Backcountry Ice Skating
An Online Introduction
Wild ice grading system
The skating surface of wild ice is graded from A to F. This grade refers only to the surface quality of the ice–not thickness, safety, aesthetics, or other factors.
Wild Ice Grades
Clear, quiet, smooth ice
Uninterrupted smooth backcountry ice, with very little need to watch the surface and only occasional, easily-avoided irregularities. A+ ice is almost perfectly smooth and silent underfoot, and gives the unmistakable sensation of flying.
Good ice with relatively even “orange peel,” bumpy, or slightly inconsistent texture. Relatively easy to maintain speed and form, though attention is needed to avoid occasional cracks, bumps, or hazards. The vast majority of excellent days in the backcountry are had on B-grade ice.
Passable but challenging ice
Marginal, chattery ice, often strewn with cracks, bumps, sticks, adhered snow layers or drifts, etc. Despite challenges, experienced and vigilant skaters can still make steady, enjoyable, more or less uninterrupted progress.
Barely passable ice, with constant challenges and numerous hazards. Progress is slow and another form of travel (hiking, skiing, etc.) may be faster, safer, or easier. Those without knee pads may suffer the consequences. Adventure ice at its best: D grade ice may cause problems but also leave skaters with lots of stories.
Highly unpredictable, chaotic, hazard-strewn ice on which “skating” is at best a forced novelty. Skaters may curse the fact that they left snowshoes or rubber boots in the car–or that they left the car at all. Whoever suggested a trip on F ice may end up buying everyone beers.
Because wild ice is highly variable, reports often specify different grades for different areas. For example, a location may be described as “Mostly B+ ice between snowdrifts, with patches of A ice along the western shore and D ice near the creek outlet.”
Last updated February 2021