When conditions are good, natural/wild ice skating is unparalleled for fun and efficiency. Skating often feels childish—in a good way—and revisiting it as adult has rewarded me with hundreds of miles that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Skating is refreshingly accessible and can be safe with a minimal investment.
Ice skating exposes you to hazards including hard impacts, cold air, and cold water. Risk assessment should be part of any outing. We carry safety equipment to make us less vulnerable if something goes wrong.
Knowing how to use your safety gear is as important as carrying it. There are many excellent online resources to review ice safety and rescue. Lifesaving.com is a good place to start. At the most basic level: exit the ice from the same direction that you went in. Use ice picks for traction, bring your legs up to the surface of the water and kick to propel yourself forward.
Ice probe pole: A few skate brands offer a special pole, like a ski pole, with a heavy tip that allows you to gauge ice thickness and strength. In my opinion, this is the only safe way to quickly and conveniently monitor ice thickness/strength on the fly. Some communities are using a rock-toss technique to gauge thickness and I strongly recommend these poles instead. Poles are discussed in more detail below.
Throw rope: River ropes are ideal because they float. I prefer throw bags that can be worn as a waist belt, like the NRS Guardian.
Ice pick: Ice picks provide traction when you are climbing out of the water. There are a few commercial options (some guys just use screwdrivers, but I recommend investing in equipment designed for this application). I like the retractable points on the NRS option to prevent accidental holes in my gear, but the models that can be worn around your neck (see photo) are more accessible. Whichever you choose, make sure it is accessible.
Ice Screw: We each carry a single ice screw in case we need to anchor the throw rope on the ice.
Flotation: Your backpack probably offers all the flotation you need, but we wear life vests when conditions are particularly sketchy. Our dry bag with clothing (next item) also serves as flotation, and I put that bag at the bottom of my pack so that the buoyancy is as low as possible. The serious skaters are wearing high-flotation bags with a crotch strap that keeps the pack low in the water—which serves to keep your head higher in the water.
Dry clothing: Extra ‘just-in-case’ clothing should be carried in a dry bag at the bottom of your pack. Synthetic puffy jackets and pants will make a big difference if there is an injury or soaking.
Fire starter: Carry a fire starter. We carry an integrated stove system (stove and pot) with a 4 oz fuel canister. Hot and sugary fluids will help a cold patient regain warmth. Heat from the inside.
Depending on your risk/injury tolerance, you might also want a helmet, knee and elbow pads, and a life vest.
An established guideline is that you need four inches of ice to safely support skaters and ice fishing. True, you can skate on less, but it will be less safe.
We use cracks, bubbles, and vegetation to gauge ice thickness while skating. The ice probe pole is the best tool for on-the-fly tests of thickness and strength. An ice screw or auger can also be useful.
If you break through the ice, turn around and crawl out in the direction that you came from. Use the ice picks, stabbing back at a 45-degree angle, while you bring your legs to the surface of the water and kick gently. The ice shelf will likely break under your weight until you reach stronger ice.
Keep the 1-10-1 rule in mind. You have one minute to calm down and regulate your breathing. A panicked swim for more than one minute will likely lead to a drowning injury or death. You have ten minutes to self-rescue. After ten minutes, you lose the ability to use your limbs to crawl out of the water. If you can’t self-rescue. Try to freeze your gloves, sleeves, hair, beard … anything … to the ice so that you maintain an open airway. After one hour, you will be hypothermic. Severe hypothermia can be difficult to recover from, even if hospitalized.
Nordic skates are warmer, more comfortable, and more forgiving than hockey/figure skates. The design is simple, a steel blade under an aluminum platform. The platforms come pre-drilled with mounting holes for standard NNN, SNS, or NIS skate ski bindings. Nordic skates can be purchased at AMH (Anchorage), but the real resource is nordicskater.com. Alaska has a new skate manufacturer: Ermine skates.
Longer blades are better for going faster and smoothing out rough ice. Shorter blades are better for agility and turning. Nearly all of my time on nordic skates is on ‘wild’ ice, rough, so I like a long skate. But if you are coming from a hockey/figure skate background, that extra length will feel weird. The free heel will feel weird too!
In my experience, Isvidda has the softest steel, then Lundhags, then Zandstra. Harder steel stays sharp longer, but takes longer to sharpen. My Isvidda pair was notably dull after just ~20 miles, and my Lundhags keep an edge slightly longer. Ermine skates are a heavier, more durable build.
Binding and boots
The skates are designed for NNN/SNS or NIS skate ski bindings (the NIS platform only works with NIS, the other platforms are more adaptable). You want a skate boot for the extra ankle support.
I drilled a few extra holes through my platform so that I can use a backcountry tech binding (see photos below, original 5-hole Dynafit TLT Speed toepieces… the newer 4-hole toe piece holes might be too wide). I really like this setup, my backcountry boot is warmer, stiffer, more adjustable, etc. I’ve broken through ice in these boots midway through a multi-day trip, and still been fine because the closed-cell foam liners don’t absorb water (I use Intuition after-market liners).
Deciding where to mount Dynafit toe-pieces doesn’t seem to be very critical. My approach is to figure out where a nordic boot should sit, and then try to center the Dynafit book in a similar position:
- Measure the sole length of a skate ski boot and draw a mid-boot line on the sole.
- Place a nordic binding on the skate following the manufacturer’s guidelines. In my case, I think there were three possible positions and I used the middle one.
- Mark the skate ski boot’s mid-boot position on the skate platform. Alternatively, it might work to mark the toe hinge.
- Remove the nordic binding.
- Click the Dynafit boot into the Dynafit toe-piece.
- Align the Dynafit mid-boot mark with the line that you drew on the skate platform.
- If the toe-piece mounting holes overlap the existing hole, I shift the assembly as little as possible, forward or back, so that I can drill new holes. Two holes work, but mounting all four is better.
A lot of people are thrown off by the free heel on nordic skates (especially the completely free pivot with my Dynafit setup). Speed skates are also free-heel, if your heels were locked you wouldn’t be able to follow through with the skate stride.
My only real input on poles is that I’m scared of injuring my shoulders if I have my hands through the wrist straps. I’ve really appreciated having poles on rough ice where double-poling is the best technique, but on anything smooth I leave them behind or on my pack.
Probe: The euro skate scene uses specialty poles without straps or basket. These poles are heavier, due mostly to an aggressive metal tip. The poles are VERY useful for testing ice thickness, if the pole breaks through with a hard jab, the ice is too thin. These poles are not as useful for propulsion on rough ice.
I like a sharp skate, and sharpen them after nearly every use. Every 30 miles or so might be a good guideline. Nordicskater sells jigs for sharpening, and there are a handful of clever homemade jigs online. I’ve upgraded to a real jug, but at first, I just drilled some extra holes in the platforms so that I could screw the skates onto scrap lumber. The key is to get the blades parallel and level so that you can use the grinding stone on both at the same time. I’ve used a JB8 grinding stone and Zandstra branded stones.
My main resources are webcams, satellite imagery, and wind gauges. Check out my trip planning course, and online resources here. FAA has a wonderful distribution of cameras in Alaska, and the AOOS Sensor Portal has all known public cams in Alaska. NASA and Sentinel offer excellent imagery, and I use Windy for weather. I use GaiaGPS for navigation with my iPhone.