Writing about cross country skiing, I said that the feeling of cross-country skiing was like walking on a moving-walkway at an airport, a feeling of speed that is totally disproportionate to the amount of effort you're putting into the activity. And it's great, I love it! What could be better?
Well, how about, instead of the heady thrill of walking on a walkway at the airport, and enjoying the slightly heightened speed, imagine instead having the hoverboard from 'Back to the Future II'. Imagine just effortlessly swooping over the ground, the wind whistling in your ears, the landscape blurring by, the slightest shift in your bodyweight sending you swerving away on a new path. Imagine being able to cover 50 km a day, or up to a 100 if you're good and conditions are right. Does that sound like a dream? It should, because nordic skating is like a dream. (Nordic-skating, long-skating or tour-skating, I'll just refer to it as skating from now on, secure in the knowledge that you people reading this blog are a little more into wild-ice rather than rink-ice, unless you're Veronica who's mental about ice hockey, Hi Veronica!).
If that video above from the Stockholm skating club(SSSK) doesn't fire you up to try skating then you might be a terminally boring person. They look kind of intimidating as they rocket across the lake with their big needle sharp spikes under their arms, like some kind of Lord of the Rings ice warriors or something. SSSK aren't actually ice warriors, they are the largest nordic skating club and organise big tours out on the Stockholm ice every week during skate season.
Let's talk safety (I have very few blog readers, if one of the 54 of you dies my ad revenue will take a 1.85% hit and I might have to get a job, so lets think safety first). If you are new to skating, you should never go skating alone. Even if ice is very thick, weak spots from currents or freeze/thaw cycles can break and drop you in it. If you skate along you will probably die and your grieving widow/widower will find this page in your web-history and blame me for your death, and then stalk and kidnap and kill me like in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. You either find someone who has experience and tag along, or just head to ice that is checked by some people that know ice, or go where a million other people are already on the ice.
Maybe none of them have checked the ice either but at least you won't die alone.
Safety Gear (in decreasing order of importance);
Never go alone, even on bomber ice you could slip and bang your head. Have someone with you and keep some distance in case the ice gives way. Tell people where you've gone and when you expect to be back, and have your phone accessible and in a waterproof pocket/ziploc bag.
Isdubbar (ice spikes):
Two spikes that are attached by thin string to a band which hangs around your neck. If you go in, you grab the handles, turn to face back the way you came, and start stab-dragging yourself out of the ice with the spikes.
The spikes are tied to the neck lanyard so you can't lose them, and they almost always have a pea-less (freeze proof) whistle attached.
A roll-top bag:
There are special skating rucksacks to buy, they have roll-top enclosures to keep the contents dry and to act as a flotation device if you fall in, and they have a strap that goes under the crotch so the bag doesn't just float up over your head and leave you behind, drowning. Instead the crotch strap will drag you up. Many skaters use a normal rucksack with plastic bags inside to keep their gear dry/float. I use my kayaking roll-top backpack, and pass the hip-belt under my crotch, poor unfortunate hip-belt.
A really warm jacket in a waterproof bag:
If you do go take a dip, you will probably be quite cold after you get out. And who knows how badly injured you might be from the fall, or how far from help you might be. So it's absolutely imperative to have a very warm jacket available in case you take a dip. If you're going far from civilisation then a full change of clothes might also be a good idea. The jacket is also great for the inevitable hot-chocolate breaks.
This is around 15 metres of thin but strong line in a weighted bag, that is somewhere very accesible. Someone falls in, you grab one end and throw the bag of rope at them, and hopefully they grab on, you drag them out and save them and then everyone treats you as a hero for the day. And then you kind of 'own' that person forever. Here's a great link about how to make your own.
An ice-spike is a stick with a spike on it, you stab the ice with it and see how solid it is. Ice-poles are the skating equivalent of ski-poles, used to propel you forward. The difference is in the lack of a basket, the massive steel spikes on the end for biting into/testing the ice, and the balance. Ice-poles have most of the weight in the tip, so you can easily flick it forward and stab heavily into the ice to get a good purchase.
You might want to add knee and elbow pads to the list for the first few trips anyway, and perhaps a helmet.
Apart from the safety gear you also need some skates/bindings and boots.
This is as much an area of mixed up contention as anything else involving bindings.
You could get those shitty strap on kind of ratchet-bindings, that work with normal hiking boots. I'm a little against them as I'm always the guy who packs down a swiss-army knife and so I'm always the guy kneeling on the freezing ice adjusting the sodding bindings after your boot has popped out of them for the Nth fucking time. It's cheaper than other kinds of bindings, but you won't have any fucking fun on these fucking bindings.
Fixed heel bindings for duck-billed Telemark boots are also available. Personally I prefer NNN bindings, because it's modern and clean and cool and easy to put on and take off. However you will quickly notice that all the people on these retro bindings are either really old or really viking looking, and you will only be able to get quick glimpses of them as they rocket past you with minimal effort. I don't think it's any superiority of the bindings, on paper NNN is superior, it's probably just that the people on 700 year old bindings have probably been skating for 700 years. At least that's what I tell myself.
NNN BC bindings are the most modern option, they are also the only binding of the three that leaves the heel free, which apparently allows for a longer, more powerful kick. Relatively lightweight, very simple and quick to put on/remove, tons of decent boots available.
Those are the 'Available to buy' options, but buying skates without a binding and sticking on an SNS binding is certainly possible. What's not possible these days? There are robots driving around on Mars damnit.
The bindings dictate the boots, for the NNN-BC there are many options around, they tend to be a little lighter than the millions of duckbill boots available for the fixed-heel bindings. It makes sense to match the bindings with whatever bindings your cross-country skis have, and then use the same boots. Ankle support is absolutely key, without good ankle support you will spend as much energy balancing on the skates as you will skating, and that gets frustrating fast. The old duck-bill boots are often stiff and support the ankle well, and the newer BC-NNN boots have plastic cuffs that wrap tightly around the ankle and keep it supported.
Also important is decent waterproofing, even on the coldest days there's usually some water involved.
The two largest Nordic skate manufacturers are Zandstra (Dutch) and Lundhags (Swedish). They both offer a classic 'T' shaped skate, where an aluminium platform has a steel blade stuck on the bottom.
Lundhags have a newer design where the entire skate is just stamped out of a piece of stainless steel, which is what I have, because it was the shiniest and newest and shiny newness appeals to me. Apparently having it all one piece makes it more vibration resistant and durable, I can't vouch for that, but so far at least they haven't blown up or gone on fire or whatever. And they look sexy.
You go to your local lake, which has been ISO certified as frozen. You have an experienced skating friend with you. You put on your boots, attach your skates, hang your ice-spikes around your neck, stick your rucksack on your back and step out onto the ice with quivering legs and all the grace and stability of a drunken Russian. How exactly do you skate?
First off make it easy for yourself, go with the wind. There's a reason all the pro-skaters get in a kind of conga line/train when they rocket across the ice, as in Formula 1 the lead guy breaks wind (ooer!) and everyone else follows in his lee. It's such a factor that if the wind is blowing strongly in the wrong direction the annual 80 km Vikingarännet skate race from Uppsala to Stockholm gets turned into a race from Stockholm to Uppsala.
The technique is nearly identical to ski-skating, so if you can do that skating will be easy, and if you can't then learning to skate will make it easier to ski-skate on your skis. You want to keep your upper body steady, while your legs swing from side to side. You kick out with one foot, standing straight on your other leg, bringing your kicking leg back to centre, then transfer your weight to that foot, kicking off with the other leg and repeat. Sofie, my skating and skiing instructor, demonstrates below. It's a very easy, pendulum-like motion.
It's one of those motions that you just have to force yourself through a thousand times, continually feeling like total failure until it suddenly clicks and you find yourself doing it without any effort or thought. In the beginning the length of each glide will be very short, as your balance builds up you can lengthen these strides which speeds everything up considerably. One key step to lengthen your glide is to bring your feet close together as you transfer the weight over and kick. You can see in this GIF below how Sofie transfers her weight seamlessly as the returning skate comes in, the force as she kicks outwards is away from the toes, more at the centre or back of the blade. The more power and better timing on the outward kick, the faster and steadier your glide will be.
Sticks are good to have for balance, early on you might find your arms windmilling around trying to find some kind of equilibrium, and with sticks you can instead jab at the ice and try to stay steady. Once you have some ice-legs, you can start to use them properly, as Sofie demonstrates perfectly below. You use them to push off your dominant leg as it kicks outwards, with your weight all balanced on the recessive leg.
This is a high level of skating, and you can see the key is to save energy, the upper body barely moves, the skates are never more than a centimetre above the ice, the movements are conservative and efficient. Really good skaters can just move like greased lightening with just one lazy kick every now and again, and for beginners it's disheartening to have to work so damn hard just to get a little momentum up. Once you pick up a little balance you can start to get into a groove, after only a few kilometres you'll start to have occasional flashes of mindless rhythm, and once you experience just a little taste of the fast effortless gliding that Nordic skating offers, you'll be on your way to becoming a real ice junky.
There are downsides to being a junky though, the main problem is how sensitive skating is to the condition of the ice. On freshly frozen black ice there is just nothing better.
A little snow later, the ice turns whitish and weak, the speeds drop, noise increases and it gets a little tougher to control the skates. Old snow melts into the ice surface and makes a weak layer, which cracks under the blades and slows down your progress, as well as sometimes catching a skate and causing a tumble. A little more snow and the game is over, you may as well try skating at the beach.
So that's the big downside, you get a few weeks of good conditions a year, more if you're lucky enough to have a track ploughed nearby. The best conditions are right at the beginning of the season, so you can either play it safe and skip the perfect newly frozen ice, or risk taking a dip and start skating early in the season. If that sounds like an acceptable risk to you, you should think about taking an ice-safety course before diving into it.
That's it! Pick out some blades, grab a friend and give it a shot! Much love to Liam and Sofie for the feedback on this post, and for all the skating lessons :)