Skates for Wild Ice

Wild Ice Skating

An Online Introduction


Skates for Wild Ice

First, some good news: all ice skates will work on wild ice! In that sense, every skate can be a “wild ice skate.” However, different types of skates perform very differently on wild ice due to basic attributes like length, rocker, boots, and whether they have a fixed or free heel.

Most skates in circulation are designed around specific competitive sports such as hockey, figure skating, or speed skating. It should go without saying that if your goal is, say, figure skating on wild ice… use figure skates. This article is geared around wild ice skating as a separate pursuit that generally involves longer, more exploratory trips on variable or unknown ice conditions. Wild ice skaters often start on whatever is “already in the garage,” but eventually gravitate toward gear that increases comfort, safety, and performance on wild ice.

Group of skaters on Nordic skates, figures skates, and hockey skates

Skating wet overflow ice on a combination of Nordic skates, figure skates, and hockey skates. Many wild ice skating trips include people on different types of skates.

Hockey Skates

Hockey skates are designed for powerful athletic maneuvers on small maintained rinks. The boots are stiff and generally fitted tight in order to maximize control. The two edges on each skate blade are sharpened to angles of less than 90 degrees, which allows them to aggressively cut into the ice and facilitates fast stops and turns.

Hockey skater on Portage Lake
Hockey skater on Rabbit Slough

Wild ice skating in Alaska on hockey skates

Hockey skates are familiar and widely available, and are probably the most-used type of skate for first-time skaters on wild ice. Some experienced skaters use hockey skates long-term on wild ice because of their confident handling. Hockey skates are particularly well-suited to tight “technical” skating, such as weaving between trees or through the maze-like passages in a frozen marsh.

Hockey skater on the Twentymile lagoons

Anchorage hockey player Bryce Coryell skating the Twentymile Lagoons

Of course, if your goal is to simply play a hockey game on wild ice, hockey skates are the ticket.

Despite their advantages, hockey skates make significant compromises for general-purpose wild ice skating. The short blades are less stable on uneven ice, and the sharp edges that facilitate powerful turns reduce glide and slow skaters down over longer distances. 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 feet warm on cold days.

Figure skates

Though hockey and figure skating may seem like radically different pursuits, the skates for both are designed with similar goals: power and control on small, man-made rinks. As a result, hockey and figure skates have remarkably similar blade designs. The most significant difference between the two is the presence of saw-like “toe picks” on the forward edge of figure skate blades, which primarily provide traction for jumps.

Smooth wild ice can provide a spectacular venue for figure skating. Snow-covered mountains make for a vastly more appealing backdrop than the inside of any indoor rink, and a number of filmmakers and figure skaters have partnered to make excellent media showing figure skating on wild ice.

For true wild ice skating, figure skates have the same drawbacks as hockey skates–with the added risk factor of toe picks, which can trip skaters who gets off-balance.

Speed skates

The term “Speed skating” encompasses two markedly different sports: short track and long track speedskating. Short track speed skating utilizes a 111-meter track (on the same size rink as Olympic hockey and figure skating), while long track speed skating is conducted on a 400-meter track (comparable in size to a running track). Short track speed skates use a stiffer boot with the heel fixed to the blade, while long track speed skates have a “free heel” that allows the heel to lift off of the skate slightly at the end of each stroke. The free heel moves the effective pivot point from the tip of the blade to a mechanical pivot under the skater’s forefoot, increasing the time the blade spends on the ice under power and thereby increasing efficiency and speed.

Speed skates are the sports cars of the wild ice world–blazing fast and thrilling, particularly on longer stretches of smooth ice. Long track speed skates are an excellent choice for large stretches of smooth ice. However, like hockey or figure skates they are designed for smooth, maintained ice and have some downsides in the wild. The boots (particularly on short track skates) are stiff, uninsulated, and fitted tight in order to maximize stability. The extremely hard steel used on high-end speed skate blades can chip or shatter if it impacts debris on wild ice. The blades on many short-track speed skates are permanently curved to facilitate left turns, making them more difficult to turn right. And, while the blades on long track speed skates are much longer than those on hockey or figure skates, they are still a bit shorter than blades designed specifically for wild ice.

Nordic Ice Skates

Nordic ice skates pair a long metal blade with a free-heeled ski boot and binding. Nordic skates were designed specifically for skating wild ice, and have many advantages over sport-specific skates for most users. Nordic skates are covered in more detail in the next articles in this series.

Best Skates for Wild Ice

Under certain conditions and for certain users, hockey, figure, and both types of speed skates are solid choices for wild ice skating. Many skaters are introduced to wild ice skating on sport-specific skates, and some have no problem using them long-term. Those who become avid wild ice skaters often gravitate toward Nordic skates because of their combination of speed, stability, comfort, and versatility on wild ice.

Published June 2022

About the Author

Paxson Woelber

About the Author

Hi, my name is Paxson. I started Nordic ice skating in 2016, and was hooked immediately. In November 2017, my friend Cale Green and I released the short film "Wild Ice: Backcountry Skating Alaska." I hope that this article series helps support and grow the wild ice skating community. For more about me or my website click here, and feel free to get in touch.

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Ermine Skate: exceptional nordic skates, handmade in Alaska Alpine Fit
Ermine Skate: exceptional nordic skates, handmade in Alaska
Ermine Skate: exceptional nordic skates, handmade in Alaska
Ermine Skate: exceptional nordic skates, handmade in Alaska
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