Snowshoeing Vs. Skinning: Best Method for Backcountry Skiers to Climb Uphill

Backcountry skiing has exploded in popularity in recent years, introducing a new discipline of winter sports for those looking to escape crowded resorts.

The premise of backcountry skiing is simple enough: find remote trails or terrain covered by natural snowfall, climb up to achieve higher elevation, and ski down. The main obstacle in this equation is figuring out how to get uphill while carrying skis and other gear.

There are many possible answers to this problem, but the most common solutions involve using either snowshoes or climbing skins.

What is the difference between snowshoeing versus skinning?

Group of backcountry skiers climbing up backcountry terrain using skins and snowshoes

Snowshoeing for backcountry skiers

Snowshoeing is the act of using a specialized pair of winter footwear equipment known as snowshoes to traverse across snow and icy terrain. 

There are many types of snowshoes that are used for many purposes, including recreational hiking, racing and running, and mountaineering snowshoes for serious winter hikers.

Another popular use of snowshoes is for backcountry snowboarders and skiers to hike up terrain that would otherwise be difficult or otherwise inaccessible. 

Skiers who want to should use a pair of snowshoes designed for the backcountry with specialized binding technology and crampons rather than a standard pair of recreational snowshoes.

Skinning for backcountry skiers

Skinning is another method for skiers to access the backcountry. Essentially, this requires skiers to add “skins” to the bottom of their skis which provide better traction and allow hills to be climbed up.

Skins are usually made out of a blend of either mohair or nylon blend material that adheres to the touring skis. These materials prevent skiers from slipping or sliding when trying to move uphill.

Skinning is also referred to as ski touring, which is the act of exploring off-piste territory that does not belong to patrolled ski resorts.

It is also common to see skiers skinning at winter resorts and downhill ski mountains. Rather than pay for a lift ticket, skiers skin up to access trails and “earn their turns”.

Note: skiers looking to skin uphill at a resort should first confirm whether skinning is allowed and also whether an uphill ticket is required. Different resorts and ski areas have different policies for skinning.

Is snowshoeing or skinning better for accessing backcountry terrain?

There are pros and cons of snowshoeing and skiing for ski touring, so let’s compare the respective advantages of each.

Advantages of snowshoeing over skinning

One of the biggest advantages of using snowshoes is for extremely steep vertical climbs. These ascents can be icy and the crampons on the bottom of backcountry snowshoes can provide more stability by digging into the ice than climbing skins can handle.

Another advantage is that owning a pair of snowshoes can be used for many different winter activties. Skinning is really only applicable to downhill skiers. For backcountry snowboarders, some additional options besides snowshoes include a splitboard or approach skis.

Finally, a downside of skinning is that separate skins are required for different sized skis, meaning that additional equipment needs to be purchased for different setups. However, snowshoes avoid this problem since they can be used with any existing or future ski touring setups.

Skins also require specialized Alpine Touring (AT) bindings – an additional cost and equipment item that snowshoers do not have to deal with.

Advantages of skinning over snowshoeing

The biggest advantage of using climbing skins over snowshoes is that skinning takes much less energy to ascend uphill. Aside from very steep inclines, touring skis setup with skins can glide over snow and maintain momentum while snowshoes require exertion on each step, especially in deep snow.

Also, once initial skin tracks are laid into fresh snow, they can be followed by other touring skis equipped with skins to provide a much easier climb.

Skinning also doesn’t require skiers to carry much additional equipment, unlike snowshoes which need to be swapped and stowed when skiing downhill. Snowshoes often get strapped to a pack on a skier’s back when ski touring.

The reverse is also true: when climbing uphill, skis need to be attached to the backpack. Overall, skins take up less weight and provide a more comfortable experience than snowshoes. Snowshoeing uphill requires

Other considerations for snowshoeing versus skinning

Skin Tracks from touring skier skinning up backcountry terrain

Sharing the backcountry

While backcountry skiing does tend to be more remote, it’s a good mindset to share all public areas and be mindful of other humans and animals that you might come across.

Some common encounters include: 

  • Other backcountry skiers
  • Backcountry snowboarders
  • Winter hikers and pets
  • Snowmobiles
  • Local wildlife

As long as you’re respectful of others’ space, there should be no issues enjoying peaceful turns.

Snowshoers should avoid walking over skin tracks

As an addendum to the above section, one of the cardinal rules of basic backcountry etiquette is to leave skin tracks untouched.

Backcountry skiers using snowshoes will often encounter skin tracks left by previous ski tourers. Whether or not you are in a mixed group where some individuals may be using skins and others are using snowshoes, preserve these tracks by walking on the side of the trail.

Consider cost and weight of the total backcountry setup

If you’re looking to get into ski touring, you might start off by comparing specific features of individual products, such as cost or weight. However, these factors should not be looked at in isolation, since there are other equipment needs to consider.

At the minimum, there will likely be several layers of winter clothes to stay warm, and skiing gear such as a helmet and goggles. However, a proper backcountry setup should include additional emergency proper avalanche gear such as a beacon, probe, and shovel – and the knowledge of how to use this gear.

Conclusion

Skinning makes more sense in the majority of cases where a skier that expects to primarily ski in backcountry terrain and focus on skiing as their only winter activity. Overall, they are simply a more efficient and effective tool for the job compared to snowshoes.

However, there are definitely instances where snowshoes can be a better option and more versatile type of winter sports equipment. Either way, first-timers to the backcountry should make sure they have proper training and follow experienced an experienced friend or guide with local knowledge before venturing out.