Skin skis have officially become a phenomenon in the industry. The idea was first introduced in the 1970s, and was even used successfully in competition. But it wasn’t until the introduction of the Atomic Skintec in 2011 that factory produced skin skis really became a thing. In the past several years the offerings from all companies have really proliferated, and sales have gone way up. Per Wiik, the marketing director for Madshus, estimates that skin skis currently account for around 50% of all nordic ski sales in Scandinavia. It’s hard to be precise, or to verify the numbers, but very similar estimates are offered by my other industry contacts in Scandinavia, where the trend is really driving a huge amount of the marketing, and is being credited with boosting (and maybe even saving) the whole industry.
Two years ago the Madshus Terrasonic intelligrip skis featured in the video to the right seemed promising, but ultimately failed to ignite any passion for skin skis in our portfolio. We haven’t paid very much attention to skin skis because they really haven’t been good enough to have an impact in high level racing. The success of the ‘70s is not close to being repeated, especially with huge advances in competition “zero” models, and in overall ski design and construction, and the performance of well-waxed skis. However, many of our customers are interested in race-level materials, and want skin skis for an easy training solution, or even for their day-to-day primary classic skis. The companies we work with have all released competition-level skin ski models, and in the past year we’ve seen a variety of instances where skin skis contributed to really good success in high-level citizen racing. It’s clear to us that skin skis are a tool that our primary customer base can use, and should be considering.
My own personal feelings on skin skis remain fairly grumpy. At their very best, skin skis have a pretty natural feeling kick, that you can “feel your way” into. They can be pretty fast at half weight (tucking) on downhills. And even double-poling is fine, if you don’t get too far forward on your feet. The place I don’t like them is when I shift my weight onto them in striding – they never feel really free under foot when I’m striding. Or, if they do, then I won’t have reliable kick. And sometimes I feel that they engage early in the kick, but then let go if I kick with impulse – as though the little hairs are just going backward. It must be my incredible power.
There’s also the fact that I like classic waxing. I would love to be a really excellent classic waxer – like Joakim Augustsson or Fabio Ghisafi who are my two personal World Cup kick waxing heroes. So on an average skiing day, I will happily spend some time applying kick wax, and I’ll look forward to adjusting the kick on the trail to try to get things just right. A brief self-examination yields an interesting insight – when I’m skiing on my own wax job I’m emotionally invested in making it work; I miss a kick, and I adjust my stride. When I’m skiing on skins, anything less than perfection is going to make me angry; I’m not inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, or to find ways to utilize their strengths. So, while I’ve tested skins a fair amount, I seldom go out and ski on them electively. But Amy has a different outlook on skin skis. I asked her why she liked them.
Amy: “I like them when I don’t have a whole lot of time, and want to go classic skiing. I’d rather spend my time skiing instead of trying to figure out the wax, and clean it off afterward. I like them for the ease of use.”
Zach: “What about performance?”
Amy: “There’s usually a compromise. Most times I’m on them, I’m sure they would never be a racing solution. But it works fine for training.”
Zach: “It doesn’t bother you to be able to run downhill faster than your skis glide down?”
Amy: “Don’t be a jerk. Usually they glide pretty well.”
A list of general pros and cons regarding skin skis is helpful as well.
- Easy to use – no waxing, no clean-up
- Best performance in some of the most tricky waxing conditions
- “Hairies” or Zero conditions – skins are great
- Hard Icy tracks with very little texture, or crust – really usable (though the conditions can still be terrifying)
- Less “noisy” than fishscales or crown patterns
- At their worst, they still “work”, at least well enough to get around
- Well, they’re not exactly wax free. You still need to take care of the glide zones, and the skins benefit a great deal from some care, including cleaning and waxing.
- The best performance of skins is still not as good as good hairies or zeros, or appropriate klisters, even in difficult conditions. They aren’t a high-level race solution at this point. If you like the feeling of both great speed and great kick (at the same time), they might not even be a recreational solution. This would only be a problem for people who know what they’re missing (most likely people with a racing background).
- The worst performance of skins can be either quite slow, or very hard to kick.
- No Adjustment… This is a real sticking point for me. You can’t do much to get more kick or glide, aside from moving the binding, which becomes a theme in the market.
One hot topic surrounding skin skis is “fit”. With waxable classic skis you’ve got a little room to move, because the wax thickness can be adjusted – at least within a certain range. With skin skis, you’re stuck with what you’ve got. The only available adjustment is binding position. We’ve been asking various people in the industry how they “fit” skin skis, and even what sort of ski characteristics they like.
We spoke with Rick Halling who has spent long days at demos handing out skis to an incredibly wide variety of skiers. His starting point is to ask whether the skier knows how to kick-double-pole, which is a pretty good short-cut to identifying more “advanced” skiers. The folks who can kick double pole like stiffer skis.
We also talked to Tore Rønningen, the ski “plukker” at the Madshus warehouse in Biri. My bet is that Tore has selected more skin skis than any other single person on the planet. He is the primary ski selector for a big Norwegian brand, in the biggest ski market in the world, where skin skis are going crazy. Tore wrote down for me the Empower flex values of the skin skis that Heidi Weng likes for training.
The consistent message seems to be that “it depends” – the optimal skin ski “fit” depends on both the skier, and the conditions. The range of flex values being recommended is very, very large.
Prior to this past season, we felt that we were batting about .500 on the “fit” equation. We’d put out some very soft skis that customers couldn’t kick, and we’ve put out some pretty strong skis that were way too draggy. This past season I think we were a bit more on top of the situation, and had a bunch more personal experience with the process. The feedback from this past year has been really positive, and I think we’ve been helped by evolution in the industry, and rapidly increasing quality in what’s available. But satisfaction will always depend on realistic expectations.
So, what about all these new race-model skin skis on the market? What do you get for your money, and if the performance isn’t awesome, then why get the best and most expensive skin skis you can find?
Funny you should ask. I have some ideas on that.
Weight – Top end skis are considerably lighter than step-down models. While the weight isn’t our primary concern when it comes to skis, I certainly notice when I step onto a “cheap” ski. They’re tanks. Heavy skis reduce the tempo of your skiing, increase the effort of your skiing, and are cumbersome to turn and maneuver. I feel like a worse skier on heavy skis.
Speed – Skiing is hard. Good glide is a big help. The racing models of skin skis utilize skin material, and insert lengths and positions that target optimal speed. Of course, this comes at some cost – the durability of the “racing” skin material is reduced, and the kick afforded by a smaller skin inlay is reduced.
But skins aside, the top-end materials generally provide better cambers and better material characteristics for glide – the skis themselves are faster.
Material Response – Cheaper skis tend to feel “dead”, regardless of how stiff or active their camber is. The more expensive ski constructions aren’t just lighter – they also offer more elastic material response, and return more of the energy that you put into them. This sounds nebulous, but over time I find that it is one of the most important considerations in evaluating skis.
Brands and Models
I’m only reviewing the new top-end skis from the brands that we carry here. All of these brands offer heavier and cheaper models – but that’s not really our thing!
Fischer Twin Skin Speedmax
This is a new model for next season, built on a full race material construction, and utilizing the 90L camber configuration. The 90L model is a long-pocket design that has been used with good success on the World Cup, and it’s well suited to skin skis because of the added height and flexibility in the camber arch. The skin inlay has been positioned for optimal speed, but the footprint has also been widened to provide more surface area. The skin is a 100% mohair, which is apparently treated with Teflon to prevent icing. Teflon is a fluoro material, and my guess is that you’ll still want to clean and treat these skis periodically. Of course they utilize the Fischer IFP plate and Turnamic binding, which provides adjustability of the binding position up to 1.5cm forward and back of the balance point.
Skin skis need to have a high camber – especially compared with waxable skis – but also be soft enough to pressure the skin against the snow. In terms of the material stiffness of the bridge, the Fischers are on the strong side (the stiffest material of any of the skis we’ve tested). The normal 902 bridge camber is naturally high, but maybe a bit hard finishing, and not quite long enough for the skin. The 90L camber provides additional length in the camber bridge, with the inflection point behind the foot further back than on a normal 902. This lengthens the lever, which softens the bridge action, and makes the kick very accessible, as well as bringing the skin into contact very uniformly. My only concern is that the longer lever also reduces the effect of moving the bindings to “tune” the action of the ski. Normally we count on moving forward to increase access to the kick, and moving back to open the pocket for more speed. With this bridge configuration, the available range of adjustment doesn’t yield as big a change in bridge action as a more normal 902 camber. However, our experience on the Twinskin Carbon model with a similar camber configuration has shown that the binding adjust is effective. I’m eager to test the new Speedmax model next year.
Madshus Redline Intelligrip
We tested this model last fall on saved snow in Sjusjoen, just in the first couple of days that the snow was pushed out. There were no tracks, and conditions were extremely sugary. They have all of the normal Redline feel to them. The skin is 100% mohair, for speed (we’re told). And perhaps most intriguingly, they are set-up with the new Rottefella MOVE NIS plate.
The MOVE binding is an NIS plate that allows you to use a knob positioned in front of your foot to adjust the binding position without removing your boot from the binding. You just bend down, and twist the knob. Every half turn of the knob moves the binding 1cm on the ski, and there are three adjustments behind the neutral position, and two in front. In addition, there are three positions that the NIS binding can be installed, at 5mm increments. In combination this provides a huge range of adjustability, and an unprecedented amount of convenience when it comes to making the adjustment.
I had lots of questions when I first heard about the system, and even when I first saw it. Not least was, “how heavy is that thing?” The answer is, not very. It does look a bit unwieldy, and you do notice the difference when you first put the ski on. But it doesn’t appear to change the balance, or present any particular distraction once you’re on the snow.
The other question was whether you’d end up adjusting the binding while you were skiing – even while you were moving… Well, I did a lot of adjusting during my ski session, and it was an easy system to use. I even tried adjusting the binding position while I was in a tuck, going down a hill. This was slightly tricky because there were no tracks, and the deep sugary snow was challenging. But it was no worse than adjusting a speed reducer on rollerskis. Certainly plausible to do during a race. Which creates a very interesting opportunity. What if, in a race like the Norwegian Birkebeiner with long climbs and long descents, and a huge amount of double-poling, you could move the binding waaay back for the downhills and double-pole sections, and forward for the longer climbs. I mean, you could do this with any adjustable binding – that’s always been an option. But nobody wants to be taking their skis off during the race, and the amount of adjustment on a standard NIS or IFP plate isn’t very big, at only 1.5cm fore and aft of neutral
In short, I think Madshus is going to sell a boat load of these things to Birkebeiner skiers. Maybe two boatloads. But how does it ski? Well – it’s hardly a fair test. Conditions were terrible, it was my first time on snow, I’ve still got a gimpy leg, and I hate skin skis to start with. I wasn’t wildly impressed. But it was the most encouraged I’ve been by skins, and I CAN say that the binding adjustment gave the skis way more range than I anticipated. It’s also worth noting that we tested two pairs – one of them was much newer, and was slow in every position (in spite of being a 52kg flex for a 66kg skier). The more used pair showed considerable signs of wear on the skin, and that one was much more user friendly and faster. This is a theme we’ve seen with all of the brands and models we’ve worked with – after some use the skis speed up and tend to work a little better. And it seems better to count on this break-in process to deliver optimal performance rather than to pick the skis extra stiff in an effort to find optimal speed from the start.
Salomon Skin Race
In purely material terms, the Salomon Skin Race might be the most intriguing skin ski I’ve seen. In spite of the “Race” model designation, as opposed to “S-Lab”, these are top-end materials – the same as the S-Lab models. And the S-Lab classic skis continue to impress us as we handle them for the second year since they were introduced. While Fischer raised the bridge camber but left the overall resting camber quite low, Salomon is running a slightly higher resting camber to create action in the ski, but a more standard bridge camber. In combination with softer material stiffness, the net effect is a similar pocket action to the Fischers, but with a shorter lever behind the foot. As a result, I expect these skis to be more responsive to changing binding positions. Too bad we have to screw bindings onto them.
As a matter of fact, Salomon has signed an agreement with Rotefella to sell skin skis in Scandinavia with NIS plates. Rotefella has produced a screw-on NIS plate that utilizes the Salomon screw pattern, and can be mounted in Salomon’s pre-drilled holes. Such is the power of the Scandinavian market – skin skis need adjustable bindings, and Salomon is willing to sell skis to be mounted with Rotefella bindings in order to have access to the market. For next year we’re planning to get some of these mounting plates (available from Salomon) to test the adjustable binding situation on the Salomon skis.
Maybe the coolest part of these skis is the skin itself. Fischer and Madshus both advertise “100% Mohair”, which is all well and good, but maybe a bit like marketing “100% ski wax” on a waxed ski. Salomon’s Skin Race model comes with the distinctively pink Pomoca Race Pro skins that are generally acknowledged (or so I’m told) to be the fastest racing skins in the Ski-Mo world. That’s like selling a ski pre-waxed with Rode VO, instead of “100% Ski Wax”. Cool. Amy was especially impressed by this, since she’s got a set of those Pomoca skins for her lightweight AT skis. The other interesting thing about these skis is that we’ve seen them with more camber variety than other models. This means that we’ve been able to select cambers that limit the amount that the front of the skin inlay drags on the snow, by finding a camber with stronger bridge integrity in the front end. In short, we’ve been able to prioritize speed in our camber selections without just picking “stiffer” skis in the Salomon S/Race model more than with the other brands.
Skin Skis as a Race Solution
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I don’t see skin skis as a viable World Cup level race solution. I just don’t think it’s going to happen because the performance of wax is just really good, and when you’ve got a full staff to develop and test wax solutions, you’ve got a really good chance to making great skis.
But for the unsupported citizen racer, the calculus is quite different. Without a full fleet of conditions-appropriate race skis, and a personal wax staff, the tricky days become a real challenge and a bit of a crap-shoot. In these circumstances a huge amount of experience and personal expertise can be a big help, but even the most experienced self-supported racers will miss the call at least twice as often as a well organized team. I know, from personal experience, that when I’m waxing for a race and I have a test fleet, and test pilots, and my whole wax box, I’ve got a lot of confidence that I’ll get the skis in the game. But when I show up with a smaller collection of waxes, and no extra testing staff, it’s nerve-wracking. And while I still might have the waxer-ego to bluster my way through and not choose skin skis, smarter people might be well served by having a solid back-up on hand.
I think that many people hope to rely on skin skis as a great way to never have to deal with klister again. Klister conditions at the big race? Don’t worry – just use the skin skis! My gut feeling is that this is not going to be a successful approach – particularly in soggy, wet klister conditions. One of the issues with skins is that they get really draggy in wet snow, and my experience indicates that relatively basic wet klister conditions are one place where a rudimentary (if messy) wax job on an appropriate pair of skis is likely to really kill the skin ski option on speed. In general, I think the skin skis can be a great option in what we would consider “tricky” conditions, where there is a balance between secure grip and the tendency for icing, either because of variable track conditions or because of really delicate and tricky crystal structure in the snow.
This season we heard from a number of different friends and customers who had very positive race experiences on skin skis. One of these was our good friend Dave Peterson – the director of the Aspen XC Center – who sent us the following report. Dave’s experience was with the Salomon S/Race model skis, but to be clear, we’ve got plenty of feedback from people on other brands. And also to be clear, there will be disappointing days as well. But Dave’s experience is a good indicator that things are going the right direction. Here’s Dave:
Concerns & the sales pitch:
I had planned to ski the Korteloppet 29k classic this past February and had some concerns about conditions, running out of kick wax halfway into the race, missing the wax entirely, etc. At the SIA show I spoken with Pete & Isaac about the new Salomon S/Race skin skis, would they be appropriate? How well would they glide compared to a waxed ski? Isaac suggested in the tests they had performed, the skins were within a few percent of a waxable in glide testing which piqued my interest. Since I had not skied the Korte since 1991(skating) my plan was to simply enjoy classic skiing at sea level, stop at all of the feeds, not necessarily “race”, and have some fun.
I did some testing on the new skis at our local “Race for the Pass” (7k all up Independence Pass) the weekend prior to the Korte to make sure they kick AND glide. Yes they do, my observation is you have to ski correctly to get them to kick – no freebies here – somewhat like a well kick-waxed ski that just barely grips if you get lazy. BTW they were a 201cm flexed for a 170lb skier, and I am right at that weight. The glide coming back down the pass was phenomenal, I was able to stay in a tuck the whole way down passing folks on waxables!
I did my own glide prep for the Korte; Swix LF5, HF5, HF7 & HVC Cold topcoat and Swix Skin treatment, again just hoping they would have decent glide and not be embarrassed on the downhills. I believe the temps were in the high teens-low twenties with a relatively high humidity, probably perfect conditions for Swix blue extra. I was put into the 3rd wave as I had no qualifying time, so staged myself at the front row giving myself at least a fighting chance of working my way through the waves ahead of me. I immediately noticed what great glide I had double-poling out of the start, so decided to actually “race” the race. Skiing through the waves became almost laughable I was having so much fun gliding right up into & past most everyone including the skaters; at one point crashing into several skiers from behind as it was very congested. In the tracks when there was no traffic ahead, the skis ripped. I also had to “Klaebo” (yes run) some of the uphills as out of the tracks it was 3-4″ of soft snow from the night before, so there was snow-shear effect, where the grip just breaks away. I ended up finishing 3rd in Men 60-64, 72 out of 887 overall.
The main thing I am left with is the glide of the S/Race Skin skis, I find it pretty incredible that a skin ski can glide like a waxable ski and at the same time have grip whenever you need it. No more second-guessing yourself, which is very reassuring. Like I mentioned earlier, the grip is not free, you must ski them correctly. At the Korte, I am sure they could have even been faster with some iron-in flouros & different top-coats, but the fact remains, this pair at least glides remarkably well and I have already pre-sold a few pairs based upon my experience racing them. I do plan to race them exclusively (no more waxables) this next season to continue to test and see where they work and where they don’t, and I will keep you posted.
Hope this helps,