Nordic Skating FAQ

What is Nordic skating?

Nordic skating is a type of ice skating, just like hockey, figure skating, or speed skating. Unlike those other types of skates, Nordic skates are designed specifically to excel on natural ice, also called “wild ice.” Nordic skates are often mounted with bindings and boots designed for Nordic cross-country skiing.

What do I need to get started?

To get started with Nordic skating, you’ll need a pair of Nordic skates, bindings, and boots. Most Nordic skaters use Nordic skate ski boots and bindings, though others mount their Nordic skates with various types of backcountry boots and bindings. You will also need safety equipment.

Is Nordic skating safe? What kind of safety equipment do I need?

In general, Nordic skating is a fun and safe activity as long as basic precautions are taken. Unless skating on a maintained rink, all Nordic skaters should wear a helmet and must carry ice self-rescue picks at all times. Many skaters also opt to carry a throw rope and ice screw. Some skaters prefer to skate with ski poles, or carry a sharp pole used to test ice thickness.

Though it is not part of the Nordic skating kit per se, it is important to wear appropriate clothing that will keep you warm if you get wet. Thick synthetic base layers are ideal. On more remote trips, always carry a spare pair of clothing in a dry bag.

Some skaters prefer to wear shin and elbow pads.

How do you know if this ice is thick enough?

This is a complex topic, as natural ice can be highly variable. For example, there may be thin ice or open water around the inlets and outlets of lakes, even when the majority of the lake is covered in thick ice. Nordic skaters often test ice thickness with tools like ice screws, drills, and calipers. Experienced skaters are constantly on the lookout for natural cracks and bubbles in the ice that provide quick visual cues about ice thickness. Some Nordic skaters are comfortable with ice that is as little as two inches thick, but most authorities advise waiting to skate until ice is at least four inches thick.

Nordic skaters on wild ice should always dress as if they might “go for a swim” and carry self-rescue picks, even when the ice seems thick and safe. If you are properly prepared, the dangers of getting wet while skating can be significantly mitigated.

How hard is it to learn to Nordic skate?

Nordic skating on Campbell Lake

Everyone is different, but for most people Nordic skating is remarkably accessible. Those who have prior experience with skating, skiing, or rollerblading will typically have a bit of an advantage, but everyone can learn. In our experience, individuals with a modest athletic baseline can often skate well after a few sessions–and sometimes sooner. Of course, skating on very challenging wild ice can take lots of practice!

It is best to learn on good ice in a relatively safe and controlled environment, like a maintained rink or skating oval. Nordic skating is still a very new sport in the United States, but speed skating clubs often provide beginner classes that may be helpful. Speed skating and Nordic skating aren’t the same, but they are very similar. Learning good speed skating technique will make you a better Nordic skater.

Why are Nordic skates better than hockey or figure skates?

There’s nothing wrong with hockey or figure skates! They’re great at what they were designed for: tight maneuvers on relatively small, artificially-smoothed rinks. But they have clear shortcomings on wild ice. Hockey and figure skates have little to no insulation, and the short fixed blades aren’t designed for speed or stability on bumpy ice. It’s certainly possible to skate wild ice with hockey or figure skates, but it’s a little like driving a sports car on a Jeep track.

A Nordic skate setup, by contrast, typically uses comfortable, warm XC skate ski boots, and the blades are long, wide, and stable. The flat grind on the base of a Nordic skate makes them glide smooth and fast. Many Nordic skaters can skate wild ice for whole days or dozens of miles in comfort.

How hard is it to go from hockey or figure skating to Nordic skates?

There is often a brief adjustment period for experienced hockey or figure skaters who try Nordic ice skates for the first time. The free heel and flat base grind can take a little bit of getting used to. However, most experienced hockey or figure skaters skate confidently on Nordic skates in under an hour, and the skills from hockey or figure skating quickly transfer over.

How often do I have to sharpen my skates?

Some Nordic skate companies claim that their skates only need to be sharpened once a year or once every few years. Unless you are skating on perfect rink ice, these claims are not accurate and will lead to bad experiences with dull skates. Wild ice often contains dust, organic matter, small rocks, and other debris that will dull your skates. High-quality stainless steel blades–from any manufacturer–need to be sharpened with some regularity.

Every skater has a different tolerance for blade dulling. Some skaters sharpen their blades every 20-60 miles, some every three or four sessions, and some simply when the blades feel dull. Sharp skates are safer and feel dramatically better underfoot. Luckily, because of their flat base grind, sharpening Nordic skates is fast and easy.