Alright so your cool skier friends have finally convinced you to give Alpine Touring or “AT” for short, a go. So, what should you do first? Well if you don’t have a set up then the first thing you should do is go to Skirack at 85 Main St. in Burlington to get your gear.
1. Boot Fitting & Ski Selection:
Take time to sit down with a Skirack boot fitter and let them help you decide what boot is best for your foot. We can also recommend a great ski and binding that best suits your skier type. Ideally, we would want to go with a lighter ski to make the uphills a little less strenuous but if you still want that hard charging heavy ski - it’s up to you!
2. Skin Selection:
The other key piece of equipment are skins. But what skins should you buy? Well there are three different types of skins out there for you to choose from: Nylon, Mohair, or a Nylon/Mohair Mix. Let’s break down the differences between these to find which is best for you.
- Most amount of grip
- Least amount of glide
- Most durable
- I would recommend full Nylon skins to someone who is skinning very steep terrain and needs maximum traction over glide. I use Black Diamond Ascension Nylon because I like to ski steeper terrain like the Notch so I prefer grip over anything.
- Most amount of glide
- Least durable
- Mohair is a great option for people who may not be skinning terribly steep terrain but want the most glide for flatter surfaces. I would also recommend these to someone who is very good about taking care of their equipment.
- Nylon/Mohair mix
- Better grip than pure Mohair
- Lighter than pure Nylon
- Good mix of glide and grip
- These are a great combination for a wide variety of terrain and skier types.
3. Backpack + What to Pack:
Alright now that you have your set up dialed in there’s a couple other things you’ll need to grab:
- Backpack: There are all sorts of ski packs out there with different features and sizes. For your average Vermont tour, I would recommend a pack between 20-35 Liters. Personally, I use the Dakine Poacher 22L. I find this pack size to be good for most tours I do around the Northeast. It fits everything I need and offers a little extra space just in case I decide to take my camera. I also love a lot of the features the pack has; helmet carrier, diagonal and “A-Frame” ski carrying, etc. I would highly recommend getting yourself a good ski pack.
What’s in the Pack?
- Shell: Pack your shell in your backpack. I never start a tour with my shell on unless I absolutely must. This is one of the first mistakes people tend to make when skinning. Alpine Touring is a sweaty activity and nothing makes you sweat more than having too many layers on. You will get too warm if you start skinning with your shell on and are most likely just going to stop a few minutes in to take it off. Save yourself the time and just pack it from the start. I like to pack my shell last so that is the first item available when I stop to transition. We’ll go more into transitions later.
- Puffy: It is always good to pack a puffy even if you don’t use it. Weather can change rapidly and it’s always important to be prepared. Again, AT is a sweaty sport so it is very easy to get cold when you are transitioning or just on your way down. I like to pack my Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody just in case. Ideally you would want a “Synthetic Insulated” jacket because synthetic insulation is more breathable for activities like skiing and is still warm when wet. Find yourself a good packable mid-layer for safety.
- Gloves/Mittens: I put my ski gloves in my ski pack and use a separate pair of lightweight gloves for the way up. Typically, your hands will sweat so I would suggest putting your ski gloves in your pack for the way down.
- Goggles: So, if you found a nice ski pack for yourself there’s a good chance it came with a goggle specific pocket, if not don’t worry it is not the end of the world. I would not recommend wearing them on your face or head on the way up. With all the heat and sweat you are generating that warm moisture is rising off your body. If you wear your goggles you are just risking pushing that moisture into your goggles which can then freeze.
- Helmet: YOU SHOULD ALWAYS WEAR A HELMET. Even if you’re the best skier on the mountain, you should always wear a helmet. My pack luckily has a specific holder on the outside that keeps the helmet in place on my back. Again, I would recommend finding a pack that has something like this or making something of your own. Trying to stuff your helmet into your pack or having it banging around the outside of your backpack can get very annoying.
- Socks: Never a bad idea to have an extra pair of ski socks with you just in case. My go-to are Darn Tough Vermont Over-The-Calf Socks.
- Water bottle: I like to carry a smaller water bottle or two depending on how long the skin is. If it's below freezing, I would recommend Hydroflask which is double walled and less likely to freeze. It is very important to hydrate while skinning. Some people may recommend a bladder so you can drink while you move. Personally, I do not care for bladders because I have had them pop from landing on my back while skiing.
- The little things: There are a few other small items I like to have in my pack just in case of emergency or someone forget something:
- Extra balaclava
- First aid kit
- Voile Strap (you can never have too many of these)
- Snacks (Clif Bars, chews, energy Honey Stinger waffles)
- Map + Compass
- Duct Tape
So now you’re at the trailhead with all your new gear ready to show your friends that you know what you’re doing. First thing is to check to make sure your boots are in walk/hike mode. Now you can apply your skins to the bottom of your skis and get everything else ready. It is important to make sure your ski bindings are also in walk mode. Once you’ve got your skis on, pack on your back, and poles in hand you should be good to go. I like to do a quick mental checklist before I start moving just to be sure I have everything I need.
5. What to Wear / Transitioning:
On the way up I like to wear a base-layer and a light mid-layer. For this season, my two favorite layers have been the Patagonia Capilene Air Hoody and Patagonia R1 Tech-Face. The Capilene Air Hoody is great because it is a lightweight/breathable wool base layer that wicks moisture and keeps me very warm. The R1 Tech-Face has become one of my favorite pieces of clothing I own. It is very versatile but it makes a great skinning piece because it is a light grid-fleece with a DWR finish. It keeps you warm but not too warm, and keeps you dry for when it’s snowing. Like I mentioned before, I prefer to use a lightweight glove for the uphill and switch to my mittens on the downhill. It also helps to open any ventilation zippers on your pants/bibs so you don’t get too toasty. I tend to wear a Buff around my neck in case any part of my head gets cold on the way up.
Now you’ve got your layering down like a pro and all your friends are impressed. They’re happy that you’re not stopping every five minutes to take off a layer. Skinning takes time, practice, and a lot of energy so don’t worry if you’re not the fastest on the hill. It is important to pace yourself and get into a rhythm. Try to take long strides and glide. Avoid taking steps and lifting your skis off the ground for this requires more energy. Just relax and enjoy the nature around you. When the slope gets steep it is important to use the elevation adjustment risers on your bindings; this will make maintaining traction easier and less strenuous on your legs. If you do feel yourself slipping, try to put more weight on your heel for better grip. Take turns braking trail in powder if everyone knows where to go. Be conscious of everyone around you and make sure no one gets left behind. Also, be sure to abide by uphill policies and rules for wherever you are skinning.
Congratulations you have made it to the top of the climb and it is now time to transition. As I mentioned before, I like to make sure my shell or my puffy is readily available for me to put on when I transition. You just hiked up a mountain and you are probably sweaty so you want to make sure that sweat doesn’t freeze you. Personally, I like to put all my gear on for the way down first to help free up space in my pack and to keep me warm. Once I have my gear on I will transition my skis. Take the skins off and fold them to themselves; you can put them in your jacket pocket to keep them warm or just throw them in your pack. Before I step into my skis I like to hydrate and have a snack. Once you’re ready to head down make sure both your skis and boots are in ski mode.
6. Skin Care:
After you’re done skiing it is important to maintain your skins. Once you get home or where you're staying for the night, peel them apart and hang them up to dry. Once dry you can fold them back together again (glue side to glue side) and store them in their bag. There are several solutions for fixing/improving (such as a Skin Cleaner and Skin Glue Renew Sheets) your skins over time but the better you take care of them the longer they will last.
Touring is a great way to stay in shape and just have fun. My favorite part of touring is the beautiful places and zones it can take you. There is a sense of freedom and exhilaration you receive. You should enjoy every second of it, after all you’ve earned your turns.