Backcountry skiers and snowboarders bet the farm on their equipment, especially when traveling through deep snow far from the beaten path. One broken binding, snapped ski, lost splitboard component, or climbing skin failure can turn an enjoyable adventure into a heinous slog… or even a legitimate survival situation.
We all want to be prepared for inevitable equipment failures, but we can’t carry an extra set of everything on our backs. As such, bringing trustworthy, time-tested gear is pretty darn important.
A reliable set of climbing skins is crucial to efficiently explore snowy mountains, but all skins are susceptible to failure due to glue icing, glop accumulation, broken tip and tail clips, etc. In any conditions, a careless novice can spoil the worn out glue on their secondhand skins before even leaving the trailhead. In deep powder conditions, even the most seasoned and careful backcountry veteran sporting a brand new set can only deploy and stow their skins a handful of times before snow starts sneaking in around the edges and building up between the skin and ski.
Once enough of the glue gets fouled it’s just a matter of time until – with one surprisingly slip – the skin detaches and is shot for the rest of the day. When a skin fails several rubber ski straps can come in quite handy to cobble the system back together, but everyone who has had to do so knows that solution is less than ideal.
It’s far better to avoid skin failure entirely, and having the best skins available drastically improves our odds. Over the years I have experimented with every skin option I have encountered, and have found Black Diamond Glidelight Mix climbing skins to be the best. The Ascension Nylon skins from Black Diamond are also a great option, but they are a few ounces heavier, slightly bulkier, and offer a little less glide than my preferred BD’s Glidelight Mix skins.
Whether I’m splitboarding or skiing, I’d always rather rely on my Black Diamond skins than anything else. Here’s why:
Black Diamond Skin Glue
Skin glue is some mysterious stuff, and it’s arguably the most important part of a set of skins. If properly cared for, skin glue stays sticky for years, and the best glue retains a lot of its stickiness even in extremely cold and powdery conditions. I have found Black Diamond skin glue to excel above all others in this regard, and I have found it to be the most durable and long lasting glue as well.
Some skins perform so poorly in cold conditions that you pretty much have to store them inside your jacket during the descent, which seems pretty silly to me. With Black Diamond Glidelight Mix skins I can just fold them over on themselves, toss them in my pack, and forget about them until the next ascent.
Even if you don’t have a set of Black Diamond skins you can improve your existing skins by getting your hands on some of their magical Gold Label glue. Sadly, Gold Label is now only sold in small 2.8oz tubes “for touch ups”. Back in my day, we used to be able to buy bigger cans of the stuff with a convenient applicator brush built into the cap.
I’ve had good luck completely regluing old sets of skins and generally one 2.8oz tube of Gold Label ($15) is barely sufficient to completely reglue one skin cut to fit a 188cm fat ski. As such you’ll probably want at least two tubes to reglue any set of skins, but you might as well get three tubes and do it right. My advice is to have plenty of smearing sticks – like wood coffee stirrers – on hand, keep the glue off the furry side of your skins, take it slow, and treat it like the gold that it is.
Tip and Tail Attachments
I’ve broken and lost many tip and tail clips over the years – including a few Black Diamond ones – but have found them to be more durable, reliable, and replaceable than the offerings from other brands. Generally speaking, most other skin makers use too much plastic, whereas Black Diamond seems to use as much metal as possible
Most tail clips are little plastic doodads held on by friction which eventually fall off or – even more frustratingly – break: if you have them set too loose they fall off, if you set them too tight they break. Black Diamond tail clips are made out of metal and are less prone to breaking or getting lost. The rubber strap which BD tail clips attach to is slightly stretchy so you can snap them on tight to improve the odds that they’ll stay put. Also, the entire BD tail mechanism is replaceable whereas many other brands do not sell replacement parts. A BD tail replacement kit ($25) might be just what you’re looking for if the tails of your off brand skins have proven unreliable.
As far as tip clips go, BD skins have proven reliable and are compatible with pretty much all ski and snowboard models. The tip clips on precut to length skin options from BD are all metal, while the ones designed to be cut to length – like their splitboard skin options – rely on a couple pieces of plastic incorporated into the attachment system. I’ve never had a problem with these plastic pieces from BD, but I have had considerable trouble with some wacky plastic designs from some other skin manufacturers.
Glide to Grip Ratio
Some skins are not grippy enough to ascend steep, well-trod ascent routes and made it difficult to navigate technical sections of even the freshest skin tracks. Other skins are so grippy that they hardly glide at all on the flats. Black Diamond seems to have perfected their glide to grip ratio. As it sez in the name, their Glidelight Mix skins offer a bit more glide, and their Ascension skins offer a bit more grip. You can’t go wrong with either option to assure you won’t be slipping when you want to be gripping and getting some glide in your stride.
Weight and Durability
A few years ago Black Diamond found the limit of lightness and packability when they introduced their Ultralight Mix STS skins. These skins were so amazingly light and packable that I often carried an extra one around in my pack. The only problem was that the Ultralights had a tendency to rip in half once slightly damaged by rocks and such. I also noticed that the Ultralights tended to peel away from the ski more often than while setting tracks up deep powder because the skin material itself was so thin.
You can still find a set of Ultralights from assorted retailers online, but Black Diamond no longer makes them because a lot of people ripped them in half and honoring their excellent return policy was probably more than a bit painful.
Taking what they’ve learned from the Ultralight, BD’s latest Glidelight Mix skins seem to have struck a perfect balance between lightweight, packability, and durability. As mentioned earlier, BD’s Ascension skins are a great option for someone looking for more durability and grip at the expense of adding a few more ounces to the total package.
One of the best things about Black Diamond skins is that the splitboard options are designed to fit pretty much all makes/models/shapes/lengths of splitboard, and the ski options come pre-cut to length with the tip clips pre-installed. BD’s splitboard skins are wide enough to accommodate even the widest boards, and their latest ski skins are universally 133mm wide: fat enough for even the fattest ski in my quiver and probably yours as well. This makes selecting a set of skins easier to do than it used to be.
Cutting your new BD skins to fit your skis is also easy because they include detailed instructions and a handy little tool to do so.
Long story short, when my friends ask me what skins they should get I send them a link to the Black Diamond Glidelight Mix Splitboard Skins ($199.99). If they go with something else I know its just a matter of time until they suffer catastrophic skin failure in the backcountry. Fortunately, I always make sure to carry at least a half dozen rubber ski straps from fine manufacturers like Voile and, of course, Black Diamond.