When conditions are good, natural/wild ice skating is unparalleled for fun and efficiency. Skating still feels childish, in a good way, and revisiting it as adult has brought me through hundreds of miles that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Highlights include watching a muskrat connect trapped air pockets under the ice, skating through marshes that don’t look passable, and covering 70 miles in 8 hours on lake and icy snowmachine trails.
Nordic skates are affordable too ($100, plus bindings). Even if you only used them one weekend a winter, I think they are worth the expense. I consider skates a ‘lifetime’ purchase; you probably won’t ever need a second pair.
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.
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 want the longest skate possible. I’d like a skate longer than the longest available.
As far as I know, 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.
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 was 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 have the soft Isvidda skates, so mine need sharpening after every 30 miles or so. Nordicskater sells jigs for sharpening, but I’ve never used one. There are a handful of clever homemade jigs online. I just drilled some extra holes in the platforms so that I can screw the skates onto some 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 use a JB8 grinding stone.
Throw Rope: preferably one that can be worn as a waist belt, like the NRS Guardian
Ice Pick: There are a few commercial options (some guys just use screw drivers). I like the retractable points on the NRS option, but the models that can be worn around your neck (see photo) are probably a better option.
Ice Screw: We each carry a single ice screw in case we need to anchor the throw rope on the ice. I use a lightweight sketchy Russian titanium screw.
Flotation: Your backpack probably offers all the flotation you need, but we wear life vests when conditions are particularly sketchy.
Dry clothing: Extra ‘just-in-case’ clothing can 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 will often carry an integrated stove system (stove and pot) with a 4 oz fuel canister. How and sugary fluids will help a cold patient recovery.
Depending on your risk/injury tolerance, you might also want a helmet, knee and elbow pads, and a life vest.
My main resources are webcams, satellite imagery, and wind gauges. Check out my trip planning 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.