Backcountry Ice Skating
An Online Introduction
Backcountry Ice Skates
All ice skates consist of two parts: a boot or shoe to hold the foot, and a thin, sharpened stainless steel alloy blade to glide over ice.
How do skates work?
The vast majority of surfaces (think metal, stone, or even glass) would be impossible to skate on with a steel blade. So why does ice skating even work? A popular myth holds that friction and pressure generated by the skate blade melts the surface of the ice, creating a thin layer of slippery liquid water that immediately re-freezes after the skate blade passes. However, this explanation is challenged by the fact that ice remains slippery down to extremely low temperatures, and regardless of the amount of movement or pressure exerted on it.
The truth about why skating works may be far stranger and mysterious than intuition suggests. Research indicates that ice contains a microscopically thin layer of semifluid H20 on its surface at all times. The molecules in this semifluid layer are more tightly bound than in liquid water, but less tightly bound than in solid ice, and provide the lubrication necessary for skating. The exact physics underlying why ice is so slippery–and why skating is possible–remains a topic of curiosity and contention.
Types of skates
There are four main categories of ice skates, each with their own sub-categories: figure skates, hockey skates, speed skates, and nordic skates. Broadly speaking, all ice skate blades are designed with similar materials and operate on similar principles, and any ice skate can be used skate in the backcountry. That said, some skates are better suited to backcountry conditions than others.
Hockey and Figure Skates
Though hockey and figure skating may seem like radically different pursuits, both require quick maneuvering on small, smooth, artificial ice rinks and their blade shapes are correspondingly remarkably similar. Both types of skates employ relatively stiff boots with short, wide blades that are attached in the heel. Hockey and figure skates employ a concave blade shape in which the middle of the blade, as seen from the front or back of the skate, is recessed slightly compared with the sides. This concavity gives hockey and figure skates sharp edges that dig firmly into the ice and facilitate fast stops, turns, and other maneuvers.
Hockey and figure skates are affordable and widely available, and are an obvious choice for first-time skaters or occasional forays in the backcountry. Though they certainly work, these skates do entail significant compromises for backcountry use. Their short blades are susceptible to chattering over uneven ice, and their sharp concave edges dig in more than necessary and slow skaters down on tours. Their attached blades require skaters to change footwear for walks or portages. And because the boots are designed to fit tightly for responsive control in relatively warm environments, skaters may struggle to keep their feet warm on cold days.
Speed skating can be subdivided into short-track speed skating, long-track skating, and marathon skating. Unlike hockey or figure skates, speed skates use a longer, thinner, squared-off blade designed to glide over the surface of the ice without digging in, prioritizing speed over maneuverability.
Speed skate boots generally stop below the ankle in order to allow ankle compression. Like hockey and figure skates, speed skate boots are designed to fit snugly in order to maximize performance. Short-track speed skates use a blade attached at the heel, while long-track skates are only attached at the toe, allowing the heel to rise without taking the blade off of the ice.
Speed skates can work in backcountry environments, particularly on smooth ice. However, the attached boot prioritizes performance over comfort and warmth, and the lack of ankle support can be risky on uneven or cracked ice. Speed skates also require transitions to alternate footwear at portages.
Nordic skates essentially start with a long-track speed skate blade and then add innovations to improve performance, comfort, and safety. For more about nordic skates, please read the next article in this series.
Last updated February 2021