Recreational Ice Skating

Ice skating is another sport that virtually everybody has tried, and as they get older, wonder why they don't do it more often.

The term "ice skating" covers a lot of ground, from organized stick and blade games to dancing to overnight touring. For the purposes of this page, ice skating is limited to recreational ice skating, that is, when you just sort of scratch and glide aimlessly around a frozen pond or an open public rink. For other skating sports, please refer to the links at left.


The first ice skates were probably wood, sticks, stones or bones, and were used for sliding by northern peoples -- what is now northern Russia and Scandinavia, as well as Switzerland, Germany, Holland, and the British Isles. It is known that animal bones were fashioned into skates thousands of years before Christ; bones were cut and sharpened into skates and tied to feet with leather straps. It is also known that skating was a popular leisure activity throughout Europe in the first millenia A.D. By 1100 A.D., Britons skated on animal bones and used hand-held poles reinforced with metal tips, which they would stab into the ice and whip themselves forward. And it seems that rough-and-tumble games like hockey are nothing new; the same Britons used the same poles to "joust" with one another on ice.

These poles were needed until about 1300 A.D., when some long forgotten Dutchman fashioned skates out of metal. These could be given a sharp, smooth edge, which enabled skaters to propel themselves along without the aid of a stick. The Dutch continued to experiment with designs, and soon developed the basic pattern that is very similar to the modern figure skate or hockey skate.

Outside of Holland and its plethora of waterways, ice skating remained a sport for commoners until about 1600, when various members of European nobility began to see its appeal. The upper crust couldn't hobnob with commoners, naturally, so the first specially designed skating rinks were built. Members of the lower classes -- many of whom were still on wood skates -- remained limited to frozen lakes and canals for the next couple hundred years or so, until cities began constructing community rinks.

Indoor Skating Rinks

The first indoor ice rink opened in London, 1876. Pre-dating electrical refrigeration, the ice was chilled by copper pipes that had glycerin and water forced through them. It was an expensive, inefficient design, but nobody knew any better. New York City got its first rink in 1879, in the old Madison Square Garden. It is unknown whether spectators chanted "Potvin sucks" at the opening. (sorry, you have to be something of a New York sports fan to understand that bit of humor.)

It wasn't long before refrigeration techniques advanced dramatically, particularly with the widespread availability of reliable electricity. The first Olympic figure-skating competition was held on a refrigerated indoor rink in London in 1908. Historians may scratch their heads a bit, since the Winter Olympics didn't start until 1924. Figure skating was, in fact, a summer Olympic sport held indoors from 1908-1924. The first gold medalist was a Swedish gentleman named Ulrich Salchow. A bit of trivia: A year after the 1908 Olympics, Salchow attempted a jump in competition in which he took off on the back inside edge, and landed on the back outside edge of his other foot. He made it stick, and the jump is known to this day as the salchow.

Indoor skating really took off after 1912, when two brothers named Patrick built an indoor rink in Canada to host their newly formed hockey league. Their chilling mechanism used brine water to refrigerate a concrete base, on which they repeatedly poured ultra-thin coatings of water to build up to a layer of skatable ice. The process today is much more efficient, but remains essentially unchanged from the Patrick brothers' method.

How to Skate

It's one of those things you learn by doing...and falling. But technically speaking, basic recreational skating consists of three things:

  1. Rockover and Bite
  2. Drawing
  3. Gliding

Notice that "stopping" isn't mentioned. Theoretically, stopping isn't a thoroughly necessary skill -- all forward motion eventually slows and stops. Or crashes. Seriously, though, stopping is just an exaggerated form of the first item, rockover and bite.

Rockover and bite is the art of leaning the skate blade over and digging one of its edges into the ice. Once mastered, this enables you to change direction, accelerate, slow, or stop. Learning just how much to roll the skate for basic pond skating needs is simply a matter of practice. Until you know it, "rockover and bite" usually results in "rockover/bite/snag/tumble." All in all, it is the most basic and most important skill needed to skate.

Drawing is the art of leaning forward and pushing off on the curved part of the skate, propelling oneself forward. Skilled skaters use drawing to propel oneself backwards, as well. Highly skilled skaters use the technique to propel themselves in virtually any direction, creating the poetic and beautiful figure skating seen in modern competitions.

Gliding is simply gliding. What more needs to be said? You've pushed and pushed, gained momentum, and now you can relax and just zip along. Why do skates glide? Some contend that the friction of the skate creates just enough heat to melt a microscopic film of water, and the skate actually glides on the reduced friction of the water. This isn't exactly correct. All ice, indoor or outdoor, has a natural microscopic "film" of water on the surface, as long as the ice is above -4° F. While the friction of the skate may or may not create additional water depending on temperature, it has really no impact on the act of skating. And since ice skates do work below -4°F -- and at subzero temperatures where a film of water could not be created -- it is simply a matter of fact that steel skates will glide over ice. Note that skates do function on ice that is warm enough to have the microscopic water surface. But not too much water, as 19°F is the temperature that creates the optimal film of water for the least amount of friction. And so most ice skating rinks try to keep their ice at 19°F.


Whether it's the uneven surface of a local pond or the ratty indoor rink ice at the end of a public skating session, even the most accomplished recreational ice skaters fall from time to time. The preference for most people is to fall on their side or shoulder to minimize injury, but this of course depends on the individual.

At many public rinks, the primary danger comes from other skaters. It's safe to assume that even when primitive Norsemen were skittering across ice on animal bones 5,000 years ago, teenagers were roughhousing. Unfortunately the concept of safety and responsibility are just as alien to teens today, so the burden of watching out for and avoiding generally lies with adults.

Outdoor ponds and lakes tend to be much less crowded, so the danger from other skaters is minimal. The real danger here is skating on and falling through thin ice. Although some people have adhered to 3-4" as a magic number for minimum ice thickness, "safe" ice thickness is a relative thing. 4" of ice on a large body of water is generally not safe at all, while 3" on a farm pond with less than 2 feet of water is plenty. No ice thickness is safe on an active reservoir. All in all, it depends on the body of water, water temperatures, recent atmospheric temperatures, temperature fluctuations, knowledge of past ice conditions, and year to year trends. Know the water depth, know the ice thickness, and never skate alone.

No place to skate?

A common problem with outdoor skating areas, ponds, lakes, etc. is that the surface is often marginally skatable...and then snow falls. The solution then is to put a team together, break out the snow shovels and snowblowers, and get to work. Unfortunately the remaining ice is usually rough and uneven. The secret is to get hold of a sump pump, hose, and a portable generator. Drill a hole in the ice with an ice auger, then pump and spray fresh water over the uneven surface. Like a commercial rink, the resulting surface will be better if it is sprayed in very thin layers and permitted to freeze between applications. Of course then it becomes a question of keeping the pump and the hose from freezing.

More and more people are looking to install their own personal rinks in their suburban back yards. If you've got the McMansion, you gotta have that skating rink, right? They start at $25,000. but if you already own a tennis court, or dedicated basketball court, the cost can be a bit lower. Still other people try to construct their own rinks, which can be a hit or miss affair. (usually misses) Essentially a home rink is built of 2 x 6 lumber and watertight tarps, and hopefully the whole shebang is level. Like any skating surface, the ice sets up best if done in multiple thin layers, with a final thick layer added after the base is set -- all at temps below 20 degrees F. Unfortunately most backyard enthusiasts don't wait for low enough temps, and the results are mixed.

How to choose your type of Recreational Skates

Many parents like to start their kids on "double runner" skates. These are fine, but are not generally recommended for kids over the age of six, or for kids who exhibit exceptional athletic talent, or for any kid who ever hopes to pursue skating as a career. Double runner skates mainly serve as a means of introducing very young children to the world of ice skating, but they will not really derive any useful skills from double runners.

Girls as a rule prefer figure skates, while boys generally want hockey skates. Whatever type of skate you start a child on, that is usually the type of skater they will be for the rest of their lives. Adult men who have not skated, or haven't skated frequently, will generally be better off renting or purchasing figure skates, particularly if they are out of shape or generally over age 40. Figure skates are a more stable platform and put less wear and tear on an adult body.

The latest evolution in figure skates is hard shell skate boots. You've probably seen these as rental offerings at skating rinks, or in sporting goods stores, etc. A lot of them resemble ski boots with blades, and use latching straps rather than laces. They come in numerous colors, and tend to be quite popular with novice skaters.

Avoid them like the plague. Hard plastic boots simply don't allow proper ankle flexion to skate properly. Instead select a figure skate at least one step up from the unlined entry level will make your recreational ice skating even more of a pleasure.

Key Links...

Below, skating in New York City's Rockefeller Center. Photo courtesy wikipedia.

ice skating in New York

Masthead photos used by permission:
Ralf Roletschek
Creative Commons
US Army/public domain
Erik Charlton.