Scarpa North America Blog

How to Set a Skin Track

Oct. 13th 2014

The glory belongs to face shots, fall lines, and untouched powder, but the skin track is where backcountry skiing happens. It’s not uncommon to spend four hours skinning and four minutes making turns. For a first time backcountry skier (or for most of us on our first day each season) the skin track is grueling a work out. But with time, the hypnotic rhythm and the winter beauty creep under our skin (and skins!) and we learn to love a well-made skin track as much as the descent. Well, almost as much.

THE SUPER-LIGHT, TOURING MACHINE: SCARPA F1 EVO

But what makes a good skin track—the kind of track that seems to get us to the top almost effortlessly? When it’s your turn in the front, consider the following to create a dreamy skin.

Angle of ascent

If the track will be used again, don’t make it too steep. You know who you are, Thigh Monster. You love nothing more than putting those heel lifters on high, dropping it into four-wheel low, and grinding out a track that will strike awe into all who follow.

Trouble is, you might be the one to follow on the next lap. If the track is too steep, and people start sliding backwards, they make a different track—cutting up even more of that fresh snow that we’d prefer to break on the way down. On the other hand, if you make the track at too low of an angle, you break a lot more trail to get to the same destination.

However, there are times to drop the clutch and go as steep as you can. In many areas with vertical terrain and tons of powder, like Rogers Pass, British Columbia or the San Juans in Colorado, skin tracks are notoriously steep. Sure, it’s partly Thigh Monster’s fault, but a precipitous skin track is also the only way to get up the rowdiest terrain.

Route finding

A mountain guide once said that a skin track should be a thing of beauty—following the most efficient line through the terrain. It’s about trying to make a line that a bird would soar along the surface, not like a tractor bulldozing straight through everything.

You should avoid dramatic changes while in route. Instead, read the terrain ahead of time—staying high when the route leads higher, or contouring low when the terrain ahead is low. Anticipate steep climbs, and try to adjust your line early so you hit the steep section from as high as possible, angling into the steeps from a high point rather than straight on. Also, remember to weave your way through terrain with the most constant uphill angle possible. Going up and down is a waste of energy.

Remember: bird, not tractor.

Pace

If the snow is deep and you have a strong team, take turns in the front to break trail. Don’t be a hero! Bust it hard for a few minutes, and then step aside. Switch it up every five minutes or so. You can rest at the back of the line, and even stop for a quick drink and snack and easily catch up to the next sweat-dripping-glasses-fogging leader. If one skier breaks trail all the time, the rest of the group’s strength is wasted and the whole group moves much slower.

If you have a split group, with some skiers much stronger than others, communicate to accommodate. Rather than the strong skiers simply disappearing over the hill, leaving the weaker skiers to wonder if they’ll ever see their friends again, make a plan. You can say, “We’ll break trail up this section and wait just past those trees.” Or you can plan some face-shot-pace-equalization where the stronger skiers rip off the skins for a few turns on a small hill while the others continue along the track.

The most important thing is to share the plan and make sure the track is good for the entire team. Communication is so important to the enjoyment of the experience in backcountry skiing. And it all begins on the skin track. If done poorly, the skin track can be a nightmare of frustration for the entire team. If done well, even beginner backcountry skiers can have a fantastic day. Get everyone to the top happy, and the turns are icing on the cake.

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