Suffering + soaring: skimo is an endurance athlete’s winter dream. Once you figure out what it is, what you need, and how to do it, that is. Let us help you out with that.
Skimo stands for ski mountaineering, an extension of backcountry skiing in which skiing uphill and boot packing is utilized to get you from the base of the mountain to the summit and back down again. Did that totally freak you out? Don’t worry, we’re not going to delve into the technical side of the sport. The term “skimo” is also used to describe racing (basically condensed backcountry ski outings) and even just “skinning” up resort trails and skiing down them. That’s where we will start.
Why should I start a new sport?
Skimo provides the perfect outlet to get fit and to actually enjoy winter at the same time. While I primarily identify as a distance runner, I was in the best shape last year during skimo season. In fact, the sport has revolutionized my outlook on winter. I’ve gone from dreading cold, snowy days to praying to the weather gods for more of them. With no impact and far less risk of slipping on ice than running, skimo puts your lungs, legs, arms, and core to the test as you motor yourself and your equipment up a mountain. And then you get the reward of flying back down! Without waiting in a long line to get on a chairlift, and without shelling out a lot of money for a lift ticket.
This is what you need: skis, bindings, boots, poles, helmet, and skins. If you plan on going into the backcountry and/or racing, you also need avalanche gear (probe, beacon and shovel) and sometimes crampons.
Every serious skier I’ve talked with says that the correct number of skis is “n + 1.” *Eye roll.* If you (prudently) only want to invest in one set up, you need to decide whether you want a heavier setup or a lighter one. Here are the tradeoffs:
Race set-up: if you are a competent downhill skier, don’t care too much about having a lot of fun ripping through moguls and pow, and plan on skiing with your super fit friends, this is the way to go. Race skis, bindings, and boots are ultra light, which makes skiing uphill relatively easy. (It is never easy.) Since you spend about 90% of the time going up, if going fast is your M.O. a light setup makes sense. The only downside is that the feathers on your feet can feel chattery and not ultra precise on the way down.
Touring set-up: if you do not have a lot of experience downhill skiing, love powder skiing, and/or plan on delving into backcountry (off piste) skiing, a heavier setup is for you.
No matter what setup you choose, make sure you prioritize comfort, especially for your boots. Not only will this make skimo more enjoyable, it will also give you more control skiing down. For a comprehensive guide to choosing the right gear, check this out.
How to do it
Okay enough with the stressful gear acquisition. Time to ski! Here’s how you do it:
- Get ready to skin! Pat your skins onto your skis. Place your bindings in uphill mode (flip the heel binding so the platform is facing front). Keep your boots partly unbuckled or unclipped in uphill mode (each boot is a little different on what this looks like). Clip your toes into your bindings, grab your poles, and you’re ready to go!
- “Skin” up the hill. “Skinning” is the term used for “skiing” up the hill. In other words, your skins provide your skis with enough friction that you can walk up the mountain. Here are a few tips: think about gliding your skis forward, rather than picking them up and down with each step. Pole plant your opposite pole with your opposite leg. Left your back foot up to maximize using your hamstrings and glutes to motor you up the mountain.
- Transition. Once you get to the top, it’s time to rip the skins off your skis, flip your bindings into “ski” mode, buckle your boots to lock them in place, and clamp your boots down into your bindings (both toe and heel this time). Click your toe bindings one click down so that if you crash, your skis pop off your feet. Pro tip: fold your skins up and stuff them down your pants. Seriously. Keeping your skins close to your body keeps them warm so you can re-slap them to your skis at the bottom to go back up! If you don’t keep your skins warm, you run the risk of them freezing over, which will prevent them from sticking to your skis again. Once you experience your skins repeatedly falling off your skis, causing you to slip down the mountain, you will never not stuff your skins back in your pants again.
- Ski! Pretty self explanatory. If you don’t know how to ski, I suggest ripping some chairlift laps first to get the hang of it. A few things to keep in mind while skiing: hands in front of you and follow them down the mountain; pole plant; bend your knees and push your shins into your boots; carve with the inner edges of your skis. French fries, not pizza.
- Transition again! This time, unclip your boots from your skis. Flip the bindings into uphill mode. Undo the “ski” mode on your boots. Slap your skins back on your skis. “Pet the kitty” (make sure your skins are stuck to your skins by patting them down.) Clip your toes back into your bindings, and pull the levers all the way up. Go forth and crush that mountain above you!
Things to bring (other than your ski setup). Yes, there is more stuff. :)
I recommend bringing a backpack to carry layers and a hydration belt, soft flask or thermos to stay hydrated (pro tip: consider hot tea or an electrolyte drink to spice up your hydration). Even though you may not feel like you’re getting thirsty in the cold, you are getting dehydrated. Bring some snacks (preferably something that won’t freeze.) Goggles for the way down so your eyes don’t water and/or eyelashes freeze over is always a good idea; it’s a treat to be able to see where you are going. Just don’t wear your goggles on your forehead on the way up, unless you don’t mind skiing with foggy goggles on the way down. Most importantly: bring a light puffy jacket for the descent.
Avoid the sweat and freeze cycle. One (maybe the only) way to hate skimo is to fall into the sweat and freeze trap. It goes something like this: wind whips against the car as you pull up to the mountain. You look at the thermometer, and it’s about 20 degrees colder than you would like. You bundle into all of your layers, including your puffy jacket. You start skiing. 20 minutes later, you are so overheated you stop to take your jacket off, and you realize you are drenched to the bone. You continue on, only to grow cold again and put your jacket back on. Repeat ad nauseum. Avoid this vicious cycle by starting off slightly colder than you would like. I promise you will warm up. Just make sure to put on your puffy jacket, a warm hat, and warm gloves for the descent.
Know when and where to go.
The safest way to get into skimo is to stick to resort slopes. You can find mountains’ uphill access policies on their websites. Policies range from buying a mandatory uphill pass, to rewarding you with free chairlift rides for every summit you reach self-propelled. Make sure you are familiar with your mountain’s policy. As the cat is let out of the bag and people learn how fun skimo is and it skyrockets in popularity, mountains are cracking down and getting stricter, especially when people abuse the system. You can also make friends and work hard by hopping into local races! Check out the skimo schedule on the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association website.
You’re now ready to skimo! Most importantly, have a blast. And don’t forget to hang up your skins to dry when you get home.