hundred-thousand vert into their lifespan. Great choice, especially if you’re not rando-dorked out on glide characteristics and weight.
Glide: ***
Grip: *****
Durability: *****
Glue: *****

G3 Alpinist (540g; $160) I trimmed a new pair of Alpinists to my Manaslus, making them the second set I’ve owned. My first pair worked on a skinny spring ski and I hammered them for three seasons, before selling the entire kit to a buddy. They were in fine shape and the glide had improved quite a bit.

The Alpinist is 100-percent nylon, though they deliver glide as if they harbored a bit of mohair in them. G3 also offers a unique tip attachment, using two stainless “hooks” that rotate to accommodate just about any ski you can throw at it. The tail attachment is a slightly less functional version of the BD STS attachment: a rubbery strap (adjustable) that tensions a metal clip over the tail of your ski. Bomber—I’ve never had a skin come off a ski, even when they’re soaking wet (in spring).

First off, you’ll notice the G3 is pretty supple and packable, even out of the box. Give ‘em a season and you’ll dig their handling characteristics. Weight wise they are quite a bit lighter than an Ascension and on par with a Dyna Speedskin. I didn’t work my current set of Alpinists hard enough to see them begin to wear (a dozen days, in everything from windboard to a foot of fresh to sun-heated glop), but my previous set had a touch of fraying at the edges after three seasons (these were spring skins, so I did subject them to plenty of patchy snow, some walking on pine needles, etc. They did really well, given how unfriendly I was to them).

I’ve never singed the edges of my trimmed skins, but I guess some folks do. The Alpinists are the only skins I’ve considered that on—readers, any experience here?

The Alpinists are the best all-nylon skin I’ve used in terms of glide. Without having interviewed the engineers at G3, I bet this is due to the angle at which the nylon “hairs” exit the plush backing (guessing they exit at slightly less than 90 degrees). Along the same lines, I’d expect the BD Ascensions exit at nearly 90 degrees, giving them super grip and slightly diminished glide. This is my fevered imagination working overtime, though—for a better idea on this, contact either company and ask for a gear geek in the back.

Overall: A great do-it-all choice in a nylon skin. I’d call them four-star glide, four-star durability, excellent workmanship. G3 offers a heavier version, the “Expedition,” with a traditional tip loop and stiffer plush-backing. I’ve not skied these, but out of the box they feel closer to an Ascension in terms of handling. The Alpinist is a lightweight, all-arounder and fully worthy skin. The glue isn’t quite as reliable as Gold Label, in my experience, but I also never experienced a meltdown/failure. Just baby them a bit more in super-cold temps and you’ll be fine.

Glide: ****
Grip: ****
Durability: ****
Glue:****

Dynafit Speedskin (502g; $200) This is the skin I’ve skied the most over the past four years. Fast, supple, durable, expensive, and glue-challenged, I’d call the Dynafit Speedskin “tied for first” in this test—with one huge caveat.

First, the caveat: glue. Speedskins are manufactured by Pomoca, a Swiss company. They simply do not make quality glue for a continental climate (cold and low-humidity). They say Pomoca (and other European) glue(s) work just fine over there, but given that my personal jet is on the fritz and I haven’t gotten to indulge in the powder orgy that is the 2011-12 Euro winter, I say “so what?”. The glue is tricky for Colorado, so if you choose to ride a Speedskin, then buy a tube of Gold Label and reglue them out of the box. Save yourself the stress.

I don’t want to make too much of the glue problem, because my Manaslu and Mustagh Speedskins have been just fine, but I did head out on a -5F day with my Stoke Speedskins (these are all different models of Dynafit skis) and the skins had literally no adhesion whatsoever. I did two laps up at the East Portal with ski straps holding my skins on—total bummer.
So, let’s just assume you’re going to reglue your Speedskins and get ready, friends, to reap the bounty. Why? Because these things rule.

#1—They glide like a couple of silicon-dipped otters in a bobsled track, no joke. Out of the box, too—whatever the engineers have going with the plush, they nailed it. The Speedskins are a 70/30 nylon/mohair mix, too. The nylon bolsters durability, so much so that after three hard seasons on my Manaslus, these things are only getting better. Awesome.

#2—The tip attachment rules. Speedskins have an extended rubber pull-tab thingy that sits in a dedicated tip slot on Dynafit skis. It allows you to remove your skin like a rando racer; that is you bend down and pull up the rubber tab, then simply unweight your ski and pull towards the tail. Fast, easy, way sexier than fiddling with the tail attachment (WAY sexier than removing the ski). Once you’ve grown accustomed to this, you’ll moan when you go back to either removing your skis, or popping the tail attachment, to rip skins.

#3—Plenty o’ grip. I like to think I have good technique on the uphill (weight in the heels, upright spine, flexible calves, Zen levitation powers), but whatever the case, the Speedskins stick plenty good on the up. Perhaps this has as much to do with my uberexpert ski partners (reasonable skin tracks, few-to-no kick turns), but I’ve skied the Speedskins in faceted tracks, refrozen spring trenches, and on bottomless pow days and they’re fully adequate. Is it an Ascension? No, but what you lose in a bit of grip is made up for with energy-saving glide, hideaway packability, and ease of use.

#4—Good and light. The weight above is quoted for my Manaslu Speedskin. It’s the lightest of this bunch, true to the Dynafit mission: performance at the lightest weight possible. Right on!

My only other second-hand gripe is the tail attachment. Mine have been fine, but I’ve been with two buddies when they’ve ripped the tail attachment out of the skin. This might be pilot error (pulling on the attachment, rather than the plush, when mounting?), but these guys were both experienced/make-a-living-at-it skiers, so I’m thinking there are some skins out there more prone to fail. I carry a replacement attachment with me, but haven’t had problems. Dunno, maybe baby the tail a bit? Reinforce with dental-floss stitching?

One significant detail to keep in mind is Speedskins come pre-cut to Dynafit skis, both in terms of length and sidecut. The tip attachment, too, is pre-installed, so you’re (in large degree) locked into using that style of tip arrangement. I’ve got a new pair of BD Drifts that I’m loving, so I think I’ll mod the tip of them to take the Dynafit rubber gizmo and cut down a longer/larger pair of Speedskins (the Stoke 191cm model), adding a BD STS tail attachment for the rear. A bit of hassle, sure, but it’s the skin I want to be skiing, so it’s worth it for me.

Overall: These are great skins, way faster than most, for long days and pseudo-race rando geekery. Apart from the glue, my co-fave skin with the Gecko.

Glide: *****
Grip: ****
Glue: ***-
Durability: ****+

Gecko Glueless (560g; $207) Any time something “revolutionary” or a “game changer” comes along, I roll my eyes and half-expect to see a recall or backlash against said product. Not so with the Gecko. These are true glueless skins, like a Clipskin, but with an entirely different approach to affixing them.

The Gecko relies on a silicone layer where normal adhesive would be. This creates a suction effect on the bottom of your ski, essentially vacuuming them on to your bases. Does it work? Hell yes. Is it brainless? Not quite.

Before we get to the silicone system, though, consider the rest of the Gecko. They’re 100-percent mohair and out of the box they glide really well—on par with the Speedskin. I’m not a big fan of the tail attachment (heavy, clunky, doesn’t work well), so I wish I’d installed the BD STS tail, rather than the Gecko. If you go Gecko, take my word for it, just get the STS tail from BD and use it—way cooler and more functional.

The tip attachment is a universal, metal clip, much like the ClimbingSkinsDirect/BCA tip/tail system (if not identical). Secure and fine, but I’d rather buy the Gecko skins long, cut off the tips, fold over the plush and figure how to use a Dynafit tip. It would take some mucking around, but with a bit of stitching, it would be fine.

I’ve only logged a dozen days on the Geckos, but it’s been on everything from crazy-cold (-10F) recycled pow in Silverton to sun-glopped Berthoud leftovers. I’ve left them on overnight, just to see if cold temps (-20F) would affect the “adhesion” (it doesn’t, at all), and I’ve dragged them in the snow a bit to see if crusted, frozen snow wrecks the suction effect (it does). So bottom line, not having glue is cool, but it’s not a blank check to forget about how you treat these things.

Ice will in fact render the silicone ineffective, but careful scraping across the bottom of your ski will reinvigorate it to some degree. I had similar results to Lou Dawson’s Gecko review (read his HERE), meaning once you get these things really iced up, it’s hard to get the silicone back to living room-performance. I did try scraping them with a ski scraper and across my ski bases, but—careful, you can damage the silicone layer (pulling up little blobs of it), which then leaves a bare spot. Enough of those and I’d bet the skin would quit “sticking” to your ski. I didn’t get there and I roughed them up a bit just to see if I could damage the underside of the skin. You can—so don’t get all Lou Ferrigno on these things.

Two gripes with the tail attachment: rivets and the cam-lock webbing. The rivets are high-profile enough that they push the tail of the skin up a bit, letting snow start to creep in. These things suction so well on the base of your ski, it’s a shame to peel them up a bit with the rivets. Though the install instructions say to put the pull-strap tail attachment on the suctiony/non-plush side of the skin, I’d install it the other way, so the suctiony part lays as flat as it can on the ski. Better “adhesion,” less chance of snow creeping in.

Secondly, the cam buckle is just too fumbly. I already harped on it above. A detail, but annoying.

If Gecko hooked me up with several sets to test—fat chance, these things are spendy and in high demand—I’d love to run a set without a tail attachment. If you keep them nice and dry, I bet you could get a full day out of the Gecko, sans problems. My only recurring struggle with stick was snow sneaking in beside the rivets on the tail attachment. Minor problem, but a chafe.

The glide on these things is great, as fast as a Speedskin right now and I bet it’ll get better with another few long days. Rando-dork worthy.
Durability in the plush has been good thus far, no fraying or shedding, even after my minor abuse sessions. I’ll chuck these things in a pile of roadside gravel at some point, just to see how well they clean up (stay tuned for an update).

Overall: A great skin and worth the price. I love the glide and handling characteristics. The silicone underside takes a little getting used to, but no more than a glue skin. It’s nice not having to stress if somebody knocks your skin off the drying rack or if my boys get a hold of them—you simply pluck/wipe off debris and you’ve revived your attachment system. Pretty cool.

Glide: *****
Grip: ****
Glue: Works well, just protect them from ice/snow
Durability: ****

BCA/ClimbingSkinsDirect (Original Ascension) (615g; $91/$155) The Backcountry Access “Magic Carpet” skin is essentially a ClimbingSkinsDirect.com product, so I’m lumping these together. These are the original (purple) Ascension skin, the legendary forerunner to the yellow BD Ascension.

After BD acquired the brand, the founder/geniuses behind the purple skin returned with ClimbingSkinsDirect. They don’t advertise, sponsor athletes, or include cheat sheets or skin bags, keeping their costs to a minimum. (The less expensive price above is the ClimbingSkinsDirect.com price, while the custom BCA version is more expensive. Looks cooler, too!)

As I mentioned, my original Ascensions are still going strong, though my bro doesn’t hammer them too hard. They’re a great skin—good glide, durable plush, and burly climbing grip. I found the BCA to be all that and a good all-arounder, with comparable performance to the BD mix skin.

The BCA glue isn’t quite as tacky as the BD, making it a tad easier to remove and peel apart after storage. Field performance seemed comparable, but keep in mind I didn’t test these in super-frigid temps. (I inflicted that day upon my Stoke Speedskins.) I’ve not heard of this glue having any significant problems, so I’m betting it’s bomber.

For $91, the ClimbingSkinsDirect skin is hard to beat. It is bulkier/heavier than some of the more svelte models, but for a less than half the price of a Dynafit Speedskin, it’s a pretty compelling draw. For a few bucks more, the BCA skin is about the coolest looking one out there and honestly, having that yellow/red configuration will make it easier to fish out of a bottomless backpack. Worth the extra $50—your call.

BCA/CSD both use (nearly) universal clips for tail and tip (though BCA reverses the set-up on their Magic Carpets). The tip clip is a stretchy, rubber gizmo (36g each) that tensions the skins to some degree and can be (with some trickery and getting used to) removed rando-style. (I cut the BD skins with this tip loop, just to try it—not as slick as the Dynafit tip attachment, but I prefer it to a fixed wire loop.) The tail (or tip on the BCA) is a pre-bent metal clip, with three rivets affixing it to the skin plush. Seems stout, but definitely heavier.

The BCA tail attachment and ClimbingSkinsDirect tip attachment. Stretchy and durable

One last note. I tested these mid-winter, so it was a relatively dry snowpack. In years past, ClimbingSkinsDirect has foregone a toxic DWR in favor of loving Mother Earth. Kudos to them, but keep in mind you’ll need to wax these babies on solar days. It’s a consideration and will add some fiddling come spring or in a sunny environment like Colorado. I didn’t have to deal, so I can’t give an idea about if/how much of a hassle it is.

Overall: A great skin and another do-it-all choice. Great glide, especially as the skins break in a bit. Uphill is a no-brainer, on par with a BD Ascension. I didn’t have to contend with the DWR situation, but you could Scotchguard them yourself, or have your skin wax handy—always a good idea, anyway.

Glide **** (Jumps to ****+ after some good vert)
Grip ****+
Glue ****+
Durability *****

Colltex Colltex manufactures high-quality skins in Switzerland, in a variety of models, with differing glues, attachment systems, and plushes. Markus Beck, head guide and owner at Alpine World Ascents (and a Swissy himself), raves about the Colltex skins, including glue performance. I tried like hell to get a set, but they currently have no US distribution. I phoned the Canadian distributor twice, then wrote the home office in English, French, and Italian. My English was solid, the Italian decent, and the French a disaster. Maybe they’re Swiss-German?

Anyway, if you can score a set in Canada or Europe (or mail order through Telemark-Pyrenees.com), give them a ride and let us know how they work. I hear they’re fantastic, but haven’t had the pleasure. Prices start at E80 and go up from there. Shipping appeared to cost E23. Not a bad deal, actually!

ClipSkins (597g, $160) Clipskins are another glueless alternative. Crafted by Kaj Gyr up in BC, they’re an interesting take on avoiding glue’s drawbacks in climbing skins.

Let’s focus on the attachment process first. Clipskins use small, springy clips along the length of the skin to grab a ski’s edges. They employ a standard over-the-tip attachment at the front and a steel clip at the rear (reminiscent of a BD “Clipfix”).

The springy clips used on Clipskins

Set-up is tedious, no doubt, but doable even for an impatient guy like me. My set of Clipskins took about three hours to get going, so you (as a competent craftsperson) should count on two. First you trim down the skin to fit your ski, then you mark regular intervals along the length of the skin and attach clips at precise points. An online instructional video helps the process and if you follow Kaj’s instructions, you’ll be fine.

Once on, the clips do a good job of securing the skin. In 10 or 12 days (including some gloppy spring conditions) of skiing I had one attachment failure, mostly due to wet snow and me “helping” the skin come off by essentially trying to get it to fail. More on this in a sec.
Skin glide is very good. These are 100-percent nylon, though I’d have believed it if they said they were 20 percent mohair. Slippy and fun.
Climbing grip is perfectly solid—wherever Kaj’s getting his plush, it’s a good balance of glide/grip and they seem durable, as well.
The clips and attachments (tip/tail) have all endured. They’re affixed to the skin backing with a modified super glue and so far, so good.

Clips at either side and mylar tape to keep the skin from stretching latitudinally. A longitudinal strip might help with stretch in wet/spring conditions.

I’d carry a couple replacement clips if I were using them regularly (these weight a gram apiece), and as super glue cures in cold temps, you could field-repair these easily.

I’d be curious about using skins at high altitudes. As I’ve never been above 15k with skis on my feet, I can’t speak from experience, but it seems the Clipskins might be a great choice for Himalayan/Alaskan/South American missions. In extremely cold and dry environments, glue seems to me the weak link in your ski system (besides keeping your feet warm!), so having no glue to worry about (or silicone on the Gecko for that matter) sounds like a good call. Readers, anybody have a first-hand thought on this?

I haven’t skied the Clipskin this season, mostly because I’ve had all these other skins to test, but I have to say I liked them a lot. My only drama came on longer, warmer days. The skin (like any other) absorbs a bit of water and then stretches length-wise. When it does this it’s able to slide forward and backward a bit, meaning the front-half clips can slide backwards to a narrower portion of the ski and become rattly. I noticed this while skinning and purposely tried to dislodge them, which I accomplished by sliding my other ski across them. It was tough to do and I don’t expect I’d be able to get it to detach again, without trying.

I believe Kaj has addressed this problem with some full-length mylar tape, which prevents stretching, but I haven’t seen the latest iteration of the Clipskins—he’s also bet-testing a splitboard version.

You’ll love not having any adhesive on the bottom of your skin. Wad them up in a jacket, chuck them in your pack, whatever—the clipskins are the closest skin to a no-brainer there is. Just spend the time getting them “right” when you set them up and you’ll dig it. I would toy with the idea of using a BD STS tail, too—I prefer it because it tensions a skin more effectively than any other tail attachment, giving you an insurance policy against glue/clip/silicone failure.
Overall: A quality skin that takes some fiddling, but ultimately yields a functional, low-maintenance tool. Good glide, solid durability, and perhaps an advantage in extreme environments. Definitely worth considering, especially if you prefer less fuss (once they’re set up) in your skins.

Glide: ****
Grip: ****
Glue: Solid attachment system; better in a dry snowpack
Durability: **** (So far, so good. Field-serviceable, too)

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