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Multisport Skills

Backcountry Skating Is Your New Favorite Winter Sport

'Tis the season for a wintry multisport adventure. Here’s how to take to the ice safely.

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There are few things that transport me back in time like ice skating. The exhilaration and feeling of utter freedom I got as a kid at my local rink is one I’ve sought out in outdoor activities as an adult, even while my skates collect dust in the garage. So when I saw some videos online of skaters gliding across wild ice in front of picture-perfect alpine vistas, I was entranced. 

“Wild ice” is just what it sounds like: any naturally-formed, skateable ice outside of the confines of rinks and manicured ponds. Alpine lakes, where temperatures drop early and stay cold, are prime destinations.

“Every time I go out I feel like I’m dancing. It’s given me the chance to reconnect with my inner child in a way I never thought I would,” says Vanessa Chavarriaga Posada, outdoor athlete, environmental sociologist, and former figure skater. “I feel like a real live ice princess now.”

Skating on frozen lakes and ponds is a special experience that requires careful planning and a keen attention to safety. Here’s how to create your own ice princess moment this winter. 

Choosing Your Destination

Not just any body of water is suitable for skating. Seek out still water in locations that experience consistently cold temperatures. 

“I look for high elevation lakes that freeze early in the season,” says Chavarriaga Posada. “I live in a place with lots of snow, so these come and go quite quickly. My chances to skate are only a few days every year.”

The best spots, according to Chavarriaga Posada, include a fun hike (if there’s snow, make sure you bring proper traction like snowshoes, skis, or microspikes, and are aware of avalanche safety) and a scenic destination. “Alpine lakes all tend to be quite picturesque so you really can’t go wrong,” she says.

Timing Your Hike

Accumulated snow can ruin skating conditions in no time. Sure, you can bring a shovel and clear the surface yourself, though you’re in for a lot of manual labor before you can strap on your blades. A better idea: let nature do the work. Early in the winter, keep an eye on forecasts. 

“The secret to finding wild ice is keeping an eye on freezing levels when precipitation levels are low to nonexistent,” says Chavarriaga Posada. 

Testing the Ice

Wild ice can be unpredictable, and the consequences of falling through are high. Always bring a buddy when you hike to skating, and tell someone back home where you’re going. 

Ice must be at least four inches thick to safely support your weight. New ice, which appears black instead of white, is better for skating, according to Chavarriaga Posada. But new ice also carries a higher risk of being too thin.

“I usually test the ice first by throwing a larger-than-fist-sized rock out to it and seeing whether the rock sinks, gets wedged in the ice, or bounces off it,” says Chavarriaga Posada. “If the rock sinks or gets wedged, the ice is not thick enough. If the rock bounces, I will step out into it and measure it with my ice axe.”

Using a sharp tool like an ice axe, hatchet, or auger, create a hole in the ice, digging through it until you hit water. Measure the depth of the ice before proceeding. 

Additionally, Chavarriaga Posada recommends educating yourself on types of ice. Recognizing how ice behaves and cracks will help you stay safe when skating. Until you’re confident in your ability to assess the safety of ice, skate only where you know the ice is thick, like on a pond or lake where other people commonly recreate. 

How to Skate Wild Ice

Skating on a natural surface isn’t the same as a manicured rink. Remember that the conditions will be variable before going full speed. Bumps, depressions, and patches of slush or snow can trip you up. If you use figure skates, says Chavarriaga Posada, watch out for your toe pick, which might catch on bumps in the ice. 

“My workaround for this is skating backwards through the bumpy sections, or being light on my toes,” she says.

If you’re worried about catching bumps and don’t need a toe pick to do jumps and spins, consider wearing hockey skates or nordic skates, which won’t catch easily on irregularities in the ice.  

Still shaky on skates? A helmet, knee pads, and elbow pads can’t hurt. Get your feet under you with a few sessions at your local rink before taking to ungroomed ice.

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